Hong Kong was once the Hollywood of the East. At its peak, around the early 90s, the local movie industry was first in the world in terms of per capita production as well as the second largest exporter of films, second only to the US.
The influence of Hong Kong cinema can be seen far and wide. Bruce Lee remains a global icon, his martial arts movies classics. The groundbreaking action of The Matrix would never have come about if not for John Woo films and the action chereography of Yuen Woo-ping. Quentin Tarantino ripped off Ringo Lam’s City on Fire for his debut, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Moonlight owes much to the style of Wong Kar-wai films and the autuer was an influence acknowledged by Soffia Coppola when she collected the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation.
So with such a massive cultural legacy what are the best Hong Kong movies of all time? Edmund Lee presents this definitive ranking of the best films made until 2011.
Not into movies? What about the best TV dramas or Cantopop songs? Or maybe you’re hungry?
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 100-91
Dir Derek Kwok, Clement Cheng (Leung Siu-lung, Chen Kuan-tai, Teddy Robin)
“If you don’t fight you won’t lose. But if you fight, you must aim to win!”
Kung fu stars of yesteryear carry this spirited homage to an old genre by two up-and-coming directors. That the low-budget retro action comedy was named best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards reveals as much about our cinema’s current nostalgic wave as it does a gradual changing of the guard.
Dir John Woo (Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Teresa Mo)
“I play a tune to every cop who dies. I don’t want to play the next song for you.”
Life is cheap (and bullets apparently cheaper) in this ultra-cool, ultra-stylish shoot ’em up. From Chow’s gun-fu-fighting supercop to Woo’s cameo as a contemplative jazz bar owner, and from its birdcage-kicking teahouse shootout at the start to its hospital-exploding, baby-saving climax, Hard Boiled remains any action fanboy’s wettest dream.
Dir Fung Fung (Bruce Lee, Yee Chau-shui, Lee Hoi-chuen, Fung Fung)
“Last night I dined with Pak Yin. Tonight I dine with Tam Lan-hing.”
Bruce Lee shined in his first leading role as A-Chang in this vivacious social comedy, playing a 10-year-old orphan who’s raised by a righteous uncle (Yee), groomed by a skilled thief (Fung) and involved in all sorts of trouble around the factory of a hilariously forgetful miser (Lee Hoi-chuen, Lee’s father).
Dir Clarence Fok (Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Carrie Ng)
“Once I rammed a toothbrush up a man’s nose. It hit his brain and he was killed instantly.”
Man-hating lesbian assassins populate this Wong Jing-scripted and produced erotic thriller, whose absurdly OTT campness renders it a cult fave internationally. Yau’s classic one-arm-over-the-breasts posture unleashed a new era of sex icons who, even while topless, don’t reveal their goods.
Dir Ann Hui (Sylvia Chang, Angie Chiu, Tsui Siu-keung)
“Tie the two monkeys to the tree!”
Part pseudo-ghost story, part Hitchcockian mystery thriller, Hui’s debut feature wraps a brutal double murder at its core with disorienting editing, fragmented chronology and some utterly haunting sequences. Its final scene, involving a cleaver and a pregnant woman, is as ridiculously gory as it is surreal.
Dir Cai Chusheng (Li Lili, Li Qing)
“Orphan Island! Is this heaven or hell?”
The oldest movie on our list is a war-time drama which passionately fuses espionage noir with social-realist drama. Set during the Orphan Island period of Shanghai, the film follows a group of revolutionary patriots-cum-assassins who finally earn the support of the suffering public. ‘We’re all Chinese,’ so they repeatedly chant.
Dir Cheung King-wai (Wong Ka-jeng)
“I want to be a human being.”
Cheung’s magnificent documentary sees egotistic music prodigy Wong Ka-jeng questioning his existence at the age of 11 – when he’s arguably peaked; at 17, the boy’s free spirit was already corroded by meaningless competitions and his parents’ divorce. His struggle is largely unspoken – and it’s all unspeakably sad.
* Did you know…
… Wong’s story context was very specifically chosen? “I put Wong against the backdrop of [his secondary school], which symbolises the elite education and middle class culture,” says Cheung, “but I wasn’t interested in Wong’s subsequent education in the US, so the filming stopped at that point.”
Dir Derek Yee, Lo Chi-leung (Leslie Cheung, Shu Qi, Karen Mok)
“Nobody asked you to be Wong Kar-wai! Can’t you be Wong Jing instead?”
It’s not quite the highbrow smut it aspires to be but Viva Erotica, which tells of the artistic pursuit of a downtrodden filmmaker reluctantly engaged to helm a softcore skinflick, remains one of the few satires on Category III filmmaking that manages to be frank, funny and humane all at once.
Dir Wang Tianlin (Lucilla You Min, Wang Yin, Kelly Lai Chen, Wang Lai)
“Dad, we don’t want a new mum.”
The transience of youth and the difficulty in affirming love in all circumstances are delicately alluded to in this Eileen Chang-scripted family melodrama, which sees a middle-aged widower’s (Wang Yin) decision to remarry being disrupted by his three children’s fear of a potentially evil stepmother.
Dir Fruit Chan (Qin Hailu, Mak Wai-fan)
“I got the king of all fruits for your birthday.”
The quests for better living of two Mainland migrants – a Chinese opera performer working temporarily as a prostitute (Qin) and a young daughter overstaying her visa (Mak) – become intertwined through the stinky, exotic fruit in this gently observed effort, the first title in Chan’s unfinished ‘Prostitute Trilogy’.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 90-81
Dir Ann Hui (Josephine Siao, Kenny Bee)
“Is she human or ghost?”
A Cantonese opera troupe encounters the vengeful ghosts of a war-time forged medicine disaster. From phantoms and curses to spells and possessions, this New Wave representative is a furiously paced, Cheung Chau-set horror farce which throws every creepy facet of Chinese superstition at the audience.
Dir Eddie Fong (Pat Ha, Alex Man, Zhang Guozhu)
“My heartfelt gratitude, great hero. I won’t let your kind go easily satisfied!”
Ha cements her sex symbol status in this landmark period erotica of progressive feminist and existentialist undertones. As a Taoist priestess-cum-literati, and hostess of nightly orgies, her pleasure-seeking heroine refuses to be tied down in matrimony or, indeed, to any one lover – male or female.
Dir Li Han-hsiang (Li Lihua, Zhao Lei, Grace Ting Ning)
“People oppose me, hate me, blame me and even want to kill me. But I’m still alive!”
Maybe it’s the distractingly sumptuous visuals, or maybe it’s the battle of wits which characterises its sophisticated dialogue, but this operatic tale about China’s first female ruler was initially panned by the critics – before it came to be seen, belatedly, as a consummate historical costume drama with a female-empowering touch.
Dir Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow, Danny Chan Kwok-kwan, Yuen Qiu)
“No more soccer!”
The underdog hero of Hong Kong cinema went mega-budget for this CGI extravaganza, a martial arts comedy so outrageously cartoonish it put its writer-director-producer-star temporarily on the world map. Film buffs will be in heaven spotting the references, from Bruce Lee lore to The House of 72 Tenants (1973).
Dir Li Pingqian (Bao Fong, Shek Hwei, Kung Chiu-hsia)
“Laugh and you’ll never get old.”
A sadder than sad story about a fun-loving optimist whose interest in comedy performance is despised by both his family and his wealthy future in-laws, Li’s tragic-comedy follows the 50-year-old father (Bao) as he maintains a dignified façade after losing his long-held accounting job in an occupied Tianjin in the 1940s.
Dir Patrick Tam (Leslie Cheung, Pat Ha, Kent Tong, Cecilia Yip)
“Let me declare again that I don’t love you.”
