Archive for the 'Directors: Wong Kar-wai' Category
Hong Kong, Central, April 2008.
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run daily entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have time or inclination to raise in the text. The first one, listing around 25 HK classics, is here. The second, a quick overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The third discusses principles of HK action cinema here. A fourth, a portfolio of photos of Hong Kong stars, is here. That was followed by a tribute to western Hong Kong fans and then by a photo gallery of directors. Today’s installment is the last. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D, which will appear later this week.
Since the 1980s, the film festival circuit has become the only distribution system to rival Hollywood’s global reach. A big-name festival publicizes a film, some high-end critics at the festival write reviews, then once the film opens in a region or country, critics at large review it. As smaller festivals pick up films from the bigger ones, until eventually films make their way to small cities around the world. This process is parallel to the one that the studios orchestrate, though they have more centralized control. Video distribution, the circulation of DVD screeners, and Internet reviewing complicate this picture, but I don’t think they change the essential role of the festival network.
Just as film scholars have started to pay attention to fandom (see this post), they’ve started to ask research questions about festivals. As very few films from overseas find their way to U. S. screens, scholars keen on current cinema have realized that they need to visit festivals. It’s like scholars of painting traveling to exhibitions and gallery shows, or opera aficionados attending premieres at Bayreuth and La Scala. And film scholars of certain genres or periods have realized that they can do on-the-fly research by visiting historically oriented festivals like Pordenone and Bologna.
These days I see more of my colleagues at various festivals. In particular there’s the peripatetic Bérénice Reynaud, an early example of the multitasker (critic, programmer, professor, fan). On the same circuit I meet Virginia Wright Wexman, Peter Rist, Mike Walsh, Jim Udden, Gary Bettinson, and many other profs. So I’m starting to think that festivals are giving academic film studies a fresh charge of energy. Reciprocally, the events at Pordenone and Bologna, which began as cinephile events, have invited academic researchers to help program them and write for their publications. In sum, festivals are now a vigorous workspace for not just screenings and critical write-ups but discussions about ideas that would normally haunt the groves (or is it grooves?) of academe.
Athena Tsui and Li Cheuk-to. Hong Kong, 2000.
I had dropped in at screenings at the New York and London film festivals in the 1970s and 1980s, and I had steadily attended the summer Cinédécouvertes series in Brussels. But I had never “done” a festival intensively until I went to Hong Kong in the spring of 1995. There I saw films that still stay with me: Through the Olive Trees, Postman, In the Heat of the Sun, A Borrowed Life, Smoking/ No Smoking, Quiet Days of the Firemen, Taebek Mountains, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Whispering Pages, and Clean, Shaven. (My one big miss was Sátántangó; I had to wait years to catch up with that.) Who says the 1990s were a meager decade? Can any festival today come up with a menu like this?
I had gone, as I explain in the Preface to Planet Hong Kong, mainly to check on local cinema. The “Hong Kong Panorama” surveying 1994 releases yielded a bumper crop, including some titles I’d seen only on laserdisc (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time) and others that were revelations. Above all, there was a retrospective—an entire festival in itself, really—dedicated to early Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. They swept over me in a heaving wave: Love and Duty (1932), The Eight Hundred Heroes (1938), Boundless Future (1941), and many others, along with postwar Hong Kong classics like Where Is My Darling? (1947), Song of a Songstress (1948), The Kid (1950), with Bruce Lee, and on and on. The series was capped by stunning restored Technicolor prints of The Orphan (1960), also with Bruce, and General Kwan Seduced by Due Sim under Moonlight (1956). Some of these had circulated on poor VHS copies, but most were, and still are, unknown in the West.
I had picked the perfect year to come to the festival. Looking back at the notes I scribbled in the dark, I realize that over three weeks I got a crash course in Chinese film history. In any given day I was given more to think about, and certainly more to feel about, than I got from almost any academic conference.
For those of us interested in non-Hollywood cinema, festival programmers and critics are central gatekeepers. They scout the ridge and scan the horizon, and around the campfire they teach us film lore. They’ve built up fingertip knowledge about movies, moviemakers, distribution patterns, sales agents, theatre circuits—in sum, the workings of world film culture. The best of these gatekeepers are intellectuals, ready to search out something stimulating in even the most marginal film. They have honed their senses to detect qualities that could provoke an audience or yield a lively Q & A or a piquant catalogue entry or a solid review. Out of pure selfishness, I wish I could download the neural storage files of Alissa Simon, Richard Peña, Tony Rayns, Cameron Bailey, and their peers. Alas, there is no app for that.
In Hong Kong I met Li Cheuk-to, Jacob Wong, Freddie Wong, and many other programmers, along with Athena Tsui and Shu Kei. What made my experience that spring of 1995 so thrilling were their months of patient planning and sleepless nights behind the scenes—finding the prints, arranging for them, writing catalogue copy and, not least, assembling a massive reference work like Early Images of Hong Kong & China, one of the precious books the festival managed to turn out every year to document the local cinema.
Many programmers are also critics, and such was the case in Hong Kong. When I arrived, Cheuk-to and his colleagues had just formed the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, and I was invited to their first awards ceremony. They were mostly young, and after the awards were handed out I was invited out to dinner with several of them. It was then I realized that here was a local film culture in which criticism mattered. Hong Kong was small enough for critics to band together to debate their cinema. Soon another critics’ group was founded, and the debates spread. I started to understand that if one were to study a film culture, one would have to grasp the dynamics of taste among schools of critics and between critics and their audiences. I made an effort to describe this dynamic in the second chapter of Planet Hong Kong.
It’s not just that that book had its origins in that first visit. And it’s not just that the newest edition is the result of my attending the festival for the last fifteen years. More important, my ideas about film and about the world changed when I met critics, programmers, and other academics in Hong Kong. Immersion in one of the world’s most fascinating cities had something to do with it too.
Favorites, for now
As Tears Go By (1988).
In my first entry in this hurriedly posted series, I listed around 25 Hong Kong films that most aficionados consider of major importance—historical, artistic, cultural, or all three. In the days since, I’ve mentioned several other films that you can check into. Here, as an envoi to this yakathon, are a few more movies that I’ve repeatedly enjoyed, and that I’ve sometimes talked about in PHK 2. They’re grouped in very loose categories.
