Top 10 Films takes a look at ten underrated Hong Kong films including Cheang Pou-Soi’s Accident, Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer and Ann Hui’s The Way We Are…
When discussing international cinema, Hong Kong films have never been on top of the list. Although names like Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo may be familiar, it’s rare that you hear people in love with the cinema of HK. Frankly, not even HK people love their own films. Yet there are a wealth of them that deserve greater viewership and appreciation, hence the inspiration for this list. Some audiences may feel detached from the cultural background of such films, but the artistic quality and intriguing stories should not be ignored. With that being said, here is a list of ten underrated Hong Kong films.
Accident (Cheang Pou-Soi, 2009)
I must admit that the concept of “making murders appear like accidents” has been executed before, but Accident takes it to a much larger and far more suspenseful level. The film follows a group of people who make a living off of orchestrating such “accidents”. Leading them is a depressed and paranoid individual, whose scarring past and inner conflicts transform him into an engaging anti-hero. He is a man who knows how to evade human laws and restrictions, but is unable to escape the restrictions he has imposed on himself. The perfect intertwining of the tension of the crimes and the leader’s emotional suffering amounts to a quietly intense mystery like none other.
Ah Ying (Allen Fong, 1983)
Although Fong is a well-established filmmaker of the Hong Kong New Wave, his inactivity in recent years (his last directing credit was in 1998) has removed his name from the public eye. But that should not be the case, for he is one of the few HK directors who can truly handle neorealism. Ah Ying is a testament to such skill as Fong refrains from telling a dramatic tale. Instead, he focuses on the film’s eponymous main character, who spends her days working at a fish stall. The pacing may drag at times, but the experience is ultimately a rewarding one. It acts as a time capsule of typical 1980s HK life, a string of snapshots showing our everyday ups and downs, an epitome of the power of neorealism.
Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
Few would contest the statement that Johnnie To is the best action film director working in Hong Kong today, but such a reputation still cannot prevent some of his best works from being overlooked, most notably Breaking News. The film weaves two perspectives on the same storyline together: the first is of the police, who are attempting to capture several bank robbers in hiding; the other is of the media, whose live coverage is the police force’s key to gaining the public’s confidence. Such a story reveals the best in To, blending social commentary of the impact of media with heart-pounding thrills. And if the content is not enough of a hook, the technical expertise behind the opening tracking shot alone should make everyone realize that this is no ordinary thriller.
Cageman (Jacob Cheung, 1992)
While constructing this list of underrated Hong Kong films, Cageman did not even cross my mind until arbitrary circumstances reminded me of the film. If that does not tell you how obscure it is, I don’t know what will. Cageman centers on a group of people living in cage homes and the issues that arise when land developers announce the demolition of the building. Although the film will be particularly close to the hearts of HK people, considering that similar living conditions are still prevalent today, the story is unbounded by cultural differences. The conflicts between social class, careers, and age groups are universal ideas which the film explores, leaving the audience in an emotional state that can only be expressed with a heavy sigh.
Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)
Chow is a rather polarizing filmmaker, not just in Hong Kong but all around the world. His nonsensical humour and flat characters have brought him a fair amount of criticism, but I don’t think that is enough to overshadow his merits, especially when it comes to Kung Fu Hustle. The story begins as a man trying to prove he can be a gangster, but ends up being a journey of self-discovery, one in which he questions morality and what to do when given immense power. Who thought that a comedy film could be so profound? Even though I must admit his humour is not for everyone, I do urge you to watch Kung Fu Hustle with an open mind and discover its depths yourself.
My Life As McDull (Toe Yuen, 2001)
This is perhaps the most famous animated Hong Kong film ever, but its strong ties with local culture understandably alienate foreign audiences. However, there is something wonderfully pure about the anthropomorphic pig McDull, which I think everyone can relate to. My Life as McDull is the first installment of the McDull franchise, and easily my favourite one, which follows McDull through his kindergarten life. Blending hand drawn characters into actual footage of Hong Kong landscape causes this to be a unique visual experience, one that captures the characters’ blissful interactions with an ever-changing world. McDull’s cultural influences might not resonate with all, but his perception of the world will surely connect with the child in each one of us.
Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)
To be honest, I hesitated putting this film on the list. I wanted to avoid having two works by the same director, especially when this is not among To’s greatest accomplishments. Yet there have been few films that have managed to make pickpocketing look like an art form (with the obvious exception of Bresson’s Pickpocket). In the end, I feel that To’s suave direction makes this film deserving of greater attention. Sparrow revolves around a group of skilled pickpockets and their encounters with a mysterious lady. Although a case of “style over substance” could certainly be made, To understands the film is just supposed to be charming and lighthearted entertainment. So if you are willing to let go of To’s trademark style, I’m sure this film can still make you stare in awe at how dazzling pickpocketing in the rain can be.
The Longest Summer (Fruit Chan, 1998)
Out of all the underrated Hong Kong films on this list, The Longest Summer is the one that most boldly confronts the history of the region. The second installment in Chan’s 1997 trilogy, the film focuses on a group of HK-based British forces during a watershed moment in the city’s history – the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule. While I have taken issue with the incoherent pacing of the rest of the trilogy, The Longest Summer stands out as a vivid reflection of the atmosphere back then, one flooded with frustrations surrounding post-colonial identity and the city’s future. The film serves as a captivating way for foreigners to look into Hong Kong’s rich history, while also being a piece of social commentary which locals need now more than ever.
The Way We Are (Ann Hui, 2008)
In stark contrast with The Longest Summer, this film deals with the less political issues of present-day Hong Kong. Its title – The Way We Are – already hints at its tone, so the fact that there is not much of a story should not be surprising. It simply is an honest depiction of the way a middle-class community is. Such a story benefits greatly from the direction of Hui, one of the leading figures of the Hong Kong New Wave. Adopting a realist – almost minimalist – style, Hui highlights the struggles of and between different generations, yet constantly reminds us of the sweetness that humanity shares. Such sweetness does not require dramatic moments or provocative music. It can be as simple as people gathered for a meal, a subtle celebration of life amidst all our pains.
Trivisa (Jevons Au, Frank Hui, Vicky Wong; 2016)
Having a trio of directors at the helm can be a fatal flaw, but Trivisa succeeds because of it. The film tells the story of three criminal masterminds who, for one reason or another, are compelled to join together for the crime of the century. Each man’s journey is handled by one director, crafting three tonally distinct storylines that combine to form a film packed with unforeseeable twists. What makes Trivisa even more impressive, is that it looks beyond what is expected of a standard mystery. It is an exploration of fate vs free will, an expression of the filmmakers’ hopelessness of being toyed with by fate. While this is not the deepest film on such a subject, it certainly is one of the few that manages to disguise such a philosophical conundrum as a nonetheless brilliant thriller.
Written & Compiled by Ron Ma
Over to you: tell us about your favourite Hong Kong films. What other underrated films from Hong Kong would make your top 10 list?