Friday, October 04, 2013

Part II - Fifty Essential Hong Kong Films to View

Millionaire's Express, 1986, Director: Sammo Hung

Sammo Hung was easily one of the most influential people in Hong Kong films during the 1980’s specializing primarily in kung fu action films. But he also broke ground in the supernatural with films like Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Mr. Vampire. Besides his collaborations with Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, he also made some other films that are wonderful collaborative ensemble efforts. Sammo never minded sharing the spotlight. In 1983 he created one of the first great modern action comedies titled Winners and Sinners that had a number of sequels known as the Lucky Star films. But for action fans it was two films that he made, this one in 1986 and Eastern Condors in 1987, which set a new high for action films that had large casts of many of the best martial artists of the time and had nearly non-stop action and stunts. I could have picked either one of these films for the list, Eastern Condors is ferocious, a Hong Kong Dirty Dozen, while Millionaires Express is lighter hearted but with some of the best choreography and stunts that you will see and which allows so many different action stars to shine for a few wonderful minutes. Both are simply extravaganzas of action that will floor you.

Peking Opera Blues, 1986, Director: Tsui Hark

Rumor has it that Tsui Hark wanted A Better Tomorrow to star females rather than the masculine testosterone of Chow Yun Fat and the other male co-stars. This is borne out to some degree when Tsui helmed A Better Tomorrow III and had it star Anita Mui as the woman who teaches Chow Yun Fat how to handle a gun. But though Peking Opera Blues is far from a Heroic Bloodshed film, Tsui did use this idea by having three females band together to fight a cruel warlord in the early 20th century. More importantly, he had three female stars (Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh and Cherie Chung) band together to make what many people consider the greatest Hong Kong film of all time. I would be one of those.  It’s difficult though to explain why this is the case. It is not a particularly sophisticated film. It is not really a deep or thought provoking film. It is just a complete and utter perfect film, a thrill ride, a dozen episodes of an old fashioned serial condensed to ninety-minutes of adrenaline. Tsui throws everything at us from escapades across roof tops, Chinese Opera shenanigans, bedroom farce and gruesome torture but above all it is about friendship found and kept.  This film flies and floats across the screen with complete abandon and with utter confidence that it will not fall. And if it did one of the three women would be there to catch it. After seeing this film you basically just want to hug yourself and your neighbors in delight and joy.


A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987, Director:  Ching Siu-tung

The non-stop mind of Tsui Hark triumphs again as he takes one more genre and makes it his own. This film produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung is a masterful and magical ode to romantic love; a movie full of visual poetry, stunning imagery and wondrous story telling. It is a movie that was often imitated but never emulated afterwards in Hong Kong and though some had more spectacular special effects, none had as much heart as this film. The film rushes by in dream like hypnotic fashion – and when it ends one can only wonder how so much was fit into a ninety-minute film. In many ways, this film personifies the very best in Hong Kong film. It is a film that will touch all your senses – it is a masterpiece.  Leslie Cheung as the initially timid tax collector found one of his greatest roles and poor Joey Wong as the beautiful ghost found herself stuck in ghost roles for years. But she was never more beautiful than here and Leslie was never more heroic as he goes into Hell to save the woman he loves.


The Killer, 1989, Director: John Woo

John Woo had found his soul with the Heroic Bloodshed genre and he was to make three of them that are considered by many to be great films with each one in succession ratcheting up the mayhem and body count. But The Killer is probably the best example of this genre that captured not only the imagination of the Hong Kong audience but had enormous appeal to Western fans as well. It is a love story set among the hail of a thousand bullets. It is a story infused with romanticism, mythology, loyalty, honor, death and redemption. As equally sentimental as it is over the top violent, it is full of visceral moments and of images that will roll around your head forever. Somehow John Woo has constructed a film that captures a lost and changing world. A time where men are adrift in a world where honor is no longer a currency that holds any value. Woo explores all these themes in a basic almost cliché ridden story line, but it is so multi-layered and filled with passion that what might feel clichéd elsewhere is perfect here. Chow Yun Fat, in his most mythic role, portrays a professional hitman who still plays by the rules. In completing a contract he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer portrayed by Sally Yeh. His enormous feeling of guilt soon leads to love, but of course she has no idea that he is the person who blinded her. Chow takes one last job to pay for an operation to restore her eyesight, but he is betrayed by the triad head. This leads to finale of gun play, sacrifice and death unlike anything that had been filmed before.


