Due to a multi-faceted culture that stems from its unique fusion of east and west, the city-state of Hong Kong has been the setting for a wide range of films that have not merely reflected cinematic trends, but often instigated them. Martial arts, horror, crime thrillers, exploitation, romantic dramas, slapstick comedies, and other genres have been energised by being shot on location in the city’s bustling streets, with an unprecedented number of productions filmed during the local industry boom of the early-1980s to mid-1990s.
Hong Kong has been the stage for ‘heroic bloodshed’ classics like A Better Tomorrow (1986), City on Fire (1987) and The Killer (1989) – blistering action movies that often find old-fashioned loyalty squaring off against opportunistic greed. Such taut Johnnie To thrillers as PTU (2003) and Mad Detective (2007) make creative use of the city’s geography to serve minimalist suspense narratives, while the lighter side of local culture has been tapped by such scatological comedies as The God of Cookery (1996) and Golden Chicken (2002). The city’s romantic potential is best represented by the heartbreaking drama Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), which concerns 2 star-crossed mainlanders who try to avoid falling for one another in case a serious relationship limits their prospects of economic prosperity.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Independent filmmakers have often taken the development of Hong Kong as their subject. Wong Kar-wai came to international prominence with Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), which romanticised the city’s Kowloon district, while the identity crisis that resulted from the handover at midnight on 30 June 1997 inspired Fruit Chan’s trilogy of Made in Hong Kong (1997), The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (1999). Wayne Wang presented a foreign perspective on the transition with Chinese Box (1997) in which a terminally ill British journalist spends his final months observing during the last gasps of colonial rule. More recently, social commentary has been provided by the incisive Pang Ho-cheung, who has tackled dating culture in Love in a Puff (2010), the dark side of the property boom in Dream Home (2010), and the state of the family unit in Aberdeen (2014).
With an increasing number of productions targeting the lucrative mainland market and more censorship restrictions coming into play as a result, the cinematic identity of Hong Kong is once again in a state of flux. Here are 10 titles that show Hong Kong’s versatility as a setting across a range of auteur perspectives and popular genres.
Project A (1983)
Director: Jackie Chan
After struggling to break into a US market that was initially resistant to his signature blend of action and comedy, Jackie Chan returned to Hong Kong for the period spectacle of Project A. Set in the 1800s, it follows the efforts of Chan’s marine police officer to stop ship-raiding pirates at a time when the British rule the land but wicked bandits were in control of the waters. When the Marine Police is disbanded due to the loss of their ships, Sergeant Dragon Ma (Chan) is determined to restore both his honour and that of Hong Kong. He secures assistance from no-nonsense training instructor Hong Tin-tsu (Yuen Biao) and laid-back fellow officer Fei (Sammo Hung), but their operation is obstructed due to corruption in the higher ranks.
Chan’s recreation of Hong Kong blurs the 1800s with the early 1900s, making splendid use of period detail. A bicycle chase that blended Macau locations with the Golden Harvest backlot has the daredevil star navigating increasingly narrow streets, while another highlight is Chan’s homage to Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy Safety Last! (1923), which requires him to hang from the Kowloon Canton Railway clock tower.
The Killer (1989)
Director: John Woo
One of 5 collaborations between director John Woo and star Chow Yun-fat, this supremely stylish ‘heroic bloodshed’ classic finds its titular hitman seeking redemption with Hong Kong becoming a high-stakes battleground when the required ‘one last job’ goes wrong. When professional assassin Ah Jong (Chow) accidentally damages the eyes of beautiful nightclub singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) while on assignment, he takes on a final hit in order to cover the cost of a sight-saving corneal transplant. Although he completes the mission, Ah Jong is unable to collect payment due to being double-crossed by his triad leader employer, while dogged detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) is also closing in.
Both killer and cop turn out to be 2 sides of the same coin: moral agents out of step with an increasingly corrupt society who will ultimately join forces for the bullet-ridden climax. Although it was shot over a protracted period of 90 days, which was unusual for Hong Kong cinema at the time, Woo still had to complete the location-based scenes at breakneck speed as nearby residents would often phone the police due to mistaking staged shootouts for the real thing.
