Sarah Perks on ‘Portland Street Blues’ (Hong Kong, 1998)

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films  in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Sarah Perks following her introduction to Portland Street Blues at HOME on April 7th, 2016.


Portland Street Blues was released in 1998, just after the handing back (or handover as it’s known) of British rule to Chinese in July 1997. By the end of the 1990s however the film industry is not a healthy one, it’s been in steady decline since the ‘golden years’ of the 1980s. Piracy, an uncertain future and the increasing mainland China industry were some of the largest factors behind the bust, with only a few keys films and auteurs standing out in the 1990s – mostly those dealing with the handover such as Wong Kar-wai and Fruit Chan. It might be argued in difficult times – both financially and politically – an industry will stick to its tried and tested formulas – one of those being crime thriller in Hong Kong.

Another tried and tested formula for the Hong Kong industry is the series, or many sequels and then some prequels, they don’t even have to be related narratively. Portland Street Blues is an official spin-off from Young and Dangerous, but it benefits the film that it has its own name, and you won’t miss anything by not having seen any of the other twelve Young and Dangerous films or spin offs.

The superbly titled Young and Dangerous (Y&D) cycle – originally a comic book strip – were hugely popular in Hong Kong from the first edition in 1995, recycling the triad genre for the post-modern generation X. Whereas art films focused on achingly slow beautiful scenes with heavyweight actors to explore the political changes, popular cinema like Young and Dangerous (Y&D) quickly chucked together a group of heart-throb model/cantopop stars and had them machete each other down a dark and doomed Mongkok side street (Portland Street of course is in Mongkok). One of the superstars made by the series, long-haired lovely Ekin Cheng pops back up towards the end of Portland, this was the BIG SURPRISE when people originally watched it but I’m really not plot spoiling here. Sandra Ng’s character Sister Thirteen appears briefly in the series, giving the Y&D creators this idea.

Sandra Ng and Alex Fong in 'Portland Street Blues'

Sandra Ng and Alex Fong in ‘Portland Street Blues’

An uncredited entry on Wikipedia even states, “And because of its incredible success [Y&D], it is said to have made many youngsters at that time fond of the triad life, thus making teens throughout Asia join the triads”

Household name Sandra Ng stars as Sister Thirteen – a veteran of over 30 years and over 100 films – is better known to audiences for comedy, most recent the Golden Chickens series (2012 onwards). Portland Street Blues was pivotal to her career, changing audiences’ minds about her just being a comedy actress enabling her to become respected for dramas such as Echoes of the Rainbow. Sandra Ng is also the long-term partner of well-known Hong Kong film director Peter Chan, another figure who moves between popular and independent filmmaking. There’s a strong cast of well-known actors in this film including actress Shu Qi from The Assassin.

In ‘Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade’, academic Andrew Grossman discusses the representation of homosexuality in film: “The archetypally butch/femme characterisations of Portland’s female characters posit this film somewhere between martial genres and Eurocentric performative theory/constructions.” However, this could probably be true of much Hong Kong cinema and its obvious tension between conventions of East and West. Sister Thirteen is the only gay character in the Y&D series, and of course, she is adopting traditionally masculine modes of appearance to rise to the top of the near-exclusively male gangster world (might she have had to become a man regardless of her sexuality? Is this possibly a performance?).

With this being a Hong Kong Crime film I suspect it might not even matter, but what is interesting is a homosexual character – or bisexual (hinted at in the film) –in the lead role of a popular mainstream triad film in a fairly conservative society such as Hong Kong. Whilst cinema there has legendary ‘sex and violence’ category 3 films, those films tend to actually be very socio-politically traditional in their values and of course, in their gender roles. The year before this film came out Wong Kar-wai made the celebrated Happy Together – with Leslie Cheung and Tong Leung as the lead gay couple – though this wasn’t actually widely seen in the territory, it was more of a darling of the international art house circuit and festivals.

To return to Andrew Grossman’s quote about the film and the performance of her sexuality – ignoring the East/West opposition – there are some questionable plot devices, particularly in the flashbacks parts of the story and at the end. At best this could be complex characterisation, at worst the suggestion of performing a butch lesbian to be able to be a gang leader.