God of Gamblers, 1989, Director: Wong Jing

Another director/producer was beginning to make waves by 1989 and though he is derided by many Hong Kong cinema would not have been the same without Wong Jing. He was to some degree the antithesis of Tsui Hark who created original and beautiful films and often broke new ground doing it. Wong Jing made crass, silly, slick, derivative, over the top commercial pulp films that aimed only to entertain the masses and he often succeeded. He had already directed nearly 20 films by the time he hit upon his perfect formula with God of Gamblers in 1989. It didn’t hurt that he brought on Chow Yun-fat as his leading man. By this time people were calling Chow the God of Actors after The Killer. Wong Jing throws everything into this story of a great gambler who loses his memory and reverts back to behaving like a child. Hong Kong audiences ate it up and it generated a plethora of gambling films that became a genre of its own for years. Needless to say the gambling in this film is closer to kung fu than it is to the Cincinnati Kid. Fast and magical.


Days of Being Wild, 1990, Director: Wong Kar-wai

After the box office success of Wong Kar-wai’s first film As Tears Go By investors lined up to fund his next film. As Tears Go By had been a fairly conventional romantically dramatic piece that told a powerful, personal story and it starred three of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung. All three actors were to also appear in his next film Days of Being Wild along with Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau and the legendary singer Rebecca Pan.  It was to be another romantic tale of criss-crossing fates set in the early 1960’s. What could go wrong? Everything apparently, from the investor’s point of view. Within days of being released you could hear its death rattle all over the city. Audiences had no idea what to make of it. It felt foreign to them, more French perhaps than Hong Kong. As much a slow moving mood piece as a narrative with a chronology that was hard to keep straight and a leading character who is selfish, thoughtless and cruel to the women in his life. And what the hell was anyone to make of the ending coda in which Tony Leung Chiu-wai suddenly appears for the first time for no good reason. Audiences stayed away in droves and critics demolished it with a sneer. Yet over time it has gained quite a fan base, not only because it is a Wong Kar-wai film but because it is an astonishing film and so unlike anything that had been made in Hong Kong previously. The film is almost a continuous roundelay of intimate scenes played out between two of the six characters. Whenever a third party breaks in it feels like an intrusion, as if they don’t belong but these occasions are very rare. Wong Kar-wai utilizes a number of intriguing devices to emphasize the intimacy of this film. Most of the scenes are photographed in murky tight interiors or in the dusk of the evening and the colors are usually very muted. Many of the individual shots are almost still life paintings – beautifully framed and the movement is imperceptible. The two characters often totally fill the screen and are in close proximity to one another and this creates a very claustrophobic and intimate feeling much of the time. Wong uses sound for the same purpose. Listen carefully to the background sounds and what do you hear? Usually nothing. An absolute almost eerie silence – as if there is no other world beyond the walls of intimacy that Wong has built around his characters. On occasion he fills the background with a ticking clock, raindrops falling, the tide turning – all marking time passing – and opportunities lost. With its Latin big band music and the sinewy dancing, it is seductive and lost. Like nearly all of Wong’s films Days of Being Wild bears repeated viewings as the film slowly reveals the cinematic treasures that lay hidden in the dark.

Once Upon a Time in China, 1991, Director: Tsui Hark

For all of the films Tsui Hark had directed by this time he had never really made a martial arts film. There were lots of wuxia films, some comedies, some dramas, some supernatural tales but not a traditional martial arts film, but he takes on that duty here and once again he struck gold and changed the course of Hong Kong film. The character of Wong Fei-hung had generated a much beloved series of films that had lasted for decades and was portrayed by the great Kwan Tak-hing. Yet Tsui decided to update the legend, but to do so he needed someone truly special to portray the mythical figure and Tsui got him in the form of Jet Li. Jet Li had been a wushu champion in China before he turned to the screen in a few astonishing but not well publicized Mainland films. Then he jumped from the Mainland to make a few other movies, none of which were particularly good (The Master, Born to Defense, Dragon Fight), but Tsui Hark who had actually directed Jet Li in the low budget The Master knew a star when he saw one and so when he got the backing to make a big budget martial arts film he turned to Jet Li to star in it. What a good decision that was. OUATIC is an epic film with not only astonishing martial arts but surrounded by a great story of an honorable humble man doing good and kicking ass when needed. A truly magnificent powerful film.