Daring in form and casually nihilistic in content, this New Wave classic is a youthful slice-of-death drama which became notorious for its open attitude to sex – there’s lovemaking on a moving tram! There’s also an abruptly violent conclusion, oddly involving the Japanese Red Army.
Dir Alex Cheung (Eddie Chan, Kam Hing-yin, Callan Leung)
“I wouldn’t mind dying heroically.”
A fresh-faced policeman (Chan) assigned to infiltrate the triads sinks into a downward spiral of violence in this early New Wave gem. Clearly inspired by Serpico (1973), Cheung’s gritty look at his protagonist’s escalating alienation and disillusionment would later kick-start the sub-genre of undercover cop drama in Hong Kong.
Dir Chor Yuen (Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li)
“Last year’s duel decided only the winner; today’s decides who will live.”
Ti’s poncho-wearing, solitary swordsman slashes through the vanity of the martial underworld in Chor’s most celebrated adaptation of wuxia novelist Gu Long. If low on realistic characterisation, this swordplay fantasy hypnotises with its brooding ambience and imaginative weaponry.
Dir Wilson Yip (Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung)
“I want to fight ten!”
After S.P.L. (2005), Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) and Flash Point (2007), the Yip-Yen combo reaches its zenith with this engrossing martial arts biopic on the titular Wing Chun legend. Patriotic fluff it certainly is, but Yen displays enough deadpan cool and dignified invincibility to shine in the role of his life.
* Did you know…
… Donnie Yen was once approached by director Jeff Lau – when his buddy Wong Kar-wai was still filming his own Ip Man movie – to play the master back in 1996? “Actually, I was signed to play Ip Man; I took the deposit too,” clarifies Yen. “And Stephen Chow [was to] play Bruce Lee. But then the company fell apart and the movie never went [into production].”
Dir Yi Wen (Grace Chang, Peter Chen Ho, Kitty Ting Hao)
“I… am not your sister.”
Chang made her star turn in this Mandarin musical about a talented singer-dancer who, while showered with affection by her family and classmates, discovers on her 20th birthday that she’s an adopted orphan. Not even an unsettling search for her birth mother could dampen this truly buoyant song-and-dance showcase.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 80-71
Dir Chor Yuen (Cheung Wood-yau, Pak Yin)
“It’s the parents’ duty to bring up their kids. Why can’t we even manage that?”
A beloved schoolteacher contracts tuberculosis, sees his five children begging on the street for his wife’s medical fees, and borrows from a loanshark before finding his infant daughter dead due to delayed medical attention in this classic melodrama – arguably the ultimate weepie for parents.
Dir Wong Kar-wai (Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Chang Chen)
“Lai Yiu-fai, could we start over again?”
A pair of bickering Cantonese gay lovers (Cheung and Leung) stranded in Argentina may be an unusual idea of cinematic poetry but Wong, who was named best director at Cannes, managed the impossible with this lyrical break-up movie. His eye for wistful symbolism – highlighting Buenos Aires as Hong Kong’s antipode – is out of this world.
Dir Derek Yee (Anita Yuen, Lau Ching-wan)
“Don’t look down upon me, I’m not big mouth. I’ve come back from the dead, kid.”
Yuen plays the role of her life in this superb remake of Doe Ching’s Shaw Brothers tearjerker Love Without End (1961). As an ultra-bubbly cancer patient from a Cantonese opera-singing family, her doomed romance with Lau’s worn-out jazz composer is still one of our cinema’s greatest romances.
Allen Fong invents Chinese docu-drama, taking Hui So-Ying out of her job on her parents' fish market stall and following her progress in acting classes; in the background, her family acts out its real-life domestic strains and crises. Fong based the character of Ah Ying's drama teacher Cheung on his late friend Koh Wu (Peter Wang's performance is a creditable impersonation), who spent years trying but failing to raise money for a film in Hong Kong. It adds up to a wry panorama of everyday dreams and aspirations, often - but not always - doomed to be dashed.
Dir Chor Yuen (Lily Ho, Betty Pei Ti, Yueh Hua)
“I use love to take my revenge.”
Controversial on its initial release due to its lesbian and exploitation themes, Chor’s rape-revenge epic – mixing swordplay with period erotica – still arrests the senses with the sheer intensity of its tale, which sees a defiant beauty (Ho) exacting vicious retribution on her tormentors years after being abducted into a high-class brothel.
Dir Lee Tit (Yam Kim-fai, Pak Suet-sin, Leung Sing-po)
“To be a great man is to love his wife and be loyal.”
A laborious collaboration with the influential Cantonese opera librettist Tong Tik-sang, and a seminal masterpiece for any enthusiast of the art form, Lee’s screen adaptation of the Ming dynasty opera is arguably the best Yam-Pak film alongside Butterfly and Red Pear Blossom, also directed by Li in 1959.
Dir Gordon Chan, Dante Lam (Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Michael Wong)
“Sometimes I feel there’s a barrier between us. A plastic barrier.”
One of the funniest police thrillers Hong Kong cinema has ever seen, this offbeat dramedy alternates between ferocious meat cleaver battles with vicious mobsters and bantering sessions among three unorthodox cops, who philosophise their way through a lifestyle of drugs, bribes and loose women.
Dir Chor Yuen (Hu Chin, Yueh Hua, Ching Li)
“Turn off the water tap downstairs! Is this a rebellion?”
A crowd-pleasing social satire which struck a chord with the TVB-loving population of the time, Chor’s adaptation of a 1940s stage comedy turns domineering landlords, corrupt firefighters and policemen into the laughing stock of the people – revitalising Cantonese dialect cinema along the way.
Dir Johnnie To (Simon Yam, Maggie Shiu, Lam Suet)
“He’s fine. There’s no complaint. There’s no case.”
Yam bends the rules in this convoluted nocturnal thriller, which is set in nightmarish motion when Lam’s uniformed buffoon loses his gun and his Police Tactical Unit mates decide to secretly retrieve it for him before the night ends. Cynical irony abounds.
Dir Doe Ching (Linda Lin Dai, Kwan Shan, Pat Ting Hung)
“If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t hate you.”
Released in two parts on the second anniversary of Lin’s suicide, Ching’s adaptation of Taiwanese writer Wang Lan’s poignant WWII novel charts the decade-spanning affair of a pair of star-crossed lovers, who have long been kept apart by family pressure, the ongoing war, and more than a few lamentable life decisions.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 70-61
Dir Tsui Hark (Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan)
“Master Yim, win or lose, it’s just a game.”
Jet Li turned from Mainland wushu champion to international action star with Tsui’s nationalistic reinvention of the folk legend of Wong Fei-hung. Its climatic warehouse combat, partly on flopping ladders, is easily one of the best fight scenes of kung fu cinema.
* Did you know…
… Which Hong Kong film would rank Number 1 if it was compiled by Chow Yun-fat? “Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China,” the actor tells Time Out, before repeating it twice.
Dir King Hu (Cheng Pei-pei, Yueh Hua, Chen Hung-lieh)
“Better to be an honest beggar than a devil in monk’s clothing.”
Before the iconic director moved to Taiwan and shot Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971) – indisputably two of the greatest martial arts films ever made – Hu refined the genre with this deliberately-paced quest for justice by Cheng’s female knight Golden Swallow and Yueh’s heroic swordsman Drunken Cat.
Dir Evans Chan (Lindzay Chan, Josephine Koo, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming)
“We are not British subjects. We are only British objects.”
Starting out as a cinematic response to Liv Ullmann’s condemnation of our city’s deportation of 51 Vietnamese refugees in 1990, Chan’s impossibly intellectual post-Tiananmen essay-cum-melodrama offers everything from a Van Gogh ‘prank’ to a reciting of Invisible Cities. Last but not least: the other Anthony Wong emotes.
