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Kung Hei Fat Choy: Lunar New Year Films in Hong Kong Cinema

Written by Fiona Law Tell a Friend

Whenever Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year) comes around, the whole of Hong Kong is wrapped in festive red and gold decorations in celebration of a big day of money and laughter. Red pockets (or lai see, red envelopes filled with money), family gatherings, homecoming feasts, and all kinds of traditional cuisine and customs characterize this holiday season. The most important festival in Chinese society, Lunar New Year is also a time for relaxing entertainment during the long holiday - shopping malls may be closed, but never the cinema. Just as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street have been the Christmas canons, romantic comedies the chocolates for Valentine's Day, and disposable horror like Scream the Halloween must-sees, there has been a Hong Kong tradition of Lunar New Year films ever since the 1950s.

Cantonese opera oldies like Prosperity Knocks (1957), Love Follows Fortune (1959), and New Year's Greetings (1961), all starring Yam Kim Fai, are without doubt some of the early founders of this festive cinematic entertainment. Many critics, film scholars, and international audiences agree that kung fu films, police and triad action films, and nonsense comedies are representative features of Hong Kong cinema in the world stage, but they may have overlooked the popularity of Lunar New Year films, mainly targeted for the local audience at that special time every year.

Lunar New Year films, or hor sui pin in Cantonese (he sui pian in Mandarin), refer to the joyously made comedies released during Lunar New Year. Since many of these films win the annual box office, they are usually expected to be blockbusters before their release. Lunar New Year films are mainly divided into two categories, ensemble films and action films, both of which are under the wider category of comedy in general. As festive customs emphasize a sense of togetherness and family unity, these films are characterized by highly expectable happy endings - lovers get married, quarrels resolved, villains punished, fortunes made. Such cinematic happiness is blended together with the audience's enjoyment and the carnivalesque holiday mood. Here I will unfold the story of Hong Kong's Lunar New Year mega-hits from the 1980s to 2000s.

The 1980s: Aces Go Places in a Mad Mad World

It is without doubt the establishment of production company Cinema City in 1980 that laid down the popular style of Hong Kong cinema as spectacular entertainment in the 1980s. Its production Aces Go Places, released during the Lunar New Year in 1982, met with blockbuster success, and many sequels (Aces Go Places II, Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street, Aces Go Places IV, and Aces Go Places V) followed in the subsequent years.

Aces Go Places, starring Canto-pop singer Sam Hui and comedic actor Karl Mak, revolved around westernized plotlines about odd partners (Hui as the local cop and Karl Maka as an FBI investigator) finding ways to capture their eternal enemy - the evil and wacky White Glove gang. The mega-budget Aces Go Places productions attracted local audiences with parodic references to Hollywood blockbusters and spectacular action scenes involving modern vehicles like helicopters, motorcars, motorbikes, and even innovative flying machines. A mixture of gorgeous stunts and slapstick humor, these films also started off the tradition of festive mega-hits as local holiday entertainment.

The action film trend also bolstered Jackie Chan to great fame in this decade. After the festive release of Dragon Lord during the 1982 Lunar New Year, Chan, as the young and heroic kung fu master, traveled around the world with his friends to beat villains. His 1980s action films included My Lucky Stars (1985), an adventure with Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in Japan; Armour of God (1987), an Indiana Jones-like journey with Canto-pop singer Alan Tam; and Dragons Forever (1988), again co-starring Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. While all these films have obvious intertextual references with mainstream Hollywood productions of the time like the Indiana Jones series, they also collage with classic western elements, and the comic interactions among the characters are akin to that of the Three Stooges. The lonely heroes from the earlier Shaw Brothers action films of Chang Cheh no longer existed; instead, heroes fight in a comic ensemble in festive films.

Ensemble films are most widely found as family comedies. Like family dinner on New Year's Eve, the Lunar New Year cinematic experience is best when it involves as many family members as possible. Clifton Ko's comparatively small-budgeted It's a Mad Mad World attracted surprisingly huge box office numbers in 1987, thanks to its warmhearted story about a lower middle class family, led by Lydia Shum and Bill Tung, winning the lottery. The excitement of winning the Mark Six (the lottery in Hong Kong) and getting millions of dollars has always been the dream of every Hong Konger, and the general fear of 1997 during the 1980s also made emigration another common dream at the time.

Concerns about contemporary issues are also comically and parodically portrayed in the two sequels (It's a Mad Mad World II in 1988 and It's a Mad Mad World III in 1989) released in the following Lunar New Years. I have to say the It's a Mad Mad World series are the festive must-sees if one wants to experience traditional Lunar New Year customs on screen, since they are all honestly and joyfully performed by Bill Tung's family in this dream-come-true trilogy.

Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s also flourished with a number of other Lunar New Year films, like family comedies My Family (1986) and Eighth Happiness (1988), Michael Hui comic features Teppanyaki (1984) and Mr. Coconut (1989), the sci-fi styled Kung Hei Fat Choy (1985), and the epic ensemble The Millionaires' Express (1986). All these festive Lunar New Year films highlighted the filmmakers' bold attempts to seek creativity without abandoning commercial concerns, and marked the beginning of an energetic reinvention of Hong Kong cinema.

All's Well End's Well in the Hilarious 1990s

The 1990s can be regarded as both the peak and the downfall of Hong Kong cinema - the former is found in the first half of the decade and the latter the second half. Lunar New Year films in this decade were mainly dominated by a couple of stars, particularly Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. It became an established phenomenon to have one Jackie Chan film every year after the international success of Rumble in the Bronx (1995), which was followed by First Strike (1996), Mr. Nice Guy (1997), Who Am I? (1998), and romantic comedy Gorgeous (1999). Jackie Chan's annual appearance was like a festive trademark among local audiences who were absorbed by his stunt performances and beautiful on-location productions in various countries, with storylines related to international terrorists and criminals.

On the other hand, family comedies continued to rule the other half of the festive selections, especially with the hilariously made All's Well End's Well (1992) by Clifton Ko, who was already famous for making Lunar New Year comedies. This canonical film is about the romantic encounters of three brothers, played by Raymond Wong Bak Ming, Leslie Cheung, and Stephen Chow. They get themselves into different kinds of screwball troubles that are all solved in a joyous chorus at the end, resembling the grand closures in Cantonese oldies of the 1960s. The happy ending is not the only funny and satisfying part, as the brothers' troublemaking process and their elderly parents' whimsical reactions are also farcical and ludicrously entertaining. There are also humorous parodies of Hollywood icons like Madonna, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and Demi Moore in Ghost, all performed by Maggie Cheung's crazed character who falls in love with Stephen Chow.

All's Well End's Well received overwhelming box office success and positive audience response (even now the film is still occasionally shown on TV during the holidays). Ko followed up with some other ensemble comedies with similar casts, including All's Well End's Well Too (1993), It's a Wonderful Life (1994), All's Well End's Well '97 (1997), and Ninth Happiness (1998), in the following Lunar New Years. But these later family comedies did not receive as much applause as those of the earlier years, partly because mo lei tou (nonsensical) comedies had come into vogue.

Stephen Chow is doubtlessly the pioneer of mo lei tou comedies. The success of All's Well End's Well pushed Chow to the peak of his career as a comedian, and nearly every Lunar New Year of the 1990s was his laughing place. Films like Fight Back to School III (1993), Love on Delivery (1994), A Chinese Odyssey Parts I & II (1995), Forbidden City Cop (1996), and King of Comedy (1999) all found enormous success. It is indeed true that laughter is the essential festive element for everyone regardless of age and gender. Ask any Hong Konger in the street, and you will find that Chow's cool facial expressions, quick-witted humor, and famous verbal wordplay from these early mo lei tou comedies are still classic festive entertainment for local families.

Other than Clifton Ko, there were also directors who attempted to experiment with new types of Lunar New Year films. Tsui Hark's The Chinese Feast (1995) and Tri-Star (1996) are two festive pictures worth seeing as the excitement of his famous fast-pace editing and action sequences are beautifully mingled with festive narratives about reconciliation and family reunion.

Another key figure is Jeffrey Lau. Before making A Chinese Odyssey (1995), an influential postmodern subversion of the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West (this film later aroused heated discussions among university students in Beijing), Lau made the farcical festive comedy The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993). A bold attempt to make use of Jin Yong's martial arts novel to tell a completely different story, the film employed the completely same group of actors and actresses as Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time, itself also an alternative interpretation of the same novel. The film's Chinese title Dong Cheng Xi Jiu also mocks Ashes of Time's Chinese title, Dong Xie Xi Du. With bizarre and excessively exaggerated comedy, The Eagle Shooting Heroes can be categorized as an underestimated cult classic.

Lunar New Year Films in the 2000s

After all these years, what will happen to the cinematic tradition of Lunar New Year films as the number of local productions keep declining every year? Well, it is indeed hard to tell. Entering the 21st century, Clifton Ko, Jackie Chan, and Stephen Chow disappeared from the Lunar New Year period, while some other directors emerged to fill the spot with festive films: Vincent Kuk's Marry a Rich Man (2002) and My Lucky Star (2003); Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's Wu Yen (2001), Fat Choi Spirit (2002), and Love for All Season (2003); Wai Ka Fai's Fantasia (2004), Himalaya Singh (2005), and The Shopaholics (2006); and Ronald Cheng's It's a Wonderful Life (2007). All these works exhibit a new interest in Lunar New Year films, as family comedies and adventurous action films are gradually replaced by a wider range of motifs like urban romance, nostalgic reflection, feng shui, mahjong, psychological disorder, and even Indian philosophy.

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Published February 23, 2007

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