For any visiting the site, you are likely already aware of Kozo’s recent voter based listing of the top films of given decades over at the LoveHKfilm.com site. His first run saw the top 50 films of the post millennial decade. His more recent survey generated the top 100 films of the 90s. And plans to do a list for the 80s are in the works. With some previously mentioned downtime until the next podcast, I decided I would take to writing up my thoughts on my own entries which were submitted for each of these elections. Ideally this would make a prime topic for discussion in upcoming podcasts as well, but for now here are my submissions and some of the reasoning behind my choices.
UPDATE: In looking at my pics for 10 – 5, I realized a few things. First, that I tend to admire films in which Hong Kong plays a larger than normal role within the film’s setting. This is a trend that seems to carry through to many of the films in the overall list, but my choices for 9, 8, and 6 all held narratives that were as much bout Hong Kong life and culture as they were about the characters being portrayed in those narratives. I also noticed that these 5 picks were fairly evenly spaced in the overall poll listing, with a range of 24 to 51 on the overall ranking. This becomes more interesting when compared with the my pics for 5-1 which are all over the chart. This is with the exception of #3 which was spot on. My #1 pic has a disparity of 47 points with the overall ranking, so while it is liked by the general community, it is not as beloved as I hold it. This film, as with my #4 choice, has the parodic aspect of spoofing film in general with the added qualities of of some self reflection on Hong Kong culture which seems to be a winning combination in my book.
TOP 10 HONG KONG FILMS OF THE DECADE
10. The Eye (2002) : LHKF ranking #51
I have to emphasize that I tend to dislike horror films in general. This is due to the fact that most horror films don’t give me a sense of horror at all, they simply use overly loud noises and jump cut edits to startle the audience. It’s a valid technique when used skillfully, but one that never has appealed to me as a form of enjoyment. Or alternatively they move towards torture-porn that now seems to be the trend in film series like Hostel or Saw. That being said, The Eye was a unique surprise for me. While it did have a few moments to startle viewers (see note below), it managed to also generate a sense of horror through tension, at times doing so in the full light of day. Thus for me the success of the film was making me feel scared in new ways. To some extent they were improving on techniques present in the Japanese film Ringu (1998), and yet they managed to go much further than that classic film. Another factor for me was the central character played by Angelica Lee. Typically, I don’t feel much sympathy for characters in horror stories as they are made to be archetypes with little depth. Yet, I found myself sympathetic to the lead and engaged by the story as it unfolded. As the film was just barely outside of the top 50 rank (at no. 51), apparently not to many of the fellow voters felt as I did. But for me The Eye remains a solid favorite of the post millennial era.
Personal note: One of the best parts about The Eye was the theatrical experience. As the film started and was just rolling through the first of the initial credits, it broke, complete with a burn away of the film in front of the projector. There was a tremendous groan from audience and as can be expected people started to look back towards the projection booth. Then suddenly a load scream and skull visage appeared on the screen causing the entire theater to jump at once. The ‘break‘ was a staged part of the film’s opening. This moment of toying with the discourse of the film going experience, signaled to me that I was in for something different. Sadly this experience is not present (nor would it work) on the DVD, and thus it is securely stored in the recesses of my mind as one of my favorite film moments of my life.
9. My Life as McDull (2002) : LHKF ranking #24
Animation holds a special place in my film loving brain. Particularly works that seek to go beyond the standard of simply being a platform for marketing plastic stuff. And while the McDull series does indeed have plenty of plastic paraphernalia created in its name, it also caries a smart array of characters that represent a variety of cultural facets of Hong Kong. And it is ironic that that particular strength also serves as the film’s main weakness. The film is so local that much of the cultural context will be lost on viewers that have not spent a fair amount of time in the former british colony. Despite this drawback the film remains a remarkable success story given that the regions animation markets are dominated by Japanese imports and Disney reruns. It is truly a case of the little pig that could, and to date there have been two direct animated sequels [McDull: Prince de la Bun (2004) & McDull Kung Fu Ding Ding Dong (2009)] and a hybrid spin off [McDull, the Alumni (2006)]. These films each have merits of their own, but the charm of the original has yet to be outdone.
