The Mainland Films We Should Have Made in Hong Kong

Where were the good Hong Kong movies in 2014? The last time I felt this underwhelmed about a full year’s release slate, it was 2005 and Initial D was considered Top 10 material. How the mighty have fallen (further).

There have been undeniable bright spots, like Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After. Chan’s post-apocalyptic black comedy-thriller was entertaining but with an incredibly sharp satirical edge. The whole didn’t make complete sense, but The Midnight After hit the sweet spot of smart genre fare and solid thematic execution.

Plus, the film had a great premise – people ride a minibus to Taipo and discover everyone in Hong Kong has disappeared – and managed to tie its themes to its story beautifully. Those themes – Hong Kong’s post-handover blues and identity crisis – were sometimes explicated in an obvious “time for my personal monologue” way, but it’s hard to sneak complex motivations into a movie with gas mask-wearing mystery villains and a weird virus that will disintegrate you after first giving you nausea. That Fruit Chan did what he did given everything he was expected to do is an achievement.

Hong Kong movies could use more ideas like those in The Midnight After. Outside of expensive genre films, our commercial films aren’t known for their strong premises and usually take the form of star-driven fare where the names are more important than what they are doing. Maybe it’s the fast food nature of local cinema that pushes it towards loose concepts. Hong Kong people work hard, but they also work fast, and shortcuts are often tolerated if not encouraged. I have no doubt this attitude informs many filmmakers and film productions.

China has this problem too, but they also have a robust, growing film market and lots of money flying around. More films means more chances for writers and directors to experiment with ideas. Many recent China films could be adapted to a Hong Kong cast and location, so let’s look at a few that have compelling concepts that – if someone “borrowed” these ideas for Hong Kong films – would be a welcome change from what local cinema generally serves up.

The Social Media Movie

Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web is about a terminally ill woman (Gao Yuanyuan) who, at her lowest point, refuses to give up her seat on the bus to an old man. Her insensitivity is caught on video and uploaded to the web, leading to online bullying and plenty of hypocritical pontificating. Hong Kong’s smartphone-obsessed, tabloid news-addicted culture would be the perfect setting for this tale of media sensationalism and contemporary morality – heck, this sort of outrage happens every other week in Hong Kong, e.g., a salaryman arguing with a millennial on a bus, or a girl berating her boyfriend in public. Viral videos get parodied plenty in films, but usually only as wink-wink references to a plugged-in audience. A relevant, meaty movie could easily be made about one of these events. To make this movie on the cheap, I would suggest Herman Yau as director.

The Film Noir

A dry 2013 thriller about a cop (Liao Fan) who falls for a wounded widow (Gwai Lun-mei) while investigating a murder, Black Coal, Thin Ice takes place in a setting – chilly northern China – that’s impossible to replicate in Hong Kong. The premise and themes are easily transplanted however. At its core, this is a film noir with a femme fatale, a bent cop and infinite shades of grey. The monochrome color palette created by the wintry setting cannot be had, meaning some of that black-and-white symbolism will be lost, but using a sweltering Hong Kong summer as a metaphor for hot-blooded passion would work well enough. Cast Cecilia Cheung as the black widow, pair her with Shawn Yue as the conflicted beta male and set it somewhere in the New Territories (or maybe Macau) where the moral ambiguity can percolate. Derek Yee, please make this film.

The Materialistic School Movie

I frequently deride the fabulously trashy youth saga Tiny Times, and why not? It’s a vapid China rehash of Gossip Girl that is hilariously materialistic and tone-deaf about the themes of youth and friendship it purports to celebrate. Really, we should all be wary of Tiny Times – but if you think about it, you could set this upscale female friendship anthem in a Hong Kong international school or university. House the girls in an unrealistically large flat and watch them shop weekly in Central while bemoaning their identity politics and relationship woes every other waking moment. You would have to cast unknowns (or maybe some of the girls from TVB drama M Club) but give them brand names and tricked-out mobiles and you would have yourself a hit. Patrick Kong could direct, but the idea frightens me.

The Road Trip

Recently, China delivered two hit films featuring friends engaging in shenanigans while driving across China. The Continent, from multi-tasking blogger, writer, filmmaker and racecar driver Han Han, delivered dry-comic philosophical musings, while Breakup Buddies from the super-talented Ning Hao went for straight-up populist laughs. Send your Hong Kong protagonists on the road in China, Taiwan, Canada, the US or even Dubai, if you like the desert. Cast any number of actors (Shawn Yue, Chapman To, Ronald Cheng or even Bosco Wong or Wong Cho-lam) and enjoy on an international trip filled with fish-out-of-water gags and other hijinks.
Or keep it in Hong Kong. A road trip across the territory would take less than two hours, but hey – imagine a story about a couple of old friends driving from Sheung Wan to Shenzhen for manufactured reasons. They would make a couple of stops, meet a couple of girls, fight about some long-standing issue, get into shenanigans at the border and then finally arrive at their destination with some odd revelation about life, friendship or Hong Kong’s socio-political identity. If Edmond Pang Ho-cheung made this film, it would be both ambitious and awesome. More importantly, it would be different.