Apart (散後, Lester Chan Chit-man, 2020)

“There’s gotta be a price for chasing dreams” sighs the heroine of Lester Chan Chit-man’s Apart (散後) as she mulls over lost love and the fight for Hong Kong independence. A collection of youngsters find themselves swept up in the Umbrella Movement, but some are more committed to the cause than others and divided loyalties are enough to eventually pull even those who love each other apart. 

Yin (Will Or), his cousin Toh (Chan Lit-man), Yin’s girlfriend Maryanne (Sofiee Ng Hoi-Yan), and the bashful Shi (Yoyo Fung) are all earnest university students studying hard to build professional lives for themselves. Maryanne is strongly against Mainland interference and has become a keen participant in the Umbrella Movement protests, dragging Yin and his more committed cousin along for the ride. The conflict lies in the fact that Yin comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father, Hung (Lester Chan Chit-man), is the CEO of a successful coach company and strongly pro-China. Authoritarian in the extreme, he thinks that you have to respect order and that the future lies in the Mainland. Yin’s animosity towards him may be more youthful rebellion against his hypocrisy in his many affairs and subsequent remarriage to younger woman Yin doesn’t seem to care for, than it is true political conviction. Toh’s father, meanwhile, is originally sympathetic towards the protestors and against Mainland interference (if only to needle Hung) but changes his tune when the protests start affecting his business.

“It turns out some people just want to make a living” Yin admits trying to broker peace, but finds his loyalties continually strained as he tries to balance his desire for Maryanne with his personal ambition. As the protests intensify, Yin pulls back. He objects to his friend’s increasing conviction that there can be no victory without violence and fears the outcome of a battle fought on such tense fault lines. Maryanne, however, doubles down, devoting all her energies to the movement, unforgiving of Yin when he dares to step back on the night that his grandmother dies and secretly beginning to doubt him, riddled with romantic jealousy over his growing attraction to Shi. 

In some ways Maryanne represents for him Hong Kong, while Shi represents the Mainland. Yin is a man pulled between two poles and perhaps treating neither of them with the respect they really deserve. The years wear on and the Umbrella Movement winds down. Yin pursues his technological interests in the US, perhaps hoping to escape the HK/China divide through removing himself to another continent. The crisis does not however stop. Maryanne becomes a lawmaker, trying to further her aims in the political arena but encountering fierce resistance. She is lonely and tired, but refuses to give up. Yin finds himself torn, in love with Maryanne but considering settling down with Shi who, like him, is ready for “a settled life”, while Maryanne knows she cannot rest until Hong Kong is free. He won’t come to the protests with her because he fears damaging his prospects on the Mainland, and she won’t be welcome if she accompanies him there (not that she would want to). Politics drives them apart, and as Maryanne said there’s a price for following your dreams. 

Toh, a little younger, remains committed to the ideal but also tempered by practicality, changing the future through teaching the past while his Chinese-American step-cousin, Jessica (Jocelyn Choi), eventually returns to chronicle the battle for democracy from an international perspective. In his student days, someone asks Yin why it is they who have to fight this battle and he replies that they alone can afford this naivety. They can afford to be bold, passionate, reckless, unrelenting, and unafraid of the consequences because they are young. As they grow older, some of them grow away. Yin gives in to practicalities, leans towards his father’s point of view, and eventually does what he thinks is right in looking for peace and compromise, but his actions betray Maryanne’s revolution. Maryanne looks for political solutions, but finds them slow going nevertheless continuing the fight. Nothing may change, but we’re here to show them we won’t mindlessly obey, Shi offers of the Umbrella Movement, filling the streets with the colour of resistance in tiny paper umbrellas in a vibrant yellow.


