Top 10 and Comments from Brian

There is perhaps a certain absurdity in having a Top 10 list of films in a year in which only 55 films were released, but top 10 lists are a tradition and so we will continue pumping them out as long as they keep making movies. At the rate the HK film industry is imploding though, there may not be ten films to choose from a few years down the line. This nearly ten year decline in the industry in terms of number of films produced and tickets sold had its absolute worst year not only in those economic measurements but unfortunately in quality as well. It was simply a dreadful year for HK film fans on every level. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there were no entertaining films this year – there were but at the same time I don’t think there was any film produced this year that made a creative impact, began a trend, signaled some hope or will be particularly remembered five years from now.
For the most part HK filmmakers are stuck in a time warp that they can’t seem to break out of. Even the good films were in the same genres that HK has been steeped in for decades now – triads, kung fu and wuxia. A question I keep asking myself is when are they going to break out of their genre based filmmaking  – when are they going to make films like Japan’s “Taste of Tea”, “Kamikaze Girls” and “Vibrator” or Korea’s “Git”, “Green Chair” and “Samaritan Girl”. These are all low budget films that have a unique vision and something universal to say. But HK seems to be in a creative black hole in which they are tied like Andromeda to a rock by their past and are waiting to be rescued by a hero. But it's questionable whether any hero will arrive on the scene this time and instead they need to take chances and move away from what has sustained the industry for decades. That won't be easy of course.
More and more of the HK talent both behind and in front of the camera is being sucked into the Mainland and directors like Wong Jing say they make films for the Mainland audience now. It seems almost inevitable that the HK film industry will be swallowed up and merged with the Mainland one over the next few years and will exist only as a weak cousin as it was from the inception of film till the Communist victory in 1949. It is difficult to see what emerging factors can turn the industry around not only in the near term but ever.
If you look back over the past 45 years of HK film history, you can simplistically see three major creative drivers of its success. There were the strong film studios that began in the late fifties with Cathay and Shaw Brothers and later with Golden Harvest, Cinema City and Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop. This created an extraordinary environment for creativity and the nurturing of talent – as well as the economic clout to create markets all over Asia for their films. Along with this was an explosion of acting talent – the great female stars of the 1960’s, the shift to male action stars in the 70’s and then the tremendous occurrence of a plethora of charismatic stars in the 80’s with actors such as Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Michelle Yeoh, the Tony Leung’s, the Seven Fortunes and so many more. Strong visionary directors also were an important part during the heyday of Hong Kong films – Chor Yuen, Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam and Wong Kar-wai – and they helped create an industry that continued to evolve with new ideas and new styles. The current industry has none of these elements – the studio system has died, the current new actors would rarely be described as charismatic and there has been an alarming lack of new successful directing talent developed over the past five years.
There is little fostering of talent anymore – actors are picked from Idol magazines and thrown into a film with no training (in the old days almost all of them went through years of TV acting) – and most flounder after a few pictures while a few others grow (Karena Lam, Cherrie Ying and Angelica Lee) and occasionally one really surprises you (Fiona Sit in “2 Young”). The biggest actor debut in terms of popularity in 2005 was Jay Chou in the big blockbuster “Initial D”, but can anyone over the age of 14 really imagine him stepping into the shoes of those who came before him? So films continue to primarily have the same male actors that have been around for 20 years now and the roles for female actresses are either being sourced more often to the Mainland or falling into the hands of a capable few.
Here is a stat that speaks to how a film industry should work. Over the past five years the Korean film industry has flourished while HK’s went into decline – in Korea the industry has been strongly supported by the government and has developed a focus on creating an environment that allows talent to grow and flourish. Like HK used to, many actors learn their craft in television before moving into film and new directing talent is encouraged and moved up systematically from assistant director to short films to a shot at making a feature film. While Hong Kong had six director debuts’s this year – all in low budget never heard of again films, in Korea out of 96 films, 41 were debuts from the director, 24 of them were the director’s second film - and these were in many cases very high profile and successful films. This is how an industry remains healthy and continues to evolve. I don’t see this happening in Hong Kong any time soon. To give some credit to Hong Kong, both Andy Lau and Eric Tsang have made an effort to bring along new directing talent – Andy with his Focus Film company and Eric by pushing for new directors. Unfortunately, Eric’s most notable case was with Wong Ching Po who was behind two large box office busts with “Jiang Hu” in 2004 and perhaps the worst film of 2005, “Ah Sou”.
Let’s face it the old guard is only getting older. This year did see films from Jackie Chan/Stanley Tong (The Myth), Stanley Kwan (Everlasting Regret), Tsui Hark (Seven Swords), Peter Chan (Perhaps Love), Jeff Lau (A Chinese Tall Story), Teddy Chan (Wait Till You’re Older), Joe Ma (Embrace Your Shadow), Derek Yee (2 Young and Drink, Drank, Drunk), Andrew Lau (Initial D), The Pang Brothers (Eye 10), Jingle Ma (Seoul Raiders) and Johnny To (Election) and it was still a terrible year. Ten years ago this would have been cause to celebrate, but certainly not this year. Of these only To’s “Election” was equal to their work in the past.
Admittedly, there was no Stephen Chow film this year, but he can’t be expected to save Hong Kong film single-handedly every year can he? Hong Kong film seems to be in a vicious situation – there aren’t enough films to allow the opportunity for new talent to grow and experiment, the vast amount of them are low budget with little chance to make much money or to appeal beyond the city borders and investors are in such a precarious position that they are afraid to take chances and so keep demanding the same stars, the same directors and the same kinds of films – and this is slowly killing the Hong Kong cinema that we all love so much.

