Hong Kong films 2000

Capsule reviews


It's approaching the end of the year, so it's time for a set of brief reviews and comments on this year's Hong Kong films. 

I've taken title information from the Hong Kong Movie Database. Click on the film titles to go to their [English] entries in the Database. 

For Chinese information, click on [zhongwen] to go to the Chinese Cinema Database entry for that title (Big 5 or GB decoding software required).


capsule index...

And I Hate You So
Deja Vu
Diamond Hill
The Duel
Jiang Hu: the Triad Zone
Juliet in Love
The Legend of Speed
The Mission
Needing You
Okinawa Rendez-vous
Tokyo Raiders
A War Named Desire

And I Hate You So [zhongwen] 
director: Hai Chung-man 
screenplay: Ivy Ho
Cantonese: Siu chan chan 
Mandarin: Xiao qin qin 
Cast: Kelly Chan Wai-lam, Aaron Kwok Fu-sing, Eric Tsang Chi-wai, Teresa Mo Sun-kwan 

A surprisingly enjoyable, zesty screwball comedy, featuring an abundance of clever, sparkling writing, sublimely beautiful cinematography and lighting by Peter Pau, and two strong lead performances.

I was impressed despite the main actor. If a movie stars Aaron Kwok, and I'm not actively uncomfortable with his presence, then I count it a major success. And here, the role fits him like a glove: a narcissistic, quite annoying entertainment-world figure with a real swagger and an offbeat ladies' man appeal: this is Aaron's role of a lifetime, no? On the other hand, I belong to the party who thinks Kelly Chan's great performance in Lost and Found was no fluke. So it was nice to see that confirmed, at least in the first half of the movie, by her ability to do the screwball comedy Hepburn thing: she's all off kilter energy, manic self-confidence, with a strong sense of self.

[spoiler warning:] But the film collapses towards its ending. It's as if the screenwriter (Ivy Ho, who has done better) lost interest or was told to "make it conventional", and the film shrinks down into little more than its genre shell. The last 10 minutes are pitiful, and almost erase all the good work that's gone before. It's sad to see Kelly's character shrink from a person to a romantic appendage of Aaron's. And couldn't the film have worked out (a la Needing You?) a less abrupt, less cliched ending?

Is this is the ugly side of conventional screwball comedies? wherein a strong, independent ("feisty" in the genre) woman, equal to or even more vibrantly alive and creative than her putative male partner/rival becomes more and more domesticated, tamed, controlled, and ultimately contained by him. Sad to see Kelly's character disappear, fall under the sway of Aaron's, and fail to recover. Somehow, Needing You seemed less like a trap for the woman, more like a stage on which each of the parties in the romance managed to negotiate some middle ground, giving up a little, but preserving their autonomy and integrity in the process. 

Deja Vu [zhongwen] 
director & writer: Cho Kin-nam 
Cantonese: Yuen ban 2000 
Mandarin: Yuan fen 2000 
Cast: Vicky Zhao Wei, Theresa Lee Yi-hung, Peter Ho Yun-tung, Nicky Wu

How sad, to watch a lightly ambitious "concept movie" flounder, stagger, drop the concept not even half way through (they didn't think we'd notice?), and peter out, to a sappy, moralistic end. Director Cho Kin-lam makes a rather loose mess of this film: he seems to have no idea what to do with actors, and abandons them to flounder and do the best they can. Which is nothing much for Peter Ho, dull dull long-haired narcissist; a little bit more for Nicky Wu, who's almost present (though he gets to play against a new, bulked up physique); so-so for Theresa Lee, whose natural effervescence is depressingly squelched (let down, not only by mis-direction, but by a flaccid script); and surprisingly much for mainland TV sensation Vicky Zhao Wei. The lone survivor of this mess, Zhao's lively spirit and irrepressible charisma (though, those eyes, can they be real???) seems impervious to the heavy handed dullness around her. Some nice views of Shanghai don't begin to compensate for some of the least professional cinematography seen this year. Ho, fortunately, sings better than he acts.

