Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest tribute: Nostalgia through film, footage

With two messages ringing loud and clear from the Hong Kong International Film Festival – a bigger push for multinational collaborations, and an influx of 3-D, CGI-ridden action films to compete with Hollywood – an ode to the glory days of local cinema was served up as a bit of an afterthought, off the beaten path in the neighborhood of Sai Wan Ho. But the defiant tribute to Golden Harvest run by the Hong Kong Film Archive, in partnership with Fortune Star Media Limited, is an all-too nostalgic reminder of what is increasingly being referred to as Hong Kong cinema’s golden age. It was a time when budgets were thin, films were aplenty, death-defying stunts had no other exit strategy and movies truly had a local flavor, distinct from the rest of Asia, and free from post-1997 Chinese government regulations and censorship restrictions.

The Archive’s three months of screenings, titled “The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest,” not only offer a look into digitally-remastered or rare 35mm prints dating back to the 1970’s, but also provide a glimpse into the painstaking restoration efforts of these films. One example is Bruce Lee’s “The Way of the Dragon,” which opened the series on Mar. 22. Originally scheduled to be a digital projection, the Archive managed to track down the best available 35mm print to screen instead. However, this print was not the original, which has been forever lost. Following the screening, the Archive replayed two famous fights from the film: Lee taking on gangsters with nunchaku at the restaurant and his classic showdown with Chuck Norris at the Colosseum in Rome. These scenes came from footage that had last been restored in the late 1990’s, and were screened so that the audience – fresh off of viewing a work that has stood the test of time for more than 30 years – could compare the color quality to the 35mm print.

It was immediately apparent why the Archive scrapped the digital restoration. At that time, color correction to a faded print meant that the entire picture had to be adjusted rather than portions. This was most noticeable with skin tones that looked better in the restoration, but made the entire picture redder as a result (particularly glaring in Lee’s fight with Norris, where the Colosseum’s red bricks are a bit too pronounced). The restoration also deteriorated the sound to the point that loud echoes accompanied effects from fight scenes and the dialogue was painfully out-of-sync with actors’ lip movements.

Insights like these are what make the Golden Harvest screenings transcend a couple of hours in any other movie theater. However, the passage of time for this once mighty film company’s works comes with an urgent appeal. After the Archive chose not to use the restored version of “The Way of the Dragon,” the scanning technology for color corrections has markedly improved, coupled with a heavy price tag. Due to the expense involved, the Archive is now unsure of when it will be able to resume this work, but a spokesperson said if they are able to do so, their first restoration priority is all of Bruce Lee’s films above other titles.

With Hong Kong no longer the third-largest film industry in the world – its production of 250-300 films a year now down to 50 – the clock is ticking on preserving the former British colony’s diverse repertoire. In the meantime, for the next generation of film fans, the Archive’s efforts in keeping these films alive should serve as required viewing, and a reminder of an important era in Hong Kong, and world, cinema history.

“The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest” screens at the Hong Kong Film Archive through June 30, and includes works by Lee, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Michael Hui. Tickets are HK$40 and information is available at www.lcsd.gov.hk. The related “Golden Harvest: A Landmark in Hong Kong Cinema” exhibit runs until July 14 and is free of charge at the Archive. Its companion book, Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times, includes an English CD-ROM edition and can be purchased for HK$140 at the Archive.