Asian cinema: Hong Kong film
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Francis Ng (left) and Loletta Lee in a still from Drifting. Ng stands out with his best performance in ages, but where does it rank in Hong Kong’s films of the year?

Ranking every Hong Kong film released in 2021, from worst to best

  • Anita is a mesmerising musical biopic of Canto-pop singer Anita Mui, while Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse are nemeses on opposite sides of the law in Raging Fire
  • Drifting is a minor masterpiece about the daily lives of homeless people in Sham Shui Po; Keep Rolling is an enthralling documentary on filmmaker Ann Hui

Nobody knows the future, but even the most naive observer could tell you that, after 2021, Hong Kong cinema is never going to be the same again.

While in the second half of 2021 the city’s film industry recovered slowly from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the national security law brought in last year and a newly passed film censorship bill have left creative freedom under a giant cloud.

The full impact of Hong Kong’s new political reality on its cinema remains to be seen, but audiences who, say, loved the moral ambiguity of crime thrillers or the cheeky political commentary woven into genre-defying blockbusters, should brace for major change.

Indeed, quite a few film directors and actors have voted with their feet and quietly moved their residence outside the city in the past two years. This disheartening trend is only going to spread when more concrete examples of the new forms of censorship further disrupt the industry.

(From left) Michael Chow, Tony Leung, Aaron Kwok and Patrick Tam in a still from Where the Wind Blows, directed by Philip Yung.
It certainly sent a chill down everyone’s spine when the police corruption drama Where the Wind Blows was pulled from this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival for “technical reasons”, a euphemism for censorship issues that is common in mainland China but unheard of in Hong Kong.

For the time being, we can still rejoice in the continued emergence of a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers, who seem as determined as ever to preserve the unique culture of the city to judge by their spirited first features.

Here is our list, ranked from worst to best, of Hong Kong films released in the past 12 months.

Charlene Choi in a still from 77 Heartwarmings.

32. 77 Heartwarmings

Although the only surprise in the mediocre romcom 77 Heartbreaks (2017) is just how utterly irredeemable Pakho Chau’s obnoxious man-child character is, this sequel somehow proves even less satisfying than its predecessor. Director Herman Yau Lai-to and screenwriter Erica Li Man, adapting from her own novel, try hard to add surprises with some very inept twists, and end up falling on their faces. Read the full review
Karan Cholia (left) and Shirley Chan in a still from My Indian Boyfriend.

31. My Indian Boyfriend

Billed as “the first ever Indian-style movie made in Hong Kong”, this cross-cultural romance by Bollywood dance instructor Sri Kishore should be a cause for celebration. Do temper your expectations, however: the storytelling in My Indian Boyfriend is at times so corny and ridiculous that the viewing experience verges on the fabled “so bad it’s good” territory traditionally reserved for cult movies. Read the full review
Louis Koo in a scene from G Storm.

30. G Storm

The first four entries in director David Lam Tak-luk’s alphabetically titled anti-corruption action franchise – 2014’s Z Storm, 2016’s S Storm, 2018’s L Storm and 2019’s P Storm – have never been mistaken for being pearls of screenwriting. And so it’s only fitting that G Storm, the fifth and final instalment in the series, ends up just as laughably ridiculous as these half-heartedly scripted movies go. Read the full review
Tony Wu in a still from I Still Remember.

29. I Still Remember

A life-affirming sports drama conceived with the best intentions, this melancholy movie about life’s regrets and disappointments marks the feature directing debut of advertising creative director Lik Ho Lik-hang. It nevertheless struggles to engage with its borderline amateurish script, which feels unnatural at every turn and seems a few drafts away from being ready for a mainstream movie production. Read the full review
Renci Yeung (left) and Hedwig Tam in a still from The First Girl I Loved.

28. The First Girl I Loved

This story of yearning and regret revolves around a lesbian relationship that begins passionately in a religious high school and then peters out when the two women are in their 20s. The film is unfortunately far more poignant on paper than it is on screen; its heavy-handed writing and curiously regressive view of the same-sex romantic experience turn the premise into a rather corny, naive and hollow story. Read the full review
Daniel Wu in a still from Caught in Time.

