Li Cheuk-to, Curator, Hong Kong Film and Media at M+, suggests ten lesser-known and often-overlooked Hong Kong films to watch
Since January, we have experienced various forms of social distancing to counter the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, many of us are looking for things to watch, either revisiting the classics or making new discoveries.
Li Cheuk-to (Curator, Hong Kong Film and Media) is here with some ideas on lesser-known and often-overlooked Hong Kong films. Watch them at home or at a screening in the future. And look for more Hong Kong films at the M+ Cinema in the museum building when it opens next year.
1. Cold Nights (1955)
We start in the 1950s, one of the golden eras of Hong Kong cinema, a time when often more than two hundred films were produced in a year. Cold Nights, from 1955, is directed by Lee Sun Fung and stars Ng Cho-fan, Pak Yin, and Wong Man-lei, all leading figures in Cantonese cinema. It was adapted from a novel by Ba Jin, who was one of the most famous May Fourth Movement writers.
Set in Chongqing during the Sino–Japanese War, the film is the tale of a man's struggle to balance love for his wife with loyalty to his mother, an eternal triangle in Cantonese films from the 1950s and 1960s. Ng and Pak demonstrate remarkable chemistry as husband and wife, having been paired together in several other films. Wong Man-lei plays the mother-in-law. The dynamics of the melodrama and the background of the war prove richly complementary. The film is most profound in its treatment of the sense of disillusionment that accompanies victory, and its cinematic mise-en-scène is particularly striking.
2. The Arch (1968)
The Arch is probably the first art film in the Chinese language. It is also the first independent feature film by Cecile Tang, a pioneer of social criticism in cinema. She used her own resources to make the film, raising money and overseeing the production herself.
The Arch takes place in seventeenth-century China and uses as its point of departure the tradition that a widow should never remarry. Upon her death, the chaste widow would be commemorated with an arch praising her virtue. The film focuses on the internal turmoil of a wealthy widow (played by Lisa Lu) who develops feelings for another man. The story is told through a modern cinematic language, unusual for a Hong Kong costume drama. Tang’s freeze-frames, repeated actions, and jump cuts are often reminiscent of the French New Wave. This combination of modern language and traditional subject matter makes The Arch a uniquely experimental work.
3. Yesterday Today Tomorrow (1970)
Yesterday Today Tomorrow was inspired by Albert Camus’s novel The Plague. You might find that it resonates during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it did during the SARS outbreak in 2003. In the film, a mysterious plague breaks out in Hong Kong. It kills hundreds of people overnight and brings the city to a standstill. The government is unable to contain the illness, and its quarantine facilities are overtaken by chaos.
This is one of the first films to be banned in Hong Kong, due to its references to the 1967 leftist riots. The film was rereleased after being recut from its original length of over ninety minutes to just seventy-two. Unfortunately, the original version has been lost.
4. The Private Eyes (1976)
The Private Eyes stars the three Hui brothers, who are famous in Hong Kong for their comedy collaborations. The film was directed by Michael Hui, the eldest brother, who also stars as private detective Wong Yeuk-sze. Ricky Hui plays Wong’s assistant Puffy. Sam Hui, the youngest brother (who could also be considered the first Cantopop star), plays streetwise private eye Lee Kwok-kit. Some of the songs performed by Sam Hui in the film have become Cantopop classics.
Michael and Sam Hui hosted a Hong Kong sketch comedy show called Hui Brothers Show in the early 1970s. The Private Eyes was one of their first feature-length comedies, created after the show ended, and it laid the foundations for their later films. Michael always plays a mean boss, while Sam plays the long-suffering subordinate who ultimately outsmarts the boss. The specific professions change across films, but the formula remains the same. The Hui brothers’ comedies were enormous successes at the local box office, predating the zany mo lei tau comedies of Stephen Chow.
5. Dirty Ho (1979)
This is one of the lesser-known films by Lau Kar-leung, who began his career as an action choreographer for Shaw brothers martial-arts films. He began directing in the mid-1970s and was acclaimed for his work in the kung fu genre. Dirty Ho, from 1979, is almost a self-reflexive film, marked by an element of roleplaying and self-referencing throughout.
The action choreography in this film is particularly impressive. One famous scene, for example, features actress Kara Wai’s courtesan character manoeuvred like a marionette by Gordon Liu Chia-hui’s Master Wong to defeat Dirty Ho, played by Wong Yue.
6. Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980)
This is Tsui Hark’s angriest, most nihilistic film. One of the key works of the Hong Kong New Wave, it follows a group of school kids whose rebellious activities spiral out of control. The title refers to explosives, which are listed as Category 1 Dangerous Goods under Hong Kong law.
The first, banned version of the film shows the students making improvised bombs and planting them in public areas. In the recut version, they instead drive without a license. The print and the negative of the first cut have been lost, but a taped version exists, which was used as source material for a reconstructed version.
7. Nomad (1982)
Patrick Tam is a legendary figure of the Hong Kong New Wave, often regarded as the movement’s most technically accomplished filmmaker. A perfectionist, he was never comfortable in the mainstream film industry.
The youth drama Nomad, starring Pat Ha, Kent Tong, Leslie Cheung, and Cecilia Yip, is one of his most important films. It had a turbulent production history, with reshoots and a new ending, and was controversial upon its release for its frank depiction of sexuality, including a sex scene on the deck of a Hong Kong tram.
8. Ah Ying (1983)
Ah Ying is director Allen Fong’s second film. Fong was well known when the film was released, but is almost forgotten now. He was named Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards a record three times, for his first three films.
Ah Ying seamlessly weaves together fiction and documentary. Hui So-ying, who stars as Ah Ying, was essentially playing herself, and many of the plot details were taken from her life. Scenes at the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre were shot with the actual staff, and Ah Ying’s family members are played by Hui’s family. The result powerfully blurs the line between fiction and reality.
9. Autumn Moon (1992)
Autumn Moon, directed by Clara Law, was awarded the Golden Leopard, the top prize at the Locarno International Film Festival, in 1992. Made on a low budget with funding from Japan, it was the first Hong Kong film to win the award. It is very much a film of its time, reflecting the mass emigration from Hong Kong in the early 1990s. It is the fourth film in Law’s series dealing with emigration.
A Japanese tourist (played by Nagase Masatoshi) and a girl meet in Hong Kong. The girl’s parents have left Hong Kong for Canada, leaving her with her grandmother as she prepares to emigrate. This subtle, melancholic, and lyrical film touches on themes of Hong Kong identity and Chinese tradition, presenting another side of Hong Kong cinema.
10. The Wicked City (1992)
The Wicked City is based on a Japanese anime of the same name. In a Hong Kong overrun by half-human monsters, Taki, (played by Leon Lai), is part of a secret police force that hunts down the creatures, referred to as ‘rapters’ or ‘reptoids’. Taki has been transferred from Tokyo to Hong Kong to fill the gap left by the police agents departing from the city in the lead-up to the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China.
The film was directed by Peter Mak, but most of the content and direction came from producer Tsui Hark. It offers an allegory for the handover of Hong Kong, reflecting the anxieties of the time. The film famously features a fight on top of the Bank of China tower.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Li Cheuk-to is Curator, Hong Kong Film and Media at M+.