Better late than never? I had meant to write a list of the top ten of 2008 Hong Kong movies I had seen (including those seen at film fests and (still) have not received a 'regular' release) shortly after watching what I knew would be the last Hong Kong movie I'd watch in 2008 (which, for the record, was Ip Man). I also was thinking it might be good to get the list done before the Chinese New Year of the Ox came along.
As it turns out though, the holidays that have come by way of it Chinese New Year being upon us -- so, Kong Hei Fatt Choi to celebrating readers! -- are when I finally feel like I have time to really 'work' on this list; one which comes in the wake of having watched thirty-seven 2008 Hong Kong movies and deciding to renew my tradition of annual top 10 Hong Kong movies list (began on brns.com back with a 2001 list) which I temporarily abandoned in 2007 in favour of, among other things, taking part in the Annual LoveHKFilm.com Awards that I've decided against participating in this year.
So, without further ado, here is my top ten list of movies from a year which began badly with two major duds, including one by Johnnie To, and included a terribly humongous dud from the filmmaker I once considered to be my very favorite, but, fortunately, ended up with a string of worthwhile offerings (including numbers #2, 3 and 8 on this list) that I hope are portends of more good things to come from Hong Kong cinema in the year ahead:-
1) The Way We Are
Back in 2002 (when I was still living in the City of Brotherly Shove), the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema showcased more than its usual share of Hong Kong cinematic gems. While action fiends made a beeline for the Shaw Brothers' The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Concubine (which I also did go to see and enjoyed watching), I also was very happy to get a chance to see a quiet drama by Ann Hui on a big screen. As it so happens, July Rhapsody not only ended up topping my 2002 Hong Kong movies list but it got me feeling far more predisposed in the future to checking out the films of a director whose penchant for what Glenn nicely termed "lyrical fatalism" has frustrated me more than once.
Even more modest-scaled and unassuming than that 2002 drama which starred Jacky Cheung, Karena Lam and Anita Mui, The Way We Are is a small budget work whose only big names are director Hui and cinematographer Charlie Lam (and whose lead actress, Bau Hei-Jing, is best known for being Oscar winning cinematographer Peter Pau's sister). A "slice of life" offering revolving around three Tin Shui Wai residents from different generations, this is a drama that never gets overly dramatic -- and is all the better for this being so -- as well as contains some wonderfully amusing moments.
As Ann Hui proceeds to methodically paint richly detailed portraits of the kind of individuals -- a middle-aged grocery store worker, her quiet teenage son and a lonely grandmother -- who don't often get spotlighted, in real as well as reel life, what results is a film infused with a sense of great humanity as well as humility; one that may sound boring but actually is never mundane and, in fact, turns out to be very enthralling and immensely watchable.
2) The Beast Stalker
Packed with stunning action scenes but also interesting characters and a more than solid cast, Dante Lam's movie about a cop (Nicholas Tse), a kid (Wong Sum Yin) and a kidnapper (Nick Cheung -- who filmmakers seem to have belatedly realized excels in crime dramas over comedies) whose lives fate brings together on more than one occasion is enjoyably tight, taut and tension-filled. What truly seals my sense of this crime drama as an excellent piece of cinema though is its possession of a really good script (by Lam and Jack Ng), one that comes complete with an end coda that ties together the movie's many narrative strands in a way that sent shivers down my spine.
3) Ip Man
This period actioner about the wing chun master hitherto best known as Bruce Lee's sifu seems bent on making Ip Man (AKA Yip Man) comparable to another real life martial arts master, Huo Yuanjia (whose own story was immortalized on film in Fearless), and the latter's student, Chen Zhen (portrayed both by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and Jet Li in Fist of Legend) rather than tell a truer story of the man. It also has the kind of one-dimensional characters that would be laughable if they weren't so negative. So why is it so high on this list? Because, purely and simply, the action on display really rocks! Inventively choreographed by Sammo Hung and confidently executed by the likes of Donnie Yen, Fan Siu Wong and Chen Zihui, the scenes also look to have been masterfully shot and edited. Consequently, the fierce beauty of the martial arts comes through in an adrenaline pumping way that I found thoroughly satisfying as well as exciting!
Before anything else: no, I'm not referring here to the 2005 Johnnie To triad drama. Rather, I'm trying to draw attention here to Tammy Cheung's documentary about the 2004 Legislative Council elections that was given screenings shortly before and after this past year's LegCo elections that I found fascinating, enlightening and also quite a bit of fun to watch -- the last in large part because of the caught-on-camera antics of politicians who, for all of Hong Kong's being a major world city, often come across -- sometimes endearingly, other times shockingly -- more like amateurish small-town politicos!
