When the Cannes Film Festival, the behemoth movie-screening competition held annually in Cannes, France, announced that it would be joining forces with Hong Kong’s K11 Group to present six of this year’s film selections for a very special Festival de Cannes Film Week, the city’s cinephiles knew they were in for something of a treat. To say the selection of the Fragrant Harbour as the location for the festival’s first-ever international iteration came as a surprise is putting things mildly. After all, the days of Hong Kong’s cinematic Golden Age seemed all but behind it, shattered by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and the subsequent rise of China’s own film entertainment industry, causing what was once dubbed the “Hollywood of the Far East” to sink into a sharp decline.
For three decades from the ’70s to the ’90s, however, Hong Kong was the world’s largest film exporter after Tinseltown and the darling of theatre-going audiences the world over. Not only did it produce some 400 movies each year, it spawned critically-acclaimed box-office hits – Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master to name but two – that remain beloved to this day. It could be precisely this illustrious history that prompted the people at Cannes to select the city for its upcoming film week. In a nostalgic tribute to this storied legacy, we revisit some of the most memorable Hong Kong movies ever made.
Way of the Dragon (1972) / Enter the Dragon (1973)
The history of Hong Kong’s filmmaking industry and the inexorable rise of kung fu movies are inextricably linked. After all, it was this very segment that catapulted the city to worldwide fame, enchanting theatre-goers in both the East and West with its blink-and- you’ll-miss-it action sequences and slapstick humour. Perhaps the most iconic of these is 1972’s Way of the Dragon, the only film to both star and be directed by legendary martial arts actor Bruce Lee. Produced by Raymond Chow, the movie was a box-office triumph, grossing HK$211 million worldwide, compared to a production budget of just HK$130,000. Its 1973 sequel, Enter the Dragon, performed even more admirably, netting a profit of US$90 million (or roughly US$508 million today).
Not only did these Lee-Chow collaborations spark an international interest in Chinese martial arts, it also engendered great pride for the ethnic Chinese globally, who had long been denied leading and heroic roles in Western cinema. Meanwhile, Lee’s portrayal revolutionised how American audiences would perceive Chinese up until the present day, redefining what it meant to be a hero who fights for justice.
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
The genre of heroic bloodshed, typified by stylised action scenes and dramatic themes of honour, duty, violence and redemption, was actually a Hong Kong cinematic invention. Perhaps the benchmark film of this category is the 1986 John Woo-directed A Better Tomorrow, which follows the harrowing journey of its Triad-member protagonist as he struggles to leave his life of crime behind in order to reconcile with his younger brother, an aspiring police officer. Showcasing a violence-ruled Hong Kong and complex characters on both sides of the law, this Triad-related feature was the breakthrough film that propelled its actors, Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung, to superstardom.
The otherworldly portrayals of violence and intensified emotional power of the picture struck a chord with international audiences, even leading it to be remade for Indian and Korean audiences. Meanwhile, the style of Chow Yun-fat in the film saw teenagers across the city stocking up on Ray-Ban sunglasses and trench coats to replicate the now iconic look of his character, “Mark Gor”.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Internationally acclaimed auteur Wong Kar Wai has built a storied career in creating films where Hong Kong is just as much a story’s central character as its protagonists. His art-house films enact stories of tragedy, alienation and angst-ridden individuals otherwise hidden within the metropolis. Known for his emotionally intense style, it’s Wong’s seventh film, In the Mood For Love (2000), however, that is arguably the most significant contribution to the genre of wenyi pai (romantic melodrama).
In the Mood for Love is a profoundly lush romantic drama set in Hong Kong that follows the tale of two neighbours seeking solace in one another as they discover their respective spouses are having an affair. Thanks to Wong’s long-established approach of mixing Eastern ‘practicality’ with Western motifs, the film resonated with Western audiences and critics alike, taking home the coveted Grand Prix de la Commission Supérieure Technique award, as well as the Best Actor accolade for Tony Leung. at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. It remains one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated cinematic achievements, having earned over 49 nominations and 44 wins to date.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
It’s no secret that comedies are often overlooked by critics for more dramatic fare, despite being arguably the most beloved by audiences. On rare occasions, however, comic effect is recognised and lauded in its own right, as demonstrated by Stephen Chow’s wildly successful martial arts comedy, Kung Fu Hustle (2004). Centring on two hapless martial artists who inadvertently become entangled with the notorious “Axe Gang” in the slums of ’30s Shanghai, it has been universally praised for its unique blend of cartoon special effects and CGI, a traditional Chinese soundtrack and high-quality wuxia fight sequences.
With this formula for success, the universally-appealing film yielded lucrative results, leading it to gross HK$61 million within the city and a total of US$102 million worldwide. It even went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s BAFTAs and Golden Globes, while also sweeping up six Hong Kong Film Awards and five Golden Horse Awards at the same time. Today, it still remains the third highest-grossing Chinese-language film in Hong Kong’s history.
No.7 Cherry Lane (2019)
Perhaps just when Hong Kong needs more love than ever before, Wuhan-born, Hong Kong-based director Yonfan emerged from the shadows of his 10-year filmmaking hiatus to release his first-ever animated feature this year, a self-proclaimed love letter to Hong Kong titled No.7 Cherry Lane. Putting paid to the notion that the city’s best cinematic days are behind it, the movie premiered to much acclaim at the prestigious 76th Venice Film Festival, where it went on to win the Best Screenplay accolade, before making its North America debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Utilising an animation style traditionally attributed to countries like Japan, No.7 Cherry Lane transports viewers back to the turbulent year of 1967 in Hong Kong. Amid the clashes between the government and pro-Communists, the story follows a young Hong Kong University graduate, Ziming, who finds himself trapped within a love triangle between a wealthy divorcee and her teenage daughter. Exploring such themes as nostalgia, social mobility and heartache, this dreamy animation film stands not only as a tribute to Hong Kong cinema but also as a beacon of artistic creativity to reinvigorate local directors and push them to new heights.
Text: Bailey Atkinson
Photos: AFP, Jet Tone Films, Yon Fan Studio