A few raised eyebrow moments aside, this is a very engaging crime film with a strong female lead, and fairly fresh in terms of representation of homosexuality (remember gay marriage is still not legal in Hong Kong, though it’s actually a fairly gay friendly society) and there’s never enough female gangster-leads on screen so we should applaud that this is standing up to the test of time. If nothing else, it’s the visual pleasure of seeing a strong woman against some ineffectual, misogynistic, homophobic gangsters.

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Roy Stafford on ‘Election’ (Hong Kong, 2005)

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Roy Stafford of ITP World (@itpworld on Twitter) following his introduction to Election at HOME on March 21st, 2016.


Johnnie To is an important Hong Kong filmmaker who began work in the late 1970s in local television and gradually moved into film production during the 1980s. He has been producer, director or writer on over 60 productions and in 1996 founded MilkyWay Image Productions with the similarly talented writer/producer/director Wai Ka-fai. He also has a relationship with Charles Heung and his production/distribution company China Star Entertainment Group and its production brand 100 Years of Film. These kinds of working relationships are an important part of maintaining a consistent production schedule for a director as prolific as To, especially at a time when the Hong Kong industry was struggling.

To is a leading figure in the Hong Kong industry and a creative talent with experience of many genres, balancing comedy and romance with crime thrillers and action films and everything in between. It’s surprising perhaps that his profile outside his home region was relatively low until the late 1990s/early 2000s and it didn’t really develop in a global context until Election was selected for competition at Cannes 2005. Since then his films have appeared more regularly at international festivals with releases in Europe and North America (including retrospective releases). To is neither a predominantly arthouse director like Wong Kar-wai, nor a high profile genre filmmaker like John Woo in the 1980s/90s or Alan Mak more recently. He has tended towards that balance between making audience-friendly films that make money for the company and more personal films with artistic/intellectual goals. Election tends towards the latter in offering an allegory about democracy in Hong Kong presented as a form of ‘gangster procedural’ about the election of a triad chairman. We might even think about it as a political thriller like House of Cards or the Danish political melodrama serials of Borgen. These might sound unlikely parallels but there are definite shared narrative elements – most notably the negotiation of alliances involving different forms of bargaining.

Although seen as a filmmaker rooted in Hong Kong cinema (according to his own statements), when he was invited to name his Top 10 favourite directors by the Blu-ray label Criterion, To’s list was dominated by three films from Kurosawa Akira, two from Jean-Pierre Melville, doyen of the French crime film, the polar) and one by Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs). These three directors are linked by their exploration of traditions of honour codes which can also be seen in some of To’s more romantic crime genre films. The Wo Sing Triad also has an honour code but perhaps more important in To’s approach to triad elections is that he displays Kurosawa’s insistence on close attention to details such as the daily rituals of peasant life in Seven Samurai. To carried out months of research to inform a ‘realist approach’ to the procedures of the election and traditional modes of violence (you’ll look hard for any gun-play in Election) – alongside creative ideas about how decisions are influenced. To has said that he tried to dissuade his crew and actors from thinking about the Godfather films, but even so Election is similar in some ways to Indian gangster films that have themselves drawn on the Godfather films – e.g. in the work of Anurag Kashyap and films such as Gangs of Wasseypur. There have been several indications in HOME’s Hong Kong Crime Season that Indian and Hong Kong popular films display parallels.

MilkyWay Image films always seem to offer something ‘fresh’ in their approach – whether it is the inventiveness of Wai Ka-fai’s writing or the cinematography of Cheng Siu-Keung or indeed all the creative contributions from regular crew members. Music too is important and Election has a distinctive theme. Election offers us almost documentary street scenes, smoky interiors, action beautifully framed in long shot, overhead shots, close-ups – the full range of visual ideas. Each MilkyWay film has similar elements but the mix is different and sequences are wonderfully edited. It’s almost as if the style is simply to be stylish. This doesn’t mean that it’s empty but instead that a specific style is carefully constructed for each narrative using similar visual elements in different proportions.

