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Handover Plus 10 - Emerging Young Filmmakers in Post-Handover Hong Kong

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

It's been ten years since Hong Kong was returned from British sovereignty to China, and it has been an eventful decade - the SARS crisis, the economic recession, numerous political scandals, and the downturn of Hong Kong cinema. The number of Hong Kong film productions has gradually decreased from a peak of over 200 a year in its heyday to just below 50 today. Hong Kong cinema has definitely seen better days. Nevertheless, many talented young filmmakers have emerged in the past decade, creating a new voice for modern Hong Kong cinema while ensuring its future as well.


The Genre Boys - New Talents for Proven Formulas

The "genre" label may be associated with "formula", but good directors use genre rules to their advantage, and that's exactly what some of Hong Kong's new filmmakers have done. Soi Cheang made his feature-length debut in 1999 with Our Last Day, but his breakout came in 2001 with the horror film Horror Hotline - Big Head Monster and its follow-up New Blood, effectively chilling pieces that go straight for the scares. Cheang also tried crossing genre lines with the entertaining horror-comedy The Death Curse and sci-fi comedy Hidden Heroes, but his best film to date is the 2004 old-school action thriller Love Battlefield. Violent but ultimately affecting, Love Battlefield takes the "innocent man in crisis" formula and creates a gripping urban thriller with powerful performances.


Sticking to genre conventions, Cheang most recently took on the exploitation action genre with Dog Bite Dog, a punishing and violent film that features Edison Chen in his most anti-idol role yet. It also has gritty action sequences and some of the most stylish visuals in recent Hong Kong cinema. Building on Dog Bite Dog's critical success, Cheang hopes to do what he did for Edison Chen with former model Shawn Yue in the adaptation of the violent Japanese comic Shamo, currently set for a summer 2007 release.


While Cheang made two exceptional horror films, the filmmakers truly responsible for re-igniting Hong Kong audience's love for horror are of course twin brothers Danny and Oxide Pang. Born in Hong Kong, the Pang Brothers got their start in the Thailand film industry and began directing as a team in 1999 on the Thai action film Bangkok Dangerous, for which they are also directing a Hollywood remake. Previously, Danny was an editor on high-profile Hong Kong films such as The Storm Riders and the Infernal Affairs trilogy, while Oxide directed solo in 1997's Who is Running. In 2002, they teamed up again for their Hong Kong directorial debut, The Eye, starring Angelica Lee. Combining stylish visuals with a talent for scaring audiences, The Eye became one of the biggest horror hits in Hong Kong's post-Handover years, effectively resurrecting the horror genre. The Eye franchise continued for two more films, while the brothers worked on solo outings such as Danny's Leave Me Alone and Oxide's Abnormal Beauty. In 2006, they returned to the supernatural horror genre with the summer hit Re-Cycle, again starring Angelica Lee, followed by their Hollywood debut The Messengers. Although they have explored other genres in their solo directorial efforts, such as Oxide's psychological thriller Diary and Danny's supernatural mystery Forest of Death, the prolific Pang Brothers continue to be the go-to name for Hong Kong horror.


In the Arthouse - Embracing Film as Art

The post-Handover period has seen a rise in commercial filmmakers due to the shrinking market, but there are also a few directors who have managed to find critical acclaim. The most successful of these arthouse directors is Fruit Chan, who made his directorial debut in 1991's Finale in Blood. However, his break came with 1997's Made in Hong Kong, a gritty take on aimless youngsters in the Hong Kong public estates. Working as an assistant director, Chan spent years collecting unused film on sets until he finally had enough to shoot his own film. Using non-professionals (including a plucked-off-the-street Sam Lee) and even his five crew members as actors, Chan's ultra low-budget film rocked the Hong Kong film industry, winning acclaim worldwide and signaling a new wave of independent filmmaking. Chan spent the following three years completing his "Handover Trilogy", with the urban epic The Longest Summer (produced by Andy Lau, who also helped distribute Made in Hong Kong) and the comedy Little Cheung both completed without major financiers and at low budgets.