Apart was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Prince Edward (金都, Norris Wong Yee Lam, 2019)

(C)My Prince Edward Film Production Limited

“Why do you all think that marriage means happily ever after?” A conflicted young woman asks the man attempting to railroad her into a life of conventional respectability. “It doesn’t mean that” he explains, “But there’s no happiness if you don’t get married”. In 21st century Hong Kong can it still really be that a woman’s success or failure is measured by her age at marriage? The debut film from Norris Wong Yee Lam, My Prince Edward finds its heroine asking if there isn’t more to life than marrying a man you don’t love because it’s what everyone seems to expect. 

31-year-old Fong (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) has been in a committed relationship with wedding photographer Edward (Chu Pak Hong) for the last seven years, but she’s been keeping a secret from him. 10 years previously, she and her friend Yee (Eman Lam Yee-man) underwent sham marriages to Mainlanders in return for cash so they could rent a flat with a third friend, Mabel. Fong believed that the agency would deal with her “husband” on their own, arranging his Hong Kong residency permit and thereafter a divorce but although Yee’s “marriage” went off without a hitch, Fong’s hit a snag in that the agent was arrested so her husband never got his ID card and she never got her divorce. The reason she’s worried now is that she overheard Edward tell his assistant to photoshop his client’s marriage certificate to redact any mention that he’s been married before to avoid potential embarrassment at the ceremony.

The fact is, Edward is a strangely conservative, patriarchal sort of man and she knows he might not be very understanding even if she sits him down and explains that she’s technically still married to someone else. Everything might have carried on as normal if Edward had not taken it upon himself to make an ostentatious public proposal that Fong could hardly have refused even if she’d wanted to. The public proposal is perhaps another manifestation of Edward’s manipulative tendencies, but is also mostly undertaken to please his conservative and equally possessive mother (Nina Paw Hee-ching) with whom he still shares a joint bank account at the age of 31. Too afraid to face the potential consequences of the pair finding out, Fong attempts to track down her “husband”, Yang Shuwei (Jin Kaijie), to convince him to co-sign the divorce papers so they can come through before her mother-in-law’s preferred wedding date in a few months’ time. 

The grand irony is that Fong only did the sham marriage because she felt trapped by her conservative parents who objected to a teenage romance. She moved out to find freedom, but now feels trapped within the claustrophobic district of Prince Edward and most particularly the Golden Plaza shopping centre which houses her apartment and the bridal shop where she works which is next-door to Edward’s photography studio. She wanted to move into a swanky new flat, but Edward’s mother is dead set on buying the place where they currently live so Edward won’t have to move, an arrangement which suits him fine. Edward, meanwhile, is prone to jealous rages and Fong can hardly leave the apartment without getting 30 messages asking where she is and when she’ll be back. 

It turns out that “freedom” was what Shuwei was looking for too. He wanted a Hong Kong ID card as a stepping stone to going to America, hoping to make worldwide travel easier than with a PRC passport. Ironically, he can’t understand why Fong puts up with Edward’s prehistoric attitude and encourages her to reconsider marrying a man who’s already borderline abusive. Fong doesn’t quite want to admit it to herself but she feels the same, only she doesn’t have the courage to resist. She’s been successfully keeping Edward at arm’s length all these years, but now that the subject of marriage has been raised she’ll have to make a firm a decision. 

Working in the bridal shop she sees enough stressed out, unhappy couples going through the motions to realise that it’s not all sunshine and flowers, while it sounds like her family life was not exactly a bed of roses growing up. What she can’t seem to do, however, is to give herself permission not to marry. Unexpectedly getting his wings clipped, Shuwei asks her what it is she wanted to do and where she wanted to go, questions that no one else has really asked and Fong doesn’t know the answers to. If she stays with Edward, she might never find out. Like the flipped over turtle she tried to rescue from a pet shop, Fong runs the risk of swapping one tank for another, ending up trapped inside the Golden Plaza for the rest of her life being bossed around by her mother-in-law and walking on egg shells around the fragile Edward which seems like a heavy price to pay simply to be accounted respectable. “You don’t know what freedom is” Shuwei scolds her, confused that she chooses to stay when she has the choice to be anywhere she wants. The real Prince Edward gave up his throne for love, choosing one kind of freedom at least or perhaps just swapping one tank for another. Fong doesn’t know where she wants to go, but is beginning to realise that she has a choice and choosing herself is no bad thing. 