Sex and Zen, 1991, Director: Michael Mak

In 1988 Hong Kong instituted a rating system for films. Before this they had just had guidelines that filmmakers were expected to follow. As mentioned earlier beginning in the 1970’s nudity and erotica began to creep into films (termed fengyue) with the Shaw Brothers in particular happily jumping into this pool and making actresses like Yum Yum Shaw, Chen Ping, Tina Chin Fei, Shirley Yu and Ai Ti into well-known names.  Most of these films were in truth quite dull and by the 1980’s I get the impression that nudity in Hong Kong films was in general decline.  But it wasn’t these types of films that fully led to the ratings system but instead it was largely the extreme violence that came with the success of A Better Tomorrow. One of the ratings was Category III (Cat III) which stated “No one younger than 18 years of age are permitted to rent, purchase, or watch this film in a movie theatre”.  This perhaps had an opposite effect from what was expected because it led to a huge number of Cat III films being made over the next decade; both ones that were full of sex and nudity but also ones that took graphic violence well beyond A Better Tomorrow.  Perhaps the most famous erotic Cat III film is Sex and Zen. Set in the Ming Dynasty, it is a perverse insanely bizarre film of penis mutilation, a horse penis transplant, lesbianism, torture, huge dollops of nudity and simulated sex and of course Amy Yip. Amy Yip with the prodigious bosom and innocent pooky face became a national icon with this film and her Yiptease which shows a lot but never quite reveals everything was the talk of the town.

Hard Boiled, 1992, Director: John Woo

It may seem much to fanboyish of me to include three Heroic Bloodshed films from John Woo, but it is nearly impossible to leave these films off of this list because all three in their own ways are three of the best action films ever made in Hong Kong. A Better Tomorrow got this sub- genre started, The Killer made it a sublime art form and Hard Boiled took mayhem and bullet ballet to a crazy level. Hard Boiled with Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-wai avoids the romanticism and sentimentality of the first two films and just gives the audience a cornucopia of intense action shoot outs.  But Woo still heavily indulges in his typical male bonding with the testosterone so thick you can smell it from across the room and at the end of the film you sort of suspect that Chow Yun-fat would like to be on that sailboat too. Unlike ABT and The Killer Chow Yun Fat does not play a stoic honorable criminal, but instead he plays a relentless cop after a mad dog killer and his gang and Tony Leung is a sensitive undercover cop on the edge. The final action set-piece that goes on forever it seems is legendary and takes place in a hospital among crying babies, crippled patients and a fusillade of flying bullets. It is action nirvana.

Heroic Trio, 1992, Director: Johnnie To

I won’t pretend that Heroic Trio is an important film or even a great film. What it is though is great stylish fun that is like snorting champagne bubbles for 90-minutes.  Set in a futuristic dystopian time an all-powerful eunuch has plans to become the Emperor of China from his underground lair beneath the city of Hong Kong. The only thing between him and his mad dreams are three super heroines who reluctantly join together to battle evil and various forms of demons. Starring Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh as the heroic trio who have enough charisma between them to explode a nova star. The film has a comic book texture and flair to it but done with so much imagination and heart that it would win over Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. This was directed by Johnnie To who was of course to become much more famous later on for a very different kind of film.

Naked Killer, 1992, Director: Clarence Ford

Wong Jing as the producer and writer of this film brought together all of the elements of film that he so cherished into his most perfect gooey confection of sex and violence. He handed the directing reins over to Clarence Ford which turned out to be a brilliant choice. In a few of his previous films – Iceman Cometh, Dragon from Russia, The Greatest Lover – Ford had shown that he had a great eye for design, beauty and movement and he utilized that skill here to make a glorious piece of eye-candy that bombards the viewer with a cascade of delirious images. It is wonderfully trashy, high camp, outrageously seductive, in sublimely bad taste – but it pulses with so much energy, style and pizzazz that it is impossible to turn your head away. Wong Jing and Ford create a wildly colored canvass of garish colors, beautiful people, jazzed up fashions and gaudy death. Lesbian killers, detached organs, demented rapists, poisoned lipstick, impotency and kinky sex is mixed together by Wong to create a glossy Technicolor wet dream. The movie centers on a group of professional female killers that take particular pleasure in killing and emasculating abusive men. They just don’t kill though, they do it with style and aplomb – it’s an art form to these women – you just don’t kill, you have to look good doing it.


