A touring festival brings Hong Kong gangster films to eight mainland cities, especially for those who have only watched them on VCR, Xu Fan reports.
From Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat to Tony Leung, many big stars have left their mark in gangster movies from Hong Kong, among the most influential genres in the city’s cinematic history. But most mainland people born in the 1970s and 1980s watched the classics only on VCR, the forerunner of the CD.
Making up for that is the Hong Kong Thematic Film Festival, now in its fifth year, running in Beijing through Sunday.
It will show 15 acclaimed gangster films, most of which have yet to be released on the mainland.
The touring festival started in Dalian in August. And after Beijing, it will move on to the cities of Jinan, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang, Chengdu and Wuhan in the following months.
Veteran directors Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, both known for their stylish action films, are curating the event to promote Hong Kong’s cinematic culture.
The festival shows the gangster movies’ in-depth examination of camaraderie among those from low-income groups, the complex underground world and the general struggles of people.
Highlights of the festival include classics produced in the 1980s and mid-1990s — the golden era of the genre — such as Police Story (1985) that stars Chan; Lau’s As
Tears Go By (1988); and Once a Thief (1991) that has Chow in the lead role.
“No other movie market in the world has dived into the genre so deep as Hong Kong,” Gary Mak, managing director of Broadway Cinematheque, tells China Daily.
The festival is jointly held by Hong Kong government and Broadway Cinematheque, a cinema chain financed by the Hong Kong studio Edko Films.
Mak says the city’s population density and a commercially driven society has helped the genre’s development.
“Around 95 percent of Hong Kong residents are urban dwellers,” he explains. “Crime stories mostly occur in metropolises.”
Some Hong Kong directors’ early years of living in slums have provided them with life experiences for their films later, especially on how street gangs operate, says Mak.
For instance, director To, who is known for hits like
PTU, Election and Vengeance, grew up in a Kowloon slum and his childhood experiences contribute to his movies, says Mak.
As an homage to the director, the festival’s opening movie is his 2006 directorial work
Exiled, which philosophizes five assassins’ die-for-friendship attitude.
Another reason behind the rise of gangster movies in Hong Kong is that the genre is universal, where linguistic and cultural borders matter little.
“Hong Kong’s local market is limited. To get an overseas audience, especially those in Southeast Asia, filmmakers found crime stories a good option,” says Mak.
“The fast-paced and stylized scenarios even inspired Hollywood filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese,” he adds.
The American director’s Oscar-winning thriller The
Departed (2006) is a remake of 2002 Hong Kong gangster movie Infernal Affairs.
“It ( Infernal Affairs) once saved Hong Kong’s movie market,” says Yang Yang, a festival organizer.
From the late 1990s, Hong Kong’s movie industry saw a decline, mainly caused by an economic downturn and stereotypical tales. The turning point emerged in 2002.
When local screens were dominated by movies from outside the city, Infernal
Affairs topped the local box office by beating Hollywood blockbuster Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
Alongside the franchise, another landmark moment symbolizing the gangster movies’ rise was a series of hits produced by Milkyway Image, a studio founded by To and his partner Wai Ka-fai.
The anti-hero protagonists and avant-garde images realized a breakthrough for the genre in a lackluster market in the late 1990s.
Yang says the first motion picture shot in HongKong featured a policeman and a thief, making gangster movies the earliest genre there. Stealing a
Roast Duck was a silent short film financed by American businessman Benjamin Bradsky in 1909.
Director Cheang Pou-soi, regarded by many as a successor of To, said at the festival opening earlier that the studio allows him to focus on his creative work.
“It is like going back home. You can put down all the stress and just shoot something that you really want to film,” says Cheang, whohas gained mainland recognition for The Monkey King franchise.
InfernalAffairs, starring Andy Lau (left) and Tony Leung, is a landmark among Hong Kong’s gangster movies.
Above: Johnnie To’s 2006 film, Exiled, opened the Hong Kong Thematic Film Festival in Beijing. Left: PoliceStory (1985) is one of Jackie Chan’s earliest films.
OnceaThief, starring Chow Yun-fat (left), Cherie Chung and Leslie Cheung.