From John Chiang and Ti Lung's kindred spirits in "The Duel" (1971) and the intense loyalty of gangland brothers in "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), to the undercover cop with a moral dilemma in "Infernal Affairs" (2002), the spirit of brotherhood has been portrayed vividly in Hong Kong gangster films. These gangster movies have not only brought numerous memorable characters to the screen, such as Ma Wing-jing, Big Brother Cheng, Hui Man-keung, Brother Mark and Chan Ho-nam, but have also created sub-genres focusing on young thugs, undercover cops and police informers.
As a contribution to the 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) has organised a retrospective titled "Ways of the Underworld - Hong Kong Gangster Film as a Genre". The retrospective will showcase over 30 gangster films from different eras including classic black-and-white Hong Kong crime films "Tradition" (1955) and "The Dreadnaught" (1966), as well as various popular TV crime series. Five well-known crime films from other countries including the rarely screened "Scarface" (1932) and Takeshi Kitano's genre-bending work "Sonatine" (1993) will be shown for comparison and for audiences to reminisce about the best gangster films on the big screen.
From March 28 to April 6 during the HKIFF, eight films will be shown at the Cinema of the HKFA. They are director Chang Cheh's trend-setting gangster film "The Duel" and "The Boxer from Shantung" (1972); Kuei Chih-hung's classic "The Teahouse" (1974); scriptwriters Johnny Mak and Stephen Shiu's "To be Number One" (1991); "New York Chinatown" (1982), starring Alan Tang; Johnnie To's gangster epic "Election" (2005); the unique 1950s crime film "Tradition"; and the influential crime drama "The Dreadnaught", starring Patrick Tse. The other 27 films will be shown from April 11 to May 11.
The HKFA monograph "Always in the Dark: A Study of Hong Kong Gangster Films", studying the characteristics of Hong Kong gangster films, will be released with an English edition in CD-ROM.
Three free seminars, to be conducted in Cantonese, will be held at the HKFA. Film star Chan Koon-tai will share his experience of playing "big brother" roles in gangster films in "A Date with Big Brother" at 4.30pm on March 29; scriptwriter Stephen Shiu will discuss the code of loyalty in gangster movies in the "Jianghu and Brotherly Faith" seminar at 5pm on March 30; and Manfred Wong will look at character creation in "Evolution in Scripting Gangster Films" at 4.30pm on April 12. There will also be post-screening talks hosted by film critics Po Fung, Ka Ming, Bryan Chang and Thomas Shin, as well as directors Peter Yung, Herman Yau and Dante Lam, for various films.
Hong Kong gangster movies became formally established as a film genre in the 1970s, portraying stories about underworld gambling activities, smuggling, and battles amongst gangster leaders in Chinatown. There were also popular TV shows about the crime underworld. At the end of the 1970s the Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers brought more riveting, refreshing elements to the genre, from the intense neo-realism of "The System" (1979) to charismatic gangster heroes created by John Woo and Ringo Lam and Johnny Mak's ambitious crime epics "The Long Arm of the Law" (1984) and "To be Number One". While influenced by the gangster films of the West, Hong Kong filmmakers broke new ground to produce various sub-genres, including the "triad boys" series in the 1990s and the landmark crime drama series "Infernal Affairs".
The opening film, "The Duel", is director Chang Cheh's first gangster film, and is about a loyal gangster (Ti Lung) who turns lone warrior in a fight for honour and vengeance. Even though Chang fills the screen with blood and violence, Chiu Kang-chien's screenplay highly romanticises the film's element of brotherly faith. Starring Chan Koon-tai and John Chiang, director Chang's action crime saga "The Boxer from Shantung" traces the journey of Ma Wing-jing from simple labourer to fearsome criminal warrior using the power of his fist. Director Kuei Chih-hung's acclaimed film "The Teahouse" features a decent man who stands up for his bullied friends, but is mistaken as being the leader of an emerging gang, sparking a messy gang war.
"To be Number One" uses the life story of a notorious drug lord's rise and fall to create an epic crime saga, which became one of the most important works in the Hong Kong gangster genre. Alan Tang's commanding performance in "New York Chinatown" as the honourable gangster who is both intelligent and loyal makes him the epitome of the heroic icon. Director Johnnie To's gangster epic "Election" gives an amazingly comprehensive portrait of life in a typical triad society, including the generational conflicts and precarious power balance between the triads and the police.
Not to be missed is the unique crime drama "Tradition", directed by Tang Huang in the 1950s. One of the earliest gangster films in Hong Kong, it combines inspiration from Western crime films with a flavour of the Chinese code of loyalty. Another influential crime drama is "The Dreadnaught", with Patrick Tse giving an impressively complex performance as a gangster leader who is backed into a corner due to circumstances beyond his control.