The Top Ten Box Office 2005

Initial D - $37,862,364
Wait 'Til You're Older - $20,163,545
The Myth - $17,062,608
Dragon Reloaded - $15,905,137
Election - $15,895,622
Himalaya Singh - $15,603.530
Drink, Drank, Drunk - $11,987,277
All About Love - $11,694,770
House of Fury - $10,992,862
2 Young - $10,382,325

My Top 10 films

1. The Hand (part of Eros)

This was actually only a 40-minute segment of the Eros trilogy, but I thought it was the best filmmaking in Hong Kong from 2005 and was certainly the only film that made me feel something emotionally beyond the superficial and the sentimental. Wong Kar-wai lavishly wallows in very familiar territory – not only in terms of time and space (Hong Kong in the 1960’s) but also in its sense of melancholy angst, regret and lost chances. Gong Li as the high class prostitute who sees her fortunes decline over time seethes with arrogance and desperation and is able to make you fall in love with the touch of her hand. This is to a large degree a companion piece to “In the Mood for Love” and “2046”, but its short running time forces Wong to crystallize these emotions into the raw heartbreaking essentials. Rapturously and painfully romantic.

2. Election

Johnny To returns to the gray shadowy world that he knows so well – triads, betrayal and cops – with a particular focus on the inner workings of the triads. I found it riveting with it’s under current of edgy violent tension ready to explode from beginning to its nihilistic ending. Two powerful triad figures want very much to win the election to head their triad and the campaigning begins. Big Tony Leung is like the vicious spoiled kid who didn't get his promised candy bar after eating his broccoli while Simon Yam is the unflappable family man with a soul of hard cement. They are running against one another - and the various smaller leaders have to decide who to side with and willingly change allegiances at the drop of a threat or a pile of money. It is like a great John LaCarre spy novel of small moves as the two try and out maneuver one another with smarts, informers, knives and rocks. It has excellent performances all around including smaller ones from Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, Lam Suet and the great Wong Tin-lam. In To's great pantheon of crime films, I rate this one just below “The Mission” and “A Hero Never Dies”.

3. Sha Po Lang

I was surprised at how little action there was in the first two thirds of this film and even more surprised at how much I was enjoying it anyway. Before letting Donnie Yen loose for the two big action finales, director Wilson Yip first creates an intriguing noir crime setup that is vaguely reminiscent of a Milkyway film in many respects and gives his actors solid characterizations to work with. Having two legends like Simon Yam and Sammo Hung go eye to eye in a ferocious face-off of wills and brass balls was simply brilliant casting as both of them bring multiple shades of gray to their characters. Simon heads up a small group of obsessive cops who don’t hesitate to cross the line of the law in order to bring down a crooked kingpin of crime and the film swirls with the brutal tactics that both parties utilize to gain advantage. Donnie Yen hangs back patiently eyeing all the proceedings until he clenches his teeth and erupts in a rhythmic onslaught of rage. The film creates an edge of tension from the first moment and keeps it taut and sharp like a barbed wire fence till the bleak frazzled conclusion.