Swordsman II, 1992, Director: Ching Siu-tung

Ching Siu-tung and producer Tsui Hark combined once again after A Chinese Ghost Story to make one of the most eye-popping crazed wuxia films ever put on celluloid. Swordsman II is the second in a trilogy that can be seen separately but are most satisfying as a whole. The first film Swordsman was directed by Tsui Hark after he took over from King Hu and it is a much more classically beautiful wuxia with Sam Hui playing the role of Ling Wu Chung. In the second and third film (the third being The East is Red), Tsui Hark drops all pretense of making a traditional wuxia and goes all out to fill the screen with images that will singe your retinas. It is free flowing wire enhanced action on amphetamines in which no one walks when they can fly or jump.  Jet Li is terrific as always but the film is stolen by the charismatic and stunning Brigitte Lin who plays the sexually gender mutating Asia the Invincible.  This is such an absolute kick to watch; incredibly imaginative, full of energy, colors, startling images and swirling action. It will make your head spin from the beginning to the very end. Take a day off from the real world, sit back, buckle up and watch this trilogy run over you.


Green Snake, 1993, Director: Tsui Hark

Welcome once again into the dreamy narcotic world of Tsui Hark. He once again takes a traditional story and puts it on rocket boosters to take us to another universe.  Glorious and sumptuous with deep ingrained colors that are hypnotic; Tsui tells this traditional tale of good and evil and of free-will versus pious fundamentalist zealotry.  Often told in film and in theater, it is the story of two snakes who take on human female form to live a life of indolence and sexual desire only to be hunted down by a monk who finds them an abomination.  That these snakes had the exquisite taste and good sense to take on the forms of Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong can only be in their favor. Neither actress has ever looked more beautiful and magical. Perhaps not Tsui’s most coherent or fast moving films; it is still a magical mystery tour worth taking.

Chungking Express, 1994, Director: Wong Kar-wai

The story of how this film came into being has been told many times but it is worth repeating because very likely the genesis of the film is what created the wonder that it is. Wong Kar-wai was in the middle of directing Ashes of Time out in the desert and in what was to become his trademark, it was taking forever. The actors were getting frustrated and needed a break as did Wong. So he took two of his actors and picked up a few more in Hong Kong, popular singer Faye Wong being one, and made a movie in a couple of weeks. Much of it appears to be film making on the run - ad hoc and improvisational - yet it all weaves together. Somehow he created magic and captured lightening in a jar. This is just a charming montage of a film that delights at every turn and which you will want to watch numerously like you would listen to your favorite record. It is a film about relationships in modern day Hong Kong or perhaps the lack of relationships. Everything is connected and yet at the same time disconnected. Everyone is out of synch and out of time with the people around them. Wong’s film technique to show this is brilliant as from time to time his characters are nearly motionless as the world zips by them at blinding speed. Yet this is a joyful film - a gentle comedy full of intriguing characters, very funny moments, fascinating editing, eccentric dialogue, terrific songs, charismatic actors and an enigmatic yet hopeful ending that will burrow into your heart and happy glands. As will Faye Wong.


Ashes of Time, 1994, Director: Wong Kar-wai

When Ang Lee, the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was asked why he had made a wuxia film after having already been so successful making dramas, he said that every Chinese director wanted to make a martial arts film. That it was a part of their heritage and firmly rooted in their DNA.  This apparently was also the case with Wong Kar-wai who went from two small dramas (As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild) to undertaking an extremely ambitious film that took over two years to film and was shot in the infernal heat of the desert. What is also amazing is that for a still fairly new director, he was able to recruit the very cream of the crop of Hong Kong actors (Brigitte Lin, the two Tony Leungs, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Charlie Yeung, Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau) and they all stuck with him for this film. Only Joey Wong who initially had the Charlie Yeung role had to drop out. These actors knew that they were working with a genius and working on a great film and wanted to be part of it. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made. Every frame seems to have been painstakingly thought out with a painter’s perspective. The stand-alone images from this film are unforgettable. The colors, textures, rich hues, use of light and shadow and striking portraits are almost overwhelming; like a wave washing over you. But what a difficult film it is to get your arms and mind around. Wong Kar-Wai has created a film that is structured in such an elliptical perplexing way that it needs more than one viewing to understand the plot and the characters. The first time I watched this film I nearly shut it off after twenty minutes because I felt so confused with what was happening on the screen as the jumps in time and characters is maddening to try and follow. Then slowly it pulled me in and I found it fascinating and powerful. The tone of sadness and dislocation that permeate the film seeps into your bones like an autumn chill. In some ways the film could be accused of catching a case of self-importance in its heavy philosophical tone, use of inner narrative and the near fetish for beauty, but it creates such a multi-textured tapestry of images and music that I don’t care. This being a wuxia film needless to say there was also some action and the choreography from Sammo Hung is brilliant but the way in which Wong edits it is even more stunning and fascinating. The film did not do well at the box office for all the above reasons and has led to years of critical obtuseness, so in 2008 Wong Kar-wai re-edited the film and rescored it to make it easier to follow in Ashes of Time Redux.  