8. Crazy in the City (2005) : LHKF ranking #36
For all the films made in Hong Kong only a handful actually ‘feel’ like Hong Kong. This feeling is a sense that one can only get from spending time here, but once you know it, you can recognize it. It’s like the smell of your favorite bakery or that sense of nostalgia you recognize in an old stomping ground from your youth. Arguably, this is an unfair basis on which to judge films that play in international markets, but I have found that the Hong Kong films that appeal to me the most tend to have ‘that Hong Kong feeling’ (to borrow a line from Kozo’s review.
Crazy in the City is one such film. It is not great by any singular measure of contemporary film standards other than the fact that the film feels so genuine. Even the extraordinary characterizations are recognizable in people you may run across while living here. While each character may be a cinematic extreme, they are highly reflective of people that I know or have encountered in my brief time here. It is ironic however that these same qualities make the film less approachable for a viewer that has never been to Hong Kong. But for those that have, and have truly taken time to break outside of the island side refuges designed for ex-pats, elements of this film will feel like familiar territory.
7. July Raphsody (2001) : LHKF ranking #32
One of the two major ‘people oriented’ reasons I long desired to move to Hong Kong was Anita Mui. Back in the US, she was one of the first Hong Kong icons I came to recognize and I was a huge fan of hers for many years, both as an actress and a singer. She was known for her ability to be chameleon like on stage, and she carried this ability onto the screen as well. Her reserved and quietly tragic role here as a simple wife and mother with a secret past was deeply moving. Jackie Cheung’s role as a husband and father being led astray through the temptations of a secondary school student (played by the then neophyte actress Karena Lam) was honest and believable, this due in part through the guiding hand of Ann Hui.
Some will point to director Hui’s earlier work Summer Snow (1995) as being a stronger film overall, but July Rhapsody represented many aspects of family fragmentation that were reflective of the new millennium (the prominence of ICQ’s iconic uh-oh sounds being a prime example). It was the quieter moments of scenes like these that made the film speak volumes, and showed just how in touch the director was with family life. This is a trend that still continues in the work she produces today.
6. Just One Look (2002) : LHKF ranking #38
A coming of age film set in an earlier time period when Hong Kong cinema was still fairly young. And while youth makes up a strong portion of the cast including the use of young idols from both Shine and Twins, the leads manage to handle themselves remarkably well, including the then newcomer Shawn Yue. The film builds not only a sense of nostalgia for a Hong Kong long past, but of Hong Kong cinema experience that has been pushed out by international chains and Hollywood films. In many ways it is the supporting actors that steal the show here. Anthony Wong as a small time bully turned local gangster and Eric Kot as a martial arts instructor are both in fine form despite their smaller roles and portray facets of these character types that are seldom presented.
Some (even many locals) would argue that the new modernized cinemas, stadium seating, and western production values all make for a better overall cinema experience. But having spent much of my initial time watching local films in small local houses, I can say that there is a charm present that you have to experience to understand. This film understands that charm and understands the transformations and misconceptions that have been occurring as Hong Kong has modernized and uses this a running theme.
5. Golden Chicken (2002) : LHKF ranking #77
A masterful film that parallels key events of Hong Kong history with the life of a ‘happy’ hooker named Ah Kam (which means gold). Kam is no Suzie Wong, but she takes her life in stride and with a sense of humor as times change. Portrayed by veteran actress Sandra Ng and supported with numerous cameos, the film plays basically like a local version of Forest Gump. But whereas that film was about simplicity through unintentional ignorance (i.e. ignorance is bliss), here it is played off as simplicity through homeliness, with Ah Kam as an ‘Ugly Betty’ of the escort world. Because of the retrospective style of the narrative, this film tends to appeal more to those who are truly interested in Hong Kong’s recent history. Those simply looking for a standard narrative may care little for this parallelism.
Sandra Ng is amazing and is quite simply a super talented actress who knows her strengths. In her earlier years she was often the comedic foil as the chubby or homely girl played off of any given year’s new hot starlet. While many of said starlets have been cast off to make room for the next new young thing, Sandra Ng is still around and better than ever. And truth be told, she is not homely and can pull off sexy and seductive equally well when called to do so. On a personal note, you can see that I was way off with regard to the overall LHKF ranking for this choice but it is not the biggest divergence (that is coming next). Perhaps I am just a sucker for nostalgia, or history or Sandra Ng. Maybe it’s the combination of all three. Whatever the case may be, this film remains one of my all time favorites.