My Prince Edward screens on March 8/12 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The God of Cookery (食神, Stephen Chow, 1996)

Thing about cooking is, you gotta have heart. At least, that’s the main takeaway from Stephen Chow’s 1996 culinary comedy God of Cookery (食神) in which he once again stars as a man who’s become rich and successful exploiting the talents of others but gets a major humbling when his duplicity is exposed by an even more duplicitous, though apparently talented, rival. Only by living among the people and rediscovering the simple joy of ordinary food cooked with love can he regain his true identity as the “God of Cooking”. 

Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow playing a character of the same name but written with different characters) has built up a successful food empire built around himself as a celebrity chef known as the “God of Cooking”. As a popular TV judge on a cooking competition, he makes a point of giving each of the contestants zero points, starting off with words of praise but eventually finding fault with “basic” techniques and even at one point complaining that it doesn’t matter how tasty the dish is because the chef is so ugly it’s made him lose his appetite. Chow treats his employees with total disdain, going so far as making a prospective hire defecate in public in front of a lift in return for a job, while schmoozing with Triads to expand his empire. The Triads, however, are getting fed up with him and have installed a mole in his organisation. Bull Tong (Vincent Kok Tak-chiu) is a talented chef who claims to have trained at the Chinese Culinary School on the mainland. He makes a point of causing public embarrassment to Chow by tearing apart one of his signature dishes at the press launch for the 50th branch of his branded restaurant chain. Chow is exposed as a talentless fraud and thanks to his haughty attitude, his friends abandon him. 

Penniless and destitute, he rocks up at a noodle stall run by Sister “Twin Daggers” Turkey (Karen Mok), critiquing her noodles in the same way Bull had torn apart his. Turkey takes pity on him after he’s beaten up by thugs and accepts him into her mini street gang. It’s Chow who finds an innovate solution to to her turf war with a rival stall holder in inventing the not entirely appetising “Pissing Beef Balls” which prove an instant hit with all who try them, even helping to cure those suffering with anorexia (apparently a widespread problem of the time, at least according to onscreen newspapers). Chow has not, however, lost his cynical streak and wants to get back to the top by opening a nationwide chain of Pissing Beef Ball restaurants, while Bull and the Triads begin to panic about his seemingly unstoppable success. 

Parodying both Tsui Hark’s Chinese Feast from the previous year, and Wong Jing hit God of Gamblers, Chow brings even more of his now familiar slapstick style, turning cookery into a kind of martial art, and even including a brief sequence in which he gets trapped inside the Shaolin Temple and ends up learning some of their patented culinary techniques. As the cynical top chef, Chow stands in for the evils of the age, puffed up on empty capitalism, openly telling his staff to pull dirty restaurant tricks like making the seats small and uncomfortable to increase turnover and filling the drinks with giant ice cubes to keep costs down and encourage guests to order more. Bull Tong, however, goes even further, beating the staff and suggesting they serve greasy, salt-laden dishes like French fries so kids order more soda, ignoring complaints from the chefs that it’s unethical to serve such obviously unhealthy food to children. 

Sister Turkey’s cuisine, by contrast, might not exactly be top table stuff but it makes no pretence of being anything other than it is. Her rival prides himself on using high quality ingredients, even making sure his oil is changed daily, making it plain that your average market hawker (whether he’s telling the truth or not) at least appears to have more concern for his customers than giant restaurant chains do. Turkey’s ordinary barbecue pork and rice dish with a side of egg is the best Chow’s ever tasted because it was made with kindness. He may have been fond of saying that you have to have heart to cook, but it was just one of his soulless catchphrases until he realised it was true. Good food, companionship, love, and a Christmas miracle slowly work their magic until the “God of Cookery” is finally restored thanks to a little celestial intervention, showing the Bull Tongs of the world exactly what they’re missing.


