Friday, January 20, 2012

My top ten 2011 Hong Kong movies list

My to-be-expected choice of best
2011 Hong Kong film viewed last year

There's no two ways about it: 2011 was not a banner year for Hong Kong cinema -- and that might be putting it somewhat mildly. One gauge of this being so is that I don't think I've recalled another year since my return to Asia (where my access to Hong Kong movies new as well as old -- especially in cinemas, as opposed to "just" home video -- is way more than it was in Philadelphia, particularly once the video rental stores switched from VHS tapes to VCDs (and no, it never was DVDs)) when there were so many new Hong Kong movies released that I decided to not watch -- and even so, I still ended up viewing major dogs like the painfully bad 3D Sex and Zen and brain-meltingly idiotic Love You You.

Another indicator of this sad state of affairs is that the number of purely Hong Kong movies (as opposed to Hong Kong-Mainland China co-productions) went down so much that I'm now counting co-productions as Hong Kong movies for the purposes of such as this blog entry. And even when doing so, my total number of 2011 Hong Kong films viewed last year comes up (or is it down?) to just 23 -- 9 fewer than the equivalent number in 2010.

So it actually comes as a bit of a surprise that I reckon that there are 10 good (or better) 2011 Hong Kong movies to want to write and let people know about. (And, in fact, I'd go so far as to say that I got more out of viewing the top five on this list than last year's list of Hong Kong movies viewed that year as well as that for 2009!) Also, for those of my fellow Hong Kong movie fans who read this entry, do please feel free to let me know on its comments thread what (other fine Hong Kong) films I have missed that you think I ought to check out.

1) A Simple Life

Time was when seeing Ann Hui's directorial credit on a film would cause me to think twice about going ahead and checking it out. But in the 21st century, the veteran filmmaker looks to have really come into her own.

Although she has not completely lost her tendency to have her main characters suffer often (unnecessarily, to my mind) sad fates, in such as The Way We Are (2008) and now, also, A Simple Life, this doyen of Hong Kong cinema has also proven majorly adept at revealing nobility, if not actual beauty, in lives led that could be described as having been on the modest, even difficult, side -- yet actually turn out to not have been entirely without happiness and good fortune after all.

In doing so, in such as this 2011 film starring Deannie Ip and Andy Lau that is based on the true story of a greatly appreciated amah and the man who sought to repay some measure of the care she had given over the years, the auteur has revealed a side to her characters as well as her film-making and, it could be said, personal outlook on life that is welcomingly warm and tender (even if also often pragmatic).

2) The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

This historical drama-actioner that casts its light on Qing Dynasty-era revolutionary and poet Qiu Jin stars a Mainland Chinese actress (in Huang Yi) and has its Chinese characters speaking in Mandarin rather than Cantonese. Nonetheless, there is a very Hong Kong feel to it -- and not just because there are a lot of faces that will be familiar to Hong Kong film fans among its cast (including Anthony Wong Chau San, Lam Suet and Dennis To but also ex-Shine boys, Wong You Nam and Tsui Tin Yau!).

Rather, what I mean is that I thought that director Herman Yau managed to very successfully inject the kind of zest and energy into proceedings -- as well as fairly seamlessly cobble together a number of disparate genres -- in the manner of the best Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 1990s. And in so doing, he came up with an offering that was so entertaining that I happily went and watched it more than once in the cinema -- and on each occasion, came away feeling that I had got quite a bit out of the experience! :)

3) I Love Hong Kong

No doubt about it: This Eric Tsang and Chung Shu Kai co-helmed movie wears its heart on its sleeve. And it also is very much to the filmmakers' credit that this Chinese New Year offering centring on two buddies who re-connect in the public housing estate they call home showed that they definitely have their feet planted on the ground and know and can communicate full well the concerns and cares of regular Hong Kongers -- as well as know what tickles many a Hong Kong movie viewers' funny bones.