5) City Without Baseball
This Lawrence Lau (AKA Lawrence Ah Mon) and Scud (he only goes by one name) co-helmed offering stars the real-life Hong Kong baseball team. But although it does have some baseball-playing scenes, much of it comes across as an at least somewhat fictionalized work, albeit one with actors who are so natural that it's amazing to find out that they really are experienced baseball players rather than film folks. Adding to its minority status is this Hong Kong movie about a minority sport in the HKSAR possessing homosexual content and full frontal male nudity. All in all, I can't help but think that this movie would have benefited from having fewer themes and characters. Post having viewed it not once but twice, however, my feeling is that it's one of those quality works that not only is worth a second viewing but actually improves upon one doing so.
Shot entirely in Mainland China and with nary a Cantonese line of dialogue, this tearjerker of a drama about a young woman (played by Zuo Xiaoqing) left at the door of a Christian orphonage as a young girl who decides to go and look for the biological parents might not qualify as a Hong Kong movie to some. However, on account of it being directed by Jacob Cheung (Cageman; Intimates) and allocating scene-stealing supporting roles to Cecilia Yip and Wu Ma as well as having a Taiwanese male lead (in Nicky Wu) who made his name as an actor in mid 1990s Hong Kong movies (like The Lovers), I'm going to count it as so. As to why it makes this list: Suffice to say that its story moved me tears. In addition, this film gets bonus points on account of it taking its viewers out of the usual locations to show a China that may be physically beautiful but also requires back-breaking work of so many of its inhabitants.
7) Besieged City
As I gathered my breath post viewing this Lawrence Lau (AKA Lawrence Ah Mon) film that gives a completely different view of Tin Shui Wai from Ann Hui's The Way We Are, my film reviewer friend with whom I had watched the movie turned to me and said, "Slit my wrists now!" That statement wasn't a reflection of the quality of the work. Rather, it gave a sense of how depressingly bleak this dramatic offering's tone is. Not the kind of film for those looking for a good time at the movies (the understatement of the year there?!), it literally gave me nightmares as well as understandably bombed at the box office. Nevertheless, I'm glad I saw this work which feels alarmingly real and tells the kind of personal stories I sincerely believe society ignores at its peril.
8) True Women for Sale
Filmmaker Herman Yau and writer Yang Yee-shan collaborated in 2007 on Whispers and Moans, a prostitute drama which focused on the world of nightclub hostesses. One year on, Yau and Yang went further down market into the world of Sham Shui Po streetwalkers. In the process, they also went for greater levity -- albeit mixed with some of the usual prostitute drama melodrama -- than tragedy. The result is a movie that feels more light-weight as well as light-hearted than I would have liked.
At the same time, however, there is no denying its entertainment value; not least from watching two worthy acting performances from Prudence Liew (the surprise winner of the 2008 Golden Horse Best Actress Award) and Anthony Wong Chau San (one of those Hong Kong actors who truly has improved with age).
9) All's Right With the World
How does one decide if a film is good? One criteria I use is that a good film is one that you catch yourself thinking of from time and time, and months, even years, post viewing it. Perhaps because it's Chinese New Year and this King Wai Cheung documentary specifically looked at how poor people in Hong Kong observe Chinese New Year, I found myself recalling scenes from that work as I walked around Hong Kong today and in the days building up to this festive event. And hoping that the people featured in the film -- who I found courageous in their open-ness about their living conditions and problems -- and too many others in similar situations manage to find some happiness in the new year of the Ox.
10) La Lingerie
There have been times when after having a delightful interview with its director (or star), you watch a movie and embarassingly decide that it's a bust. Such, I'm glad to report, was not the case with La Lingerie, writer-director Chan Hing-kar's years later follow-up to his La Brassiere (the latter of which had Patrick Leung as its co-director).
This time around, he -- who, as it turns out, was the last person I interviewed for bc magazine -- has a female co-director (Janet Chun) as well as producer (Amy Chin, who I also had the pleasure to meet and talk to). In any case, the soft-spoken director may consider himself a bit of a male chauvinist but I really do reckon that, as with La Brassiere, this romantic comedy manages to present female as well as male viewpoints in what is less of a battle of the sexes this time around than often hysterically funny, but at times surprisingly sad and touching, account of women's pursuit of true love.