Diamond Hill [zhongwen] 
director & writer: Cheng Poi-shui 
Cantonese: Fat kwong sek tou 
Mandarin: Fa guang shitou 
Cast: Maggie Poon, Chan Chin-pang, Cheung Tat-ming, Carrie Ng, Hui Siu-hung, Chan Kwok-bong

A fascinatingly crafted low-budget gem. May (Maggie Poon) and her brother are inseparable as children. When May becomes an adolescent, she can't seem to let go of memories of her childhood, which seem to sustain her in her cold, loveless middle class home in Diamond Hill.

Enter Cheung Tat-ming as a digital video cam-wielding burglar, Chan Kwok-bong's tireless detective, and Chan Chin-pang's mysterious stranger, and the movie takes off at a run, to Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei.

Director Cheng Poi-shui plays with a wide variety of seemingly avant garde techniques (alternating digital video with 35mm; splintering the story's chronology so that it proceeds simultaneously in three or four different times ) to delicate effect: the film is easy to follow, and a pleasure to admire as it trips from art house alienated family drama through Japanese minimalist horror to Hong Kong metropolitan night adventure. A top notch crew, headed by Lam Wah-chuen's brilliant cinematography and Tommy Wai's subtly haunting score, help this film float above its no-budget indie foundation. The symbolic resolution may seem too pat, at first, until one realizes that it is chronologically placed before the film's main action. One of the most intriguing and accomplished Hong Kong films of 2000.

The Duel [zhongwen] 
director: Andew Lau Wai-keung 
screenplay: Manfred Wong, Wong Jing
Cantonese: Kuet chin chi gam ji din 
Mandarin: Juezhan zijin zhi dian 
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-wah, Ekin Cheng Yi-kin, Nick Cheung Ka-fai, Vicky Zhao Wei, Kristy Yeung

The Duel is an adequate exercise in translating comic-book-superheros to the screen. Nothing more. It was one of the most popular films in 2000 in HK, though, so if you're curious about what HKers are still going to their cinemas to see, then it's worth watching. That said, I sort of enjoyed the movie more than my brain wanted to: director/d.p. Andrew Lau makes a lot of pop-junk (and a few pop-masterpieces), but he has an amazing visual imagination, and can concoct the occasional momentarily breathtaking images on the screen. Ekin Cheng somehow manages to look sufficiently quiet and noble; Nick Cheung again demonstrates that he can't carry a film.

Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone [zhongwen] 
director: Dante Lam Chiu-yin 
screenplay: Chan Hing-kar, Amy Chin Siu-wai
Cantonese: Kong wu giu gap 
Mandarin: Jianghu gaoji 
Cast: Tony Leung Kar-fai, Sandra Ng Kwun-yu, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Pang King-chi, Jo Kuk Cho-lam, Eric Tsang Chi-wai

Despite the awkward title, this is one terrific movie. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's one of the three best Hong Kong film I've seen this year, along with In the Mood For Love and Juliet in Love. And it shares much with the latter movie. Same composer, similar theme music, and (as a tip-off) a character in Jiang Hu is named "Wilson Yip".

Jiang Hu is a fun, hilarious, moving, jam-packed full-of-plot kind of movie that reminded me of the experiences I used to have watching back-catalogue HK films from the recent "golden age" (mid 80s to early 90s), when films, stuffed with a wonderful cast, were just too outrageously over-entertaining to be believed.

Here, Tony Leung Kar-fai and Sandra Ng are the stars: two rich, meaty, substantial roles for two terrific actors. I've never seen Leung better: his performance dominates the film, with several unforgettable set-pieces (disco dancing on the table top!) and a sustained, coherent integrity that just accumulates strength. His rolling laughter in the dinner with Luk See is as chillingly brilliant as his over-the-top physical comedy. Sandra Ng is equally good as Leung's wife, associate, and (in an extended flashback to London, England) girlfriend. She adds a bucketful of erotic power to her dramatic and comic strengths. What a joy to watch this actress grow, from Four Faces of Eve to Juliet in Love and then to Jiang Hu.

