Friday, January 10, 2014

My top ten 2013 Hong Kong movies list

The film that gets my vote for favorite
2013 Hong Kong movie viewed last year

In 2013, I viewed 51 Hong Kong films. Of these, 30 were Hong Kong films that were released for the first time last year.  For the record: these films did not include Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the top grossing film of 2013 on the mainland and the third highest grossing Chinese language film at the Hong Kong box office last year -- because, in all honesty, the trailer was so awful looking that it put me off checking out the movie!

Also for the record, I did watch Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster -- but, in all honesty, the more I think about it, the less I like it.  And so upset as well as disappointed was I by it even early on that I couldn't bring myself to listen for several months to the Original Soundtrack of the other Wong Kar Wai films I have in my CD collection!

Having got that out of the way, here's what did make my top ten 2013 Hong Kong movies list:-

In stark contrast to The Grandmaster, the more I think about The Way We Dance, the more I love this Adam Wong dance drama which had its world premiere at the 2013 Hong Kong International Film Festival  (HKIFF) but which I only decided to watch upon learning that it would also be the opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's laudable HK Cine Fan program that was launched in April shortly after the 2013 HKIFF!

Full of life, energy and enthusiasm, this film comes across as a veritable breath of fresh air -- and can surprise and shock viewers with its general quality as well as novelty like a jolt of electricity.  On a personal note, I was truly flabbergasted when, upon meeting and interviewing Adam Wong for the second time in some five years, he not only remembered me but a Shunji Iwai film we had talked about at our first encounter!  Oh, and lead actress Cherry Ngan is truly very sweet -- and I was won over by her as a person as well as an actress!! 

2) Unbeatable

In 2013, Unbeatable was one of two films that I got to view before it was actually completed and then again at public screenings after it had been completed.  While the first of these films was seriously awful when viewed early on and still flawed after it had been declared ready to be viewed by the general public, this action drama that centers on a middle-aged former boxer who finds redemption in an unlikely setting and way already looked pretty good to me at the initial screening and continued to impress upon repeat viewing.

My favorite Dante Lam film since 2008's Beast Stalker, Unbeatable boasts a winning performance from Nick Cheung and a strong one as well from Taiwanese actor Eddie Pang (who is far more impressive here than in Stephen Fung's overly-gimmicky Tai Chi Hero and ambitious but still flawed Tai Chi Zero).  And who've have thought that a Hong Kong-Mainland China co-produced movie that's largely set in Macau would make such great use of a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel's sublime The Sound of Silence?

3) Ip Man -- The Final Fight

In my top ten 2008 Hong Kong movies list, I rated Wilson Yip's Ip Man at number 3 (after Ann Hui's The Way We Are and Dante Lam's The Beast Stalker). For 2013, there's another Ip Man film in the third spot of my list -- only this time, it's directed by Herman Yau and stars Anthony Wong Chau San as a noticeably older version of the wing chun master than the one portrayed by Donnie Yen.

Although Ip Man - The Final Fight does possess its share of action, it -- as is to be expected, considering who are its director and lead actor -- shines more during its dramatic moments that are infused with a nostalgia for an old Hong Kong that many viewers never got to experience.  This being said, the sparring match between Ip Man and Timmy Hung's character, and also that between Master Ip and the martial arts sifu essayed by Eric Tsang, are -- to my mind -- wonderful examples of cinema along with the first time that one sees Donnie Yen in action in the 2008 Wilson Ip movie.

4) Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Once upon a time, Tsui Hark was far and away my favorite Hong Kong filmmaker.  This, after all, is the director of Peking Opera Blues, Shanghai Blues, Once Upon a Time in China and producer of Swordsman II, Dragon Inn, etc., etc. that we're talking about. However, in the 21st century, he's had more missteps (including Time and Tide, The Legend of Zu and Missing) than hits (Seven SwordsDetective Dee and the Phantom Flame?).

So it was with low expectations that I went into a viewing of Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon -- only to find that I prefer this prequel to the 2010 period detective movie, and -- at the risk of bemusing and offending fans of the Cantopop Sky King -- Taiwanese actor Mark Chao as Detective Dee to Andy Lau!  Also, not only are this 2013 film's version of Detective Dee's deductions, the film's special effects and action choreography impressive but this offering generally just comes across as more entertaining and fun!

