As we near the end of not just a year but a decade, we’re becoming inundated with even more lists than usual, as we look back at the last ten years in cinema and are compelled to rank movies for some unknown, possibly nefarious purpose. My default answer for the question of which film has most defined this past decade is Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (2014), a response which is usually greeted with benign indifference, bemusement, or confusion. But for those of us on its wavelength, no film more perfectly defines this accelerationist decade than the story of the end of the world as seen through sixteen people on a Hong Kong minibus who have no idea what has happened to them, why it happened, or what they should do next. They fumble through explanation after explanation as they are whittled down one by one in horrific fashion (disease, fire, murder, frontier justice, mysterious government agents) before driving off into the unknown through a torrential rain of blood. If that doesn’t explain what it’s like to live in a world where Donald Trump is president, I don’t know what does.
The Midnight After was Chan’s return to regular feature filmmaking after a decade of wandering. After finally breaking though in the West with his contribution to the omnibus film Three… Extremes (in which he was paired with the more well-known but no more accomplished Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook), which he expanded into a full feature called Dumplings in 2004, he spent the next ten years producing other people’s movies, contributing to other omnibus films (Chengdu I Love You, Tales from the Dark), and directing the 2009 English-language remake of Hideo Nakata’s horror film Don’t Look Up. It was a weird turn for a filmmaker whose career to that point was already bizarre, even by Hong Kong standards.
Fruit Chan spent most of the 1980s working as an assistant director for filmmakers like Sammo Hung, Alfred Cheung, David Lai, and Ronny Yu. He made his first feature, Finale in Blood, in 1990, but it didn’t get released until three years later. Nonetheless, it’s an excellent debut, a ghost story in the vein of Ann Hui’s The Secret, or Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, but grimier and pulpier, evincing the darker edge Hong Kong cinema would take in the 1990s. Chan’s counterpart in this regard is Herman Yau, who made his first films right around the same time, and who similarly combined pulp crime and horror stories with grimy, realist techniques, picking up a thread of early Hong Kong New Wave films like Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters-First Kind that had been abandoned as the New Wave directors attained positions of prominence in the film industry.
In 1997, after years scrounging leftover film stock from other people’s productions and working with a cast of non-actors, Chan released Made in Hong Kong, a wholly independent film that fully recaptured the spirit of the early New Wave. Another kind of ghost story, it’s about dirt poor teens in Hong Kong and their lives of petty crime, abuse, and lack of adequate health care. But unlike Tsui’s kids in Dangerous Encounters, or Ringo Lam’s in School on Fire, Chan’s heroes are completely aware that the world is totally stacked against them, and yet find romance in clinging together against the hopelessness of their situation (in this it is vastly more successful than Derek Tsang’s Better Days).
Made in Hong Kong was a sensation, winning Chan a prize at Locarno and the Best Director award at both the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards. He followed it up with a series of films in the New Wave style: realist films set among Hong Kong’s poorest communities, frequently using non-actors, blending slice of life details with familiar genre conventions, primarily gangster and ghost stories. His 1998 The Longest Summer was filmed during the actual Handover ceremonies, with Chan and his actors prowling through the crowds and capturing the celebrations, such as they were, as Hong Kong came under Mainland Chinese control. It starts as a familiar gangster movie, but as the Handover draws near and Hong Kong moves into its uncertain future, the plot dissolves in an ever-shifting series of betrayals and monsoon rains.
Chan’s next two films take place for the most part in a back alley in Mongkok. Little Cheung (1999) is about a boy growing up amid poverty and Triads, and his friendship with a girl who recently sneaked across the border with her family. It’s sequel, of sorts, is Durian Durian (2000), which starts with the girl’s family but centers on a prostitute who lives in the same alley and occasionally interacts with them. Halfway through the film, the prostitute returns home to Northern China, which gives Chan the opportunity to compare and contrast life in the former colony with life on the Mainland. The second half of the film bears a striking resemblance to Jia Zhangke’s Platform, which had premiered just two months earlier in 20001, as the young woman’s life revolves around her family and former friends in a provincial music and dance troupe.
