Thursday, September 13, 2012
Favourite Hong Kong Movies. A Hero Never Dies
Choosing ten favourite Hong Kong movies shouldn't be too hard a task, should it? Except of course it is. In the end I couldn't quite make 10, I had to cheat and make it 12 (and a bit). For me it all came down to the criteria used to choose. I could have picked a list based on Lam Suet performances, the ten HK movies with the largest squibs (that's actually a good one) or the ten Maggie Cheung films in which she looks hottest (that really would be a tough choice!). Instead I went with the movies that have graced my vcr, laserdisc and dvd player most frequently, as re-watchability must be the best indicator of your favourites, right?
Here are my choices, at the time of writing (before all the lists are in), a couple are unique to this list but most have boringly appeared on other lists. I thought about limiting the list to one film per director, but then that wouldn't be an accurate list. Due to the criteria I used to choose, you won't find any Jackie, Sammo, Jet or Shaw Brothers titles, as much as it pains me to not include them.
The first two choices are equal first for my absolute favourite HK film, the others are in no particular order.
One of the most exhilarating film experiences of my life, Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express is pure lightning in a bottle stuff. Knocked out in a few weeks during the arduous shoot for Ashes Of Time, Chungking is the quintessential W.K.W film. Bearing all his usual hallmarks, yet done completely on instinct, if he was to make this film now it would undoubtedly take years to complete. Massively influential in all forms of filmmaking, it's still easy to spot elements ripped off from this film everywhere. Iconic, witty, exciting and romantic, Chungking is perfectly cast throughout and boasts the cutest couple in Hong Kong cinema in the form of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. The only thing bigger than my man crush on Tony, is my Faye crush.
Maybe it was the synchronicity of perfect time, material and my sensibilities, but if Johnnie To goes onto make another 1000 movies, I don't think he could ever make another one as perfect as this one is in my eyes. From Lam Suet's sweaty dancing to Anthony Wong's suave stache, Wong Tin Lam's pasta eating to the paper football scene, the sniper sequence to Francis Ng's hilarious hot head, who somehow still manages to steal the cool award away from Wong. Cool is the word with The Mission, the cast, the style and of course those shootouts, with the incredible use of spatiality and the scope frame. I consider myself to be somewhat of an aficionado of movie shootouts and I would place the Tsuen Wan plaza scene as the top gun battle in film. It isn't just the action though, The Mission is a lesson in storytelling through images, and the film should be part of film classes the world over. I've heard criticism that the film is cheap, and while yes it's a low budget movie, and yes it's a little rough around the edges (particularly when you can clearly see a crew member left in a shot), what To achieves here on that budget is nothing short of astounding. I literally could watch this film everyday and never get bored of it.
Love On Delivery.
Love On Delivery is gloriously silly, it's also deceptively smart and more importantly hilarious. For my money Stephen Chow's funniest movie. The chemistry between Chow and Ng Man Tat is not only effortless but pure comedy gold. Chow would go onto make "better" films but in my opinion, none have been funnier. The film also serves as an excellent entry point into his earlier work for Stephen Chow novices.
Where to start with John Woo's The Killer? I remember reading a review of The Killer in the NME and being so excited to see it, when I eventually got the VHS, I watched it at least once a week for months and months. I was already into HK action at this stage but this was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I owe this film for cementing my burgeoning love of Hong Kong cinema, but also for introducing me to the cinema of Jean Pierre Melville. The Killer is amongst the most pure expressions of cinema I've seen, but the thing that stuck with me most and still resonates with me today is the sheer sincerity of it all. I will also happily acknowledge having a little man crush on Chow Yun Fat.
Bullet In The Head.
John Woo's second appearance on the list with Bullet In The Head, his most personal movie and also his most affecting (yes even more than Paycheck!). The film is raw and angry emotion captured on celluloid, it says something about Woo's skill and myself personally, that as much as this film just utterly destroys me every time I see it, I keep coming back for more. I can feel my eyes filling up just thinking about the score. Also Jackie Cheung is amazing!
The only kung fu film on the list and it maybe a surprise inclusion, Yuen Woo Ping's Iron Monkey may not be his best movie, but I fell in love with it on first viewing and still love it now. From the supporting cast to the silly humour, the surprise shots of violence (the stone in the eye in particular) to the rousing score and most memorably the stunning final fight sequence on the burning posts. Iron Monkey may not be hardcore enough for many of you fight fans, but it's just so much fun.