5) Control

Kenneth Bi's action thriller which stars Daniel Wu as an insurance salesman who gets blackmailed by a man he's never met into committing various crimes opened in Mainland China at the tail end of 2013 but only in early 2014 in Hong Kong.  Sadly, it didn't perform well at the mainland box office and has gotten negative reviews from many critics, including in Malaysia and Singapore, where it also was released before Hong Kong.

For my part, however, I really got much out of my viewing of this film -- not least because, bucking the trend of many films opening strongly but then ending disastrously, I thought it got better and better the further along into the story that it went.  Without getting too specific about its conclusion to make avoid spoiling the film: I got chills down my spine at how seemingly disparate elements satisfyingly came together at the end -- in a way that recalled The Beast Stalker some five years ago now.      

6) May We Chat

This sophomore effort from Philip Yung won't have a commercial run until later in 2014.  But late in December 2013, there were several cinema screenings of May We Chat -- that, from what I can gather, took place in order to make sure that it qualifies for this year's Hong Kong Film Awards.

While I'm not sure that this raw drama about three troubled teenaged females who befriend one another via a smartphone chat app will come away with any honors, I'd definitely state my having been very impressed by the performances of Heidi Lee, Rainky Wai and Kabby Hui, the film's three hitherto unknown lead actresses. An apparent updating of the story of the Lonely Fifteen characters first portrayed by Irene Wan and Peter Mak back in 1982, much of the film feels very contemporary even while there are sections that do hark back to the way things were -- also troubled but perhaps not as harsh as it now can be.  

7) Hotel Deluxe

Although it's officially not part of the All's Well Ends Well series, this Chinese New Year comedy resembles those other festive works -- not least because they all come out of Raymond Wong Pak Min's stable, has him and other familiar faces, such as Sandra Ng and Teresa Mo, in its cast, and has a story that places an emphasis on family affairs that involve not just one or two but three generations of individuals.  

To ensure that the old formula does not become stale though, the film has a different setting from Raymond Wong's other Chinese New Year films: namely, a luxury hotel in a scenic part of Mainland China, albeit one that looks to be almost entirely staffed by Hong Kongers!  And while the old hands do serve up some laughs, the heart of this 2013 film actually comes courtesy of younger individuals -- specifically Ronald Cheng (who I must admit to having a soft spot for, and believing really can act) as well as the oft criticized Fiona Sit (who undoubtedly can annoy in certain movies but actually doesn't in this one).   

A three part anthology with different directors for different sections (and a follow up anthology that generally is no as good), Tales from the Dark (Part 1) is made up a trio of supernatural themed stories adapted from novelist Lilian Lee's works. The first, directed and starring Simon Yam, mainly goes to show that Simon Yam the actor could benefit from some reining in -- to ensure that he doesn't over-act -- that Simon Yam the director failed to do.  

Fortunately, things pick up considerably in the section of the film directed by Lee Chi Ngai and starring Tony Leung Kar Fai, Kelly Chen and Cherry Ngan that may not be super scary but still is actually pretty entertaining.  Far more horrific is the episode helmed by Fruit Chan which features memorable performances by Dada Chen (who announced her retirement around the time of this film's release, only to reverse her decision months later) and Siu Yam Yam, one of the rare Hong Kong actresses whose post-Shaw Brothers film career looks to be better than her Shaw Brothers one as well as managed to have found respectability several decades after being known primarily as a soft porn star.

2013 saw a number of notable directorial debuts -- with the more high profile ones including those by Juno Mak (Rigor Mortis), Flora Lau (Bends) and Charlie Yeung (Christmas Rose). For my money however, the most impressive by far was that of the little known Ho Hong, whose Doomsday Party reminds me in some ways of Fruit Chan's seminal Made in Hong Kong as well as certain early Hong Kong New Wave efforts.

