Hong Kong Cinema is Dead

If there’s a Hong Kong equivalent of Nas, there’d be a Hong Kong Cinema is Dead track out there somewhere.

Hong Kong cinema during its heyday produced one of a kind films that couldn’t be replicated anywhere. Film geeks like Quentin Taratino loved  Hong Kong film’s breakneck pace, abrupt change in tone, and undeniable energy–something that mirrored the city’s lifestyle. In the 80s, Jackie Chan’s acrobatic action comedies and John Woo’s heoric bloodshed wowed every movie-goer in Asia and drew the attention of film buffs in the West. In the 90s, Stephen Chow’s brand of mo lei tau comedy kept the “Hong Kong attitude” going while Jet Li and Tsui Hark brought back traditional wushu films.

It was, by all accounts, the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema.

Then came the 2000s and it all went downhill. More and more films took on the western approach to filmmaking, with a proper budget, pre/post-production, and a script that follows the traditional three-part storytelling arc. In doing that, Hong Kong films lost its identity. Gone were the low budget, quickly-produced smashmouth affairs, instead, we got films that tried hard to be like Hollywood films. And of course, when you step away from what you know, when you try to play someone else’s game–one with much more history and resources–you’re going to lose.

It is irony in its greatest form: Hong Kong filmmakers putting more money, time, and effort into using proven, traditional filmmaking style that led to the decline in Hong Kong cinema.

And with China’s financial backing, Hong Kong films are losing more and more of its identity.

Hong Kong cinema is almost completely dead. But not quite.

Johnnie To is is single handedly keeping the scene alive. For the past decade Johnnie To’s crime films have not only gotten rave reviews locally, but overseas as well. Films like Election, Exiled, and Breaking News all earned spots at festivals such as the Cannes, and all got rave reviews from UK magazines like Empire. It is because of Johnnie To that westerners still care about Hong Kong films.

But don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.

In the 80s, To made classics like All About Ah Long (Chow Yun Fat as a biker). In the 90s, he set Hong Kong box office records with the Stephen Chow comedy Justice My Foot. In the early 2000s, he jumpstarted the trend of Hong Kong contemporary romantic comedies with the Andy Lau/Sammi Cheng vehicle Needing You.

But it wasn’t until the rest of the scene died did we truly appreciate the greatness of Johnnie To.

Today, while scrolling through New York Times, I noticed a tiny picture of what looked like HK actor Lam Suet. A pudgy man with bad skin, Lam has found a niche as a strong supporting character in To’s films. I’m a fan.

So I click into the picture excitedly. I mean, this is LAM SUET, IN NEW YORK TIMES. I get in and I start reading. It’s a story on how film companies are finding a new platform to distribute films–on demand video.

The piece doesn’t talk about Johnnie To films only, it talks about films from around the world. But the writer chose to start the piece with a Johnnie To film. Probably because Johnnie To’s films are the best of that bunch. Or the best of any bunch.

How much longer can To do this? How much longer until the inevitable?

To quote Nas (whom I’ll be seeing live in about 48 hours)

Hip hop just died this mornin’
Hip hop just died this mornin’
Hip hop just died this mornin’
And she’s dead, she’s dead

Lam Suet with a fan.

And here is a iconic shot from Exiled, I personally thought Exiled was the best film of 2006, over The Departed.


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