2002 - The Year in Review

Hong Kong's economy continued to decline and pessimism dominated the mood of the city. Popular cinema reflected the mood by focusing on two topics on everyone's minds: money and suicide.

Anxiety, Depression, Suicide

Hong Kong seems of late to have lost the "can-do" spirit that animated the colony for much of its history. In 1997, Hong Kongers expected the economy to recover from handover jitters within the year. But it was not until 2000 that any recovery came, and that was quickly squashed back down again. In 2001, property prices fell precipitously -- a first for space-starved Hong Kong. 2002 continued the trend, only faster and more severe. China, meanwhile, is opening up economically, and more and more businesses are moving there to take advantage of cheap labor and land and fewer import restrictions. Guangzhou is booming, and its people, once regarded as backwoods country folk by Hong Kongers, are now sharply dressed in business suits and increasingly call the shots. With surrounding mainland cities on the receiving end of millions of investment dollars, Hong Kong businesses were hurting and layoffs frequent. The representative of Hong Kong this year might be someone unemployed and burdened with a negative-equity mortgage -- more Hong Kongers went broke in 2002 than in the previous two decades put together. Is it any wonder that pessimism reigns, now more than ever before? A survey was conducted in 1997, and at that time only 7 percent of respondents felt pessimistic about Hong Kong's future. In 2002, that number is now 46 percent. The future does not look bright.

In such an environment, what sort of film can one expect? Many of the successful films of 2002 are pure escapism, fun, romantic comedies about well-off people in happy times, featuring the cute young cantopop stars of the moment. Other movies (FRUGAL GAME, FIGHTING TO SURVIVE, SHARK BUSTERS) play off the current down economy to bring laughs a little closer to home. But not even escapist entertainment could escape the prevailing mood.

It is not surprising to find, in a city almost paralyzed by despondency, that suicide is on the increase, alarmingly so. The latest figure is 14.7 per 100,000 people, higher than the U.S., and almost all of the Asia-Pacific region, with the exception of Japan (and just barely, New Zealand). A number of organizations have studied suicide in Hong Kong and found a clear correlation between suicide and unemployment. Suicide touched the entertainment circle as well, with the tragic death of Pauline Chan, whose unhappy film career involved far more Category III movies than she ever wanted. Even in death, her exploitation continues, as a biopic was rushed to theaters shortly afterwards.

Suicide played its part in the movies, too, and ghost horror films shifted a bit to the dark side, leaving out the broad comedy that so often takes the bite out of Hong Kong horror. Suicide is featured in VISIBLE SECRET II, HAUNTED OFFICE, even in the comedy MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS. The film NEW BLOOD wrings the last shreds of hope from its protagonists and leaves them broken, hollow, dead; tortured by a vengeful ghost for rescuing a man committing suicide.

A Better Tomorrow

Hong Kong cinema came into 2002 with some strength, coming off a particularly robust and exciting year in 2001. But although the studios tried putting out the same formulas that worked in the past, movie after movie drew disappointing box office. Only the comedies of Miriam Yeung and movies featuring The Twins drew in big audiences. Big, hollywood-style productions (THE TOUCH, SO CLOSE) drew only disappointment. 2002 seemed about to go down as one of the worst years in cinema history when a minor miracle happened with the name INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung on opposite sides of the law, this cop drama was released a few weeks before the Christmas films were scheduled to hit, and it was expected that INFERNAL AFFAIRS would close to make room. Instead, it became a box office smash, opening in more and more theaters, breaking records, and injecting, not a moment too soon, a little bit of optimism back into the industry.

Hong Kong cinema is still struggling to define itself in the post-handover world. Many producers are convinced that changing the film industry to better reflect quality standards of Hollywood is the way to go. Luring Hollywood studios to invest in the pictures, and to buy distribution rights, has become a new and very lucrative business. But the results of "going Hollywood" have been uneven at best. SO CLOSE was widely seen by locals as "made for Americans," while THE TOUCH was widely seen as just plain terrible. However, the success of the Taiwanese production DOUBLE VISION and the Chinese HERO, both made with Hollywood money, no doubt have further convinced these producers that this is a viable possibility for the future of the Hong Kong film industry.