4. Crazy N’ the City

From the mighty pen of James Yuen comes this touching and poignant tale of a few hearts on the streets of Hong Kong in a film that has the city’s personality branded on it like a love tattoo. Two cops (Eason Chan in his best performance yet and Joey Yung in a very appealing one) patrol the Wanchai district on foot and deal with treed cats, giving out directions and keeping the crazy neighbor (Francis Ng) out of harm’s way. Eason as the jaded cop tries to rein in the enthusiasm of his rookie partner with his stay out of danger philosophy, but then a serial killer makes it personal and he digs down deep to find the cop he used to be. Quite wonderful.

5. Seven Swords

Even though Tsui Hark hasn’t had a big hit in many years and in my opinion hasn’t delivered a classic film since “The Blade” in 1995 (though “Time and Tide” had some brilliant scenes), every film of his brings along with it enormous expectations – that of late are never met. But even if these films can’t be compared to his incredible output from 1980 – to 1995, Tsui still has a unique vision and a passion for the films he makes, but circumstances seem to intrude with his final product. With the special effects laden “Legend of Zu” Tsui basically ran out of money while making the film and had to cut back severely on his vision and in “Seven Swords” he somehow managed to make a four hour version which then had to be scaled back to a somewhat more theater friendly 150 minutes. This abridgement is clearly in evidence – characters not fleshed out, narrative confusion – but what has ended up on the screen is still pretty impressive and stunningly visual. Rough, dirty and brutal, this wuxia is much more in the style of “The Blade” than it is with his earlier more graceful and elegant efforts. Though another wuxia “The Promise” received all the hype this year (until people actually found themselves in a gay wet dream!), “Seven Swords” is a much more involving and epic film – and one can only hope that the four hour version delivers on the promise of this version.

6. House of Fury

Stephen Fung is one of the few bright spots in the new director landscape. His 2004 “Enter the Phoenix” had its share of flaws but showed a potentially deft hand with action-comedy and this year’s “House of Fury” is a big step forward. It feels as light and fluffy as cotton candy, but Fung has a nice feel for sentiment, comedy and the frantic action scenes are much improved over his debut. This is just slick fast moving fun which never takes itself seriously and in that vein Fung does a fine job. In two early scenes – a fight over the remote control between Fung and Gillian Chung and later a reprise at the dinner table shows that the director has a playful side to him in the best tradition of HK action comedy films from the 1980’s. At some point in the future he may attempt to go with something more meaningful or heavy, but for now he seems content to learn his craft and make pop entertainment and is a director that I look forward to seeing more from.

7. Home Sweet Home

A child is kidnapped in a large apartment complex and the police don’t seem to be particularly interested in looking into it and suspect the mother may have a few screws loose – so she takes it upon herself to track down the perpetrator within the massive air conditioner vents throughout the building. The film crackles with tension and fear as this deadly game of hide and seek plays out between one crazy woman and another on the verge of going over the edge. Both Hsu Chi and Karena Lam give wonderfully physically exhausting performances that take you deep into the bowels of the insanity of motherly love.

8. It Had to be You

This was a fairly lame year for romantic comedies – somewhat odd as they had become a big staple of Hong Kong cinema over the past few years. The only other major release of this kind was “Drink, Drank, Drunk” with Miriam Yeung so perhaps this signals the end of the flood of them after the huge success of “Needing You” in 2000. “It Had to be You” certainly doesn’t break any new ground – quite the opposite as it holds all the genre cliché’s closely to its chest but it does so with such good cheer, charm and cuteness that its pure comfort food to watch this and know exactly where it's going. Karena Lam has never been more adorable and should have a stuffed toy modeled on her character.