Louis Koo in 'Election'

Louis Koo in ‘Election’

To has developed his own ensemble of actors and several of them feature in Election, led by a composed Simon Yam with a manic Tony Leung Ka-fai to shake up the casting. But rather than featuring in a familiar triad action film, here the actors find themselves in an analysis of the bi-ennial election system of the Wo Sing Triad presented in teahouses where the uncles attempt to fix things and on the streets where the younger members employ more physical coercion. For Hong Kong audiences, the film and its sequel a year later offered a clear allegory about the political discourse of Hong Kong some eight years after the Handover. Hong Kong film scholar Stephen Teo argues that MilkyWay has consistently done this since the late 1990s.

The lawmaking violence of Election hints at Hong Kong’s submission to the law of the Chinese Community Party. Like the law of the state, the law of the triads ultimately aims to keep the peace”. (Teo, Sight & Sound review of Election, June 2006)

You will be intrigued by the attitude of the HK police in the film. The very fact that the triad is holding an election is, Teo argues, a comment on Hong Kong’s inability to choose a leader through universal suffrage. As a police chief says “the triads have a longer history of electing leaders than we do in HK”.

The power of tradition represented by the uncles (Teng/Deng being the most important former Chairman, carrying the name of Deng Xiao-ping the CCP leader who did most to ‘modernise’ the Chinese economy after Mao’s death), is opposed in some ways to the lure of money-making and the modernity symbolised by Louis Koo’s economics student, Jimmy – reflecting the struggles of the Party to deal with the effects of economic growth on the mainland and the still important capitalist institutions of HK.

Across the first two Election films we see the gradual development of the mainland security forces’ interest in controlling the triads and using them to maintain stability in Hong Kong. To has acknowledged that in his representations the triad is struggling to survive and maintain its traditions attacked by both the business ambitions of the ‘brothers’ and the influence of the mainland security bosses. (Johnnie To interviewed in Cineaste Vol 32 No 2, 2007)

The economics student turned business man in Election reminds us of Once A Gangster (Hong Kong 201) shown earlier in the HOME season along with the remarks in writer-director Felix Chong’s Q&A. Chong spoofed several of the elements of Election and confirmed that many of the current triad brothers are indeed seeking MBAs. Chong’s spoof might be seen as undermining Election, but Johnnie To’s film retains its power partly through the realism of its political wranglings, partly through expertly constructed suspense and partly through its highly creative bursts of brutality. These are sometimes comic and absurd but in the key moments the brutality lasts too long to be anything other than shocking. Election is certainly not romantic.

The story continues in Election 2 (Hong Kong 2006) and the narrative is in various ways developed in Drug War (China-HK 2012), shown by Film 4 to support this HOME season. Election 3 is being spoken of as a production during 2016. If it is indeed produced it could offer an intriguing new twist on the narrative so far.

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Too Many Ways to Be No.1: A cinema of moral anxiety

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Tamara Courage, who also introduced the film on March 15th, 2016.


If you can keep up with Wai Ka-Fai’s mad triad gangster road movie Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (一個字頭的誕生), then you are in for a treat!

Last week at HOME in Manchester, the Hong Kong Crime Film Season screened Infernal Affairs (2002), a film that is representative of the early years that proceeded the Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China. This week, we are winding the clocks back to the year 1997 with the film screening of Wai Ka-Fai’s triad gangster film noir Too Many Ways to be No.1.

The film reads as an allegory for the nation’s social and economic anxieties at the time of its handover but with a dual narrative construction, it also raises the question of Hong Kong’s uncertain path into the future.

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 was the first film to be solely1 made by Milkyway Image Production which formed in 1996 by director Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai. Today, the company is one of the most successful independent studios in Hong Kong.

The film follows a Hong Kong triad member Wong Ah-Kau (played by Lau Ching Wan, otherwise known Sean Lau) as he makes a business decision that will decide his ultimate fate in the end. Should he go to Taiwan or to the Mainland? Money is the driving force in the film and with that decision, Kau’s life diverges on two possible paths which are explored in two separate narratives.

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In the first half of the film, Kau is a buffoon with no moral compass and who seems to haphazardly stumble into gang knife fights and shootouts. In the second part, Kau’s character flaws are redeemed through his esteem for self-respect. The film begs the question: As long as we own up to our mistakes can we still survive life’s obstacles with our body and mind intact?

Along with Sean Lau’s excellent foray into the double act as the dope and as the hero, are standout performances by other characters in the film. This includes his triad members Tat-Ming Cheung as Bo and Francis Ng as Matt and even the short cameo of Carman Lee as the prostitute.

