Hong Kong Gardener

Nick Pinkerton on “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong”

Patrick Lung Kong, Teddy Girls, 1969, color, sound, 107 minutes.

LAST SUMMER, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens hosted a complete retrospective of the films of Wong Kar-wai, with Wong in person, impossible to miss in his famous shades. Very few of his fans, however, recognized the beetle-browed, seventysomething man with jutting cheekbones whom Wong bowed before upon meeting, as a pupil bows before a master. This is a matter that MoMI intends to address with a retrospective of that very same figure: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” running August 15 to 24.

Patrick Lung Kong was born Kin-yui Lung in 1934 to a family that had relocated to Hong Kong from Anhui Province, China. The boy was raised by his grandmother, though spent the war years touring with a Cantonese opera troupe—his father was a hua dan, that is, one who plays female parts. Preparing for a career in business at the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, Lung was introduced to Catholicism by a classmate and subsequently converted. This led to his first screen acting, in a church-produced film, and then to a role in something called Crime of Passion in the Hotel for the Shaw Brothers’ Cantonese-language unit; he was rechristened “Lung Kong” and played one of the villainous roles that his sharp features assured he would be typecast in.

Cantonese was the principal spoken language in Hong Kong at the time that Lung Kong was coming up through the system, but Cantonese films were consigned to a second-class role, increasingly marginalized as the 1960s progressed, with big budgets allocated to Mandarin productions. Lung Kong’s dedicated outsider status was reflected in his self-identification with Cantonese cinema—he turned down a lucrative deal to direct in Mandarin for the Shaws, instead signing up with Singapore-based Sun Ngee, and with his second film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner, which opens MoMI’s retro, made his mark definitively. Cheuk-hong Lee (Patrick Tse), nabbed after a botched break-in, comes out of a fifteen-year prison stint determined to go straight, though his old triad boss (Sek Kin) and a meddling police inspector (Lung Kong) have other plans for him. The film is shot in black and white, with a punchy camera style both emphatic and empathetic. It is self-consciously “modern” in its brisk cutting, use of limber handheld camera, and hands-on grasp of burning social issues, its contemporary slang and location shooting on city streets, among the ramshackle squats of Kwun Tong, and at Stanley Prison. This was Hong Kong New Wave, 1967.

The year 1967 has a particular significance to the Hong Kongese, marked as it was by almost daily bombings and violent demonstrations, in which leftists protesting British colonial rule clashed with police. While Story of a Discharged Prisoner expressed something of the period’s political discontent, Lung Kong was not a joiner, and his independence and singularity of vision earned him the admiration of a generation of ambitious young movie buffs. Among the number who visited the set of Discharged Prisoner at Wader Studio was John Woo, who would use the basic elements of the film’s plot for his 1986 A Better Tomorrow, which appeared at a moment when the Cantonese cinema, and the boots-on-the-ground production methods innovated by Lung Kong, had prevailed. A Better Tomorrow’s producer, Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), will appear alongside Lung Kong at the museum on Saturday the 16th for a screening of the film, whose Chinese title is the same as that of Lung Kong’s, much as the title of his 1969 girl delinquent drama, called Teddy Girls in English, contains the same character (“To fly,” 飛) that appears in the title of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), essentially creating the “Youth in flight” genre which Wong would later mine.

Patrick Lung Kong, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner, 1967, black-and-white, sound, 119 minutes.

Like Discharged Prisoner, Teddy Girls starts off with a careening blast of go-go energy. Some mashers in a discotheque decide to pick on the wrong chick, Yu-ching Hsu (Josephine Siao). She gives them bottles to the skull for their trouble and winds up fighting for pole position inside a girl’s reformatory before bonding with her fellow inmates and busting out to bring revenge to her loathsome stepfather (Lung Kong, again). The film may be the purest expression of Lung Kong’s balance of exploitation’s vulgar vitality—it could be a distant relation of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975)—with a compassion founded in the Catholic tradition of social responsibility and charity. The latter quality occasionally announces itself in outright didacticism, as in the moralizing coda voiced by Kenneth Tsang’s reformatory head in Teddy Girls. In such moments Lung Kong may seem preachy, although, as critic and screenwriter Shu Kei has observed, no one is successfully saved by the social-service organizations that play such a prominent role in Lung Kong’s early films: the halfway house in Discharged Prisoner, the reformatory in Teddy Girls, or the school for the blind in The Window (1968), which has Tse as a feckless hood, introduced in Rebel Without a Cause red, forming an unlikely bond with the sightless daughter of one of his victims, played by Siao. (This relationship dynamic was an inspiration for Woo’s 1989 The Killer, while I’d bet that Rebel director Nicholas Ray’s wounded outsiders are a point of reference for Lung Kong.)

Lung Kong’s own disillusion and estrangement deepened as he found himself increasingly at odds with the Hong Kong film industry and society in general. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970), a free adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague, was shorn of at least a half hour and effectively mutilated before release. What remained was still sufficiently inflammatory to make Lung Kong a target for blowback from the leftist press, thanks to his alleged metaphoric linkage of the pestilence and the Communist dissent of ’67—hard to see what all the fuss was about now, but the film’s panorama of a city gripped by panic remains impressive. To this, accusations of oversympathy with former Imperial conquerors were added with Hiroshima 28 (1976), a reunion with Siao that has her playing a tour guide in the ruined postwar city. By this point, this most Hong Kongese of Hong Kong directors had begun to drift into the position of artist-in-exile: Hiroshima 28 was shot on location, and Mitra (1978), Lung Kong’s last film to play theatrically, was filmed during a trip to Iran to premiere his Japan-set film at the Tehran Film Festival. For Love Massacre (1981), chronologically the last directly Lung Kong–affiliated film to play MoMI, he headed for California to play producer for director Patrick Tam. The film synopsizes as a rote slasher, but it’s elevated by a cast and crew loaded with future HK New Wave luminaries—Tam will go on to direct his watershed film Nomad the following year, Brigitte Lin stars, and production designer William Chang, later responsible for the sumptuous textures of Wong Kar-wai’s films, created the film’s Pop art–besotted look. Love Massacre is a direct bridge between pioneer Lung Kong and the new revolution in Cantonese cinema then underway, as well as a bridge to his new home.

Lung Kong left Hong Kong for good in 1982, immigrating to New York, where he lives today in Staten Island. He has spent his retirement years studying calligraphy and the erhu (two-string), has remained active in charitable organizations, and has not directed a single film for public consumption. (He has, however, worked periodically as an actor, most prominently in Jet Li’s Black Mask.) The final numbers that summarize his truncated directorial career—eleven years, a dozen films—belie his importance to Hong Kong, and therefore world, cinema. In keeping the light burning for Cantonese cinema in Hong Kong during dark days, in his devotion to the milieu of lower-class characters and petty gangsters, Lung Kong’s films paved the way for those of Woo, Wong Kar-wai, and Hark—the old saw about the Velvet Underground is applicable here. Lung Kong’s films are not merely transitional, however, but compose an integral body of work unto themselves, made with a verve born of purpose, passionately engaged with the city that they emerged from, attentive to the textures of both everyday and political life. Lung Kong’s films arrived right on time for a generation of Hong Kong cinephiles, but too soon to afford him a long and prosperous career. Luckily, it isn’t too late for New York moviegoers to discover what Hong Kong has known for a long time.

“Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong” runs August 15–24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.