Monday, January 30, 2017

My top nine Hong Kong movies of 2016

The subject of my favorite Hong Kong film of 2016

One evening last week, I strolled down Memory Lane with a fellow Hong Kong film fan whose favorite era(s) of Hong Kong cinema were the 1980s and 1990s.  As we reminisced about movies we loved, some classic titles like Chungking Express (1994) and The Killer (1989) were bandied about but so too were lesser known films like Boys Are Easy (1993), Beyond Hypothermia (1996) and Girls Without Tomorrow (1992), which are less well known but did do their part to make us the major Hong Kong filmophiles that we became. 

That conversation also got me feeling that even though I watched fewer than twenty 2016 Hong Kong movies (to be precise, 17 in 2016 itself, and two more this month!), it still might be good for me to do my part to help spread the word about some films I actually like quite a bit -- and think are worth checking out -- that might otherwise escape people's attention.  And this particularly so in the case of my favorite Hong Kong film of 2016: which -- unlike any of my favorite Hong Kong films of 2015, including the now infamous Ten Years --- has thus far only had a handful of screenings in its home territory, none of them in a regular cinema...

At 117 minutes in length, it may not be the lengthiest Umbrella Movement documentary that I've seen, with Chan Tze Woon's Yellowing, which is variously listed as being 128 and 133 minutes long, and Film 75's 75 Days: Life, Liberty and Happiness (Extended version) clocking at 130 minutesBut Evans Chan's Raise the Umbrellas feels the most comprehensive as well as considered of the films about the street action and political protests that shook Hong Hong in 2014, and continues to have a significant impact on people's lives and thoughts, whose very making and screening often seen like political actions in and of themselves.

A friend and I who attended one of its (thus far) all too rare screenings here in Hong Kong couldn't help but nudge each other from time to time when seeing or hearing something that got us remembering how we felt and what we did over the course of the 79 days when parts of Admiralty, Mongkok, Causeway Bay, Central and -- for a few short days -- Tsim Sha Tsui were "Occupied" by regular folks rather than just ultra experienced political activists.  To those who weren't there but would like to get a good sense of what things were like on the relevant streets of Hong Kong for much of the last quarter of 2014, and also for those who seek an intelligent overview of the political situation in Hong Kong: Raise the Umbrellas gets my vote as the Umbrella Movement film you ought to check out.    

I saw two Milkyway Image movies in 2016: one superb, the other less so; one directed by Johnnie To, the other by three relative unknowns (two of whom were making their helming debuts, the other of whose previous directorial credit was a segment of Ten Years).  Unexpectedly, it was the film helmed by the neophyte directors that had the honor of opening the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival.  And Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong's Trivisa it also was which was the film that had substance as well as style, a sure direction, and memorable performances by a trio of lead actors who show that they can do far more than they often get credited for.

Johnnie To's Three may have had the bigger stars but Trivisa had the more entertaining, yet also believable, characters and a story that's full of resonance for contemporary Hong Kong despite being set in the 1990s and being about three real-life felons active in that era.  On a cinematic note: it's thoroughly encouraging to see the emergence of a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers who clearly have got it, and "get" that truly good films appeal to the heart and mind, not just eyes and ears.       

He was responsible for one of the major disappointments of 2013 (White Storm, if you're wondering) but Benny Chan made amends in 2016 with a period actioner that felt like a welcome blast from the past: specifically, 1990s Hong Kong cinema.  Shot in Mainland China and set in that period of Chinese history where warlords threatened and ruled, Call of Heroes is the kind of movie where it's easy to figure out who are the good guys (and gals) and who are the dastardly villains.  

But even while its makers wears their hearts on their sleeve in terms in letting audience members know who they should root for, it's also the kind of film where death can come suddenly as well as super violently, and no one -- children or women as well as men -- is safe from harm.  Once you realize this, the tension levels rise, and so does the entertainment quotient; and this particularly when you get to realizing that Call of Heroes is also pretty equal opportunity when it comes to having representatives from both sexes who are able to kick ass!                      

I normally try to avoid viewing movies in 3D but I'm actually glad that the screening I attended of Derek Yee's remake of Death Duel, the 1977 Shaw Brothers movie in which he starred, was in that format. In all honesty. it is one of the most visually impressive Chinese language films I've ever seen, with a plethora of scenes whose every frame -- as has been said of Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time -- is so beautiful that you'd want to frame them and hang them on the wall as works of art.

In many ways, Sword Master comes across as the wuxia work that the likes of master filmmaker Chor Yuen (whose swordplay fantasies for the Shaw Brothers include The Magic Blade and Clans of Intrigue along with Death Duel) would have made if he had been able to call upon the technical capabilities filmmakers have now back then.  And as far as this Hong Kong movie film fan is concerned: that's very high praise indeed!     

5) Mermaid

Stephen Chow is seen by many long-time fans of Hong Kong cinema as the undisputed king of comedy but I didn't immediately warm up to him -- and to this day, prefer his post 1994 works, such as Forbidden City Cop and Shaolin Soccer, to those made before then, including Love on Delivery.  Similarly, it took me a while for Mermaid -- which he directed and co-scripted (with seven others) but didn't star -- to click with me but once it started doing so, it really did provide me with a barrel of laughs, even guffaws, along with a heartwarming ending that left a significant lump in my throat.