However, I would argue that the film should be equally recognised for its zany yet carefully constructed cinematography. Two scenes are shot upside down, a shootout is filmed entirely in the dark and wide angle lenses abound. The constant movement of the camera and its novel placement in each scene reflects the real confusion felt by Hong Kong residents at the time of its historical Handover.

Furthermore, the film geographically covers not only Hong Kong but Mainland China and Taiwan through the botched up plans by triad hooligans which further expands on the question of its cultural and economic identity in the immediate aftermath of its transfer to the PRC. In fact, there seems to be no alternative to the madness of this crazy triad road film apart from an equally darkly comical death.

Tamara's introduction to the film at HOME, Manchester.

Tamara’s introduction to the film at HOME, Manchester.

If you are seeking light entertainment or a slick gangster film, Too Many Ways to be No. 1 is not for you. In fact, some of the most fantastic scenes are shot in near to pitch dark. This is a cinema of moral anxiety mixed with brutal comedy at a time when Hong Kong was embroiled in a state of historical uncertainty and of absurd circumstances.

I highly recommend it!

1 The first film produced by Milkyway is Patrick Leung’s Beyond Hypothermia (1996) but it also received financing from Jeong Myeong Films and Sanqueen Limited.

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On ‘The Killer Constable’

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Robert Hamilton, it was given as an introduction to the film on 20/2/2016


The Killer Constable is a 1980 Shaw Bros production directed by Kuei Chih-Hung starring Chan Koon-Tai (one of the first real martial arts experts used by the production studio who is still working today) as Chief Constable Leng Tian Ying. Leng is known as the ‘Killer Constable’ because he executes or kills all the criminals he captures.

Kuei directed some 40 films for Shaw Bros and was know for his high production values, creative techniques, location shooting and social commentary, all while working within the tight Shaw studio system. Kuei said ‘in a time when movie making is considered only an industry, I feel as if I were a factory worker. My job is the director, expected to produce whatever the market demands…. But I’m not cavalier in making them. I devoted a lot of thought on photography, lighting and so on.’

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The Killer Constable is a period piece and a wuxia/crime thriller hybrid popular at the time. The plot involves 2 million gold taels that have been stolen from the Imperial Treasury of the Qing Dynasty of Empress Cixi. Leng is given 10 days to recover the gold and capture the thieve. Over the course of the narrative, Leng leads his handpicked men into the Badlands or Jianghu.

Jianghu translates as ‘rivers and lakes’ and it is a fictional place in wuxia/martial arts mythology where the ‘people’ live, usually in the South of China. Leng is a northern Manchu official sent to the Jianghu where it is populated by Han Chinese. The poverty of the south is evident everywhere but especially in the food. (e.g. opening banquet in Empress Cixi’s palace is heavily contrasted with the lack of food in the south to show the moral corruption of the Qing).

In an interview Chan said that ‘I did not understand the point of the story then. Now looking back, I can see that the film was about blind loyalty of a constable who follows faithfully the orders of his superiors. Gradually, he comes to recognise the evil side of human nature, and his own cold-bloodedness…hence the title of the film’.

The Killer Constable is a cracking good film with lots of exciting swordplay and fighting thrown in for good measure but it is also a film with a social conscience.

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Infernal Affairs: Still fresh after all these years

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Felicia Chan.


This is a revised version of the introduction I gave at the screening of Infernal Affairs on Monday, 7th March at HOME.

Watching these Hong Kong crime films across the season in the past month, I’m reminded by how far back the history of the genre reaches — note that programme notes for most of the films can be downloaded from the HOME website, as well as a genre timeline — and that how after all that time, in 2002 Infernal Affairs still somehow managed to do and say something that hadn’t been thought of or done before. I’ve taught the film on my Chinese cinema courses many times in the past decade or so and have watched it at least a dozen times, yet I was still really excited to see it on the big screen at HOME.  It was fantastic to see so many people at the film’s screening in Cinema 1 (over 100, I’m told!), considering it was on at 6:00pm on a Monday night. I’m encouraged that given the right conditions, the right film can still draw out an appetite for cinema-going as a social and cultural activity in spite of the distractions of home media and personal devices.