Lesser-known items from major directors. Once a Thief is a good example. Sandwiched between Woo’s official classics is this good-natured, somewhat silly action comedy about art thieves, romance, and parenthood. Lifeline is one of my favorite Johnnie To Kei-fung films—not as formally audacious as his later masterpieces, but containing one of cinema’s great action sequences involving a fire that seems as unstoppable as a waterfall, with the bonus of a throat-catching epilogue. Ann Hui On-wah’s Summer Snow, about a busy career woman who must treat her Alzheimer’s-affected father, glows with the intimate realism and understated sentiment that inform her more recent The Way We Are.
Everybody knows some works by Wong Kar-wai, but I think his later accomplishments have overshadowed his debut, As Tears Go By, a prototype of the arty gangster movie. Drenched in romanticism, it has one of the great music montages in Hong Kong film and a finale that you feel lifting from genre formula to pictorial poetry. With Johnnie To as well, even offbeat items like Throw Down are getting well-known, but I’d like to make a pitch for the New Year’s mahjong comedy Fat Choi Spirit. It has some of the 1980s nuttiness; the laughs start at the DVD menu.
Tsui Hark has produced so many films that have been fan favorites–Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, and Swordsman III: The East Is Red–that you can’t expect anything worthy to be overlooked. And yet not enough people have seen the bouncy Shanghai Blues, with moments of musical rapture, and The Chinese Feast, with all his faults and virtues bundled into a celebration of cooking and eating. There’s also The Blade, a convulsive revenge saga that seems to me one of the best movies made anywhere in the 1990s. After it’s over, you’re not sure what hit you.
Drama, comedy, dramedy. Any reader of PHK knows my fondness for the gender-bending romance Peter Chan Ho-sun’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, a lovely integration of musical, coming-of-age story, and satire of sex roles. But my favorite Michael Hui film, Chicken and Duck Talk didn’t feature in the first edition because I couldn’t get my hands on a print to illustrate it. Tracing the rivalry between a scruffy duck restaurant and a Japanese knockoff of Colonel Sanders, it yields many hilarious sequences, perhaps most notably Hui’s efforts to conceal a plague of rats from health inspectors.
Chow Yun-fat made his western reputation in crime movies, but his local fans also love his comedies and dramas. Try the screwball Diary of a Big Man (right) in which Chow juggles two wives and enacts a music video; the wistful romantic drama An Autumn Tale; and of course the male melodrama All About Ah Long. Churning out six to nine movies a year, the man was a real movie star. In April 1995, I was waiting in line to see Peace Hotel and felt the crowd’s nervous anticipation. Three whole months had passed since they’d seen their friend in a new movie.
My associates sigh when I mention Wong Jing. What can I say? I find some of his films funny. Try Boys Are Easy, Tricky Master, and, probably my favorite, Whatever You Want. If you don’t like them, write my suggestion off as David in his Dotage. Speaking of silliness, I’m not over-fond of Stephen Chow, but All for the Winner, Flirting Scholar, From Beijing with Love, and A Chinese Odyssey are ingratiating enough. Square that I am, I like Shaolin Soccer too.
I’d add the medical melodrama C’est la Vie, Mon Cherie, the unpredictable cop stakeout movie Bullets over Summer, and the poignant Juliet in Love, about a triad’s attraction to a woman recovering from a mastectomy. Sylvia Chang Ai-chia’s quiet romantic dramas Tempting Heart and 20 30 40 are also rewarding. Patrick Tam Kar-ming’s films are still unjustly neglected, so anything might be considered obscure, but I was delighted when a passable DVD of My Heart Is that Eternal Rose was released. Here Tam lyricized the gangster movie; Wong Kar-wai took the next step.
For grotesque comedy, try You Shoot I Shoot, about a contract killer who adds value by having an aspiring director film the hits (complete with slo-mo) for the delectation of the client. Unclassifiable is The Inspector Wears Skirts II, a cop-training story that pits women recruits against dimwitted men. It includes a dance sequence displaying minimal skill and maximal cheerfulness.
Fight club: Of Chang Cheh’s vast output of martial-arts movies, I have a special affection for New One-Armed Swordsman, a spectacularly mounted action picture, and Crippled Avengers, in which “disabled” really does mean “differently abled.” For Lau Kar-leung, I especially admire Legendary Weapons of China, one of the strangest of his forays into the arcana of martial arts lore and Chinese history; Shaolin Challenges Ninja (aka Heroes of the East), a sort of Taming of the Shrew, but with throwing stars; and the harrowing Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter, something of a valedictory for the Shaolin tradition at Shaw Brothers. Both these directors made so many worthwhile films that you can spend a lot of agreeable time exploring their output.
Though not everyone agrees, I think that Corey Yuen Kwai is a fine director of action pictures, from the tonally discordant Ninja in the Dragon’s Den through the warrior-women saga Yes, Madam!, the vigilante-justice Righting Wrongs (incredible, literally, final airborne sequence), and Saviour of the Soul, a futuristic fantasy with one shot looking forward to Chungking Express (right). Yuen’s Fong Sai-yuk films and Bodyguard from Beijing contain classic sequences—fighting on the heads of a crowd, on top of a precarious pile of furniture, in a hypermodern kitchen. Co-signing the first Transporter film, he turned in something resembling the classic Hong Kong style.
In the crime vein consider Kirk Wong’s hard-driving and pitiless Rock ‘n’ Roll Cop and Danny Lee’s Law with Two Phases (not a typo). Ringo Lam’s films are notably tougher and more tactile than those of his contemporaries; see his deromanticized classic City on Fire, the effort to out-Woo Woo that is Full Contact, and the lesser-known Full Alert. Eddie Fong Ling-Ching isn’t known for policiers, but Private Eye Blues was one of the films I enjoyed in the 1995 Panorama. His historical drama Kawashima Yoshiko is even more remarkable.
