The Kowloon Walled City Comes to Life in A Surprise Action Hit

“In the beginning, after shooting and before showing it to an audience, I never imagined a reaction like this,” says writer-producer-director Cheang Pou-soi when asked about the phenomenal — and somewhat surprising — success of his latest film, Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In. The ambitious HK$300 million action-drama opened on May 1 and, probably helped by the fact that it was a holiday, proceeded to post the biggest local opening day on record with HK$5.3 million. 

Walled In defied patterns and grew its audience in the days that followed. It’s now the biggest hit of 2024, ahead of the heavily anticipated Table for Six 2, which earned HK$37 million around its Lunar New Year release, and MIRROR adventure We 12, which has racked up HK$23 million. After roughly two weeks in release, Walled In has pulled in HK$46 million and counting. 

“I think it’s exciting that a feeling for Hong Kong movies is coming back, that’s one reason for the response,” says Cheang. “And I think another one is a love for Hong Kong.”

Based on Yu Yi’s novel Kowloon Walled City and the manhua that followed, City of Darkness by Andy Seto, Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In can also credit its success by appealing to a broad swath of Hongkongers, similar to the way current box office champ A Guilty Conscience (HK$115 million) did. Young and old, film buffs and casual viewers and action as well as drama fans are still lining up to see a major part of their collective history recreated on screen – part of a history that speaks to them right now. 

“While I was shooting and when I was researching, I got to thinking the Walled City was kind of like the situation in Hong Kong. I chose 1984 for a reason. At the time, everybody asked ‘Who am I?’ Were we British or Chinese? It was a very important time for us,” says Cheang. It was the year the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, laying the groundwork for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. The characters of Walled In find themselves in a microcosm of that moment of upheaval, as the Hong Kong government announced that the Walled City would be demolished. The people at the heart of the story are in a kind of limbo, unsure where to go, how to go, often at the mercy of corporate interests and external decisions they never had to consider before. Through it all, they try to live their lives.

The story starts with a recap of a vicious gang war that raged inside the relatively lawless Walled City for years. Cyclone (Louis Koo Tin-lok) is the gang boss that emerges victorious, and by 1984 things are calm. Outside the Walled City, Hong Kong has been declared a port of first asylum and mainland refugee Chan Lok-kwun (singer-actor Raymond Lam Fung, Detective vs. Sleuths) is working under-the-table jobs and fighting in illegal matches in order to earn enough money to buy a fake Hong Kong ID card. When he’s betrayed by Mr. Big (martial arts legend Sammo Hung Kam-bo) and his psychotic lieutenant Wong Gau (fight choreographer Philip Ng Wan-lung), they chase him up to the border of the Walled City. They can’t go inside; it’s a violation of the rules. 

Inside the City, Chan winds up face-to-face with Cyclone and his second in command, Shin (Terrance Lau Chun-him, Anita), who for reasons that later become clear welcome him into the community. Chan thrives and finds a network of friends he’s never had, which includes Shin, former triad AV (German Cheung Man-kit, Warriors of Future) and Master 12 (Tony Wu Tsz-tung, Elisa’s Day). The low-key scenes where Chan and his pals are playing mahjong, where he’s delivering propane or making wontons with a local girl are what give Walled In its dramatic edge, which is odd for a martial arts action film. Odd – and intentional. 

“The community was the main story of the Walled City,” states Cheang. “Other movies always focus on the drugs, the crime and the gangsters, but that wasn’t all there was. There was a community no one talks about. I tried to bring that out in this, and maybe then we can change what we think the character of the city was.” That focus on the life within the walls gives the film the kind of texture usually lacking in the genre, and it’s a welcome — and clearly resonant — change.  

But it is indeed also a martial arts actioner, and on that front Cheang doesn’t disappoint. The conflict comes from the tension between Cyclone and his sworn brothers, Chau (Richie Jen Hsien-chi, Trivisa, Fagara) and Tiger (Kenny Wong Tak-ban, Men on the Dragon), and Mr Big and Wong Gau, each of whom has their own ulterior motives for operating in the Walled City – be it revenge, greed, power or all three. Walled In mines the traditional tropes and themes of brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal and redemption that have defined the genre as interpreted in Hong Kong since the 1960s, and hints at supernatural power in its fight scenes. There could be more women, but there’s a retro charm at play that many films have tried to recapture in recent years but have never quite managed. Walled In feels simultaneously old fashioned and modern. 

Of course it helps that it’s arguably the most technically accomplished film of the year, with every cent of the generous budget on the screen. Starry cast of veterans and emerging actors aside, the crew is among Hong Kong cinema’s best. Helping Cheang bring the Walled City to life is art director Chow Sai-hung (Paradox), Cheang’s regular cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung (Throw Down, Life Without Principle), VFX supervisors Garrett Lam, Jules Lin and Yu Kwok-leung, who’ve worked on Shock Wave and Anita among others, action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki (Raging Fire, Sakra), and renowned composer Kenji Kawai, who also scored Walled In producer Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series.

In this day and age of green-screen filmmaking, it may come as a surprise to some that the use of CGI was minimal in Walled In. “I think 80 percent of what’s on screen is a set,” says Cheang. “We only used CGI in the wide shots because I just couldn’t do those.” Production designer Mak Kwok-keung (Bodyguards and Assassins) led the art department through a challenging process, building sets in Yuen Long and Sai Kung and creating what Cheang calls a floorplan from research he did with Mak – who created the layered, grimy environments in Cheang’s Limbo. “It felt like a real environment. We worked out camera angles, he gave me other choices. It’s how we work together. I really trust him.”

The production built what Cheang calls a “Lego set” constructed on wheels for maximum flexibility. “We had to relocate the environment and reimagine a totally different city,” he says. “The Walled City was so tiny you could walk through the corridors and touch the walls. So we needed sets. Everything had to be physically close to the characters, the actors. We could change it every night. One day it was a rooftop, one day it was a corridor. I didn’t have enough money to build multiple sets so I needed to think of how to make the most of what we had.”

None of it works without a cast that makes the action feel real, or like it has stakes. “Before we got shooting, everyone was telling me about how Hong Kong has no young up-and-coming actors,” says Cheang, disbelievingly. “But I didn’t agree – I don’t agree. I wanted to prove that.” He went through hours and hours of film and TV and claims he found plenty of actors the right age, finally landing on Lam, Lau, Wu and Cheung, who made the most of what is now a high profile film. Their comfortable, lived-in dynamic carries the dramatic moments and, truth be told, make you wish for more. “Lam came from TV, and he’s a singer and his performances are quite powerful. The others didn’t have a lot of action experience, but they really wanted to try, and that’s what I had Kenji for.”

Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In is heading for cinemas in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK later this month following an international bow at Cannes’ Midnight section. The very idea elicits a belly laugh from Cheang. “This is amazing,” he says through chuckles. “This is my first Cannes. I’m very nervous.”

When he finally gets a hold of himself, Cheang ponders his upcoming Riviera debut. “I don’t know why they took this movie. To me it’s really local and more commercial. It’s like Limbo or Mad Fate.” He pauses considering the bigger picture the screening might represent. “But I’d love to reintroduce Hong Kong cinema to European audiences, and show them a new kind of Hong Kong storytelling is coming.”

Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In is in cinemas now.

Thumbnail photo on the trailer:
The young Walled City brotherhood Master 12, AV, Shin and Chan Lok-kwun

Go back to top button