Top 10 and Comments from YTSL

Much as I wish I could report otherwise, the truth of the matter is that 2005 was by no means a banner year as far as Hong Kong cinema was concerned.  In fact, few folks will argue with the contention of one Asian news source (i.e., the Singapore-based Channel News Asia) that last year, the HKSAR’s film industry had its worst year in at least a decade; with “plunging domestic box office receipts” along with “a decline in the number of local productions”.
For the record, only 55 local films -- the lowest number in a decade, and down some more from the already dismal total of 64 in 2004; but still one that’s higher than the more dire under 50 predicted a year ago – made it into Hong Kong cinemas in 2005.  And considering that none of those 55 films starred Stephen Chow Sing Chi (who, lest we forget, had starred in plus helmed the 2004 – and all-time – Hong Kong box office champion, “Kungfu Hustle”), Maggie Cheung Man Yuk (who had brought some reflected glory to Hong Kong in 2004 by winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress prize for Olivier Assayas’ “Clean”), Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li and/or Carina Lau, it has to be said that a major amount of established star power also happened to be missing from the Hong Kong movie mix this past year.
In view of this, perhaps it was not all that surprising that the top-ranking local film in terms of box office takings turned out to be one with a youthful cast led by an individual who was making his feature-length film debut.  Indeed, in producing a HKFA Best Newcomer nominee in Taiwanese idol Jay Chou as well as bringing in a not inconsiderable HK$37.86 million at the box office, the “Initial D” gang not only were the undisputed boys of Hong Kong cinema’s summer session but, also, provided some cheer for the present plus modicum of hope for the future (not least in the form of an expected sequel that’s due out some time in 2006).
Still, this is not to say that Hong Kong movie audiences appear ready to wholesale jettison the industry’s older luminaries in favor of new faces and, especially, helmers.  Maybe this might have been so if the younger generation had appeared and/or come out with better attempts to win over audiences.  As it turned out though, EEG’s “Bug Me Not!” was way too juvenile, the attempt at “cool cinema” that was “Dragon Squad” proved to be too much style over substance and the William Hung vehicle that was “Where’s Mama’s Boy?” looks to truly have been a lame effort that everyone should forget, and the sooner the better.
Even more damningly, Wong Ching Po’s “Ah Sou” (AKA “Mob Sister”) only confirmed – coming as it did in the wake of the previous year’s frustrating “Jiang Hu” – to people like moi that its director is neither able nor mature enough to make good use of the able likes of Anthony Wong Chau San, Eric Tsang, Simon Yam, Alex Fong, Liu Ye and Karena Lam (and thus was as prone to wasting their talents as he previously did those of Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Shawn Yu and Edison Chen).  Alternatively put, this filmmaker and his raw contemporaries appear unable to hold a candle to the venerable likes of Wong Kar Wai, Ann Hui, Fruit Chan, Yim Ho, Mabel Cheung, Lawrence Ah Mon, Ringo Lam and Shu Kei; all of whom, sadly enough, did not have a single Hong Kong film to their name in 2005.
In listing as I did just now some of the seriously capable performers and auteurs who are available to be called upon by the Hong Kong film industry, I come close to being flabbergasted as well as downright frustrated that there have not been more contemporary offerings made which do and did gain them -- and Hong Kong cinema in general -- international acclaim and renown.  Granted that Johnnie To’s “Election” was a Cannes Film Festival entry while Stanley Kwan’s “Everlasting Regret” was in competition at Venice, and Peter Chan’s “Perhaps Love” was that prestigious Italian film festival’s opening film; but none of these works came away with major praise, never mind any awards.  Furthermore, while I take some pleasure in being able to report that two Hong Kong movies actually topped the 2005 Mobius Top Ten Films Poll, “Kungfu Hustle” and “2046” – as readers of this site well know -- actually had been released in 2004 locally.
Upon casting about for some consolation though, there’s at least the good news about “SPL” having thrilled the more populist Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness crowd and appearing to herald the return of Hong Kong action movies which opt to showcase the hard-hitting skills plus explosive moves of trained martial artists like Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen and Jacky Wu Jing (rather than often more farcical than fantastic computer-generated and other “special” effects like in the relative box office flop that was “The Myth” and the unmitigated box office dud which was “The Promise”).  Something else which gives me a reason to cheer is that, even while it didn’t appeal to many international film critics, “Election” managed to win the favor of the often fickle Hong Kong movie audience – to the extent that the triad drama became the first Category III-rated film in years to pass the HK$10 million mark at the local box office.
Two other reasons I have to continue being a Hong Kong film fan lie in: localized cum mid-range plus -budget movies like “Crazy ’n the City” continuing to be made plus able to tug at this non-native Hong Konger’s heart-strings; and Hong Kong cinematic efforts by no means being restricted to a single genre.  Now, if only foreign film distributors would be so kind as to have their Hong Kong movie selection reflect this, and Hong Kong movies – including Hong Kong-Mainland China co-productions -- could be shown with their original, rather than a dubbed, track (unlike in, say, Singapore, a country whose government’s anti-Chinese dialect policy has resulted in Hong Kong movies being pretty much the only movies shown dubbed in the territory), then I could look forward to: another year in which reports about the death of Hong Kong cinema remain on the premature side; and, since hope springs eternal, a Hong Kong movie viewing year which is better than the now past year’s.