9. Dragon Squad

This film is a disappointment primarily because it came so close to being a top notch action film but falls short in ways that it really could have avoided. The set-up is simple – a group of young gung-ho well-trained cops take on a veteran gang of proficient killers and mayhem ensues. One issue that is quickly obvious is that the bad guys (Maggie Q, Michael Biehn, Jun Ho-heo) are so much more interesting (and better acted) than the charismatic free good guys (Shawn Yue, Vanness Wu, Eva Huang and Andy On) who look like they have been trying out for GQ Magazine and this leaves you wanting to see more of the villains and almost root for them. This though is also the strength of the film – it doesn’t make the bad guys into the typical cardboard figures but gives them real personalities and motives. On hand also are Sammo Hung and Simon Yam to give the film some veteran weight. This along with SPL makes for a nice comeback year for Sammo. The action scenes are plentiful and at times surprisingly brutal, but are also overly edited, attempt to be too stylish for their own good and at times everyone inexplicably forgets how to shoot straight. Even with these misgivings, I enjoyed this film and am surprised at how much negative feedback it has received from HK fans. It has its share of pure sentimental corn admittedly, but that has always been an appealing characteristic of Hong Kong film for me.

10. 2 Young

Director Derek Yee takes a sudden swerve away from his typically adult relationship films such as “Full Throttle”, “Lost in Time” and “C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie” to tackle a teenage romance here with mixed results. He gets terrific performances out of his cast – in particular from newcomer Fiona Sit but also a likable one from Jaycee Fong (son of Jackie) and the expected professional ones from veterans Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong, Teresa Mo and Candace Yu as the parents of the teenage couple. The earnest acting and Fiona’s contagious laugh almost carries the film, but it is let down by a fairly generic script (opposite side of the tracks romance with disapproving parents) that feels little more sophisticated than a TV movie of the week and has a courtroom ending that nearly ruins the realistic feeling of all that came before it. Still Yee manages to tug on our heartstrings on a number of occasions and the simplicity of the film is part of its sincere charm. Like "Crazy N' the City" the film feels like a small piece of Hong Kong and for that it is still a worthy effort and also for introducing Fiona to a wider audience.

Miscellaneous Observations, Gripes and Blather

I can’t help but notice that of the Top 10 Box Office hits in Hong Kong only three appear on my list which makes me wonder if the Hong Kong audience is going soft and flabby or whether I am? Probably me. Well, certainly it’s me according to my doctor, but at the same time it grieves me greatly that mediocrity like “Wait Till You’re Older”, “Himalaya Singh”, “Dragon Reloaded”, “Drink, Drank, Drunk” and “All About Love” did so much better than the films I liked.  “Initial D” is I suppose a different story – it was by far the most popular film of the year and will likely show up on all of the other Top 10 lists being compiled here, but it never felt more than a slick skin deep pop film that should have been playing as an after school special for anime fans. My guess is that it will be a long time before I can appreciate a film starring a pouty Jay Chou, the airhead Edison Chan and the expressionless Shawn Yue, but than I am an old grump.

