31 The Secret (1979) Hong Kong Ann HUI
Harbinger of a new wave in Hong Kong cinema and one of director Ann Hui’s best films, The Secret capitalizes on symbols in Chinese culture referring to birth, marriage and death and sets a definite mood of mystery and foreboding from the beginning. A kind of psychological horror-thriller, the story is based on an actual incident in 1970. Some school children come across the battered bodies of a young man and woman, tied to a tree. Their faces have been smashed in, and their clothes are torn. It turns out that the man (Man Chi-leung) was a medical student in the university. As the story unfolds, the mystery and mood rather outweigh the terrible “secret” connected to the murders.
32 Infernal Affairs (2002) Hong Kong LAU Wai-Keung / MAK Siu-Fai
As Infernal Affairs opens, Ming (Andy Lau of Full-time Killer) is being initiated into the criminal underworld by triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang of The Accidental Spy), who ends his speech to his young charges by wishing them success in the police department. Ming enters the police academy, where he excels, but sees his classmate, Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai of In the Mood for Love), expelled for “breaking the rules.” It turns out that Yan wasn’t actually drummed out of the force, but recruited by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong of Hard-Boiled) as an undercover operative. Just as Ming is achieving success in the police department while secretly working for Sam, Ming is gaining Sam’s trust as a triad member, while reporting to Wong. Ten years later, both men, still undercover, have grown confused about their true identities, while their bosses, Sam and Wong, wage a battle of wits against each other. Each boss learns that the other has a mole working for him, and unwittingly entrusts the mole himself to ferret out the culprit. Ming and Yan scramble to expose one another’s identity in an effort to save their own skins. Infernal Affairs was co-directed by Andrew Lau (who worked as a cinematographer on several of Wong Kar-Wai’s films) and Alan Mak. Renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle served as “Visual Consultant.” The film was shown at New Directors/New Films in 2003.
33 Drunken Master (1978) Hong Kong YUEN Wo-Ping
One of the earliest major films starring Jackie Chan, this 1978 Hong Kong offering highlights the relationship between a student and his martial arts master. This theme would dominate the American martial arts genre for years to come, as evidenced by The Karate Kid and many films to follow. Wong Fei-hong, played by Chan, is a 19th-century folk hero in Chinese culture and cinema, a kung fu master who fights injustice in the time of British colonialism. This character would later be portrayed by Jet Li in the more serious Once Upon a Time in China. Drunken Master finds Wong in his early years as a troublesome youth who is sent to receive discipline and martial arts instruction from his uncle (Siu Tien Yuen), the hard-drinking title character. Wong runs away, but runs afoul of some local villains. Beaten badly, he returns to his uncle, who trains him in “drunken-style” kung fu. The martial arts showcased by Chan in this film are important in the development of his career; the staggering, inebriated techniques allow for a looser, more flowing style, but more importantly, they contribute to the elaborate martial-arts slapstick that have become Chan’s trademark and have made him an international star.
34 The Butterfly Murders (1979) TSUI Hark
Within the walls of Shum Castle, a flock of butterflies seems to have acquired a taste for blood. In this complex tale, a classic of Hong Kong cinema, writer Fong, who knows nothing of martial arts, unravels the mystery with the help of his fearless female companion, the lovely Green Shadow. Together they face robots from the future, the aforementioned butterflies, and martial artists from their present. This is the directorial debut of Tsui Hark.
35 Ashes of Time (1994) Hong Kong WONG Kar-Wai
Master Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai directed this lyrical, dream-like martial arts epic. A famously troubled shoot, the film took two years and 40 million dollars to produce (a shocking sum for a national cinema populated with low-budget quickies) and features a virtual who’s-who of the Hong Kong film world. Conceived as a prequel to the popular martial arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero by Jin Yong, the movie is less a straightforward action thriller than a visually striking meditation on memory and love. It nominally centers on Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who ekes out a lonely existence as an itinerant hired sword. Getting on in years and tormented by memories of a lost love, he also works an agent for other mercenary assassins from his remote desert abode. Ouyang’s old friend and fellow swordsman, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-fai, who starred in the The Lover) drowns his lovelorn misery in a magical wine that makes him forget. Later, a mysterious young man named Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) hires Ouyang to kill his sister’s unfaithful suitor, Huang Yaoshi. The following day, that spurned sister, Murong Yin (Lin again), hires Ouyang to protect her dearly beloved. Meanwhile, Hong Qi (pop star Jackie Cheung) finds some redemption for a life of killing by accepting a poor girl’s offer to avenge her brother’s death — a task that Ouyang brusquely shunned. In another subplot, a master swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is slowly going blind. He agrees to defend a village from horse thieves so that he can afford to go home and see his wife before his eyesight fails completely. This film is one of the most celebrated examples of 1990s Hong Kong cinema: it won multiple awards in its native Hong Kong, along with a Golden Osella for Best Cinematography at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.
36 Made in Hong Kong (1997) Hong Kong Fruit CHAN
This $80,000 Hong Kong street-punk drama focuses on young tough Chung-chau (Sam Lee) and his slow-witted sidekick Sylvester (Wenbers Li). Sylvester finds blood-covered letters near the body of a suicide victim, schoolgirl Susan (Amy Tam). Chung-chau feels possessed by her spirit and delivers the letters. Chung-chau falls for 16-year-old Ping (Neiky Yim), and when she vanishes, he goes over the edge, agreeing to carry out a killing for his boss, Wing. Winner of a special jury prize at the 1997 Locarno Film Festival, it was also shown at the 1997 Vancouver Film Festival.