Connoisseurs know The Outlaw Brothers; one glimpse of the climax, in which a gunfight is interrupted by a hailstorm of poultry, usually convinces any viewer to take a closer look. I must add the below-the-radar ensembler Task Force, by John Woo protégé Patrick Leung Pak-kin. Gratifyingly untidy in skipping among the personal lives of a cop squad, it eventually focuses on the need to settle conflicts without violence—after, of course, supplying some snappy fight scenes of its own.
Post-handover take-outs. Most of the films I’ve mentioned are from the 1970s through the 1990s. But many worthy films have emerged in the 2000s. If they don’t always carry the effervescence of the earlier ones, many are solidly crafted. Some are discussed in Planet Hong Kong 2.0 and many more have received commentary on other websites (e.g., LoveHKFilm), so I’ll just mention a few that seem to me of more than transitory appeal.
Patrick Tam’s After This Our Exile is an unsentimental look at how an aggressive, heedless father must come to terms with his little boy. Needing You is a better-than-average office comedy, while Hooked on You is poignant in the gruff Hong Kong way, with a touching finale about the changes since 1997. Benny Chan Muk-sing’s action pictures usually deliver sturdy value in the old style. Try Connected, a remake of Cellular; New Police Story, with Jackie Chan as a cop coming to terms with age and failure in the face of nihilistic youth; and Invisible Target, which boasts an old-fashioned Hard Boiled demolition derby, with a police station ground zero this time. Horror fans already know how uneven HK films in that genre can be, but surely Fruit Chan Goh’s Dumplings is an admirably creepy achievement, and Soi Cheang Pou-soi did good work in the genre as well (Diamond Hill, Horror Hotline) before moving to the suspenseful Love Battlefield and the harsh action picture Dog Bite Dog.
Whew! After seven sword-like days, I’m running out of time, and I haven’t achieved a final victory. Want more dangerous encounters? Go to PHK or the Hong Kong Critics Society Award winnerss and start looking for your better tomorrow.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Kristin and I discuss film festivals as an aspect of global film culture in Chapter 29 of Film History: An Introduction. For detailed research into the festival scene, see Richard Porton, ed., Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals and several publications from St. Andrews University. The most recent volume, edited by Dina Iordanova and Ruby Cheung, focuses on East Asian events.
P.S. Thanks to Yvonne Teh for a title correction, and Tim Youngs for a geographical one!
Photo: Joanna C. Lee, courtesy Ken Smith.
Your beer kung-fu is pretty good: Christopher Doyle and Po Chi Leung (Jumping Ash, He Lives by Night, etc.). Hong Kong Film Festival, 1996. Photo by DB.
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run daily entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have time or inclination to raise in the text. The first one, listing around 25 HK classics, is here. The second, a quick overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The third discusses principles of HK action cinema here. A fourth, a portfolio of photos of Hong Kong stars, is here. That was followed by a tribute to western Hong Kong fans. The final entry is concerned with the role of film festivals and a short list of other favorite films. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
When Andrew Sarris formulated an American version of the politique des auteurs, he used directorial “personality” as an index of true directorial creativity. Later, theorists and academics tried to define this elusive quality, and many concluded that auteur directors had recurring themes, a stylistic signature, and what we might call storytelling manner. To sketch an example: Welles can be thought of as concerned with the relation of power to love, and the loss of both. He favored aggressive depth compositions, long takes, and unusual uses of sound. In narrative terms, he was fond of stories featuring a larger-than-life man, turning on a puzzle or a crime, and presented in some time-shifting ways (e.g., flashbacks). This is a unsubtle characterization, but my point is simply that crtiics thought that recurring qualities like these offered a strong case for directorial authorship.
Yet a mass-market cinema makes “pure” authorship difficult, since directors may not freely choose their projects and their artistic preferences may be overridden by budgets, weather, producer rulings, censorship and the like. Creativity in a film industry, we’re usually told, requires collaboration. That’s true, but of course many other art forms do as well, notably theatre, dance, and song composition. A director may not explore favorite thematic concerns every time out (Look: stick to the script!), or may be thwarted in certain technical choices (We can’t afford long tracking shots!) or storytelling strategies (We’re adding a voice-over to clarify the backstory).
As with most high-output cinemas, the appeal of many Hong Kong films can be traced not to directorial flair but to the genre and other components (stars, scripts, studio resources). I wouldn’t say that many of the Jackie Chan-Sammo Hung-Yuen Biao outings like Winners and Sinners (1983), Wheels on Meals (this is not a typo; 1984), and My Lucky Stars (1985) exhibit much directorial personality, but they are skillfully made and pretty entertaining. Every industry needs its artisans, its steady hands on the tiller; it’s no mean feat to turn out a solid movie. Even the most distinctive directors in an industry need craft competence; as Sarris once remarked, “A great director has to be a good director.” Much of Planet Hong Kong is about the collective norms of local filmmaking, the tricks of the trade and the professional practices that shape the artistry of non-auteur movies.
But are there true Hong Kong auteurs? I think so, to various degrees. Ones discussed in PHK 2.0 are King Hu, Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, Tsui Hark, Wong Kar-wai, and Johnnie To Kei-fung. John Woo, I argue, is one in a special, almost meta-sense: He understood the idea of authorship and crafted his public image, as well as his films, around certain themes (Christianity, heroic self-sacrifice) and stylistic choices (most visibly, flying pistoleros).
Wong Jing is a bit meta- too, in the way that Mel Brooks is a parodic auteur. Wong Jing’s farcical cinema carries to an extreme the vulgar potential always lurking in his territory’s cinema. He can provide quite precise mockery of other (better) directors, as when the arthouse filmmaker in Whatever You Want (1994) turns out a pretentious effort suspiciously similar to Ashes of Time. The evocative, fragmentary shots of Carina Lau Ka-ling clutching at her horse are replaced by one of Law Kar-ying caressing a cow.
So it was in hope of learning both about craft norms and directorial temperament that between 1995 and the present I’ve visited and talked with various filmmakers. The results are in the book, but here are some photos commemorating the encounters.
