Made in Hong Kong – A Guide to Cinema in Hong Kong

You know that guy at your local DVD rental store who thinks he knows everything about movies? Read this article and next time you go in, name drop a few of the people in it. He’ll probably treat you with a lot more respect. He might even give you an extra bag of popcorn.

Hong Kong Movies

Neil Koch knows everything there is to know about Hong Kong Cinema. He has been there, done that and has at least 2 T-Shirts too. He runs one of the best film websites out there, is an encyclopedia of reviews, information and trivia on virtually every movie ever made in Hong Kong. We asked Neil for some insider knowledge…..

How did you first get into Hong Kong Movies?
As a Gen-X kid, I grew up watching a lot of martial arts movies via stuff like Kung Fu Theatre and the local mom-and-pop video store. I was a big fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and really dug the style of ‘Hard Target‘. When he mentioned the director (John Woo) on the Arsenio Hall show, I decided to check out his movies. This was around the time that Jackie Chan movies like ‘Rumble in the Bronx‘ (below) were getting mainstream US releases, so that inspired to check out more HK movies, also.

Where I really got hardcore into HK movies was I had a Chinese room-mate in college and we’d sit around and watch HK movies, so I got to check out a lot of stuff someone planted in the frozen tundra of Minnesota normally wouldn’t have been able to.

Can you remember the first HK Movie you saw?
Discounting the stuff like ‘Enter the Dragon’ I saw as a kid, I would say it was ‘The Killer’ via the Fox Lorber VHS in 1990 or 1991.

How long has HKfilm been going for?
The site started out as a John Woo tribute on America Online in March 1998, so it will be 13 years old next month.

Approx how many movies have you reviewed for the website?
It’s at 1190 reviews as of today.

Are there some things you can almost guarantee will be in a Hong Kong Movie?
Well, that question is kind of a misnomer, because Hong Kong movies can take all shapes and forms. So the gratuitous violence and toilet humor you’re going to see in a Wong Jing movie isn’t going to be present in the pictures of a more art-house slanted director like Wong Kar-Wai.

If you’re talking about what a lot of people generally associate with Hong Kong cinema — action — there was (and still is to some extent) a wonderful go-for-broke no-holds-barred attitude that revels in ridiculousness while still making it compelling.

Why does the sound always seem to be a bit dodgy on the older movies?
A lot of older movies (and many newer ones) were shot quick and dirty with tiny budgets. Even the ‘big-budget’ HK movies are (most times) a fraction of their US counterparts. In general, HK movies didn’t start shooting in sync sound until the early 1990’s, so the soundtrack would be overdubbed, oftentimes as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Early Hong Kong DVDs were also pretty awful in the sound department, with many sporting very poor quality ‘remixes’ that just made the sound mushier.

Who do you think has (or had) the best Martial Arts skills out of all the actors?
Well, I have to say that I don’t practice martial arts at all, so I can’t really vouch for the realism, but for my money, Jackie Chan in his prime is my favorite to watch. His fight scenes have such a wonderful flow and inventiveness to them that I think will never really be replicated.

Who is your favourite Hong Kong Movie actor?
Oh boy, that’s really hard to say. There are so many great ones. If you had a gun to my head, I would say Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (pictured right) on the male side, and Brigitte Lin for the ladies.

Do you know approx how many films get made in Hong Kong each year?
After dipping down to around 25 for a few years (from a peak of about 200 in 1993), with the influx of money from Mainland production companies, it’s at around 50 in 2010. Though some people would debate if some of these co-productions are ‘true’ Hong Kong movies, since they have to conform to Mainland standards and censorship.

Do you have a favourite director?
Again, that’s a tough call, but I’ll go with John Woo, since ‘The Killer’ and ‘Hard Boiled’ really got me into HK movies. His output was getting a bit grim for a while, but he rebounded nicely with the ‘Red Cliff’ films.

Do you think film Hong Kong companies like Golden Harvest inspired Hollywood to make Action Movies?
Well, it was kind of a circular pattern, as older studios like Shaw Brothers were definitely based upon the Hollywood studio system of the 30’s and 40’s, using contract players and directors, reusing sets, etc.

Also, the ‘new wave’ of directors from the late 70’s – early 80’s like Tsui Hark (below) and John Woo were either trained or schooled in the west or heavily influenced by their films.

In turn, American directors such as John Carpenter started to show clear influences from Hong Kong movies starting in the mid 1980’s. Of course, by the 1990’s, you saw films like ‘The Matrix‘ that used Hong Kong personnel and US film companies like Columbia that were directly investing in Hong Kong productions.

What Movie Company is making the best HK movies at the moment?
I don’t think there is really one dominant company, mostly because the overall number of films produced is so low. But I will usually always check out the newest stuff from Johnnie To’s company, Milkyway.

Are there any current Hong Kong movie stars we should look out for in upcoming Hollywood Movies?
I think the fad of HK stars/directors working on US productions is pretty much over. Most of the people that worked in Hollywood have come back with bad stories.

Jackie Chan has repeatedly said that he only works on western movies for the paycheck.

The Mainland China market is much more lucrative for HK stars at the moment, and if people work a lot in the west they’re considered a sellout by that audience, so you’re probably not going to see any major stars/directors ‘defecting’ any time soon.

Do you think Violent movies can make people violent in real life?
No, not really. I’m not saying a 5 year old should be watching ‘The Untold Story’ or anything like that, but a lot of how kids turn out comes down to the parents, and unfortunately there’s a whole lot of bad parents out there who look to blame everything else but themselves.

What is the WORST movie you have ever seen?
That particular dishonor goes to ‘Where is Mama’s Boy?‘, a so-called comedy starring American Idol reject William Hung. By the time he started singing a Cantonese version of ‘She Bangs‘, I wanted to stick an icepick into my frontal lobe. It’s one of two movies that I’ve given a 0/10 rating – the other one being the horrible pseudo-documentary/Bruceploitation disaster ‘The Dragon and the Cobra‘.

If I wanted to see a kick ass action thriller adventure Hong Kong Movie do you have any suggestions?
One under-known movie that I like to point out to people is ‘My Heart is That Eternal Rose ‘, a 1987 film starring Kenny Bee and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. It’s a tremendous ‘heroic bloodshed’ movie. If you like John Woo’s gangster films, it’s well worth checking out. A more recent entry would be ‘Exiled‘ (above) by Johnnie To, who is at the top of his game.

If like me you are getting a bit bored of the current crop Hollywood bore-fests, there are some brilliant Hong Kong movies out there to be discovered and is a great resource for information on ALL of them.