But there may be another future, too. One that looks not to the west, but to Hong Kong itself. In December, 2002, Celestial Pictures began releasing the Shaw Brothers library of films on DVD. Not seen since their theatrical release, these films are vibrant, exciting, and alive. Panorama is following up with their own releases of old Cathay Studio films. For the next few years, hundreds of these old classics will be released and develop a new legion of fans who never knew what they were missing, or who perhaps had simply forgotten for a time. They may serve as inspiration for a new generation of filmmakers, proud of their heritage, to tell stories about Hong Kong, with their own style, and nevermind trying to just be another Hollywood. This is what makes the nostalgic JUST ONE LOOK so delightful -- it embraces Hong Kong, and uses a history of its cinema to frame a love story that could be set nowhere else.

Careers on Fire
The actors who stood out, stepped up, and stomped around this year:

Anthony Wong
Wong has spent much of his career dismissing Hong Kong cinema as garbage and putting forth his efforts accordingly. He would try when the mood struck him, but more often than not just cashed another paycheck. 2002 is the year he got serious, honed his craft, and absolutely nailed every performance he gave. He had supporting roles in four of the top 10 movies of the year, each time his presence significantly adding to the quality of the film as a whole. I just hope he can keep his enthusiasm up and stay engaged in the process.

Wayne Lai
The hardest working actor of the year, Wayne Lai seems determined to appear in every single movie. He can be goofy, sleazy, disturbed, crazed, or all of the above. He picks up small supporting roles in A list productions, and when it's direct to video, you can bet he's the star. Lai has been around for ages, mostly doing comedies partnered with the unfunny Michael Dao. But in the last few years he has been untethered, and working constantly. No matter how terrible you are at something, do it long enough, you will get better. Wayne Lai is getting better all the time.

Top 10 Movies of 2002
Last year, comedian Stephen Chiau's movie SHAOLIN SOCCER took the number one spot, LEGEND OF ZU number two. Both movies were bought up by Miramax, dubbed, re-scored, and cut, and may at any moment be dumped on unsuspecting American audiences who will no doubt find them half as good as they originally were. This year, perhaps thankfully, the number two film of this year, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, has had remake rights purchased instead. The number one film this year has no chance of either happening, and stars Stephen Chiau's constant comedic companion from the early nineties, Sandra Ng, who gets her own film at last and makes everyone else look dull by comparison.

Golden Chicken

2002 | Samson Chiu




Golden Chicken



Sandra Ng is a not particularly good-looking prostitute who makes a living by working twice as hard as anyone else. Trapped in an ATM booth overnight with a would-be thief (Eric Tsang), she tells the story of her life in the sex trade in Hong Kong for the past few decades. Her career follows the economic and social ups and downs of the city itself, but she perseveres. When times are good, she works hard. When times are tough, she works even harder. She never gives up and never loses hope. A message everyone in Hong Kong these days could take to heart. Forget the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, here is a hooker who develops marketing strategies and tries to make a comfortable living by providing a service. Sandra Ng delivers a career-topping performance, unashamed, unrestrained, and so enthusiastic she seems capable of bursting from the screen.


****


Infernal Affairs

2002 | Andrew Lau & Alan Mak




Infernal Affairs



The box office juggernaut of the year turns out to be worth every penny. Andy Lau is a triad mole in the police force, Tony Leung is an undercover cop with the triads. When the police chief (Anthony Wong) realizes there is someone in the force comprimising their activities, he assigns Lau the task of finding out who it is. Meanwhile, the triad boss (Eric Tsang) wants Lau to find out who the undercover cop is in his organization. A movie packed with deception and betrayal, where every word and expression is a mask to cover the truth. A well crafted film that builds tension until the very end. The two double agents both suffer from their constant duplicity and are detached emotionally, and directors Lau and Mak were able to bring that out not only in the actor's performances, but even in the sterility of the police station, the clothing, everything dominated by cold greys and blues and chrome. Edison Chen and Shawn Yue have cameo roles as a young Andy Lau and Tony Leung, respectively (despite the fact that Shawn Yue looks less like Tony Leung than I do).


****


Just One Look

2002 | Ip Kam Hung




Just One Look



A nostalgic coming of age film set on the small island of Cheung Chau in the 60s and 70s starring a gaggle of young cantopop stars (Charlene Choi, Gillian Cheung, Shawn Yue, and Wong Yau Nam). It should be painfully awful but surprisingly ends up just right, an incredibly sweet film that makes do with its young, inexperienced performers, and puts them to work in service of the story, rather than being a story written specifically as a vehicle for the stars. The movie theater is the focal point of the town. The boys (Shawn Yue and Wong Yau Nam) sell sugar cane in front of the local cinema, the changing marquee marks the years that pass. It is a story about growing up and falling in love, but it is also a story about how each of us use movies to help give our lives meaning, to shape our messy lives into a narrative in which we are the star, and how movies suggest to us new dreams and aspirations. Anthony Wong and Eric Kot round out the cast with strong supporting roles.


