Tag Archives: Hong Kong cinema

Ordinary Heroes (Qian yan wan yu, Hong Kong (Cantonese) 1999)

Anthony Wong as Fr. Kam with street children

‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.

The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.

I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.

It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.

Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong 2011)

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.

There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.

At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey).

The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.

Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.

Trailer with English Subs:

The Midnight After (Hong Kong 2014)

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

Fruit Chan is the Hong Kong director best known in the UK for his independent film classic Made in Hong Kong (HK 1997) and his horror features and portmanteau film episodes such as Dumplings (HK 2004). His latest venture proved a suitably bonkers but enjoyable finale to the Asia Triennial 14 Festival screenings programme at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Chosen by festival programmers Sarah Perks and Andy Willis, both HK cinema fans, it proved to be the ‘popular cinema with a message’ that doesn’t usually get onto UK cinema screens.

The Midnight After is an adaptation (loosely, I imagine) of an internet novel that went viral and was eventually published in print form. At first glance it looks like a conventional horror genre flic. A mini-bus driver is called from his mahjong game as a substitute driver for a late-night service starting in Kowloon and heading out to Tai Po in the New Territories. The passengers are a motley crew of students, young couples and older eccentrics. Part way through the Lion tunnel something happens and the bus arrives in a deserted and apparently post-apocalyptic Tai Po. Panic gradually sets in, some members of the group break away and die in mysterious circumstances. We’ve seen it all before but Chan’s track record suggests that the usual conventions won’t deliver the usual outcomes or the usual pleasures.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew what was going on for much of the film and I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the ending – just like everyone else. I can also understand the complaints that the film is too long (123 mins is pushing it for this kind of production) but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Chan’s 1997 film was one of the last of the films exploring life for youths in Hong Kong during the final months of control from London before the ‘handover’ to China. It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out that the passengers on the minibus (and the driver) are representative of certain groups in Hong Kong society and that trying to organise themselves into a group in order to survive – and to try to understand what is happening – is a metaphor for ordinary HK residents trying to deal with the Chines authorities. On the other hand, they also behave a bit like the marooned schoolboys in Lord of the Flies and the folk getting together to fight zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films. Chan gives us some good laughs between the blood and gore and other effects. A highlight is a decoded message referring to David Bowie’s hit ‘Space Oddity’. Another reference is to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The ending of the film seems like it is deliberately set up for a sequel. (In fact the whole narrative feels like an extended episode or episodes of Dr Who.) The film was successful in its home market where the actors, the dialects and cultural references – as well as the political implications – make most sense. I wonder if it might also do well in other parts of East Asia. At times it reminded me of Korean and Japanese films. One website informs us that Chan released a second version of the film cut to be screened to under-18s and an obvious ploy to expand the audience. The Midnight After made HK$10 million after just 6 days on release and Chan has said that he will definitely make a sequel if the box office passes HK$30 million. To put this in perspective, the target is the equivalent of just under US$4 million. Still, this is a significant amount for a domestic HK film these days. I hope the director gets his wish. I’m just glad to have seen an enjoyable comedy-horror in ‘Scope.

Hong Kong popular cinema is discussed in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 in The Global Film Book. The idea of developing an internet novel into a film is explored in Chapter 2 in terms of the smash hit South Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001).

Here’s a trailer (an English-subtitled Region 3 DVD is available from YesAsia):

A Simple Life (Tao Jie, Hong Kong 2011)

One of the most garlanded films from East Asia in 2011 has finally made it into UK distribution – and it immediately goes into my Top 10 of 2012 releases. A ‘simple tale’ this may be, but it is exquisitely made and packs a mighty punch both in the emotions it arouses and the subtle commentary it makes on contemporary Hong Kong society – and on the power of nostalgia. It’s a star-laden production from the leads to the cameo appearances and the creative talent behind the camera. Ann Hui is the doyenne of HK directors, Andy Lau is the superstar of Chinese cinema and Deanie Ip, a significant figure herself in the 1980s, has come out of retirement to win the acting prizes. The film looks terrific thanks to Yu Lik-wai (best known for his work with Jia Zhangke) and the minimal piano score by Law Wing-fai is perfect.

