Top 10 and Comments from Brian

Many of you may have seen the story that told the sad tale of Psychedelic Cop that appeared in a newspaper article in the U.K. Apparently during its week long film run a total of eleven people bought tickets to it – how many actually watched it to the end is not known. This was just a footnote though in the declining fortunes of the Hong Kong film industry that saw only 92 films produced – and 25 of these were made on digital video. The box office for Hong Kong films totaled US$44 million – a reduction of 24% from the previous year. The top 10 HK films made about US$25 million of this  - leaving the remainder to 82 other films.

Many of these 92 films came and went without a whimper – appearing in theaters only so that they could claim a theatrical release and then right into vcd production. These are not good signs that the HK film industry is beginning to turn the corner yet – or that it will do so in the near future. Foreign films are making bigger inroads among the audience than ever before as 60% of the tickets sold were for non-HK films. With these numbers one has to wonder what is still driving producers to invest in films – so few must be making a profit  - and this is forcing budgets to get smaller and smaller – which only adds to the dismal picture going forwards. Even so, among the rubble there were some absolutely excellent films this year. In fact, I would venture that the films coming out of Hong Kong this year were generally better than those coming out of the much more ballyhooed Korea. The variety this year from HK was amazing with Indie downers like Runaway Pistol to the slick taut Infernal Affairs to sweet coming of age films like Just One Look. In their inability to find box office success HK producers are not latching on to one hot formula as in the past, but instead going in many different directions and exploring many different genres.
In fact, the one genre that sustained Hong Kong for nearly three decades can almost be declared dead. The only decent action films this year all starred females as the action stars – The Touch with Michelle Yeoh, So Close with the lovely threesome of Hsu Chi, Karen Mok and Vicky Zhao and the ludicrous but enjoyable Naked Weapon with Maggie Q and Anya. This is truly an astonishing nearly metaphysical change in the landscape of HK filmmaking. Action films simply cost too much money and don’t draw an audience any more and only the hopeful appeal of attractive females allow any action films to be made. Who would have thought that in the end only the Girls with Guns would be left standing?
Another once popular genre fared little better. Cops and triad films made little impact this year – not even a Young and Dangerous in sight. Perhaps the huge box office success of Infernal Affairs may bring back more of these well made intelligent crime dramas though no doubt the star power of the film had much to do with its popularity. Other crime stories were Shark Busters, The Wall and Devil Face Angel Heart, but they received minimum attention.
The two main drivers of film production these days are horror and romantic comedies as it has been for the past few years. Horror films thrived this year – perhaps the ability to make them with a low budget and some green lighting is part of it – but a large number came out this year and two of them The Eye and Inner Senses made an impact internationally as well. Some others to attempt to scare viewers were New Blood, Possessed, Demi-Haunted, Haunted Office, Three, Sleeping with the Dead, Visible Secret 2 and more Troublesome Night films than should be allowable.
Primarily though it is the combination of comedy and romance that seems to fill the theaters these days in HK. Among the top ten box office hits were Marry a Rich Man, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Fat Choi Spirit, Mighty Baby, Dry Wood Fierce Fires, Chinese Odyssey 2002 and The Lion Roars. Add to this films like My Wife is Eighteen, Just One Look, Summer Breeze of Love, The Irresistible Piggies, Women from Mars, Tiramisu, Love Undercover, Fighting to Survive and Beauty and the Breast. Most of these are fairly vapid, forgettable and quite formulaic but a few were very enjoyable I thought. In some ways it is the skewed and offbeat humor of films like Fat Choi Spirit, Irresistible Piggies, The Lion Roars and Chinese Odyssey 2002 that have kept the unique character of Hong Kong films intact - films that have that "only in Hong Kong" feel to them.
Hong Kong has never been a place for non-commercial serious dramas, but there were a few this year that managed to be made and that have strong appeal – if not in Hong Kong at least internationally – Fruit Chan’s Hollywood Hong Kong is quirky and cynical, Ann Hui thoughtfully explores a dying marriage in July Rhapsody and Lam Wah-cheun’s Runaway Pistol is a downbeat look at humanity and our deadly attraction to violence.
To some degree this may be looked back as the Year of the Twins. Though none of their films were box office hits the Twins seemed to be everywhere and they surprised many folks by actually showing a large dollop of talent and appeal. Summer Breeze of Love and Just One Look radiated with their young charm. One or the other of them also popped up in My Wife is Eighteen, If U Care and U-Man and their Twins Effect is one of the few films I am looking forward to in 2003. Two other actresses who may well outlast The Twins because of their immense talent are Angelica Lee (The Eye and Princess D) and Karena Lam (Inner Senses, Tiramisu and July Rhapsody) and it will be interesting to follow their careers. Another Idol – or make that nine of them – tried to follow in the wake of The Twins but The Cookies crumbled quietly with Nine Girls and a Ghost. Still, the Invasion of the Idols is going strong with no end in sight.
Though these younger actors are possibly the future of Hong Kong film and get most of the hoopla – it is still the veterans that really bring folks into the theaters. Andy Lau with Infernal Affairs and Fat Choi Spirit, Tony Leung Chiu-wai with the marvelous hat trick of Chinese Odyssey 2002, Hero and Infernal Affairs and Sammi Cheng with My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Marry a Rich Man and a guest appearance in Infernal Affairs. To a large degree it is this magical trio that are keeping the HK film industry afloat. So in total it is a somewhat depressing picture, but there were certainly enough bright spots to make someone like myself who loves HK film continue to be optimistic and to continue watching.

