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January 31st, 2003

 

Kozo's 2002 Roundup

     Hong Kong Cinema in 2002 will likely be known for its depressing returns, where neither a foreign or local film could make even a dent in the box office. However, there was a Shaolin Soccer-type "miracle" which once again reinvigorated the film industry. Thanks to the incredible box office of Infernal Affairs (and, to a lesser extent, Harry Potter and Hero), the Hong Kong Film Industry found hope for what seemed like the umpteenth time. With a strong story, remarkable acting, polished production design, and over 50 million Hong Kong dollars at the box office, Infernal Affairs could easily be called the film of the year.
     However, Infernal Affairs was merely a remarkable example of a previously saturated Hong Kong genre, gloriously updated to current HK Cinema standards. Those standards themselves are still under debate, but the long-standing perception of Hong Kong as the anything-goes, zany Hollywood of the East is pretty much over. Hong Kong films follow a different tack now, and seem to be much more marketing-oriented than they previously were. Hot young stars inhabit all films regardless of previous box office success, and successful genres are copied to death. And, everything needs to look and sound good. The scattershot bullets and babes, kicks and kinks that so defined the cinema for years are long gone. Get over it.
     In their place, we have reimagined genre experiences, which isn't entirely a bad thing. Johnnie To hasn't made a crime movie in years, but his Milky Way crime thrillers paved the way for Infernal Affairs. Where once upon a time, the film was Hard Boiled, it eventually became The Longest Nite and then Infernal Affairs. The wacky comedies of the eighties have become the urban romantic comedies of the twenty-first century, and the horror genre has gone the Ring route.
     Thankfully, some good films do get made in there. In 2002, we've had The Eye, Three: Going Home and even the cheap, but not unworthy Sleeping with the Dead. The romantic comedy category gave us lots of middling fare (Dry Wood Fierce Fire, Mighty Baby), but Love Undercover and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts managed some surprises. And directors Fruit Chan, Riley Yip and Wilson Yip continued to do their own thing, sometimes within existing Hong Kong genres (The Mummy, Aged 19), sometimes reflecting older Hong Kong films (Just One Look), and sometimes coming completely out of nowhere (Hollywood Hong Kong).
     Among actors, Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai held on as dominant box office forces, but they're probably the only remaining members of the "old guard" of actors who can still draw at the box-office. Sammi Cheng continued to demonstrate her surprising box-office dominance, and is now arguably the most consistently bankable star regularly working in the Hong Kong Film industry. Miriam Yeung established herself as a bankable performer, and the Twins made a surprising showing. Given the fact that other popular young idols routinely ring up zero dollars at the box office (including Joey Yung and even Nicholas Tse), their impact shouldn't be dismissed. Louis Koo upped his bankability more than a few notches, and Cecilia Cheung recovered from a potentially crippling accident and even more potentially damaging press coverage.
     But there were failures, too. Hong Kong Cinema in 2002 was almost entirely devoid of one of its most celebrated fixtures: action. There were really only four major productions which boasted martial arts as a primary draw, and of those four only one was a period piece (Hero, which arguably isn't even a Hong Kong film). The other three films (Naked Weapon, So Close and The Touch) were western-influenced productions in terms of style, narrative, language, or a combination of the three. Sadly, all three were disappointments, and had prefabricated stories, tenuous leaps of logic, and remarkably uninteresting characters. The action in all three wasn't particularly bad, but the technical prowess in the action sequences only reinforced the utter amateurism of the screenwriting.
     If Infernal Affairs teaches us anything, it might be that a good story, fine production values, big stars, and terrific acting can carry a film to the box office winner's circle. That might seem like an obvious lesson, but given Hollywood's great successes (the entire filmography of Jerry Bruckheimer) it would seem to be a lost art. If Hong Kong Cinema is to fully recover at the box-office, it would be best to actually attempt some measure of overall quality lacking from films like The Conman 2002, The Peeping, Women from Mars or The Irresistible Piggies. Perhaps then Infernal Affairs could be seen as more of an "exceptional performer" than a "box office miracle."
     Or they could simply give Stephen Chow loads of money and let him do whatever he wants. That might work too.

 
  Life with Kozo

 
 
 
  The following feature on Hong Kong Cinema 2002 was written before the Webmaster had a chance to see certain high-profile or lauded films, which are notable here by their abscence. The article was written for inclusion on Ryan Law's invaluable Hong Kong Movie Database, stored at www.hkmdb.com. This is a copy of that article.
 