His next film, 2001’s Hollywood Hong Kong, is similarly about a prostitute, played by Zhou Xun (the first real star actor Chan ever worked with) who scams her way through and out of a Hong Kong slum, and the family of pig butchers she leaves in her wake. It takes Chan’s love of grotesque and black comedy across the line into mean-spiritedness, though it’s impossible not to applaud the happy ending Zhou makes for herself. He followed it up with what is his most idealistic and utopian film, a movie about the one thing that surely unites the world, rich and poor, Asian and European, men and women: pooping. Public Toilet (2002) is set in and around restrooms in Hong Kong, Beijing, Busan, New York, Rome, and the Ganges. It’s very gross, very goofy, and the closest Chan ever got to being hopeful. Then, in 2004, he made Dumplings, which, in both its short and feature length forms, is about a former abortionist who sells fetuses to rich women to help combat the effects of aging. Aside from an exceptional performance from Bai Ling, and a fine sense of atmosphere from Chan and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it doesn’t have a lot going for it. Chan seems content with the outrageousness of the premise, as if that were enough to sustain a whole feature (it isn’t—I haven’t seen the short version though, I imagine it plays better that way). And then it was a decade before The Midnight After.
Based on an unfinished serialized web novel written by someone known only as PIZZA, The Midnight After is about a late-night minibus to the Taipo neighborhood of Hong Kong. After the bus passes through the Lion Rock Tunnel, everyone but its passengers seems to disappear. Chan’s mines the surrealness of empty Hong Kong streets for all the eeriness he can, while strange fates befall the passengers. One young man sees ghosts and demons, another decodes a mysterious message as a David Bowie song, Simon Yam tries to take charge, but only reveals his failures as a friend and father, while Kara Hui rants about aliens and bad vibes. Lam Suet, the bus driver, fights off a zombified drug addict with a machete, while a pack of college students dissolve in an inexplicable disease. Theories abound as to what’s happened: something to do with Fukushima, or North Korea, or the impending elections. But none prove satisfactory and all ultimately fade away into a mood of paranoia and fear, the only escape being a wild drive out of the city and into the unknown. It’s Chan’s masterpiece, and it only took on more resonance as, later in 2014, Hong Kong itself erupted in protests regarding the very elections referenced in the film. Looking back at it now, in the era of Trump and Brexit and a Hong Kong more radicalized and wracked with protest than it has ever been, The Midnight After isn’t just one of the great movies of the 2010s or about the 2010s, it is the 2010s.
In the years since, Chan has worked steadily, though none of the three movies he’s made since have been released in the U.S. They’re also the three least interesting movies of his career, and collectively show the kind of bind Hong Kong filmmakers find themselves in now that the industry has become almost wholly reliant on the Chinese market. 2016’s Kill Time is a murder mystery filled with ghosts both metaphorical (as its characters are haunted by their pasts) and literal (as friendly spirits seem to help solve the mystery). It’s bright and tasteful and stars Angelababy, three things which would have been anathema to the Fruit Chan of twenty years ago. But 2018’s Three Husbands leans into the scuzzier side of Chan’s work, building a twisted variation on The Little Mermaid around Chloe Maayan’s award-winning performance as a woman with an insatiable need for sex, which her three husbands (her father, her father’s buddy, and a young construction worker) try to solve, first by prostituting her, then with various devices both mechanical and animal. It’s a deeply unpleasant film, if not outright misogynist, or would be if it was in any way serious. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s really cool how the film is ever so slowly drained of color until becoming completely black and white by the end, like all the life fading out of the world.
Which brings us to his most recent film, this past summer’s Invincible Dragon, the second-best movie of 2019 wherein Zhang Jin battles a former professional fighter. In Yuen Woo-ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018), Zhang dazzled in fights with wrestler Dave Bautista (and Michelle Yeoh), his quick and lithe athleticism both a perfect match for Yuen’s acrobatic choreography and a perfect foil for Bautista’s massive size. In Invincible Dragon, he’s matched up with the great MMA fighter Anderson Silva, and the results are much less interesting. Possibly it’s because of the lackluster choreography (by Stephen Tung and Jack Wai), or because Silva is too much of a real fighter at this point to be a convincing movie fighter (Bautista was a professional wrestler, which is much more like movie fighting), but the action feels both too slow and too weightless to be convincing, while the effects around it aren’t nearly cartoonish enough to be much fun.