Now, without further ado, here’s moving on to…

My Top Ten of 2005

My picks (as of mid February, 2006, and without having viewed the likes of “It Had To Be You”, “Fear of Intimacy”, “b420”, “Home Sweet Home”, “Perhaps Love”, “The Myth” and “A Chinese Tall Story” – though, admittedly, the last four films were missed out of choice rather than through lack of viewing opportunity):-


Modest and probably not coincidentally way under-rated (cf. the HKFA’s having given it just a solitary miserly award nomination), this James Yuen helmed and co-scripted drama admirably wears its distinctively Hong Kong heart on its sleeve, plus happens to be filled to the brim with the kind of tender humanity that too many of its Mainland Chinese audience-pandering, wanna-be pan-Asian blockbuster contemporaries dearly lack as well as a bunch of welcome and easily recognizable faces (including Kara Hui Ying Hung and Alex Fong Chau San, and ranging in age from the grandmotherly Hau Woon-ling to the preteen Harashima Daichi).  Perhaps the greatest tribute I can personally offer up to its makers are that: Hong Kong Island’s Wan Chai district will never be the same to me after viewing this heart-warming offering; and ditto re my opinion – now considerably improved – of the movie’s two main stars, the Everyman-esque Eason Chan and the unbelievably perky Joey Yung.


In 2004, Johnnie To directed three films (in “Breaking News”, “Throwdown” and “Yesterday Once More”) which all were hard to fault technically yet failed to truly enthrall.  However his sophomore Cannes Film Festival entry could be safely said to be a cinematic as well as technical masterwork.  Blessed with a gripping story, interesting characters, uniformly fine work by a large group of actors (led by an in-top-form Simon Yam and scene-chewing Tony Leung Kar Fai) and a more than competent crew (which includes Patrick Tam as its editor and Cheng Siu Keung as its cinematographer), this was one highly anticipated offering from the Milkyway head honcho which didn’t disappoint – and, as I who have already viewed it thrice in just four months can personally attest, continues to yield much upon repeat viewing.


This Andrew Lau and Alan Mak co-helmed effort is one of those movies which would not have appealed to me on paper; since, among other things, I don’t have an innate love of cars, never mind nocturnal street racing.  Against the odds though, such as this slick Hong Kong film adaptation of a popular Japanese manga’s cool visual style, hypnotic soundtrack, trio of young male stars (in Jay Chou, Edison Chen and Shawn Yu), pair of likeable veteran actors (in Anthony Wong Chau San and Kenny Bee) and major comedian (in Chapman To) as well as overall verve plus technical quality contributed towards making it an offering which proved impossible for a filmophile like myself to resist.  On top of it all, on both the occasions that I viewed it at the multiplex, I was moved to think that this truly was an entertaining cinematic work which was made to be seen on a big screen, and I’m so very glad that I got to do just that!


This much-talked-about-on-the-internet actioner from director Wilson Yip derives a substantial part of its reputation from a pair of scintillating one-v-one fights (the first between action director cum co-star Donnie Yen and silky smooth move meister Jacky Wu Jing; the other between the Yen Man and the venerable Sammo Hung) which gave this viewer an incredible adrenaline rush and darn near propelled me out of my theatre seat when I watched the movie on a big screen!  Latterly, in the wake of the hype, there has come some backlash comments about how the offering would not have been able to stand out of the mid to late 1980s Hong Kong action movie crowd.  Even if such comments have validity, however, the fact of the matter is that in 2005, it was one of those increasingly rare offerings – from just about anywhere, never mind Hong Kong – which was able to serve up some delicious killer moves which made for absolutely crowd-pleasing action cinema.


Based on the comedy-stressing publicity materials produced for this film (including its poster and reports of its  naive gigolo and desperate pimp main pairing), I went into my viewing of the work expecting to get some sniggers, giggles and laughs from the experience.  While I did get my fill of such, I also found myself coming out of the cinema feeling emotionally shell-shocked as well as affected, and convinced that this ultimately heart-rending Leon Lai and Chapman To starrer was a much larger as well as sophisticated cinematic gem than its PR crew had realized.  Alternatively put: Containing as it does both guffaw-inducing scenes along with moments of genuinely tear-jerking pathos, this inspired offering from co-directors and -scriptwriters Alan Mak and Felix Chong is truly genre-transcending…but that by no means excuses those responsible for its publicity for seeming to not know how to go about accurately and successfully marketing it!

