(ed. note: Katarina Gligorijevic continues her thorough look at Hong Kong cinema and what’s considered essential viewing to start off your education in the genre. For Part One, wherein she looks at kung fu films and the masters of martial arts, look here.)
Heroic Bloodshed and Gangster Style
“Call this section John Woo and the action revolution,” Colin jokes. “No wait, John Woo and Heroic Bloodshed. Actually, Heroic Bloodshed and Gangster Style.”
We’ve already discussed A Better Tomorrow , but Colin returns to the film to put John Woo into context within the larger HK gangster genre. “ A Better Tomorrow kickstarted Chow Yun Fat’s career. Throughout Hong Kong and Chinatowns across the world, Asian teens were wearing sunglasses and long trench coats, because he became an idol overnight. But John Woo had a very stylized take on the gangster life.”
Ringo Lam took on the world of the petty criminal instead. His 1987 film City on Fire , in which Chow Yun Fat plays a cop deep undercover in a gang of jewelry store robbers, is the structural blueprint for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs . “John Woo recycled the same story in his gangster films such as The Killer and Hard Boiled ,” Colin states. “He relied on satisfying but ultimately repetitive shootouts with immense firepower and body counts. Ringo Lam payed more attention to character and realism, especially in his subsequent works, like Prison on Fire, Full Contact and Full Alert .”
I pause here to ask about Johnnie To, who I think of as a major action director from Hong Kong. “I don’t consider him an action director,” Colin counters. “Johnnie To was working as primarily a comedy and drama director. But the films of his which get the most attention in the west are always the gritty crime films. He’s known for films like Election 1 and 2 or The Mission , but he’s also done a number of comedies which never get the exposure in the west. Like, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts , and Love on a Diet .” While John Woo and Ringo Lam have both answered the siren call of Hollywood, Johnnie To has always refused, and continues to work exclusively in Hong Kong, where he is a big fish in a little pond.
Note to self: find a copy of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts ASAP.
Wong Kar Wai and the Arthouse Set
“Wong Kar Wai has a well developed sense of nostalgia,” Colin begins. “He’s really in love with another time. In the Mood for Love is this great snapshot of life in 1960s Hong Kong. But there are so many nuances in the language and culture that we miss when we watch these films as foreigners. The film takes place over a period of time which, if you’re familiar with the culture, you’d be able to identify because of the food they’re eating. They eat dishes which have seasonal vegetables in them. When they order something, he’s telling you what time of year it is and how much time has passed, and it’s something you can’t translate with subtitles.”
Very much an outsider in the Hong Kong cinema scene of the 1980s and ’90s, Wong Kar Wai has been an internationally critically-acclaimed art house darling for years, with a healthy career on the art house festival circuit. And yet, his films have almost all been flops in Hong Kong. While In the Mood for Love is the top essential viewing title from his extensive oeuvre, other personal faves include Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild . Wong Kar Wai was very much influenced by Patrick Tam, which is really evident when watching Tam’s Nomad (1982) and the more recent After This Our Exile (2006).
Another notable entry in the art house genre is the touching and beautiful portrait of the two Chinas – mainland and Hong Kong – Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story . Maggie Chung and Leon Lai play two mainland immigrants in Hong Kong, and the film chronicles their challenges, struggles, and disjointed romantic paths.
Stephen Chow and Cantonese comedy
Enough of the swordplay and the shootouts. Most Hong Kong films that I’ve seen have a keen sense of comic pacing and physical comedy. So, where are the straight-up comedy hits, I ask. “Most Cantonese comedy is lost on foreign ears, because of its reliance on local tradition and custom,” Colin tells me. “Surprisingly, in the last decade, the one person who’s broken out is Stephen Chow. Most of his early works rely on dialogue full of colloquial slang, which simply doesn’t translate with subtitles. However, with films like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle , he’s managed to cross over. Kung Fu Hustle is the most accessible, but I’d say that the must-see is God of Cookery , for its brilliant lampooning of the Iron Chef-esque world of gourmet cuisine celebrity.”
Things that go bump in the Eastern night
Hong Kong cinema has its share of horror films and shockers, but most are tinged with comedic elements, with a few exceptions such as the Pang Brothers film The Eye or Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (both of which scared me out of my wits and are absolutely crucial viewing for horror fans).
Two essentials of the funnier supernatural genre include Tsui Hark produced A Chinese Ghost Story , which kickstarted a genre of period supernatural fantasy tales and is equal parts rollicking adventure and tragic supernatural love story, and the Sammo Hung-produced Mr. Vampire . The most unique fixture in Hong Kong horror films are the hopping vampires that were first seen in this film. “Chinese vampires are essentially zombies that are forced to hop rather than run or shuffle. They provide countless opportunities for hilarious hijinx as they pursue their victims,” Colin tells me.
A name that’s come up a lot throughout my conversation with Colin and a few times in this article is Tsui Hark. I ask about where he fits in and Colin tells me that Tsui Hark was, throughout the ’80s, “one of the puppet masters of the Hong Kong film scene, bringing new comic book pop culture and western-influenced styles to Hong Kong”. With Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain , which he made in 1983, Tsui Hark offered up an eastern vacation to Star Wars visual effects artists to bring his martial arts fantasy vision to life, and gave a giant boost to the technological capacity for special effects in Hong Kong. As a producer, Hark’s fingerprints are obvious in everything from John Woo’s The Killer to the Chinese Ghost Story series. As a director, the 1986 film Peking Opera Blues belongs on our essential viewing list, and is considered by critics in the west to be one of his best works. The gender-switching screwball comedy is set against the backdrop of the Chinese civil war. “He’s still on top,” Colin tells me. “His most recent work, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate , received a 3-D IMAX release across North America just last month.”
I ask Colin whether he’s left anything out that he would consider essential. We look at the Time Out Hong Kong list of Top 100 HK films, and he chuckles when we get to Clarence Fok’s 1992 film Naked Killer . “Really, that’s on the list?” he mutters. When I ask him about it, he explains “ Naked Killer is a Category III film. That’s like the equivalent of NC-17 in the US, or R here, but it’s pretty extreme. Category III always means there’s sex and violence, and usually bad taste to the Nth degree, by North American political correctness standards, of course. Naked Killer is a lesbian hit-woman action comedy. The sequel is called Naked Killer 2: Raped by an Angel .”
Colin tells me that the sheer volume of cinematic work being produced in Hong Kong used to be much more overwhelming than it currently is. “In terms of production, Hong Kong used to be second only to India in terms of output of films,” he says. “In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s there was an incredibly vibrant high volume of films being made in Hong Kong. The industry took a huge hit in the ’90s, when the influx of American films took over the exhibition landscape. Hong Kong went from producing 400+ films per year to 35 or 40. The change has been dramatic.” On that note, I decide we’re done. And I try to wrap my head around a national cinema I’ve only just begun to explore. My head is reeling from the cornucopia of cinematic treats I have yet to watch.