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CHU, Yiu-Wai Stephen. 2022. Main Melody Films: Hong Kong Directors in Mainland China. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kristof Van den Troost
p. 73-74

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1In 2003, few Hong Kong film fans could have imagined that a mere 14 years later Andrew Lau 劉偉, director of the enormously successful Infernal Affairs crime films (2002-2003), would be helming The Founding of an Army (2017), a mainland Chinese propaganda film meant to commemorate the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. Lau’s trajectory as a filmmaker was certainly not unique: a great many established Hong Kong directors had already made a northbound journey, with big names such as Dante Lam 林超賢 and Tsui Hark 徐克 similarly contributing films to the nascent genre of “main melody blockbusters.” It is this phenomenon that forms the subject of the new monograph by Stephen Chu Yiu-Wai, professor and director of the Hong Kong Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong.

2Chu, who has written numerous books on Hong Kong culture, presents this latest monograph as a kind of sequel to his Lost in Transition: Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China (2013) and Found in Transition: Hong Kong Studies in the Age of China (2018) (p. 1-2). These two earlier works were uncannily timely, coming out just before the Umbrella Movement (2014) and the 2019 Hong Kong protests, respectively. Read today, they capture the zeitgeist of those moments remarkably well: linked together by Chu’s postcolonial theory-influenced perspective and his despair about the perceived “death” of Hong Kong culture, these two books subtly reflected the broader cultural shift towards localist concerns, with the second book markedly angrier in tone than the first. As Chu writes in the acknowledgments of Found in Transition: “Being born, growing up, and living in Hong Kong, I have never felt out of place until lately. In a place where the impact of the rise of China is most intensely felt, I have begun to feel foreign at home” (xii). Given this sentiment and the momentous events of 2019, it is therefore surprising that in this third entry of his “Hong Kong studies” series Chu turns his attention to Hong Kong filmmakers’ participation in mainland Chinese “main melody” (zhuxuanlü 主旋律, also translated as “leitmotif”) films. He explains his rationale as follows: “to create its own fate, Hong Kong has to consider how to retain its own characteristics given its inevitable integration into the mainland” (p. 3). His approach in Main Melody Films is therefore to look for the “trace” or “absent presence” of “Hong Kong reference” in mainland cultural production, and to turn away from the “mainland-Hong Kong dichotomy” (p. 227).

3Certainly, the recent commercialisation of “main melody” films is a major development in Chinese cinema, and the unexpected role of veteran Hong Kong directors in this commercialisation is worth taking stock of. In the introduction, Chu sketches out a brief history of the term “main melody film,” noting its first use by the then Head of the National Film Bureau in 1987 and by President Jiang Zemin 江澤民 in 1994; the category’s growing commercialisation in landmark films such as Feng Xiaogang’s 馮小剛 Assembly (2007), and Han Sanping’s 韓三平and Huang Jianxin’s 黃建新The Founding of a Republic (2009); and the hiring of Hong Kong directors to helm some of these films, especially following the success of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014). A largely ignored, state-sponsored undertaking in the 1990s, main melody films are now dominating China’s booming domestic box office. Limiting his scope to the 2010s, Chu organises his book by director, starting with chapters on Hong Kong New Wave veterans Tsui Hark and Ann Hui 許鞍華, and then moving on to (slightly) younger directors who mostly made their name in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as Peter Chan 陳可辛, Andrew Lau, Dante Lam, and Herman Yau 邱禮濤. Chapter Seven wraps up the overview by briefly discussing less notable main melody films by other Hong Kong filmmakers, such as John Woo 吳宇森, Gordon Chan 陳嘉上, Alan Mak 麥兆輝, Felix Chong 莊文, and others. As this chapter overview already indicates, Chu’s approach is auteurist: in each chapter he gives a career overview of the director studied before focusing on that director’s main melody efforts, which he evaluates primarily by their ability to sustain some of the themes that characterised the director’s earlier Hong Kong work.

4The surprising choice to pursue what Chu calls “Hong Kong (in China) Studies” (p. 227) was already noted above. Given the wave of award-winning documentaries and indie films coming out of Hong Kong, the rise of a new local television station (ViuTV), and the generation-shifting craze for the boy band Mirror, there seem to be plenty of more pertinent topics to consider in the recently revived academic field of Hong Kong Studies. A more significant shortcoming of the book, however, is that it operates with an overly broad concept of the main melody film, which in some chapters is expanded to cover basically any film by a Hong Kong director aimed primarily at a mainland audience. While state censorship indeed makes it nearly impossible to broach some topics and closes off certain narrative possibilities, describing a film like Herman Yau’s Shock Wave (2017) as a “quasi-main melody film” (p. 163) creates too monolithic a picture of current mainland Chinese and Hong Kong film production. Related to this, more attention to the specific sociopolitical contexts in which specific main melody films were produced and received would probably have resulted in more varied and deeper readings of specific films than the current narrow focus on Hong Kong filmmakers allows, especially as these directors generally have limited opportunity to significantly shape these films. These qualms aside, Chu’s work brings a major development in Chinese cinema to broader attention and is exemplary in its reference to an impressive range of sources, which testify to a near encyclopaedic knowledge of China’s and especially Hong Kong’s cinematic output, as well as the rapidly increasing scholarship on these topics.

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CHU, Yiu-Wai Stephen. 2018. Found in Transition: Hong Kong Studies in the Age of China. Albany: SUNY Press.

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Bibliographical reference

Kristof Van den Troost, CHU, Yiu-Wai Stephen. 2022. Main Melody Films: Hong Kong Directors in Mainland China. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.China Perspectives, 132 | 2023, 73-74.

Electronic reference

Kristof Van den Troost, CHU, Yiu-Wai Stephen. 2022. Main Melody Films: Hong Kong Directors in Mainland China. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.China Perspectives [Online], 132 | 2023, Online since 30 March 2023, connection on 10 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kristof Van den Troost

Kristof Van den Troost is an assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Sha Tin, New Territories, Hong Kong (

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