A Simple Life is in some ways a nostalgic film – or at least a film about how memories inform the last few months of a powerful relationship in a middle-class Hong Kong family. I recommend the film’s quite beautiful website with its explanation of the role of the amah in Hong Kong households. I’ve deliberately chosen the nostalgic poster above to illustrate this.

I take the amah to be a colonial legacy (similar to the ayah in India). The amah was a maid cum nanny, often recruited as a young teenager, who would pledge herself to a family in which she would gradually assume charge of the children as and when they were born. She wore a uniform of black pants and a white blouse. Under British colonialism, the amah would serve in both the coloniser’s homes and those of the local middle-classes. The bond between amah and child would be very strong and would carry through to adulthood. A Simple Life is based on the real world experience of producer Roger Lee. In Susan Chan’s script Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, the amah of Roger (Andy Lau), the last remaining Hong-Kong based member of a family in which his mother and siblings (now with children and later in the narrative, even grandchildren of their own) have migrated to California. Ah Tao has been ‘in post’ since she was a young teenager – over 60 years. Roger is an accountant in the film industry, often away on business. One day, on his return from Beijing, he discovers that Ah Tao, now his housekeeper, has had a stroke. He decides to acquiesce to her wish to retire and live in a care home and when she leaves hospital, he takes her to one that he has found, owned by an old and rather disreputable friend (played by the Hong Kong actor-director Anthony Wong).

Roger finds himself maintaining his close relationship, visiting Ah Tao and taking her out. Her decline is gradual but inexorable but in the process she develops relationships with several of the other residents in the home. The home itself isn’t too bad and it is in the local area that she knows and wants to remain in. Ann Hui chose the district herself as a location for the shoot. It is quieter than the more bustling streets well-known to film lovers. Hui was one of the pioneers of a form of social film with a realist aesthetic during the period of the Hong Kong New Wave in the early 1980s and A Simple Life feels very ‘located’. The film offers us a commentary on the realities of social welfare in Hong Kong and on the new system of ‘service’. Roger remains impassive when the charges for ‘escorts’ (the carers who take the residents out for hospital trips etc.) which clearly delineate the Filipinos, Mainlanders and ‘Foreigners’ etc. (I confess that I didn’t grasp all the details but the sociology is interesting). This is confirmed when we see the interviews for a new ‘maid’ to help out in Roger’s flat – the candidates are clearly not prepared to consider the kind of work the amah did. Status is important in Hong Kong and some of the funniest moments come when Roger, because of his casual clothes, is mistaken first as an air-conditioning maintenance man and then as a taxi-driver. In the home, Roger describes himself as Ah Tao’s godson. There is a whole discourse about service and social class bubbling beneath the surface of the exchanges in the home. The older residents probably recognise the real relationship but the younger staff and visitors take it at face value.

Deanie Ip and Andy Lau, the amah and her erstwhile charge, in a cafe eating steamed fish and vegetables.

The irony is that I’ve read that Andy Lau really is Deanie Ip’s godson (although she is only 14 years his senior). This and other relationships on the set infuse the film. Many of the actors and crew have worked together before dozens of times going back to Ann Hui’s earliest work. The directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung play versions of themselves. In an interview, Hui points out that most of the female leads in the film have won a Best Actress award. The film seems as much about validating and celebrating the history of Hong Kong cinema as it is about the amah system.

