Patrick Tam Ka-ming can still recall the day in 1961 when he entered the now-defunct Roxy Theatre in Causeway Bay looking for epic entertainment, and left dazed instead by a black-and-white trailer comprising footage shot in Paris with handheld cameras.
'I can't remember what the main feature was now,' says the filmmaker, who was just a teenager when he saw the teaser to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. 'But I can definitely remember those close-ups of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg kissing, and the sequences shot as if they were documentaries. I was too young to understand what it was all about, but it was a breath of fresh air and so different to the Hollywood stuff I was watching.'
More than a decade later, Belmondo was to alter the senses of yet another teenage cinephile. Johnnie To Kei-fung was 15 when he saw Belmondo and Alain Delon play two blood brothers fighting their way up the ranks of Marseilles' brutal underworld while indulging in high-class liquor, thick cigars and smart clothes in Jacques Deray's Borsalino. 'I remember feeling more stylish just by watching the film then,' says To.
Several years later, Ringo Lam Ling-tung watched Godard's Alphaville. Like Tam and To before him, his brush with a French auteur came well before he started his career in television and film. The filmmaker, who has since become a long-time associate of To's and a full-fledged action-thriller director, was blown away by the 1967 film's opening sequence. Describing how lead character Lemmy Caution makes his entrance in a continuous two-minute take, Lam says: 'The camera just went through the streets, followed him as he went into the hotel, up the elevators and along the corridors, all in one long shot. And boom, that's it.'
These French films left an indelible mark on the three men's minds, an influence shared by a generation of filmmakers who would surface years later in Hong Kong cinema.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tam produced several television programmes and films which drew largely from Godard's oeuvre, such as Miu Kam-fung, made for the 1976 TVB series Seven Women which localised the French director's anti-consumerist treatise 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lam's unswervingly commercial thrillers - such as his 1987 hit City on Fire - utilise audacious camerawork in meticulously planned car chases shot in one take from various angles.
Others also fell under the Gallic spell: Ann Hui On-wah's penchant for organic, natural settings and social critique recalls the idioms of the nouvelle vague, while Ivy Ho's love of Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest shaped the psychological nuances of her screenplays (Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Divergence) and films (Claustrophobia, Crossing Hennessy). John Woo Yu-sum's trigger-happy films, meanwhile, have long been associated with Melville's cops-and-hitmen thrillers such as The Samurai.
But it's To - whose selection of nine noir-inflected Hong Kong films will be shown during the next two weeks in Le French May's retrospective on the genre - who shows the most obvious French connections in his work. Since the mid-1990s, he has delivered a string of thrillers (including PTU, Exiled, The Mission and Vengeance) which draw gratuitously from Melville's dark, atmospheric films.
'I guess what remained with me was the darkness in those films, whether in the surroundings or within the characters themselves. I tend to be swayed by stories about heroism, and characters who are wandering spirits,' says To.
To's thrillers have in turn been warmly received by French cinephiles. Ever since 2004's Breaking News - which begins with an audacious, unedited 10-minute shot starting quietly in an apartment and ending in a massive gunfight on the street - most of To's action films have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris hosted a two-week retrospective of his work in 2008. The French Consulate General in Hong Kong has programmed a section of its noir showcase: among the films To selected are Tam's My Heart is that Eternal Rose, Lam's City on Fire, Hui's The Secret, Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind, Alfred Cheung Kin-ting's On the Run, Wong Kar-wai's directorial debut As Tears Go By, and The Wild, Wild Rose by To's mentor, Wong Tin-lam.
The choice of Wong's film illustrates how Hong Kong directors absorbed French (and European) influences into their work well before the Western-educated Young Turks emerged in Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s. According to the Film Archive's programmer Sam Ho Sze-wing, a raft of Western-style period dramas surfaced in the 1950s.
But it's the Hong Kong New Wave who really took the lessons learned from their French counterparts to heart. Both groups had a tendency to break free from mainstream conventions.
Patrick Tam says he was energised by Godard's playfulness and carefree energy, and Robert Bresson's spirituality - two elements he couldn't find in the Hong Kong films he grew up with. 'Back then, there were the Union Studio's films, which revelled in realism about Hong Kong's post-war social problems and how people survived in those circumstances,' he says. 'And then there were the costume dramas, which were just a form of escapism. French films provided something completely different to what I was seeing.'
What fascinated cinephiles was the form and content of French cinema: experiments in storytelling came hand in hand with an urgency to address the social turmoil sweeping across France at the time, which mirrored the instability of Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s.
It's no coincidence the films by Tam, To, Lam and Hui can be seen as political metaphors.
To says these heavily stylised films were all about creating 'an alternative universe' different to what viewers usually saw. 'It's all about subverting the system,' he says.
Such subversion is hard to sustain with the economic realities Hong Kong directors have to face in an age dominated by mainland-Hong Kong co-productions, says Michael Ingham, associate professor in English at the Lingnan University and the writer of a book examining To's 2003 film PTU. 'Hong Kong directors, To included, seem to have reverted to a more conservative, typically genre-oriented safe approach to filmmaking,' he says.
Still, To and his peers' run of mischievous, Gallic-flavoured pleasures would have pleased Godard and Belmondo.
Le French May's Noir: A Film Noir Retrospective runs until June 26 at the Broadway Cinematheque, IFC Palace and Broadway Mong Kok. For full screening details, visit www.frenchmay.com Topics: Entertainment Cinema of Hong Kong Hong Kong Films Jean-Luc Godard Vengeance