****


Three

2002 | Kim Jee-Woon, Nonzee Nimibutr, Peter Chan




Three



High concept horror angling for international box office dollars. Three short films, one Korean, one Thai, and one from Hong Kong, packaged together into one movie. There is no through line connecting the three films, excepting that each deals with ghosts or spirits, they can and were seen in different orders depending on the country screening it. MEMORIES (South Korea) is well crafted, in an interesting location (a new housing development outside of Seoul), but its story of a lost woman and devestated husband is also the most derivative of the three. GOING HOME (Hong Kong) concerns a cop (Eric Tsang) looking for his lost child is held hostage by a man (Leon Lai) who ritually bathes, grooms, and dresses his deceased wife every day, waiting for her to wake up again. Easily the best of the three, atmospheric and suspenseful, with excellent perfomances by both Tsang and Lai. But what puts THREE over the top is THE WHEEL (Thailand), about vengeful theater puppets. Art AND killer puppets -- how can you go wrong?

[DVD]


[VCD]



****


Princess-D

2002 | Sylvia Chang, Alan Yuen




Princess-D



When computer game designer (Daniel Wu) conceptualizes what he hopes to be his breakthrough game, there is only one thing missing: the star. He meets a young, street tough bartender (Angelica Lee), mixing drinks and handing out ecstacy, and sees her as the perfect model for his heroine. As he renders her digitally into a fetishized female heroine, the film offers a fresh perspective and shows how she draws strengh from, and buys in to his fantasy as well, to help keep together her troubled family. Anthony Wong plays Wu's father, a dance instructor, while Edison Chen plays Wu's younger brother, who becomes involved in another relationship in which fantasy and reality mix.


***


Fighting to Survive

2002 | Dayo Wong




Fighting to Survive



There was a time when mere mention of comedian Dayo Wong was enough to make me break out into hives. But not anymore -- I take back everything bad I ever said about him -- this movie is a gem. Wong plays a grown man who has never left Tien Mun, because he cannot stand to be in any moving vehicle. He concocts scheme after scheme in an attempt to get rich without ever leaving. FIGHTING TO SURVIVE is a throwback to the comedies of Michael Hui, a small potato with big schemes, caught in difficult situations, always trying to come out on top. The funniest comedy of the year, with a great ensemble cast including Sonija Kwok and the ever-versatile Anthony Wong.


***


Runaway Pistol

2002 | Lam Wah Chuen




Runaway Pistol



The premise of RUNAWAY PISTOL -- an entire movie from the point of view of a gun, as it moves from owner to owner -- is high concept and one might think almost doomed to stupidity. Several American movies have already done similar things -- chance encounters changing perspective, or a dollar bill changing hands from one person to another. But a well written and inventive script manages to inject the film with life beyond just the sales pitch. The gun profoundly changes lives, but never in a way that is quite expected. The film drifts from the darkly serious, to the comic, to the bizarre, and back again. The action is occassionally seen in a gun POV shot, at other times we see what the gun owner fantasizes as real, still other times the real and the fantastic merge. The gun itself narrates the story. Lam Wah Chuen pushes the unpleasant metaphor of humans as fish throughout the picture, opening with a sadistic child putting fighting fish into a single tank and watching them kill each other senselessly. They don't know why they do this, it is simply in their nature. In the end, we long for redemption, but only the gun itself is able to deliver.


***


Chinese Odyssey 2002

2002 | Jeff Lau




Chinese Odyssey 2002



Jeff Lau updates the classic story KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY, adding gender-bending twists and modern in-references. The result is a delight, clever and playful, and his best work since the two-part CHINESE ODYSSEY, which other than the title bears no relation to this movie. Tony Leung and Vicki Zhao are brother and sister looking for love when the princess (Faye Wong), disguised as a man, fall into their lives and all three fall in love. Complications arise and despite its absurdity the story has real heart, too. A couple of updated Huangmei Opera songs are included and give the film the feel of beloved opera films of the fifties and sixties. Light, freewheeling, and fun.