Chan's ability to blend neorealism with the surreal has made him a unique director perfect for the arthouse circuit, and he continued to garner awards and acclaim with films like Durian Durian, Hollywood Hong Kong, and Public Toilet. But even the most independent of directors have to work with the studios eventually. In 2004, Chan made his studio film debut with Dumplings, the Hong Kong entry for the Three: Extremes omnibus film. Thankfully, Chan managed to maintain his style with a creepy mix of gothic horror and social realism without losing mainstream sensibility. Since then, Chan has continued to explore other formats and styles. His latest, the short film Xi'an Story, is part of the first ever project to produce short films exclusively for mobile phones in China.


One of the filmmakers Chan has given way to is Wong Ching-Po. Starting out in the design field, Wong bought a camera and made a short film on his own in 1997, and ended up winning the best dramatic film award at a short film competition. Soon, he received grants from the government to make two more short films, attracting the attention of veteran Hong Kong cinema figure Eric Tsang. With Lee Kung-Lok, they made their first feature film Fu Bo, a grim tale of a mortician and the people he encounters. His next film was significantly bigger - a big-budget gangster movie starring two of Hong Kong's biggest stars, Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. 2004's Jiang Hu tells, over the course of one night, the story of two small-time thugs on their way to an assassination while a mob boss contemplates his fate. Using a screenplay written by college student To Chi-Long, Wong tells a conventional story with unconventional flair, opting for the surreal over reality.


Even though Jiang Hu delivered on the stylish visuals promised in the trailer, the risky storytelling baffled mainstream audiences. Nevertheless, the film earned Wong the Best New Director award at the Hong Kong Film Awards the following year, and he returned to filmmaking a year later with the triad drama Ah Sou. Despite the film having a high-caliber cast of Tsang, Simon Yam, and Anthony Wong, among others, audiences continued to find Wong's distant storytelling style difficult to approach. Wong is perhaps the epitome of the untamed young maverick director - a filmmaker with an ambitious vision, but without the maturity or the audience to make it into reality. Since Ah Sou, Wong has decided to spend time away from filmmaking. He did take the producer position for Fu Bo co-director Lee Kung-Lok's 2006 directorial debut My Mother is a Belly Dancer, an affecting urban drama about normal housewives who decide to take up belly dancing.


A Cinematic Tightrope - Between Genre and Art

While some young directors have chosen to follow genre or arthouse ambitions, others have moved between familiar traditions and personal vision. One of these directors is Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung. Beginning his career as a novelist (his novel Fulltime Hitman was adapted into the hit action film co-directed by Johnnie To), Pang made his feature debut with the dark satire You Shoot I Shoot, quickly establishing his career as a talented comedic director with a twisted world view. Since then, Pang has made comedies that stuck to commercial genre borders such as AV and Men Suddenly in Black (in which he even managed to blend two popular genres - the Hollywood cops-and-robbers genre and the Hong Kong sex comedy).


But once in a while, Pang also crosses over to the realm of art cinema. His first attempt was 2004's Beyond Our Ken, a drama about two women's journey to recover compromising photos from one of the woman's ex-boyfriend. Beyond Our Ken was missing much of the comedy seen in Pang's first two films, but it did see his usual non-linear narrative and ending twist. It also showed an uglier side of young love and female bonding that audiences who went for Twin's Gillian Chung may have found a little too close for comfort. Pang's second attempt at arthouse, Isabella, is also his most ambitious film. A story about a corrupt Macau policeman who meets his teenage daughter for the first time, Isabella explores themes of regret and reconciliation with elegant camerawork, unexpected comedy, and an award-winning score. Some accused Pang of making Isabella for award committees (though it didn't receive any major recognition, except for Peter Kam's score and actress Isabella Leong's performance), but it remains Pang's most mature film to date. The year 2007 sees Pang returning to his most successful genre of dark comedy with Exodus and Now Showing.