In the end, however, this is a family melodrama and when the whole family celebrate the first birthday of Roger’s great-nephew (a child who is now American-Chinese-Korean), I was forcibly reminded of scenes in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) and the stories of extended families coming together. A Simple Life uses both the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) as foci for the presence/absence of family and the importance of social interaction. Although the film is, I think, technically a melodrama, it is marked by the absence rather than the ‘excess’ of expressionism in music or mise en scène. Everything seems restrained and low-key – meticulous rather than colourless though. If there is excess it is in the detailed focus on rituals like cooking and eating. The emotional attachment between Roger and Ah Tao is expressed through the food they make for each other – and how they talk about it. Chinese culture surely revolves around the pot! When we discussed the film after the screening I think one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way in which Roger handled the inevitable death of his amah. How he behaved seemed to demonstrate a real difference between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese attitudes towards a ‘death in the family’. His actions seem far less sentimental than actions in a similar Western film – but they don’t detract from what we know is his deep emotional attachment to his amah. On the other hand, Deanie Ip says that she thinks Roger could have done more for his ‘Tao Jie’ and she feels it was a very difficult role for Andy Lau. I must see the whole film again, but especially the last third. I realise that there are large chunks of back story that are not explored – unless I missed a cue. Has Roger ever had a wife or a lover? How important was the heart surgery he had some time earlier? In many ways Roger seems like as much of an anachronism as Ah Tao in his flat with few of the accoutrements of modern living.

I’ve seen reviews of this film in the Western press which refer to its long running time (118 mins) and dismiss it as a ‘crowdpleaser’ for older audiences – i.e. not the kind of film to interest ‘real’ cinephiles. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a wonderful film that will reward attentive audiences.

Here’s a trailer with subs:

And a link to an interesting blog from Singapore remembering the amah in that culture.

Shinjuku Incident (San suk si gin, Hong Kong 2009)

Jackie Chan as ‘Steelhead’ leading his Chinese gang in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo

Dismissed by David Bordwell because of the “formulaic” direction by Derek Yee, this film from Jackie Chan’s production company is indeed flawed in many ways – but it’s also pretty interesting for several reasons. The narrative begins in North East China in the 1990s. Villagers are discussing the possibility of emigration to Japan, especially as one of the elderly villagers can prove that she is a ‘Japanese orphan’ – one of the children born during the wartime occupation of China. A group of villagers beg her to claim them as her children so that they can legally enter Japan. Xie Xie (Xu Jinglei) has an aunt in Tokyo and she leaves China. When he has heard nothing from her for a considerable time, her ex-boyfriend ‘Steelhead’ (Jackie Chan as a tractor mechanic) decides to follow her. The ship carrying him and other ‘illegals’ founders on the Japanese coast but Steelhead eventually finds his way to Tokyo and refuge with a Chinese community in Shinjuku which includes Jie, his ‘brother’ from the village. For the remainder of the narrative Steelhead moves steadily from an illegal being hunted by the police to a petty crook and then on to a gang-leader taking on the yakuza. He also develops a second relationship with a Japanese-Chinese woman, Lily, since Xie Xie is by now beyond his reach.

The concept behind the film sees Jackie Chan attempting a ‘serious’ dramatic role. Although there are action sequences, Chan does not perform outrageous stunts or display his kung-fu skills. Instead he plays a hard-working man who is pushed first into crime because of his illegal status and then into leadership of his Chinese community in self defence. This Hong Kong production tells a mainland story that is also about a social issue in Japan. It obviously draws on yakuza genre narratives, but offsets this quite heavily with a ‘moral discourse’ that perhaps derives from Chinese social films (at various times Steelhead acts in an almost altruistic fashion – even though it puts him in danger). As well as the Japanese setting, the plot also involves a Taiwanese gang which Steelhead and his group must replace on the streets of Shinjuku. Language is an issue in the film, although of course the English subtitles draw attention away from the mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese dialects.

I found the film to be confusing at times, partly I suspect because it has been re-edited. It is also very violent. Despite a sometimes poor critical response, the film seems to have pleased many of Chan’s large numbers of fans. In passing I learned something I’ve not thought about before – the film was not released in mainland China because there are no age-related certificates there. Chan is reported to have been concerned that this 18 certificate film in the UK would be unsuitable in an unregulated cinema market where children might see it.

I’m not really in a position to judge Jackie Chan’s performance in this role as I haven’t seen enough of the earlier work which made him such a big star. For what it’s worth, I thought he did a good job – but I must confess that I did think about those films where older stars like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood played action roles that seemed unlikely. Chan was only in his early 50s in this film and there was nothing wrong with his action sequences but he seemed a good 10-15 years too old for the specific role of the ex-boyfriend/fiancé.