Here Ann Hui On-wah presents Wong Kar-wai with the best screenplay award (for Ashes of Time) at the first annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, 1995. She looks as happy as he is. The film also won Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor (for Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, who wasn’t present). For a further note on Wong, check the bottom of this entry.
My longest stay in Hong Kong was during the spring of 1997. Doing research for PHK, I interviewed several people. One of my top stops was BoB & Partners, then the latest incarnation of Wong Jing’s entrepreneurship. (On the wall in the left still you see posters for Naked Killer, 1992, and other genre classics.) BoB stood for “Best of the Best,” and one of the partners was Andrew Lau Wai-keung, top-flight cinematographer who had become famous as a director with the Young and Dangerous series. Soon he was to go on to Storm Riders (1998) and eventually to the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003). Next door, Wong Jing also talked with me. He had several TV screens facing him, one with video games, and you can see his console front and center on his desk.
Another busy man, Peter Chan Ho-sun, had become an important director of contemporary comedies and dramas (e.g., He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, 1994; Comrades, Almost a Love Story, 1996). I met him in 1997 and brought him to Madison in 1999; below, a photo from 2008. Even more prolific, and less easy to categorize, is Herman Yau Lai-to–DP, rock-and-roller, and director of everything from grossout horror (The Ebola Syndrome, 1996) to harsh social critique (From the Queen to the Chief Executive, 2001; Whispers and Moans, 2007). How could you not learn a lot about filmmaking craft from a guy who had directed over fifty movies and been DP on thirty-five more? I wrote about Herman’s On the Edge here.
I met some directors from the older generation too. There was Yuen Woo-ping (aka Yuen Wo-ping), one of the great fight choreographers (The Matrix, Kill Bill) but also a lively director in exhilarating films like Legend of a Fighter (1982), Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979), Iron Monkey (1993), and Tai-chi Master (1993). And there was Ng See-yuen, another local legend. He directed some sturdy kung-fu films like The Secret Rivals (1976) and The Invincible Armour (1977). He’s also an iconoclastic producer, backing Jackie Chan’s breakthrough film Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (directed by Yuen Woo-ping), Tsui Hark’s Butterfly Murders (1979) and We’re Going to Eat You (1980), and several of the Once Upon a Time in China entries. Here Ng is at the 1997 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Two of the high points were my interviews with major figures of the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s, both still going strong in 1997. Ann Hui was warm and generous with her time; she visited Madison that year with Summer Snow (1995) and other films. The picture below is from 2005.
Then there was my several-hour talk with Tsui Hark at the Film Workshop headquarters. Good thing I taped it; I couldn’t keep up with him in my note-taking. He was planning Knock-Off and the animated version of Chinese Ghost Story.
After 1997, I looked in on some other filmmakers. I was invited to visit the Academy for the Performing Arts in 2001 under the guidance of Professor Lau Shing-hon, another early New Waver (House of the Lute, 1980; The Final Night of the Royal Hong Kong Police, 2002). Here he is with his family on the Peak.
Since I started blogging, I have put my best (or rather the least amateurish) shots online. So for more snaps, you can rummage through the category, Festivals: Hong Kong. But I can’t resist two final ones. Here are Johnnie To and the younger director Soi Cheang Pou-soi (Love Battlefield, 2004; Dog Bite Dog, 2006; Accident, 2009), in shots from 2005 and 2009 respectively.
And now for something not quite completely different. In both print and e-book editions of Planet Hong Kong, I wrote about our last view of the Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia’s character in Chungking Express. Wong Kar-wai presents a jerky slow-motion shot of her leaving the crime scene and dodging out of the frame. It freezes on her, at a moment that yields a perversely unreadable image.
A shot of this frame would have been mud in the black-and-white pages of the book and probably not much better in the color pdf. I couldn’t imagine catching the faint reddish glint of the woman’s sunglasses. (Actually, the e-book’s quality turned out well enough that we might have tried for it.) So I picked the most legible image I could find from the shot, and that’s what’s in the print book and the digital copy (Fig. 9.13).
In any case, for obsessives like me, I reproduce the frozen frame here. This still comes from a 35mm print of the movie, and it is, of course, a lot more poetic than my snapshots, partly because it teases you about what’s in the frame.
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run a daily string of entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have a chance to raise in the text. This is the second one. The first, a list of about 25 Hong Kong classics, is here. The third, on principles of HK action cinema, is here. The fourth, a photo portfolio of HK stars, is here. The next installments focus on western HK fandom, on director snapshots, and on film festivals, the last including a list of some personal favorites. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
Seldom do historians get to write finis to the tales they tell. Who can tell when a process is played out? Yet sometimes you can’t avoid the sense that things have definitively ended.
That’s the case with Hong Kong cinema. Good, even great, films will still be made there, but that’s true of any territory. What made Hong Kong turn out so much lively cinema for so long was its large, robust film industry. Not exactly the Hollywood of the East, as Planet Hong Kong tries to show; it was erratic and seat-of-the-pants, less a large-scale enterprise than a cottage industry. Yet its scale did help it achieve a unique place in film history. Today there can be little doubt that the glory days of that cottage industry are gone. They started to go, in fact, about fifteen years ago.
Not 1997, 1994
Silvercord Cinema, March 1995.
From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, the Hong Kong film industry ruled the East Asian market. Confronted with a small population in the Crown Colony (still under British control), filmmakers turned toward the much larger regional audience. They succeeded, wildly. In an era when most Asian nations couldn’t afford to import American films, the Hong Kong product boasted higher production values than films from other countries in the region (except Japan, of course). The films catered to the Chinese diaspora, a prosperous segment of most neighboring countries. Moreover, the industry offered major stars: the Shaws and Cathay stables at first, then Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and innumerable crossover faces from TV and pop music.
But things changed. Wasn’t the year 1997 the breaking point? After all, that was when the colony was handed over to Mainland China. Actually, PHK argued back in 2000, the slump started in 1993-1994. Thanks to overproduction, the exodus of talent, the rise of video piracy, and many other factors, the industry was in trouble well before the handover. Its problems were exacerbated by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, Internet piracy, the increasing success of South Korean cinema (and popular culture generally), and a powerful shift of investment and talent to the Mainland.
