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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Calvin’s Top 10 Hong Kong Films of the Last Decade (10-8)

Since Kozo recently asked the readers of to send in a list of their favorite Hong Kong films of the last decade, it got me to thinking about what my top picks would be if I had to come up with a list of my own. That bit of brainstorming turned into – wouldn’t you know it? – my very own top ten list!  Originally, I planned to talk about twenty-five Hong Kong films that I really, really liked, but after hashing out all the flicks I could possibly mention, I soon realized that this would be too big a task to complete in so short a period of time. I mean, I should be spending my holiday celebrating Christmas and the New Year (not to mention passing my qualifying exams for the PhD), right?

So, I’ve whittled down my choices to cover what I think are the top ten Hong Kong films of the last decade. Be warned — when I say “Top Ten,” my definition lies somewhere between “best” and “favorite.” As with any list, my personal biases will become blatantly obvious, and I make no apologies for them.

Some of you may bristle when you see that this list is not filled to the brim with all of Johnnie To’s creative output between 2000 and 2009. I’ll try to address the reason for this potential ”oversight” if any of To’s films actually make it onto my list. Similarly, you might see a slight bias in favor of films that came out in the early part of the decade. The reason for this inclination is simple — I think they made better films back then (or at least more of them anyway). If that makes me sound like a gruff old timer, so be it.

In any event, the list is meant  as a) a fun little celebration of the last decade of Hong Kong cinema and b) the perfect jumping off point for you to discuss your own top picks in the comments section. So don’t take ‘em too seriously, enjoy the walk down memory lane, and, of course…

Happy Holidays!

10. Infernal Affairs (2002)


Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai square off in an iconic scene from Infernal Affairs

If Infernal Affairs 3 had been a better movie, I would’ve bent the rules and listed all three films here as a trilogy. Although the third film has grown on me (like a fungus!), it’s not nearly as good as the first two entries in ”The Legend” (as the series was billed in HK advertisements. I think they meant to say ”saga.”). I’m sure some people might have a beef with this choice because they think Infernal Affairs 2 or Colour of the Truth is a better film. While I acknowledge that both films are solid genre flicks, I find that I have little interest in revisiting either of them when perusing my own back catalog of Hong Kong movies. To put it bluntly, the first Infernal Affairs has something that those two films simply don’t possess – across-the-board star wattage.

Now, let’s be clear: having big stars won’t help a terrible film very much (if at all), but it sure can give a welcome boost to one that’s already quite good. And that’s what I love about Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs. Thanks to Tony Leung and Andy Lau, it has a swagger and bombast that is nothing less than electric to watch, even after multiple viewings. That quality seemed to quickly turn into unintentional self-parody in the last two films, as the filmmakers behind “The Legend” seemed to take the films way too seriously.  And really, how can I not list a film that a) spawned an Academy Award-winning American flick and b) gave Hong Kong cinema a much-needed blood transfusion (even if it only lasted for a little while)? Taking these and other facts into consideration, I believe that Infernal Affairs is nothing less than a landmark film in Hong Kong cinema history, one that rightly deserves a place on this and any other list of the best of the decade. Wow, that sure is some emphatic praise. Did I just blow my cover as a mole for Andrew Lau?

9. Hero (2002)


 Jet Li is “What’s-his-name?” in Hero

Whatever you think of Hero’s politics, you can’t deny that the film is gorgeous to behold. The award-winning combination of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, Emi Wada’s costume design, and Huo Ting-Xiao & Yi Zhen-Zhou’s art direction make this Zhang Yimou film an unforgettable feast for the eyes. Add in Tan Dun’s score, Ching Siu-Tung’s elegant fight choreography, and the welcome presence of some of China/Hong Kong’s premiere actors (Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Chen Daoming, and former “It Girl” Zhang Ziyi), and you have a recipe for cinematic gold.

At its heart, the film is a stylish Rashomon-like wuxia that begs the question, “Do the ends justify the means?” While the main characters seem to come up with a particular answer for that question, I don’t think you have to agree with their decision to appreciate and enjoy the film. In fact, Hero’s potentially troubling political subtext, which fudges history and creates uncomfortable parallels with modern China (and maybe even the Bush administration, too, if you want to go there) makes what could have been another “arthouse” take on the wuxia genre into something far more intriguing. I mean, if you want a movie that’s wall-to-wall spectacle without any troubling subtext whatsoever, you can always watch James Cameron’s Avatar instead. Uh, waitaminute…

8. The Heavenly Kings (2006)

Heavenly Kings

Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin, Terence Yin, and Daniel Wu channel the Village People

Actor/director Daniel Wu’s hilarious mockumentary would probably be the funniest Hong Kong film of the decade if Stephen Chow didn’t exist. I love how the movie — taking its cues from reality TV — blurs the line between what’s real and what’s fake in an effort to send-up the Hong Kong music industry. Wu occasionally interrupts the film’s “narrative” — about a terribly untalented boyband called Alive – with amusing and insightful interviews with several prominent HK singers/actors, including Jacky Cheung, Nicholas Tse, and Miriam Yeung. I could’ve watched a movie entirely composed of these, and their inclusion doesn’t distract, but actually helps the film considerably. Looking back, The Heavenly Kings turned out to be remarkably prescient about the state of pop music, as it might as well be an expose of the US music industry as well. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the majority of today’s top-40 hitmakers rely on lip-syncing, fake publicity, and a curious invention called auto-tune to make it big in the biz. Think about it. My “I am T-Pain” iPhone app makes me sound like a pop star when I sing into it, and that’s a $2.99 device. Think of what they can do to a voice with top-of-the-line technology.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention award-winning actor, Andrew Lin, when discussing this brilliant little film. I’m totally sincere when I say that he emerges as the unsung hero of this movie. While his onscreen colleagues can occasionally come across as more obviously actorly or staged, I remember being struck by how unscripted Lin’s performance came off in comparison. In fact, he seemed like the only one in the group not in on the joke. However, if you read Kozo’s interview with Lin, you’ll learn just how much of an acting triumph his performance was, as some of the most unguarded, genuine moments in The Heavenly Kings aren’t as real as they seem. Acting! Genius! Andrew Lin!

 Next time: Kung fu rules, love hurts, and war is hell!

3 Responses to “Calvin’s Top 10 Hong Kong Films of the Last Decade (10-8)”

  1. kyra Says:

    argkk..I forgot to vote for Hero! it should remove Crouching Tiger or Ashes Redux from my top ten list

  2. Lord Garth, Formerly of Izar Says:

    Had Heavenly Kings on my Kozo list as well and of course Infernal Affairs but where is Bullet and Brain?

  3. Sanjuro Says:

    Bullet and Brain, eh?

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