Here are the top 10 Box Office films for the year: Amounts are in HK$:

1. Infernal Affairs* -  $45,170,000
2. Marry a Rich Man - $21,688,609
3. Hero*  -  $20,970,000
4. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts  - $20,708,935
5. Fat Choi Spirit - $19,218,759
6. Mighty Baby - $19,021,894
7. The Eye - $13,733,856
8. Dry Wood Fierce Fire - $13,110,823
9. Chinese Odyssey 2002 - $13,050,190
10. The Lion Roars - $12,500,000)

(*End of the year films still playing in HKSAR theaters at end of the year)

To see an entire listing of HK 2002 films, please go to Sanney's Entertainment site.

Brian's Top 10

1.) Chinese Odyssey 2002

This film came out near the beginning of the year and completely won me over with its whimsical charms, Wong Kar-wai parodies and a gentle sense of humanity that underlies everything. It is very silly at times but the pieces all add up to a whole that is very touching and romantic. A superb cast of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Faye Wong, Athena Chu and Vicky Zhao give it the puckish humor that is called for and they are more than a little lovable. I certainly hadn't anticipated that the film would still be my favorite by the end of the year, but the film unexpectedly crept into my brain and has made itself at home there.

2.)  Just One Look

The Twins were the big selling point of the film, but in reality it is a wonderful ensemble piece that captures in nearly pure form the essence of nostalgia, young love and growing up. It is also a lovely affectionate tone poem to the HK films from back in the “Golden Age” of the 1960’s and 70’s - a time when film really captured our imagination. There are no explosive moments in this film, but instead a series of comical and lyrical vignettes that lead up to a final magical ending and a perfect cameo as an exclamation point.

3.) Runaway Pistol

On the surface this film might strike the viewer as mean spirited and hopelessly pessimistic - and perhaps it is. For my money though underneath the cruel veneer is a strangled cry of humanity, a tortured scream to stop the madness. It tells the tale of a gun being passed to various Hong Kong natives like a bad disease and how the gun reluctantly turns its sights on someone, anyone. At times the film indulges in dark humor but most of the time it is simply grim and unrelenting as it searches for the blackness within us all – it is powerful film making.

4.) Infernal Affairs

Andrew Lau wades into old Johnny To territory and does the master of crime noir proud with a tense sleek suspenseful tale of cops and triads that throws surprises at you till the very end. Eric Tsang plants a mole (Andy Lau) into the police force and Anthony Wong likewise plants a mole (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) among the triads - and both sit back and watch their plants grow and flourish over ten years. When both realize at the same time that they have been infiltrated a frantic cat and mouse race begins to be the first to find the mole in their organization. With little action to speak of this becomes a wonderful character study of two men trapped in a world they don't want to inhabit as they coolly go about their business of uncovering one another.