27. Caught in Time

Lau Ho-leung’s film centres around a cat-and-mouse game between cop and robber that lasts for years. If that reminds you of Heat (1995), do know that Caught in Time is less preoccupied with the conflicted bond between its two leads than it is the image of China’s law-enforcement units as an utterly honourable and fearless bunch. The film is a confused effort to reconcile its true-crime roots and genre trimmings. Read the full review
Julian Cheung (left) and Louis Cheung in a still from All U Need Is Love.

26. All U Need Is Love

This mediocre Hong Kong comedy is a pro bono ensemble production meant to raise money to help low-paid workers in the local film industry hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite boasting an admirable roster of actors, it is more a loosely conceived farce in which characters unconvincingly learn to appreciate each other over time, than a cathartic film that takes stock of the trauma of an epidemic. Read the full review
Liu Kai-chi (left) and Arrommy Leung in a still from Ladies Market

25. Ladies Market

Ladies Market is a modest drama about several grass-roots characters looking for that elusive sense of connection their respective family has failed to provide. Despite never quite ringing true with its superficial character settings and totally unrealistic depiction of criminal activities, the directing debut of former TVB producer Kwan Wing-chung just about does its job as an unsophisticated drama to kill time with. Read the full review
(From left) Heidi Lee, Anson Lo and Chloe So in a still from Showbiz Spy.

24. Showbiz Spy

Showbiz Spy is a pop-idol vehicle ostensibly churned out to make a quick buck off of Anson Lo Hon-ting, the Mirror boy band member who became a superstar overnight in Hong Kong this year. Frivolous yet harmlessly diverting, the film makes a half-hearted attempt at satirising the star-making system through which Lo and his bandmates achieved their meteoric rise in the first place. Read the full review
Louis Koo in a scene from Dynasty Warriors.

23. Dynasty Warriors

A big-budget movie adaptation of a popular Japanese video game series, itself based on a classical Chinese novel which freely dramatised history, Dynasty Warriors was, by its conception, always at risk of losing its way in a hodgepodge of ideas and influences. And so it proves with this bizarrely paced and only intermittently diverting movie by Hong Kong director Roy Chow Hin-yeung. Read the full review
Kiwi Ching in a still from Part-time Girlfriend.

22. Part-time Girlfriend

The traditionally recognised line between dating and prostitution is muddied in Part-time Girlfriend (translated Chinese title: #PTGF: Girlfriends for Hire), an intermittently amusing – though frequently awkward – blend of satirical comedy and sappy romance, written and directed by Cheng Fung-laam. Too bad the first-time filmmaker couldn’t find his moral compass if his life depended on it. Read the full review
Rapper Heyo Fok in a still from The Way We Keep Dancing.

21. The Way We Keep Dancing

The makers of The Way We Keep Dancing have their hearts in the right place, even if the movie about the plight of Hong Kong’s grass-roots performing artists is less an engrossing dramatisation of their stories than a needlessly bloated docudrama. This follow-up to Adam Wong Sau-ping’s 2013 hit The Way We Dance takes a very loose approach to storytelling, and lacks any memorable dance sequence. Read the full review
Michelle Wai and Carlos Chan in a still from Ready or Knot.

20. Ready or Knot

With his directorial debut, Anselm Chan Mou-yin – a regular screenwriter for Vincent Kok Tak-chiu – already looks ready to take the baton from Patrick Kong Pak-leung and become the new king of embarrassingly contrived romantic comedies. With its extremely cynical views on courtship and marriage, Ready or Knot normalises the very worst clichés about men and women – and feels smug about doing so. Read the full review
(From left) Becky Lee, Anthony Chan and Karen Kong in a still from Embrace.

19. Embrace

Forgiveness is the message in this faith-based family drama by Wong Ping-hung, a veteran Hong Kong cinematographer whose filmmaking career stalled when he lost the use of both legs in a traffic accident in 2008. Directing from a script he co-wrote with Elaine Li Wai-yee, Wong’s effort offers a wholesome and mostly undemanding watch for both Christians and non-Christians alike. Read the full review
Louis Koo (left) and Lam Ka-tung in a still from Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong.

18. Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong

Wong Jing continues his obsession with the city’s colonial-era history of corruption in the 1960s and ’70s with this pragmatic, yet enjoyable spin on the legends of drug dealer Crippled Ho (originally Ng Sik-ho) and corrupt policeman Chui Lak (originally Lui Lok). The film’s narrative is predictable yet undeniably engaging, and should satisfy viewers wishing to see yet another anti-corruption fantasy by Wong. Read the full review
Hanna Chan and Tony Wu in a still from Elisa’s Day.

17. Elisa’s Day

Tragedy spawns tragedy in this debut feature by Alan Fung Chi-hang, who was inspired by a true-life crime-of-passion case from the 1990s for his screenplay. Rather than treating the sensationalist content as a climactic moment to build his story towards, Fung takes a deliberate approach to the character-driven drama, which is admirable for its narrative ambition, albeit not entirely successful in execution. Read the full review
Louis Cheung (front) and Chrissie Chau in a still from Madalena.

16. Madalena

Two traumatised adults find solace in each other’s company in this romantic two-hander written and directed by Emily Chan Nga-lei, who juxtaposes her working-class protagonists’ sorrows against Macau’s materialism with largely predictable, though no less heart-rending results. Madalena sees two familiar Hong Kong actors – Louis Cheung Kai-chung and Chrissie Chau Sau-na – give rare naturalistic turns as the leads. Read the full review
Donnie Yen in a still from Raging Fire.

15. Raging Fire

There isn’t an ounce of moral ambiguity to be found in the thrilling but clumsily scripted swansong of the late director Benny Chan Muk-sing. Reuniting Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Nicholas Tse Ting-fung as nemeses on opposite sides of the law, Raging Fire has enough incendiary shoot-outs, nail-biting car chases and brutal hand-to-hand combat to satisfy even the pickiest of action movie aficionados. Read the full review
Endy Chow in a scene from One Second Champion.

14. One Second Champion

At its heart a conventional tale about never-say-die spirit, this boxing drama by Chiu Sin-hang ( Vampire Cleanup Department) may disappoint those drawn by its high-concept fantasy premise. What it offers instead is the ultimate underdog story. Endy Chow Kwok-yin’s character may be too low-key to be truly memorable, but paired with the energetic Chiu makes one half of an interesting double act. Read the full review
Wong You-nam in a still from Coffin Homes.

13. Coffin Homes

The poor exploit the poor to survive while the rich kill each other to get even richer in Coffin Homes, Fruit Chan Gor’s satire on Hongkongers’ irrational response to endlessly soaring real estate market prices. Both funny and sad, it offers the bitterest indictment of the city’s widening class divide. Bizarrely, Chan delivers this social criticism within the framework of a “splatstick” horror comedy. Read the full review
Lam Ka-tung (front) in a still from Hand Rolled Cigarette.

12. Hand Rolled Cigarette

Fruit Chan meets Takashi Miike for Hand Rolled Cigarette – or so it must have felt to actor-turned-debutant-filmmaker Chan Kin-long when he decided to inject his history-minded, socially aware drama with an awkward dose of over-the-top gangland violence. Still, the stunt choreography of a stand-out, extended fight sequence towards the film’s end is worth the ticket price alone. Read the full review
(From left) Sandra Ma, Janine Chang and Isabella Leong in a still from Love After Love.

11. Love After Love

The doomed romance between a hopelessly romantic schoolgirl and an absurdly heartless womaniser turns out as disastrously as expected in this languorous period drama from Ann Hui On-wah. While Hui completists may be satisfied by her typically assured direction, viewers looking for surprise plot turns, cathartic payoffs or even likeable characters in this 140-minute marathon of emotional violence should think again. Read the full review
Eddie Peng in a scene from The Rescue.

10. The Rescue

Action movie maestro Dante Lam Chiu-yin continues his mission to glorify every selfless hero he can think of in the ranks of China’s public security, military and law enforcers in The Rescue, a thrilling – if utterly predictable – action spectacle interspersed with jarring scenes of corny melodrama. At least Lam and his crew make sure that every action set-piece feels like an event in itself. Read the full review
Alex Fong in a still from The Attorney.

