Wong Fei-hung is one of Hong Kong's most important cultural icons: for the past six decades, 'Master Wong' - a real-life martial arts practitioner made famous on screen first by Kwan Tak-hing, and later by Jet Li Lianjie - dazzled local audiences with his dexterous kung fu and unwavering patriotism.
It's therefore ironic that it has taken help from Italy for local cinephiles to get a glimpse of the first-ever on-screen appearance of this character.
The prints of the first two instalments of The Story of Wong Fei-hung - a four-parter made in 1949 and 1950 which marked the start of Kwan's 32-year stint as 'Wong sifu' - were once thought lost until TVB donated the last surviving copies of the films to the Film Archive last year. Before that, the archive only possessed low-quality videotapes which are unfit for screenings, says assistant curator Koven Lo Kai-ming.
After cleaning and repairing the tears in the 16mm copies, Lo says, the film was sent to Cineteca di Bologna for further digital restoration - a process the archive will be able to carry out itself with the addition of a film scanner and a digital restoration machine within the next two years.
Davide Pozzi, director of the Cineteca's restoration and conservation arm L'Immagine Ritrovata, says the major challenge in this project was the dearth of source material to work with, as what remained of the films were battered and mouldy 16mm copies.
'When you start from 16mm, and make a digital restoration and you come back to 35mm [for screenings], it's always very difficult,' Pozzi said during a recent visit to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong International Film Festival screenings of two films his team had worked on: Jean Renoir's Nana (1926) and Roberto Rossellini's The Machine that Kills Bad People (1952).
The restored versions of the two Wong Fei-hung films were screened on March 24 and last Sunday at the Film Archive.
Founded in 1992, L'Immagine previously worked with the archive on the restoration of Fei Mu's 1940 black-and-white film Confucius and 1966's Colourful Youth, a teen drama starring Connie Chan Po-chu and Josephine Siao Fong-fong.
The organisation works on 40 titles every year, says Pozzi.
There is increasing interest among film festival programmers in showcasing restored films, he says, a trend that began with the Cannes Film Festival's decision to launch a classics sidebar in 2004.
'Today we have a lot of media, like TV channels, broadcasting films from the past. With today's technology, we can deliver high-quality picture and sound - and TV channels are interested if the picture looks nice and the sound is good,' Pozzi says. 'And with the documentary and history [cable television] channels, today people are completely familiar with the heritage of the moving image.'
It's a sentiment which has trickled down to multiplex audiences, he says.
'This year, the Oscars were about two films: The Artist, which is a silent film, and Hugo, which is about [early 20th-century filmmaker George] Melies. This ... shows people want to know cinema of the past, and people want to see old films.'