5.) So Close

Three of Hong Kong's loveliest actresses spend much of the film looking wonderfully stylish as they fight each other or various bad guys. The choreography is topnotch and visually delightful, the film speeds along as if on growth hormones and Hsu Chi has perhaps never looked more beautiful. The plot is almost needless to say somewhat scatterbrained, but the myriad of close ups and action scenes made me stop worrying about small matters like this. A last fabulous fight with two of the actresses against kung fu legend Yusuaki Kurata was pure pleasure as was Hsu Chi's opening assassination assignment. One of the better Girls with Guns films since the good old days.

6.) The Eye

The Eye falls into that newfound genre about humans seeing ghosts, but this one has some depth, power and a few solid chills to it. A knockout performance from newcomer Angelica Lee gives it heart and intelligence and makes it all matter. An eye transplant gives her the ability to see spirits, but the fear it brings drives her into the shadows of her room where she can no longer see. When she finally resolves to search for answers, she discovers that the real horrors are not the ghosts at all.

7.) Inner Senses

This was another "sees ghosts" film that came out in Hong Kong in 2002, but it is as much a psychological mystery that needs to be unraveled as a ghost story. It contains only a few outright scares but has a chilling anguished mood throughout. Both Leslie Cheung and Karena Lam give the film a sophistication and glossy tint, but it is their pain and confusion that draws the viewer reluctantly into their scary world.

8.) The Lion Roars

Mixing “The Taming of the Shrew” and a Stephen Chow period comedy without Chow, the film delivers in a number of enjoyable ways. The first section is lighthearted and quite amusing as Louis Koo and a radiant and temperamental Cecilia Cheung flirt and fight and fall in love - but this just sets up a second more dramatic section that has a surprising emotional resonance. Cecilia's scream of heartbreak and anguish knocked me off my feet. Cecilia sparkles like a diamond with her quick smile and dancing eyes and this is easily her best role since King of Comedy.

9.) Hollywood Hong Kong

To some degree I admire this film more than actually liking it. As in all Fruit Chan films, he goes off in eccentric directions that no other Hong Kong director would even attempt and much of it is wonderful. Here though he really throws the viewer a vicious curve halfway through that I never quite recovered from and it left me feeling a bit empty. Full of black humor, oddball characters and memorable images, it is a film that will have you thinking about it many weeks after seeing it but also wishing that in the end there was less cynicism and more magic.

10.) The Stewardess\Naked Weapon

Both these films are purely guilty pleasures that I enjoyed much more than I should have I suppose. In a way though they are throwbacks to the days when HK films were often brushes with insanity and adrenaline driven fun. In the Stewardess Japanese actress, Seina Kasugai , gives a rip roaring fabulously tongue in cheek performance as a psycho killer in an amusing and satirical look at horror films and many other genres as well. Though it sneaks in under the guise of a conventional horror film, it gives you a big wink and goes about its business of adding to the body count. Naked Weapon just throws a lot of beautiful killer females at you and takes a slice of films like Battle Royale, the Matrix and 100 previous hitman films and mixes them all together into an absurd sweaty frenzy. It is at times surprisingly brutal, at times quite awful - but Maggie Q's lap dance alone is worth the price of taking a look.

Special Mention) Going Home section of Three

In the film "Three", one of its sections was a film helmed by Hong Kong director Peter Chow and it is the best 50 minutes of film made during the year. It is a horror film in name only - in truth it is a powerful painful ode to love and sacrifice with an ending that will stun you, break you and enlighten you all at the same time. An amazing piece of film.

Here are some other 2002 Asian favorites from outside of Hong Kong that I really enjoyed.


Going through a boxfull of this year's Korean films recently I kept asking myself "where did the magic go?" For the most part I thought this was a terrible year for the Korean film scene and it feels as if I have slogged through a number of truly mediocre films that were either broad unfunny comedies or less than charming romances. One wonders if that creative burst from a few years back is dissipating in a flurry of ill-conceived projects that felt tedious, repetitive and imitative of the West. And please put a moratorium on the hitting. So many Korean films are filled with physical violence - teachers hitting students, men hitting women, friends hitting friends, superiors hitting juniors - enough already. It was adorable in Sassy Girl, but much of it feels unneeded, cruel and boring to me.  There were of course a number of exceptions to this year's mediocrity. Here are a few.


