2001 - The Year in Review
2001 saw more more movies about yuppie love than anyone should have to be subjected to, but the year was not a total loss. Rather, a lot of new developments in Hong Kong cinema, and the return of some of its leading lights, show that Hong Kong cinema is as exciting as ever.
There was a time, not long ago, when Hong Kong was the be all, end all of genre cinema. But not anymore. Hong Kong faces increasingly stiff competition from a booming South Korean action film scene, which in many ways has successfully merged Hollywood production values with Hong Kong action, meeting them both half-way, making them more accessible to American viewers accustomed to Hollywood conventions and more appealing to Chinese audiences looking for better production values than their own home grown cinema. Japan, meanwhile, continues its new millennium rebirth of cult filmmaking, exploring the edges of the extreme. And the Ring inspired psychological horror films continue to come out as well, with varying degrees of success.
Despite this, Hong Kong is still able to compete quite well, and remains the movie powerhouse of the region. Part of the key is internationalization -- some of the bigger budget films seem inevitably to include some Japanese, Korean, or Taiwanese co-producers and co-stars. Another key investor is Hollywood -- instead of the exodus of Hong Kong talent to Hollywood killing the local industry, the reverse happened -- these same directors, actors, and cinematographers have come back to Hong Kong, and brought a lot of cash with them. People like Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Stanley Tong, and Peter Pau. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also did its part to convince producers that there was money to be made in funding Hong Kong cinema.
There are, of course, some negatives to taking Hollywood money. One is what I call the "blockbusterization" of Hong Kong cinema. The big budget blockbusters make all the money, while smaller productions get released, stay in theaters for a few days, and disappear just as quickly. It is unclear how long smaller films will be able to compete in this kind of market.
In the final analysis, though, what is clear is that the big, international pictures do not necesssarily resonate with local audiences. Instead, the most popular films of the year are ones which trade on a uniquely Hong Kong outlook, or that are seeped in a sense of common culture, films like Wu Yen or Shaolin Soccer. In short, the same sort of pictures that have always been popular in Hong Kong. As long as audiences continue to express their enthusiam for pictures like these, we need not fear that Hong Kong cinema will ever become as stale and generic as Hollywood.
The biggest genre trend, to my disappointment, is the yuppie romantic comedy. Inspired by the smash success of last year's Needing You..., it seems they just can't make enough. They all follow a predictable formula. The man is handsome, but has some particular flaw (either physical or character) that makes him unwanted. The woman, meanwhile, is extremely attractive but also quirky and eccentric. They meet, they fall in love, blah, blah, blah. Wonderful actresses like Sammi Cheng and Faye Wong help lift the productions up a bit, as do performances by the likes of Andy Lau, Tony Leung and Francis Ng. But despite a few standouts, overall the films are not very worthwhile. After all, I went to Hong Kong cinema to avoid the likes of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, not to watch their imitators.
Another genre development is reminicent of Wild Youth films that were popular in the 50's in the U.S. These new youth films share in common the theme of teenagers gone wild and warn against the dangers of drugs, especially 'fing' drugs (ecstacy) (Gangs 2001, Fing's Raver, The Young Ones, etc). They also share a strongly moralistic tone, the worst of them preaching at the audience. This new type of didacticism seems to have blossomed overnight. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues into 2002.
Category III movies have hit rock bottom, with the days of such depraved classics as The Untold Story looking farther away than ever. This year only saw two Cat III shockers, both based on the Hello Kitty murders in December of 2000 (There is a Secret in My Soup and Human Pork Chop), and only one Cat III sex comedy (Electrical Girl). In the future, new censorship rules will require every movie about young Triads to have a Category III designation, though the films themselves hardly merit the distinction.
The horror genre saw a few points of light, including Horror Hotline and Nightmare in Precinct 7, which suggest the genre has not entirely exhausted itself. On the other hand, the Troublesome Night series continued for another five episodes like a chicken with its head cut off, staggering about, too stupid to realize it died some time ago. An attempt was even made to bring back hopping vampires (Vampire Controller), but it didn't take.
To America, From America
2001 was another strong year for Hong Kong talent working overseas. Jackie Chan had another box office smash with Rush Hour 2, Jet Li had less luck despite being in two films, Kiss of the Dragon and The One. Director Ringo Lam continues to work on a string of pointless Van Damme films. Fight Choreographers Yuen Wo-ping and Corey Yuen were also in high demand.