The God of Cookery screens in New York on Feb. 15 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事, Clifton Ko, 1992)

Now an annual institution, the “New Year Movie” was only just beginning to find its feet at, arguably, the end of a golden age in Hong Kong cinema. Clifton Ko’s All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事) is often regarded as one of the key movies that made the genre what it is today, taking the box office by storm and spawning a small franchise with a series of sequels, the latest of which All’s Well, Ends Well 2020, is released this year. The original, however, is a classic “mo lei tau” nonsense comedy starring master of the form Stephen Chow as an improbable lothario chased into domesticity by the beautiful Maggie Cheung. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three brothers – Moon (Raymond Wong Pak-ming), Foon (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), and So (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). Oldest son Moon is a regular salaryman married to devoted housewife Leng (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue). Though it’s his seventh wedding anniversary, he’s late for the family dinner at home with his parents and brothers because he’s entertaining his mistress, Sheila (Sheila Chan), instead. Foon, meanwhile, is a disk jockey on local radio filling in for a friend taking a day off to get married. Eccentric movie enthusiast Holliyok (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) rings into the show to complain that she feels lost and lonely, so Foon takes her address and phone number under the pretext of gifting her a laserdisc. So, meanwhile, is an effeminate young man who teaches flower arranging and clashes with his tomboyish, motorcycle riding “auntie” Mo-shang (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) who practices extremely aggressive massage techniques. 

As this is a New Year movie, the conclusion we’re moving towards is the repairing of the family unit with the two unmarried brothers eventually pairing off, culminating in a mass wedding in which mum (Lee Heung-kam) and dad (Kwan Hoi-san) can participate too. Before that, however, we’re dropped into the increasingly affluent world of Hong Kong in the early ‘90s in which men like Moon think they’re king. Leng, meanwhile, laments that she married her husband after high school and unlike him does not have the option to quit her “job”, forced to serve the two “company directors” day and night with no overtime or double pay. Quit is exactly what she does do, however, when confronted with Moon’s infidelity. After promising to take her out for a swanky dinner, he gets distracted by his mistress and ends up getting rid of Leng to have dinner with Sheila after which he is so drunk she has to carry him to his own door. Sheila may have thought she was pushing herself into a middle class way of life, but being a housewife is hard work too, especially with Moon’s rather demanding if eccentric parents who suffer separation anxiety from their TV set and prefer to be vacuumed down to keep themselves clean while they watch. 

Leng, not quite having intended to really leave, is forced to reassert herself as an independent woman. She re-embraces her love of singing, getting one of the few jobs that’s open to women in her situation – working in a karaoke box. Eventually, she glams up and becomes a “credible” rival to Sheila, who has now become the housebound “hag” resented by the regretful (but perhaps not remorseful) Moon who has learned absolutely nothing at all about being a good husband.  

Meanwhile, Foon romances Holliyok through movie roleplay, cycling through Pretty Woman, to hit of the day Ghost, before heading into the darkness of Misery, and the unexpected salvation of Terminator 2. After himself getting caught with another girl, Foon gets hit on the head with an egg and “develops” a “brain disease” that causes him to lose his mind. Holliyok swears revenge, but, inexplicably, can’t seem to give up on the idea of Foon’s love while he remains just as pompously macho as Moon, believing women are things you win and then discard. 

Counter to all that, So and Mo-shang occupy a rather ambiguous space – quite clearly coded as gay complete with offscreen lovers they communicate with only by letter until they make a surprise appearance to make a surprise announcement. First feeling a spark of unexpected attraction while making some electrical repairs in the kitchen, they are eventually shocked straight – So transforming into a pillar of conventional masculinity, and Mo-shang suddenly wearing her hair long (did it grow overnight?), putting on makeup and dressing in ladies’ fashions. Thus, their gender non-conforming natures have been in some sense “corrected” by “love’ or “electroshock” depending on how you choose to look at it, assuming of course that their newfound romance is not just a clever ruse to neatly undercut the use of their homosexuality as a punchline. In any case, as the title says, all’s well that end’s well, and the Shang household seems to have regained its harmony, rejecting Sheila and all she stands for to embrace true family values just in time for the festive season.  