***


The Eye

2002 | Danny & Oxide Pang




The Eye



Angelica Lee plays a young blind woman who gets corneal implants to restore her vision. Unfortunately for her, it also gives her the ability to see ghosts, and even more chilling, the strange visitors who come to take the dead away. A creepy and satisfying film that manages to put a new twist into the by now tired "seeing dead people" storyline. The second half of the picture, set in Thailand, is less effective, but the eye-popping conclusion more than makes up for whatever faults came before.


***


New Blood

2002 | Soi Cheang




New Blood



Dark, nasty, and bleak horror film about suicidal lovers. One of the victims has an unusual blood type and three donors are rounded up in the middle of the night to give. They end up saving the man, but the woman dies, and her vengeful ghost terrorizes the three donors for taking her boyfriend away from her by giving him life. Director Soi Cheang delivers an unrelenting vision of hopelessness, inhospitable environments, darkness, and blood, and emerges as a new and exciting voice in Hong Kong cinema. Too bad the evil ghost sports such a silly looking bald cap, though -- my only complaint about an otherwise excellent picture.


***


Entertainment News
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:

January 4
Cecilia Cheung breaks her back during a car stunt for a charity show and is put in a body cast. Remarkably, she is not paralyzed for life.

May 11
Maggie cheung announces she is to divorce director Oliver Assayass. Single men the world over rejoice.

June 7
Nic Tse charged with conspiracy to commit perversion of justice for covering up the fact that he was the driver in a car accident that occurred on March 23.

June 22
Director Chang Cheh dies at the age of 79, after a long illness.

July 31
Pauline chan commits suicide by jumping from her 17th floor flat in Shanghai. She leaves behind her mother and a three week old baby boy.

October 2
Nic tse found guilty and sentenced to 240 hours of community service.

November 1
East Week magazine runs a topless photo of Carina Lau possibly taken during her kidnapping and assault twelve years ago. She is clearly topless against her will, and the magazine took very little precaution to cover her identity in the photo. The photo led to the magazine being shut down and continuing legal proceedings.

November 3
Actor Lo Lieh dies at the age of 63 after suffering a heart attack. His critically acclaimed last role was as a lonely security guard in GLASS TEARS (2001).

Box Office
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*

1. INFERNAL AFFAIRS $43.7m**
2. MARRY A RICH MAN $21.7m
3. MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS $20.7m
4. HERO $19.8m***
5. FAT CHOI SPIRIT $19.2m
6. MIGHTY BABY $19.0
7. THE EYE $13.7m
8. DRY WOOD FIERCE FIRE $13.1
9. CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002 $13.05
10. THE LION ROARS $11.9

* In HK Dollars as of 12/30/2002. GOLDEN CHICKEN was not on the TOP 10 at this time but ended its theatrical run at $17.3m, (#7)
** Final Box Office $55m
*** Chinese (mainland) production

22nd Hong Kong Film Awards:
Best Picture:
INFERNAL AFFAIRS
Best Director:
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Actor:
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai(INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Actress:
Angelica Lee (THE EYE)
Best Supporting Actor:
Anthony Wong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Supporting Actress:
Rene Liu (DOUBLE VISION*)
Best Screenplay:
Alan Mak & Felix Chong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Cinematography:
Christopher Doyle (HERO**)

39th Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan):
Best Picture:
THE BEST OF TIMES*
Best Director:
Fruit Chan (HOLLYWOOD HONG KONG)
Best Actor:
Leon Lai (THREE: GOING HOME)
Best Actress:
Angelica Lee (THE EYE)
Best Supporting Actor:
Anthony Wong (PRINCESS D)
Best Supporting Actress:
Karena Lam (JULY RHAPSODY)

Golden Bauhinia Film Awards (HK):
Best Picture:
INFERNAL AFFAIRS
Best Director:
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Actor:
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai(INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Actress:
Angelica Lee (THE EYE)
Best Supporting Actor:
Anthony Wong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Supporting Actress:
Karena Lam (JULY RHAPSODY)
Best Screenplay:
Alan Mak & Felix Chong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)

Hong Kong Critics Society:
Best Picture:
CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002
Best Director:
Peter Chan (THREE: GOING HOME)
Best Actor:
Anthony Wong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS)
Best Actress:
Faye Wong (CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002)
Best Screenplay:
Fruit Chan (HOLLYWOOD HONG KONG)

* denotes Taiwanese production

** denotes Chinese (mainland) production


Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 01, 2003.


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