Gangster films are one of the most typical film type of HK. Broadly speaking, gangster films are crime films. “Jing Fei Pian” (Chinese way of calling gangster films, literally “Police and Gangster Film”) can be regarded as a special title of crime and action films produced in HK. “Cold War”, “Infernal affairs” and “The White Storm” are some examples of such gangster films. For this reason, similar films like “Die Hard”, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Person of Interest” of the western world are usually called crime and action films instead of gangster films. As a result, “Gangster Film” is almost a proper noun of the Chinese fashion, crime and action films. After the “Infernal Affairs” series, in recent decade, it seems that only gangster films like “Overheard” series, “Firestorm” and “Cold War” have had sound performance at the box office. HK filmmakers are dedicated to letting such type of films continue and prosper.
In 2016, seven HK gangster films were screened in Chinese Mainland with only “Cold War II” and “Line Walker” of them taking over RMB600 million at the box office. Confronted with ever-changing taste of viewers, head-on hit of Hollywood blockbusters and rise of films of various types in the mainland, as a distinctive HK film type, where are HK gangster films supposed to go?
2016 Check on HK Gangster Films
“Cold War”, shot in 2012, boasts not only hot scenes, but also constant reversals of plot, which makes it a masterpiece of HK gangster films. “Cold War II” was shot in 2016. The story it tells is more than battles between police and gangsters in HK and more like a political thriller. Of course such adjustment was made to attract viewers. After all, in a market dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, medium- and small scenes of street battles and gunfights cannot easily catch the eyeball of viewers any longer. While another hit, “Line Walker”, has successfully seized the popular “brain-burning” aesthetics of today and created good box office result, by virtue of the popularity from the TV series of the same name and constant reversals of plot.
Except the box office hits of “Cold War II” and “Line Walker”, Johnny To, known to be innovative, has released “Three”, and he tried conceptualizing spaces in the film, which, however, failed to win high public praise and warm market response. Some critics say that both “Three” and “Office” (a previous work of Johnny To) lay more emphasis on forms than contents. Johnny To has always hoped to work out something new in type films. As Milkyway Image has presented a “rebellious” style all along and constantly challenged the bottom line, now Johnny To also needs to find a new balance between individual style and film types.
Nonetheless, “Trivisa”, a crime film co-directed by three young directors (Frank Hui, Jevons Au Man-Kit and Ricky Wong) and supervised by Johnny To, has inherited the vigour of style from the older generation of filmmakers of Milkyway Image and won high public praise. It is no doubt a good work in terms of both the theme idea and style of the finished film. The film is characterized by swiftness, fierceness and melancholy, and perfectly inherited the style of HK films featuring “extremes and madness”. Besides, it is quite rare that the stories shot by three young directors of different styles can be processed by parallel editing with feelings and styles integrated smoothly.
Look for New Ideas for HK Gangster Films
Since the signing of CEPA in 2003, HK-made films started to be screened in the mainland, and HK filmmakers began to move northwards to the mainland for film shooting as well. As a movie subject best embodying culture of HK and reflecting unique characters of HK people, gangster films have met with increasing acceptance and favor among viewers.
However, HK-made films are confronted with problems like censorship and aesthetic differences of viewers after entering mainland market, as a result of which, gangster films have to struggle to maintain the fame of “HK-made Films” while continuously suffering the loss of “HK Style”. Bill Kong, a renowned producer, holds that gangster films might be “a Finish Fight” of HK type films. Both HK screenwriters and directors have made great efforts to innovate gangster films, trying expressing themes from different angles and through different stories. Then, which new idea on earth is needed by HK gangster film to truly “broaden its vision”?
Return to Tradition VS Make a Breakthrough
We can say that HK filmmakers have maintained some advantages and features of HK-made films by virtue of gangster films and finally won a place in the mainland market. However, due to the ever-changing taste of viewers, HK filmmakers must strike a balance between innovation and inheritance via continuous exploration.
Junzi Wei, a film critic specializing in HK-made films, holds that, although traditional HK gangster films are loved by enthusiasts, when such films are defective in playwriting, whether they are attractive to young viewers without feelings in past HK-made films remains unknown. HK-made films have inherited feelings of the older generations. Yet, if HK filmmakers simply retained exaggerative shooting style and blindly pursue nostalgia without innovation, such fixed pattern of film shooting definitely cannot go anywhere. Innovation is a rather practical problem.