Although Chinese faces are becoming more prevalent, and more accepted, in leading roles in Hollywood, Chinese Americans remain outside the scope of this interest. Hollywood wants Hong Kong talent, not American talent. So Chinese Americans continue to be screwed by the system and vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, as they have always been.
Which makes it all the more satisfying that they are finding representation, and acceptance, in Hong Kong cinema. Chinese Americans like Daniel Wu and Terence Yin are picking up fan bases in Hong Kong and becoming celebrities, taking leading roles in a variety of productions. Ironically, they are able to do this even when their Cantonese is very poor, sometimes heavily accented, whereas in Hollywood a typical excuse for not having Chinese Americans in lead roles is the perception of their possibly poor or accented english (a perception which is almost always false). So if the popularity of Hong Kong cinema causes it to bleed talent, it is now clear that its popularity also draws neglected talent back to it. In the end, it is Hong Kong cinema, not the Hollywood machine, that is the richer for it.
Careers on Fire
Every year, a few notable actors, directors, and players in the entertainment business stand out for their work. Here are my choices for 2001.
Genre fans know director Yau best for his sick and demented collaborations with actor Anthony Wong in The Untold Story and Ebola Madness. More recently, he spent several years directing the more subdued ghost stories of Troublesome Night. But abruptly, in 2001, he has moved to the spotlight. First, there's the matter of Tsui Hark. Hark likes his work and approached him to be his cinematographer on Legend of Zu. Hark asked him next to direct Master Q 2001. That would be more than enough on any man's resume for one year, but in addition to these films, he also directed an incredible drama, From the Queen to the Chief Executive, which allows him to use his well honed sense of exploitation to create a particularly gruesome murder, then spend the rest of the film gaining sympathy from the audience for the killer, not just for the victim. And he also lensed Killing End, a triad drama, and the ghost story Nightmare in Precint 7. I can't wait to see what he has in store for next year. Whatever it is, it appears that his Troublesome Nights are over.
Wooden as hell, I had no hope for Wu when I first saw him in Gen-X cops -- truly unable to act his way out of a paper bag. But surprise, surprise, his Cantonese is improving, as is his acting talent, and this Canadian-American has suddenly become someone to watch. He has consistently turned in good performances this year, and though he has a ways to improve, it now seems likely he will be able to do it. He has also made some good choices: BORN WILD, HEADLINES, BEIJING ROCKS, COP ON A MISSION were all above average productions.
Here's a guy who looks set to unseat Lam Suet as everyone's favorite character actor. Actually a film score composer and long time industry insider, the noises he makes on screen are what is attracting attention now. He does marvelous character studies -- the broken father in GLASS TEARS, the obsessed hit man in MASTER Q 2001, the frightened psychologist in MIST IN JUDGE, the quickie mart cashier learning Japanese in MANAICAL NIGHT. Each time, he creates a memorable, funny, intense, or perhaps just unhinged character, yet each distinct in its own way. At the beginning of the year, I didn't know who he was. Now, I'd be willing to pick up any film he appears in.
Top 10 Movies of 2001
It is almost always the case that the best movies of the year are not the most popular. Exception is made here for the #1 slot, which managed the rare combination of being both the best film of the year and the highest grossing at the Box Office. The rest met with varying success, some playing in no more than one theater for a few days before disappearing into the VCD racks, others making bids for international recognition at film festivals, but falling short of taking home any prizes. All of them are worth seeing, and represent some of the most creative work coming from Hong Kong this year.
2001 | Stephen Chiau
Stephen Chiau is a Shaolin monk who wants to popularize martial arts. Ng Man-Tat is a former soccer champ who took a bribe to throw a game twenty years ago and is trying to regain his honor by putting together and coaching a new soccer team. Their paths cross and a legend is born. The best comedy team of the nineties show they've still got it (as if there was any doubt) in one of the most popular films of 2001 and highest grossing Cantonese film of all time. Stephen Chiau and Ng Man-Tat bring their usual blend of touching characterizations, verbal humor, slapstick, absurdist violence, and mo lei tau to the screen and enrich it with exciting sfx. You will believe a monk can play soccer.