Wilson Yip may now be best known as the director of recent Donnie Yen action vehicles Dragon Tiger Gate and SPL, but he is actually one of the most versatile directors working in Hong Kong today. He's done horror (Bio-Zombie), blockbuster action (Skyline Cruisers, 2002), romance (Leaving Me Loving You, Dry Wood Fierce Fire), and even over-the-top period action-comedy (The White Dragon). But his best films remain the genre he has not visited for far too long - character dramas. His first effort in that vein, Bullets Over Summer, offers a subversion of the action genre by placing its hard-boiled protagonists in the most mundane situation possible - a stakeout in an elderly woman's apartment. The result is a rare action drama that places its focus on character development instead of action. His next film, Juliet in Love, also places its two characters inside an isolated environment, except this time Yip turns a gangster film into a sobering romance between two damaged souls. The result is an even more affecting and heartbreaking film that shows Yip's directorial abilities. However, with summer 2007 bringing the release of Flash Point, his third collaboration with Donnie Yen, Yip seems to have found a new niche to explore.


Writers to Directors

The past ten years have also seen established screenwriters becoming directors of major Hong Kong films. James Yuen first found fame as the writer of A Moment of Romance and He's a Woman, She's a Man. While working under Peter Chan's production company UFO, he made his feature debut in 1997 with The Wedding Days. Since then, he has directed ten films, including the charming romantic comedy Your Place or Mine, the entertaining comedy-drama Crazy N' The City, and the triad thriller Heavenly Mission, with the latter two recognized as "Recommended Films" by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Yuen has also continued to help pen some of Hong Kong's best dramas in recent years, such as Lost in Time and My Name is Fame.


Law Chi-Leung served as screenwriter for Full Throttle, Viva Erotica, and Fly Me to Polaris before breaking out as a director in 2000 with the action drama Double Tap. His next two films, horror Inner Senses and thriller Koma, both starring Karena Lam, were carefully constructed suspense dramas delving into the human psyche. After sidestepping briefly with the youth romance Bug Me Not, he returned to the crime thriller and his leading lady in 2007 with Kidnap. Another up-and-comer is Patrick Kong, whose latest film Love is Not All Around found great success at the Hong Kong box office. Along with Marriage with a Fool and My Sweeties, the budding director is quickly making a name for himself with urban romance titles, although prior to directing, his writing credits varied from gangster drama Portland Street Blues and indie film Leaving in Sorrow to comedies My Lucky Star and Super Model.


Perhaps the most commercially successful example of the screenwriter-cum-director though is Alan Mak. He directed the playfully inventive Rave Fever and Nude Fear before finally directing his own screenplay for his third film, A War Named Desire, an intensely entertaining action thriller set in Thailand. He then made two more forgettable small films before writing the screenplay that would define his career - Infernal Affairs. The screenplay was picked up by director Andrew Lau, and Mak became the co-creator of the most successful film franchise of post-Handover Hong Kong. Unfazed by success, Mak continued to collaborate with Lau on two additional Infernal Affairs titles, the comic adaptation Initial D, and the crime film Confession of Pain. Mak also directed a film without Andrew Lau in 2005, the dark comedy Moonlight in Tokyo, bringing on Infernal Affairs co-writer Felix Chong instead.


Really, It's Not That Bad

People have pessimistically predicted that Hong Kong cinema's decline in the number of productions is an indicator of a slow death for the once-golden industry. But there are still so many names I have neglected to mention, like actor-turned-directors Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu, Ronald Cheng, and Lam Chi Chung and female directors Barbara Wong, Carol Lai, and Yan Yan Mak, in addition to the many filmmaking veterans who are continuing to make great films. Considering the depth of talent that still exists, Hong Kong cinema actually has a bright future ahead. With the government's new US$38.5 million fund to aid productions, along with numerous co-production opportunities coming in from Mainland China and industry initiatives like Andy Lau's "Focus: First Cuts" project, the Hong Kong industry can truly afford to remain optimistic. The last decade might not have been the most prosperous period in Hong Kong cinema, but judging from the output and the filmmakers that have emerged, it was certainly a wild ten years.


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Published July 9, 2007


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