RSS Feed
YumCha! » Feature Articles

Hong Kong Cinema and The Moment

Written by Sean M. Tierney Tell a Friend

Someone once asked me what I liked so much about Hong Kong cinema. What, they wondered, could possibly be so great about it that I bought them by the hundreds? I thought about it for a moment, and then I told them: There's always The Moment.

In just about every Hong Kong movie I've ever seen, there is at least one moment that propels me out of my seat, sometimes literally. It can often be as subtle as a remark made by an actor (any Stephen Chow Sing Chi movie), an unexpected camera movement (Big Bullet), an especially visceral stunt (Full Alert's motorcycle "landing"), or a blown stunt that looks so good (read: painful) that it is left in the film, occasionally shown more than once (Tiger on Beat, Prince of Temple Street, Tragic Fantasy).

Sometimes it is something so out of the ordinary for my American orientation that I react instinctively. In Hollywood, children are never in harm's way. But in Hong Kong films like All of a Sudden, The Untold Story, Run and Kill and others (even non-Category III), children are not safe at all. In one of the Conman movies, a small child in leg braces is pushed down an escalator. I have seen children in Hong Kong movies be threatened, injured, tortured, killed, and, in Run and Kill, worse (trust me).

Hong Kong cinema's portrayal of people of African descent is equally hit or miss. In some of the most jarring moments of Hong Kong cinema, seemingly random incidences of blatantly stereotypical portrayals rear their ugly head and are gone in an instant. Love Generation Hong Kong's final romantic plot twist involves Leon Lai rushing to the airport to stop a woman whose love he (unknowingly) refused from going to America, to marry "a Negro." When he is told about this plan by the girl's brother, Leon asks how the brother can allow this and whether he is sick. Then he punches him. I don't enjoy these moments, but I certainly do notice them. They happen just often enough, and without any warning, that you may want to think twice about who you see them with. On the bright side, the global spread of hip-hop has helped change attitudes somewhat; in My Loving Trouble 7, Sandra Ng Kwun Yu is surprised to find that she is attractive even to Black men. I'm not saying that I find these things entertaining (though sometimes I do). I'm saying that they leave an impression on me by virtue of their portrayal, content, and delivery. They are Moments.

The moments are not always negative; often they are romantic. In A Chinese Ghost Story 3, Joey Wang watches a frightened Tony Leung Chiu Wai run through a dark forest, in fear for his life. She smiles, and the first time I saw it (and every time since), I felt as though it would be a wonderful thing to be the subject of that smile. If a woman ever smiled that way about me, my life would be a significant bit more complete. And I'd be immeasurably happy. In The Truth About Jane and Sam, the ending is the perfect close to a touching, yet admittedly saccharine film. The same can be said of Metade Fumaca; what ought to be a truly sad moment for Eric Tsang Chi Wai is instead a source of wistful happiness for both his character and the audience. Elvis Tsui Kam Kong's performance in Viva Erotica as a Category III actor struggling to support his family is a wonderfully subtle yet powerful portrayal; that it reflects perhaps too closely the actor's life only adds to the weight of it.

Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels features a moment both romantic and salacious enough to truly earn the label erotic; a lovelorn Michele Reis silently yet movingly expresses her unrequited love for Leon Lai through an unabashed display of physical yearning on his bed. It is both poignant and dirty, yet never less than equally so. A less libidinous, though equally transfixing moment comes in the final seconds of They Came to Rob Hong Kong; Kara Hui Ying Hung walks towards the camera, relaxed, lithe, and composed in the midst of chaos. Her expression, half beckoning and half contemptuous smirk, is virtually hypnotic. That the film ends by freezing this image only makes its impact that much more significant. Admittedly, as a man I am perhaps more prone to the female side of such portrayals; the image of Christy Chung in The Bride with White Hair 2, her first role, is indelibly fixed in my mind: she is sitting by a fire, a rough-hewn cigar dangling from those lips. That such a feat is possible in this film is extraordinary, because it stars Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, the uncontested master of The Look. Her gaze, when it is fixed upon whatever object is lucky (or unlucky) enough to be its recipient, probably stops traffic outside the theatre. Even without any zoom or freeze, her gaze transfixes the screen. Many are those Moments, and all are divine.

