The Film Archive is one of Hong Kong’s cultural curiosities. Its five-storey home stands a little off the beaten track, on a nondescript corner of Sai Wan Ho next to a sports centre and opposite the Korean school. Month in, month out, it screens an astonishing range of films from across the span of Hong Kong’s movie history.
Entrance is cheap: between HK$30 and $60 for most films, and half that for students, those over 60 and others able to claim concessionary rates. Some of its screenings sell out the 125-seat cinema, such as all the films in its just finished retrospective, Glory Days: When Leslie Met Anita, a three-month showcase of films featuring Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. The Morning Matinees series is also successful. Held every Friday at 11am, its screenings play to around 90 percent full houses of mostly older filmgoers.
But those are the exceptions. Usually, it’s easy to get a ticket to the Film Archive. It shouldn’t be too hard, for example, to get into most of the films in its fourth Writer/Director in Focus series — 18 films by Hangzhou-born Li Pingqian, one of the most renowned Hong Kong-based directors of the 1950s and 1960s — that starts this month.
Government-owned and run as a museum by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the archive is headed by a career civil servant, and it is almost totally government funded, with revenues from ticket sales and renting out its facilities accounting for less than one percent of its expenses in 2016-17.
The shows in its exhibition hall are usually worth a look, and its library and resources centre should probably interest researchers. Yet the archive lacks a café or shop and there’s no reason to linger. A visitor can be forgiven for feeling disappointed there isn’t more to enjoy.
Perhaps that sentiment is unfair. After all, the main job of the archive and its 50 staff is to collect and conserve Hong Kong-made films and everything to do with them, from the very start of filmmaking to now. “We’re like a production line,” says Janet Young, the Film Archive’s head. Without a pause, she then itemises the work of its seven departments.
“Upstream, we have the acquisition team, which brings in all the collections and other things we acquire,” she explains. “These are then passed to our conservation colleagues to be checked and repaired, and who advise on how best to preserve them in our cold store. Then, these materials have to be made accessible to the public and researchers studying Hong Kong movies, so we have our resources centre, and with it a systems unit that manages the huge database of our collection. And then we have our programming and research and editorial units that show and promote our films to the public, helping to educate them about the importance of Hong Kong’s film culture.”
Young, who studied film at university in Canada in the 1990s, and briefly worked as an editor at the archive from 1996 to ‘97, was posted to the archive in 2013, sixteen years into a career in the Leisure and Cultural Services Department that included spells in its festivals arm, at the Cultural Centre, and running dance programmes.
According to government documents, officials first discussed the idea of an archive with film industry figures in the 1980s, when the Hong Kong film industry was at the height of its influence. No one seems to be sure exactly who had the idea first, but in 1993 the Urban Council (a now defunct legislative body that was similar to a city council) established a planning office for the archive.
Unlike many other places, including mainland China, Hong Kong has no mandatory deposit system requiring companies to submit copies of all films they make to a central repository. Many filmmakers were a little suspicious about what was involved in handing prints of their works to the archive. “We were a completely new concept at that time,” says Young. “I think it’s understandable that filmmakers and film companies had reservations in the first place. But over the years we’ve have succeeded in building trust, so now they are very supportive of the archive’s work.”
The timing of the archive’s foundation was fortuitous. By the time the archive’s building opened eight years later, Hong Kong’s film industry had collapsed, with output dropping from around 400 movies to year to less than a sixth of that figure; from being the world’s third largest film industry, behind only the United States and India, Hong Kong became an also-ran, outside the top ten. Without an archive able to receive and take care of films, it’s almost certain that much — possibly even most — of Hong Kong’s film heritage would have vanished, either lost or destroyed by Hong Kong’s warm and humid climate.
“It was very difficult for us, especially in the beginning,” says Young. “By the time we started acquiring, Hong Kong already had 80 years of film history, so you can imagine how many movies we’ve had to try to find to build up our collection.”
So far, the archive has acquired around 4,000 to 5,000 titles, the majority dating from the two great eras of Hong Kong film, the 1950s, and the 1980s and early ‘90s. “We don’t have an exact figure,” says Young. “We’ve acquired so many items, and there’s a lot we still have to check.”
Doing so will take a while. While a film in good condition can be dealt with in two days, processing one that needs major repairs can take up to four months. Koven Lo, an assistant curator in the archive’s conservation department, reckons the archive will need thirty years to digest the material it has now.
Most of the archive’s collection arrived in the mid-2000s as film companies opted to hand them to the archive rather than engage in the tricky process of storing old films themselves. Among the biggest contributors were Celestial Pictures, owner of the Shaw Brothers library, which handed over prints of 700 titles, and Fortune Star, owner of many of the main works of Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, John Woo and other leading stars and directors of the 1970s and 1980s. The acquisitions continue today, though at a slower rate than in its early years. In 2017, it added just over 100 titles.
As well as conservation, the archive’s mission also includes promoting Hong Kong’s film culture – remembering “how important and how prosperous [that culture of] Hong Kong films was in the ‘80s and ‘90s during the golden era,” says Young.
As Hong Kong’s golden film era retreats inexorably into the past, finding ways to keep cinema relevant calls for new thinking. One target is young people. “We have seminars, talks and education outreach programmes for secondary school and university students,” says Priscilla Chan, an assistant curator in the archive’s programming unit. “We want them to look back at Hong Kong movies and treat them as an art form – to educate them that this is a very important part of Hong Kong’s soul.”
The archive has begun putting together programmes specifically aimed at such audiences — such as the Cheung-Mui season — and in 2017, it hired seven new curators, all in their 20s, to get a better idea of what might appeal to a generation raised on the Internet and social media.
Even so, it looks like it might be a struggle to attract millennials to watch the mostly Mandarin-language titles in its Worth a Thousand Words: Adaptations of Chinese Literary Classics series, another of its current programmes. Perhaps the archive needs to become more like an arts centre along the lines of the flourishing Kubrik café and bookshop in Yau Ma Tei’s Broadway Cinematheque, but Young cites space constraints. The archive’s vaults are already full, and all new acquisitions now have to be held in rented storage in Kowloon and the New Territories. And, she notes, there is both a Starbucks and Pacific Café nearby.
That’s a pragmatic answer. Running a flourishing arts centre would add a rather different challenge to the task of ensuring the long-term survival of Hong Kong’s film heritage. Yet, one can’t help but wonder whether Hong Kong’s film legacy might not deserve a grander shrine – a place where both Hong Kongers and visitors could come to pay homage to those actors, directors and producers who made perhaps the greatest contribution to Hong Kong’s identity.
Current programmes (all until September 2018)