The new edition of the book gives details, but the dimensions of decline can be summarized.
*In most years between 1977 and 2002, between 100 and 234 films were released annually. (There was a significant drop in the years 1996-1998, an immediate reflection of the waning market.) After 2002, the number dropped steadily to about fifty releases per year. In 2010, Patrick Frater reports, there were 54 Hong Kong releases out of a total of 286 theatrical releases.
*Local movie attendance waned accordingly. In 1990, fifty million tickets were sold. In 1995, only 28 million were. Throughout the 1990s, ticket sales wobbled between about 17 million and 22 million. Recently, the number has been about 20 million.
*What proportion of local box-office receipts are claimed by local films? Again, 1994 proves a watershed. Before that, local films won between two-thirds and three-quarters of the market. But from 1995 on, the percentage shrank drastically. By the mid-2000s, Hong Kong productions were claiming less than a quarter of receipts. In 2009, 20.7 % of receipts went to local films—about US$31 million. The rest went to foreign imports, chiefly Hollywood movies.
*Before 1996, each year’s top ten box-office winners included between eight and ten local productions. It’s sad to trace the steep decline; by 2005 through 2008, only two films a year made it into the winner’s circle. In 2009 there was only one local film in the top ten. Last year there were two, and number ten was Gulliver’s Travels; how sad is that? America wins again.
*But Hong Kong’s market was chiefly a regional one. So how did the films do overseas? After 1994, not so well. The multiplexing of the world (one of the most important developments in global cinema history) gave Hollywood a strong entrée to places it had previously ignored. As Asian consumers became wealthier, they were drawn to the well-appointed theatres showing American movies like Jurassic Park (1993) and Speed (1994). Hollywood responded with blockbusters aimed at young and middle-class viewers in all countries, and soon its overseas receipts surpassed those from the United States. American films shoved Hong Kong films off both domestic and regional screens.
*Finally, what about China? Some locals thought that after 1997, Hong Kong would become China’s Hollywood. After all, the Mainland industry was backward, and Hong Kong had the money, the facilities, the skill sets, and the talent—especially stars that were household names in China. Sooner or later the PRC would need Hong Kong. Things did not work out that way, as I’ll discuss below.
The 2000 edition of PHK pointed to some of these factors, but an extra decade yields a longer view, and that lets us fill in more interesting detail. The old historians’ adage holds good: You really do need a stretch of time to see things more clearly. Of course you don’t have to go as far as Zhou Enlai. Asked about the effects of the French revolution, he is said to have replied: “Too soon to tell.”
Not a long time
Fire of Conscience (2010).
Speaking of Zhou, one thing I couldn’t foresee when I was writing PHK in 1997-1999 was the emergence of China as a filmmaking power. The mainland cinema was in pretty bad shape when Kristin and I visited the PRC in 1988, and things got worse in the next decade. For example, the number of cinema screens fell from about 140,000 in 1991 to 65,000 in 2001.
Again, though, things were changing. The PRC steadily stabilized the decline of its industry. It semi-privatized production, distribution, and exhibition. It let in American films and encouraged international investment to build up an infrastructure. The bureaucracy blocked a free flow of Hong Kong films into their market until 2003, at which point local exhibition was on the road to maturity. The audience grew but remained comparatively small: 115 million in 2000, 263 million in 2009. But receipts skyrocketed.
China’s cities were growing fast, and newly-prosperous urbanites turned to the new multiplexes built with Japanese, Korean, and Hong Kong investment. In 2001, box-office revenues were reported as US$77 million–about the same as tiny Denmark the same year. By the end of 2010, according to this Variety article, total box office looked to be about $1.5 billion—ahead of the 2009 receipts from the United Kingdom. (The UK is the second-biggest box-office territory in the EU.) The same Variety article quotes the head of China Film Group saying that he expected the figure to exceed $3 billion, which would easily make China the most lucrative market outside the United States.
Clearly China’s growth came at Hong Kong’s expense. A quota kept nearly most Hong Kong films out of China for nearly a decade. Now producers could enter only on the Mainland’s terms, with coproductions and joint ventures the primary options. Producers were eager to partner with what was likely the fastest-growing film market in history. After 2003 more and more Hong Kong films would have some PRC involvement—financing, location shooting, postproduction, technical staff, and of course stars. The Chinese market was so vigorous that producers began assuming they could make their films principally for the Mainland, not for their home audience. Only the most modestly budgeted film, a teen romance or slapstick comedy, could retain some local tang.
Planet Hong Kong traces this process in more detail, outlining some of the chief creative choices facing Hong Kong filmmakers in the 2000s and since. The Mainland is involved in nearly all of them, not just financially but ideologically. A historical action movie like Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) wins favor by focusing on the heroic efforts of a cross-section of Chinese to defend Sun Yat-sen during his stopover in Hong Kong. The academic, patriotic costume picture perfected by Zhang Yimou has been taken up by Peter Chan Ho-sun (The Warlords, 2007) and John Woo (Red Cliff, 2008-2009).
There is another, riskier option: Make films that can sell in the West. This has been Wong Kar-wai’s strategy as he has risen to the top of the festival and arthouse circuit. But after his venture into American indie cinema, My Blueberry Nights (2007), he too has shifted toward the Mainland, reviving the Ip Man project he announced several years ago, now known as The Grandmasters. (Ironically, so great is the power of American distribution that My Blueberry Nights was probably his best-performing film in theatrical release.) Johnnie To Kei-fung has pursued several avenues at once: while making films for Hong Kong, China, and the region he has also developed audiences in festivals and in limited theatrical/ video releases in Europe and the U. S.
To the extent that the Hong Kong industry recovers, I’m happy to see it come back. I want it to succeed. Yet to the extent that it is obliged to serve the Mainland market and government policy, I feel a loss. Hong Kong films have become more “professional.” Scripts are getting tighter, and while this leads to strong entries like Hooked on You (2007) and Beast Stalker (2008), the old audacity seems rare. The success of slick, restrained items like Infernal Affairs (2002-2003) and Initial D (2005) may signal that most films will lack the galvanic unpredictability of the old days. CGI has made stunts more outlandish but also less convincing; Jackie Chan’s successors need no longer risk breaking a collarbone. A bravado bit of spfx technique, like the sculptured freeze-frame opening Dante Lam Chiu-yin’s Fire of Conscience (2010), has replaced the sort of open-throttle curtain-raiser that hurled you into the movie’s world.
