In late October 1997, an unassuming arthouse film called Made in Hong Kong crept its way into Hong Kong cinemas, stealthily taking local and international audiences by storm and sweeping a slew of awards across film festival circuits.
Directed by Fruit Chan, the film presented a rough, edgy style of independent filmmaking incongruous with the typical polish of commercial Hong Kong cinema – it utilised a five-man production crew and a cast of first-time actors and was shot on a shoestring budget of HK$500,000. Stitched together with leftover film stock, it stood out for its mismatched, expressionistic colors and feel.
Two decades later, it is no surprise that Chan’s film remains revered as one of the greatest cult classics in Hong Kong film history. To mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover to China, a 4K restored version of it will be symbolically released in Hong Kong cinemas on July 1. Restoration of the film was commissioned for April’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy.
Even to this day, the film’s director still expresses a degree of bewilderment at the blistering cinematic legacy his first indie feature left behind.
Having spent years working in mainstream cinema before making Made in Hong Kong, Chan recalls: “The effect was beyond my imagination and it was so weird when it happened, especially when the film flew overseas to Taiwan and across Asia.
“When you are making a film, you don’t really think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be amazing and it’s going to succeed.’ You just make the film, and now that it’s done and you reflect on it, you see a lot of things that maybe weren’t there before.”
Made in Hong Kong was the first film in Chan’s “Handover trilogy” (The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (2000) are the other two), which explored the anxieties and fears of Hong Kong residents during its momentous transition from being a British colony to a Special Administrative Region under China.
In the film’s unflinching portrait of three disenfranchised youths navigating pre-handover Hong Kong, with its distinctive public housing estates and triad presence, Chan captures a sense of Hongkongers’ identity in a city on the cusp of change.
Chan says: “There are a lot of entertaining movies, but it’s really hard to make a really, really serious movie. I tried to put the society inside the film. This film is beyond an independent film and it is trying to see what Hong Kong as a ‘style’ is like.”
He adds: “Because of the high density of the population, 60% of the Hong Kong people have to live in subsidised housing. These are the living conditions of average people; it’s a very Hong Kong thing. And the story of this protagonist – his struggle, his growing up, his lifestyle – was also very common for a lot of young people at the time. So all this combined is a Hong Kong story.”
By choosing to tell the film’s narrative through the eyes of juvenile delinquent Autumn Moon (Sam Lee), Chan explains his intention to give a voice to the working-class youth, as he believed they were a social minority underrepresented in Hong Kong film at the time.
“The birth of this movie is probably one of the first movies that was really concerned with society at this particular level. The concern [at the time] was really in the middle and upper classes because they would have money to emigrate, but the lower classes did not have that option.”
While Made in Hong Kong is grounded in sobering realism – it takes a nihilistic view of urban alienation and of social and political realities – its does display surrealistic flourishes, like those of Moon’s wet dream sequences where he is haunted by the ghost of Susan, a schoolgirl who committed suicide.
Chan adds: “The fantasy is contained in the meaning, contained in how life is very hard and sometimes you will find that you are helpless in life. You cannot control how life develops. Fantasy also implies dreams, your dream.”
As present day Hong Kong approaches a decidedly darker future, with growing numbers of pro-democracy protests led by dissatisfied young people and tensions rising vis a vis the mainland, it is clear that Chan’s film still strikes a painful note of relevance even after 20 years.
Hong Kong film expert Tim Youngs, who is also a programme consultant at the Far East Film Festival, weighs in on the lasting phenomenon of Made in Hong Kong. Unlike other independent films released in the 90s which did not appeal to mainstream audiences, he points out Chan’s skill at fusing a “raw indie style” with “elements of mass entertainment,” as well as his subversion of popular genre conventions in youth gangster flicks.
He says: “Chan’s hybrid approach was unusual then, and it still is. Twenty years on, the film continues to be striking on the big screen with its offbeat energy and all-round rough look, and its take on a changing society still clicks.
In an increasingly uncertain Hong Kong, there is at least a certainty about the transcendental impact Chan’s film had – and continues to have – on cinephiles around the world, even if the man himself does not wholeheartedly embrace the fanfare. At the screening of the restored film in Udine, Chan recalled how an audience member once approached him and lauded the film as a “masterpiece.”
“I was like, ‘It’s not a masterpiece,’” he says. “For me, a masterpiece is art cinema, something very slow-moving and beautiful. If I saw Made in Hong Kong, even if it were a masterpiece, it must be considered the most raw and rude masterpiece ever made.”