Drunken Master II, 1994, Director: Lau Kar-leung

Sometimes you have to include a film on a list like this just because it’s so damn good. Drunken Master II is that good and better. Jackie Chan had been in a bit of a slump after his many great films in the 1980’s. Films like Armour of God II, Crime Story, Police Story III were certainly solid films and even a silly confection like City Hunter was enjoyable to some extent, but none of them are classics. So he brought on veteran director Lau Kar-leung to add some oomph to the film and did he ever. I don’t have any of Lau’s films on this list and that may be an oversight because there are very few directors or action choreographers that were more influential than he was in the action genre. Beginning way back as a choreographer in the 1950’s he gained a reputation as a kung fu choreographer who liked his action real. He was the action choreographer of loads of low budget Cantonese films of the 1960’s before he moved over to the Shaw Brothers in the 1970’s and directed some classic films such as Spiritual Boxer, Executioners from Shaolin, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and My Young Auntie. He pushed Jackie to make his best and most traditional martial arts film in years. It is a spectacular display of kung fu with large amounts of humor tossed in like a leafy salad. But the pièce de résistance and the basis for much of the film’s reputation is the final confrontation between Chan and Ken Lo and other thugs. It will leave you as bruised as it does the participants. It may be one of the best kung fu fights ever on film.


Fist of Legend, 1994, Director: Gordon Chan

Co-incidentally, much of what I said about Drunken Master II could be repeated here except instead of using the legendary Lau Kar-leung, Fist of Legend utilizes the legendary Yuen Wo-ping who was the mastermind behind so many action films that you could put yourself to sleep at night counting them.  Fist of Legend with Jet Li is a loose remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, and though I don’t want to receive the anger of Bruce fans Fist of Legend is a better film. Admittedly, the much bigger budget, the advancement in film technology and the more sophisticated script were prime reasons for this. The fight choreography truly is awesome – incredibly clean, pure, powerful, quick and as graceful as any ballet. It is almost dance like in its incredibly precise movements and has an amazing rhythm to it. The wire work is kept to a minimum and the fighting style is more in keeping with the traditional kung-fu films – but so much faster, so much more exciting and edited to perfection. Though this film's great reputation rests to a large degree on its action, it has a number of other interesting cultural and personal cross-currents that make it an even richer and more rewarding film. Compared to the Bruce Lee film, Fist of Legend approaches the story in a much less simplistic manner and has a number of other characters and plot threads that create a fuller portrayal of this period in Chinese history. Jet Li has rarely been better and his acting more proud, honorable and quietly charismatic.


He's a Woman, She's a Man, 1994, Director: Peter Chan

In 1992 a new film company came to town and for a few years they were to make some of the best films in Hong Kong, but amazingly their focus was not martial arts or the supernatural or even crime stories, they were simple human comedies or dramas that very much were meant to appeal to the urban middle and upper class. UFO (United Film Organization) had made a few films by 1994 but it was this film that really put them on the map. It is a sublime and touching romantic comedy with Leslie Cheung, Anita Yuen and Carina Lau. The film struck me as the sort of thing Lubitsch would have made if he were alive in Hong Kong today. It is a gender blending comedy with Anita’s character disguising herself as a man so that she could get close to her singing idol Leslie, who then finds himself falling in love with Anita but feeling so confused because he thinks that she is a he. When Leslie states in total confusion and abjection that “whether you are a boy or a girl, I just know that I love you” is one of great romantic moments in film. The fact that Leslie was known to be gay in real life only added some inside spice to this terrific film.