Dir Patrick Tam (Aaron Kwok, Ng King-to, Charlie Young)
“Why? Why did you make me steal?”
Kwok won his second of two consecutive best actor awards at the Golden Horse with this exceptional comeback effort by Tam. Crisply edited and masterfully narrated, the Malaysia-set drama takes an unflinching look at a gambler’s destructive influence on – and unfathomable betrayal of – his young son (Ng).
Dir Ricky Lau (Lam Ching-ying, Ricky Hui, Chin Siu-ho)
“A corpse becomes a jiang shi because its last breath fails to leave the body.”
A supernatural game-changer that started a franchise and set the rules for all things jiang shi, Lau’s uproarious horror comedy popularised the mythology of Chinese hopping vampires (commonly said to be corpses reanimated out of indignation) – if not also sticky rice, the most hated item of the undead.
Dir Jackie Chan (Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung)
“There’re four witnesses last year who said the same thing as you. Guess what happened to them?”
Chan defied death – and incurred a variety of injuries – as a brave and truly athletic cop in this pinnacle of action choreography, whose death-defying stunts amaze from start (which sees the actor hang onto a speeding double-decker bus with an umbrella) to finish (with a glass-shattering, escalator-jumping climax).
Dir John Woo (Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh)
“I’d like to have a name to remember you by.”
That church! Those white doves! The awesomely sappy Cantopop soundtrack! Arguably Woo’s most artistically accomplished film of the 1980s, this one-last-job epic plays like a perfect cross between Jean-Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah, deftly reversing Chow and Lee’s roles in City on Fire (1987) to thrust male bonding into high camp.
Dir Tsui Hark (Lau Siu-Ming, Michelle Yim, Wong Shu-tong)
“Are there really killer butterflies in the world?”
The maverick director’s career-long schizophrenic sensibilities originated here: a breathtaking debut which encompasses everything from a wuxia writer-turned-detective as narrator, a medieval castle as the site of its locked room murder mystery, and millions of butterflies as its terrorisers. Hitchcock would have smiled with envy.
Dir Pang Ho-cheung (Shawn Yu, Miriam Yeung)
“We don’t need to do everything in one night.”
From the hazy ambiance of its KTV lounge parties to its uncannily realistic portrayal of Cantonese banter’s amusing ways, Pang’s bittersweet rom-com about two chain-smoking would-be lovers looks reality square in the eye: while urban romances may be capricious, our city’s indoor smoking ban is permanent.
Dir Bruce Lee (Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Nora Miao)
Let him know. If I ever see him here again... He won’t leave alive!
The only film written, produced, and directed by Bruce Lee was to have been the first of a series in which he cast himself as Tan Lung, out-of-town strong-arm, here hired by the Chinese owner of a restaurant in Rome to sort out their problems with the local syndicate. The film has the roughness you might expect in a first directorial effort, and also a perhaps unexpected leaning towards comedy. Lee makes great play on his character as the country boy without weapons confronting the denizens of the technologically-powerful West and winning hands down. Fight fest addicts will relish confrontations with Chuck Norris, Robert Wall and Wang Ing Sik, professionals all.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 60-51
Dir Jeff Lau (Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Shiu, Wong Wan-sze, Fung Bo-bo)
“My girl is in trouble, I must save her. But better dress up first.”
A nostalgic comedy that inducted Lau into postmodern cinema hall of fame, this accidental classic parodies 1960s Jane Bond movies (Cantonese flicks with crime-busting heroines) with a pitch-perfect sense of style and wackiness. Leung’s deadpan impersonation of 60s actor Lui Kei is now the stuff of legend.
* Did you know…
… it was all just a beautiful accident that Jeff Lau would become a key figure in our postmodern culture? “I could never anticipate that it’d come to this point… I think the people nowadays aren’t very rational,” says the director while reflecting on how extensively his movies have been studied. “I don’t even know what the word [postmodern] means.”
Dir Chun Kim (Ma Si-tsang, Wong Man-lei, Lam Kar-sing, Yuen Siu-fai)
“You think I’m really smiling? Could you help out even if I were looking all depressed?”
No one does a forced smile better than Ma in this family melodrama. As an underemployed performer struggling financially to care for his ailing wife and send his two children to school, the real-life Cantonese opera star turns in a heartbreaking performance which epitomises the hardship of his generation.
Dir Tsui Hark (Lin Chen-chi, Lo Lieh, Che Bo-law, Albert Au)
“Next time I’m gonna set a bomb at your door.”
An early testament to Tsui’s readiness to disturb and provoke, the movie’s first cut was banned in HK for its bombing premise and anti-social sentiments. Re-edited with a new storyline about American arms smugglers, Dangerous Encounters remains a hysterical thriller soaked with teen violence and full-on social anarchy.
Dir Zhu Shilin (Han Fei, Jiang Hua, Kung Chiu-hsia)
“It’s a festival for the rich and an obstacle for the poor.”
The twisted irony in social customs is devastatingly explored in Zhu’s powerful film, which sees a debt-ridden white-collar worker (Han) juggle between the need to send his boss gifts during Mid-autumn Festival – to avoid losing his job – and maintaining the basic dignity of his family.
Dir Tsui Hark (Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh)
“Why do you yawn differently every time?”
Lin, Chung and Yeh make for a charismatic star trio in this gender-bending, genre-blending crowd-pleaser, an early milestone for Tsui’s Film Workshop. Frenetically paced throughout, the backstage comedy cum espionage thriller provides a hugely exhilarating spin on the political chaos of 1910s China.
Dir Clara Law (Masatoshi Nagase, Li Pui-wai)
“Open the heart… Happy!”
A teenage schoolgirl (Li) living with her senile grandmother finds a kindred spirit in a Japanese tourist (Nagase) wandering in a state of existential confusion. Law’s meditative tale of migration and urban ennui is engaging despite its meandering proceedings. It’s also surprisingly articulate in spite of the protagonists’ broken English.
Dir Sammo Hung (Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Lam Ching-ying, Frankie Chan)
“Are you Leung Chang the Street Brawler?”
An invincible fighter (Yuen) in Foshan discovers that his father has paid off all his opponents to save him – the only descendent of the wealthy Leung’s family – in this engrossing Wing Chun comedy by Hung, who directed, choreographed and impressed as the leading man’s eccentric master.
Dir Wong Kar-wai (Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Tony Leung Chiu-wai)
“When you can’t have someone, the only thing you can do is not to forget.”
A Jin Yong adaptation, Wong Kar-wai-style. Structured with the concept of cyclical repetition from the Chinese almanac, the auteur’s impressionistic riff on the classic wuxia novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero is a desert-bound swordplay drama whose only concern seems to be its characters’ sentimental longings.
* Did you know…
… Ashes, populated by Wong’s typically heartbroken characters, is merely a re-imagining of the original? “To separate ourselves from the previous adaptations, we put the original novel aside and went ahead to invent our own vision,” says Wong. “It’s more than a standard martial arts film; it is Shakespeare meets Sergio Leone in Chinese language.”
Dir Johnnie To (Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Francis Ng, Jackie Lui, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet)
“If we wanted to stand here all day, we might as well become hookers.”
Firing guns in messianic poses becomes an art form in the extraordinary shopping mall shoot-out in The Mission, which follows five hitmen as they form a camaraderie of bodyguards for a triad kingpin. A minimalist thriller with style and attitude to spare, it also features the subtlest plot turn in the Hong Kong action genre.
