Hong Kong cinema, from John Woo to Johnnie To

As Manchester's HOME begins its wide-reaching Hong Kong crime film season – Crime: Hong Kong Style – one writer looks back on his introduction to the city's cinema masters, from John Woo to Wong Kar-wai

Preview by Alan Bett | 01 Feb 2016

I have a confession to make. An interest to declare, you might say. Dante Lam saved my life. Indulge this overly dramatic exaggeration a little. You see, around 15 years ago, as a young cinephile, my interest in movies was waning. I fostered a naïve and juvenile belief that I’d experienced all the silver screen had to offer. Then, while wandering Shanghai’s back streets on a trip to China, I came across a DVD shop with pirated films stacked high, wrapped in cheap photocopied covers and cellophane. Most bore only alien-looking Chinese characters. Only one title was in English. It picked me.

The film was Beast Cops, its cover as exhilarating as the translation of its title was dubious, with the über-cool Anthony Wong sporting guns, shades and attitude. Co-directed by Dante Lam, this was my first true taste of Hong Kong crime cinema, spurring an obsession that lives on to this day, where the opening jingles of distributors Golden Harvest or China Star still initiate Pavlovian drooling. It's an obsession that has introduced me to many of the legendary directors featured in Crime: Hong Kong Style, HOME’s expertly curated festival, screening from February to April at the Manchester cinema.

There is something truly special about Hong Kong crime cinema. For this UK viewer, it held an exoticism lacking from the Hollywood movies I had tired of. The works of filmmakers such as John Woo, Derek Yee, Andrew Lau and Wong Jing offered an unfamiliar set of cultural norms and genre conventions alongside the breathtaking visual backdrop of Hong Kong itself. It was a tale of two cities: a bustling ant hill of traditional lives flowing around iconic modern skyscrapers and a vertical landscape of glass, steel, steam and neon. A cultural dichotomy. Of course, it was an imagined reality – one of bubble-permed femmes fatales in ankle-length trench coats and hard-guys wearing shades and crumpled suits – but I believed and chased it on initial visits to Hong Kong.

 Glasgow Film Festival 2016 programme announced

 Johnnie To: The Godfather of Hong Kong Gangster Cinema

There were also familiar touchstones on screen. Chow Yun-fat often embodied every recognisable action flick stereotype: for example, the match-chewing, jazz-loving cop refusing to play by the rules, named Tequila, of course, in John Woo's Hard Boiled. It was hardly a short shuffle from Lethal Weapon or the likes, but Hong Kong cinema was always willing to shift into that higher gear. Tiger on the Beat plays by all the mismatched buddy cop rules until a duelling chainsaw fight finale, the kind of scene Hollywood filmmakers wouldn’t have the chutzpah or abandon to even consider. John Woo’s Hard Boiled was even more insane, adding a wardful of live human babies to the hospital-set carnage of its final chapter. There were always more bad guys and more bullets, from guns which refused to click empty... until the final face-off.

A shop off Temple Street in Hong Kong’s densely populous Mong Kok District is where I began to chase my fix, on near-annual visits, and fill my suitcase with cinematic bounty: from modern classics such as Felix Chong and Alan Mak’s Overheard trilogy (all playing at HOME, with Chong in town for a Q&A on 4 Mar), Ringo Lam’s Full Contact and Dante Lam’s Stool Pigeon, to cult classics like As Tears Go By (4 Feb), an early work from arthouse master Wong Kar-wai, who in many ways transcends the genre while still thankfully dragging his feet in its gutter.

While visiting the shop, someone behind the counter thrust a film into my hands, solemnly nodded and demanded in broken English, “You must watch this.” The film was Johnnie To’s Election (21 Mar). Coincidentally enough, the shop was right opposite the night-market location of the blood-drenched opening to Ringo Lam classic City on Fire. Hong Kong is a living, breathing film set, so stumbling upon such iconic locations is less difficult than it might sound. And it’s hardly unusual to bump into crews filming in the more traditional neighbourhoods, from Yau Ma Tei to Sham Shui Po.

