Film critic Bryan Chang contemplates the role of pedestrians in Hong Kong movies, to commemorate the opening of M+ Cinema.
When the character of modern Hong Kong began to reveal itself in the 1960s, films were no longer content to stay put inside the studio. Instead, filmmakers hit the streets to capture the look and feel of Hong Kong’s communities and landmarks. The pedestrians walking into their camera frames—whether rushing or strolling, lost in thought or lost in the crowd—became an indispensable breath of life in the cityscape.
In the era of black-and-white Cantonese films, pedestrians existed either ornamentally or in passing. I’m fond of citing the imagery of separation from Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi’s poem, ‘The Butterfly’s Love of Flowers: Spring Views’:
Within the walls, there is a swing
Without, there is a path
A passer-by outside the wall
Hears from inside a maiden laugh
Early Cantonese films shared much in common with Cantonese opera. Both used the same standard character classifications: the hero (sheng), the heroine (dan), the authority figure (zheng), the old man (mo), the clown (chou). Last on the list of ten traditional opera roles were the miscellaneous, unnamed (za) characters—the background armies and the ladies-in-waiting. Pedestrians in public spaces don’t even make the cut.
In the early days of Hong Kong’s appearance on film, this wall allowing our fair maiden to stay home safe was still obstructing the view, awaiting demolition. Filming people walking the city streets had not yet become a conscious choice. I sense a transitional moment, in which the filmmaker’s mindset is either ‘Pedestrians are incidentally seen’ or ‘Why not just leave pedestrians unseen?’. The camera’s avoidance of passers-by reflects the aesthetic standards of the day.
Then in 1968, I come across Chor Yuen’s Winter Love and Patrick Lung’s The Window. Both films trace the footsteps of stars Patrick Tse Yin and Josephine Siu, evoking an image of this ‘unseen pedestrian’ as lonely and indulging in self-pity. In the former, the two roam the area around Tsim Sha Tsui’s Star Ferry Pier, where they flashback to a tragic backstory. In the still of the night, not a shadow of a person returning home passes by. In the latter, Tse’s reforming criminal takes Siu’s blind woman out for a walk through the high-rises of Central, up to Victoria Peak Garden, and back to the church where she resides. As she’s led along the road, Siu’s character hears the sounds of people, cars, birdsong, and the wind. Relying on her senses of hearing and smell, as well as Tse’s descriptions, she is able to experience the scenery.
After that, there would always be someone taking pains to show a completely empty Hong Kong—horror films not inclusive. Worthy of mention is a scene in Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels (1996), when Karen Mok’s Blondie rambles up Ashley Road on a rain-soaked night. Then there’s a scene in Stanley Kwan’s Hold You Tight (1998), in which straight widower Fung Wai (Sunny Chan) and his gay real estate agent Tong (Eric Tsang) speed across an empty Tsing Ma Bridge towards the soon-to-be-completed Chek Lap Kok airport as dawn approaches—as if in answer to a voicemail left by Taiwanese acquaintance Che (Lawrence Ko) confessing his infatuation with Fung. As they drive, Tong mentions a date in September 1984 that connects to a hidden surge of emptiness and narcissism, underpinned by depression and anxiety over whether to leave or remain in the city.
Let’s turn now to Wong Jing’s comedy God of Gamblers (1989) and try to follow Little Knife (Andy Lau) on a search for the lost amnesiac under his care, Ko Chun (Chow Yan Fat). After scolding and abandoning Ko at a busy intersection, Little Knife has a change of heart and turns back, sprinting across Nathan Road and frantically searching the corner of Prince Edward Road. He wanders desperately in the flow of pedestrians until, at last, he notices a crowd of onlookers surrounding someone at the footbridge crossing the tracks on Yim Po Fong Street. He rushes forward to comfort Ko, only to realise it’s a false alarm—the centre of the crowd’s concerned attention is actually a homeless man, and Ko is sitting happily nearby, eating an ice cream.
You as the viewer perhaps once walked those very same streets, and in a flash, a mysterious effect might occur: as your eyes search the screen, your legs feel a slight ache, as if, in following the narrative, you too are wandering a familiar road. Or maybe you happened to have been one of the pedestrians brushing past Andy Lau that day, or one of the crowd observing Chow Yun Fat’s performance from a distance. In that case, ‘you’ are not just watching a movie, but playing the double role of ‘curious onlooker’ in a story that calls for urban pedestrians trying to understand the unfolding action.
