Lost / Mí :

Fan Ho and Experimental Cinema
Timmy Chen
Big City, Little Man (1966)

Fan Ho (1931-2016) is remembered primarily as a Hong Kong photographer, and then as a Shaw Brothers actor-turned-film-director. Having directed more than 30 films in a career that spans three decades from the mid-1960s to mid-1990s, Ho is labelled as a director of soft-core porn Category III films (Hong Kong’s film rating system was not introduced until 1988). Few people know Fan Ho was an experimental filmmaker in the 1960s.

How to reconcile the seemingly conflicting images of Fan Ho as the most famous street photographer of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s and as a director of erotic box-office hits such as Adventure in Denmark (1973), Girl with the Long Hair (1975), Yu Pui Tsuen (1987), Temptation Summary (1990), Temptation Summary II (1991), Hidden Desire (1991), etc.? I argue that Ho’s street photography, experimental cinema, and erotic cinema are more intimately interconnected than publicly assumed. The link lies in aestheticism (weimei), the persistent pursuit of formally beautiful still and moving images of ordinary people and everyday streetscape on the one hand, and of sensuous women on the other. While Ho’s photographs have been recognised and collected by museums and private collectors, his cinematic work remains largely overlooked, misunderstood, and disconnected from his photographic work.

Yu Pui Tsuen (1987) Image source: My Way Film Company Limited

Ho’s cinematic output includes his experimental amateur films of the 1960s associated with Hong Kong’s College Cine Club (1967-1971); commercially successful erotic films made from the 1970s to the 1990s in Hong Kong, Denmark, and Thailand; and, in great contrast to the former, commercially unviable art house (wenyi) movies made in Taiwan in the 1970s to the 1990s.

This essay focuses on the cinematic impulse observed in Ho’s 1959 treatise on photography, Thoughts on Street Photography (all citations are from this text), and its connection to his two extant experimental amateur films, Big City, Little Man (filming 1963; release 1966) and Study No. 1 (1966) (both available at the Hong Kong Film Archive). It ends with an examination of the opening of Love and Blood (1972), Ho’s transitional erotic action film, which in a self-reflexive manner, features a photographer as its protagonist and is a symbolic farewell to Fan Ho’s street photography period and experimental amateur film period.

Fan Ho’s street photography is not confined to realistic expression and record keeping. Non-realist modes of expression are also mobilised, including “the aesthetic, the symbolic, even bordering on the abstract.” One example of a symbolic street scene is “At the Crossroads” (1955), featuring characters who are “transformed, distorted, and elongated.” The change in forms and colours “emphasises the cramped environment and intense life of the city.” This photograph shares its Chinese title with Shen Xiling’s classic Shanghai left-wing film, Crossroads (Shizi jietou, 1937), reminding us of Ho’s cultural roots in pre-1949 Shanghai.

Equally at home with the symbolic and staged photography with a cinematic impulse, the award-winning “Approaching Shadow” (1954) can best be understood as a film-still for an unrealised film. The leading “actress,” a solitary woman in black, is placed at the bottom left-hand corner of a high white wall and posed (staged) for the camera. The composition has the effect of miniaturising the human figure. A vertical line on the left, a horizontal line at the bottom, and a diagonal line separating light and shadow drive the viewer’s attention toward a small, solitary woman who, in Fan Ho’s words, is contemplating and mourning “the shadow of ruthless time.” The shadow was added in the darkroom during what we might call “postproduction.” For Fan Ho, photography, like cinema, is born not only during shooting but also in the dark room.

The subject matter of Fan Ho’s realistic street photography is largely concerned with ordinary people in the big city. From 1957 to 1961, Ho’s realistic street photos were published in The Chinese Student Weekly as a series called “Big City, Little Man” (Dadushi xiaorenwu). This also became the Chinese title of Ho’s first experimental short film. There is a clear aesthetic and thematic link between the photo series and this 25-minute silent colour 8mm film. According to veteran film critic Law Kar’s recollection, in autumn 1967, a private screening of amateur films, featuring Fan Ho’s Big City, Little Man and Gulf (1966), was held at photographer C. L. Chow’s Studio. On February 10, 1968, College Cine Club organised the first exhibition of its members’ works at the Hong Kong Baptist College in Kowloon Tong, featuring two of Fan Ho’s experimental movies: Big City, Little Man and Journey (an 8mm, 25-minute colour documentary) alongside Law Kar’s 16mm black-and-white sound film Suspicion (edited by Fan Ho) in homage to Ho’s photo “Approaching Shadow.”

The singular form of “Little Man” refers to the Baudelarian flâneur (played by James Lai). His melancholic countenance and tailored suit anticipate Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). We follow him over the course of one day as his walks to and from his office, observing ordinary people (xiaorenwu in the Chinese title) and the everyday streetscape along the tramway on Hong Kong Island. The camera is focused on the reflections in the windows of the buildings, traffic signs, shop signs, shop windows, working-class pedestrians, birds, cats, and dogs. Despite his middle-class suit, James Lai belongs to the working class. He cleans the office (the floor under the desk, the windows, and the toilet) and is preoccupied with remembrance of time spent with a cheerful woman in the countryside.