Red to Kill, 1994, Director: Billy Tang

The Cat III rating not only brought on an onslaught of nudity and erotic films to the market, it also appeared to be the springboard for a number of extreme scurrilous graphic films that sliced deep into the bowels of your soul and found nothing there but black hate.  These films were usually about misogynistic psychopaths (and sometimes based on true cases) looking for perverse sex and death. Some of the sleaziest and more horrifying were Daughter of Darkness, Dr. Lamb, Love to Kill, The Untold Story and Run and Kill, but perhaps Red to Kill was the nastiest and sickest of them all as it sets a serial killer in the midst of a group of the mentally challenged with the childlike Lily Chung as his prime obsession. But taking all this into account and realizing that it is far from the taste of most people, one has to admit that Billy Tang has made a powerful and painful film that will keep you on tenterhooks. Sharp ones.

The Chinese Feast, 1995, Director: Tsui Hark

On the surface, this film may seem a bit clichéd but in the hands of Tsui Hark it is a whirlwind comedic romp of cooking, slapstick, eccentric characters and a quirky storyline. A restaurant has to enter a cooking contest to stay open and is forced to find a broken down drunk who once was a great chef.  The cooking contest scenes are as exciting and brilliantly choreographed as a Yuen Wo-ping kung fu matchup and the ending has an almost Rockyesque feeling to it that will get you out of your chair to cheer. Starring that great couple Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen, they and the film is as charming and light as a lemon soufflé.  If you like Chinese food or cooking or comedy or all three this is a film that cannot be missed.

Big Bullet, 1996, Director: Benny Chan

By 1996 the Heroic Bloodshed film had run out of gas and bullets and audiences were ready for crime stories that felt closer to reality and had characters that were more complex and conflicted. This film seemed to partly spark the terrific series of contemporary realistic and tense crime thrillers that were to follow in the next few years (Full Alert, Task Force, Beast Cops, The Suspect and the Milkyway films). These films had a tough gritty edge to them and contained some of the very best acting around. Of course, Lau Ching-wan is most often associated with these films - and to some degree it began with Big Bullet. Before this Lau had primarily been cast in dramas or romantic comedies, but this film showed that he had the charisma and acting chops to take charge and make his strong relentless characters very believable. This is an exciting, well-directed, finely acted and absolutely terrific film that takes you into the lives of a group of cops in the Serious Crime Unit.

Ebola Syndrome, 1996, Director: Herman Yau

Taking tastelessness to new limits in which pretty much anything goes is the grungy despicable Ebola Syndrome. Most surprisingly perhaps to some viewers who know of him mainly for his films of the past decade is that this film is directed by Herman Yau. Yau has an amazingly diverse and prolific filmography from the recent Ip Man: The Final Fight to serious dramas such as Whispers and Moans to the powerful anti-capital punishment From the Queen to the Chief Executive to numerous episodes of the Troublesome Night horror series. But when Yau was a young man he happily dipped his wick into Cat III films with the obscene and entertaining The Untold Story about a serial killer who then turns his victims into pork buns and then pushes the boundaries of bad taste even further with Ebola Syndrome.  Yau’s favorite actor Anthony Wong portrays a rapist and killer who has to flee to Africa to escape the cops and buys meat for his butcher shop that is tainted with the Ebola virus and he manages to contact it himself after he rapes a woman who is infected with it. Madness and vile things ensue with Wong and Yau playing it up for as much depravity as is possible. Need I add that the film is an absolute hoot that will crack you up and disgust you at every turn.  Ebola Syndrome was really the last one of these Cat III films that truly reveled in the muck with a sense of outrageousness, degeneracy and willingness to test the limits. After this Hong Kong horror went rather soft and relatively tame. Ebola was the last great statement of perverse sweaty grunge and now with the oversight of the Mainland it is highly unlikely that these sorts of films will ever return.


Comrades, Almost a Love Story, 1996, Director: Peter Chan

Like every film industry Hong Kong has made its share of romances, but without a doubt Comrades is simply the very best (only An Autumn’s Tale and Eight Taels of Gold come close). For the most part Chan eschews the screwball comedy that infuses many Hong Kong romances or the predictable tragedy that infects so many other Hong Kong romances and instead builds up a dramatic love story that slowly unwinds over a period of a decade with the city of Hong Kong always lingering in the background as much a character as the actors. At times it feels like a love letter to the city but also one to a disappearing culture as the city approached the 1997 Handover.  The film ebbs and flows with various storylines and changing times as the two main characters (played by Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai) struggle through life and heartbreak. Chan always keeps the audience on the edge as to whether these lost forlorn souls will ever find one another in a world so big and so cold. The final scene played with the backdrop of the announcement of Teresa Teng’s death is subtle, quiet and astonishingly cathartic.