Emphasis on Stories VS Emphasis on Action
When “Infernal Affairs” was screened, viewers could find very few action scenes in the film, which, instead, was driven by plot. The success of the film has started a new model of HK gangster films, and in another word, it has saved the HK film market. In spite of that, in the next decade, many HK gangster films were too much influenced by “Infernal Affairs” with film style changing from one extreme to another, namely, putting too much emphasis on depiction of details, plot, dialogues, high IQ and grand background and ignoring nearly all big scenes and gunfight.
“Nowadays, ordinary young viewers are not interested in films only telling a story to embody human nature, for current mainstream viewers grew up watching Hollywood blockbusters. As a result, they find HK-made films boring. Therefore, we can see some gangster films starting to return to action scenes in recent years”, said Junzi Wei.
In addition, Yuan Jinlin, director of “Firestorm”, thinks that, to fight against Hollywood, Chinese films need to innovate play and develop technologies. In a word, efforts shall be made to upgrade producing scale, action scenes and star cast.
Maintain HK Style VS Turn to Mainland Style
HK gangster films made in early years were rather appealing, because viewers could find the unique code of the brotherhood in characters of such films. Such temperament echoing traditional Chinese culture is quite an experience in HK, a westernized cosmopolis. Whether films shall “get close to life of mainlanders” or “retain HK style” has been always under discussion when shooting Mainland-HK co-productions. Andy Lau said, “the so-called HK style has much to do with times and ‘A Better Tomorrow’ may not be such a box-office hit if it is shot at the moment. Both ‘Infernal Affairs’ (shot in 2003) and the later ‘A Simple Life’ embodies HK style while having some changes. ”
On the other hand, Mainland-HK co-productions are faced with many restrictions of film management. Thus, how to catch the eyeball of mainland viewers who are fans to Hollywood blockbusters is a great challenge for filmmakers of mainland and HK. Bill Kong affirmed the importance of mainland market, for the film costs definitely require support of mainland market. He made it clearly, “It will not change in the future. The production costs will be increasingly higher, so will be the requirements of viewers. We will become much more reliant on the mainland market. Given the importance of mainland market, we have taken care of the needs of mainland viewers in telling stories. We believe, if the story can move HK viewers, it can move mainland viewers, too. We only shoot films that can arouse sympathy. ”
Benny Chan, a famous director, has been consistently in pursuit of a balance between mainland viewers and HK viewers when shooting his films. He said, modern action films must conform to aspirations of viewers and have understandable stories, complicated and exciting plot as well as elaborate big scenes.
Old Faces Dominance VS “Lack of Talents”
In recent years, HK gangster films have showed a recovery in the market, and some new blood stands out conspicuously, besides the dominant force excelling at HK gangster films. Bill Kong has cultivated several junior directors such as Roy Chow, Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk with all his strength. He said, he likes cooperating with junior directors, for they can provide ideas that are not available in the market. “Many senior directors tend to stay at their special fields and retreat to the environment they are familiar with once they are faced with challenges. In this way, people can never innovate. ”
Compared to the lack of new directors, new actors are even scarcer. Once a film fan concluded after the intensive screening of gangster films that heroes of such films were no other than Sean Andy, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Tony Leung, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau and Daniel Wu. Some viewers complain about the much too frequent showing up of these old faces in films. Nick Cheung, who has be honored as the Best Actor of Golden Horse Awards for his role in “The Beast Stalker”, explained, “Investors will lose money if they do not come to us for the roles!” Jing Wong, a HK director who has always been willing to train new actors, also pointed out that the number of popular performers for a time is almost fixed. “Actors differ in acting skills, fame, etc. Filmmakers only choose the most popular ones to guarantee good box office result. It never changes. Besides, the growth of actors can only be verified by time. ”
HK gangster films have constantly sought after integration and innovation with other film types as well as dynamic adjustments. Over the past several decades, they have experienced multiple changes from Detective Crime Films in 1950s and 1960s to Comic Gangster Films produced by Cinema City in early 1980s, from Action Gangster Films shot by Jackie Chan and Heroic Films shot by John Woo in middle and late 1980s to “Young and Danger” serious in middle and late 1990s, and from Gang Films shot by directors represented by Johnny To and produced by Milkyway Image to Undercover Agent Films like “Infernal Affairs”. HK gangster films have adopted varying adjustments in different times, which reflects the whole time background, economic situation and audience’s psychology. With the growing trend of co-production shooting, viewers find it hard to watch a typical HK gangster films in cinemas. Despite the prevalence of co-productions, many local young directors of HK still hold fast to characteristics of HK films in pursuit of bringing forth the new through the old as well as constant upgrading.
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