In addition, I really appreciate the lengths that many a star actor and actress is willing to go to make their audience laugh -- with particular kudos going to Sandra Ng who shows here that she may be a very good dramatic actress but that she truly is superb when it comes to physical comedy! And on a personal aside: imagine the thrill as well as shock I had one evening at dinner with friends when I suddenly realized that the reason one of the friends of friends who had been invited to dinner was so familiar was because I had previously seen her (Michelle Lo, if you're wondering) making an appearance in this movie!! ;O

4) All's Well, Ends Well 2011

The sixth installment of Raymond Wong's All's Well, Ends Well film franchise which got its start in 1992 with a movie with a stellar cast that served up plenty of laughs only has one of its original stars (i.e., producer-actor Raymond Wong) in the movie. But even while it is undeniably so that the likes of Louis Koo, Donnie Yen and Cecilia Cheung lose out in the superstar stakes to such as Stephen Chow, Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, their performances in this 2011 Chinese New Year comedy showed that this younger crop of Hong Kong cinematic luminaries are well capable of shining and getting audiences roaring with laughter too.

Even more surprising was how Donnie Yen actually was pretty good in a comic role as a dedicated make-up artist. Still, to my mind, Chapman To it was who stole the show -- even though he had less screen time than many other members of this movie's cast! ;b

5) Wu Xia

This Peter Chan-directed wuxia work was one of the rare movies in 2011 that I viewed with a friend. (I normally prefer to go to cinemas by myself.) Post-screening, my friend and I talked about the movie -- and it became readily apparent that, even though (maybe because?) she's a way bigger Donnie Yen fan than me, she had emerged from the viewing distinctly less satisfied than me.

In the months since I viewed the film, I have to say that my feeling -- that I shared with her that evening -- hat this martial arts drama is more easily admired than liked, never mind loved has grown. Put another way: this is a technically excellent work -- and yet there somehow feels like a certain special "oomph" is missing from it. At the same time, there really is much to be admired about it -- not least the performance and presence of veteran thespians Jimmy Wang Yu (whose best film this may well be -- since I thought he actually was much more wooden-acting in his Shaw Brothers days) and Kara Hui Ying Hung (who, together, with Jimmy Wang Yu, really had the kind of super convincingly menacing screen presence that few of the actors and actresses in succeeding generations really have been able to evince!).

6) Overheard 2

Strange but true: I can hardly remember the story of Overheard 1 -- even while still recalling that it was a film that I didn't think all that badly of. In contrast, this 2011 thriller from Felix Chong and Alan Mak is a work with scenes and moments that I reckon will live in my memory for some while. For even while I grant that the story of a loving son wanting revenge (justice?) for one parent and to be able to financially provide for another parent in her old age is a time honored one, certain twists in the conventional tale and performances by particular actors make this work more than run of the mill.

In particular, I reckoned Kenneth Tsang put in a particularly powerful performance while Lau Ching Wan was excellent playing against type. And as much as I found the roles given to the younger actresses in this work on the throwaway -- and consequently disappointing -- side, I really liked that this film's makers made it so that a multi-generational cast was involved, and that the older thespians included a number of veteran actors who can be counted on deliver pretty much every time they appear in a movie!

7) Don't Go Breaking My Heart

Johnnie To may take greater pride and joy in his crime dramas but when he puts his mind, even if not heart, to it, I really do think that he -- in collaboration with Wai Ka Fai -- really can come up with a winner of a romantic comedy. In 2000, he did so with Needing You -- a work that I've come to love more and more each time I've viewed it (more than 5 times now...). And in 2011, I reckon he's done it again with Don't Go Breaking My Heart -- another office-based romantic comedy revolving around a love triangle involving a woman and two men who are not perfect yet can come across as two very good catches as far as most females are concerned.

Although I adore the 2000 romantic comedy starring Sammi Cheng, Andy Lau and Raymond Wong Ho-yin, I actually think that Don't Go Break My Heart is better than it in at least one crucial way: i.e., this time around, I reckon that the female protagonist (played in this film by Mainland Chinese actress Gao Yuanyuan) made the right choice with regards to the man to spend the rest of her life with! :b

8) 72 Martyrs

In 2011, more than one film was made about rebels against the Qing Dynasty and released in the 70th year after the 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat Sen that has come to be seen as marking the beginning of the end of imperial China. Although the film entitled 1911 starring Jackie Chan had a bigger budget, more publicity and a wider release, I was much more impressed by Derek Chiu's 72 Martyrs, the period political drama about the revolutionary supporters of Sun Yat Sen who waged -- and lost their lives in -- what has come to be known as the Second Guangzhou Uprising (AKA the Yellow Mound Revolt) that took place on April 13, 1911.

