The Hong Kong film invasion

Mainland Chinese movies are being fuelled by Hong Kong filmmakers

In the wake of Chinese New Year, undoubtedly the biggest Chinese movie this month is Journey to the West: Demon Chapter, directed by Hong Kong fantasy specialist Tsui Hark and written and produced by Hong Kong comedy superstar Stephen Chow. Besides being approximately the billionth Chinese film based on the classic Ming Dynasty-era novel, it’s a sequel to Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. That movie, directed by Stephen Chow, became the highest-grossing Chinese film upon its release four years ago, until it was overtaken in 2015 by Monster Hunt, directed by Hong Kong animator Raman Hui. Monster Hunt was in turn overtaken last year by The Mermaid, also directed by Chow. In short, if you take a peek behind a Chinese blockbuster, you’re almost certain to find someone from a certain Special Administrative Region. The Hong Kong film industry has been in decline since the ’90's, which has only been to the Mainland’s gain. Here are some of the major Hong Kong filmmakers now reshaping Mainland China’s film industry.

John Woo

john woo

Who is he?
Woo came to prominence by reinventing action movies in the ’80's and ’90's with a frenetic, double-fisted sense of gunplay. After honing his style with shoot-em-ups like The Killer and Hard Boiled, he moved on to Hollywood, where he made movies both good (Face/Off, Hard Target) and really not good (Paycheck).

What he’s done here
Since coming to Mainland China from Hollywood, Woo has shown a sense for the epic. In 2008 and 2009, Woo marked his return to Asia with Red Cliff, a two-part historical saga drawn from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The movie garnered strong reviews and set box office records in China. Later efforts have been less successful. His last film, The Crossing, another two-part epic set during the Chinese civil war, was a critical and commercial failure.

Tsui Hark


Who is he?
As a producer and director in the ’80's and ’90's, Tsui Hark helped breathe new life into martial arts cinema. His movies Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Swordsman reinvigorated the wuxia genre, while Once Upon a Time in China remains one of the best kung fu flicks ever made.

What he’s done here
With Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tsui proved that his sense of action and fantasy could translate to Mainland Chinese productions. Both the movie and its prequel, based on a real life Tang Dynasty judge who became a fictional precursor to Sherlock Holmes, were hits in China and can be goofy fun as long as you don’t mind some seriously dodgy CGI. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, from 2014, took a Cultural Revolution-era model opera and turned it into a gaudy, over-the-top popcorn action flick that proved a box office smash.

Stephen Chow


Who is he?
A longtime star comedian in Hong Kong and the Chinese-speaking world, Chow achieved international success 15 years ago with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, a pair of inventive, delightful slapstick comedies.

What he’s done here
Since those global successes, Chow has traded more international fame for a focus on Mainland China. Financially speaking, at least, it was a smart move. Both Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Mermaid were monster Chinese New Year hits, and The Mermaid remains the highest grossing Chinese film ever. Neither of them reach the sublime heights of Kung Fu Hustle, Chow’s best film, but both boast some standout set pieces and hilarious comic scenes.

Johnnie To


Who is he?
A genre stylist best known in the West for his smart, exquisitely staged gangster flicks, To has actually directed all kinds of films over his 30-year career, from melodramas to musicals.

What he’s done here
The big question with To was how someone best known for violent, politically relevant crime films like the Election series would fare under Mainland censorship, but 2012’s Drug War and last year’s Three have shown that he can pull off riveting gangster action with just as much panache in the Mainland.

Wong Jing


Who is he?
A gleeful purveyor of schlock. As a typically over-the-top Hong Kong director, Wong makes movies as if the very idea of taste or restraint were an insult, which can be either condemnation or praise depending on what you’re after.

What he’s done here
Wong’s series of From Vegas to Macau films have proved steady moneymakers. Boosted by the star power of Chow Yun-fat, the movies draw on nostalgia among Mainland audiences for Hong Kong classics like Wong Jing’s Chow Yun-fat vehicle God of Gamblers. Like many movies from Hong Kong’s ’80's and ’90's heyday, the series relies on nonsense jokes and making-it-up-as-we-go-along plots, to very diminishing returns.

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