It’s been another strange year in Hong Kong cinema. Covid-19, this time in the form of the Omicron variant, wreaked havoc on cinemas, forcing closures for most of the early part of the year and once again disrupting the normally lucrative Lunar New Year season. As much fun as Sunny Chan’s clashing brothers comedy Table for Six is, it was supposed to be a New Year romp, not a Mid-Autumn Festival one, and only assumed its new role thanks to some fancy re-editing and a little voice dubbing magic.
But in many ways that simply demonstrates the resilience of the local film industry. Despite the challenges it is facing—chiefly the ongoing Covid crisis and increased censorship—it refuses to die. Ng Yuen-fai’s science fiction epic Warriors of Future, Table for Six and Kearen Pang’s MIRROR-led Mama’s Affair are three of the year’s winners so far, racking up HK$65 million, HK$43 million and HK$38 million in box office receipts respectively, making them genuine hits in the current climate. So as the year winds down, it’s no surprise the Hong Kong scene still has a few tricks up its sleeve, including a quartet of new films unveiled at the 33rd Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (HKAFF) from October 25 to November 13. Here’s a roundup of what to look out for this autumn.
Life Must Go On (opened October 6)
One-time pop star and resurgent actor Ekin Cheng (Young and Dangerous) and Catherine Chau (Ten Years) lead writer-director Ying Chi-wen’s feature debut, sports drama Life Must Go On. Life comes roughly a year after One Second Champion, the sports fantasy about a single dad who can see one second into the future and the boxer he starts training, became a modest hit. Chau stars as Yanki, a social worker who runs a so-called midnight gym for troubled teens, and when it looks like she may lose her funding, she puts together a dodgeball team and hires an unemployed, washed up athlete, Jones (Cheng), to coach the (mostly) girls. Life trades in the classic sports movie trope of the unlikely, rag tag group that must overcome their differences and work together to save the gym. (It’s not just sports movies; you can imagine the same formula being applied to saving the rec centre, or the nightclub, or the school.) Hokey? Yes, but stories like Life’s are a pillar of feel-good, against-the-odds filmmaking, and Cheng is rarely less than a totally charming screen presence.
The Narrow Road (screening October 25, HKAFF)
If you don’t want to wait for the general release, you can get a sneak peek at the first of four prestige local titles here. Lam Sum’s debut is set during the early days of the pandemic, with a story that pivots on Chak (Louis Cheung, Table for Six), an honest cleaning service owner struggling through a weakening economy and supply chain issues that threaten his livelihood. When the single mom he hires, Candy (Angela Yu), turns out to be a bit of a thief, the bond they had started to build comes under pressure. More than anything, Lam’s portrait of life on the fringes for the working poor, and of modern poverty made worse by force majeure, is timely beyond its Covid setting. In a few short years Cheung has transformed into one of Hong Kong’s most likeable and relatable actors after turns in Madalena and Ip Man 3. There’s no confirmed release date yet, but expect to see this in theatres sooner rather than later.
The Sparring Partner (opening October 27)
Produced by Philip Yung (Port of Call, Where the Wind Blows) and directed by Ho Check-tin in his feature debut, The Sparring Partner is a Category III murder mystery based on a sensational true crime story from 2013. Taking a page from Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) and its behind-the-scenes jury wrangling, the film toggles between three character clusters in its examination of right, wrong, justice and perception. The first is the sparring partners of the title, the defence counsel (Louisa So and Jan Lamb) who each have an agenda favouring their client, as well as the homicidal duo on trial, the manipulative Cheung (Yeung Wai-leun) and the dimwitted Tong (Mak Pui-ting), who conspired to brutally murder Cheung’s parents. The third are the jury members considering the guilt or innocence of the pair on trial. Ho plays with form and structure to weave the threads together in an atmospheric mise en scène as the jury debates where the truth lies amid the twists and turns of this quasi-potboiler.
Let It Ghost (October 27)
Here’s one just in time for Halloween. Wong Hoi’s comedy-thriller looks set to help rekindle Hong Kong’s long tradition of horror comedy, from the legendary Mr Vampire (1985) to 2017’s irreverent Vampire Cleanup Department, while picking up where Tale from the Occult left off. In Let It Ghost, co-written by Norris Wong, Kaki Sham (Far Far Away) leads the next generation of Hong Kong actors—among them Ling Man-lung (Shadows), Chung Suet-ying (Life Must Go On), So Chi-ho (Time), Ashina Kwok (Pang Ho-cheung’s Missbehavior) and Eric Tsui (Septet)—in an anthology of urban ghost legends: a flaky film director casts a ghost as a ghost in his latest film, a cab driver makes a mess of his girlfriend’s party room and attracts some lecherous spectres, and a wedding shopping mall on the verge of demolition has its otherworldly tenants doing their best to go out in style. Wong will be picking up a heavy baton, but if Norris Wong applies the same keen situational eye and resonant dialogue from My Prince Edward to Let It Ghost, it could represent the start of a horror comedy renaissance.