Lots of terrific secondary roles, and an amazing set of cameos make casting one of Jiang Hu's high points (Ann Hui is Sister Thirteen! Lee Lik-chi as Ox Turd! Piggy Chan from Chungking Express! ...) And Eric Tsang, in perhaps the best single scene of his career to date, a sustained, fixed camera, extremely long take (out of someone else's art house cinema) sequence-shot of a conversation with Tony Leung in jail. Leung's reaction-acting in this scene is a marvel on its own. And Anthony Wong is just brilliant as Master Kwan (the God, who has a substantial role to play in the film). His scene with Sandra Ng by the swimming pool, as they both attempt to come to terms with how shockingly the world has let them down, takes off and soars,. He dances, slo mo Beijing Opera-style, as Ng swims, fully clothed. And the movie just takes off and never looks back. Then Wong's character takes a breath, and the sigh of humanity he allows to escape goes straight to the heart. Best supporting actor award, period.

Dante Lam, ace editor Chan Kei-hop and d.p. Cheung Man-po have much uninhibited fun with their catalogue of editing and cinematographic tricks (whip pans, high profile zooms in and out -- more than I've seen in any other film -- , quick flurries of montages verging on the abstract).

At a more substantial level, Jiang Hu, like Juliet in Love, is a play on genres. While it refers to the gangster/triad film, it's not a well-behaved one: it adds layers of depth and unpredictability by folding in a mature romance / partnership story. And it has a slightly ironic (though not at all nastily parodistic) attitude towards the gangster, romance, and melodrama films to which it refers. Director Dante Lam and screenwriter Chan Hing-kar (Gordon Chan's usual partner) have a deep affection and respect for Hong Kong film genres, but aren't blindly committed to them. They seem to be writing for an audience who loves and knows Hong Kong films, and who enjoys a film that, in a witty, lightly self-conscious way, plays with those genres.

Perhaps the action scenes went on a bit long? but perhaps not. And the restrained, mature ending just caps a thoroughly entertaining, sometimes deeply moving, confidently impressive film. Don't miss it, if you get the chance.

Juliet in Love [zhongwen] 
director: Wilson Yip Wai-shun 
Cantonese: Juelaiyip yue Leung San Po 
Mandarin: Zhuliye yu Liang Shanbo 
Cast: Sandra Ng Kwun-yu, Francis Ng Chun-yu, Simon Yam Tat-wah

A small masterpiece. Wilson Yip gets stronger and stronger, playing with genres, building fresh new movies out of seemingly tired conventions. Great performances by Sandra Ng (HK film award winner this year?) and Francis Ng anchor this romance/triad film that has so much going for it, it over-delivers. Suffused with feeling, graced with gloriously creative cinematography, lighting, and a superb score. That the HK film industry can come up with this rich drama in the same year as Jiang Hu: the Triad Zone, Needing You, and In the Mood For Love hints that it may be well on the way to an artistic (if not commercial) revival. 

The Legend of Speed (1999) [zhongwen] 
director: Andew Lau Wai-keung 
screenplay: Manfred Wong
Cantonese: Lit feng chin che gik chuk chuen suet
Mandarin: Lie huo zhan che ji su chuan shuo 
Cast: Ekin Cheng Yi-kin, Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi, Kelly Lin Hsi-lei, Patrick Tam Yiu-man, Simon Yam Tat-wah

Notes to Ekin Cheng: 1. acting issues from more than the hair 2. keep your shirt on at all times 3. no more self-parodying stoic-brooding-hero-in-profile closeups. What to say about this nasty commercial Christmas movie? From the bottom drawer of BoB team Andrew Lau and Manfred Wong. In yet again underestimating (no, make that insulting) their audience, they dish out rancid sexual politics, cheesy racing effects, garish photography and lighting, and self-mocking dialogue (as if the movie were even half-witty enough to be self-aware). Legend pretends to critique people who take money as the highest value (which leaves the filmís producers precisely where?), but what it offers instead is a cheap, mica-thin version of manliness as loyalty-at-all-costs (which costs seem easily to include loved ones, if theyíre female). Cecilia Cheung is completely miscast, Blacky Ko and Simon Yam, professionals always, go through the motions; only Patrick Tam seems to be acting here, and manages to escape without embarassment.