A Hero Never Dies.
It had to be on here, the film that named a blog, and Johnnie To's second entry on my list. Lau Ching Wan's amazing performance underpins To's searing deconstruction of the Heroic Bloodshed genre. Riffing on John Woo and Sergio Leone To delivers a black comedy-melodrama, which somehow works as hilariously funny and deadly serious, often at the same time. Complete with man sized face offs, a majestic Raymond Wong score and possibly the greatest character wardrobe in Hong Kong film history. Somebody remaster this film PLEASE!
Juliet In Love.
Wilson Yip's low key romantic triad drama Juliet In Love features two of my favourite performances in Hong Kong cinema from Francis Ng and Sandra Ng. That Francis Ng is outstanding was no surprise, Sandra Ng on the other hand, for so long the comic relief in films was a complete revelation to me. A companion piece of sorts to Yip's earlier Bullets Over Summer, and a strong reminder of what an excellent filmmaker he can be. Without trying to give anything away, the title kind of gives away where the story is going but the ride is an affecting and rewarding journey.
Too Many Ways To Be No.1.
Too Many Ways To Be No.1, Wai Ka Fai's dazzling ode to chaos, is possibly one of the most exciting Hong Kong movies I've seen. The excitement stems from the film constantly subverting the viewers expectations, not only in terms of the storytelling but also in cinematic technique. Audacious and delirious in equal measure (and that's just Elvis Tsui's wig!) I imagine many viewers find it hard to adjust on first viewing and as a result are alienated by the movie. As I said this list is all about re-watchability and this is a prime example of a film being able to reward multiple viewings, each time I see it, it becomes a richer experience and most importantly more and more hilarious. If you've seen it and didn't like it I implore you to give it another try, you may just fall in love with it, alternatively it may just give you a headache. Remaster now please!
Long Arm Of The Law.
The one film on the list where I cheated as I only saw this relatively recently, but it struck me so hard I knew it had become an instant favourite and I've already seen it again since. A raw and powerful crime drama full of hunger and brutal desperation, with a finale filmed in the Kowloon Walled City that is in it's own way as exciting as anything else I've seen in HK cinema.
The only Ringo Lam movie on the list, where on another day maybe two or three could have been on here. I love Lam's commitment to grit and relative realism in his movies, so it's a little ironic that the one film that makes the list is Full Contact. Great performances from Anthony Wong and (an iconic) Chow Yun Fat are completely eclipsed by Simon Yam who delivers not only one of THE performances of his long and illustrious career, but one of the greatest movie villains. Stunning action sequences, including the best ever use of bullet-cam, combine with serious attitude and some welcome humour, from both the colourful supporting characters and Yam's constant flirting with Chow. "Wash your ass, I'm coming over" is all I need to say!
A third entry for Johnnie To and a 4th in total for Milkyway Image and for that I make no apologies. To and the Milkyway creative team have arguably done more to keep Hong Kong cinema alive than anyone else in the past fifteen years or so and certainly re-invigorated my love of Hong Kong cinema in the late 90's. Another film I could watch over and over and never, ever get bored of, Throwdown features a career best performance from Louis Koo, and a supporting cast filled with quirk and fun including the hilariously dead pan Cheung Sui Fai and a seemingly superhuman Tony Leung Ka Fai. The real stars of this show however are To and cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung, in a film filled with superbly shot sequences, the judo fight in the bar is amongst the best HK cinema has to offer amd makes me warm and tingly all over. Unlike To, I even like Cherrie Ying!
That is my twelve, however I have to include one more movie, or more specifically two parts of one more movie.
A Better Tomorrow II.
John Woo's film is a bloody mess, a disjointed, terribly written jumble of ideas and stupidity and features one of the worst performances I've ever seen in a film from Dean Shek. So what makes it belong on this list? The simple fact is that I've seen the rice scene and the blistering climax of the movie more times than any other Hong Kong movie. When I first got hold of the film on a murky VHS bootleg, I would watch and rewind, watch and rewind until eventually I wore the tape out. To this day I still break out the dvd and watch just those two scenes. Awful and awesome at the same time.