The high-grossing action comedy that inspired countless sequels, prequels, spin-offs and rip-offs, Wong’s definitive gambling movie is anchored by a sparkling Chow Yun-fat – all slicked-back hair, tuxedo and cocky smirks. His master gambler Ko Chun has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 50-41
Dir Doe Ching (Mu Hong, Julie Yeh Feng, Jeanette Lin Tsui, Dolly Soo Fung)
“I’ll marry whoever comes out on top in the coin flip.”
Marriage seems to be on everyone’s mind in this Cathay Studios rom-com, which casts an affecting gaze on sisterhood – here charmingly embodied by four great beauties of Mandarin cinema. As the tomboyish third daughter of an affluent widower, Lin’s titular role vivaciously oversees the matters of the heart of her siblings – including the selfless eldest (Mu), the promiscuous second (Yeh) and the innocent youngest (Soo) – while bumbling and fumbling towards her own discovery of love.
Dir Liu Chia-liang (Gordon Liu, Wong Yue)
“We’ll drink again another time, goodbye.”
Showcasing action choreography at its most imaginative, this martial arts freakshow boasts a litany of memorable set-pieces involving fighters ‘pretending’ to be physically handicapped, mentally deranged or – in the most fascinating case – not really fighting at all. The story, cursory as it is, involves a profligate Manchu prince (Gordon Liu) travelling incognito who brushes off assassins sent by his brother with the help of the titular petty thug (Wong), who’s forced to apprentice himself to obtain an antidote for the poisonous wound on his head.
Dir Toe Yuen (Voiced by Andy Lau, Sandra Ng, Anthony Wong Chau-sang)
“There are some courses on offer: Play Dead at Folk Dance, Play Dead at Squid Catching…”
Those who dismiss McDull as a cutesy piggy animation have missed the point: the franchise’s deceivingly innocent façade is mere sugar coating for some of the most acute observations and disheartening commentaries on our city in any form of local literature. This second film, which poetically follows the dumb working-class kid McDull’s search for his birth father, is the best of it all, parodying everything from our penchant for redevelopment to our absurdly rigid education system.
* Did you know…
… Alice Mak had specific intentions for her iconic piggy? “I wanted him to be a very ordinary kid – one who’s neither bright nor clever,” the cartoonist explains. “McDull’s story is about the survival of less privileged kids in Hong Kong; he’s always facing his problems in a positive, simplified way.”
Dir Li Han-hsiang (Tony Leung Ka-fai, Liu Xiaoqing, Chen Ye)
“A six-year-old child needs his mother’s help. If we don’t decide for him, who will?”
Nuanced acting, an obsession with period detail and the rare opportunity to shoot at Beijing’s Forbidden City lends this sequel to The Burning of the Imperial Palace (1983) an authenticity seldom witnessed in Qing dynasty palace films. Next to the vicious power struggles between the empress-dowagers and court officials, Leung’s tortured portrayal of the dying emperor – in the film’s first half alone – was enough to earn him best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Dir Tso Kea (Cheung Ying, Wong Man-lei, Ha Ping)
“You’re all ghosts! Ghosts! Ghosts! Ghosts!”
The sins of the patriarch filter down to the next generation in Tso’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts. Eighteen years after he was sent overseas by his suffering mother (Wong), the son (Cheung) of an affluent household returns as a shadow of himself – both physically and spiritually – before unwittingly falling for his philandering father’s illegitimate daughter (Ha), conceived through the rape of a housemaid. No doubt ironically titled, Motherhood presents a restrained subversion of the Cantonese family melodrama tradition.
Dir Liu Chia-liang (Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, Kara Hui)
“Here we practise the poles. Hence we call it ‘the club to defang the wolves’.”
A solemn classic remembered for its tragedies both on- and off-screen, this Song dynasty-set revenge epic marks the final screen appearance of the martial arts superstar Fu Sheng – who died in a car accident during production – and tells of the patriotic Yang family’s attempt to avenge their dead members, who were ambushed by a traitor conspiring with northern invaders. Gordon Liu makes up for Fu’s absence in the role of Yang’s fifth son, who becomes a Buddhist monk and shines in some of the greatest pole fighting sequences ever put on celluloid.
Dir Wang Weiyi (Li Qing, Wong Sun, Cheung Ying)
“If you have to blame, blame the world.”
Opening in a rural Guangdong recovering from the Sino-Japanese War, this morally upright tearjerker chronicles the tragic fate of a peasant couple driven away to the city by a nasty landlord (Cheung) – only for the husband (Li) to get tricked into the army, and the wife (Wong) into prostitution. Bringing together some of the best talents among Shanghai leftist filmmakers (including famed director Cai Chusheng, who produced the film), Wang’s story of love, perseverance and post-war hardship is often considered the first critically acclaimed Cantonese movie after the war.
Dir Ann Hui (Josephine Siao, Roy Chiao, Law Kar-ying)
“Do you know what life is all about? Life… is a lot of fun.”
Hui shows her humanist sensibility with a bittersweet drama on life’s capriciousness. Having always hated each other, a middle-aged working housewife (Siao in a multiple-award-winning role, including the best actress honour at the Berlin Film Festival) finds herself quickly becoming the caretaker of her father-in-law (Chiao), a former air force lieutenant who’s losing his mind to Alzheimer’s. Her timid husband (Law) isn’t much help, nor are his indifferent siblings; but love, amid the gently comical domestic chaos, is still definitely in the air.
Dir Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow, Zhao Wei, Ng Man-tat)
“You better go back to Mars fast. The Earth is too dangerous.”
“How are we different from a salted fish if we have no dreams in life?” asks Chow’s street cleaner in the actor-director’s delirious crowd-pleaser, in which washed-up kung fu disciples band together to win a footy tournament. An embarrassingly life-affirming underdog sports movie made special by its reckless abandon to entertain, Shaolin Soccer would eventually see the fellowship conquer evil – or, more precisely, ‘Team Evil’. Through its myriad of pop culture references, from Dragonball to The Matrix, the comedy became the top-grossing Hong Kong movie at the time.
Dir Ringo Lam (Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sun Yeuh)
“Tell me you’re not a policeman!”
Often regarded as a key inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), Lam’s heist flick – despite its riveting action – is perhaps better appreciated as a character study of a world weary undercover cop and law-enforcing protagonist (Chow, playfully intense) who is torn between his police duty and loyalty to his criminal friends, after being assigned to infiltrate a crime gang and set them up for an arrest. This, incidentally, is where thieves in shades became all the rage.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 40-31
Dir Li Han-hsiang (Linda Lin Dai, Zhao Lei, King Hu)
“I can give up my kingdom but not you.”
The huangmei diao film that consolidated the Chinese operetta form’s popularity in Hong Kong, this lavish Shaw Brothers production recounts a fairytale romance abruptly and dishearteningly curtailed. When the restless emperor (Zhao) of the Ming dynasty disguises himself as a commoner and takes a stroll to the south, he quickly falls for a peasant girl (Lin) and promises to marry her after spending one night together – only for class divide and youthful callousness to get in the way.
Dir Chun Kim (Patrick Tse Yin, Woo Fung, Nam Hung)
“When there is hope, there’s a way!”
A year before Jules et Jim swept through the French New Wave, two penniless buddies (Tse and Woo) struggle to stay alive (be it through contemplated suicide or lack of sandwich money) and feel butterflies over the same virtuous but unavailable beauty (played by Nam, who sees the two as ‘friends’) in Chun’s urbane comedy. An influential prototype for the local sub-genre’s honest fool/streetwise sidekick combo, My Intimate Partner is as gently delightful as it’s awkwardly romantic.
Dir Tsui Hark (Yuen Biao, Adam Cheng, Brigitte Lin, Sammo Hung)
“Of course I’m a good guy! Have you ever seen bad guys wear white?”