9. The Attorney

It says much about Hong Kong’s rapidly shifting political landscape that a mainstream film championing the rule of law in the city has been perceived by some as controversial. The Attorney employs plenty of crime-thriller tropes to pad the twisty legal battle. Where it goes the extra mile is in the extent to which its screenwriters allow the protagonist to pervert the course of justice … to serve justice. Read the full review
Sandra Ng and Leung Chung-hang in a still from Zero to Hero.

8. Zero to Hero

The sporting achievements of former Paralympic champion sprinter So Wa-wai and the vital role his loving mother played in those successes inspired Zero to Hero, a wholesome biopic that is part quirky underdog sports comedy, part sentimental family drama, and part critical look at the obstacles and compromises confronting disabled athletes. This is Hong Kong’s submission for the 2022 best international feature film Oscar. Read the full review
Louis Cheung in a still from Breakout Brothers.

7. Breakout Brothers

Even with its C-list cast and general lack of gimmicks, Breakout Brothers arguably proves the most entertaining one out of the recent batch of Hong Kong prison dramas, which have remained an infrequent yet regular event in our cinemas. This engaging movie tells a prison-break story that touches on such heart-warming notions as the importance of family and the selfless nature of friendship. Read the full review
Andy Lau in a scene from Shock Wave 2.

6. Shock Wave 2

Yet another Hong Kong landmark is spectacularly blown up around Andy Lau Tak-wah in this thematic sequel to Herman Yau’s 2017 action blockbuster. It’s easy to look beyond the overwrought story when Shock Wave 2 races through bomb disposals, a manhunt and multiple shoot-outs in public places, suspenseful undercover action, and an explosive finale to match the first film’s. Read the full review
Chung Suet-ying (left) and Patrick Tse in a scene from Time.

5. Time

The loneliness of Hong Kong’s ageing population provides the intriguing backdrop for Time, a surprisingly pleasant genre hybrid that morphs gradually from pitch-black comedy on the subject of assisted suicide for the elderly into a heart-warming drama that ponders the essence of friendship and family ties. The rare leading roles for 1960s stars Patrick Tse Yin and Petrina Fung Bo-bo also lend Time a strong nostalgic air. Read the full review
Louise Wong in a still from Anita.

4. Anita

It would seem an impossible mission to evoke the unparalleled charisma of the late Canto-pop singer and actress Anita Mui Yim-fong, but Louise Wong Dan-nei, a fashion model, embraces the challenge and nearly nails her part in this mesmerising musical biopic. This is a simultaneously uplifting and mournful portrait of a true Hong Kong icon who earned her place through a combination of sheer willpower and unbridled compassion. Read the full review
Lam Ka-tung (left) and Cya Liu in a still from Limbo

3. Limbo

With this monochromatic murder thriller set in a city rotten to the ground, Soi Cheang Pou-soi appears ready to return to the artistic vision that at one point made him a strong candidate to become Hong Kong’s next world-class filmmaker. Next to spectacular sets of rain-soaked, rubbish-strewn alleys, the star of this tale of salvation is really the Chinese actress Cya Liu Ya-se, whose display of desperation stays with you like a living nightmare. Read the full review
Loletta Lee (left) and Francis Ng in a still from Drifting.

2. Drifting

The everyday life of an often neglected community of homeless people in Sham Shui Po – Hong Kong’s poorest district – is portrayed with quiet compassion, dry humour and a great ear for authentic dialogue in Drifting, a minor masterpiece among the recent wave of local films about poverty, ageing, gentrification, and social injustice. Francis Ng Chun-yu stands out with his best performance in years as a grumpy middle-aged man fresh out of prison. Read the full review
Ann Hui in a still from the documentary Keep Rolling.

1. Keep Rolling

One of the greatest directors in Hong Kong film history receives the close-up profile she has long deserved with this enthralling documentary. An insightful, deeply personal and surprisingly funny look at the life and work of Ann Hui, Keep Rolling – which marks the feature directing debut of Man Lim-chung – is peppered with candour, humour and unexpected poignancy. A must-see for fans of Hong Kong cinema. Read the full review
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