A Light Never Goes Out (November 13, HKAFF)
This year’s HKAFF is loaded up with films produced under the First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI) and the first is Anastasia Tsang’s A Light Never Goes Out. Tsang managed to enlist some heavy hitting veterans to go along with emerging actors for her gentle drama about a vanishing piece of Hong Kong heritage and the artisans behind it: neon signs. Actor-director Sylvia Chang (20: 30: 40, Murmur of the Hearts) stars as a widow who discovers a trove of secrets her late husband, played by Hong Kong film stalwart Simon Yam (Dr Lamb, PTU), hid in his workshop. Along with his apprentice (Henrick Chou) she sets out to fulfil his final wish: the recreation of a demolished neon sign. Tsang turns her camera on a part of the city that is actively passing into history at a time when the city is once again wrestling with its identity and its place in the world.
Lost Love (November 13, HKAFF)
Ka Sing-fun delivers the festival’s second FFFI film, and like Tsang, Ka was able to draw on considerable star power—this time from Cantopop singer and actor Sammi Cheng—for this drama about foster parenting, a still vaguely taboo subject in Hong Kong. Also starring Alan Luk and Hedwig Tam, Cheng plays Mei, a woman trying to deal with the death of her young son by fostering other kids. The work challenges Mei and forces her to not only reevaluate her fundamental beliefs, but also her life and her marriage. Though she’s best known for her fluffier rom-coms, Cheng has turned in nuanced, moving performances in Stanley Kwan’s unreleased First Night Nerves and Heiward Mak’s Fagara among others, so Ka is well armed for an interrogation of a delicate subject. Cheng’s presence guarantees Lost Love a wide release, but when that will be is yet to be determined.
To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self (November 24)
New Wave icon and documentarian Mabel Cheung is one of the few filmmakers releasing a new film this autumn who’s not a rookie. After a splashy world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in August, the long-delayed To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self hits screens in November. The 10-years-in-the-making chronicle of the lives of a handful of students at Ying Wa Girls School (of which Cheung is an alumnus) as the campus goes under the wrecking ball follows the girl as they come of age during one of the most turbulent chapters in Hong Kong history. It’s must-see viewing for anyone who wants to get a beat on Gen Z’s thoughts, hopes and fears in a post-protest environment. The sensitivity Cheung demonstrated in her best work—City of Glass (1998), An Autumn’s Tale (1987)—is here, as she captures the girls at their most vulnerable and uncertain as much as she does during their lighter, prickly teenage girl moments.
Hong Kong Family (November 24)
Teresa Mo is slowly working through using Cantopop phenomenon MIRROR as co-stars if this and her appearance in Mama’s Affair are any indication. Rounding out this year’s FFFI entries at HKAFF, before its general release, is Hong Kong Family, the year’s second high profile film to feature Mo and two of MIRROR, this time Anson Lo and Edan Lui – who also landed in the summertime hit comedy Chilli Laugh Story. Mo also stars alongside Tse Kwan Ho, Hedwig Tam, Angela Yuen and Fung So-bor for director Eric Tsang Hing-weng’s autobiographical family drama. The Hong Kong family of the title is a Hakka clan living in a walled village, estranged for eight years in the wake of a particularly nasty winter solstice dinner. Now, a cousin wants to put the rift in the past and try having dinner again. Anyone with a sprawling family—Cantonese, Hakka or other—will empathise with the awkward, eggshell dynamics Tsang splashes on screen.
Coming soon — we hope
While none of these films reach the mythic, urban legendary heights of Juno Mak’s long-gestating but still missing-in-action Sons of the Neon Night, they’ve yet to set release dates. Action fans may want to keep watch for the starry action thriller Cyber Heist (formerly Disconnected), with Gordon Lam, Simon Yam, Aaron Kwok and Patrick Tam, about a series of targeted financial institution hacks that threaten to destabilise the world. Cyber Heist had a HK$20 million CGI budget with which to create its virtual world, as well as stellar behind the camera pedigree in producer Cheang Pou-soi (Limbo) and director Wong Hing-fan (i’m livin’ it). Finally, watch out for Ray Lau’s Golden Horse-nominated The Sunny Side of the Street, starring Anthony Wong and Endy Chow, that follows in the footsteps of Hand Rolled Cigarette to explore the disconnect between Hong Kong and its visible minorities.
The complete HKAFF programme and ticketing details can be found at hkaff.asia.