When I initially read about this film I felt a sense of pain rush through me - a romance between a woman with cerebral palsy and a man on the fringes of society. Oh God I thought – how wonderfully politically correct it all sounded. Let me shed a tear. The last thing I expected was to have my heart ripped out by two stupendous performances and a film that reaches into all of us and asks us how human we really are.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

This film never plays for your sympathies and the characters have various shades to them that never allow you to really like them. Basically they are good people who we seem to catch at a very bad time in their lives – as they commit crimes and commit murder – but all driven by a deep love for a sister and for a daughter. It is a cold harsh film with a few emotional bursts that feel like knife cuts. The cinematography and framing of the film are stunning and make this film a visual treat.

The Phone

A really enjoyable horror film that is certainly derivative of the recent rash of films influenced by The Ring, but it is very well made and delivers the requisite chills. It has possibly the creepiest child ever in film – you may rethink procreation after seeing this – and it has some twists that blindsided me.


Though Japanese films aren’t getting nearly the positive press that Korean films have as of late, I think this year  belonged to them. Much of their Western fans have zeroed in on their horror and yakuza films with Miike becoming a cinema god of sorts, but they are producing many other types of quality films as well. Here are five films that were especially good I thought.

Twilight Samurai

It is difficult to imagine a samurai film that basically has no action – but this one contains really only one fight of note – yet it is a remarkable film that attempts to deconstruct a genre. It is possibly one of the more realistic films to depict the life of a samurai back in the fading feudal days of Japan. Many samurai were not warriors – but instead had to take care of the day-to-day activities of their Lord. The main samurai in this film is a lowly one – he works in the provisions department and takes care of his two daughters whom he cherishes deeply. Into his life comes a woman of a higher position that he loves but feels he cannot marry. The film fills in the space of time with simple things such as laundry, work, dinner – and out of this emerges a portrait of an amazingly honorable man in a less than honorable time – and one who is very good with his sword when called upon. This was the top film choice in a Japanese Film Critics Poll for the year and deservedly so.


I’ll just mention that The Ring didn’t even give me a shudder, but this creepy and slightly mystifying horror film had me checking under the bed and closing my bedroom door. It’s really just a haunted house tale, but it plays out like a long precise needle being pushed under your fingernail. The imagery and atmosphere are suffocating and icy chilling. This is the best horror film of the year from anywhere.


One would perhaps not expect a film depicting the meltdown of the Japanese banking system to be a subject for a film, but this fascinating, fast paced film tracks a sub-rosa group of middle management bank officials who fight frantically to save their bank from the regulators, from Senior Management and from the tentacles of the Yakuza. It is riveting stuff.

Masato Harada, the director of Spellbound, has put out some wonderful films over the last 5 or so years - and in a variety of genres that make his accomplishment all the more remarkable - yet perhaps because of this variety few seem to really know the guy or realize that he was the director of all these films. Other than Spellbound he is also responsible for Inugami, a creepy, delicate and at times confusing ghost story, the wonderful Bounce Ko Gals (about a group of Japanese school girls living on the fringes of prostitution and other unseemly activities but he does it in a totally unexploitive and downright humanistic way that warmed the cockles of my heart), Kamikaze Taxi (sort of a Yakuza/road film but with lots of other threads and politics interwoven - it's absolutely terrific) and the weakest of his films (but still intriguing) that I have seen, Choice of Hercules (based on a true event when the cops laid siege to some Japanese terrorists back in the 70s - and just digs into and subtlety lambastes the entire Japanese bureaucracy).

Copycat Killer/Mohouhan

This serial killer film takes a different track than most as it switches back and forth between the killers, the police, the media and the family of one of the victims. The film fills in the narration in bits and pieces but it eventually comes together in a fascinating and emotional whole. Unlike most serial killer films in this age, there is very little violence and gore shown as most of the killings take place off screen – this film is much more concerned about the psychology of murder and the impact it has on others.

Ping Pong

Matrix like Ping-Pong matches give this film a heady boost as it delves into the world of high school competitive table tennis. Based on a manga, the film zips along leaving fairy dust charm in its wake. It has many of the typical elements of a sports film – the weak against the strong, the loner with a special gift – but its fast pace and appealing characters give it a big heads up. HK actor Sam Lee gives a solid performance as one of the players brought in from China.


