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The BBC's Damian Grammaticus in Hong Kong
"The past is being reclaimed"
 real 56k

Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 18:44 GMT
Saving Hong Kong's film heritage
John Woo with Tom Cruise
John Woo is one of Hong King's top exports
By the BBC's Damian Grammaticas

In a laboratory in Hong Kong a technician in a white coat picks up a rusty film can.

With the help of a screwdriver Edward Tse prises open the metal and gingerly lifts out the reel of film.

The film is about 50 years old. It is unwound, cleaned with special chemicals, and measured for shrinkage. Carefully, Edward Tse repairs what damage he can.

He is one of half a dozen restorers working at the new Hong Kong Film Archive.

It has only just opened, to preserve the films that have made Hong Kong movies among the most famous in the world.

When they arrive at the archive some are in a sorry state, the old film disintegrating and mouldy, shrunken and twisted.

Humid

Hong Kong's tropical climate has ruined many of its classic films.

"Some of them come from the vaults of old Chinese cinemas," says Edward Tse.

"Usually they have just been left in very humid and hot conditions, so the film when it comes to us is in very poor condition."

Already there are fears that most of the films made before the 1950s have been lost.

British handover ceremony in Hong Kong
The archive seeks to preserve Hong Kong's past on film
Around 10,000 films have been made in Hong Kong. The archive has collected around 3,800.

Edward Tse plays the film through a viewer. He laughs: "It's very funny."

The film is from the 50s, a type of oriental Ealing comedy, full of safari-suited colonial officials involved in farcical capers.

Occasionally the archive does find films in good condition. "Sometimes you get a film that's very famous from the old days," says Mr Tse.

"When you open it and find that it's still in the same condition as the old days its just like finding gold dust. It's very exciting."

Hong Kong's movie scene has produced many famous names. Once it was figures like Bruce Lee.

Refrigerated vault

Today it is directors like John Woo, and stars like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh who grace Hollywood.

But it is only now that Hong Kong has decided that its old films are worth preserving.

"When we tried to organise retrospectives we realised that we were losing our film heritage," says Cynthia Liu, the director of the archive.

"We either couldn't find prints or we realised those we had were deteriorating."

Bruce Lee
Hong Kong's glorious past: Bruce Lee
Now a special refrigerated vault has been built to store the films. At just above freezing point it is one of the coldest places in Hong Kong.

Stacked on the shelves there is everything from some of the earliest moving pictures recorded in 1898, to patriotic Chinese tracts, to kung fu classics.

They have been unearthed all over the world - some were even found in a rubbish bin outside a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.

The archive is also working to record and preserve the memories of the people who work in Hong Kong's movie industry.

Early scene

Many of the men and women who made Hong Kong into a centre that, in its heyday, rivalled Hollywood, are passing away.

Chen Dieyi is one of the only survivors from the 50s and 60s. He lives in a small flat close to Hong Kong's border with China.

Mr Chen is 92. He was one of the most prolific screenwriters in Hong Kong's early movie scene.

He wrote dozens of film scripts and over 3,000 songs, so many that he used 12 different names to publish his work.

"It's true," he laughs, a glint in his eye. "I wrote so many songs that I felt really bad.

Hong kong and Chinese flags
Patriotic films feature in the archive
"I thought it's not fair that one man gets all the credit. So I used lots of names to stop people knowing."

Most of Mr Chen's movies were love stories. He was also the first person to write kung fu movies in Mandarin Chinese, but says he didn't like the way the genre developed.

Changes

"I pioneered kung fu films," Mr Chen says, "but they weren't the same as Bruce Lee's movies.

"He introduced all these kicks and things. I didn't like what he did at all. But I'd started the idea so I felt responsible. It's why I retired."

Hong Kong is a city that has undergone profound changes, most recorded on film. Now, after decades ignoring this heritage the past is being reclaimed.

As the archive's director Cynthia Liu says: "Keeping these film helps us understand about the past, about the history of our cinema and of our society."

She is hoping to add all the newest films made in Hong Kong. The archive's resources are open to all to use.

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See also:

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