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Rerelease trailer (traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Little Q (小Q, Law Wing-Cheong, 2019)

little q poster 4You might think, in this day and age, that guide dogs are a fairly uncontroversial subject, but it might interest you to know that Hong Kong apparently has a vast guide dog deficit with fewer than 40 working in the city as of 2016 which is around one for every 4,300 visually impaired people. That might be part of the reason that Little Q (小Q, Xiǎo Q), adapted from a Japanese photobook by Ryohei Akimoto & Kengo Ishiguro, largely plays out as a feature length advert for the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, which is one of only two organisations training guide dogs and was set up in 2011 ending a 26-year absence of any such body.

The film charts the entire life cycle of the titular Little Q, whom we first meet literally falling into the arms of grumpy pastry chef Po-ting (Simon Yam Tat-wah). Rewinding a little, we realise that Po-ting’s sister and her vet husband are involved with the raising of guide dogs, sending Little Q off to live with his “foster family” which, perhaps irresponsibly, is in the home of plucky little girl Tsz-kiu (Jessica Liu Chutian). For those who don’t know, and as the film perhaps hopes to illuminate, guide dogs are trained in a family home by ordinary people who’ve agreed to look after them for the first 18 months of their lives, after which the dogs are given a final aptitude test and then placed with a blind person for a probationary period to assess their compatibility. Of course, agreeing to foster a dog knowing that you’ll eventually have to give it up can be emotionally difficult even for an adult, so placing that responsibility on a child is only going to lead to tears, of which there are plenty as Tsz-kiu is finally forced to accept that Little Q can’t stay with her forever because she has a greater calling.

Simon (Him Law Chung-him), the trainer/co-ordinator, promises Tsz-kiu that he’ll make sure Little Q has a lovely life with a person who truly appreciates her and that he’ll be sure to bring Little Q right back if she’s ever hurt or mistreated, but in part he knows he’s being disingenuous because they’ve already decided she’ll be going to Po-ting. Po-ting does not want a guide dog and is only getting one because of his sister’s connection to the programme. The problem is that Po-ting was always a “difficult” person. A well known TV pastry chef, he made a name for himself being mean in the way only a celebrity chef can. He has no respect for his service animal in part because he has no respect for other people, and because he was good at what he did people let him get away with it. Po-ting once cut down a contestant on the TV show by insisting that a chef must use all five senses, so he feels particularly trolled by the universe to have lost his sight and is struggling to accept his blindness. Feeling a sense of internalised shame because of his disability in addition to the fear and anxiety involved with adjusting to his new life has made him even more unpleasant and resentful than he was before. Angrily insisting he needs no additional help, he rejects and mistreats Little Q, even violently throwing her out of his well appointed home in the pouring rain.

As this is Little Q’s story, however, we only get a back seat view to Po-ting’s gradual softening as he begins to let her into his life, engineering not only a warmer relationship with his sister/partner in the pastry shop (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) but also with his apprentices, while he begins to see that the loss of his sight is only a change and not a tragedy. Through it all, Little Q is at his side, steadfastly loyal even when he tries to push her away, which is perhaps not quite the best message to be sending though it does emphasise the intense attachment that necessarily develops between a guide dog and its owner.

Law hints at an ethical dilemma in pointing out the toll taken on the dogs in the course of their work, but heads it off in reminding us that they get to “retire” and live out their final days as pampered pets while demonstrating that the reformed Po-ting breaks all the rules by playing ball with Little Q like a regular family dog. The paradox is difficult to bear as owners must act in symbiosis with their dogs, but are reminded that they’re service animals belonging to the organisation not personal pets and should something happen to them, will be shuffled on to others in need or returned to their foster families. Nevertheless, Little Q gets the best of both worlds, bonding fiercely with the grumpy Po-ting as he figures out how to live and love by following her lead.


