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Thread: MADE IN HONG KONG/ 香港製造 (Fruit Chan 1997)

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    Jul 2002
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    MADE IN HONG KONG/ 香港製造 (Fruit Chan 1997)



    Cult film of electric youth from the Hong Kong hand-over

    The bit of propaganda from Chairman Mao hastily tacked to the end of Made in Hong Kong is a parting reminder that this flavorful picture was released in 1997, the year of the handover of Hong Kong from the British to Mainland Chinese control. Shot on the run and on the cheap in an energetic, youthful spirit, it was the first independent film to come out after that momentous, still controversial change. It seems to have remained some kind of definitive statement of a dubious, uneasy moment. It feels free of dependencies. It can be seen as having arrived before the full implications of the change had sunk in. In 2017, its twentieth anniversary, it was shown at Udine's Far East Film Festival in a new 4K restoration carried out by L'Imagine Ritrovata (The Recovered Image) in Bologna. The film is now being released for the first time in the States by Metrograph Pictures, opening there in New York, on Ludlow Street, March 6, 2020, with a nationwide rollout to follow.

    It's well worth these efforts: Made in Hong Kong has an aura of the iconic about it, something eternally fresh, artisanal and free, but also fits into a time-honored tradition of the cinema of doomed misfits and rebels. It's a little like, if not as stylish, the early films of Wong Kar-wai: think Days of Being Wild or Chungking Express. But think also Breathless and earlier films of disaffected youth like Bu˝uel's Los Olvidados, Oshima’s Cruel Tragedy of Youth - and more recently, from the early Nineties, Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards and Tsai Ming-liang’s 1992 Rebels of the Neon God (which I reviewed for its first US distribution in 2015). Others have compared Fruit Chan's film to Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, Jia Zhang-ke's (2001) Unknown Pleasures and, back in the early Nineties again, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Greg Araki's Doom Generation.

    At the heart of Made in Hong Kong is its protagonist To Chung-Chau, 'August Moon' (played with verve and 150% commitment by the skinny, punk-haired Sam Lee who the filmmakers had discovered skateboarding in the street). Moon is a cut-rate triad hipster in tight shirts - and often shirtless - and wearing plaid shoes and knockoff Arnette shades. (He may be poor, but he's in a different outfit in every single shot.) Wanting a posse and being kindhearted, Moon takes on a dependent, Sylvester (Wenders Li), a big, tall, mentally challenged youth who needs his protection, and later acquires a girlfriend, Ping (Neiky Hui-Chi Yim), who with her mother dodges debt-collectors (like Moon). Ping 's short hair and air of hipness link her to Faye Wong's quirky counter girl in Chungking Express, which came out three years earlier.

    But there isn't a lot of time for quirk here. As a 2007 London ICA revival blurb puts it, "Fruit Chan's Hong Kong is more brutal than that presented by the likes of Ringo Lam or John Woo." "There are no straightforward gunfights here," it explains, but "instead a menacing cityscape and a backdrop of run-down housing projects." This simply depicts "three teenagers trying to escape their lives." Well - not quite that simply: Moon is equipped with a healthy supply of dangerous swagger. Like all doomed punks with dash, he was made to be in a movie. He's never had the swagger of a gun. Watch out when he gets one.

    Moon/To Chung-chau lives - very provisionally and combatively - with his mother (Doris Chow) in a slum apartment block, his dad having run off with his mainland mistress (or maybe mistresses). The flashy, tough-seeming youth, whose offhand brutality we see him show off early on, does some debt-collecting for his triad boss, Cheung Siu-wing (Chan Sang), a surprisingly classy looking guy who has no confidence in his own or Hong Kong's future after the handover. A quite separate event that seems symbolic and foreshadowing is Sylvester's coming back with two bloodstained letters found beside the body of a girl the subtitles call Susan (Amy Tan), who has just committed suicide - which we see: it is a scene staged monumentally, her body looming high above the camera eye on top of a building before she quietly steps forward to her death below. Susan's suicide seeps through the whole film, casting a spell of doom - and attraction - acknowledged from the start in Moon's voiceover. He keeps having wet dreams about her - while Sylvester, for his part, gets nosebleeds whenever Ping is in the vicinity, even unseen.

    In his 1997 Variety review (written at Locarno in August 1997) Asian film specialist Derek Elley, who has often seemed hard to please, was immediately sympathetic to Fruit Chan's personal experiment, which he explained for Stateside readers was "god-fathered by Hong Kong megastar pop singer Andy Lau" for $80,000, using film stock leftovers from other movies longtime AD Chan had worked on, and some provided by Lau. True, Elley deplored what he called the "predictable orgy of violence and bloodshed" of Chan's sad ending, but he proclaimed this "second feature by longtime assistant director Fruit Chan" to be "one of the few movies" able to "translate the energy and experimentation" of "16mm and 8 mm Hong Kong shorts to feature length." This is an important and unique achievement, and one not every viewer would appreciate. Hong Kong cinema has been cursed by its own slickness. But not this time.

    When he meets the precocious 16-year-old Ping on a collection job, Moon ignores her warning that she's doomed, fatally ill with a kidney disease, and falls for what Elley calls her "kooky charms." Later, he takes a kill contract from boss Wing to raise the money for a kidney transplant, and thereby assumes his own personal level of doom.

    As Elley notes, the plot "and its unfolding" are at times "as confused and out-there as the central character's mind-set," but the director uses a heady combination of "wild camerawork, sweaty, totally convincing playing by Lee in the main role, and an often deafening soundtrack heavy with background noise" to construct "an often involving, rough-edged portrait" of "a certain section of Hong society," the one that's "running out of control with nowhere to go." All the technical elements, Elley acknowledges, blend into a "portrait of angry youth" that's "as hypnotic as it's often maddeningly kinetic."

    More than that, the film has a lasting local significance. Coming when big changes in the Hong Kong film industry were afoot, Made in Hong Kong is defiantly its own master with its own site-specific nihilism. Writing about it in Zolima City Mag at the time of the 2017 restoration, Hong Kong resident Elizabeth Kerr found that it remained "painfully resonant, and sadly relevant."

    We frequently hear Moon's voiceover comments, a Nouvelle Vague-style device we knew well from Wong Kar-wai. Moon's own voice and that of the doomed girl, not to mention his triad boss, all express a wariness about the future, a quality Kerr found makes this picture the "a breath of fresh air" as well as "the antithesis of the glamorous and glamorized thrillers" from the Hong Kong film industry that had preceded it. She saw this as the city's "own Boyz n the Hood," a movie that shows, in its unique rough style, that poor youths didn't have any easy way out of the poverty or the grim projects of Hong Kong, then any more than they do now. As Angus Woolfe Murray wrote in Eye for Film in 2001, "Fruit Chan directs at full tilt," and creates "a miasma of imagery that pollutes the senses." "Not easy to follow," Murray adds to the chorus, and "harder to enjoy," but there is a "rawness" and an "honesty" that are "admirable." Made in Hong Kong leaves one with the sense of something felt and real.

    Made in Hong Kong/香港製造, 108 mins., originally rejected by the Hong Kong Film Festival, debuted at Locarno in Aug. 1997, winning a special jury prize. It played at four other international festivals, and won two Golden Horse and three Hong Kong Film awards as well as a FIPRESCI Prize at Busan. Its 4-K restoration opened in Hong Kong July 1, 2017 and played in several festivals. Now, a first-ever US release by Metrograph starts Mar. 6, 2020.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-02-2020 at 03:37 PM.


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