A multi-character ensemble drama set in a Hong Kong full of people troubled by economic and other woes,  it can feel heavy-handed at times in terms of its treatment but there's no mistaking that it has a message and an urgency to it that makes one realize that its director isn't just making a film to make money, for personal development or "for art's sake". What a pity then that it didn't appear to connect with a sufficiently large audience. Put another way: this was a film that -- and in Ho Hong, a director who -- deserved better.

Milkway Image doyen Johnnie To delivered two very different films in 2013.  The more serious, set-in-the-mainland Drug War has earned critical raves, including from respected film scholar David Bordwell. In contrast, the more comedic -- and demented -- Blind Detective was panned by many, including Film Business Asia's Derek Elley, who awarded it a seriously low 2 out of 10 rating.

Still, I genuinely prefer Blind Detective to Drug War -- and not just because this film that reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, and with director To, for the first time since 2004's Yesterday Once More, is vastly more Hong Kong in feel. Also, while I grant that this film revolving around two detectives (one blind but capable, the other seeing but more enthusiastic than actually able as far as detecting goes) is generally higher volume than is optimally comfortable, the fact of the matter is that it possesses some incredibly funny scenes -- including the one in a Macau casino in which Sammi Cheng's character tries her damndest to piss off Lam Suet's -- that are guffaw-inducingly entertaining! :D


Brian Naas said...

Thanks for your list. Have to admit to not having seen any of them but whenever I get around to catching up on recent HK films, I know where to begin!

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

You haven't seen *ANY* of the films on this list? My goodness, that's as bad -- if not worse -- than my failing to recognize Chingmy Yau and co over on your blog!!! :O

Truly, there were some awful Hong Kong films out last year but also a number of good ones worthy of being viewed by you, I reckon!

Brian Naas said...

Worse than not knowing Chingmy? I don't think so! Watching HK films in Bangkok is close to impossible. The few ones that show up on the big screen as Detective Dee did and the latest Police Story are dubbed into Thai for some reason. They don't do that for any other foreign films as far as I have seen so why they do it for HK films is a mystery. And when I was back home I did buy a bunch of dvds in Chinatown but the only one on your list was Ip: Final Fight - I don't even recall seeing the others. You should also let your readers know which films to avoid. Save me some money!

YTSL said...

Hi again Brian --

I KNOW the Chipmunk -- I just didn't recognize her in the photo as she didn't look so chipmunky in it as usual! ;D

What a pity about the Thai dubbing of Hong Kong movies in Thailand. Maybe it's time for you to visit Hong Kong again -- in which case I promise to help you go DVD shopping here! ;)

As for must avoid films: The absolute worst Hong Kong film I viewed in 2013 was "The Incredible Truth". Films with big names attached that were pretty bad include "The White Storm" (which is partially set in Thailand, by the way) and "The Midas Touch". And if only the last 20 minutes or so of "Firestorm" hadn't unfolded in the way that it did... :S

eliza bennet said...

I guess I need to hang my head in shame as well since I have not seen any of the films on the list (although I have seen The Grandmaster).

I'm looking forward to Drug War and Blind Detective (the second purely for nostalgia) and oldie Ip Man (only because I like Anthony Wong though). Now you have convinced me already to Young Detective Dee and I'll avoid the ones you mentioned unless any star Nic Tse.

Bill said...


I've only seen a few of these films, so I'll have to wait for some of the others to be released on dvd in faraway N. America...I think it's fitting that you left Johnnie To's Drug War off your list. I don't think it's one of his better films - too much Mainland dilution for me.
(When I bought Drug War I also purchased an earlier To film, Vengeance. Although the film got mixed reviews, it has become one of my favorite Johnnie To movies. It may not be in a class with the Mission or Exiled, but it does have elements of those films in it. That, and the presence of a French actor-singer in the lead role, gives the film an international appeal - and I think it worked).

I'm also glad you left Wong Kar Wai's bloated and nebulous, The Grandmaster, off your list. Instead, it's gratifying to see Ip Man: The Final Fight, at number three. A surefooted director like Herman Yau, a decent screenplay, and a veteran actor in Anthony Wong - all delivered a movie with action and introspection. I have all the Ip Man movies and this one is the best of the lot.
Well, that's enough of my fanboy comments.


YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

Give "The Way We Dance" and "Unbeatable" a chance too, please! Have to say that dance films are generally not my thing but I really was pleasantly surprised by how likeable "The Way We Dance" is. As for "Unbeatable": Nick Cheung may have been a poor man's Stephen Chow but he's become quite the dramatic actor in recent years.

Hi Bill --

You're probably going to have a while before "Control" and "May We Chat" are out on DVD. But the rest should be available on home video, though I'm not sure how easy or difficult they will be to find in North America.

Am glad you have similar reactions to me re "Drug War" and "The Grandmaster". Re the former: in some ways, it impresses those who've not seen Johnnie To's "Expected the Unexpectd" more than those who have. re the latter: As far as I'm concerned, pretty much all of Wong Kar Wai's Hong Kong films are more impressive than it -- and yes, it saddens me that "Ashes of Time" never received as much love from critics local and especially foreign.

eliza bennet said...

It is no wonder that I'm in love with The Grandmaster and to me it was full of meaning (many emotions including but not limited to longing, sacrifice, revenge, pain), great acting and wonderfully filmed action scenes. I was under its influence for days afterwards (even though I watched the cut USA version in theatre when there) and looking forward to when it will be released here (with the regular cut) and on dvd with all the extra scenes, they are worth when it is WKW.

Samson said...

Great list, YTSL! Interesting and well worth the wait.

Glad you picked the old Ip Man over the handsome Ip Man. In fact, I think the old Ip Man is in many ways superior to the invincible Ip Man and definitely better than the young Ip Man.

I am so glad to see that you have fallen in love with Dante Lam's films, with 3 out of his last 5 films sitting in the top 2 (either first or second) on your top-10 HK film list for their years of release and 1 being in the top 10. I like his films very much too!

I'll be back in January 2015 to check your top ten 2014 Hong Kong movies list. See you then!

YTSL said...

Hi again "eliza bennet" --

Sorry, but I do wonder why and how you can love "The Grandmaster". I must admit to assuming that the majority of people who like it were/are not familiar with many of Wong Kar Wai's previous works. I know that's not the case with you so wonder how you can like a work that, for me, most readily fits the "style over substance" criticism that many people have leveled at his works -- often unfairly, IMHO -- over the years.

Hi Samson --

Good to see your comments. Have to say you're the one person I felt actually wanted to read this list!

Re the Ip Mans: I actually have a lot of love for Wilson Yip's first "Ip Man" film too. As for Dante Lam's works: I liked some of his earlier works too -- but yeah, he's one of those who's improved with age. :)

Samson said...

Hi again YTSL,

Thanks for wanting me to read your list! : )

Re: Dante Lam - The director's definitely getting with age, just like wine. Which of his earlier films do you like? I very much like Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone and Beast Cops.

Re: The list again - Was Derek Kwok's As The Lights Go Out amongst the films being considered?

YTSL said...

Hi again Samson --

Re Dante Lam's earlier films that I liked -- "Beast Cops" is one and, believe it or not, I quite enjoyed "The Twins Effect" too when I watched it back in 2003.

Re Derek Kwok's "As the Light Goes Out": it opened in Hong Kong in 2014 but it's definitely not top 10 worthy for me.

Samson said...

Hi again again YTSL,

Re The Twins Effect: I'd never admit it, but I actually did find it rather entertaining. And how time's passed. Back when the film was made, Ekin appeared in quite a number of new films, Edison wasn't public enemy no. 1, and Twins were still incredibly popular.

Re As The Light Goes Out: I remember Gallants was in your top 3 in the year of release, and I have heard many good things about Light. Not particularly good in your opinion?

Also have you any plans to catch any of the upcoming Chinese New Year releases (and telling us about them)?

YTSL said...

Hi once more Samson --

Things sure have changed A LOT since 2003, hasn't it?

Re "As the Light Goes Out": there are things about it that I liked (notably the performances of Hu Jun, Simon Yam and Andy On) but also too many things I wasn't too impressed by.

Oh, and definitely plan on catching a few of the Chinese New Year releases. Am not sure though re whether blogging about it. Let's see how I feel after I've seen the movies!

YTSL said...

Hi kc --

You're welcome. Glad the list still is of use five years on! :)