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Chinese language cinema

The 50 best Hong Kong films since the 1997 handover, part 2: from 25 to 1

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, we revisit the greatest movies the city’s cinema has produced in the past two decades

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 8:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 1:19pm

Missed the first of our two-part countdown from last week? Click here to read our 26th to 50th picks for the best Hong Kong films since the handover.

25. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

There are special effects movies, and then there is Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s bombastic martial arts spectacle. As cartoonish as a live-action film could ever aspire to be, the comedy legend’s homage to 1960s and ’70s Hong Kong cinema is a surreal showcase of slapstick action at its most exhilarating.

24. Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002)

Twelfth Night meets Roman Holiday in this Lunar New Year movie, produced by Wong Kar-wai and directed by Jeff Lau Chun-wai. A zany and even slightly touching rehash of 1959 huangmei opera classic The Kingdom and the Beauty, it is both a first-rate Wong parody and a wuxia-flavoured romantic comedy of the highest order.

23. Beast Cops (1998)

Anthony Wong Chau-sang dazzles as a morally conflicted cop opposite Michael Wong Man-tak’s uptight superior in this character-driven drama, co-directed with great verve and humour by Gordon Chan Ka-seung and Dante Lam Chiu-yin. A smart and offbeat addition to the sometimes jaded crime thriller tradition.

22. PTU (2003)

A missing gun belonging to Lam Suet’s bumbling cop sets off a farcical night of investigation for his fellow officers in this bitingly ironic thriller by master stylist Johnnie To Kei-fung. Everyman actor Simon Yam Tat-wah stands out with his truly formidable turn as a psychotic cop all too ready to assert his ways.

21. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

Tsui Hark spoiled us with so many highly stylised martial arts gems in the 1980s and ’90s that it’s easy to overlook his return to form in this delirious fantasy adventure thriller. No true cinephile should miss out on this hugely enjoyable blend of historical pulp, detective mystery and inventive visual effects.

20. Accident (2009)

Between his early fame as a cult director and his present-day gig directing one of the top-grossing franchises in China (The Monkey King), Soi Cheang Pou-soi made arguably his best film under producer Johnnie To. This is a slow-burning tale involving assassination, paranoia, as well as zen-like meditation on fate and coincidence.

19. After This Our Exile (2006)

Having finally learned to put aside his pop idol image for the 2005 film Divergence, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing cemented his reputation as a serious actor with this sorrowful, Malaysia-set drama by Patrick Tam Ka-ming, in which he plays a gambling addict who recklessly ruins his own marriage and scars his young son for life.

18. Love in a Puff (2010)

In Hong Kong’s ban on indoor smoking, bad-boy director Pang Ho-cheung finds an unlikely starting point for this romantic comedy with a distinctly local flavour, which spawned two lucrative sequels. Miriam Yeung Chin-wah and Shawn Yue Man-lok deserve full credit for bringing the mean, bickering central couple alive.

17. The Mission (1999)

Best known for its shoot-out sequences involving hitmen firing in stationary poses, Johnnie To’s scrupulously scripted crime thriller is the sort of film casual viewers may need to see a few times to identify all its subtle twists and turns. An unbearably cool action showcase – and an uninhibited celebration of male bonding.

16. McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004)

There was a time when this animated series was so quintessentially Hong Kong as to be comprehensible only to Cantonese-speaking locals. This second feature, directed by Toe Yuen Kin-to, is the best of the films about the cartoon pig, peppering its stream-of-consciousness story with cute but also very poignant gags on the city’s social ills.

15. Ip Man (2008)

Donnie Yen Ji-dan’s career-defining role in this exhilarating martial arts biopic directed by frequent collaborator Wilson Yip Wai-shun made him a bona fide superstar. So successful was the pair’s vision of the patriotic wing chun master that the film spawned a series whose fourth instalment is due in 2018.

14. Port of Call (2015)

Philip Yung Tsz-kwong’s feature film debut, 2009’s Glamorous Youth, was little seen and gravely underrated. The former critic fulfilled his promise with this awards-laden third feature, a mesmerising true-crime drama that juxtaposes the grisly with the humanistic – and establishes Yung as an auteur in the making.

13. Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Perhaps the best directing effort yet by the multitalented Stephen Chow, and certainly the most loved sports comedy ever in Hong Kong, this playfully demented pop-culture pastiche mixes two popular subjects – kung fu and soccer – in a ridiculously funny David-and-Goliath story.

12. Mad Detective (2007)

Hong Kong cinema has never been blessed with high-quality psychodramas. This relentlessly strange outlier from co-directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, starring Lau Ching-wan as a schizophrenic detective, marries crime mystery tropes with the supernatural to produce a fantastic cinematic experience.

11. The Grandmaster (2013)

Far too elliptical to qualify as a biopic, and with barely enough action scenes in its second half to be labelled a martial arts epic, Wong Kar-wai’s take on Ip Man’s life exemplifies all that he does best. It’s a decades-spanning tale of yearning and regrets, featuring 2046’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Zhang Ziyi at their heart-wrenching best.

10. Trivisa (2016)

A gloomy political fable masterfully disguised as a portrait of three larger-than-life felons from the city’s pre-handover past, this astonishingly assured crime drama by new directors Frank Hui Hok-man, Jevons Au Man-kit and Vicky Wong Wai-kit is all the proof you need that the film industry’s future is in good hands.

9. Ordinary Heroes (1999)

A rare look back at the history of social activism in 1980s Hong Kong, Ann Hui On-wah’s multi-stranded drama is extraordinarily ambitious in scope. Not only does it pay homage to the forgotten heroes who contributed to the city’s progress, but it does so through a thematically complex story of trauma and resilience.

8. Ten Years (2015)

A brave and intelligent political critique which – with the help of ample, if ill-advised publicity in Chinese state media – galvanised audiences already dreading the loss of their local identity and way of life. Were its fearful scenarios pure fantasy? The hugely popular film went missing from cinemas at a time when every screening was still sold out.

7. A Simple Life (2011)

The simplest story Ann Hui has told in her decorated career is also one of her best. Based on producer Roger Lee Yan-lam’s own experiences, this slice-of-life drama about a middle-aged bachelor (Andy Lau) and his ageing servant (Venice Film Festival winner Deanie Ip Tak-han) is understated yet immensely touching.

6. The Warlords (2007)

Jet Li Lianjie, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro go through every shade of loyalty in director Peter Chan Ho-sun’s engrossing remake of a Shaw Brothers classic, The Blood Brothers (1973). A gritty period war epic, it is memorable for showing consciences at work in the harshest of circumstances.

5. Made in Hong Kong (1997)

By far the most acclaimed independent film Hong Kong cinema has produced, Fruit Chan Gor’s pessimistic tale of disillusioned teenagers transcends its limited resources to serve up a perfect blend of style and substance. Here’s a rare political fable which manages to be at once comical and thoroughly enthralling.

4. Infernal Affairs (2002)

The undercover police thriller that revitalised a genre and spawned an Oscar-winning remake (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed), Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak Siu-fai’s magnum opus takes its star-studded cast – led by Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-wai – on a meticulously crafted chase after destiny and rapidly fading identities.

3. Election 2 (2009)

While 2005’s Election impressed with its candid look at the realities of Hong Kong triad societies, few expected Johnnie To to follow it up with the greatest Hong Kong gangster film ever made. The sadistic violence doesn’t overshadow the political messages that To succinctly weaves into this power drama – as cynical about democratic elections as it is China’s increasing control over Hong Kong.

2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

The first wuxia film to earn both critical and commercial acclaim on a global scale, Ang Lee’s multiple-Oscar winner conquered the West with its graceful display of gravity-defying heroics, while winning hearts back home with its star-crossed lovers bound by Chinese tradition. Chow Yun-fat was smart not to return for the sequel – this is a singular achievement that couldn’t be matched.

1. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Words cannot describe the sublime beauty of Wong Kar-wai’s 1960s-set romance – even if the auteur borrowed more than a few ideas from Liu Yichang’s novella Intersection. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk as a pair of betrayed spouses who find comfort in each other but hesitate to go further, the visually sumptuous and emotionally devastating film is widely regarded as one of the greatest, from any country, of the 21st century – and deservedly so.

Click here to read our 26th to 50th picks for the best Hong Kong films since the handover.

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