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Ip Man 4: The Finale (葉問4:完結篇, Wilson Yip, 2019)

Ip Man 4 poster 1Superhero movies may be undergoing something of a complex reevaluation of late, but you can’t deny that they often come in unexpected forms. Ip Man, the man who made Bruce Lee, has himself become a mythical figure, a kind of kung fu saint defending ordinary Chinese people from oppressors and bullies. All heroes, however, must eventually meet their end. Ip Man 4: The Finale (葉問4:完結篇) brings the Donnie Yen starring series to a bombastic close with Ip seemingly facing off against the rising populism of the present day by kicking back against racist aggression in the San Francisco of 1964.

Why would Ip be in San Francisco, you ask? Because Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan) invited him. Rewinding a few minutes, we discover that Ip has recently been diagnosed with throat cancer which is why he politely declines Bruce’s offer to pay for him to fly to the US to see him in a karate tournament. Personal matters, however, change his mind. His wife now passed away, Ip is struggling to connect with his increasingly rebellious son Jin (Jim Liu) who has been expelled from school for fighting. All Jin wants is to study kung fu like his dad, but Ip doesn’t approve. The headmaster advises him that unruly kids might do better abroad and so Ip decides to visit Bruce and check out schools in the US in the process, but he quickly runs into trouble on learning that the elite private institutions of the area require a recommendation from the Chinese Benevolent Association. The CBA are of the opinion that Chinese martial arts are for the Chinese people and are very angry about Bruce Lee’s determination to teach them far and wide. They were hoping Ip could talk some sense into his former pupil, but Ip is firmly on Bruce’s side. He too believes that martial arts should be a bridge between peoples, not a secret weapon preserving its mystique to intimidate.

This central divide becomes the film’s axis with head of the CBA Wan (Wu Yue) gently reminding Ip that he does not live in the city and is ill qualified to comment on local politics while advocating a gentle path of quiet appeasement. Wan clashes with his feisty daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), who wants to be a cheerleader but faces constant micro aggressions from the openly racist rich kids at the same elite high school Ip wants to send Jin to. Yonah disagrees with her father’s turn the other cheek philosophy and longs to use the martial arts she didn’t particularly enjoy learning for their real purpose, later bonding with Ip after he steps in to frighten a group of posh thugs who attacked her on instruction from her rival on the cheerleading team.

The anti-racism theme slowly dovetails with the mirrored threads of failing fatherhood as Ip realises that he has made all the same mistakes as Wan. Yonah is impressed by Ip’s aura of quiet authority and spiritual power, instantly striking up a kind of paternal relationship with him, but offers cutting critique in casually echoing Jin’s words in complaining that her father has never supported her. Facing his mortality, Ip wanted to ensure his son’s independence as quickly as possible, but refused him the independence of deciding his own future. Eventually he realises that the only way to atone for his failure as a father is to pass his knowledge on while he still can, but a key part of that is that a martial artist must stand up to injustice wherever they see it, which is pretty much everywhere in San Fransisco in 1964.

Somewhat incomprehensibly, the great evil this time around is a group of massively racist karate enthusiasts who like to shout racial slurs at the practitioners of Chinese kung fu. Granted massive racists are not known for their critical thinking abilities, but no one seems to have told them that karate was not born in America which makes their animosity towards kung fu all the stranger. Yet, just as Ip and Bruce had suggested, martial arts can indeed be a bridge as Bruce discovers in besting a promising challenger in an alleyway and getting a big thumbs up in return.