Granted that I have probably am more inclined to like this movie than most on account of one of its main characters (essayed by Zhao Bingrui) hailing from my home state of Penang, Malaysia. However, I also will say that this work came across as a distinct improvement vis a vis Road to Dawn, Derek Chiu's 2007 Malaysian-Shenzhen co-production that that was much more Penang focused and based. On a more general note: I reckon that 72 Martyrs benefited greatly from having an all-round good cast (headed by Tse Kwan Ho) -- this particularly since it was a film in which financial constraints led to key action scenes taking place off screen, making it so that the focus was very much on showing the emotional reactions of people to these significant events.

9) Datong

Years ago, when I was still living in Philadelphia and in the early days of my (re)discovery of Hong Kong cinema, I viewed Evans Chan's To Liv(e) and found it revelatory as well as impressive in many ways. Shortly after moving to Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to meet and interview the journalist turned filmmaker. And I frankly consider it quite an honor that some years after our first meeting, he actually remembered me and that we got back in touch and have done such as had had a few drinks and good conversations. This is especially so on the back of my viewing his latest work which served me to remind me what a rare transnational as well as thoughtful and thought-provoking filmmaker he is.

A docu-drama that weaves together the stories of Qing Dynasty scholar-reformist Kang Youwei who spent several years in exile in Sweden, his daughter Kang Tongbi and actress turned dance choreographer Chiang Ching (whose misfortune it was to have the same name as the woman who became Mao Zedong's most (in)famous wife and a member of the Gang of Four), Datong is the kind of work that leaves me in awe at the intelligence of its filmmaker. Something that also strikes me as admirable it how it does seem to be the rare independent Hong Kong film that really does endeavor to communicate with its audience even while not pandering to them, politically or otherwise. Lastly, I think perhaps the best tribute that I can pay to the main man behind it is that it caused me to want to find out and learn more about the people whose stories it told. Put another way: it aroused my interest, and got me curious and wanting more knowledge and information about its subject matter!

10) Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

When I first heard of this Tsui Hark project, my immediate reaction was a horrified "Oh no!" This not least because I really love Dragon Inn, the 1992 film starring Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Tony Leung Kar Fai and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk that he had produced (and, some say, had a hand in directing as well). However, after being assured that the 2011 wuxia work is actually not a remake of that film which ranks among my top ten favorite Hong Kong movies of all time (still), I decided to go ahead and check out this 3-D action offering.

To be honest: upon doing so, I really would not rank this movie among my top ten favorite Tsui Hark films, let alone Hong Kong ones. (This not least because I think the script really have been better -- including in terms of helping create characters that I could feel more strongly for and about.) On the other hand, I also do reckon that this film shows that the technology now finally exists for Mr. Tsui to realize his artistic vision -- one that truly can be mindbogglingly imaginative and creative beyond most others. And it's pretty clear that he really does want to share, or at least show, it to the viewers of his movies. :)


baroness radon said...

Oh many thanks for this I have a plan for the next few months.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Ross said...

Great list! How about Life Without Principle?

YTSL said...

Hi baroness radon --

You're welcome and thanks for reading and commenting. Doesn't Hawaii have a good international film festival? If so, hope you get to catch at least a few of these films on a big screen as well as home video.

And Kong Hee Fatt Choi to you! :)

Hi Ross --

Thanks! Re "Life Without Principle": have to say that it was not without its interesting moments but I generally found it to be on the disappointing side. In particular, the ending was unsatisfactory to me. Also, I don't understand how some people can think Lau Ching Wan did a great acting job in the movie -- frankly, he OVER-acted way too much for my liking. (So, sorry, that would not be a recommended movie from me.) :S

Ross said...

Sure. Will you be able to tell us readers / fans what your top ten 2011 non-Hong Kong Asian movies were? I am really curious!!

Diana said...

Thanks YTSL. I haven't been able to watch as many HK or even Chinese films this year and haven't gotten to any of these films yet, good to have a list of some recommendations.

YTSL said...

Hi again --

I only viewed 11 2011 non-Hong Kong movies in total thus far. (A lot of "new" non-Hong Kong releases I saw in 2011 were actually from 2010.) So don't think it's worth making the list you requested.

At the same time, you also could look at my "by the numbers look at my 2011 movie viewing year" post. You'll see two 2011 non-Hong Kong films mentioned there that I rate highly. :)

Hi Diana --

Good to "hear" from you again. Wow re your not having checked out any of the films on my list yet. Think you'll enjoy quite a few of them -- and, Andy Lau fan that you are, will love "A Simple Life"... :)

Diana said...

