I once made the mistake of bringing up Hong Kong cinema to a local film student, who proceeded to lecture me for the next hour on the declining state of the industry. He’s not entirely wrong – Hong Kong movies are often laughable at best. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t created some real gems.
In comparison to the Hollywood movies we all know and love, Hong Kong cinema is typically characterized by low budgets and lightning fast productions. Take a quick glance at director Wong Jing’s IMDb page and you’ll see he has been directing multiple films a year since 1981, for a grand total of 108 directing credits – doubled that of Woody Allen’s.
HK movies simply do not have the time or money to match the level of quality we’re accustomed to in the West, which as you can imagine, tends to lead to final products that can be summed up as ‘sub-par’. That, however, is part of their charm.
Now, not every movie on this list is ‘so bad it’s good’. I simply want you to be mentally prepared to suspend your disbelief. Here are the top flicks you can catch on Youtube right now.
5. Gen-Y Cops (aka Gen-X Cops 2: Metal Mayhem)
Starring: Edison Chen (pre-scandal), Stephen Fung, Sam Lee, Maggie Q
A hip (for back then) action sequel to Gen-X Cops, starring handsome guys and gals who band together to take down a killer robot or something. The movie is terrible but at least it’s nice enough to warn you with a cheesy subtitle like Metal Mayhem. An otherwise entirely forgettable experience, Gen-Y Cops is saved by the masterful casting of one particular star – Paul freakin’ Rudd.
The story is that Paul Rudd needed a quick gig to pay for rent when his agent notified him of a production in Hong Kong, Gen-Y Cops. Keep in mind this is 15 years before Ant-man, when the only notable role he had prior was Clueless. Naturally, Rudd said yes.
The man honestly deserves an Oscar just for being able to maintain a straight face throughout all his scenes. So yeah, watch Gen-Y Cops for Paul Rudd and his blindingly-blonde hair.
Update: Aaaaand it’s taken down. Oh, well. No lost really.
4. Troublesome Night 5
Starring: Louis Koo, Chin Ka-Lok
I briefly considered filling up this entire list with Troublesome Night movies, of which there are 19. Yep. There are NINETEEN movies in the series filmed over only SEVEN years.
Troublesome Night 5 stars Louis Koo as a gambling-addicted taxi driver who makes a deal with a ghost. There’s paranormal stuff, drama, family tension, and a lot of comedy – both intentional and unintentional. In case Gen-Y Cops didn’t sell you on the weirdness of HK cinema, this movie will definitely finish the job. Words cannot do this movie justice; you really do have to see Troublesome Night 5 for yourself.
Confession Time: if you’re wondering how I picked Troublesome Night 5 out of all 19, it’s because 5 is the only one I’ve seen. However, I have made it my life mission to watch the entire series, most of which are available on Youtube. Yay!
3. From Beijing With Love
Starring: Stephen Chow, Anita Yuen
No list is truly complete without a Stephen Chow movie. You’ve probably seen him in Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, but I bet you haven’t seen From Beijing With Love.
A parody of James Bond films from start to finish, Chow plays a butcher/spy, Ling Ling Chat (007 in Cantonese), who is tasked with tracking down stolen dinosaur bones in the name of China. To aid in his quest, Chow is provided with loads of super spy gadgets from the mainland, including a gun that shoots backwards, a blow dryer disguised as a shoe, a solar-powered flashlight that only works under the light, and of course, his trusty meat cleaver.
Topping off the cast is a bad guy named Golden Gun with a golden gun, a Chinese Jaws ripped straight out of Moonraker, and a femme-fatale with a flame-throwing bra. Imagine Kingsmen with Asian actors, sprinkled with Stephen Chow’s signature sense of physical humor, then injected with a dose of the 90s, and you have From Beijing With Love in a nutshell.
2. Comrades: Almost A Love Story
Starring: Leon Lai, Maggie Cheung
Okay, this one is actually a serious recommendation. Not only is Comrades a tear-jerking romance (I shed one, single manly tear at the end), it also has themes that likely resonate with many expats.
Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung play lonely Chinese mainlanders who migrate to Hong Kong in search of a better life. They meet and fall in love (surprising no one). What is surprising though, is how relevant this movie feels despite being 20 years old.
The film touches on many themes related to living in Hong Kong, like cultural assimilation, racism towards mainlanders, McDonald’s, and the impact of wealth. The movie also boasts a somewhat global cast, with Wong Kar-Wai’s frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, playing an expat English teacher who falls for a Filipino prostitute. Though the script unfortunately dips a little too far into melodramatic territory, it makes up for it with one of the best subplots I’ve ever seen (it involves the late singer Teresa Tang).
Comrades: Almost A Love Story went on to win a ton of awards and is, in my humble opinion, one of the best Hong Kong movies ever made.
1. SPL: Saat Po Long (aka Killzone)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung
As great as Comrades is, it would simply be sacrilegious for our first place not to go to a kung fu or heroic bloodshed movie – the bread and butter of Hong Kong cinema. Our #1 not only manages to perfectly combine those two genres, but also kickstart the career of a gestating action star, Donnie Yen.
SPL is a dark and violent action-drama about a group of bent detectives who are willing go to any depths in order to take down a triad boss. Before long, the detectives are hunted down one by one by a master assassin with Donnie Yen, the new guy on the team, being the only one capable of fighting back.
SPL is hands-down one of the best action movies you will ever see. This isn’t like in Ip Man where Donnie Yen fights more-or-less like a gentleman. Here, Donnie Yen goes full-on berserk with his MMA and doesn’t hesitate to use weapons like guns and knives. It’s gritty, it’s realistic, and it really feels like a man desperately fighting for his life.
The fight scene between Yen and Jing Wu will scar you from walking into alleyways ever again (I highly recommend watching the entire film because the buildup to the fight is super intense):
The success of the movie spawned a somewhat related prequel, Flash Point, and a totally unrelated sequel, SPL 2, both of which are worth checking out if you’re a fan of the action genre.
Little known to most, Donnie Yen has been in the industry since 1984 but never managed to hit it big in Hong Kong or overseas despite landing lead roles and even appearing in Blade 2. SPL, along with Ip Man a few years later, finally cemented the man’s status as an action icon, and, well, now he’s in Star Wars. Go figure.
So what’d you think? Do you like any of these movies or are they complete crap? Give me a shout in the comments below!