NY festival shines light on HK film-makers

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It has been not quite 30 years since a group of young Hong Kong- based moviemakers, now in or near their 60s, reinvented the gangster film, infusing the motifs of the American crime drama with the balletic action, nimble style and thematic preoccupations of their hometown industry.

John Woo began the process with A Better Tomorrow in 1986 and became the movement's standard-bearer in the United States, eventually directing a string of big-budget Hollywood films. Johnnie To emerged later with Breaking News (2004) and his Election films (2005 and 2006), and is now a major presence on the international festival circuit.

Lost in their shadows, at least in the US, was Ringo Lam, whose City On Fire in 1987 was another landmark of the Hong Kong cops-and-crooks genre. After a career marked by hits and misses in Asia and a handful of American productions, he took a hiatus from directing. Wild City, set for release next month in China and in August in Singapore, will be his first feature in 12 years.

So it is fair to say that among the more than 50 movies in the New York Asian Film Festival, which began last Friday, the most exciting discoveries may be a pair of entertaining Lam classics from two and three decades ago. City On Fire and Full Alert (1997) were shown as the festival presented its lifetime achievement award to Lam, 59, last Saturday.

Amazingly, neither film appears to have received a mainstream commercial release in the US, and neither is available from any of the major streaming services.

City On Fire also offers the immeasurable bonus of Chow Yun Fat's virtuosic performance as the hero, Chow, a petty criminal turned reluctant undercover policeman. Forced to take part in a dangerous jewel heist, he gradually befriends a fellow gang member (Danny Lee).

Moving adroitly among Chow's squabbles with his mostly indifferent bosses, his risky dance with the gang and his comic-relief efforts to hold on to his girlfriend (Carrie Ng), the film explores the standard Hong Kong themes of trust, brotherhood and the gravity of violence with sufficient style that Quentin Tarantino famously incorporated elements of its plot in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Released 10 years later, within weeks of the handover of Hong Kong to China, Full Alert tells a similar story in a radically different key - deeply melancholic, bordering on nihilistic.

Now the hero is a single-minded, haunted cop, played by the veteran actor Lau Ching Wan with expressive stoicism and a thousand-yard stare, and his adversary an embittered civil engineer (really) planning a revenge robbery, played by another Hong Kong stalwart, Francis Ng.

Once again, there is common ground for the foes, both doomed to disappointment in a shallow and corrupt system, but this time, there is nothing sentimental about the inevitable guns-blazing showdown. And once again, there are beauty and emotional texture in the details, in scenes loud and quiet.

The Asian Film Festival, in its 14th year, offers several current examples of the Hong Kong crime film, including Fire Lee's Robbery and Philip Yung's Port Of Call, in which the disappearance of a teenage girl is the start of a story about the alienation and desperation of immigrants seeking a better life in Hong Kong.

Starring Aaron Kwok, the one-time Cantopop superstar, and shot by Christopher Doyle, it is also laced with nostalgia for a not-too-distant past when Hong Kong was Asia's undisputed dream factory. Kwok was on hand last Friday to receive the festival's Star Asia award.

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