There’s a streaming service for every taste, offering plenty of challenging, singular or eye-opening lockdown entertainment. The Lunar New Year holiday has long been a boon for movie theatres. Hongkongers who either don’t observe the holiday or finish their familial duties early generally head to the cinemas: it’s the reason distributors held off from releasing so-called “awards season” films from overseas until then.
Things are different this year. Chinese New Year movie outings will be taking an alternative path in 2021 as Covid-19 physical distancing measures remain in place and cinemas remain closed. It goes without saying that it will be our computers or flat screens to the rescue once again.
Streaming services experienced record new subscribers in 2020 in the wake of global lockdowns, and Netflix has been the keyword for most of us when chatting about the movie we saw over the weekend. Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV have carved out their space, Disney+ is scheduled to launch in Hong Kong this spring, and anyone with an overseas address can check out HBO Max (which won’t hit these shores for at least a year), but those are hardly the only game in town. For anyone who’d rather pay artists for their work, watch something that didn’t pivot on masked superheroes, or has a hankering for something truly fresh or thought-provoking, we’ve rounded up a few streamers that might fit the bill.
The best of an increasingly large batch is perhaps Mubi, a European streaming site that focuses on curated art house fare from around the world. Mubi boasts a “movie of the day”—a random film the programmers choose to spotlight—and it has an extensive library to browse as well as a blog of essays and criticism for those who wish to take a deeper dive. The library is broken down into categories including women filmmakers, festival selections, short films, documentaries, debuts by current notables (First Films First, like Denis Villeneuve’s debut ), director spotlights, and of course country, decade and genre.
The search function casts the widest net and a quick search of “Hong Kong” (3,495 hits) brings up a broad spectrum of choices, from the original 1933 stop motion classic King Kong, to two of local director Fruit Chan’s earliest works (Made in Hong Kong and Hollywood Hong Kong), Clifford Choi’s hard-to-find 1983 romantic drama Hong Kong, Hong Kong, cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s Hong Kong trilogy, Ann Hui’s Song of the Exile, and hundreds of other titles that can inspire head-scratching for their inclusion in the search. The point is to compel film buffs to click on a title and discover why FW Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) or 2014’s coming-of-age Los Hongos by Oscar Ruíz Navia fit the algorithm – and discover new films and new filmmakers along the way. Each entry is accompanied by a synopsis, cast and crew list, a trailer, reviews (by both critics and Mubi users) and, of course, recommendations. Mubi is the best choice for cinema aficionados that are on the lookout for new, odd, rare or otherwise off-the-beaten-path films and filmmakers.
A little closer to home, MOViE MOViE is Hong Kong’s own streamer/cable channel dedicated to international art house, independent and local films. The channel branched out a few years back to operate physical cinemas in Cityplaza and Pacific Place giving the niche films featured in MOViE MOViE’s special programmes (like its annual Art is Life series) another home on television or online. MOViE MOViE isn’t a streamer in the purest sense of the word—it’s more of an on-demand service—but its monthly programmes are a great way to catch up on films that might have been missed in limited theatrical runs. February’s highlights include Oscar-winner Moonlight (by Barry Jenkins), Joanna Bowers’ The Helper, a doc about Hong Kong’s domestic workers, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s must-see Dekalog short series, and a diverse list of films from across Asia-Pacific. If you’ve never managed to see Edward Yang’s epic White Terror youth gang romance A Brighter Summer Day, now’s your chance.
For those with a taste for the classical, The Film Detective is the best choice for all your restored classics and vintage film needs. TFD is among the most niche of streamers, having zeroed in on gloriously restored (often black and white) films from the dawn of the cinema age to the present, though with a focus on the mid-20th century. The library refreshes monthly, and like Mubi there’s a blog that helps contextualise the films and educate viewers should they be unfamiliar with the titles. The library includes selections like Gregory La Cava’s 1936 proto-screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, Vittorio De Sica’s landmark Second World War drama Two Women (1960) and Martin Ritt’s 1972 Great Depression drama Sounder, about African-American sharecroppers, at the time counter-programming to the burgeoning Blaxploitation trend. Also available are Yu Chi-Lien’s Return of the Kung Fu Dragon (1976) and Yang Chi-yen’s truly odd and equally rare 1978 actioner Bruce Li in New Guinea – one of the many martial arts films produced in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death in the Bruceploitation sub-genre. TFD also programmes classic television series, and the site offers both paid subscriber or ad-supported options.
Everything you need to know about IndieFlix is in the title. Founded by a group of American filmmakers and focused on independent cinema, IndieFlix might be the most interactive of the list—it features online seminars and festivals—and has made a name for itself as a community-friendly curator and exhibitor. IndieFlix’s defining content is filmmaker-generated, a great deal of which has no (or limited) other distribution outlets, and its social impact docs, which often come with moderated online Q&As (if you can make the time zone work for you). It’s like a film festival on your phone. The streamer does have a selection of classics in its library – and those play along the lines of 1935’s Les Miserables with Frederic March and Charles Laughton, and Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 Carmen, starring Pola Negri. But movie buffs looking to make a discovery should look no further.
Finally, February is also Black History Month, and so there’s no better time to check out the relatively young kweliTV, a streamer dedicated to Black voices worldwide. The African diaspora spans North America, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and—yes—Asia, but Black artists are among the least visible on streaming services. Kweli, which is Swahili for “truth,” programmes features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films on an ongoing basis, with content searchable by genre, region and director. If the limit of your African and Black film knowledge is The Gods Must Be Crazy or Spike Lee, kweliTV is a great place to start broadening your horizons. As a bonus, if you’re not quite ready for the heady meditations of Abderrahmane Sissako, the comedy section is curated by comedian Lil Rel Howery, best known as the TSA agent in Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
All the above services are available in Hong Kong. Some require an app like AppleTV or Roku, and not all titles are available at all times. Multiple subscription options and/or free trial periods are also available.