With a gibberish good-versus-evil plotline, the help of a Hollywood special effects team, and his very own delirious appetite for the visually entrancing, Tsui’s trend-setting swordplay fantasy is a surreal spectacle like no other. Every scene is a wonder in this hallucinatory story, which roughly concerns a human soldier’s (Yuen) quest for two mythical swords to save the world while a legendary reverend (Hung) battles to restrain a destructive monster for 49 days. Great pulpy fun.
Dir Lee Sun-fung (Ng Cho-fan, Pak Yin, Bruce Lee)
“I’m not worthy to be your son!”
After losing his wife and daughter, and becoming separated from his young son during the war a decade earlier, a man (Ng, who also produced and scripted the film) becomes a dedicated orphanage director who crosses paths with a parentless pickpocket (a very impressive, teenage Bruce Lee before his move to the US) and decides to make him a better person. The Orphan’s long-lost colour negative was located in London in the 1990s – certainly one of the greatest finds in Hong Kong film preservation.
Dir Chang Cheh (Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao)
“I decided to lead an ordinary life.”
The conflicted psyche of an expert swordfighter is unforgettably captured in this Shaw Brothers classic, which launched an iconic character that would be recycled over the decades. After suffering maiming at the hands of his master’s smitten daughter (whose affections are not returned), Fang Gang (Wang) departs for a quiet life in the country, only to chance upon the remaining half of a powerful martial arts manual – which, of course, is just what a one-armed fella needs!
* Did you know…
… despite its frivolous opening, the film has inspired a long line of sequels and remakes? The most notable of them include Chang’s own The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971), Tsui Hark’s The Blade (1995) and Peter Chan’s Wu Xia (2011), with David Chiang, Chiu Man-cheuk and Donnie Yen respectively playing the amputated hero.
Dir Stanley Kwan (Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alex Man)
“I’ve kept this rouge box for 53 years. Take it – I won’t wait anymore.”
Small wonder this contemporary ghost story has been canonised as one of the great Chinese-language films. At the centre of it all is Mui’s hypnotically solemn performance as the ghost of a courtesan returning to look for her lover (Cheung), who has possibly survived their suicide pact in 1934. Kwan’s supernaturally nostalgic drama is a haunting reminder of both the transience of city life and, well, how we just don’t kill ourselves for love like we used to any more.
Dir Yuen Woo-ping (Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, Hwang Jang-lee)
“This is Sexy Girl’s Fist!”
Chan establishes his brand of martial arts slapstick in the only way he knows how: by turning the often straight-faced and always disciplined folk hero of Wong Fei-hung into a clownish trouble-maker. Essentially a succession of hard-hitting one-on-one combats connected by a flimsy storyline, this kung fu spectacle follows Chan’s young punk as he picks fights, eats without paying, and finally redeems himself by learning the legendary Drunken Fist from his sadistic teacher, Beggar Su (Yuen).
Dir Allen Fong (Shi Lei, Lee Yue-tin, Cheng Yu-or)
“You must eat this chicken leg and you must go to university.”
Fong was named best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards for each of his first three films. With this autobiographical debut feature – also a best picture winner at the Awards’ first edition – the New Wave helmer reinvented the 1950s sub-genre of Cantonese father-son melodrama with his neo-realist aesthetics. Despite its historical accuracy and working-class flavour, the affecting story of a stern father and his school-hating, cinema-loving son has touched viewers from all social backgrounds.
Dir Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai (Lau Ching-wan, Andy On, Lam Ka-tung)
“Apply emotions to investigate! Not logic!”
While To and Wai’s long-time collaboration had produced its fair shares of major hits (Fulltime Killer, Running on Karma), few could have anticipated the meticulous plotting of this psychodrama packaged as a crime thriller. Centring around a loony ex-inspector (Lau) who can see the ‘inner demons’ of others, this weirdly fascinating detective mystery merges Wai’s supernatural drift and fatalistic worldview with To’s film noir sensibilities and clinical shifts to ultra-violence. The Wellesian climax, mirroring The Lady from Shanghai, reveals the characters’ fractured personas to near perfection.
Dir Ann Hui (Loletta Lee, Tse Kwan Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Lee Kang-sheng)
“What is the real unbreakable wall? It is the revolutionary crowd.”
An essential and one-of-a-kind homage to the decades of social movement in Hong Kong, Hui’s sprawling political drama depicts the lives of various characters, including Tse’s social activist and Wong’s Maoist Catholic priest, all tied together by Loletta Lee’s evocatively designed role: a young woman who’s lost her memory following an ‘accident’. Highlights include a street play about the late political pioneer Ng Chung-yin, charismatically given by real-life ‘artivist’ Augustine Mok Chiu-yu.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 30-21
Dir Zhu Shilin (Fu Che, Hsia Moon, Kung Chiu-hsia, Bao Fong)
“For the sake of our son, we can only separate forever.”
Zhu’s clinical adaptation of Puxian opera classic After the Reunion is a love story so fatalistically tragic it could make Shakespeare envious. It begins with three celebratory occasions – a 20-year-old scholar’s (Fu) triumphant return from the imperial exams, his impending wedding to the beautiful daughter (Hsia) of an aristocrat, and his mother’s (Kung) newly-given honour as a chaste widow by the emperor – and ends with four suicides – brought about by a maze of feudalistic taboos and unfortunate decisions. An unforgettable 90-minute waltz into hopelessness.
Dir Lee Tit (Cheung Ying, Tsi Lo-lin, Ng Cho-fan)
“It’s just the way of the world. Everything is about money.”
A laid-off teacher (Cheung) buries his sympathy and takes on the thankless job as a rent collector in one of the storylines of this community drama: a panorama of tough luck, unemployment and raw humanity. Charting the misfortunes of nearly a dozen residents of a ramshackle partitioned tenement, this kitchen sink drama classic famously provides the motto (“All for one and one for all”) for its production company, Union Film. Bruce Lee appears briefly as the kid of an impoverished couple.
Dir Ann Hui (Deanie Ip, Andy Lau)
“You shouldn’t eat ox tongue, no.”
The most recent film on our list is a slice-of-life master-class that speaks to all generations. Described in our recent five-star review as being ‘gently humorous, intensely moving but never outwardly sentimental’, this graceful based-on-true-events drama observes the dignity of the final years in the life of Sister Tao (Ip, named best actress at Venice), now in the care of the middle-aged son (Lau) of a family for which she has been a housemaid most of her life.
Dir Cecile Tang Shu-shuen (Tsang Kei-luk, Poon Yu-man, Siu Siu-ling, Fung Bo-yin)
“I seemed to be struggling between two worlds.”
With its unflinching view of the Cultural Revolution and its equally bleak portrait of life in our materialistic city, Tang’s 1966-set drama about five Guangzhou residents attempting to flee to Hong Kong was banned by censors from release until 1987. One of the earliest films to deal with the clash of communist and capitalist ideals that would inevitably manifest itself with the 1997 handover, the moral degradation and spiritual disenchantment of its characters reveal the dehumanising effects felt by both sides of the border.
Dir Peter Chan (Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei)
“Anyone who harms our brothers… must be… killed!”
Before making his gloriously divisive tribute to Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman with last year’s Wu Xia, Chan had already unleashed a superior remake of another Chang classic, The Blood Brothers (1973). In place of David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chen Kuan-tai are here Li, Lau and Kaneshiro, all magnetically watchable actors. As soldiers and bandits unite in the name of loyalty against a war-ravaged China in the mid-19th century, Chan’s epic captivates with its heroic taste for blood… and tears.