6) 2 YOUNG

Derided by the BBC’s film reviewer as but a “saccharine teenage melodrama” and “The Observer”’s as “the poorest Hong Kong import for years” during its British cinematic run, this unrepentantly heart-on-its-sleeve-wearing offering from auteur Derek Yee clearly is not one which will appeal to hardened cineastes looking to East Asian cinema for edgy fixes.  However, folks who are willing to soften their hearts and give the simple but wholly sincere effort a chance will find, as did another British reviewer (this time “Total Film”’s), that its two young leads – i.e., debutante actress Fiona Sit and the only 2nd-movie appearing Jaycee Fong -- “positively ooze chemistry” and “the forbidden love story works in the final cut”.  And on a personal note: I feel compelled to admit that at least one scene in the work – specifically, that which involved the versatile Eric Tsang (playing Jaycee Fong’s father) and Jackie Chan’s real-life son out in an open field – got me shamelessly blubbering as well as genuinely emotionally caught up in the lives of their fictional characters!


In 2005, years after Tsui Hark -- whose best movie years looked to have been from 1984 to 1995 (or, in movie terms, from “Shanghai Blues” to “The Blade”), and thus come and gone – along with the even more senior Lau Kar Leung had been dismissed as “has beens” in some quarters, they returned to form with this wuxia adventure which is epic in length (153 minutes) and ambition (If I’m not mistaken, the original plan called for a 4 hour film, if not 7 movie series).  While certain failings (e.g., overly severe editing and a pedestrian musical score) prevent this star-studded offering from reaching the heights of those two filmmakers’ very best, this offering nonetheless looked to be one of those rare Three Chinas – along with some input from Korea and Japan -- collaborations which came across as containing more worthwhile content and meaningful messages than marketing possibility.  And for that (along with Master Tsui’s usual tendency to allow women into normally male provinces), I am truly grateful!

8) AV

Shot as it was over a very short period of time (2 weeks or less, as I understand it) and with hardly the biggest of budgets, this cheeky comedy appears to have been looked upon even by some of its cast and crew (e.g., its cinematographer, Johnny Lam Chi-Kin) as more of a young men’s lark than a bona fide cinematic enterprise.  And I can imagine certain individuals who view films through moralizing lenses looking askance at this taste-questioning offering since its main male characters’ highest ambitions just are to boink a porn movie actress – and not have to pay for the pleasure of doing so!  However, the fact of the matter is that few other Hong Kong movies this year got me laughing as heartily and hysterically as this one from director Edmond Pang (with my two favorite scenes being that involving painful-looking attempts at “cocaine”-sniffing and the one with the susceptible-to-motion-sickness “human sperm”!! :D).


The second highest grossing local film in Hong Kong in 2005 (with box office takings of HK$20.2 million) has an eye-catching gimmick that runs the risk of obscuring its true – and, actually, surprisingly bittersweet -- heart.  For some reason (probably commercial, I suspect), director Gordon Chan and his colleagues look to have sought to throw out distractive devices and lay on the saccharine rather than allow a solidly-crafted family drama and wistful ruminations about how we humans should – but often don’t really, until it’s almost too late -- treasure our time on earth and with our family and friends to stand out from the cinematic crowd as well as alone.  Additionally, while Andy Lau is to be applauded for once again allowing his looks to be radically altered – and by no means for vanity’s sake -- on screen, this movie’s viewers would do well to look to such as the more natural performances of the boy who played the basketball player from Mainland China and the increasingly accomplished Cherrie Ying to set and reflect the ultimately earnest and poignant work’s emotional tone.


“What’s a Hong Kong movie list without Wong Jing?!”, I hear some Hong Kong movie fans ask.  In response to that query, here comes a guilty pleasure of an exploitation film cum topical thriller highlighting the HKSAR’s (and too many other territories’) “slimming craze” which was produced and scripted by the schlock-meister himself but can only have benefited from having the under-rated Marco Mak – rather than the rotund Mr. Wong -- at its helm.  Lauded by the SCMP’s normally curmudgeonly Paul Fonoroff for being “deliciously lowbrow” plus “represent[ing] a vanishing but important aspect of purely local Hong Kong cinema: the B-movie”, this wickedly involving offering also benefits from being able to call upon the talents of the very watchable Anthony Wong Chau San, veteran TV star Sheren Tang and the luminous Cherrie Ying (the last of whose light has shone – as well as has been prolific -- like never before in 2005).

To see what films YTSL saw this year, check out the ratings page.