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.