In the prime days, the scale of production and the heedless rush to make movies to satisfy a market, to surpass your competitor, to make a killing before 1997—all that fostered a frantic, unpredictable churn. Fans found there the audacious conviction of the hell-for-leather outlaw. But entertaining as today’s movies can still be, the edge has blunted. Cellular (2004) became Connected (2008). Both are lively items, but did you ever think you’d see the day that Hong Kong turned out an authorized remake of an American movie? (Warner Bros. coproduced it.) Even English titles have become distressingly tasteful and cogent. Kung Fu vs. Acrobatic (1990), Love Amoeba Style (1997), Killing Me Hardly (1997), and Horrible High Heels (1996): those titles and dozens more teased us toward the sweet brink of nonsense. Divergence and Invisible Target and Wait Till You’re Older just don’t do the job.
Plastic boobs were involved
From Beijing with Love (Stephen Chow/ Lee Lik-chi, 1994).
Yet all signs of life haven’t been muffled. In the current restrictive climate, Johnnie To can make eccentric, occasionally shocking films like Running on Karma (2003) and Throw Down (2004). I take comfort in learning just last weekend what terminated Stephen Chow’s directorship of The Green Hornet. According to one report he proposed to plant a microchip in the hero’s brain and have Kato control him with a joystick. In an Entertainment Weekly article not online, director Michel Gondry claims that Chow’s plans were too far out. “Really, really crazy ideas that you would not dare bring to a studio. AIDS was involved. Plastic boobs were involved too.” That Gondry, one of Hollywood’s approved Wild Things, can find something Chow proposed over the top gives you hope.
A couple of months before the handover, I was in Kowloon talking with a cab driver. He told me confidently, “Chinese people are born capitalists. We know very well how to make money. We will never accept Communism.”
“But,” I said, “the Mainland has had a Communist government for forty years.”
He shrugged. “Forty years is not a long time.”
Now that is really taking the long perspective. Maybe I shouldn’t write finis. The prospects of Hong Kong cinema? Too soon to tell. Ask me in forty years.
Many of the statistics cited here and in Planet Hong Kong come from the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association and from that invaluable source on world film trends, Screen Digest. We discuss the importance of multiplexing in the process of globalizing cinema in Chapter 29 of Film History: An Introduction. For an example of the ideological finger-wagging practiced by China’s officialdom, go here. (Thanks to Shelly Kraicer for the link.) The Michel Gondry quotation comes from Benjamin Svetkey, “Hornet’s Buzz Gets Better,” Entertainment Weekly (14 January 2011), p. 25.
PS 24 January: Soon after this entry was published, Luo Jin wrote me with some comments. I’m sorry about the delay in posting them, but I wanted to recheck my sources and dig up new ones.
I just read your latest blog entry. Some numbers are different from my knowledge, so I provide them below. I hope they are helpful.
“The number of cinema screens fell from about 140,000 in 1991 to 65,000 in 2001.”
In general the screen number in China refers to the screens in large and medium-sized cities, excluding small cities and rural areas. That is because in most small cities or counties (like Jia Zhangke’s hometown Fenyang), there is no film theater at all. And in the rural areas, only mobile screens are available. Tickets are free, so there are no B.O. receipts. In all, an accurate number of screens is hard to count. I checked the official report, and the number of cinema screens in 2002 is given as 1,581, increasing annually to 6,223 in 2010. If I am not wrong, the number in the United States is around 40,000, so it couldn’t be that much in 1991 to 2001 in China, even taking the rural mobile screens into consideration. Reportedly the rural mobile screens numbered about 40,000 in 2010.
“In 2001, box-office revenues were reported as US$77 million”
In the official report, the domestic B.O. revenue in 2001 is 890 millions RMB, equal to US$108 million by 2001 exchange rate.
My sources for Chinese exhibition statistics, as indicated above, were the annual reports in Screen Digest, which I have always found reliable in relation to other countries. I assume that the SD sources counted the rural mobile screens in the total, but otherwise I don’t know how to explain the discrepancy. Similarly, the differences in reported box office revenue may need to be checked against indigenous sources. The most recent Screen Digest annual exhibition report (November 2010) cites for 2009 34,233 screens in China (again suggesting that mobile screens are counted) and a box-office take of 6109 billion yuan, or US$906 million. The latter figure corresponds to other reports in Western sources. On screen counts, other sources suggest numbers closer to Jin’s. A 2008 Variety article mentioned that there were currently only 3000 screens in the country, while a mid-2010 Variety piece claims 5000 by 2009. If my claims prove unfounded on these points, I regret the errors.
Hong Kong Film Award winners, 2000. Among them, top row, from left: Ng See-yuen (with orchid), Carrie Ng Ka-lai, Law Lan, Andy Lau Tak-wah (white suit), Ti Lung, Cecelia Cheung Pak-chi, and Arthur Wong Ngok-tai. Bottom row: Manfred Wong Man-chun (in profile), Gordon Chan Ka-seung, Teddy Robin Kwan, Eric Tsang Chi-wai, Tung Wai, Cheung Tung Cho, Lam Kee-to (in spectacles). Thanks to Athena Tsui and Luo Jin for help in identification.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run a daily string of entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have a chance to raise in the text. This is the first one. The second, a quick overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The third, on principles of HK action cinema, is here. The fourth, a photo portfolio of HK stars, is here. The following ones deal with western fandom, some Hong Kong directors, and final reflections on film festivals and a list of other intriguing movies. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
± 25 classics: A cheat sheet
I have an aversion to list-making (some day I’ll explain), but I’m often asked to recommend Hong Kong movies to people wanting a quick start. So I’m launching this suite of daily entries around Planet Hong Kong by charting some widely recognized high points in this effervescent cinema.