4. Herbal Tea (2004) : LHKF ranking #120
One of the best aspects of Hong Kong film is the tendency for stories to take place around actual locales rather than created set pieces. While the city tends to change as rapidly as any modern metropolis, having the ability to track down and visit existing film/TV drama related locales has become a growing trend in Asian cultural tourism.
Herbal Tea is centered around a young girl who inherited her parents Herbal Tea shop and her relationship with a new tenant who rents the flat above her directly across the street. The use of musician Candy Lo as the lead was a bold move since she is neither known comedic talent, nor a typical pop starlet, yet she manages to bring an simple honesty to her role. Jordan Chan as an aspiring actor working as a stuntman is in fine form as well. Much of the humor is based around his attempt at getting a break, and done at the expense of the industry itself. These inside jokes may be hard to follow for those lacking much context with local films and narratives.
Herbal tea itself is a very popular drink for locals, with numerous shops in every district. They tend to be bitter or lightly sugared and are taken for health rather than taste. The actual herbal tea shop where the movie was filmed is called 公利 (gung lei) and can be found (ironically enough) on Hollywood Road in the Sheung Wan/Central district. While you won’t find Candy Lo working there, you can get a really good cup of herbal tea. Sadly, with a wide disparity of 116 in the rankings, not too many seem to like this film as much as I do, perhaps due to the contextual points mentioned earlier.
3. Shaolin Soccer (2001) : LHKF ranking #3
Though some would argue that Stephen Chow reached his zenith with his follow up film Kung Fu Hustle (2004), I would argue that Shaolin Soccer was far more original in terms of material. Here Chow shines, not only as an actor and director, but on some levels as an action star. One can also sense the shift in focus to more of a reliance on supporting characters, not too mention the fact that this film was the last pairing (to date) of Chow with Ng Man Tat. While Chow continued this trend in Hustle he often disappears in the narrative and is ultimately overshadowed by co stars Yeun Qiu and Yeun Wah.
There is not much else to be said about Shaolin Soccer except that if you have seen the film, then you likely already know how good it is, and if you haven’t then you need to. It is also interesting to point out that of all of my picks this one was dead on in terms of ranking.
2. Needing You (2000) : LHKF ranking #16
The modern variant of the Cinderella story told through the Hong Kong lens. It has been told countless times in fact, often in movies featuring the two leads of this film. (See Dances with the Dragon or Marry a Rich Man for alternative examples). Premise of a poor girl meeting up with a prince charming and living happily ever after is a simple enough narrative that still works despite all of the efforts of feminists and contemporary ideas about equality. Here Hong Kong (which is certainly not equal in terms of workplace gender disparity) set the backdrop of the office romance between an OL (office lady) and the yuppie (prince) corporate manager.
Despite the expectations, this film manages to play off both local contexts and intertextual referents to the actors own images in ways that keep the narrative fresh and engaging. This and the alluring chemistry between the leads (which would be used to further extent in later films Love on a Diet) turned Needing You into an acclaimed success for the new millennium.
1. You Shoot, I Shoot (2001) : LHKF ranking #41
Pang Ho Cheung is quite simply one of the best directors of the new generation. His films contain a unique mixture of artistry while still maintaining enough convention to allow them to work commercially. For myself however, his best film remains his directorial debut in You Shoot, I Shoot. While I would agree that he has become increasingly more talented with each successive film, his first has an edge and style that stands out in my mind.
The film’s narrative follows a wannabe filmmaker who ends up using his skills to help document the hits performed by a local assassin. The film’s real success comes from director Pang’s ability to deftly lampoon new media and film culture from both Hong Kong and abroad, but still create an atmosphere that is darkly comic. It pokes fun at multiple aspects, even at the director’s own prior work as a writer (One of the best scenes is a spoof on the trend of local DVD bootlegging). This film also marked the screen debut of Jim Chim (Chim Sui Man) who has since become a major presence in the Hong Kong drama and theater circuits.