This article is part of a Hong Kong guide by FT Globetrotter
Paris has romance and New York is on the horizon. Hong Kong is heartbreak, mystery – and Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and a slew of stylized, site-specific, and hugely influential action and crime films. Both the history of the film industry and real life played a role in this. A long-standing taste for martial arts enthusiasts among the city’s producers was supercharged by Lee – until in the 1980s spikes in the crime rate prompted local filmmakers to make thriller thrillers. the underworld that surpass Hollywood.
But there have always been other films in Hong Kong too. Take the vanishing and colorful love stories of director Wong Kar Wai, raised in the city by parents exiled from Shanghai by the Cultural Revolution. His films find their characters drawn this way, in keeping with a venue whose past has been linked to both Britain and mainland China, and whose films have always been a back-and-forth dialogue with America. .
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon prime and, in the United States and Canada, The criterion string
Before violence, a romance – sort of. One of the best in modern cinema, in fact. Wong Kar Wai took up the thread of this long and beautiful melancholy pain of the characters presented in his previous fable of Hong Kong, Days of being wild. Today, amid mahjong tables and noodle stalls in a stifling time in 1962, a journalist and secretary realize that their spouses are having an affair and are bound by mutual grief. The casting of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – all born in Hong Kong – was a triumph of chemistry. And yet the film has a secret. By the time it was made in 2000, the Hong Kong it portrayed (and beautifully evoked) had changed so much that Wong had filmed most of the exteriors in Bangkok. Movies – like so many others – are rarely what they seem.
Police history (1985)
Where to watch: Amazon prime and The criterion string (United States and Canada)
Maggie Cheung also appeared in Police Story, a very different landmark from Hong Kong – the great showcase of the joyful talents of action star Jackie Chan. His brand of gymnastic chaos owes more to Buster Keaton than to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the film is a series of ridiculous stunts involving endless double-decker buses and broken glass that were both a product of the local film industry and a physical snapshot of Hong Kong too. We open among the hillside slums that dotted the island of the 1980s – and end with a manic and spectacular finale at Wing On Plaza in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and other platforms
Hong Kong superstar Bruce Lee’s latest screen appearance. His last film before his tragic untimely death at 32, Enter the Dragon had a big influence on everything from action blockbusters to anime – a heady mix of martial arts, spy movie and underground thriller choreography, built around its star’s inordinate charisma. Important in this context as well, it exists in the form of a panorama of the city and the island of Hong Kong, starting from the horizon line of the credits. (Interiors were shot in a lost gem in Hong Kong history, Goldest Harvest Studios in Kowloon, once a backlot big enough to rival Hollywood.)
Chungking Express (1994)
Where to watch: BluRay and DVD and The criterion string (United States and Canada)
criminality and Passion was both at play in Wong Kar Wai’s lush portrayal of two Hong Kong police officers driven mad with love by the breakups. The film was also inspired by the personal cardinal points of its director. Half of the film is tied to the Chungking Mansions at Tsim Sha Tsui, the multi-use complex near where Wong grew up, whose sleazy clubs were once a staple of Hong Kong nightlife. The other half is named after a modest central food stand called the Midnight Express, near the apartment where Wong’s second cop lives, and where a haunting sequence features the Central-Mid Levels Escalator, open only there. ‘year before the film’s release in 1994. (The apartment was actually the home of Wong’s longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle; during the filming he had to sleep on the floor.)
City on Fire (1987)
Where to watch: BluRay and DVD
You may find yourself watching Hong Kong from City of fire and thinking of LA. This is said to be due to the widely noted resemblance between director Ringo Lam’s kinetic crime drama and Tank dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s debut film, which often looks – let’s say – like a tender tribute to Hong Kong film. But Lam’s film wasn’t just the story of a cop infiltrating brutal thieves in the chaotic 1980s neon Kowloon. It also sprang from reality – the trigger for the story (which inspired Tarantino in turn) was a report about a police escape by local jewelry thieves.
The house of 72 tenants (1973)
Where to watch: DVD
Some Hong Kong film schools have been greeted with warmth in the West. Others have enjoyed enormous popularity in Hong Kong itself while leaving foreigners bewildered. Take The house of 72 tenants – a loud, big-hearted comedy set in a decrepit building that broke box office records when it was released in 1973. As with everything, local tastes don’t always match those of the international market.
A Better Future (1986)
Where to watch: DVD
Director John Woo drew so many admirers for his hyper-elegant action thrillers – “ballet ball” was the term – it seemed inevitable that he would go to Hollywood. This journey started with A better tomorrow, a leading gangster film that has made expert use of Hong Kong as the location for many moods, taking place in the scuffed industrial spaces of To Kwa Wan and the high-rise streets of Central. Lead actor Chow Yun-Fat’s sunglasses and trench coat uniform even became a craze among Hong Kong youth when the film was released in 1986.
Where to watch: DVD
Before Wong Kar Wai gave to the world Chungking Express, director Stanley Kwan has made an opulent history of Hong Kong through two eras, with two games of love and two very different visions of the city. Here, based on Lilian Lee’s novel, the periods were the 1930s and 1987. The first witnessed a doomed romance between a courtesan and a playboy in a world of tea rooms and opium dens. The second was touched by a supernatural echo half a century ago, a ghost story set in a city where the past is rarely ready to be forgotten.
Hellish Affairs (2002)
Where to watch: Blu ray and DVD
Finally, a film that seems to capture so much about Hong Kong films: a brilliantly entangled crime story with an opera backlash, impossible to imagine elsewhere but universal enough for a global audience. (It ended up being remade as The dead by no less than Martin Scorsese, whose version wasn’t as good as the original, although it did win an Oscar.) In the midst of the plot, Hong Kong himself made the two sides of Kowloon Bay, with a starring role for the roof of the North Point government office – well above the endless drama of the streets below.
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