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 8½ (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.