Chungking Express (1994)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai’s intoxicating love letter to Hong Kong made its main location – the cramped shopping and residential units of the seedy Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road – into an unlikely tourist attraction for cine-literate visitors. Structured in 2 parts, it follows a pair of lovelorn cops, 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and 663 (Tony Leung), who are distracted from brooding over recent breakups by chance encounters with very different women. 223 meets a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) in a bar, not knowing that she is a drug smuggler, while 663 becomes the unwitting romantic interest of snack-bar worker Faye (Faye Wong), who sneaks into the cop’s apartment when he is on the beat to improve his living space.
At once hyperkinetic and woozily romantic, Chungking Express is the quintessential film about loneliness in the postmodern metropolis, as characters brush against one another throughout the daily rush but struggle to connect. Shooting without permits around Lan Kwai Fong and Kowloon, in close collaboration with renegade cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong realised a trendsetting vision of the city in motion on the eve of the 1997 handover, with Hong Kong and its inhabitants hurtling towards an uncertain future.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Hong Kong, 1962: journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) rents a room in an apartment building and develops a friendship with his neighbour, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who undertakes secretarial duties for a shipping company. Both have spouses who often work overtime or travel for career purposes, and they eventually come to the conclusion that their partners have been seeing one another. Wondering how this affair might have begun, Chow and Su spend more time together over meals at the western-style Goldfinch Restaurant, although they incur the suspicion of their fellow residents.
Exquisitely shot by Christopher Doyle and Ping Bin Lee, In the Mood for Love is a heartbreaking meditation on romance that unfolds in the manner of fragmented memory, offering tantalising glimpses of repressed passion with the passage of time suggested by the changing colours of Su’s stunning yet restrictive dresses. The conservative climate of 1960s Hong Kong is skillfully conveyed through camerawork that seems to be spying on its central almost-couple, often observing them from a distance or framing them in claustrophobic domestic spaces. Recreating the era necessitated a trip to Bangkok, where Wong filmed many of the outdoor scenes in the city’s less modernised areas.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
Director: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Infernal Affairs is an impeccably crafted thriller that pointed the then-floundering Hong Kong film industry towards commercial revitalisation through its slick packaging of marketable elements. This battle of wits between 2 moles – police officer Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung), who has gone undercover into a triad organisation, and triad member Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau) has infiltrated the police force – makes gripping use of various locations as these increasingly conflicted adversaries circle one another en route to the climactic face-off. They unknowingly meet in an early scene at a hi-fi store in Sham Shui Po and eventually have a more dramatic confrontation on the roof of the Guangdong Investment Tower in Sheung Wan.
A significant plot development occurs in the alleyway that is adjacent to the Golden Gateway shopping centre at Tsim Sha Tsui, where Chan discovers the true identity of Lau, only to have impromptu surveillance of his adversary curtailed when his mobile phone starts ringing. Beneath its sleek surface, however, Infernal Affairs is very much concerned with identity crisis as Chan and Lau struggle to maintain their sense of self due to long-term immersion in assumed personas, while Hong Kong seeks to reconfigure itself following the 1997 handover.
Director: Fruit Chan
Expanded from the opening segment of the east Asian horror anthology Three… Extremes (2004), Fruit Chan’s insidious tale of the desperate lengths that some people will go to in order to rejuvenate their appearance is also a study of 2 very different levels of Hong Kong society.
Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) has a recipe for dumplings that is rumoured to reverse the ageing process, with the key ingredient being unborn foetuses that have been smuggling out from an abortion clinic in Shenzhen. Her latest client is Mrs Li (Miriam Yeung), a retired television star whose husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai) has been having an affair with his masseuse (Pauline Lau). Unsatisfied with the initial results, Mrs Li asks Aunt Mei to find more potent ingredients to speed up the process.
Chan contrasts the life of luxury led by Mrs Li with Aunt Mei’s public housing residence at the Shek Kip Mei Estate, much of which was demolished in 2007. While the former actress is relatively isolated by her wealth, the enigmatic Aunt Mei is happy living in comparative squalor and takes pleasure in serenading her customers with traditional songs after the have finished their black market meals.