2001 | Tsui Hark
Great fantasy films are few and far between. And those that are great, are almost always deeply flawed. The original vision in such enchanting pictures such as THE DARK CRYSTAL and LEGEND continue to amaze, despite the fact that the movies themselves are rather weak. So too with LEGEND OF ZU, a film which manages to create a whole other world of immortals who never die, not completely, fighting battles that last for eternities. In the end, Tsui Hark succeeds all too well, as we lowly humans have trouble relating to the problems and concerns of the immortals onscreen. Action packed, but somber and subdued, this is pure fantasy, a creation of unfettered imagination, an awesome spectacle that floods your cortex with s-fx stimuli until you shut down your sense of wonder, and find, like the immortals, that the world is a desolate and unconsoling place.
2001 | Caroline Lai
A remarkable film about the grandfather of a runaway girl, enlisted by the girl's parents to help track her down. He falls in with the girl's friend, named P, who is a brash, stubborn, independent herself. Together they try to find the missing girl, and in the process, perhaps, find something missing from themselves. The performances in this film are shockingly good, especially old time kung-fu star Lo Lieh as grandfather. As a loner and ex-cop, grandfather is a fabulous character study, as are the missing girl's parents, who become hopelessly unconnected and listless. Director Caroline Lai takes her time with each scene, going for that art house aesthetic, but never to the point where it compromises the energy of her youthful, and not-so-youthful, stars. Other 'wild youth' films released this year like GANGS 2001, GIMME GIMME, or THE YOUNG ONES are not even in the same league.
2001 | Jacob Cheung
Anita Mui goes to Paris to get away from her philandering husband, and befriends a young Japanese girl who is in love with a married man. The two decide to extend their vacation and go to Morocco, and while there discover their problems are more connected than they at first believed. This film starts awfully slow, and the two protagonists communicate with each other using English (a second language to both), which makes things even slower. But the slow pace of the first half allows you time to get to know and care for these characters, which makes the second half of the film all the more compelling. A devestating film which creeps up on you slowly, and manages to avoid most, but not all, of the cliches inherent in the material. This film stayed with me longer than any other I've seen this year.
2001 | Ann Hui
Shu Qi sees dead people in this mystery/romance which also stars Eason Chan as a somewhat dopey, lovestruck guy intent on wooing her. Things get stranger and stranger for Eason as his romance blossoms, until he can no longer tell who is alive, and who is a ghost, and who is the girl he has been falling in love with. Sam Lee co-stars as his roommate. A really well crafted story which doesn't give away its secrets until the very end.
2001 | Mabel Cheung
Hey, Beijing really does rock in this movie about a wimpy Hong Kong pop musician (Daniel Wu) whose rich folks send him to Beijing for inspiration. He gets in trouble, instead, and ends up going on the road with some Beijing rockers he meets in a club. The front man, Road (Geng Ye) is insane like all lead singers, and of course his girlfriend (Shu Qi) is damn fine. The other principle character is Black Whirlwind, Road's dog. Road really loves that little puppy. Toward the end, the plot takes a turn for the typical and goes down the tortured, self-destructive artist path, and this overly dramatic turn takes away from the movie's strength, which is its exploration of the indie rock scene in Beijing, An inside look at the youth culture in a communist society. The last moments of the film drag a bit too long, as if they were uncertain how to end the story. And in a way, I didn't want it to end. For once, here's a Hong Kong movie that shelves the insipid Cantopop crap and rocks out. Solid performances throughout, and Mabel Cheung's directing has moments of real inspiration.
2001 | Edmond Pang
Eric Kot is a hitman out of work due to the recession, who ends up reinvigorating his business by adding a cameraman (Cheung Tat-Ming) to film his hits. A very funny satire which takes aim at the movie industry in general with each new victim they gun down. Eric Kot is at his best here as a hitman who idolizes how cool Alain Delon is while despairing of all the little obligations that fill up his incredibly un-cool life. Cheung Tat-Ming brings alot of energy to the role of a young director who dreams of being Scorcese rather than assisting on porn films, and dreams too of being with the beautiful Japanese porn star (played by Higuchi Asuka) he often shoots. Destined for cult status.