* Did you know…
… there’s a good reason why Chan repeatedly casts Kaneshiro in his films? “He is the most good-looking man I’ve seen in my life,” he explains. “More importantly, he’s one of the rare examples [among actors] – and I don’t know what happened in his childhood – in that he always seems very fragile and insecure and deprived. He gets your sympathy.”
Dir Wong Kar-wai (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, Tony Leung Chiu-wai)
“At the closest point of our intimacy, we were just 0.001 cm from each other.”
Who could forget Faye Wong’s frisky fast-food joint waitress or Brigitte Lin’s Cassavetes-inspired smuggler in a blond wig? Jubilantly realised and populated by acutely lovelorn, if slightly unhinged, characters, the two loosely connected stories in this ad hoc project – shot quickly and cheaply amid the post-production limbo of Ashes of Time – delightfully tackles loneliness and chance encounters. Frenzied, quirky and irresistibly romantic, this hip little film channels the impish spirit of early Godard in Hong Kong’s urban setting.
Dir King Hu (Hsu Feng, Tung Lin, Sun Yue, Tien Feng)
“This roll of paper has been the origin of the temple’s troubles for many years.”
Under the long, long shadow cast by Hu’s other seminal classics sits this oft-neglected masterpiece, shot back-to-back with Legend of the Mountain on location in South Korea. Deliberately paced and meticulously edited (by the director himself, who also wrote the screenplay and supplied the art direction), Raining is a simple story masterfully told, concurrently observing the choosing of a new abbot and the attempted theft of a priceless scripture in a Ming dynasty Buddhist monastery.
Dir Ching Siu-tung (Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wu Ma)
“Sometimes, humans are more frightening than ghosts.”
“Dawn, please don’t come…” As Sally Yeh pleads soulfully to James Wong’s iconic tune on the soundtrack, the forbidden love between Cheung’s scholarly tax collector and Wang’s glamorous ghost meets its heartbreaking demise. Based on a Pu Songling short story that has also been adapted into Li Han-hsiang’s The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Wilson Yip’s eponymous 2011 film, this Tsui Hark-produced supernatural action fantasy spawned two hit sequels and remains a vital showcase of our cinema’s madcap inventiveness. It’s like a sensual Evil Dead romance!
Dir Mabel Cheung (Chow Yun-fat, Cherie Chung, Danny Chan)
“Welcome to Sampan. Table for two? Just a minute please.”
The favourite romance of many a Hongkonger, not least Mr Chow himself, this Alex Law-scripted drama is essentially a story of two lonely souls: a Hong Kong student (Chung) who moves to New York for her fickle boyfriend (Chan), and her older but no less puerile cousin (Chow), who settles her down before cheering her up with such sophisticated fares as, eh, going to Broadway musicals. Predictable it may be, but An Autumn’s Tale is as irresistibly heartfelt a film as it comes.
Dir Patrick Lung Kong (Patrick Tse Yin, Sek Kin, Wong Wai)
“This is not my fault. This is the society’s fault.”
Everyone wants a piece of our rehabilitating hero (Tse in a leather jacket), an expert safecracker who’s persistently recruited by both sides of the law after more than a decade in prison – but will his unforgiving mother and upright brother understand? While this humane precursor of 1980s hero films may be eternally outshined by its much noisier remake (A Better Tomorrow), Lung’s early-career tale of an ex-con trying to go straight is an unsung masterpiece in its own right.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 20-11
Dir Stanley Kwan (Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-fai)
“Ka-fai, you forgot to remove the bed sheet to look at Maggie.”
At once an acting showcase for a present-day film star (Maggie Cheung) and a moving tribute to 1930s Shanghai screen legend Ruan Lingyu, Center Stage elegantly weaves together original footage of Ruan’s films, Cheung’s partly fictionalised re-enactment of her private life, as well as real-life interviews among cast and crew members. A meta-fictional exercise that sheds light on stardom from every angle possible, the film also helped Cheung to a Berlin Silver Bear award for best actress.
A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora’s Box 西遊記第壹佰零壹回之月光寶盒/ A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella 西遊記大結局之仙履奇緣 (1995)
Dir Jeff Lau (Stephen Chow, Athena Chu, Ng Man-tat, Law Kar-ying)
“If I had to set an expiry date to my love, let it be 10,000 years.”
From the genius casting of the irreverent Chow as the Monkey King to the masterstroke of letting Buddhist monk Tang Xuanzang (played by Law, no less) burst into The Platters’ Only You, Lau’s wildly imaginative Journey to the West adaptation is deservedly recognised for its sublime wackiness. Yet beneath all the time-travelling and supernatural slapstick of this postmodern two-parter is a traditional love story so cheesy it’s actually romantic. Also featuring the now-customary Wong Kar-wai spoofs.
Dir Lee Sun-fung (Ng Cho-fan, Pak Yin, Wong Man-lei)
“After you leave this time, we’re never going to meet again.”
Ng and Pak had starred opposite each other a number of times but the 1950s screen couple – almost always typecast as vulnerable husband and independent yet devoted wife – were arguably at their heart-wrenching best in this excellent adaptation of a Ba Jin novel. Successively torn apart by his possessive live-in mother, her wish for a better future, the ongoing devastation of war and his steadily deteriorating physical condition, these star-crossed lovers are two for the ages.
Dir Fruit Chan (Sam Lee, Wenders Li, Neiky Yim)
“I’m thinking of doing something to shock the world.”
Made for chump change and shot on leftover film stock, Chan’s mischievously morbid effort tells the sad story of a triad member (Lee) who’s dropped out from school and abandoned by his family; even his friendship with a mentally disabled larkie (Li) and a terminally ill girl (Yim) seems to be cursed by the trio’s possession of a schoolgirl’s suicide notes. Every frame of this tale of wasted youth and irresponsible adults – possibly Hong Kong’s most acclaimed indie feature ever – screams of muffled anguish.
Dir Yim Ho (Josephine Koo, Siqin Gaowa, Xie Weixiong)
“I never thought people our age would just die.”
Taking respite from her chaotic life in Hong Kong, a businesswoman (Koo) returns to her ancestral home in southern China, where she’s been away for 20 years. There she reunites with her two childhood friends (Siqin and Xie), who are now leading a mundane married life in an agricultural community, and the three become consumed by complicated emotions arising from their widening moral and materialistic divide. Inspired by his father’s passing, Ho exquisitely turns his nostalgic longing for family roots into a lyrical meditation on the sentimental bonds which await across the border.
Dir Zhu Shilin (Zhou Xuan, Shu Shi, Rhoqing Tang)
“Let me tell you: there’s no reform as long as I’m alive.”
The greatest of Qing dynasty court dramas also happens to be the most historically important Hong Kong film ever made. First released during the civil war, Shanghai filmmaker Zhu Shilin’s mega-budget epic – about the vicious political wrangling between Empress Dowager Cixi (Tang), Emperor Guangxu (Shu) and his wife Pearl concubine (Zhou), all mesmerisingly portrayed – was cited by Mao Zedong as ‘a film of national betrayal’ in 1954, before being labelled ‘a traitor’s film’ by the Gang of Four in 1967, thereby kicking off the devastating Cultural Revolution.
Dir Andrew Lau, Alan Mak (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Eric Tsang)
“It’s three years after three years, three years after three years. It’s been almost 10 years, boss.”
If you really think about it, they should have put a spoiler warning on the promo posters of this exemplary undercover cop thriller: after all, what’s the point of asuspense noir when even your elderly neighbour – and her maid – knew that Tony Leung is going to put a gun to Andy Lau’s head at the movie’s climax? More ridiculous still: some guy called Marty did an obscure little remake and won a piece of bronze or two in Hollywood, where Hong Kong was spelled as ‘J-a-p-a-n’.
