Expect new box-office records to be set over the coming week as we celebrate the Lunar New Year and families look to cinema for an escape – for an hour or two – from the world outside, if not from each other.
Since the 1950s, canny studio heads have rolled out their big guns over this period in an effort to cash in on the festive spirit, packing their productions with stars and – more recently – throwing all caution (and often good taste) to the wind when it comes to humour or any semblance of a plot.
But it would be churlish not to join the feast. Even when it comes to film, the Lunar New Year is a time to indulge in some guilty pleasures, and we’ve thrown a few of those into the mix when choosing the top 10 Lunar New Year films for your enjoyment.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Perhaps not what you expected first up, but martial arts master Lau Kar-leung’s film hit cinemas over the Lunar New Year in 1978 and blew audiences away, thanks mostly to the performance of its star, Gordon Liu. He plays a martial arts student (based on the story of Shaolin legend San Te) who learns his craft before turning teacher himself as he rallies the poor and downtrodden into rising up against their oppressors. A near masterpiece of the martial arts genre that will set your heart racing.
Aces Go Places (1982)
Director: Eric Tsang Chi-wai
The film that set the action-comedy Lunar New Year template many directors still follow to this day. Eric Tsang draws on the multi-talents of singer-turned-funnyman Sam Hui Koon-kit, who’s all charm and grace as a thief with a heart of gold. He’s out to help the cops solve a case, and maybe even melt the heart of the feisty policewoman played by Sylvia Chang Ai-chia. Tsang threads a stream of references to other films throughout the production – both from Hollywood and home – and it’s a formula that still works a treat.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1987)
Director: Clifton Ko Chi-sum
The late, great “Uncle” Bill Tung Biu was one of Hong Kong’s success stories. A one-time jockey turned race commentator, he became so popular that directors soon came calling and Tung fashioned himself a respectable acting career by basically playing versions of himself. Here – and in the three films that followed – he plays a Hong Kong everyman who makes his fortune and then loses it (in a constant cycle), and endures a constant barrage of abuse from the women who surround him, most noticeably the impressive figure of Lydia Shum Din-ha, who plays his wife. There are clever reflections on our society’s obsessions (with money, of course) and how you never know what fate has in store for you.
All’s Well Ends Well (1992)
Director: Clifton Ko Chi-sum
One of the mainstays of the Lunar New Year comedy genre, Clifton Ko has a definite method to his madness. One of the filmmaker’s greatest skills is talent spotting and here he helps launch the career of Stephen Chow Sing-chi, giving the young star a chance to explore the reaches of his own brand of mo lei tau (nonsense) comedy. It follows three pathetic brothers (Chow, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Raymond Wong Pak-ming) as they look for love. It’s offensive, but also very funny and it’s completely stolen by Maggie Cheung Man-yuk as the nutjob who dreams of stardom – and of Chow.
The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993)
Director: Jeffrey Lau Chun-wai
The rumours continue to swirl around director Jeffrey Lau’s odd attempt to poke fun at the more lofty ambitions of author Louis Cha Leung-yung’s classic wuxia novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Think of it as the flipside to the coin that is Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time – it uses exactly the same cast, sees them switch roles, and does away with the mysticism and furrowed brows for utter high camp. Some say it was a quickie made to make up the money being lost as Wong’s film ran over time (and budget). A relentless (but often very funny) romp.
A Chinese Odyssey Parts One & Two (1995)
Director: Jeffrey Lau Chun-wai
This time, Lau pays homage to – instead of poking fun at – classic literature. The threads of narrative through both films – released less than a month apart – are inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West, but the films rely on modern attitudes to love and friendship. Chow again shines in the lead role, showing off impressive athleticism in the action sequences but never allowing us to take things too seriously with his winks and raised eyebrows. Timeless in style and effortless in their ability to entertain.
The Dream Factory (1997)
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Once upon a time, it was thought that Hong Kong-style Lunar New Year films wouldn’t cut it with the mainland’s ever-growing audience. Now, people up north can’t get enough of them. But director Feng Xiaogang proved, as he has for most of his career, to be ahead of the curve. Instead of waiting for Hong Kong films to come to him, he went out and made his own, distinctly mainland-style version of the movies. Ge You shines as the leader of a group of slapstick-inspired schemers who decide to rent themselves out to normal folk – they’ll play any role to help make people’s fantasies come true. The film announced Feng’s arrival as a hitmaker.
King of Comedy (1999)
Directors: Lee Lik-chi, Stephen Chow
Several of Chow’s productions could make this list, but King of Comedy was arguably the first to give his talents free rein. That the plot concerns the tribulations of an aspiring actor as he tries to turn himself into a star keeps the audience in on the joke. It pretty much follows Chow’s own rise from a children’s show host to box-office king, and all the way through pokes fun at the conceits of the industry and the big egos that live within it. It’s a showcase of Chow’s unique brand of buffoonery and hints at the greater things that would come from the man when he was given total control and produced the likes of Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
Last Train Home (2009)
Director: Fan Lixin
Life can’t all be fun and games. Canadian-Chinese director Fan Lixin turns his cameras on the planet’s greatest annual human migration when millions of Chinese return home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Fan finds one gripping story within those masses – of a family torn apart by economic necessity, and one that reunites just once a year at this time. As well as the very human drama at this documentary’s core – the divides between generations are one aspect of modern Chinese life here writ large – the film offers simple and quite staggering reflections on the personal costs that have to be made if the people are to keep up with the nation’s economic growth.
Golden Chickensss (2014)
Director: Matt Chow Hoi-kwong
A monstrous hit that revives Sandra Ng Kwan-yu‘s role as the ageing hooker Kam, whose own travails reflect those of Hong Kong. It also highlights everything that is both good and bad about the Lunar New Year comedy genre. Not much of a plot after the first half hour, more a steady stream of cameos by the likes of Louis Koo Tin-lok, playing against type, and a stream of questionable jokes focusing on race and gender. The film is saved by Ivana Wong, playing a dimwit who is far more than she appears at face value. Worth watching simply to see her arrival as a major talent.
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