The unique world of Cantonese films

When we first arrived in Hong Kong we were staying in a serviced apartment which had a wide range of TV channels to watch, including a few Cantonese movie channels. All the films were subtitled in English so it was possible to watch them and Tom really got into them! I have learned to love them too. When we moved into our own place and had to select which channels to pay for, we chose Star Chinese Movies as one of them – and, to be honest, I think it’s actually the channel we watch the most.

Cantonese films are a very unique bunch. We’ve seen some pretty good ones and some absolute stinkers! We found this list online of the ‘best’ films as voted for by visitors to the website – we don’t agree with all of them though! But it’s been a useful reference point to keep an eye out for when the most popular ones come on TV.

I think that most of Cantonese films fall into one of 4 categories:

1. Quirky rom-com/comedy

These are my personal favourite, and definitely the most ‘different’ culturally to what you might be used to. To be honest, some of the humour completely escapes me, most of it is a bit bonkers!

Two films that we’ve watched in this category are ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ and ‘Shaolin Soccer’. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a rom-com that revolves around a love triangle between a quirky woman (Yuanyuan Gao), a rich man (Louis Koo) who has taken a shine to her but is a bit of a cad (but wants to be nice for her sake) and an architect (Daniel Wu) who starts off as an alcoholic but reforms himself after a chance encounter with said woman and ends up looking after her ex-boyfriend’s toad (Daniel Wu will now forever be called Froggy Man in our household). It’s a pretty predictable but sweet film.

Shaolin Soccer is at the other end of the spectrum. It made it to number 10 in the best films of all time in the list I mentioned above, but it’s totally bonkers and we had very little idea of what was going on when we were watching it! It’s loosely based around a plot featuring a guy and his brothers using martial arts to form a soccer team but there’s loads more going on in the film including what I think may have been some kind of love interest. The martial arts aspect is particularly amusing as it’s just comedically unrealistic – think of kicks causing people to fly backwards hundreds of metres and footballs turning into flaming missiles and you’re partway there. Tom has also seen Kung Fu Hustle, which is made by the same people. Apparently, it’s in a similar vein but a little easier to follow!

Cantonese movies - Kung Fu Hustle

2. Gritty police dramas

These almost certainly feature kung fu, Andy Lau or both. And some of them are very gritty and violent indeed. However, the best by far that we’ve seen is Infernal Affairs (featuring Andy Lau but only a little kung fu), which was remade in the US as The Departed. Complex plot, great character interaction and plot development. Most of the others that we’ve seen have been pretty bad and highly unrealistic. The only one whose name I can think of is Cold War which featured very little plot development (it jumped straight into the action and stayed there) and a surprisingly weak ending. Watch Infernal Affairs instead.

Cantonese movies - Infernal Affairs

3. Period kung fu

Some of these are comedic but the best ones are just beautifully shot and executed. Some of these have become well known internationally, such as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (N.B. I think these are actually Mandarin films, not Cantonese!). The comedic ones are in a similar vein to the ones set in the modern day (see category 1 above) – very quirky and, in many cases, obvious and unrealistic (we watched one where a princess/empress was pretending to be a man, very much confusing another man who developed feelings for her but didn’t know why, when he was trying to set her up with his sister).

Cantonese movies - Hero

One film that we saw recently that fits the period kung fu category is Shaolin. It’s based around the story of a bad warlord (Andy Lau), who finds redemption in a Shaolin monastery through meeting Jackie Chan, who plays the role of a cook who also happens to be an expert in kung fu (you wonder whether the writer had ever seen Under Siege).

4. Period drama epics

These tend to be very long and based around various historical events, such as the fall of the Chinese emperors or the life of someone or other. For example Bodyguards and Assassins, which is based around the story of Sun Yat-Sen’s visit to Hong Kong in 1905. This one started off as quite a serious film but descended into the usual kung fu affair by the end. I have to admit I don’t have a lot of time for these films! I’m sure they are historically accurate but they tend to be a little dull!

So that sums up my opinion of Cantonese films – there are some great ones out there but some real duds too! But Tom and I both love the quirky Cantonese humour and many of these films are very endearing in their bonkers-ness (not a word?). So we’ll keep watching Star Chinese Movies in the hope that we’ll love the next one we see!

Thanks for reading!



2 thoughts on “The unique world of Cantonese films

    • Haha, I don’t know but they are certainly used to them – all the big releases are shown in the cinemas here. A quick google suggests there isn’t a kung fu version of Pride and Prejudice (at least not one that makes the comparison obvious to search engines) but I’d love to see it!

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