* Did you know…
… why The Departed was so hugely acclaimed? Many people were taken aback by that, but Felix Chong, who scripted Infernal Affairs, has a theory: “In Hollywood films, even if the policemen are sometimes behaving like bastards, they’re inevitably heroic at heart. What’s interesting in The Departed is the fact that everyone is a motherf**ker. If I were an American audience, I might find it quite… realistic, and possibly a very pleasant movie experience.”
Dir Lo Wei (Bruce Lee, Nora Miao)
“You keep this in mind: we Chinese are not sick men.”
After his master Huo Yuanjia is poisoned by the Japanese, gifted disciple Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) becomes a murderous avenger who can’t stop terrorising the Hongkou Dojo and any racist banner in his sight, including the notorious ‘Sick Man of East Asia’ and ‘No dogs and Chinese allowed’. Eventually, Lee will leap into the air and kick towards the colonial oppressors while being fired at with pistols, turning himself into a nationalistic martyr with the most iconic of final freeze-frames.
Dir Peter Chan (Leon Lai, Maggie Cheung, Eric Tsang)
“My aunt said, people will think you’re a Mainlander if they know you’re a fan of Teresa Teng.”
Destiny is calling Lai’s new immigrant from northern China, who forms a ‘friendship’ – with benefits – with Cheung’s Guangzhou comrade out of loneliness and a shared passion for the Mandarin pop legend Teresa Teng. The catch? He has a fiancée back home and she has her materialistic ambitions to fulfil. Definitely a love story and certainly one of our cinema’s very best, Chan’s nine-times Hong Kong Film Awards winner charts the decade-spanning near-romance with acute cultural awareness and a sublime touch of emotional delicacy.
Dir Wang Tianlin (Grace Chang, Chang Yang, Dolly Soo Fung)
Wong Jing’s half-serious assertion that his father Wang Tianlin ‘has a bit of Wong Kar-wai in him’ does look to have some weight based on this Cathay noir musical, a localised but no less stylish adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen. Grace Chang shines in the leading role as a sassy nightclub singer who, after taking up a dare to seduce the engaged pianist (Chang Yang), soon falls for the train wreck of a man. As the two’s emotional tangle sends them into a downward spiral, their film is right up there among Hong Kong’s greatest musicals.
The 100 best Hong Kong movies: 10-1
Dir Johnny Mak (Lam Wai, Wong Kin, Kong Lung)
“We’ll act in unison from now on. All for one, right?”
A marvellous pre-cursor to the explosive crime thrillers of John Woo and Ringo Lam, Johnny Mak’s directorial debut follows several Red Guards-turned-armed robbers through the sharp end of these Mainlanders’ dreams of making a fortune in the more ‘modernised’ Hong Kong. Led by a highly sought-after criminal intending to pull off a heist at a Tsim Sha Tsui jewellery store, the infamously violent Big Circle gang – while finding their loyalty increasingly split by the allures of the city – soon become the hottest target of the police force after being tricked by a small-time triad boss and sometime informant into murdering a corrupt cop. With memorable set-pieces ranging from a helicopter ambush – which may have inspired the mob boss sequence in Godfather III (1990) – to a gunpoint standoff that undeniably anticipated some of Woo’s most famous scenes, Long Arm of the Law tops it off with a climatic shootout inside the claustrophobic Kowloon Walled City that even today remains a milestone of our action cinema.
Dir Johnnie To (Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Lam Ka-tung)
“I can also make you a deal. I can also be a patriot.”
Fans of Hong Kong gangster flicks breathed a collective sigh of relief when Johnnie To ended the genre’s post-Young and Dangerous impasse with his majestic two-part epic. Taking off from Election’s (2005) near-anthropological interest in the triad society’s origins, the veteran action auteur merges wit and gore in a disturbingly resonant political satire – very astutely disguised as a stylistically subdued dramatisation of the power struggles surrounding the biannual voting process at the top of ‘Hong Kong’s oldest triad’. A slow-burning crime caper spiced with occasional bursts of sadistic brutality (most memorably, a character is literally ground up and fed to the dogs), Election 2 is further enhanced by its political subtext: the candidates here, elegantly played by Koo and Yam, are not only trapped by their own lust of power or wealth, but also the mainland Chinese government’s omniscient influence on their handover of power. At its most ingeniously cynical, the film has made a mockery of our simplistic capitalist ideals and democratic aspirations in the very same stroke.
Dir Michael Hui (Michael Hui, Sam Hui, Ricky Hui)
“Eating too much will cause hemorrhoids, don’t you know? Name one person with hemorrhoids who doesn’t eat.”
As their popularity snowballed from the early days of television broadcast, the iconic Hui Brothers team left behind a trail of vernacular comedy movies that struck a resounding chord with working class audiences. Easily one of the best from writer-director Michael, The Private Eyes immediately impresses with its wordless opening credit sequence showing only the characters’ feet – in which a private detective tails his subject in a pair of miserably broken shoes, only to have one of his soles accidentally ripped off before stepping on a beggar’s bowl and a cigarette stub with his exposed foot. A cheeky, stingy boss who’s all too ready to exploit his employees, Michael’s small-time private eye is nonetheless faithfully aided by a honest, kung fu-fighting apprentice (Sam) and a stupid, stammering assistant (Ricky) who will literally test a bomb for him. Together with the funky soundtrack by Sam and his band, The Lotus, the movie also tapped into our collective consciousness with a range of riotous gags, from aerobics for chicken to a Sammo Hung-choreographed, Bruce Lee-inspired fight scene with flour and sausages.
Dir Cecile Tang Shu-shuen (Lisa Lu, Roy Chiao, Hilda Chou Hsuan)
“We can’t take the plums home.”
The legendary first feature by Cecile Tang – one of the extremely few woman filmmakers then working in Hong Kong – is a curious anomaly in many ways. One of the most significant arthouse classics in our film history despite its limited distribution, The Arch was photographed by the great Subrata Mitra (regular cinematographer for Satyajit Ray) in crisp black and white – amid a wave of lavishly coloured period dramas at the time – and edited by Les Blank and CC See with a Nouvelle Vague edge that intricately utilises freeze frames, quick zooms and fleeting flashbacks to visualise its protagonist’s fragmenting psyche. Lu plays Madam Tung, a dignified middle-aged widow soon to be honoured by the emperor for her chastity. She is, however, tormented by her suppressed desire for a cavalry captain (Chiao) temporarily billeted in her aristocratic residence; and when the captain turns his attention to her flirtatious young daughter (Chou), our heroine’s misery is completed. It is, in other words, as if Alain Resnais met Henrik Ibsen in 17th century China.
Dir Ang Lee (Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen)
“The jianghu underworld is filled with crouching tigers and hidden dragons, but so are human feelings.”
After spinning our heads for decades with its delirious showdowns and romantised notion of chivalry, the wuxia genre finally conquered the world with – of all stories – a poignant romance about two pairs of would-be lovers perpetually repressing their feelings. Looking to hang up his sword and settle down with his longtime muse (Michelle Yeoh), a mighty swordsman (Chow Yun-fat) is sucked into another one-last-job scenario as an aristocrat’s daughter (Zhang Ziyi) recklessly juggles the thrills of the martial arts world, her secret affection for a bandit (Chang Chen), and the wish of her family to set her up for an arranged marriage. Described pertinently by Ang Lee as ‘Sense and Sensibility with martial arts’, this visually stunning, gravity-defying masterpiece won four Oscars (including best foreign language film) and ushered in a new era of traditional Chinese movies made with a global audience in mind, most aptly exemplified by Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2003).