The Thai film industry continues to receive good word of mouth and some international recognition. Most of the films from this year didn’t knock me out and often felt derivative of Hong Kong – Bangkok Haunted, One Take Only and Nothing to Lose come to mind, but they still show loads of style and promise. It is exciting to watch this once dormant industry come back to life. Two films in particular struck me as quite original and worth taking a look.

Monrak Transistor

A marvelous film that was the Thai Oscar nominee this year. It begins almost as a romantic fairy tale that soon shatters into a myriad of broken shards of glass that stab you with their lost innocence. A sweet young rural couple fall in love, get married and then he is called into the army - this begins his painful Ulysses like Odyssey to get back to his wife with the fates seemingly against him. The performances from this couple are so winning and thus so sad as their lives fall apart. When Sadaw breaks down into tears, it feels as if the world has suddenly gone very cold and very cruel. Perhaps my favorite film of the year.


This film plays upon a huge historical canvass - incredible sets that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in Hollywood, a cast of thousands and a sumptuous epic based on events surrounding the Thai Royal family in the 1500's. Though the film feels impersonal for much of the running time, it is full of wonderful imagery, large scale battles and cutthroat betrayals and is well worth watching.


What’s with Love (Ada Apa dengan Cinta?)

I had never seen a film from Indonesia before this and so I went into this one with zero expectations and came away feeling as if I had witnessed a minor miracle. There is nothing really new here - the story has been rehashed in hundreds of American teenage films - an initial enmity between two people clearly destined for one another that blossoms into teenage love. But this one feels so tender and so innocent. Perhaps I am just old fashioned, but I found it so refreshing to see a film that was as cutting edge as french toast, never even approached sexual situations and had no MTV like editing.

It just tells a story of first love and of the loyal friendship between five girls in high school - and tells it sincerely and intelligently with no sense of irony or cynicism - and it completely sucked me in. Innocent is of course a culturally relative term - apparently in Indonesia the one male/female kiss between the two main characters shocked audiences in the same way that Clark Gable did with his undershirt in It Happened One Night over sixty years ago. In the very conservative Muslim culture this was a wow factor and it helped make this film the biggest box office draw ever in Indonesia.


India too is suffering through a creative crisis and a box office slump that is reaching terrible dimensions. No one seems to know what the audiences are looking for but it seems clear that that the old traditional Indian romance is appealing to fewer and fewer people these days. The audiences want something fresh but only a few films have been able to deliver this. The vast majority of films died a quick death at the theaters and this has caused producers to look for inspiration from other sources – Hollywood being the major one but most of these Hollywood influenced films have had no success either. Here were my three favorites for the year.


Ram Gopal Varma brings us on a bloody crawl through the Mumbai underworld in this sleek, dark and brilliant gangster film. With a mimimal usage of musical numbers (only 2) the film feels dangerous and authentic as organized crime goes global and an order for a kill can come from anywhere at anytime. A friend called this the best Hong Kong crime film in years - but it comes from Bollywood.


The character of Devdas has reached mythic proportions in India since the book was published back in the early 1900's and this is at least the fourth film to tackle the subject. As to why this character has so captured the Indian psyche would be a worthy subject as Devdas is a man torn apart by inner conflicts of duty to parents, a need to be his own man and a love for a woman that is below him in status. This leads to an excruciating descent into alcoholism and self-pity. The film is a visual spectacle - every frame is suffocatingly gorgeous and some shots will dazzle you. On top of this is a threesome of Bollywood's biggest stars - Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit - and musical numbers that are exquisite. I never quite sympathize with Devdas and so find his agony more irritating than understandable - but the other aspects of the film are simply stunning.


Romances are a dime a dozen on the gilded streets of Bollywood - but this one felt very different. It has some of the most natural dialogue and subtle acting performances (from Rani Mukerjee and Vivek Oberoi) that I have come across - no scenes of purple prose - just two people meeting and falling in love with a few magical moments. Another difference is that nearly all Bollywood romances end in marital bliss, but this film takes us over the threshold into the every day joys and difficulties of married life. It is a lovely film with some excellent musical numbers from A.R. Rahman and a cameo from Shahrukh Khan.