2001 | Clarence Fok
A group of illegal immigrants try to make the journey from China to England and go through sheer hell to do it. I can only imagine it isn't always this hard to smuggle people into the west, otherwise there'd be precious few around to tell the tale. The ending is based on a true story. Like this year's FROM THE QUEEN TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE, STOWAWAY is a revisioning of the Hong Kong true crime movie, with less exploitation and more thoughtful inquiry. Director Clarence Fok admittedly overuses various stop and blur effects, but does solid location work in London, Vietnam, and Russia. What isn't so solid is some of the British voice acting, which cripples what should have been the most dramatic scene of the film. Despite its flaws, this is a powerful drama which never lets up.
2001 | Raymond Leung
I feel like I know all the plot elements by heart, now, they are so familiar in Hong Kong cinema: the story of a hitman (Nick Cheung), a loner, who had a terrible childhood. He never sees the man who hires him to kill, he only kills people "who deserve killing," and before he does the killing he always visits the same prostitute. But then the script takes each of these conventions and turns them on their ear. He finds out he is going blind, and soon finds himself re-evaluating his life. He falls in with a quirky and charming girl (Yo Yo) he meets at a quicky mart, and their relationship slowly evolves. As he loses his vision, he begins seeing his life more clearly than he had ever before. I have never seen a film with so many genuinely surprising moments, all of which just flow naturally out of the story and never seem forced. It could have easily been played as a black comedy, since so much of the hitman's life turns out to be utterly different than what he thought he knew, but it's played straight -- a risky choice, which somehow works. Add absolutely inspired direction throughout by Raymond Leung, great cinematography, Spanish guitar on the soundtrack, and you end up with as unique and compelling a work as Wong Kar Wai's more famous FALLEN ANGELS. Just as good if not better, DAY OFF will however languish in obscurity, having no big name director, nor big name actors, nor any foreign distributors even looking its way.
2001 | Leung Tak Sam
A movie in the tradition of Jonathan Demme's AFTER HOURS and Sabu's POSTMAN BLUES, though much lighter in spirit. A Japanese man (Taguchi Hiromasa) in Hong Kong on the eve of the handover hires a prostitute at incredible cost because she looks like his childhood sweetheart, in celebration of his 30th birthday. She's only available until midnight. He gets there plenty early, only trouble is, she won't let him do anything without a condom. And so he leaves the hotel in search of a condom, and begins a night where anything bad that could go wrong, does go wrong. As things start spinning wildly out of control, the chief of police (Chin Kar Lok) is called on by the governor to ensure everything is resolved quickly, no matter the cost. On his adventures, the Japanese man meets all stripes of Hong Kongies, friends, foes, and the just plain weird. More of a tribute to Hong Kong and its people, this film showcases a love for the city like none other.
Entertainment News in Review
Sanney, Editor of Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review, tirelessly translates entertainment news and sends it to subscribers every day of the year. He keeps us informed, no matter how far away from Hong Kong we are. Here are some of the entertainment news highlights of the year that was.
Grand opening of the Hong Kong Film Archive.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON wins four academy awards, including Best Cinematography for Peter Pau. Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat presented at the awards show.
Erik Tsang got a major beat down by triads while leaving a nightclub for something insulting he said in his stand-up routine.
Joey Wong announces her retirement from film, after completing only one in the past seven years.
Box Office figures, and award winners from the Hong Kong Film Awards, the Golden Bauhina Awards, the Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan), and the Hong Kong Critics Society winners.
Top 10 Box Office
LOVE ON A DIET
THE ACCIDENTAL SPY
A FIGHTERS BLUES*
CHINA STRIKE FORCE*
FIGHTING FOR LOVE
* denotes year 2000 release
Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan):
Stanley Kwan (LAN YU)
Liu Ye (LAN YU)
Qin Hailu (DURIAN DURIAN)
Best Supporting Actor:
Patrick Tam (BORN WILD)
Best Supporting Actress:
Yoky Lo (GIMME GIMME)
Golden Bauhinia Film Awards:
Stephen Chiau (SHAOLIN SOCCER)
Hu Jun (LAN YU)
Sylvia Chang (FOREVER AND EVER)
Best Supporting Actor:
Wong Yat-Fei (SHAOLIN SOCCER)
Best Supporting Actress:
Josie Ho (FOREVER AND EVER)
Best Screenplay: Vincent Kuk & Edmund Pang (YOU SHOOT, I SHOOT)
Hong Kong Critics Society:
Ann Hui (VISIBLE SECRET)
Lau Ching-Wan (LA BRASSIERE)
Sammi Cheng (WU YEN)
G C Goo Bi (MERRY-GO-ROUND)