Finished in time for the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese in 1997, restored in 2017 as yet more waves of protest against that regime convulsed its streets, Made in Hong Kong is as much a celebration of the city’s energy as it is the guts-or-glory story of one of its residents.
Director Fruit Chan builds out from its hero and in from its frequent cityscapes, the total effect being a portrait in the round of a time and a place. The human focus is Sam Lee, as a gangster called Mid Autumn Moon who is so low-level that his whole gangster status is moot. With his wiry physique and fitted shirts Moon looks more like a naughty boy earning a bit of pin money by playing debt collector. However, we never see him collect any actual debt and his skinny malink frame doesn’t seem to inspire dread. He still lives with his mother. He’s soft-hearted. As the film opens he’s saving lumbering local simpleton Sylvester (“not as in Stallone”, he deadpans) from a beating. Within minutes he’s fallen for Ping (Neiky Kim), the pretty daughter of a woman he’s meant to be shaking down.
Nor does his crime boss – operating out of a crummy office – seem much like a crime boss. A rival boss, Fat Chan, also doesn’t seem particularly scary. Other street-punk gangsters – floppy haired, dressed in schoolboy white shirts, perhaps riding a skateboard – even less so.
There’s barely a plot. A girl called Susan throws herself from a tall building and dies. Moon wants to find out who she is, a detective strand that’s picked up and dropped as convenient. Ping joins his investigation. We’ve since discovered that she isn’t much of a thing either – she is in need of a kidney and carries a dialysis bag about with her when she’s away from home. The kidney, like Moon’s investigation and his debt-collecting, also doesn’t seem particularly urgent.
Fruit Chan is particularly keen on catching the sort of Hong Kong we don’t often see. The streets, the tenements (where Moon and most of his clients live), the traffic jams, the 7/11 store, newspaper stand, restaurants. The same applies to the script’s frequent mention of Moon’s wanking habits. It’s one of those everday things that happen but people don’t usually talk about. Cue another shot of Moon rinsing out his underwear.
If some films are about plants, then Made in Hong Kong is about the weeds, plants growing where they shouldn’t, hanging on at the edge. It’s entirely, almost ridiculously appropriate that it was made with the butt ends of reels of film left over from other productions – Chan had no money. Da Sica did the same thing making Rome, Open City 30 years before and you can see some influence of the Italian neo-realists’ interest in everyday life, though the street style of the French New Wave is more obvious, especially as the relationship between wiry Moon and gamine Ping takes flight.
The cast is largely amateur and in fact Neiky Yim never made another film. But she’s as good if not better than many of the professionals and her scenes with Lee are full of spontaneity and nervous energy. It all hangs on Sam Lee’s performance though. Wiry he may be – and he’s frequently barely clad as if to reinforce the point – but he’s got the swagger of someone who feels no fear. He’s good.
What also impressed people in 1997 and is still impressive now is the film’s look. It’s beautifully composed, a flickerbook of images, some static, others daynamic, with montage sequences and slo-mo’s also reminding us that the mid/late 1990s was the era of the first successes of Quentin Tarantino and the last of France’s Cinema du Look.
This welding together of an absolutely matter of factness about gangsterism with a keen aesthetic sense isn’t that unusual, but this isn’t the world of Goodfellas but of absolute nobodies working for criminals who aren’t even really criminals. Which makes the violence, when it erupts, all the more shocking.
Made in Hong Kong – Watch/buy the 4K restoration at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021