I am happy to still see Jackie Chan films doing well – at least the Hong Kong audience hasn’t forgotten the pleasure he has given them over the years. “The Myth” wasn’t really a bad film I don’t think – but in the same vein as a Tsui Hark film people can’t help but compare it to his earlier work and find it greatly lacking. It did seem rather odd for Jackie to be jumping on the wuxia bandwagon after having stayed away from it all of his career and after seeing him in his helmet I think that was a wise thing to have done! One glimpse of his head tucked into that tight headgear made me start giggling and I could never quite recover. Still any film that brings Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat on board and nearly undresses her is fine with me. Strangely, there were two Hong Kong films this year that had Bollywood actresses in them – the other being the misbegotten “Himalaya Singh” with Gauri Karnik. Now if they could just start dancing in Hong Kong films that would be perfect. Of course, they tried with “Perhaps Love” but instead of making a joyous life affirming musical, they decided to make it for the local chapter of the Prozac Nation.
Getting back to “Himalaya Singh”, can anyone tell me what on earth Lau Ching-wan was thinking with his impersonation of Mr. Bean? How painful was that to watch. Now he showed in “Fantasia” from the previous year that he has a wonderful knack for imitation and comedy with his dead on take of Michael Hui, but this felt embarrassing – not so much that he was bad at it but just that he was doing it at all. This was the best actor in Hong Kong until recently – so what has happened I wonder. Did he and Johnny To have a falling out – does he only want to make Chinese New Year comedies (“The Shopaholics” in 2006) for the rest of his life. Hong Kong film needs this guy – please come back Lau Ching-wan and please stop using “Sean” as your first name.
Andy Lau on the other hand had a good year at the box office – but doesn’t he always. No one has kept their popularity over the years as Andy has managed – and his youthful looks. I wonder how many virgins have had to die so that he could drink their blood. At the same time, his two big films struck me as odd choices and fairly lame films – “Wait Till You’re Older” and “All About Love”. Both deal with death, loneliness, getting older and are incredibly sentimental and schmaltzy and it makes me wonder if he is going through a mid-life crisis. Hopefully, he will look into the mirror soon and tell himself that he is still the best looking man in Hong Kong and go make some more good movies. I would even look forward to “Infernal Affairs 4” – sequel or prequel – rather than more of this sentimental sludge – he was still alive at the end of IA3 wasn’t he?
Another actor who kept a low profile this year was Tony Leung Chiu-wai. He threw  a cocktail party for friends called “Seoul Raiders” and then took the rest of the year off. Good for him – I am sure he needed it after Wong Kar-wai got through with him for “2046” and “In the Mood for Love”. Maybe he is just staying at home giving smoldering looks to Carina Lau. Wouldn’t that be sweet? Now to show what a bad year it was for Hong Kong film, Daniel Wu only appeared in four films – “Drink, Drank, Drunk”, “Divergence”, “Everlasting Regret” and “House of Fury”. It used to feel like he was in every other film out of Hong Kong not too long ago. The weird thing is – now I am getting to like him a bit and thought his performances were appealing – especially as the quirky hitman in “Divergence” – so who knows, perhaps in five years I will be saying what a great actor Jay Chou is.
Now there was some sad news in 2005 – two very tragic breakups. First the Twins announced they were going solo and much of the teenage (and some of the middle aged) world went into a panic. A very small one admittedly. The reasons for this are shrouded in mystery – did one borrow the other’s lip gloss without asking? Was it a man or money or have they all along really hated the sight of one another. Was Charlene miffed because Gillian won the poll regarding who men would want to be with? The odd thing is that the Twins aren’t exactly the Beatles – and look how badly they did going solo. Has anyone actually told them that they don’t really have a whole lot of talent and that by going solo this will be even more exposed? I just don’t think halving your cuteness quotient is a wise decision – but of course think of the reunion someday! I only hope I am still alive to see it. The other breakup was between Gigi Leung and Ekin Cheng. I remember fondly when they got together – when Ekin just dumped the woman he was with for Gigi. It was so romantic. It’s not often when two such vapid actors meet and fall into a vapid love affair – and now it’s all over - what a vapid shame.

Here are the HK Film Nominations for 2005*



What can you say – it was a bad year but still “The Myth”, “Perhaps Love” and “Seven Swords”? It feels like this was based on budget rather than quality. The most obvious omission is SPL – did they really think “The Myth” was a better film. And where is “Ah Sou” – just that amazingly incoherent car crash scene should have gotten it nominated (just kidding). At any rate, if “Election” doesn’t win there should be riots in the streets.


• Tsui Hark (SEVEN SWORDS)
• Peter Chan Ho-Sun (PERHAPS LOVE)
• Derek Yee Tung-Sing (2 YOUNG)
• Johnnie To Kei-Fung (ELECTION)
• Andrew Lau Wai-Keung and Alan Mak Siu-Fai (INITIAL D)

Somehow Derek Yee snuck in among the big boys. It is nice of them to recognize a smaller film but certainly James Yuen for “Crazy N’ the City” would have been a more worthy choice. And certainly Wilson Yip for “SPL” should have been included. Again Johnny To deserves it but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them give it to Lau and Mak in recognition of the box office pop of “Initial D”.


• Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing (DIVERGENCE)
• Andy Lau Tak-Wah (WAIT 'TIL YOU'RE OLDER)
• Simon Yam Tat-Wah (ELECTION)
• Tony Leung Ka-Fai (ELECTION)

I won’t even bother to get down on Aaron Kwok – it’s too easy a target and in truth until the ludicrous overacting near the end this was one of his better performances. The only other addition that should have been included rather than Leung’s one for “Everlasting Regret” (just not enough screen time to be justified) should have been Eason Chan’s for “Crazy N’ the City”. That was a really fine and heartfelt performance that should have been recognized. My vote goes to Simon Yam for his steely and shaded performance in “Election”.


• Karena Lam Ka-Yan (HOME SWEET HOME)
• Sammi Cheng Sau-Man (EVERLASTING REGRET)
• Sylvia Chang Ai-Ka (RICE RHAPSODY)
• Karen Mok Man-Wai (WAIT 'TIL YOU'RE OLDER)

This is a really weak group this year. Karena was excellent in “Home Sweet Home” but she was covered in a cake of horror makeup and her screen time was much less than her co-star’s Hsu Chi. Hsu Chi definitely deserved a nomination more than Karena and certainly more than Karen Mok who had a fairly small role in her film. Sylvia Chang in “Rice Rhapsody” may actually be the best performance but hardly anyone saw the film. The Sammi Cheng performance in “Everlasting Regret” is the big question mark. This was a very high profile role which she accepted in order to be taken as a serious actress in the same way that Stanley Kwan did it for Maggie Cheung in “Actress”. The film takes her from the bloom of youth to old age and whether she carried this off has been an ongoing debate in the press. I think she was generally fine but that the script let her and the film down, but she certainly never captured the person like Maggie did with her character. Still I would be surprised if she didn’t win – only Zhou Xun had an equally flashy role but she is a Mainlander.


• Alex Fong Chung-Shun (DRINK, DRANK, DRUNK)
• Liu Kai-Chi (SPL)
• Wong Tin-Lam (ELECTION)
• Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (INITIAL D)

I have no argument with these nominations but I do think that it’s a shame that Eric Tsang from “2 Young” wasn’t included – he was terrific in that – and that Daniel Wu’s assassin from “Divergence” didn’t make it either. They both struck me as stronger more memorable performances than some of these.


• Zhang Jing-Chu (SEVEN SWORDS)
• Teresa Mo Shun-Kwun (2 YOUNG)
• Karena Lam Ka-Yan (AH SOU)
• Maggie Siu Mei-Kei (ELECTION)

Huh? Karena Lam and Maggie Siu. They must be kidding. Karena (who I think is great) was so wrong for that role and Maggie was basically a silent presence in “Election”. There were so many better ones. What about Manami Amamiya as the porn star in “AV”. Now you might say she was just playing herself – which is true – but believe me I will remember that performance for a long while. There was also Charlene Choi in “All About Love” – not my favorite film but Charlene having to pretend to be in love with the much older Andy could not have been easy. Throw in Cherrie Ying for “Wait Till You’re Older” or “Himalaya Singh” or Slim Till Dead” – all solid jobs from our favorite druggie who makes every film she is in better. And why not Mallika Sherawat from “The Myth” – her fifteen minutes were the best part of the film.


• Fiona Sit Hoi-Kei (2 YOUNG)
• Isabella Leong Lok-Si (BUG ME NOT!)
• Annie Liu [Lau Sum-Yau] (AH SOU)
• Michelle Ye [Yip Suen] (MOONLIGHT IN TOKYO)
• Jay Chou [Chow Kit-Lun] (INITIAL D)

I am sure Jay Chou will win, but Fiona Sit certainly deserves it. She shows ten times the range Chou did and is so appealing in this film that it would be a shame for her not to win it – but my guess is her career in film (I actually like Chou’s music a fair amount) will be a much longer one.

And I think that is all I have to say about 2005 (thank god you say!). Let’s hope and pray that 2006 is a better one.

* Info stolen directly from the HK Entertainment News site!

To check on what films Brian saw this year, check out the ratings page.