Dir Li Han-hsiang (Betty Loh Ti, Ivy Ling Po)
“If I were a girl, would you want to marry me?”
The Chinese folk legend of the Butterfly Lovers may have been adapted countless times but this sumptuous rendition – with its catchy tunes, poetic lyrics and eye-searing colour scheme – is hard to be surpassed either artistically or historically. Essentially doubling the fun of gender masquerade in the original story, The Love Eterne casts the Amoy opera actress Ling Po in the male shusheng role of Liang Shan-bo, a young scholar who chances upon Zhu Ying-tai (Loh), an aristocratic daughter who attends a male-only school disguised as a boy. The two immediately become ‘sworn brothers’ and subsequently spend three years together as classmates. However, after Zhu reveals her true identity, these BFFs’ decision to get married is tragically halted by her father’s plan to marry her off to a rich family, and the innocuous flirting gives way to a tear-jerking climax in the movie’s third act. A timeless work of art from a short-lived genre, this definitive huangmei diao film was a box office sensation and a cultural phenomenon across Southeast Asia (and especially in Taiwan), with Ling receiving a special award for outstanding performance at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards – because the judges couldn’t decide whether to name her best actor or actress!
Dir Wong Kar-wai (Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai)
“I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn't gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.”
The movie with which Wong Kar-wai became an auteur, Leslie Cheung became James Dean reincarnated and many of the unsuspecting mainstream audiences became bored out of their minds, Days of Being Wild is, above all, a hymn to rebellion: an intention noticeable from both Wong’s deliberate ditching of the conventional genre formula, as well as the fact that his film shares its Chinese title with Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – apparently with a cause. Set in a 1960s Hong Kong which had never quite looked this gorgeous before, Wong’s nostalgic reverie wrapped its unacknowledged – but totally unmistakable – political allegories in entrancing lights and shadows, presented for the first time here by the inimitable trio of Wong, production designer William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. For critics, playboy Yuddy’s determination to leave his foster mother to look for his unknown birth mother has been regularly compared to Hong Kong’s then-impending Handover, while the character’s comparison of himself to a fabled kind of ‘bird without legs’ – and thus could only land when it died – also mirrored the sense of rootlessness keenly felt by the population.
Dir John Woo (Chow Yun-fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung)
“I’m not showing them I’m the best. I just want to tell them I can take back what I’ve lost.”
To understand how this particular John Woo-Chow Yun-fat collaboration – instead of their more stylistically accomplished The Killer or Hard Boiled – captured the imaginations of a generation is perhaps to chart the history of cinephilia in Hong Kong. With a Chinese title that translates as ‘the true nature of heroes’, Wu’s seminal heroic bloodshed movie has indeed combined the best of several (movie) worlds: as a relatively faithful remake of Patrick Lung Kong’s The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967), it is further spiced up by the principle of brotherhood and the honourable code of yi stemming from martial arts epics of yesteryears – especially those by his mentor Chang Cheh, for whom Woo had previously served as assistant director. While deliciously pitting Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung’s brother characters against each other as mortal enemies on opposite sides of the law, the action classic is also exponentially enhanced by Chow’s charismatic portrayal of Mark, the trench-coated partner-in-crime who’s left a burnt mark on our public consciousness: who could forget the sight of him lighting a cigarette with a burning banknote? His cockiness is exceeded only by his loyalty and heroism; in our approving minds, Mark is us.* Did you know…
… how Woo first came up with the now-customary tradition of double-pistol shooting in the action movie genre? The director explains: “When I was preparing for a scene in A Better Tomorrow, where Chow Yun-fat has to take on a large group of people, I asked Chow to use two pistols at the same time to produce the musical rhythm of drum beats and the damages of a machine gun.
Dir Ann Hui (George Lam, Season Ma, Andy Lau, Cora Miao)
“Why don’t you photograph the sea and the clouds? People are so ugly.”
Boat People is unquestionably one of the most important films in Hong Kong cinema, and yet it’s only with increasing distance that we begin to appreciate how infinitely evocative – as all great art is – this political thriller has managed to be. Centring around a Japanese photojournalist (Lam) who revisits the post-Liberation Vietnam in 1987 to document its rebirth, Hui’s film captivatingly reveals the horrors facing the people living in the port of Danang, who are sometimes sent to forced labour camps that are misguidedly labelled as ‘new economic zones’. Intriguingly, the film has for many years been seen as a foretelling of our own city’s destiny after 1997 – an interpretation not the least weakened by the Chinese authorities’ view of it as an ‘anti-communist’ work. The director herself has always denied, up to this day, the symbolic values of her work, and, watching it now in the cold light of day, it’s indeed not too farfetched for one to believe her film was simply a based-on-real-event drama intending to reveal the plight of the Vietnamese refugees, who were causing quite a stir in Hong Kong. Irrespective of the political readings it attracted, Boat People remains first and foremost a masterful drama about the survival of people, who may be possessing even less control on their lives than they thought. Its tragic sense of fatalism is haunting.
* Did you know…
… that Boat People was originally selected in competition at Cannes Film Festival? “At some point, we were asked to negotiate with the [authorities] in Paris, and were told that we couldn’t be included in the [main] competition anymore,” Hui recalls. “We were still given the status of ‘official selection’, [but were instead] presented there as the ‘film surprise’. And they told me that the preceding ‘film surprise’, which was also prevented by the government [from competing], was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. At that point, I was so smitten I just said yes.”
Dir Wong Kar-wai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung)
“I believed we wouldn’t be like them. I was wrong.”
“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
And so our greatest Hong Kong film concludes with a quotation from writer Liu Yi-Chang’s stream-of-consciousness novella, Intersection, which loosely inspired Wong Kar-wai into capturing the tentative affair between two would-be lovers who cross paths briefly before parting forever.
The same destiny, ironically, could be said to apply to the diverging receptions of this rapturous film itself: just as it had stormed the global arthouse market and propelled its director into the league of the world’s greatest living auteurs, the multiple-award-winning drama looks set to be perpetually overshadowed by its canonised prequel, Days of Being Wild, in its home city – thanks partly to the 1990 film’s matchless feat in gathering six major stars for one elaborate narrative experiment. For any self-respecting Hong Kong critic who has witnessed the phenomenon first hand, it must feel a little sacrilegious not to love the Leslie Cheung-fronted heartbreaker.
Unlike Days of Being Wild – or in fact, 2046, which again charts the crisscrossing relationships among an ensemble cast and neatly rounded up Wong’s unofficial 1960s trilogy – In the Mood for Love is essentially a romantic two-hander which characteristically shuns the overt emotional wrestling of its two bookending films. The result is a film so simple in its premise – and so chaste and subtle in its expression – that the slightest turns of heads are bound to give an ecstatically poignant impression.
The year is 1962, and as next-door neighbours living in a crowded apartment complex, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung in a cheongsam showcase) gradually discover their spouses are having a clandestine affair. Alternately finding solace by spending time with each other, and masochistically toying with the other’s emotions by rehearsing imaginary breakups, the two soon consummate their mutual longing by role-playing as their cheating partners.
Drenched in sumptuous colours and a hypnotic soundtrack that swings from Nat King Cole to Latin melody, the film is ably fashioned by William Chang and unfailingly photographed by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin, two of the very best cinematographers in world cinema. Beneath the entrancing visual palette is a repressed romance which finds its apt denouement among the Angkor Wat ruins – a sublime touch of storytelling that renders In the Mood for Love as close to perfection as a Hong Kong film has ever attempted to be.
Mr Chow and Mrs Chan are in the mood for love but little more than that. All they can share are furtive glances, weightless words and a concrete reassurance that history forgets.