City on Fire is perfect proof that while Hollywood crime films heavily influenced Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and 90s, there has always been a cross pollination (festival curator Andy Willis will explain this fully during the one-hour session From Hong Kong to Hollywood on 25 Feb). A young Quentin Tarantino used the film as an absolute template for Reservoir Dogs, with scenes occasionally lifted wholesale: the double-handed squib-popping gun-burst through a cop car windshield, the final Mexican standoff. And, of course, The Departed (22 Feb) – the film to finally win Martin Scorsese his best director's Oscar – is a loose and messy remake of Andrew Lau’s tight and perfectly symmetrical Infernal Affairs trilogy (the first of which screens at HOME on 7 Mar).

That’s not to say the Hong Kong crime film is perfect. We often only see the wheat in the UK, with the chaff sieved out, deemed undeserving of translation and transfer. There is an obsession with crime and specifically triad gangsters – it disproportionately dominates Hong Kong's cinematic output and the films occasionally sit a little too close to their subject matter. In 1990, leading lady Carina Lau was abducted by gangsters while filming the Wong Kar-wai classic Days of Being Wild. Inappropriate pictures were forcibly taken of her as punishment for her refusal to act in a triad-backed movie. Other films are simple thug hagiographies, such as Casino, the self-financed and produced biopic of Macau godfather Broken Tooth Koi. Yet those stories based upon true crime and crims can also be carried out with style and verve – see award-winning films such as To Be Number One (13 Mar).

There is a strong cultural context to this criminal fascination. The ancient triad brotherhoods flourished in post-WWII Hong Kong as flocks of migrants banded together for safety and strength. “They would talk about honour and be in situations defending their gangster boss,” Johnnie To – the godfather of Hong Kong gangster cinema – told me last year in an interview, “so it would come that they would have very heroic attributes and would start talking and acting as if they were heroes.” Legends grew from here and the film industry set them in celluloid. “In the early days of Hong Kong cinema,” he said, “a lot of stories were about heroes and heroic attributes and a lot of cinema therefore became about the gangsters and the triads, the brotherhood.”

HOME’s festival – the biggest yet of Hong Kong film in the UK – will draw out the fans, the geeks and obsessives such as myself. Yet the genre is so exhilarating, fun and ultimately accessible that it should also baptise a fresh audience in bullets. Let HOME be that shop assistant who thrust Johnnie To’s classic film into my hands. Let them do the same for the wonderful collection of films they are offering during Crime: Hong Kong Style. Let them present Hong Kong’s biggest stars – from the internationally recognisable faces of Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung to the connoisseur’s choices: Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Nick Cheung. Finally, let them introduce you, through exclusive UK premiere screenings of two new films, to highly influential directors who have helped to shape the genre: Ringo Lam (Wild City, 18 Feb) and Dante Lam (That Demon Within1 Apr) – the man who saved my life.

The full programme is available on HOME's website. Here are three top picks alongside expert reasoning from the festival's curator, Andy Willis:

The Classic: Election

“Johnnie To is one of the most important and successful filmmakers working in Hong Kong today and Election remains one of his most significant films. It was important to include one of his crime films in the season and this one is particularly interesting in the ways it intersects with issues facing Hong Kong since its reunification with the People's Republic of China.”

21 Mar, 6.10pm

The Cult Movie: As Tears Go By

“Wong Kar-wai is one of Hong Kong's best-known directors and his debut, As Tears Go By, is of particular interest for the season because it also operates as a triad movie – which is one of the most popular cycles within the crime genre in Hong Kong.”

4 Feb, 6.15pm

The Forgotten Gem: Too Many Ways to be Number 1

“I was really keen to include this as it is not well known enough by UK audiences. It is directed by longtime Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka-fai, who is a brilliantly inventive filmmaker in his own right. It is a very dark comedy, which appeals to me, and I love the performance from lead actor Lau Ching-wan, who appears in a number of films in the season.”

15 Mar, 6.20pm

Crime: Hong Kong Style runs at Home Manchester Feb-Apr