37 Sorrows of the Forbidden City (1948) China ZHU Shilin
Zhu died in 1967, the year in which his Sorrows of the Forbidden City – also known as Inside Story of the Qing Court – received the longest “film review” in memory. In 1954, Mao Zedong had attacked it as anti-progressive and in 1967 others used that critique to condemn the film and other cultural “poisonous weeds” during the “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76. “At no time since it was shown all over the country”, wrote Mao in 1954, “has the film Inside Story of the Qing Court – described as patriotic though in fact a film of national betrayal – yet been criticised and repudiated.” Early in 1967, the Party organ, Hongqi (“Red Flag”), vilified the film in an essay subsequently splashed over a staggering 30 pages in Chinese Literature. The film focussed on a conflict between Empress Dowager Cixi, her son Guangxi (the nominal emperor) and his wife, Zhenfei. Its “attitude” to the Yi Ho Tuan (Boxer) movement was the nub of the controversy though the exact nature of its political incorrectness eludes me. Some critics regard this work as one of the finest post-war HK releases. I found no mention of its HK origin in the above attacks.
38 Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-t’ai aka The Love Eterne (1963) Hong Kong LI Han-hsiang
In this dreamy romance set in China during the fourth-century, a young woman convinces her parents to allow her to dress as a boy and attend university. Once there she soon falls in love with another student, but of course, she cannot tell him the truth lest she jeopardize her chance for an education. Years later the young man learns the truth and goes to her family home to see her. He gets there just before she is to marry another. Distraught, he kills himself. When she hears about that, she trades her wedding clothes for those of mourning and visits his grave. Suddenly a terrible storm whirls around her. The grave opens up and she is sucked into its depths. The storm abates, and in the sparkling sunshine the grave reopens. From it’s maw fly two beautiful butterflies–the young lovers transformed.
39 The Story of A Discharged Prisoner (1967) Hong Kong LUNG Kong
Safecracker Lee Cheuk-hong (Patrick Tse Yin) is the discharged prisoner of the title. Locked away for 15 years at Stanley Prison, he’s released with two years of probation to follow. But a new start outside prison confines isn’t easily achieved. Lee cannot return home — his arrest was kept secret from his brother Chi-sun (Wong Wai) — and reform is a difficult proposition in late-’60s Hong Kong.
Nightclub owner and gang boss One-eye Jack (Sek Kin) knows Lee’s reputation as a safecracker and would dearly like his services. But Lee wants nothing to do with it, choosing instead to find legitimate work. The unimpressed crime boss resorts to pressure tactics to bring Lee into his service, informing a string of employers about his past and eventually telling his brother. The police aren’t much help either, with Inspector Lui (Lung Kong) hounding Lee’s tail after the ex-inmate refuses work as his informant. With few people willing to support his hopes of reform, Lee struggles to find ensure a footing in society and a bright future for family and friends.
An initial credit sequence featuring a masked lady slinking round a glittery globe, clad in a figure-hugging cat-suit, is as kitsch as Story of a Discharged Prisoner gets. Director Lung Kong’s film thereafter settles into forceful drama, casting a compassionate eye over Hong Kong society and spinning a good yarn to boot.
The theme of reform is unmistakable throughout the production. The narrative rarely departs from the notion that it is easier for an ex-prisoner to return to crime than it is to head down the straight-and-narrow. Only at the Hong Kong Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society (DPAS*), which Lee eventually enters, does the viewer witness formal aid and halfway house rehabilitation. The theme makes for an intriguing parallel to Lung Kong’s next film, The Window, which also deals with a criminal’s unsuccessful attempt at breaking away from the wrong side of the law. Presented straightforward in black and white, Story of a Discharged Prisoner rarely deviates from a serious approach to its subject but still manages to entertain with an enjoyable plot and distinctive players. Characters are colourful, especially Sek Kin as the chief nasty and crippled beggar Uncle Tor who sees the bright side of Hong Kong society — he meets only the generous people that approach him with money. Music, credited to Wong Gui-yan (and Fung Wah for the Chinese music), includes a club guitar band, background jazz and even a traditional orchestra at the DPAS.
Viewers with a specific interest in old Hong Kong should find much of note in Story of a Discharged Prisoner, with locations well used throughout. Construction sites are common, and the urban areas feature many prominent buildings up close; from the open Central District down to a Nathan Road shop window touting “The Young London Look” in its British Week promotion. The city features in spoken comment on how much Hong Kong changed during Lee’s incarceration, and backgrounds at times fill with new high-rise public housing blocks. Lee’s first place of call after his release is a squatter village, especially interesting as it’s sited on reclaimed land at Kowloon Bay. Whether in the director’s intentions or not, touches like this make Story of a Discharged Prisoner a fascinating look back at Hong Kong and its people.
40 Zu Warriors (1983) Hong Kong TSUI Hark
Legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark spins this lavishly designed fantasy epic featuring some of the most cutting edge, oft-imitated special effects of the day. The film, set in 5th century China, centers on Ti Ming-chi (Yuen Biao) a young innocent from the West Zu army who wandered away from the battlefield and into a magical underworld filled with demons and murderous swordsmen. When his life is saved by the noble warrior Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-chau), Ti joins forces with his band of fighters — including a Buddhism monk named Abbot Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-yan), his klutzy underling Yi Chen (Mang Hoi) and a fearsome old wizard named Long Brows (Sammo Hung) — in their quest to save the world from the terror of the Blood Demon. In spite of Long Brows’ powers the Demon attacks and poisons Abbot Hsiao. Ting and company take the injured monk to the enigmatic Countess of Jade Pond (Brigitte Lin Hsia) hoping that her skills can cure him. Though she manages to cure Hsiao, the demon soon possesses Ting. The combined power of Ting and the demon are too great; the Countess can only surround her castle with a solid block of ice and wait while Ti, Yi and one of the countess’s guards (Moon Lee Choi-fung) ventures to the top of Blade Peak to find the legendary Twin Swords