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Felicia Chan introducing ‘Infernal Affairs’ at HOME

Since so much of the engagement in Infernal Affairs depended on the pacing and the complexity of the plot, in writing the introduction to the film, I was mindful of not giving too much away and spoiling it for those who hadn’t seen it. I pitched it to who I saw as three main groups of audience: (1) people who had seen the film before, and possibly many times since it was first released; (2) people who had only seen The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) and may have wanted to see ‘the original’ film on which it was based; and (3) people who had seen neither. It was a bit of a balancing act trying to speak to some context without giving too much of the plot away. In the end, I settled simply on suggesting that Infernal Affairs took the familiar trope of the undercover cop and crook to its logical, and extreme, conclusion, and in so doing, upped the ante on the complexity of plot construction and on the level of jeopardy for its characters, played by a number of familiar faces in Hong Kong crime cinema (Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong, Chapman To) and starring two A-list male stars, Tony Leung and Andy Lau, in the central roles.

It is difficult to talk about Hong Kong cinema, especially a film that puts the city itself so much on display, without talking about the socio-political context of the handover in 1997 from British colonial rule to PRC jurisdiction. Released in 2002, five years after the handover, it is possible to read the film (as has been done by critics) as an allegory for the continuing identity concerns faced by Hong Kong, as a culture and a society located between worlds, empires and histories. A question often discussed in my classes on the film asks: If you’ve spent 10, 20 years living as someone else, are you still you? Are you who you think you are? How much of our sense of identity is dependent on how it is reflected back to us by family, friends, co-workers and society at large?

Infernal Affairs explores this question within a slick, stylish package — and one could say, brings the HK crime film into the light. Notice how much of the film is set in the light, especially on the rooftops of buildings — where realistically, if one were trying to have a secret conversation, it would not likely be on the sunny roof of a building in full view of taller skyscrapers in the vicinity. Logic is not the issue here — the image of Hong Kong and Hong Kong cinema is. Notice how much of the cinematography sets the action up against the sparkling glass surfaces of nearby skyscrapers as well as the sprawling skyline of the modern city overlooking the bay and the harbour.

Beyond handover anxieties, it was also important to consider the film within other socio-economic contexts, and to see the film as a celebration of Hong Kong and Hong Kong cinema as it faced some of its greatest challenges. Although 1997 is frequently spoken of as the year of the handover, it was in other ways an annus horribilis for the territory and the film industry: coinciding with the handover was a severe outbreak of avian flu (pre-empting the SARS crisis that was to strike in 2003), as well as the onset of the Asian financial crisis which saw the overnight devaluation of several Asian currencies. These catastrophes had a profound impact on many film production houses, distribution companies and storage facilities and further struck at the territory’s confidence in its self-image as being at the forefront of capitalist modernity. Even before these catastrophes, by the late 1990s, Hong Kong cinema production was already on the decline compared to its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, as the industry faced multiple challenges from the conversion of standalone cinemas to multiplexes, rising ticket prices, rampant piracy, changing audience tastes and the onslaught of Hollywood when, as I sometimes put it, ‘the dinosaurs came to town.’ For the first time in this period, Hollywood in the form of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) conquered the Hong Kong box office, where the domestic product had reigned supreme for decades.

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Tony Leung and Andy Lau share a musical moment

In this context, it is possible to read Infernal Affairs as expressing a kind of renewed energy and confidence in Hong Kong cinema. Appropriating the higher production values audiences have come to expect from Hollywood and celebrating Hong Kong’s modernity and cutting-edge technology, one gets the sense that the film is saying — even as it struggles with crises of identity — ‘We can still do this!’ And do it better than anyone else. The film’s overwhelming success at the box office in Asia suggests that audiences in the region, equally depressed for all the reasons I’ve cited above, responded in the same spirit.

