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Beyond Kung-Fu | Hong Kong's 7 Best Arthouse Directors
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Beyond Kung-Fu | Hong Kong's 7 Best Arthouse Directors

Picture of Sasha Frost
Updated: 30 December 2016
The Hong Kong film industry is on a roller-coaster ride, gaining and losing in equal parts from its relationships with foreign film industries in Hollywood and mainland China. Though Hong Kong has long been known for Kung Fu films and fast-paced crime capers, we explore the directors focusing on the day to day lives of citizens as they navigate their way through a region fraught with political and social upheaval.

Wong Kar-Wai

Wong Kar-Wai is perhaps Hong Kong’s most critically acclaimed director working today, famous for Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), and Happy Together (1997). Wong is a master of emotion and stylized cinematography, producing instantly recognizable work that often seamlessly shifts gears between breakneck scene switches and a slow-motion dreamscape. Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000) was nominated for the Palme D’Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and is a brilliant exploration of fidelity and secrecy in 1960’s Hong Kong. The film follows two neighbours coming to terms with the infidelity of their respective partners as they are drawn ever closer together by playing a dangerous game of re-enacting their partners’ affair. The film forms the second part of a trilogy with Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004). It is a film full of highly textured scenes, awash with vivid colours, trails of cigarette smoke, the ringing of unanswered telephone calls, and steam rising from the shadows on rainy Hong Kong nights.

Wong Kar-Wai ‘In The Mood For Love’ Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnFjSHQFVkA

Hark Tsui

Hark Tsui is a master filmmaker renowned for both his stylized action films and his earlier experimental works. Tsui was born in Vietnam and moved to Hong Kong in his teenage years, later studying in Austin, Texas. He deftly sources material from folklore and mythology, drawing from mainland China and his erstwhile home of Vietnam, to create films which resonate with a wide audience. Tsui broke into the Hong Kong film scene with the fantasy thriller The Butterfly Murders (1979), and cemented his reputation with Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980). The former cast him as a political firebrand in the eyes of the government censors, who ordered the film to be heavily edited. Tsui’s craft has continued to evolve with the changing film industry, and he has successfully worked on blockbuster action films with the likes of Jet Lee as he tries his hand at animated films.

Ann Hui

Ann Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated directors, having risen to prominence during the Hong Kong New Wave era of the 1980s. Like many of her contemporaries from that time period, Hui trained abroad for a number of years in her youth, studying at the London Film School. On her return to Hong Kong, Hui worked first in television and then in film, repeatedly producing work controversial enough to draw the attention of the censors, resulting in a number of her films being banned. Among the collection of Hui’s critically acclaimed films are Boat People (1982), Song of Exile (1990), The Way We Are (2008), and A Simple Life (2011). Hui has directed a series of more traditional Hong Kong action films but she is best known and respected for her exploration of fragmentation of individual identities and societies as a result of cultural upheaval.

Patrick Tam

Patrick Tam can be counted among the cohort of Hong Kong’s New Wave directors, achieving success with Final Victory (1987) and the gangster flick My Heart is that Eternal Rose (1989). Tam’s films have an aesthetic quality which set them apart, and are all rigorously edited to a crystalline focus, even in moments when the plot of the film veers off into the stranger waters. Tam often expresses the unbalanced position women hold in society, offering audiences strong female characters with individual points of view and genuine autonomy, however restricted their environment may be. Wong Kar-Wai has previously written a script that Tam directed (Final Victory), and Tam has likewise contributed to Wong’s films, such as editing Days of Being Wild (1990). In recent years, Tam has dedicated himself to editing.

Yim Ho

Yim Ho has been awarded Best Director and Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and has had films nominated for the Berlin Golden Bear and the Hong Kong Film Awards. Ho is known for his modern day epics and his exploration of familial and national ties, often delving into the relationships of individuals to their relinquished or adopted homelands. His films have focused on the complexities of identity in a region where migration and cultural displacement is commonplace, as families and communities shift between mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other parts of the region. Ho is likely best known for Homecoming (1984), a tale of a woman’s journey from her urban existence to the place of her birth; Red Dust (1990), a story of love and treachery during WWII; and Kitchen (1997), a beautifully shot film about death and acceptance, based on the novel by Banana Yoshimoto.

Allen Fong

Allen Fong followed the route of many of his contemporaries of the New Wave, studying film abroad at the University of South Carolina Cinema School returning to join the ranks of Hong Kong television directors, and finally breaking out on his own to develop a distinctive cinematic style. Fong has directed numerous documentaries and many of his films contain elements of the documentary style, creating a potent blend of fact and fiction, while at the same time maintaining a strong sense of realism. Among Fong’s most significant works are Father and Son (1982), Ah Ying (1983), and A Little-Life Opera (1998).

Stanley Kwan

Along with Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan is another Hong Kong Second Wave director who has successfully addressed issues of the struggle of women in Hong Kong society. Kwan has also explored gender roles in a manner that has little precedent within the industry. Working in television with the hopes of becoming an actor, Kwan soon switched his focus to directing, training under Ann Hui and Patrick Tam, among others. He is one of the few openly gay directors in the Hong Kong film industry, and has directed a revealing documentary about the industry’s past: Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1998). Kwan’s films include Rouge (1987), Full Moon in New York (1989), and Center Stage (1991), a biopic of the 1930s Chinese actress Ruan Ling Yu, starring a Wong Kar-Wai favourite, Maggie Cheung.