6) Yellowing

2016 was the year when not one but several feature length documentaries about (various aspects of) the Umbrella Movement finally got to see the light of day.  Made by 29-year-old Chan Tze Woon, Yellowing is one of those works made by a filmmaker turned accidental activist who got to realizing that he couldn't be just a bystander as unrest and divisions became all too visible in the city he loved, and that his camera would not be able to protect him from police violence.  What his camera did though was to capture lots of valuable as well as interesting footage at the "Occupy" sites and beyond, and provide a personal take and view on political subjects that can be affecting as well as involving.

7) Weeds on Fire
The opening and closing scenes of this film from first time director Steve Chan Chi Fat (who also co-wrote the script with Wong Chi Yeung) take place at Umbrella Movement protest sites but Weeds on Fire is more of a coming-of-age tale cum sports movie than out-and-out political offering.  An uninhibitedly local movie, I think it's safe to assume that it was made with a not particularly big budget by people with their hearts in the right place.  Consequently, it tends to attract goodwill, with the result being that its weaker sections are more likely to be overlooked or forgiven than less well-intentioned -- and more outwardly commercialistic -- others.

8) The Mobfathers

Not so long ago, it seemed as though there would come a time in the near future when there would no longer be distinctively Hong Kong movies, only Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese co-productions.  But in 2016, I saw a number of Hong Kong films that most definitely were not intended to be screened on the Mainland Chinese side of the Hong Kong-Mainland China border.  Among the most emphatically -- defiantly even -- Hong Kong films was this Category III-rated triad drama made by the HK Film Company.  The Mobfathers may not be a masterpiece of cinema by pretty much any objective measure but I, for one, was entertained by it and am glad of its existence! 

9) Snuggle

The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals is not the first organization that comes to mind when you think of granters of film commissions but this charitable organization did indeed commission the making of this documentary work that gives an unvarnished look into the lives of elderly people with not long to live and those of their (also suffering) family members who continue to interact the most with them.  JC Wong's film is hardly an easy watch but should you decide to check it out, you surely will find yourself feeling for the people who are the focus of this film, and come away with a good sense of our collective humanity as well as mortality. 


Anonymous said...

I really liked MOBFATHERS too! I saw it at the Taipei Intl. Film fest & talked to Herman Yau afterwards about it. He confirmed the references to universal sovereignty, which I thought was really great in a Hong Kong gangster movie. Most definitely meant for the HK audience.

AndrewB said...

And what a walk down memory lane it wasーsince I got home I have been stuck in nostalgic viewing mode =) It seems Sword Master just got released on DVD in HK a few days ago so a viewing of that one and Trivisa is coming fairly soon. Look forward to both :)

Samson said...


I have been reading your top ten HK film lists for years and feel a bit sad that you only had nine to recommend this year.

By the way, what did you think of 'Happiness' and 'Mad World'?

YTSL said...

Hi --

I saw "Mobfathers" at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Herman Yau wasn't at the screening but Chapman To and lots of others were, and a wonderful message from Herman Yau was read out that gave a good inkling that his heart was more in this project than "Nessun Dorma", which also screened at the festival!

Hi AndrewB --

I hope you'll enjoy both "Sword Master" and "Trivisa" when you finally view them. And speaking some more of walking down Memory Lane: saw "Yuppie Fantasia 3" earlier today and it had some flashback scenes from the original "Yuppie Fantasia" and "Brief Encounter in Shinjuku" (i.e., "Yuppie Fantasia 2" by some other name)! ;)

Hi Samson --

I'm sad too that I feel able to only recommend nine of the 2016 Hong Kong movies I've viewed. By the way, I had actually originally planned on writing about five...

I didn't see "Happiness" and "Mad World". I've heard that "Happiness" is really good but the trailer was just so depressing -- ditto re "Show Me Your Love". And "Mad World" seemed like it'd be a depressofest too. All this from someone who voluntarily went and watched "Snuggle", mind! ;S

Bill said...


I've only seen a few of these films, but the variety of the other films you list, indicate that you had a pretty good cinema-viewing year.

In Mermaid, the scene at the table when the two leads break out into a spontaneous song, shows that Stephen Chow has the ability to incorporate song or dance into his films...The scene in Shaolin Soccer, when the actors perform a spontaneous dance on the streets, is a stellar example of Hong Kong cinema at its most entertaining.

You mention Chor Yuen in this blog. I purchased a dvd of Death Duel after you mentioned it in a review of Sword Master. I frequently grow tired of the studio-bound interiors of Shaw Brothers movies, but Chor Yuen is an exception because he knows how to utilize the production design so that it becomes an integral part of the atmosphere surrounding his characters.

I hope you see some memorable films in 2017!


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

I do reckon that I saw quite the variety of films in 2016 even if the quantity wasn't as high as in recent years. I hope there will be a number of good -- if not excellent -- Hong Kong and other movies to see in 2017.

One thing I really liked about 2016 was being able to catch a number of my favorite older Hong Kong movies on a big screen. I hope this continues in 2017! :)