I imagine a woman might say the same thing about any number of iconic moments of Hong Kong's male actors; I have been told, and can see, that Tony Leung Chiu Wai has an effect on women that is devastating. Many are the moments that his gaze, or even his visage, has reduced women to near hysteria. Which is all well and good, except that he didn't buy the dinner and the movie tickets; I did! But to follow (albeit at a safe distance) this line of reasoning, there are innumerable moments in Hong Kong films where even I can acknowledge that the hyperreality of cinema creates a universe where I shall never live (but I hope someone does). The entrance of Ekin Cheng and Louis Koo early on in For Bad Boys Only is trite, overblown, and brimming with hubris. At the same time, it forces me to acknowledge that I will never, ever be that handsome or cool. No one ever really will. But these guys come darn close. And that's before Shu Qi falls for one of them! I have compulsively chewed toothpicks all of my adult life; I will never look as cool as Chow Yun Fat does in Hard Boiled when, with the raise of an eyebrow and casual wave of a pistol, he tells his partner to leave it to him to finish the bad guy.

Cinema allows us a glimpse into a world where things are not real, and hence are often different, and better, than they are. In movies, conflict can be resolved directly, quickly, and without moral or legal repercussions. In Fruit Chan's The Longest Summer, Sam Lee Chan Sam makes short work of an obnoxious young girl in a novel and uniquely Hong Kong manner. It made me cheer out loud. In my own living room. And she deserved it. A popular theme in Hong Kong movies is friendship. The responsibilities engendered by being someone's heng dai (buddy) lead to some of the most violent, touching, and rewarding moments in Hong Kong cinema. In The Blood Rules, the final meeting between Lam Suet and Wong Tin Lam, driven as it is by vengeance, is one of the most satisfying (non-) surprises I've seen in a long time. The climax of A War Named Desire features a sacrifice made for friendship that is bloody, violent, and deeply touching. In Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law, a gang member is remembered by his friends not with the traditional Chinese offerings of fruit and incense, but with McDonald's food and cigarettes; such a simple statement, coming as it does from very simple characters, speaks volumes about the Hong Kong of the 1980s and how it affected those outside (and inside) it.

Other moments in Hong Kong film illustrate the often bittersweet nature of the consequences of friendship. In Full Throttle, Chin Kar Lok appears to have escaped a harrowing crash unscathed. That this is not the case is brought home to us through a moment both visually interesting and emotionally piercing. Similar to this is Chapman To Man Chat's fate in Infernal Affairs. But here, it is both leavened and made more poignant by yet another display of his character's good-natured simplicity. Occasionally, the intersection of love and violence result in moments that are as emotionally romantic as they are visually repugnant. In Bullets of Love, Asata Seko's climactic act of contrition is equal parts devotion and destruction; we are left with a highly conflicting set of motivations, actions, and consequences.

Some of Hong Kong's cinema's moments get their power from evoking or showing us a Hong Kong that is no more. Sandra Ng Kwun Yu's Golden Chicken gained much of its appeal for the local audience by reminding them (and the rest of us)of Hong Kong of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Some of the best moments are when we see a very young television actor named Chow Yun Fat; it is like watching Mean Streets and remembering how young Robert Deniro once was. The landscape of Hong Kong changes so fast that movies often capture things that are no longer there; the Yun Lai Teahouse of Hard Boiled fame is long gone; so too is Kai Tak airport. This airport, nestled none too comfortably in the middle of Kowloon, provided one of the most exciting landings in peacetime aviation. Just how close did Kowloon City encroach on the runway? Watch Running on Empty, The Iceman Cometh, or Love Generation Hong Kong and you will see.

Hong Kong cinema was, and still is, an expression of a people and a place that is like no other on earth. The depiction and delivery of those expressions is likewise unique. Like any cinema, Hong Kong has produced its share of films that, if missed, are no great loss. But even these films have, somewhere in them, a bright shining Moment that makes the other one hundred and twenty nine and a half minutes bearable. Hong Kong's better films are rife with Moments; their cumulative effect is to transport us to a place where magic is commonplace, love is perfect and justice is always done. In a city of incomprehensible complexity, movement and stimuli, Hong Kong's best films exceed the explosive profusion of their home city and take us into another universe where great Moments are just the way it is.

Published September 2, 2005

Mentioned Products

  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
 Change Preferences 
Please enable cookies in your browser to experience all the features of our site, including the ability to make a purchase.
Cookie Preferences Close

We use data cookies to store your online preferences and collect information. You can use this interface to enable or disable sets of cookies with varying functions.

These cookies are required to use core website features and are automatically enabled when you use the site. They also enable use of the Shopping Cart and Checkout processes, assist in regulatory and security issues, measure traffic and visits, and retrieve order information for affiliate commissions. We use the information collected to evaluate and improve the performance of your shopping experience.
These cookies are used to deliver advertisements that are more relevant to you and your interests. Marketing Cookies are placed by third-party providers with our permission, and any information collected may be shared with other organizations such as publishers or advertisers.
These cookies enable us to provide better services based on how users use our website, and allow us to improve our features to deliver better user experience. Information collected is aggregated and anonymous.