Some items are important for their historical influence, some for their intrinsic quality, some for both. I’m restricting myself to the years after 1960, although there are several influential and powerful films before that (e.g., In the Face of Demolition, 1953). Still, if you want a fair sample of this cinema’s output you must sample these more or less official classics. If the bug bites, you can supplement them with other items that I’ll mention in passing here and in the days to come. Several of these films are discussed in more detail in the book, and most are available on DVD.
The Wild, Wild Rose (1960): Cathay (to use its shortest name) was one of the two major companies of the 1960s and in this brassy show-business drama Grace Chang (Ge Lan) had her defining role as the Carmen of the nightclub scene. Another Grace Chang classic is Mambo Girl (1957), and you can get a sense of the gorgeous star culture of Cathay by seeing her and other top actresses in Sun, Moon, and Star (1961), sort of a Hong Kong Gone with the Wind.
The Love Eterne (1963, above): This adaptation of the “plum-blossom” opera was given lavish treatment by the Shaw Brothers studio, the major studio of the period. Li Han-hsiang’s spectacle of colorful costumes, big studio sets, and gender masquerade won several awards and helped establish Hong Kong films across Asian markets. Li went on to make many other sumptuous costume pictures, as I discuss briefly here and in subsequent entries. This web essay focuses on Shaws’ anamorphic output.
Come Drink with Me (1966): The first Shaw entry in its new martial arts cycle, pioneered by King Hu. In an inn various characters in disguise meet and bluff one another; eventually the woman warrior Golden Swallow takes on all comers. Strictly speaking, King Hu’s other films belong to Taiwanese cinema, but he is one of the greatest of all Chinese directors, so you will naturally want to see Dragon Gate Inn (1967), The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), The Valiant Ones (1975), and his official masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1971). I give him a fair amount of space in Planet Hong Kong because of his historical importance and his innovations in the aesthetics of action. I talk a little about those innovations here.
Golden Swallow (1968): Shaws’ dominant director from the late 1960s onward, Chang Cheh specialized in films of “staunch masculinity,” martial arts pictures that replaced the female-centered romances and opera films. Golden Swallow shows the woman warrior, the nominal protagonist, muscled aside by a typical brooding Chang hero—Jimmy Wang Yu, acting as if he still nursed a grudge from being The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). Later Chang developed the masculine pairing of Ti Lung and David Chiang Da-wei (Blood Brothers, 1973) and the brawny teamwork of what came to be known in the West as the Five Venoms (as in Invincible Shaolin, 1978).
Fist of Fury (1972): Child star Bruce Lee came home from Hollywood, and his first kung-fu film, The Big Boss (1971), was a sensation. The most influential star in all Hong Kong cinema, Lee stands at the center of his classics; the plots, staging, and shooting simply set off his glowering charisma. Fist of Fury provides a string of archetypal scenes: he wipes the floor of a dojo with its students and master, he kicks to splinters a sign barring Chinese from a park, and he ends his life by hurling himself, shouting, into a hail of bullets. Remade as the no less enjoyable Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li.
The House of 72 Tenants (1973): The success of Shaw Brothers’ export-driven Mandarin-language product led to a decline in films made in Cantonese, the local language. (Hong Kong audiences heard Bruce Lee dubbed into Mandarin.) 72 Tenants, based on a popular play, brought back Cantonese cinema in a crowd-pleasing guise. Under the direction of veteran Chor Yuen, the crisscrossed stories of neighbors became an enduring reference point for local cinema—cited again last Lunar New Year in 72 Tenants of Prosperity.
The Private Eyes (1976): Another victory for Cantonese vernacular cinema. The Hui brothers, popular from television, brought their episodic sight-gag comedy to the big screen and were among the biggest stars of the 1970s. There are many classic scenes, including Michael and Sam’s sleight of hand with candies, a shark attack in a kitchen, and a bout of chicken aerobics—plus a weird contagion of neck braces. See also Security Unlimited (1981) and, for fairly daring mockery of Beijing, The Front Page (1990).
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). As his employer Shaw Studios was fading from the scene, Lau Kar-leung (aka Liu Chia-liang) created in nearly twenty films a virtual encyclopedia of the kung-fu tradition. Any choice among the films is arbitrary (I’ll mention more in a future entry), but let this exuberant display of color, movement, and emotion stand as an outstanding accomplishment. A young man burning with rebellion enters the Shaolin monastery. Through persistence and discipline he achieves the highest distinction and returns to his home town to fight the Manchu oppressors. Featuring the director’s brother Gordon Lau Kar-fai and Lo Lieh, both martial-arts icons.
Young Master (1980): Jackie Chan’s comic kung-fu caught fire in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978). Young Master is a prime instance of his rubbery energy and bottomless masochism. It benefits from extended byplay with Yuen Biao, splendid jumper, and Shek Kin, patriarch of the Hong Kong martial arts movie. Soon Jackie would show both ambition and directorial prowess in Project A (1983), his leap into big budgets and pan-Asian superstardom.
Aces Go Places (1982): The most successful franchise in Hong Kong history was launched by this jaunty action comedy, stuffed with pratfalls and high-tech chases. The buffoonery was carried off by an unruffled Sam Hui Koon-kit and a sprightly Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, not to mention the robots. Any film is improved by robots.
Boat People (1982): Ann Hui On-wah, a practitioner of serious drama for over thirty years, established her reputation in world cinema with this poignant story about a photographer’s discovery of children cast out by war. Her earlier film about Vietnamese refugees, Story of Woo Viet (1981), gave TV actor Chow Yun-fat his first major film role. Another characteristic Hui work is Song of the Exile (1990).
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) Which early film by Tsui Hark to choose? The Butterfly Murders (1979) looks forward to his recent Detective Dee; the hectic We’re Going to Eat You (1980) suggests Romero turned loose in China; many critics pick Dangerous Encounter—First Kind (1980), a rough-edged Buñuelian indictment of class differences. With Zu, however, Tsui showed his resolve to update classic genres, in this case the Cantonese swordplay fantasy, using modern technique and special effects—a trend that has continued right up to the recent Storm Warriors (2010). Go here for more thoughts on Tsui.