Director: Johnnie To
Johnnie To’s breezy romantic-thriller Sparrow revolves around a high skilled team of small-time pickpockets comprised of Kei (Simon Yam), Bo (Lam Ka-tung), Sak (Law Wing-cheung) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung). They become entangled with the mysterious Chung Chun-Lei (Kelly Lin), a beautiful Taiwanese woman who is trapped in a relationship with ageing underworld figure Mr Fu (Lo Hoi-pang) from which she desperately wants to escape.
Sparrow evokes the city’s past by capturing its historical spaces with ringleader Kei taking black-and-white photos with his vintage camera in Sheung Wan, first encountering Chun-Lei at Ladder Street, which consists entirely of stone steps. His crew lifts wallets at the more commercial Causeway Bay district, but return to old Hong Kong for leisure, often having breakfast together in one of the area’s cafes. Traditional transportation methods are acknowledged as Kei rides around on a bicycle, Chun-Lei drives a classic convertible, and the climactic clandestine pickpocketing duel that will decide her fate takes place on a tramline. Set to a swooning score by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux, this deceptively slight caper is a charming tribute to a Hong Kong that can still be found if you know where to look.
Dream Home (2010)
Director: Pang Ho-cheung
Hong Kong’s inflated property prices cause a bloodbath in Dream Home, a satirical shocker from Pang Ho-cheung which is pitched somewhere in-between Category III schlock and the sharp social commentary that the fiercely opinionated filmmaker has become known for. Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) works hard at her telemarketing job in the hope of saving up enough money to buy her family an apartment with view of the Victoria Harbour. When her widowed father falls ill, she becomes determined to secure a home in a modern high rise by any means necessary, so sets about driving down the value by killing the building’s residents with power tools and household appliances.
Presenting events in non-linear fashion, Pang challenges audience sympathy by juxtaposing Cheng’s extreme behaviour with flashbacks to her recent struggles, unsatisfying affair with married businessman Siu To (Eason Chan), and rough childhood when her family was cruelly evicted during the real estate boom. Dream Home uses genre trappings to skewer a capitalist system that has made it impossible for ordinary citizens to get on the housing ladder, although Pang also serves up some grotesquely amusing splatter as Cheng murders her way to a lower monthly mortgage payment.
A Simple Life (2011)
Director: Ann Hui
Ann Hui’s moving drama A Simple Life is a study of the bond between film producer Roger (Andy Lau), whose busy schedule leaves little time for relationships, and ageing servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), who has worked for Roger’s family for 6 decades. Communication between the two is kept to short exchanges until Tao suffers a stroke and Roger realises that his ‘godmother’ is slipping away. Tao tenders her resignation and insists on moving into a retirement home, but Roger makes time for her, paying visits or taking her out for meals.
Based on the life of its producer Roger Lee who co-wrote the screenplay, A Simple Life eschews maudlin sentimentality in favour of an emotional nuance that is brought to the fore by the enduring screen pairing of Ip and Lau, who have essayed the mother/son dynamic on numerous occasions. Through its emphasis on Tao’s culinary expertise, it’s also a celebration of traditional Cantonese food culture: the film opens with Tao walking purposefully through a morning market in search of high quality ingredients which she will later use to meticulously prepare mouthwatering dishes that her potential replacements will struggle to emulate.
Director: Pang Ho-cheung
A freewheeling send-up of Hong Kong’s film industry, Vulgaria thrives on a rambunctious energy that was presumably generated by its swift 12-day shoot. After being invited to talk to a group of film students, producer To Wai-cheung (Chapman To) takes the opportunity to disprove the perception that those who wear suits merely sign checks by regaling everyone with the saga of making his latest production, a remake of the Shaw Brothers classic Confession of a Concubine (1976). As the project’s backer, debauched mainland gangster Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), has insisted that original star Susan Shaw must return, To hires nubile starlet ‘Popping Candy’ (Dada Chan) so that he can superimpose Shaw’s head on her body, but that’s just one of the many challenges that he will face throughout the creative process.
Despite an abundance of gross-out humour that extends to a jaw-dropping bestiality gag, the vulgarity here is mostly found in rapid-fire dialogue peppered with local slang and profanity. Pang takes satirical swipes at the industry’s association with crime and the encroaching influence of mainland money, yet ultimately applauds the enterprising spirit of the Hong Kong scene, as exemplified by the endearingly beleaguered producer at its centre.
Originally published: 7 August 2014