Pedestrians playing the role of curious onlooker are often there on purpose, and sometimes that’s the ideal. In Sammo Hung’s The Owl vs Bumbo (1984), couples walking hand-in-hand down the East Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront watch the portly Bumbo (Hung) demonstrate his affection for middle-aged schoolteacher Joyce (Deanie Yip) through breaking out in spontaneous dance. Witnessing this transformation in the couple’s interaction from stoicism to affection, the nearby onlookers burst into applause, as if they were also engrossed viewers praising a new plot development. You and I have surely seen street-side romantic gesture countless times in real life, but this is the urban ‘bystander legend’ of Hong Kong comedies—only a group of trained actors could react so quickly.
The inverse of the beautiful street romance is perhaps not just a violent showdown—especially tragic is when an innocent bystander meets their end. In this regard, no film could surpass Danny Lee’s Law with Two Phases (1984), when a boy is shot on the street. Hong Kong films are especially fond of shooting street-side confrontations between police and criminals. In this case, the moment when the detective (Lee) misfires was meticulously staged. The child wasn’t the target in this story, nor was the detective guilty of imprecise aim or an error of professional judgement. The bullet’s trajectory points to the binary opposition of bystanders being either lucky or unlucky—a critique of the single-mindedness of a self-professed protector of law and order. This scenario also reflects a deep-rooted collective fear coming out of the booming 1970s. The symbolic cost of the detective’s act of manslaughter is an adult narrowly focused on seizing the moment before him at the expense of the next generation—the one who ‘pays for the crime’ is an innocent child.
When shootouts and car chases are filmed in public, ethical debates around gun violence gradually fade to the background. Data around the number of police and criminal casualties in Hong Kong film shootouts is yet to be calculated, but local filmmakers would probably object: Don’t be so serious, it’s just extras getting shot at.
What an extra acts in is fiction, so it follows that if you’d like a realistic feel to your film, pedestrians must be actual pedestrians. To this end, Hong Kong films must adopt the candid aesthetic of filming in secret. From improvising to pretending to careful planning, the ultimate attainment of the spying aesthetic is naturally in Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law (1984). Dai Dong (Lam Wai) cases a jewellery shop he and his crew plan to rob, but finds instead a lone thief who’s already made a failed robbery attempt and is surrounded by police. As Dai Dong’s associates drive by to recon the scene, a suspicious police officer (Benjamin Lam) approaches their vehicle to investigate.
Having long been steeped in the visual experience of crime, director Johnny Mak was determined to capture a realistic version of the suspects fleeing arrest. Starting at the intersection of Hanoi and Carnarvon Roads, the thieves ditch their car and escape on foot before commandeering a taxi from Mody Road across Nathan Road to Peking Road, where they eventually lose the police by throwing a grenade.
The entire chase sequence is so heart-pounding because the visual effects are made to appear as if they really happened. For a normal pedestrian, attempting to avoid such a scene would be common sense, and the ones captured here didn’t necessarily know this was all part of a film shoot. Due to the quick pace of the unfolding action, several cameras were positioned nearby, so that even if they didn’t manage to record the full escape sequence, just one pedestrian reaction—a look over the shoulder, a concerned gaze, a suspicious glance—would reveal the panic-stricken face of the city. Mak’s careful planning disrupted the flow of people, allowed them to return to normal, then disrupted them again, patiently threading together a disquieting picture while pulling off one of Hong Kong cinema’s most classic street scenes.
Shooting the street in secret and cordoning it off are two opposing approaches to attaining a realistic aesthetic. Once, perhaps being unduly self-effacing, I called Hong Kong cinema a champion of eclecticism. But now, I appreciate its brand of everyday dignity. Hong Kong really is not Hollywood; we have our own vision. This time, let’s visit the Central–Mid-levels Escalator for a closer look. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight (2008), Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox (Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman) meet at the Lyndhurst Terrace section of the sprawling footbridge to discuss their affairs. In the background, the rush hour work crowd passes, but these are not real pedestrians—these are extras instructed to avoid the lens and pretend the camera is not there, simulating the escalator’s bustling human landscape.
To compare the same environment from an insider’s view, I’ve selected Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994). Cinematographer Christopher Doyle chose to film the escalator lying flat, partially framed, or even reflected in metal. Save trivial matters like pedestrians looking into the camera for the outtakes; capturing the undisturbed daily rhythm of the Mid-levels Escalator was key. Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) might be disturbed by Faye Wong’s character saying ‘hey’ a few times, but it was essential for him to blend into the moving scenery. The viewer must understand his home is on Cochrane Street; this is a neighbourhood cop.