As Andy Willis (curator of the season) and I had discussed women in Hong Kong crime film on the HOME podcast a few weeks ago, I thought it was important to flag up the role of women in the film, especially as someone had asked me why the women in Hong Kong crime films mostly seemed so insipid. It is entirely plausible to think the same of the two female characters in this film: Mary (Sammi Cheng), Ming’s (Andy Lau) fiancée, and Dr Lee (Kelly Chen), the psychiatrist who spends most of her time on computer solitaire before saving Yan’s (Tony Leung) posthumous reputation and identity. The women seem a bit sidelined as the men battle it out and have been variously noted to be ‘annoying’, ‘childish’, ‘lame’. As in most masculine genre films, female characters are often present to reinforce the masculinity of men. In Hollywood films, masculinity is usually affirmed by the sexual conquest of women — think of the James Bond movies. In many Hong Kong crime films, it is the unfailing, often even chaste, devotion of the women that humanises the men, who operate in what is an otherwise dehumanising, hellish, world.

The word ‘infernal’ in the title is thus not a misspelled Hong Kong English derivation of Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990), the American film starring Richard Gere, as is sometimes suggested or as the autocorrect on my phone insists. It is a direct reference to the inferno of hell, and the film’s Chinese title refers specifically to a kind of hell in Buddhist mythology. From the opening credits we are introduced to the multiple levels of Buddhist hells (eight levels are mentioned here, but in some traditions there are many more than eight), which refer metaphorically to the levels of human suffering. The film’s characters are said to occupy the lowest level, the avici hell, reserved for the worst sins, where the suffering and torment are said to be continuous. Yet in Buddhist mythology, this level is also the one that allows one to be reborn, albeit after several eons of suffering, through a process of purification. Reading Infernal Affairs in this context makes the film far more interesting, in my view, than your regular morality tale: of cops vs gangsters, right vs wrong, good vs evil. In a Buddhist context, the dilemma — and thus the ‘hell’ — faced by the characters is not so much one of action, of doing the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing, but rather the incisive question of who and how one is in the world.

Judging from the audience’s response to the film after the screening, it is fair to say that Infernal Affairs retains an energy and a freshness that belie the 14 years since its release and that has cemented its place within the canon of ‘stone-cold classics’ in the genre of Hong Kong crime films. At the time of its release the film was a huge hit in Hong Kong and Asia and I’m told also in the UK. It had less success theatrically in America, except in the form of The Departed (2006).

Felix Chong, co-writer of 'Infernal Affair's talks with CFFUK member Andy Willis

Felix Chong, co-writer of ‘Infernal Affair’s talks with CFFUK member Andy Willis

Given its achievements, it seems a shame that Infernal Affairs cannot today seem to be spoken of without mention of Scorsese’s adaptation. Yes, I have just done it myself, but in atonement shall offer the last word on the matter to Felix Chong, co-writer of Infernal Affairs, who was asked by an audience member at the Q&A following the screening of his own film Once A Gangster (2010) at HOME last week, what he thought of The Departed. Chong said, ‘The Departed is a really good American film. A really good film, if…’, he qualified, ‘you haven’t seen the original.’ QED.

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CRIME: Hong Kong Style | Reflections on the slippery nature of international rights

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Andy Willis.
 
Following my secondment from the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media for two days a week to work with HOME’s cinemas team I have been heavily involved in the programming and organisation of the CRIME: Hong Kong Style project. I have reflected more generally on the development of this season on the Film4 website, so here I want to reflect more on what might have been rather than what came to pass.
 
After an initial sustained period of research and development Rachel Hayward, of HOME, the host venue and originator of the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season, and I circulated a potential programme of films and supporting events to a number of interested parties such as the Chinese Film Forum UK. We did this to gain feedback which would assist in our preparation to bid for financial support from institutions such as the British Film Institute, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office and the Confucius Institute. On reflection that programme was probably 2/3s of the one that we are in the midst of delivering.
 
At the core of the initial programme was the desire to bring to UK audiences a well-known film that had found favour with its fans through releases on VHS and DVD rather than theatrically. We also wanted to screen this film in Cantonese with English subtitles rather than in a dubbed version – again a version that many fans may have experienced in the past. We settled on John Woo’s 1986 classic, A Better Tomorrow. It is a brilliant crime film and it was a key part of the wave of gangster films that re-ignited the west’s love of Hong Kong action cinema. I imagined what it would look like screened on HOME’s new, large cinema 1 screen and my mouth watered at the prospect. We went forward to try and secure the rights to A Better Tomorrow from the holder in Hong Kong. This was the first of our disappointments – they refused to release them. However, out of adversity came a positive. We replaced A Better Tomorrow with Jackie Chan’s Police Storyand that has proved one the most popular films in our season and on the UK tour. The same rights holder was responsible for Ringo Lam’sCity on Fire and we had the same response. Our answer to that was to programme Lam’s latest, Wild City and we were lucky enough to secure the UK premiere as well as ensure that audiences were reminded of the director’s kinetic filmmaking. Again, from a negative came a positive.
 
