Hong Kong is always on the edge of destruction. Almost as long as it has been a city, it has been in crisis. World War II and the subsequent Chinese Civil War saw a massive contraction and then expansion of its population, flooding the then-colony with an nigh unsustainable number of refugees. They were packed into hellishly inadequate housing and given jobs (when they could find them) at the lowest rungs of laissez-faire industry. As one generation transitioned to another and the colony’s economy boomed, massive scandals came to light of corruption and interconnection between the police force and the criminal gangs that dominated the still-nightmarish warrens where the city’s poor still lived. Then, in 1984, the British and Chinese governments agreed that Hong Kong would be returned to Mainland control before the end of the century. This set the clock ticking on the potential end of all that Hong Kongers had built, the likely catastrophe of which was only reinforced five years later when Chinese tanks rolled over peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Fearing what was to come, a large segment of Hong Kong’s film industry fled to the United States and Hollywood: stars Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, and Michelle Yeoh; directors John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Corey Yuen, and Yuen Woo-ping all sought out Hollywood work in the early to mid-1990s, an exodus that all but collapsed the Hong Kong film industry as the 1997 Handover deadline approached. But it didn’t collapse: as with every other crisis point in 20th century Hong Kong history, something new came along to build on top of the old. Just as the refugee crisis of the 1950s fueled the Mandarin language renaissance of the Shaw Brothers era, with Mainlanders like Chang Cheh, King Hu, and Li Han-hsiang reinventing the musical and action film genres, while the economic boom and corruption scandals of the 70s and 80s fueled the Hong Kong New Wave and the Heroic Bloodshed cycle that redefined action film once again, so the Handover ushered in a new era of independent production in Hong Kong cinema. It was headlined by slick commercial productions by veteran filmmakers like Johnnie To, Stephen Chow, Wong Kar-wai, and Andrew Lau, but it was a largely unknown assistant director with the unlikely name of Fruit Chan who gave post-Handover Hong Kong cinema its first masterpiece, a film which only now is being released in restored form across North America.
Fruit Chan had been active in Hong Kong film production since the early 80s (he was the assistant director on the Sammo Hung action comedies Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (1985) and Dragons Forever (1988), as well as script supervisor for Dennis Yu’s New Wave horror classic The Imp (1981). In 1994, after the failure of his ghost story Finale in Blood, he started gathering up the loose ends and leftover film stock he would use to film Made in Hong Kong. Cast entirely with non-actors (though the film’s star Sam Lee would go on to a successful and on-going acting career) and shot on the streets and in the housing projects of Hong Kong’s poorest neighborhoods, Made in Hong Kong was released to immediate acclaim barely three months after the Handover. Its ultra-cheap production and effortless blending of genre film tropes with art house sensibilities marked it as a successor to the classics of the Hong Kong New Wave, as well as linking it to a broad international tradition of outsider cinema (Chan himself has often cited Nagisa Oshima as a major influence).
Made in Hong Kong starts with a suicide. A teenage girl, glimpsed only in blue-filtered images that might be a dream, plunges to her death from the roof of one of Hong Kong’s innumerable housing complexes. Two letters she wrote are picked up and passed to our hero, a young man named Autumn Moon. He’s a teenaged drop out, spending most of his time playing basketball, protecting his developmentally disabled friend Sylvester from local bullies, and working as a small time debt collector for a local mobster, for whom he refuses to engage in dirtier, more violent work. Moon and Sylvester meet a girl named Ping, whose irascible mother refuses to pay back a debt, and the three become friends, attempting to deliver the dead girl’s letters to their intended recipients but mostly just hanging out around town: pointedly their most joyous outing is to a massive mountainside cemetery. Ping is dying of kidney disease, needing an organ transplant she’s unlikely to ever receive. Moon halfheartedly tries out various schemes to raise money to pay Ping’s debts, but mostly the three just drift entropically to their inevitable demise.
The characters and setting immediately recall Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters - First Kind (1980) and Ringo Lam’s School on Fire (1988), great films about Hong Kong teenagers who have no hope for the future and descend, or are pushed, into lives of desperate violence. But where those films are defined by their illimitable rage (Lam’s at the institutions that repeatedly fail his kids and Tsui’s at everyone and everything), Made in Hong Kong is deeply sad, as haunted by the world it depicts as its heroes are by the dead girl who invades their dreams. Unlike materialists like Tsui and Lam, Chan is just as interested in the mentality of his young characters, with how they see themselves in their world, or rather, how their vision of themselves is mediated by the culture that surrounds them and the disconnect between that vision and the material conditions of their lives. Every home in the film, no matter how tiny, how dilapidated, how empty of traditional familial comforts, has a television along with video and cassette tapes. Move posters line the walls: Natural Born Killers and Leon: The Professional for the boys, My Own Private Idaho for the girl. When Autumn Moon finally takes a hit man assignment for the mob boss, he imagines himself as a killer in a John Woo movie, while the camera prowls over his sweaty body in stylish close-ups set to a driving electronic beat like Fallen Angels-era Wong Kar-wai. Chan then undercuts Moon’s self-image in darkly humorous ways: listening to his headphones, he doesn’t hear when a friend bangs on his door for help, and when the time comes for the assassination, his body clumsily rebels against the act of violence, leading him to run away in a panic of hyperventilation and nausea.
This line between social realism and ironic (self-)parody is where Chan’s best work can be found, and it’s a difficult one to walk for sure. He followed up Made in Hong Kong with another classic, The Longest Summer in 1998. Set and shot amidst the actual Handover ceremony’s, it’s the counterpart to the 1984 New Wave gangster classic Long Arm of the Law (Johnny Mak, 1984) that Made in Hong Kong is to Dangerous Encounters, a heist film about a group of ex-soldiers where the plot just kind of dissolves away in a mood of unease and foggy betrayal as the British leave and the Chinese roll in. After that came Little Cheung and Durian Durian, a pair of films shot in an alley behind Hong Kong’s bustling Portland Street, the first centered on a young boy growing up in desperate circumstances and the second on a young woman who works as a prostitute in the alley for a time, but then returns home to something like normalcy on the Mainland. All four films, released between 1997 and 2000 are among the best that post-Handover Hong Kong has yet produced. His later work has struggled to find the proper balance, tipping one way or the other into cruelty (Hollywood Hong Kong, Three Husbands), silliness (Kill Time, The Invincible Dragon), or grossness (Public Toilet, though if you have a stronger tolerance for scatology than I do, this is his most hopefully utopian). The exception of course is his 2014 film The Midnight After, which I’ve been saying was the best movie of the 2010s and I’m not going to stop now. That film was about another Hong Kong apocalypse, several actually, ranging from SARS to Fukushima to North Korean nukes to the final takeover by the Mainland (scheduled for 2046), and was released in the middle of another one (the Umbrella protests). The last year in Hong Kong has seen more than the usual number of apocalypses, with yet more mass protests followed by ever more aggressive police crackdowns and topped by another pandemic plague that has actually succeeded in bringing the film industry to the halt that the Handover failed to result in. I don’t know what the next era of Hong Kong cinema is going to bring, but I do hope it won’t take more than twenty years before we get to see it.
Fruit Chan's Made in Hong Kong shows March 6 – 12, 2020 at Metrograph in New York.