The Mission (1999) [zhongwen] 
director: Johnnie To Kei-fung 
screenplay: Yau Nai-hoi
Cantonese: Cheong Feng 
Mandarin: Qiang huo 
Cast: Francis Ng Chun-yu, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Jackie Lui Chung-yin, Roy Cheung Yiu-yeung, Lam Suet

When Boss Hung's life is threatened, he hires five retired bodyguards as protection. Their deadpan cool and chic black suits characterize one of the most interesting revisionist takes on the male bonding film yet filmed. The Mission seems to have aimed for and found an international audience in a very self-conscious way. A case for brilliantly realized self-fetishization, perhaps? This is manifested in its concentrated, craft-based stylistic perfectionism, and its clearly readable references (or homages, if one is attributing intent to the filmmaker) to recent "hot" filmmaking styles. For those who expect more of a film than a pure exercise in style, The Mission might seem thin, empty, a formalist exercise. Although it is heartening to see a Milkyway Image film with an international profile (it has certainly caught the eyes of many international film festival programmers), the film doesn't concern itself with servicing an audience's desire for pleasure, as do Running Out of Time and Johnnie To's huge domestic hit Needing You. Those had style plus heart, a richness that extends beyond the power of the images right into the films' stories. The Mission beguiles with its bravura stylistic set-pieces. But open it up, and what's inside? A gangsters and gunplay film distilled to its essence, The Mission reaches for the sublime. A celebration of pure form (think Seven Samurai refracted through Takeshi Kitano, via Melville), To's version of Hong Kong minimalism is stillness at full speed. That might sound like a contradiction, but To, the key current incarnation of Hong Kong auteur as artist-craftsman, can pull it off, with wit, panache, and the crackling sound of tension released like a gunshot. The thrilling central sequence, an action set-piece in a shopping mall that, zen-like, celebrates non-action, is already a classic: not to be missed.

 Needing You [zhongwen] 
director: Johnnie To Kei-fung; Wai Ka-fai 
screenplay: Wai Ka-fai; Yau Nai-hoi
Cantonese: Goo lam gua lui 
Mandarin: Gu nan gua nu 
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-wahm Sammi Cheng Sau-man

Needing You is merely well-crafted Hong Kong entertainment spun so deftly that it takes off and soars out of its own local orbit. Sammi Cheng continues to show serious ability as a comedienne. Her sense of anarchy -- her intense but flakey air of total distraction -- was hilarious. Yet her scenes seemed to belong to a sustained character, rather than merely a patchwork of set pieces. Andy Lau is light, easy, a pleasure to watch. Too bad the film coudn't or wouldn't sustain the daffy, off-centre energy of its first half in its second. Something happens to deflate the film, turning it from screwball comedy to soap opera melodrama as it spins towards its discreet conclusion. Still, the damage can't undo what Needing You achieved. Even in the gender roles department, somehow, the film surpasses And I Hate You So, its competition for romantic comedy of the year. Needing You offers something less like a trap for the woman and more like a stage on which each of the parties in the romance managed to negotiate some middle ground, giving up a little, but preserving their autonomy and integrity in the process. Commercial filmmaking near its best. 

Okinawa Rendez-vous [zhongwen] 
director: Gordon Chan Ka-seung
screenplay: Chan Hing-kar; Gordon Chan Ka-seung 
Cantonese: Luen chin cheng sing 
Mandarin: Lian zhan chong sheng 
Cast: Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Faye Wong, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Gigi Lai Chi, Vincent Kok Tak-chiu 

What a disappointment! Lower your expectations before watching this movie. What seems to have been conceived as a wacky, vacation-at-the-beach cum cop-&-elegant-thieves caper farce is dead on arrival. Gordan Chan gives it no bounce, no sparkle, no energy, no rhythm, no lift. The thing just idles along, disconnected scene following scene, the actors merely going through their paces. Who would have thought that the best performance in a film starring Canto-cinema gods Faye Wong, Leslie Cheung, and Tony Leung Kar-fai would belong to Gigi Lai??? But that's what happens; her minor character comes to life: the camera loves her, and she gives back some energy, and hints of an actual character. Tony Leung tries, a bit, to be daffy and clueless in a sort of offbeat way, but there's not much he can do with zero support. Faye and Leslie are complete blanks in this film: L. is capable of great things, but listlessly poses through his scenes. And Faye Wong, so brilliant in Chungking Express, is wasted in this film. Chan has no idea what to do with her, and just poses and shoots her as a passive version of her own star persona. A few giggles and an attractive pony tail don't add up to a star turn (I say this as a confirmed Faye Wong fan from way back).