Hi YTSL! I don't rent from an Asian dvd service anymore and I don't download film so I either have to rely on Netflix which is chronically behind or buy my own. I am not buying lately because I am hoping to move this summer and the less to pack the better.

Oh, yes, "A Simple Life" is high on my list and I am hoping it plays here in the US. Andy Lau is always a draw for me. :) Actually I loved Deanie even before I discovered Andy and in the last couple of years have come to appreciate Ann Hui's style as well. So I have plenty of incentive to seek this one out.

Happy New Year!

YTSL said...

Hi again Diana --

I don't buy many DVDs, etc. at all myself these days -- but I am fortunate in living in a place where Hong Kong movies old and new do get regularly screened. Re moving: I understand... and I still have nightmares at how much I had to pack and also get rid of (by giving away, selling, etc.) when moving from the US back to Asia.

Re "A Simple Life": I wouldn't put it past its making an appearance in an international film festival in your city. After all, it did win Deannie Ip the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival last year! :)

Diana said...

I am planning to leave NYC by the end of summer, if not before, so I am already selling some books & dvds. I probably should have started this 6 months ago but whatever.

But yes, I am hoping "A Simple Life" gets featured at the upcoming Tribeca FF. They seem to play more films that I want to see than the NYFF. And then of course there is the NY Asian Film Festival, my favorite film festival (except for the current location), but that isn't until mid-summer ... we'll see.

YTSL said...

Hi once more Diana --

I know New York has a lot of film festivals. I'm just surprised it doesn't seem to have anything with the size or prestige of, say, Toronto. Maybe it's on account of so much (specialist) stuff going on throughout the year. In any case, good luck with catching "A Simple Life" sometime -- and really do hope that you'll think as highly of it as I do. :)

Diana said...

I think NYFF is fairly prestigious but, at least lately, it doesn't show many Chinese or HK films. I did see my very first real HK film (not a kung fu film, not dubbed) at NYFF a long time ago. It was PTU and Johnnie To was interviewed after. It was quite an initiation for me needless to say.

YTSL said...

Hi once more Diana --

Wow re "PTU" having been shown at the NY Film Festival. To be honest, thought it'd be a place showing more... conventional(ly arthouse) fare. Sounds like it was quite the eye-opener for you -- and in a good way. :)

Stefan S said...

Gong Hei Fatt Choy YTSL!

I am looking forward to A Simple Life in March when it opens here, and rumours have it it'll be in Cantonese! *crossing fingers*!

YTSL said...

Hi Stefan --

Kong Hei Fat Choi to you too. And good luck with realizing your wish of getting to check out "A Simple Life" in Cantonese. (Are you planning the HKIFF this year? Have a feeling that "A Simple Life" will be screening at the festival -- and/or getting a general release in Hong Kong cinemas around festival time.)

eliza bennet said...

Thank you for this list.

I'll try my best to check "Lady Knight of the Mirror Lake" now that you placed it so high on your list :)

On an unrelated note: Am I the only one who'd choose differently if I was the girl in "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"?

Happy New Lunar Year to you!

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

Hope you like "The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake" when you eventually view it.

Re "Don't Go Break My Heart": Let's see if others come in to tell you that you're not alone. ;b

And kong hei fat choi to you now that we're into a new lunar year. :)

ewaffle said...

Concerning Jimmy Wang Yu, I think he was as good in Shaw Brothers films as the roles written for him allowed him to be. I hadn't really thought about his menacing screen presence since it seemed so effortless and natural to him, but must agree that he is much better at being dangerous looking than anyone I can think of recently.

YTSL said...

Hi ewaffle --

You may be right re Jimmy Wang Yu vis a vis the Shaw Brothers. Still, I reckon that the likes of Ti Lung manage to rise above and beyond the limitations of their roles by sheer charisma and acting ability. In any event, his Shaw Brothers work didn't prepare me for how great he was in "Wu Xia". Kara Hui Ying Hung, OTOH, was pretty impressive in her Shaw Brothers days and still can be now. :)

Stefan S said...

Hi YTSL, I am toying with the idea of HKIFF this year, but I need to clear some work, and plan for it... will let you know if I can make it, though if I can it will be a short week because I have my final army obligations that happens from 27th March :|

YTSL said...

Hi again Stefan --

A short week should be better than nothing! Let's see how it goes -- and yes, I'm already eager to see what films are on this year's programme! ;b