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Disclaimer*
The opinions expressed within are merely the musings of the Webmaster, and as such should be taken with the requisite grain of salt. If you disagree with an expressed opinion please feel free to contact him here. If you feel he has insulted your favorite popstar, you can still contact him. However, your chances of receiving a reply will be reduced by half.
 
 
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  Films of note:
The below films were not necessarily great movies, but struck me in one way or another. Sometimes I simply liked it.

Chinese Odyssey 2002 Creative, funny, and amusingly self-referential. This Wong Kar-Wai/Jeff Lau collaboration reminds of how Mo Lei Tau comedy can actually be funny.

The Eye Other than Three: Going Home, this is easily the most accomplished Hong Kong horror entry of the year. Judicious use of special effects, a tense filmmaking style, and an affecting, disciplined performance by Angelica Lee (Sinjie) make this one of Hong Kong's strongest films in 2002.

Frugal Game A fine ensemble cast and a satirical edge make this low-key comedy one of the bigger surprises of the year. The film doesn't deliver entirely on its promise, but it's still head-and-shoulders above most stuff released in 2002.

Hollywood Hong Kong Poignant and absurdly lyrical, and further proof that Fruit Chan is a director who only follows his own thinking. Understandably not for popular audiences.

Infernal Affairs Exceptionally well-made, with brilliant performances and genuine cinematic tension. Considering the resources involved in making this film (few special effects, a well-developed concept and story), one wonders why Hong Kong can't do this more often. Only the obligatory female roles seem forced and unnecessary.

Just One Look The most sweetly diverting Hong Kong film of the year. Riley Yip delivers on his previous promise with this enjoyable piece which makes the best use of new popstars (Twins, Shawn Yue, Wong Yau-Nam) than any film in recent memory. This was a film made for those who love Hong Kong film.

Love Undercover Agreeable commercial fluff with a fine comedic star turn from Miriam Yeung. This is as silly and inconsequential as movies get, but there's nothing wrong with that if it's done well. The best film from Joe Ma in an otherwise disappointing year for him.

The Mummy, Aged 19 Remarkably subdued for a Hong Kong commercial film, but the creativity and engaging tone make it a winner. Wilson Yip gets points for attempting a coherent tone and style in a decidedly unimportant piece of cinema.

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts The most surprisingly affecting comedy of the year. This film improves by 800% without the viewer even realizing it, which makes it exceptional in my book. Sammi Cheng managed to give her usual screen persona some surprising depth. However, I would still like to see Johnnie To return to the crime genre.

Three: Going Home Given the extreme praise given to this short film, it could perhaps be seen as overrated. However, it is unquestionably well-directed by Peter Chan, with fine performances and wonderful cinematography from Christopher Doyle. The narrative was also polished and worthwhile.
 
 
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  Disappointments:
The following films weren't necessarily bad, but represented disappointments to this reviewer. Quite frequently, the story and/or script were held accountable.

If U Care... Some good performers and a reasonably workable concept that got derailed by bizarre and unnecessary filmmaking choices. Easily the most questionably directed film of the year.

Mighty Baby A Hong Kong commercial comedy where enough was enough. There was some funny stuff here, but the sheer amount of wacky shtick and existential metaphors crammed into this film made it a chore to sit through.

Naked Weapon Dubbed enjoyably trashy by many, which is a fair description. Then again, the atrocious script and tasteless misogyny made this the most uncomfortable Hong Kong film of the year. Like So Close, this film demonstrates that good action isn't everything.

The New Option The incoherent story and uninteresting characters made this a low point of the police procedural genre, which once was one of Hong Kong's stronger genres. You'd think somebody could spend at least one more week on the script before starting actual production.

So Close A big budget, beautiful actresses, and some creative action from Corey Yuen made this film sound like a winner. The nonsensical story and plastic characters prevented that from happening.

The Touch The year's biggest Hong Kong disappointment, and further proof that sincere Western-style narratives and Hong Kong-style action are not a good fit. The limp, special effects-ridden action finale is what put this film here.
 
 
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  Just Plain Bad:
These movies were bad. Period.

U-Man Enjoyed by some as low-brow amusement, but I found it interminable.

The Peeping Tasteless and without any redeeming features. My DVD player required sterilization to erase the foul stench of this film.

The Wesley's Mysterious File What went wrong?

Not seen..yet:
May and August, The Runaway Pistol, Shark Busters, Golden Chicken and Hero.

 
 
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