The Mission, 1999, Director: Johnnie To

As the 1997 Handover approached most of the Hong Kong film industry went into a creative and quantitative funk, but it seems to have had the opposite effect on Johnnie To as he went on to do the best work of his life. In 1997 To and Wai Ka-fai formed the Milkyway Image production house in which they were to soon be making films that were some of the best in the history of Hong Kong and by doing so kept the feeble pulse of the film industry beating. There was really nothing in To's background to predict this - he was certainly a competent director and on occasion hit the jackpot with a film like Heroic Trio , but his films were very much studio animals and he seemed to have no particular vision of his own. That was to quickly change. To and Milkyway went on a fifteen year run of exquisite lean, stylish and tense crime thrillers that were the best in the world and I would easily opine that no director (including even To’s own hero Jean-Pierre Melville) have constructed as many great crime films as To has. He has an unnerving ability to tread the same territory of noir, triads and murder many times and yet always find a fresh intriguing angle. Milkyway's initial films reflected the mood at the time - dark, pessimistic and fatalistic that not only had an overriding sense of unease and distrust of authority but also had pointed political references such as a vicious immoral Mainland killer coming to Hong Kong in Intruder and death being the end result of going to the Mainland in Too Many Ways to Be No 1. I could have picked a number of films to represent the Milkyway crime films – The Longest Nite, A Hero Never Dies, PTU and Exiled are all wonderful films – but The Mission represents the best of Milkyway. It is a simple plot. Five professionals are hired to bodyguard a man who feels his life is in danger. With various twists and turns these five go about their business of doing what they were hired to do. This is strictly a man’s world in which women have no part and can only cause trouble. The men here don’t even seem to need them or want them – as the act of male bonding and loyalty seems to be a much higher calling. This is a world where death comes often and comes quickly though not always easily. Sometimes death comes in the flash of the moment, other times it is slow and drawn out. Beautifully shot with minimal sets and brilliant acting and quick and startling action, The Mission is a classic of crime.

Infernal Affairs, 2002, Director:  Andrew Lau

This crime story was so popular in Hong Kong that it not only necessitated two sequels but was also picked up for a Hollywood remake (The Departed) directed by none other than Martin Scorsese.  It has an extremely clever convoluted plot in which the cops send in a man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) undercover into the triads and the triads send one of theirs undercover into the police ranks.  As these two burrow their ways deeper into the hierarchy of their respective organizations over the years it comes to the attention of both groups that they have been infiltrated and a frantic cat and mouse game ensues that is masterfully suspenseful, twisted and deadly.  Andy Lau’s character as the triad mole in the police force brings to mind the poetry of W.H. Auden “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table”. As he scrambles for his survival as does Leung, the film is always surprising and gripping. It is clearly one of Hong Kong’s best crime dramas.

Kung Fu Hustle, 2004, Director: Stephen Chow

I have to admit to having being tempted to add a few other Stephen Chow films to this list such as From Beijing with Love, Forbidden City Cop or King of Comedy, but in the end I felt that Kung Fu Hustle was the culmination of Chow’s artistic growth. Stephen Chow has been Hong Kong’s most popular film comedian since the early 90’s; very much the inheritor of this mantle from the Hui brothers. His form of comedy is referred to as mou lei-tau or nonsense comedy. I think of it more as “even the kitchen sink” comedy. He will do anything to create a funny situation or get a cheap laugh. Slapstick, parody, sight gags, toilet humor, word play, accents are all in his arsenal. Sometimes he hits a bull’s-eye and you will fall down laughing, other times you are scratching your head wondering what you missed. Often the humor comes at you like a hail of spit wads and it is difficult to take it all in. Other times there is a slow build-up with a big punch line at the end. Chow usually goes through a film with near Buster Keaton like stoicism with only occasional short bursts of anger or hysterics. There is no doubt that he was the world’s funniest and most prolific comedian in the 90’s. To me there is a passing resemblance of his comedic growth to that of Woody Allen. Like Allen, his early films were not particularly sophisticated and were a near collection of gags and skits that he grouped together and called a film. But his films took on more emotional weight as can be seen in Forbidden City Cop in 1996 but for me he had his Manhattan with King of Comedy in 1999. It was a mature work with fully fleshed out characters in which the comedy stemmed from them as opposed to the comedy buzzing around them. In 2001 came Shaolin Soccer which took Chow in a new direction and to new heights of comedy. But Kung Fu Hustle is his Oedipus Rex. Chow who used to knock off his films in nanoseconds it seemed took three years to make this. It is an epic ambitious comedy that is unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It is a hilarious homage to old kung fu films that will have you rolling over in laughter one minute and agog in wonder the next.  Chow is like a comic kung fu master who has learned every form of humor and seamlessly wields them with astonishing wit, speed and variation.