Study No. 1 (1966) is a 39-minute silent black-and-white 16mm film starring James Lai as a solitary artist-intellectual in pursuit of a mysterious woman in white. It is a study in the style of Federico Fellini, whose influence can be clearly seen in the idealised image of the woman in white, drawn from (1963), and the male figure’s nocturnal journey, inspired by La dolce vita (1960). More significantly, Study No. 1 anticipates Fan Ho’s first feature-length film, Lost (1970), co-directed with female photographer Sun Po-ling. Lost premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970 and was later screened in Germany as well as at the first international Festival of Women’s Films in the United States in June 1972. Lost was considered lost for close to half a century until Reel to Reel Institute (RTRI) located the only surviving 35mm print with German subtitles from the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute (TFAI). RTRI commissioned TFAI to digitise this copy and the film was finally brought to light in 2021.

Study No. 1 opens with the solitary artist-intellectual sitting on the seashore and looking up at a bird soaring in the sky. As he closes the book on his lap, his attention is caught by a woman in the distance, dressed in white, running towards the ocean. He picks up a turtle and sees the woman turn her head and smile at him. He is so entranced by her beauty that the turtle almost slips from his grasp, and she disappears. He places the turtle inside his suit pocket and strolls along the beach. At night, he window-shops under the neon signs along the tramway on Hong Kong Island. He catches a glimpse of the woman in white across the street, but once again she disappears. Riding the tram, he sees her in the distance once more and rushes after her, only to discover that this time it is a different woman dressed in white. His futile pursuit of the woman in white takes a hippie turn when he is invited to a party by a photographer holding a Rolleiflex.

Study No. 1 (1966)

The photographer acts as an observational rather than participant documentarian who initiates the solitary artist-intellectual into the sensuous experience of a new wave (xinchao) party. In a scene that scene that prepares Fan Ho for the more risqué new wave party in Girl with the Long Hair (1975), young partygoers smoke, dance, drink, and paint wildly on the walls. A woman with a flower on her dress invites James Lai first to dance, and later drink, in a private room. They go out into the night and splash each other with water from a fountain smaller than the Trevi Fountain in La dolce vita. The woman with the flower sprains her ankle while descending the staircase. He picks her up and carries her to bed, where they embrace. He seems startled at her taking the initiative to undress. The ambivalence of his desire is crosscut with the crawling of the turtle he had picked up on the seashore. His hesitancy may be linked to the woman in white he has been searching for. The next morning, he wakes up alone, fully dressed. He retraces his steps from the staircase and the fountain to the space where he drank with the woman with the flower. Opening a window, he sees the woman in white running, and rushes out to chase her. The film ends in an extreme wide shot, as he runs from screen left to right to find the woman in white disappearing in front of his eyes. Photographer C. L. Chow is involved in the film’s production and cinematography alongside Fan Ho. New Asia College alumnus James Lai not only stars in the film but also co-produced, co-directed, and co-authored the screenplay. In addition to production and cinematography, Fan Ho is credited also for writing, directing, editing, and scoring. This writer saw a silent copy of the film at the Hong Kong Film Archive, however, which may indicate that live music was performed during screenings.

Produced by Victor Film & Co. (H.K.), Fan Ho’s 1972 erotic action film Love and Blood is a transitional film that hovers between experimental amateur filmmaking and commercial production. The film opens in the atmosphere of a thriller. The film’s protagonist, photographer Fang (played by Alan Tang Kwong-wing), stages a violent attack on his girlfriend for the sole reason of taking photos of her fear and distress. When she is visibly shocked that Fang is behind this crime and she screams at him, rather than consoling her, Fang’s reaction is to snap more photos. Fan Ho self-consciously lays bare the violence of photography in this opening sequence, which ends with the freeze-frame of the screaming woman superimposed by the film title in blood red. Over the music of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit, “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” the background of the opening credits comprises some of Fan Ho’s international prize-winning photos such as “A Sail” (1957), “On the Stage of Life” (1954), “The Search” (1960), “Rowing On” (1954), “The Spirit of Life” (1953), “Tracks of Fear” (1955), “Approaching Shadow” (1954), “Journey to Uncertainty” (1956), “Construction” (1957), “Evening Ferry” (1958), “Pattern” (1956), “Dying Sun” (1957), “Lines and Forms” (1959). Fang as an artist can best be understood as Fan Ho’s alter ego. When he shows his self-described photographic “masterpieces” to the manager of an advertising agency, his works are shown in adoring close-ups and rejected one by one, although they turn out to be famous photos such as “Street Scene” (1956), “Controversy” (1956), “Wine” (1958), “At the Crossroads” (1955), and “Back Alley” (1955).

The commercially-oriented manager’s suggestion to the artist is that he start shooting softcore “body photography” as it sells better than street photography. This self-conscious commercial turn serves as a symbolic farewell to Fan Ho’s street photography period and experimental amateur filmmaking. It was by no means a sellout on his part, for his relationship to both experimental and commercial cinema had already been marked by the tensions between art and commercialism, beauty and reality.


This essay was originally printed in Fan Ho: Photography. My Passion. My Life (WE Press, 2021). The author wishes to thank Ada Wang, Sarah Greene, Law Kar, Reel to Reel Institute, and Fan Ho Family.

Timmy Chih-Ting Chen is Research Assistant Professor at the Academy of Film, Hong Kong Baptist University. He has published in A Companion to Wong Kar-wai (Wiley Blackwell), the Journal of Chinese CinemasSurveillance in Asian Cinema (Routledge), The Assassin (HKU Press), Frames Cinema Journal, and Sound Stage Screen. He is working on two research projects: “Wartime Shanghai and Postwar Hong Kong Song-and-Dance Films, 1931–1972”, and a study of Fan Ho’s cinema.