The story gets off to a great start, with a prologue wherein Zhang captures a drug kingpin played by Lam Suet, but not before telling him the story of his dragon tattoo, which involves a drowning boy being rescued from the sea by a massive, nine-headed CGI sea serpent. Then Zhang gets suspended for shooting Lam’s arm off and sent to a remote suburban outpost, where he promptly draws a serial murder case. This setup promises something like a goofy, macabre twist on Hot Fuzz or maybe Memories of Murder, but even more surprisingly it goes absolutely nowhere interesting. The serial killer targets policewomen (they call him the “lady cop killer” which sounds like an early 90s Corey Yuen “Girls with Guns” movie), so of course Zhang’s fiancée, played by Stephy Tang, is going to be the next victim. Zhang fails to catch the killer, has some kind of a breakdown, and a narrator skips us ahead one year and to the other side of the Pearl River Delta, where Zhang, know looking like George Harrison circa 1967, hangs around Macau and gets entangled in what appears to be a new case involving the same killer, revolving around a casino, a gym, a Chinese medicine doctor, a real estate mogul played by 80s Hong Kong comedy icon Richard Ng, and Silva, playing a Brazilian-American Iraq War vet and prize fighter who, we learn, fought Zhang and lost in a boxing match some years before.
The film dissolves at this point into a series of action sequences and even more breathless exposition, sometimes delivered by characters, sometimes by the narrator (whoever he is—we never find out). Zhang broods around screen fairly well, his character is a mess and he isn’t much of an actor, so he just keeps his head down and plows through until the next fight scene. He does get an honest-to-God training montage, which is something to see in the year 2019. Silva, to no one’s surprise, will turn out to be the killer, but his motivation would be absurd even with a great actor to deliver it, and Silva is not a great actor. The film’s final third becomes a series of increasingly absurd fights, and they are not without their goofy charm: Zhang and JuJu Chan continuing to punch and kick each other as the light-rail train they’re in rolls over and down a hillside is impressive, as is the movie’s finale, which goes so far over the top that the top looks like an ant to it.
The movie begins with a song, chorus girls chanting about how much they like Hong Kong, like a demented tourist anthem. And Zhang’s character is actually named Kowloon, after the peninsula that forms the part of Hong Kong that is on the mainland. Kowloon (九龍) also means “nine dragons,” hence the nine-headed dragon that protects both Zhang and, I guess, the city. (The nine dragons are the eight hills that surround the peninsula, along with the Song Emperor who named them.) So it’s tempting to try to read the film as some kind of allegory for the city defiantly standing against all comers, be they Mainlanders (the Macau cops, who aren’t really Mainlanders but sure seem to act like it) or Brazilian-American prize fighters (I guess Silva can represent the West, or just any and all non-Chinese). Zhang bonds with the doctor, who like him has a massive tattoo across her chest, which both protects and covers up scars. But, nah, none of this really holds together. And not in a good way either, like The Midnight After, in a lazy way, like Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire.
For it seems that even Fruit Chan has succumbed to the unreality of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, where the reliance on digital technology has eliminated all sense of place, of the vibrant, dirty, squalid streets of a living city, just as the need to tailor popular filmmaking to the increasingly opaque demands of Mainland censorship (because playing in the Mainland market is the only way for a movie with any kind of a budget to make money) necessitates a certain incoherence in the narrative, where the movies can’t really be about anything too important, at least not too obviously. This kind of artificiality, a double consciousness between the real Hong Kong and the phony one of its Party-approved popular cinema, is another, weirder phase in the on-going clash between the former colony and its new overlords, where the Hong Kong cops, heroes for decades worth of classic movies, are exposed as instruments of tyranny, their heroics as phony as a cartoon dragon.