As you can see I have no films after 2004. This is partially due to my diminishing viewing habits of Hong Kong films but also because at least of the ones I know none really deserve to be on the list as good as some of them have been. Please feel free to correct me if I am way off base.



YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Have you checked out the following post-2004 films? If so, do so, will ya?

Unbeatable (2013) - still showing in cinemas, so probably not out on DVD yet...
McDull: The Pork of Music (2012)
A Simple Life (2011)
The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (2011)
Red Cliff 2 (2009)
Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)
KJ (2009)
Beast Stalker (2008)
Ip Man (2008)
The Way We Are (2008)
My Name is Fame (2006)
Exiled (2006)
Election (2005)

Brian said...

Election, Exiled, My Name is Fame, Beast Stalker seen. So would you put any of those films on your 50 Essential List?

YTSL said...

Of the films I mentioned previously, I'd definitely include "The Way We Are" and "Beast Stalker", and probably also "A Simple Life".

Re "Beast Stalker": I think it helped for me to watch it here in Hong Kong -- and that a lot of its locations are ones I'm very familiar with :) -- but I definitely was bowled over by it.

YTSL said...

BTW, the Hong Kong Film Archive has a "100 Must See Hong Kong Movies" programme running which I blogged about a couple of years back:-

Also, compiled my alternative list:-

And yeah, it does have some post 2004 and also pre-1960 films on it. :)

Anonymous said...

Exiled, definitely.

Anonymous said...

I second Exiled. Brian, I know this is off topic, but I would love to hear which are your favorite Westerns. Assuming your a Western fan to begin with.

Brian said...

Of that 100 Must See list I counted 20 that were on my list but then they were very top heavy with pre-1960 films of which I have seen none I think. I think with your list there were only 23 films that crossed over which really surprised me since you had 100 on yours and I had only 50. Some of yours that did not make my list were due simply to this - it killed me not to include The Blade, Pedicab Driver, School on Fire, Dragon Inn, Bride with the White Hair, Just One Look and Running On Karma but 50 is 50. I am compiling a 2nd list that a bunch of yours are on but it is Films That Don't Get Talked About Enough or something along those lines. It will be much shorter and simpler than the 50 list!

Love Exiled but for me too similar in some ways to The Mission and The Mission came first.

Westerns - love Westerns - the really one unique American film genre (though copied elsewhere). A short list would be the John Ford Cavalry trilogy + his The Searchers and Stagecoach. Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch by Peckinpah. Pretty much all of Eastwood's collaborations with Leone. Red River, El Dorado and Rio Bravo by Hawks. Anthony Mann did some good ones with Jimmy Stewart. Then Boetticher did some real good ones but the titles elude me. The Big Country by Wyler. Then just in turns of actors I will happily watch any western with Randolph Scott, Joel McRae, Gary Cooper and of course John Wayne in it!

Anonymous said...

Awesome lists of westerns. Ok, off the top of my head I can only remember one Boetticher flick, and that's Commanche Station. I can't wait for film forum to have all his movies restored to DCP. Now, be honest, of the westerns you listed, did you see any of them on their first run? Some of the Peckinpah's or spaghetti westerns perhaps?

Brian said...

Actually I use to see the silent Tom Mix films on first run. 5 cents. Those were the days. Did you see that Film Forum is showing the films of Jacques Demy? Sadly I won't be able to see them. Love Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort like few other films.

Anonymous said...

Tom Mix?! Lol, I'm going to have to google that.

Didn't know you were a Demy fan. But yeah, I was aware of the Demy retro at the FF. I've seen Umbrellas way back but not Young Girls of Rochefort. Sounds like a adult movie title or something. Anyhow, both movies are will be DCP projection, which means crystal clear resolution (or 4K?). Given your recommendation I'm going to try to catch Young Girls. Have you experienced DCP yet? FF has been quick to hop on the dcp wagon so their projectionists are probably going to get booted soon. Funny that you brought up FF though, I was just there to see Antoine and Antoinette, a french flick from 1947. It was pretty good and the main actress wore some sleep outfit that was pretty sheer so her nipples were somewhat visible. Shocking considering it was 1947!

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