Not everyone is as easily won over, however. Ip’s final battle against a crazed marine instructor (Scott Adkins) plays out as if he really has defeated racism in America by punching out a meat headed bigot with fatherly righteousness which is, however you look at it, a little on the flippant side. It also, of course, plays into the persistent “just stay in China” message of contemporary Chinese cinema, but nevertheless presents a slightly subversive front in clumsily uniting the oppressed population of the city under Ip’s revolutionary banner in opposition to entrenched racism, classism, corruption, and nepotism. Awkwardly delivered perhaps, but you can’t argue with the broadly positive plea for cultural exchange and international co-operation as the best weapons against injustice.


Currently on limited release in UK/US cinemas courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (馬永貞, Corey Yuen, 1997)

hero 1997 posterIt’s an old ‘un but a good un. Young gun from the country hits the city, decides to do things his own way, becomes the top dog but loses himself in the process and is then faced with a choice between his better nature and potential gains. Corey Yuen’s remake of the Shaw Brothers classic Boxer from Shantung, Hero (馬永貞, Ma Wing Jing), stars Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro in his first big action lead as the titular good guy who nevertheless finds himself wavering under the oppressive skies of turn of the century Shanghai.

Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his brother Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) have left their old country home to seek their fortunes in the city following a devastating drought. The Shanghai International Settlement, nominally under the control of the British, was a bustling, international port city but also lawless place where gangsters ruled – Tam Sei (Yuen Biao), who is supported by the Brits, controls half the territory with his rival Yang Shuang (Yuen Ta), backed by the local police, taking the rest. The Ma brothers hoped to make something of themselves in the brave new world of Shanghai but are simply two of thousands of refugees fleeing famine and can only find dock work where they are exploited and treated poorly.

Their fortunes pick up, however, when Wing Jing gets an early opportunity to show off his hero qualifications by saving Tam from certain death during an ambush. Tam, grateful, somewhat humiliates Wing Jing by forcing him to bend for a silver dollar before berating him for doing it but the pair eventually bond in a good old fashioned fist fight. Tam offers him a job, but Wing Jing has learned his lesson – he’ll be his own man and make his own name.

A melancholy love story plays in the background behind the otherwise macho dynamics. Arriving at Tam’s saloon, Wing Jing falls in love at first sight with the beautiful singer, Ling-tze (Jessica Hsuan), but is unable to pursue his romance with her thanks to his brotherly debt to Tam, who is in love with the bar’s landlady, Yam (Valerie Chow), but has broken things off because the of precariousness of his gangster lifestyle. Tam disappears for a bit, leaving the bar and his territory to Wing Jing, but doesn’t bank on Yam’s machinations as she gets rid of Ling-tze and takes up with Wing Jing while working with Yang on an evil plan that turns out to be a weird way of protecting her one true love.

Nevertheless, Wing Jing takes centre stage as he quickly climbs the local tree and becomes the big guy in town, little realising that his bravado has irked just about everyone in sight – he’s not only made himself a target for Yang but for the local Chinese police while Tam’s old associations with the British can’t be counted on forever. Yang, ironically enough, is playing divide and conquer but Wing Jing is too naive to see and too hotheaded to listen to Tam’s advice even when he returns to offer it.

Then again, a hero is a hero through and through and so it’s not long before Wing Jing’s moral goodness begins to resurface and he realises where his loyalties really lie. Given that Hero is a Hong Kong production released in 1997, perhaps it’s less surprising that the good guys are the ones backed by the British rather than local law enforcement which is, of course, deeply corrupt and and immersed in Yang’s world of internecine scheming. Still, this Shanghai is one of scrapping poor boys fighting for freedom from oppression (if accidentally veering into the role of oppressor in the process) much more than it is about international politics or the or the increasingly global milieu of the late 19th century city and its position as the gateway to the East for an avaricious Europe.

Mixing classic Shaw Brothers style with a modern New Wave edge, Yuen gives Kaneshiro his time to shine as an ultra cool action hero complete with a series of hugely impressive action sequences culminating in a fantastically satisfying final shoot out where blood and brotherhood take centre stage. But there can be no winners in this world of betrayals and counter betrayals, and so our Hero may have to leave it behind for pastures new as he takes his heroism with him into a hopefully better future.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)