2008 / Johnnie To > As one of the most prolific directors working in cinema today, it’s nice to see To take a break from his more usual triad fare to try on a different hat. Sparrow is an elusive departure, with its visually stunning cinematography, matching moody music and a charming performance by the elegant Kelly Lin in telling the story of a gang of Hong Kong pickpockets falling for the wrong woman. It’s light, a bit airy and sometimes hard to resist, but is similarly fleeting in the mind of the viewer. There’s some drama thrown into the mix to give the film some semblance of a plot, but that’s really an afterthought. Consider it a treat, a simply joy from the director—especially after those vicious dogs in Election 2—before his venture into the global market with a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge.
2008 / Liu Fendou > A train wreck that you can’t take your eyes away from, that’s what Liu’s concocted for us. In this case, it’s the supremely destructive relationship between a street thug and a well-to-do girl who clutches on tighter the harder he pushes. In some scenarios, it’s easy to say that we should only watch movies that have hope, redeeming values, make us comfortable and fluffy inside. This is the antithesis of all that. There’s nothing but the weakest attributes of humanity on display, and is somehow, at least for me, fascinating enough to stay with until the end. It’s also interesting that this is Hong Kong-favorite Simon Yam’s first producing effort. Maybe he’s playing Robin Hood, taking money from his mainstream winnings and putting them into the virtually nonexistent independent film scene on the island. If so, good. While Ocean Flame is as polarizing a film that may be released out of Hong Kong this year, I’m glad someone is taking these chances.
1990 / Benny Chan > As a definite Hong Kong-classic, A Moment of Romance is raw in its violence and in its portrayal of love. An already popular Andy Lau starring alongside a fresh Jacqueline Wu display the kind of chemistry that makes up for the film’s trite plot points and unpolished direction. The whole triad angle simply works as a foil for us to see their love evolve, ultimately leading to the now-famous final sequence on the bike. It’s a scene that’s been imitated but never with this kind of emotion. Director Chan and producer Johnnie To have created a picture that’s amazingly been able to withstand the test of time.
2007 / Edmond Pang > After a superb directing effort in Isabella, Pang goes off the deep-end in this seemingly ridiculous black dramedy about a secret women’s organization that kills men—or so it seems. Following a haunting, memorable introductory sequence, Exodus dives us into a mystery that takes its sweet time to unwind. Plot twists are somewhat predictable, but the tone is dark and fascinating. Simon Yam’s passive-aggressive cop is spot on and Annie Liu complements him well. Visually, Charlie Lam’s cinematography once again impresses, with lingering, vivid shots that constantly mesmerize the eye. Where the film fails, unfortunately, is in the final stretch where the speed at which the film moves accelerates to a point where it may actually leave the viewers with more questions than answers. It ends up being somewhat superficial and fluffy, but still a wonderful, offbeat treat.
2000 / Edward Yang > Yi Yi is loved for the same reason it isn’t perfect: For three hours, Yang meticulously orchestrates the lives of a middle-class Taiwanese family through everyday trials and tribulations, both simple and complex, but ends without a proper conclusion. Generally, this does little but to anger the viewer who’s given up 180 minutes of their life, but as the credits roll, a feeling comes over that contradicts such expected notions.
Beautiful and easing, Yi Yi is full of warmth while staying true to the crass happenings of life. In some ways, it’s just easy to watch—there are no fancy editing techniques or climactic sequences, but even in its calm demeanor, the film commands attention throughout. As a character says, “films let us live three times,” and in that vein, we are able to connect to others and empathize about the richness and hope of living. It’s a must-see for those who’ve been turned off by Tsai (and to some degree Hou) to once again believe in the future of Taiwanese cinema, while at the same time coming to appreciate the loss that Yang’s death earlier this year has caused to the film world.
2007 / Kevin Munroe > Harshly misjudged by critics who never appreciated the original cartoon series in its heyday, TMNT is incredibly beautiful, often funny, sometimes serious and overall enjoyable piece of work. It’s not great cinema, and it doesn’t go beyond its safe zones, but it does what it does well. I simply couldn’t help at times to think that the animation was completely outsourced from Hong Kong, with its production values as good if not better than anything Pixar’s put forth. Obviously, the story remains the key, and while it doesn’t compete with Brad Bird’s output, it ends up having a slightly more mature tone that should satisfy those who have grown with the turtles themselves.
2007 / Derek Yee > One Nite in Mongkok is arguably one of the finest Hong Kong crime/noir films ever made, so I was very much anticipating Yee’s follow-up within a similar genre. In Protege, however, Yee has disappointed me considerably, as the film falters from incredibly uneven pacing and a lack of passion and focus that sucks the juice out of what could have been a rather powerful storyline. There are definitely some great moments (such as Andy Lau in the bathroom), but the overall tone is too pedantic and constantly meanders for meaning and approval.
2000 / Lou Ye > This might be the first film since the early 90s outings from Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige that has made me believe in the future of mainland Chinese cinema. Having been unable to adjust to critically acclaimed films of Zhang Ke Jia, I was worried that most of what was being made in the mainland—of slow, deliberate pacing reminiscent of the Taiwanese New Wave. But with Suzhou River, one can hope that these elements will continue to be combined with the vibrancy present in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and the local mood of modern China. By itself, it’s a tangential homage to Vertigo that’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. While separately it often feels grossly derivative, the combined product is as fresh as it is youthful.
1997 / Wong Kar-Wai > Undeniably my least favorite Wong Kar-Wai film, but not because of the obvious subject matter: The problem was that it felt too easy. When you have a character like Ho Po-wing—that bastard significant other who’s selfish but somehow always comes back to haunt you—it becomes an easy to use conflict creator that tires quickly. It lacks the imagination of Chungking Express and the subtlety of In the Mood for Love, but saves itself by retaining the visuals and music that are so pertinent to Wong’s oeuvre.
1999 / Tsai Ming-Liang > While I’ve gotten somewhat used to Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it’s still been a bit of a dogfight “getting” Tsai’s films. The question I find myself asking is: If nothing really happens in a film, do you go out of your way to find meaning? I think no, mostly because if we did that with every film, it’s possible to find loads of layers that were not intended to begin with. And in many ways, I still find intention to be one of the cornerstones of filmmaking. (It is, of course, possible to not execute your intention properly but still result in a better film than originally intended—and judging that is quite another dilemma.) Anyhow, The Hole and its semi-apocalyptic romantic musical isn’t for everyone. Tsai remains a director you love or you hate, and while I won’t go to the polar negative, I can’t say I’ve warmed up to him by any means.