Films which will be shown in the second phase include Felix Chong's solo directorial debut "Once a Gangster" (2010), a subversive comedy starring Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan with a refreshing twist on the genre; "Young and Dangerous" (1996), a landmark film which infuses young blood into the gangster genre and which had multiple sequels; Wai Ka-fai's dark crime comedy "Too Many Ways to be No. 1" (1997), featuring the helplessness of small-time gangsters in determining their own fates no matter what they do; and "Once Upon a Time in Triad Society" (1996), a gangster film with a cynical dissection of the popular glamorisation of life in organised crime.
Films about young thugs include the daring neorealist drama "Lonely Fifteen" (1982), bringing the hot topic of teenage prostitution to the big screen, and Lawrence Lau's "Gangs" (1988), which was based on true events in the dark world of youth gangs. John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow" not only kick-started the "hero gangster" genre but its male-bonding model among gangster heroes has been adopted by many crime films since. No discussion on Hong Kong gangster films would be complete without Wong Kar-wai's directorial debut "As Tears Go By" (1988), which features the distinct visual style of the world-renowned auteur. Director Taylor Wong's "Triads the Inside Story" (1989), "Triad Story" (1990) with Stephen Chow and Clarence Fok's action drama "Century of the Dragon" (1999) describe the struggles and the price of power in the crime world. The gangster drama "Absolute Monarch" (1980), starring Alan Tang, follows the high life of a respected gentleman gangster who is forced to fight enemies on all sides.
Police informers and undercover cops are always hot topics in gangster movies. Director Peter Yung's "The System" (1979) is an eye-opening crime drama which heightens the realism of the hostile relationship between the police, their informers and drug traffickers; "Ironside 426" (1977) features an ambitious undercover cop in the gang-ridden underworld; and Ringo Lam's gritty crime drama "City on Fire" (1987) stars Chow Yun-fat as a tragic undercover cop trapped in a serious ethical struggle. Herman Yau's "On the Edge" (2006) shows the dilemmas caused by guilt and distrust when an undercover cop returns to his real identity. A powerful drama about crime and redemption, Dante Lam's "The Stool Pigeon" (2010) depicts the life of a police informer. The landmark crime drama "Infernal Affairs" broke new ground in the undercover cop genre. The film will be shown on the same day as "The Departed" (2006), Martin Scorsese's reinterpretation of the Hong Kong classic which won four Oscars.
The retrospective will also screen "Bald-headed Betty" (1975), featuring a daring performance by Lam Kin-ming; the TV series "Big Sister" (1976, episodes 2 and 3) featuring the Big Sister as an honourable triad boss and "The Bund" (episodes 1 to 3), an influential TV series about the underworld in Shanghai and a love triangle between Hui Man-keung, Ting Lik and Fung Ching-ching; and "Lord of East China Sea" (1993), which also features the crime scene in Shanghai.
Gangster classics from other countries to be shown for comparison include Howard Hawks' controversial masterpiece "Scarface", which was butchered and re-edited by the censors upon its initial release. Yet its startling imagery and unparalleled levels of violence influenced many films, such as "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Bund". French director Jacques Deray's "Borsalino" (1971), starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, is a film with an immaculate sense of style, knockabout humour and unflinching violence, and has also influenced many gangster films. Based on a series of newspaper articles, Kinji Fukasaku's "The Yakuza Papers" (1973) presents the grim, bloody reality of organised crime in post-war Japan using handheld cameras and real sound. Another must-see film is Takeshi Kitano's masterpiece "Sonatine", a surreal, minimalist drama presenting a different type of gangster film.
Some of the films have Chinese and English subtitles. Tickets are priced at $40. Half-price concessionary tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities and their minders, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Tickets for all screenings will be available at URBTIX with Internet bookings at www.urbtix.hk and credit card bookings at 2111 5999 from March 1.
Detailed programme information can be found in "ProFolio 71" or the 38th HKIFF booking folder distributed at all performing venues of the LCSD. For programme enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900, or browse the webpage at www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/filmprog/chinese/2014gan/2014gan_index.html.
Ends/Friday, February 28, 2014
Issued at HKT 12:00
A film still of the opening film, "The Duel" (1971).
A film still of "Tradition" (1955).
A film still of "The Boxer from Shantung" (1972).
A film still of "Election" (2005).
A film still of "Infernal Affairs" (2002).
A film still of "Scarface" (1932).
A film still of "Sonatine" (1993).
A film still of "Big Sister" (1976).