Secretly shooting a lead character blending with the crowd is a very practical means of tearing down the wall that obstructs the view; whether the maiden who stumbles out onto the path is laughing or crying is another story. In Hold You Tight, Eric Tsang’s closeted Tong has scrupulously planned his outward life. As he confidently heads to the MTR for his work commute, Tong throws out a piece of paper ‘seeking companionship’ from a casual hook-up in the sauna parlour, and his footsteps dissolve into the crowd. Cinematographer Kwan Pung-leung's handheld following shot is refreshing.
I am reminded of the mood of Su Shi’s ‘Riverside Daffodils: Farewell to a Friend’ and its closing lines ‘Life is like a journey / I too am on my way’—but with more of a wanderer’s feel. After all, to live a life away from home, one must prepare well to step outside; there’s no comfort in wandering the world of mortals outside the window. This act of positioning oneself often flows first with and then against the current, creating a ripple-like disturbance. For this reason, I also appreciate the neuroticism of crew-cut Jordan (Francis Ng) in Wilson Yip Wai-Shun’s Juliet in Love (2000). Drunk on his own thoughts, he makes a strange movement, and then, as if no one is near him, walks backwards, provoking one or two vexed passers-by to turn and look. The use of a long-focus lens and the rack focus technique suddenly bring the scene into sharp relief.
When a Pedestrian Discovers a Pedestrian . . .
‘Why are you following me?’ This is the vicious line criminal Cheung Wah (Andy Lau) says when he turns to confront a female pedestrian (Yoyo Mung) in Johnnie To’s Running Out of Time (1999). Cheung Wah’s comment is terribly rude, because in the preceding scene on a minibus, he’d forced the same woman to share her earphones to evade police suspicion at a roadblock. She puts on a brave face and points to a nearby building, stammering, ‘I live here.’
Characters in most Hong Kong films incite fear in nearby pedestrians, who curse them as ‘crazy’ (chisin). But here, it’s different. This woman is not just Pedestrian 1; the plot turns on her presence. After this scene, she takes the stranger into her home—who doesn’t loves a bad boy, right?—and although the space given her in the script isn’t much, her role is still leading lady. This is a rare example of a bystander being pulled into the plot. One could say that diligence was abundantly clear in the casting of Yoyo Mung for the role.
Speaking of a pedestrian conspicuously seen, Calvin Poon’s Kiss Me Goodbye (1986) offers an interesting footnote on the shift in relationship between main characters and pedestrians. Two lovers (Anthony Wong and Rachel Lee) are out on the street, looking for a way to pass the time on their date. A woman in office attire catches their eye, and they decide to play a game of guessing her identity, mood, and interests. While playing this game earlier, they’d occasionally disturbed other pedestrians, but never this woman. Instead, they tail her all the way across the harbour to Broadcast Drive. When the moment of identity reveal arrives, it turns out the woman’s been keeping her cards to close her chest—she’s coolly signing up for a beauty contest.
When a film character discovers a pedestrian, when the backdrop is all pedestrians—in the eyes of the viewer, how could the character not be a pedestrian? And how could watching in secret not be stalking? Later, when the audience exits the cinema, they, too, make their way along those streets. The chance of encountering someone shooting a scene while walking Hong Kong’s busy streets is, I believe, higher than any other large city in the world. Some people might assume big productions rely on street closures to shoot, never imagining that across the road there could be a cameraman filming in secret and they are stumbling into the frame of a Hong Kong film. I smile inside—of course, with a hint of vertigo—to think: which pedestrian is not a character, and which character is not a pedestrian? This subtle effect of not being able to tell which way the illusory wheel is spinning seems to be distinctly Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s cityscape and Hong Kong cinema go hand-in-hand, walking in step, following the narrative. Perhaps because they’re curious or they’re careless, pedestrians either linger as romantic onlookers, flee in terror, fail to leave the scene, or even join in the neuroses and conspiracies of the main characters. But now the camera must zoom out and return the pedestrian to the purest of scenery: the everyday of Hong Kong.
For our last stroll, we visit Fruit Chan’s Durian, Durian (2000), where the thoughts of Little Yan (Qin Hailu) turn to Hong Kong. For a fleeting moment, we’re in Mong Kok, as the camera slowly pans across a bustling footbridge near the train tracks. As far as the eye can see is a flow of cars and people at dusk. The camera slowly catches and quickly releases, showing a Mong Kok floating in the tides of time, embracing the ways of the world. This is Fruit Chan’s offering of gratitude to pedestrians, on behalf of Hong Kong cinema.
Want to discover more locations in Hong Kong cinema? Check out our screening programme Hong Kong: The Establishing Shot to dive into more great films. You can also catch Hong Kong film clips on display at the exhibition Hong Kong: Here and Beyond.
This article was translated from Chinese. Some contextual information has been added for clarity.