Police Story (1985): Possibly Jackie Chan’s directorial masterpiece. A rip-roaring auto chase through a hillside shantytown, capped by a runaway bus, would be the climax of any other movie, but here it’s just for openers. The film ends with a fight in a shopping mall that, for precision and visceral impact, deserves to be ranked with the great sequences in film history. More on this scene here.
Peking Opera Blues (1986): The woman warrior’s shining hour, complete with the obligatory cross-dressing. Tsui Hark moves toward historical action/ adventure in a breathless movie that showcases three great beauties: Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Sally Yeh, and Cherie Chung Cho-hung.
A Better Tomorrow (1986): The film that defined a generation and cemented Chow Yun-fat’s star stature. John Woo came out of Taiwanese exile to make a film that revived the Chang Cheh spirit of brotherhood, made even more romantically doomed by the idea that Hong Kong was living on borrowed time.
Rouge (1988): A courtesan’s ghost revisits contemporary Hong Kong and finds that no one else is willing to die for love—not even the man who pledged to join her in death. Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s delicate yet straightforward handling of the plot, refusing all special effects, gives an extra poignancy. Others would suggest Kwan’s Centre Stage (aka Actress, 1992), a biographical study of the great film star Ruan Lingyu.
The Killer (1989): The Chow/ Woo collaboration that brought them to the attention of the West. Often imitated, at home and abroad, the original retains its bold lyricism and outlandish emotion: crime and punishment as (mostly male) melodrama, accompanied by cadenzas of annihilation. To be supplemented by A Better Tomorrow II (1987), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), all of which brought awed fanboys to their knees.
God of Gamblers (1989): A financial triumph for bad-boy producer/director Wong Jing and the definitive gaming movie for a town that loves a bet. Shamelessly cheesy in its plot mechanisms, surprisingly elegant in its direction, the movie yanks us from laughter to pathos. Plus Chow Yun-fat in a tuxedo. To be seen alongside Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s parody All for the Winner (1990).
Days of Being Wild (1990). Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film about young people adrift in the early 1960s. A dazzling array of stars (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Andy Lau Tak-wah, et al.) creates a languid movie about the magnetic pull of selfish passion. For many local critics, the most important film of the last thirty years. I discuss a rare alternate version of the film here.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991): Tsui Hark doing Movie Brat revisionism again, this time with the Southern Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hong. This flamboyant exercise in fervent nationalism ushered Mainland wushu champion Jet Li onto the world stage. If Bruce Lee radiated a cocky sexual energy, this film helped establish Li’s star image as a shy and chaste warrior.
Chungking Express (1994)/ Ashes of Time (1994): A coin-flip. The first showed that Wong Kar-wai could make a movie fast, cheap, and charming. The second showed that a swordplay film could be drenched in romantic longing. Both bristled with audacious storytelling tactics. Chungking spliced two stories together (prefigured in the way characters bump into each other), while Ashes zigzagged and spiraled in time, refusing plot certainties but offering a hypnotic reverie instead. Western critics and fans, notably one Q. Tarantino, sat up and noticed. PHK devotes an entire section to Chungking; go here for more on Ashes of Time.
The Mission (1999): Johnnie To Kei-fung’s stealth classic. Made on a shoestring, shot in less than three weeks (without a developed script), filled with great character actors, this ascetic polar has some of the subtlest plot twists in Hong Kong film. If Kitano Takeshi in his prime had made a Hong Kong film, it might look like this. Of course the mall shootout has become a classic.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): This US-Hong Kong-Taiwan project showed that the world was ready for the wuxia pian, or film of heroic chivalry. CTHD became the top-grossing foreign-language film in U. S. history. The versatile Ang Lee centered the drama on two couples, one young and one older, and their life in the jianghu–that virtual, larger-than-life world of forests and rivers that tests warriors’ righteousness. Lee’s film prodded Zhang Yimou to make the artier Hero (2003), first in a procession of historical dramas that helped revive the Mainland film industry.
In the Mood for Love (2000): Julia Roberts’ favorite movie, I’m told. Revisiting the period and perhaps some of the characters of Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai evokes muffled yearning through averted glances, hidden faces, radiant costumes, and a typically spine-tingling soundtrack. This Cannes prizewinner was given a sequel, 2046 (2004), that is harsher but no less romantic in its commitment to cherishing the past.
Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003): A deliberate effort to break away from the hell-for-leather action film, the IA trio showed that Hong Kong filmmakers could construct a taut, restrained crime plot. The first installment is a compact, efficient suspense exercise, the second a wide-ranging exploration of betrayal, and the third a fairly daring experiment in time-shifting and subjectivity. Many recent crime films have taken their cues from the trilogy’s huge box-office success. Portions were remade as The Departed, and for once it was the Hollywood movie that was overblown (not least the contribution of Mr. Nicholson). I set down some thoughts on the two versions here and here.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004): Stephen Chow purists may consider it a case of comedic elephantiasis, but this big-budget extravaganza is historically significant for winning worldwide distribution and big box-office. Kung Fu Hustle is also packed with engaging CGI-enhanced gags, on every scale from tenement demolition to cobra-smooching. One of the funniest scenes will encourage you not to use the phrase “hair on fire.” The even more inventive Shaolin Soccer (2001) was Chow’s previous step toward making movies at once China-friendly and globally marketable; not for nothing is his company called The Star Overseas.
Later this week I’ll offer a list of other Hong Kong films that I think are worth attention. (So wait until you’ve seen all my picks before writing me to point out titles I’ve omitted here!) And somewhere I’ll try to wedge in some outstanding sequences. This is nothing if not a cinema of rousing set-pieces.
Nearly all the films I mention are available on DVD, with European and American editions usually being of superior quality to Hong Kong editions. Many of the filmmakers mentioned are discussed in other entries on our site; check the Directors category on the right.
In 2005, Chinese critics assembled a list of the 103 best films from the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. That list can be found here.
PS 3 Feb: Another list of top Chinese films, tilted somewhat toward Taiwan, is here.
A Better Tomorrow (1986).