Put down those Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan DVDs (apart from that one)
Hong Kong cinema is an unique beast with its own characteristics and personality, and I am going to show you some stuff worth investing your time in.
It exhibits a distinct identity which separates it from Western cinema. Plus it is also a very personal topic for me given my background; much like Cantopop, it serves as a simple remainder of my Cantonese heritage and culture. Having seen a fair share of its catalogue, I decided to narrow down what I believe to be some of my most favourite movies from my motherland. Note this list is solely based on personal taste, hence the large number of action flicks and the inclusion of Future Cops.
The Private Eyes (1976)
A decent grasp of colloquial Cantonese is needed to fully experience this wacky and enjoyable comedy which established the Hui brothers’ branch of slapstick locally and internationally. The film and its brilliant soundtrack by Sam Hui also helped kickstart the return of Cantonese to Hong Kong cinema, connecting the local audience with its working class story, culture and language. The influence of The Private Eyes can still be felt today for the almost surreal and unnecessary slapstick style of humour you find in nearly every Hong Kong film kind of stemmed from this.
Similar recommendations: Aces Go Places (1982), Pom Pom (1984), Winners and Sinners (1983), The House of 72 Tenants (1973)
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)
The Shaw Brothers studios are living legends in their own rights in the world of martial arts cinema. I discovered them through Legendary Weapons of China which led me to this classic from the 80s. A brutal and rather solemn tale of vengeance starring Gordon Liu and with support from a strong roster of other Shaw Brothers stars including Kara Hui and Alexander Fu Sheng. The action choreography by director Lau Kar Leung is mesmerizing with the final fight scene being one of the most complex and ridiculous thing I’ve seen in martial arts cinema. It also contains scenes of questionable dental practice as the protagonists go out to “defang the wolves”.
Similar recommendations: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1980), Legendary Weapons of China (1982), The 5 Shaolin Masters (1974), Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
Police Story (1985)
Think Hong Kong cinema and most likely Jackie Chan will come to mind. His influence and reach cannot be denied. I believe he perfected his style of action-comedy and showed the world his pedigree in stunt work with the first installment of his Police Story saga. The number of insane well executed Buster Keaton-esque stunts in this film is something to behold. Car chases which destroy whole shanty towns, Chan hailing a bus using a brollie plus THAT shopping mall fight where I have never seen so many panes of glass broken in my life.
Similar recommendations: Armor of God (1986), Crime Story (1993), the rest of the Police Story series, SPL (2005).
School on Fire (1988)
An over the top, uncomfortable and rather unrealistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a high-schooler in Hong Kong in the late 80s. Bar tackling typical teenage problems, Fennie Yuen has to deal with the local Triad boss (Roy Cheung naturally) and the police after witnessing an attack outside her school. Events eventually spiral out of control and hell is unleashed on everyone. Unlike Ringo Lam’s other “On Fire” movies, very few moments of comedy or slapstick here, it’s all very gritty and melodramatic plus the said titled building actually does go up in flames. A bleak and dark style of Hong Kong cinema and story telling that is rarely found now.
Similar recommendations: Prison On Fire (1987), City On Fire (1987), People’s Hero (1987), As Tears Go By (1988)
The Killer (1989)
Childhood hero, cult action star and deity Chow Yun Fat is an assassin with a strict code of honour and morality. Danny Lee, for the umpteenth time in his film career, is the cop trying to catch him. After crossing path several times, they overcome their occupational difference, join forces and become best friends to take down the real bad guys. John Woo’s library of heroic bloodshed movies contains so many iconic and note-worthy films but I think The Killer perfectly demonstrates every trope and cliché associated with the director and genre. A romanticized and poetic tale of conflicted heroes, violence, comradery, Mexican standoffs and doves.
Similar recommendations: A Better Tomorrow (1986), Hard Boiled (1992), Bullet in the Head (1990), White Storm (2013)
New Dragon Gate Inn (1992)
Wuxia can be roughly translated to Chinese sword and sorcery fantasy. The Shaw Brothers did a number of classic wuxia films in the 60s and 70s but the genre declined during the 80s. Then King Hu’s The Swordsman (1990) came along and revived a new wave of wuxia films, with one of them beingNew Dragon Gate Inn. A remake of the 1967 classic Dragon Gate Inn (also directed by King Hu), it is beautifully shot on location in the Gobi Desert and filled with moments of black comedy, typical Hong Kong melodrama and sped-up anti-gravitational swordplay. Alongside Ching Siu Tung’s Swordsman 2 (1992), it really defines this unique period of Hong Kong cinema. The talented all-star cast (Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen), epic score and insane final fight set in the Gobi plains are also worth mentioning.
Similar recommendations: The Swordsman Trilogy, The Bride with White Hair (1993), Deadful Melody (1994), Ashes of Time (1994)
Future Cops (1993)
I could write a small book on this bizarre cinematic gem if given the time and opportunity. Despite being universally panned, I feel this is probably the most Hong Kong film I can think of to be honest. The story is nonsensical and it would take too long for me to even briefly describe the plot coherently. Essentially it is a political incorrect action-comedy starring some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars who managed to ruin the Street Fighters video game franchise on the big screen a year before JCVD and Kylie did. One day I will write about it in more detail but for now, just trust me and watch it somehow. You will not regret it.
Similar recommendations: N/A
Chungking Express (1994)
I’m going to admit my understanding of this stylish Wong Kar Wai love/drama arthouse feature will not be on the same level as some more astute audience. Yet I’m not too concerned because at the end of the day, I just see it as a really charming and visually beautiful movie. The films portrays a rather simple, lonely and almost melancholic Hong Kong which I could somehow relate to. The montage scene in which Faye Wong redecorates the whole of Tony Leung’s flat to the sound of her Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’ Sunday is one of my favourite film moments of all time. To reiterate, it’s just a visually beautiful movie with a great soundtrack.
Similar recommendations: Any other Wong Kar Wai movie. Early stuff by Fruit Chan could also be worth checking out too.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
First thing first, of course I think this is better than its Hollywood remake, The Departed. Infernal Affairs will always have a fond place in my heart because it played such a big part in my 2002 trip to Hong Kong. The ridiculous amount of promotion and the film’s distinct official song by Andy Lau which kept playing everywhere we went were hard to forget. Despite my biased personal bond with this movie, it’s still a very fine, albeit commercial, piece of work that really needs no introduction when talking about Hong Kong cinema. Everything in this movie just works, from the story, cast, visuals and even the cheesy flashback segments.
Similar recommendations: Rest of the Infernal Affair Trilogy, Cold War (2012), PTU (2003)
I’m a sucker for any Johnnie To crime movie mainly because of the same amazing cast he always managed to get hold of. The unusually quirky score in all his movies and his distinct stylish take on the heroic bloodshed motifs are also valid reasons too. Exiled contains the best of all the above, the cast especially which includes nearly all of my favourite Hong Kong actors of the present era (Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, Nick Cheung, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, Francis Ng). The whole movie is just them being super cool in Macau, something I’m willing to watch.
Similar recommendations: The Mission (1999), Election (2005), Election 2 (2006), Running Out of Time (1999).