Cinematography is merely workman-like: lighting is cheap and miserable: many of the sunny outdoor scenes are dim and smudged. There are some mildly amusing Japanese yakuza for local colour, but the film as a whole reads as some light travelogue trifle, promoting the laid back Club Med-like charms of an Okinawa vacation.

Tokyo Raiders [zhongwen] 
director: Jingle Ma Chor-sing 
screenplay: Susan Chan Suk-yin; Felix Chong Man-keung
Cantonese: Tungking kung leuk 
Mandarin: Dongjing gonglu 
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Kelly Chan Wai-lam, Ekin Cheng Yi-kin, Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi

Like many other reviewers, I was surprised to discover how enjoyable and impressive this 2000 New Year's film was. Tony Leung Chiu-wai brings as so much charm, energy and a roguish sense of playfulness to the main role that it reminded me of Chow Yun-fat at his best. Even Dior Cheng does positively no harm. This film is easily superior to all the budget-heavy, effects-based action machines of the past year (Purple Storm, 2000 A.D., Gen-X Cops). Although it's closest to the latter, with a built-in sense of fun and knowing self-mockery. Add Jingle Ma's gift for hyper-active, constantly inventive cinematography, and the film more than makes up for its unfortunate flagging of drive and energy in its second hour.

A War Named Desire [zhongwen] 
director: Alan Mak Siu-fai 
screenplay: Alan Mak; Joe Ma Wai-ho; Clement Cheng
Cantonese: Oi yue shing
Mandarin: Ai yu cheng 
Cast: Francis Ng Chun-yu, Daniel Chan Hiu-ting, Dave Wong Kit, Gigi Leung Wing-kei

A movie that doesn't seem to have the courage of its convictions. This triad action drama wants to have it both ways: it displays a serious attitude, polished production values, and a relatively classy cast (for the genre) inspired to give performances near the top of their range. On the other hand, Alan Mak and co. seem to want to juicy, gory shock thrills that Clarence Ford can bring to a film, and they aim this way ("low") in War Named Desire's last act. But Ford's films work precisely because of their carefree abandon, wedded to virtuostic craft: they don't care if they're tasteless or over-the-top, but what Ford's films lose in tonal control and maturity they more than make up for in the power of their images, and the sheer brio with which they celebrate film making at its most fun, its most subversive. Desire won't go this far, but neither does it completely renounce cheesy subversive pleasures (largely of the blood-splattered, exit-wound fetishizing kind). Out of this mix of impulses which, unfortunately, largely work at cross purposes, one can pick out elements that shine. Francis Ng, Dave Wong Kit, and Gigi Leung (yes, even Leung) are offer quietly powerful performances that are hard to forget. The film's image crafting, when not over-reaching in a deliberate "look at my stylishness" mode (that we've seen in Mak's Rave Fever) is capable of some carefully composed, visually stunning images (Sam Lee's farewell, in ultra long shot, or Francis Ng, off centre, isolated between a starkly geometric foreground and background patterns that isolate and alienate him from his surroundings). And best of all, Mark Lui's beautifully crafted score, that lends even long scenes of cliche-mired dialogue a dignity and emotional heft that they wouldn't otherwise have deserved. Lui's combination of ground-bass defined elegies, dance music, and ballads resonate nicely with Mak's more stunning visuals to create moments (though the film can't sustain them) of emotional, even poetic weight. A shame that all of Desire can't be as inventive or stunning as Leung's rain-drenched ambush under the umbrellas.


Thanks to two of my favourite internet film resources: 

 from where much of the above information comes, and to where most of the above links lead. 

    Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Email me.


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