Andy Willis giving one of two One Hour Intros at HOME. Photo by Felicia Chan

Andy Willis giving one of the season’s two One Hour Introductions at HOME. (Photo by Felicia Chan)

Similar disappointments over other titles also turned into positives. We hoped to screen an archive print of a 1950s crime film Tradition but after some negotiation with the Hong Kong Film Archive we found that they could not uncover any international rights holders and therefore were unable to release the print for a UK screening. Again, we are more than happy with the replacement – The Swallow Thief – and are looking forward to Manchester audiences’ responses to this 1960s caper film.
 
So the acquisition of rights to screen films that have not been released into the UK market can be a stressful and time consuming activity and the research that needs to be undertaken and the trails one has to follow to get to the holders can be frustrating. When a season and tour like CRIME: Hong Kong Style does finally come together and you sit in a crowded cinema alongside an enthusiastic audience, it is certainly worth the effort.
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Crime: Hong Kong Style

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on Crime: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here.

It has been said that we’re currently living through a tough time for foreign-language film in the UK – especially theatrically. Europe-wide research projects have grappled with reasons for why the UK has one of the smallest appetites for foreign-language films in all of Europe and less than a fortnight ago the Watershed’s Mark Cosgrove lamented recent news that 2015 was a “crushing disappointment” for foreign-language film at the British box office. Chinese-language films have had a complex relationship with this trend: those like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers all sit in the ten most profitable foreign-language films at the UK box office post-millennium yet, in 2013 only 2 Chinese-language were released theatrically, and in 2014, only 3.

It often helps if international films have the backing of recognisable auteur directors behind them and directors like Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke have maintained a regular audience here; though this collection remains incomplete and often long delayed. Elsewhere, strong genre pieces like the Ip Man franchise have proved popular at those multiplex and independent venues that will play them. I think the Crime: Hong Kong Style season is particularly valuable here as a collection of films that straddle the line between commercial and “arthouse” cinema and which fill in some gaps that have been left by distributors unable to take financial risks in Britain’s historically hostile environment.

As one of Hong Kong cinema’s most iconic and prolific genres, the crime film is shown in the current season to be a lot more diverse than many of us realise. I’ve been surprised so far by the three Shaw Brothers films shown – The Boxer from Shantung, The Teahouse, and The Killer Constable – which have all played with the conventions of the studio’s archetypal martial arts narrative in interesting ways: The Teahouse was particularly striking for being a kung-fu film with little (if any) kung-fu and a strong and pessimistic social outlook. These films sit alongside those like the Overheard trilogy and The Pilferer’s Progress, all of which, I think, show an important side of Hong Kong’s crime cinema that has been hard to find in the UK previously.

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In his discussion of theatrical exhibition, Mark Cosgrove points toward the possibilities of strong programming initiatives, reinvigorating the waning interest in big-screen, foreign-language imports – HOME is even mentioned here. I’d hope we could include Crime: Hong Kong Style as a key example of such an initiative: using the unique position of HOME as a well supported cultural institution who, through links across institutions and support from a regionally supportive BFI, can bring into the UK a selection of films that would be difficult to support otherwise.

Crime: Hong Kong Style comes at a time when things appear to be changing for Chinese-language films in the UK. New distributors like China Lion Film and Asia Releasing have begun releasing new Chinese-language blockbusters day-and-date with their domestic releases and this seems to have been met with success from a diasporic audience: iconic comedian Stephen Chow’s latest film The Mermaid had the second highest site average at UK cinemas this week, second only to Marvel’s Deadpool. Crime: Hong Kong Style seems, to me, to be an equally exciting development in the arthouse network that can run parallel to trends at the multiplex and revisit older films that may have been missed the first time round.

Fraser Elliott

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