Though it’s had its golden and not-so-golden periods, Hong Kong is and always has been a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world, perhaps because of its dramatic skyline and harbour setting. Increasingly in recent years Western directors have been making use of its modern steel and glass cityscape in big budget productions such as DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). At the height of its powers in the seventies and eighties, Hong Kong was the third largest exporter of films in the world after Bolly and Hollywood, and walking around the harbour with its Avenue of Stars to rival Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, it seems to be a place that takes great pride in its cinema heritage.
1. INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2002)
Undercover cops posing as triad gangsters have been as much a staple of Hong Kong cinema as martial arts films for the last thirty years, and was a familiar theme to director Andrew Lau from his earlier TO LIVE AND DIE IN TSIMSHATSUI (1994). Here though, he ups the stakes by pitting his undercover cop (Tony Leung) against a mole from the same gang (Andy Lau) sent to infiltrate the police department. So begins a paranoid cat and mouse thriller that is played out with all the effortless cool of Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995) or RESERVOIR DOGS (1991). Its Chinese title, Wujian Dao, refers to the lowest level of Buddhist hell into which the worst sinners are perpetually reborn, which is somewhat better than the strained pun we get over here. It was remade in 2006 by that American bloke with the eyebrows I forget the name of.
2. ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
The last film completed before his death and released in Hong Kong only six days after, Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON has become arguably the definitive martial arts movie. In his first and last English-speaking role, Lee plays a kind of Shaolin Bond hired by the government to infiltrate the island of an underworld crime boss who holds tournaments to find the best martial arts masters in the world, a bit like the plot of every beat ‘em up videogame, ever. “You call it the art of fighting without fighting.” Woah.
3. HARD BOILED (1992)
These days John Woo has become synonymous with overcooked gratuituous gun violence, but this is two hours of brilliantly choreographed mayhem. Hong Kong’s answer to Sam Peckinpah, here Woo perfects his trademark slo-mo action sequences. There’s a plot somewhere underneath all this involving Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung as undercover cops “Tequila” and, erm, “Alan”, but really, who cares? Originally intended to be the first part of Woo’s abandoned egg trilogy (this may not be true).
4. ONE ARMED BOXER (1971)
A favourite in the sixth form common room, writer, director and star Jimmy Wang Yu spent most of his career with one arm (mostly very obviously) taped behind his back in a series of films in which the fighter or swordsman, in the case of ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1976), has to re-learn his craft after becoming brachially challenged at some point in each story. In this film he must defeat “the league of racist supervillains”: a Japanese warrior who literally has fangs, a Tibetan lama who inflates like a balloon before he fights and an Indian yoga master who moves by bouncing up and down on his head and is quite clearly a Chinese bloke painted brown. Straddling the tricky Friday Five border between fourth and fifth, they don’t make them like this anymore. “A film of documentary realism”, apparently:
5. A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967)
As Quentin Tarantino once remarked, this is not Chaplin’s finest hour. Made from a 1935 script that Chaplin originally intended for himself, allegedly he didn’t change a single word when he eventually came to make it thirty years later. Brando in his sixties sleep-walking period seems particularly ill at ease with the whole thing.