The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s

The Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA) has an illustrious history spanning 40 years since its inception in 1982. Basically Hong Kong’s answer to the Academy Awards, the HKFA has nominated a total of 41 movies in the Best Film category throughout the 1980s era. Allen Fong’s Italian neorealist-inspired family melodrama Father and Son <父子情> became the first-ever recipient awarded the Best Film and Best Director awards.

Below is our list of 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s that we have picked from the combination of winners and nominees in alphabetical order.

1) An Autumn’s Tale <秋天的童話> (1987)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "An Autumn's Tale" (1987)
Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung in “An Autumn’s Tale” (1987)

One of the best Hong Kong romantic dramas ever made, An Autumn’s Tale <秋天的童话> showcases Mabel Cheung’s restrained direction and Alex Law’s well-written screenplay to impeccable results. And that is successfully combining an affecting romantic drama and lighthearted comedy.

The story about the unrequited love between the two distant relatives (Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung) is subtly told without resorting to over-the-top or melodramatic moments typically found in most like-minded Hong Kong movies. It also helps that both lead stars share terrific chemistry. Individually speaking, Chow Yun-Fat’s Samuel Pang a.k.a. Boat Head’s crude personality contrasts well with Cherie Chung’s Jenny’s naive and lovely demeanour.

Similar to Mabel Cheung’s 1985 debut feature The Illegal Immigrant <非法移民>, she certainly has an eye for earthy visuals in capturing the 1980s era of New York locations from its seedy neighbourhood to the calming beach setting of Long Island, thanks to ace cinematographers James Hayman and David Chung Chi-Man.

2) A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> (1986)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "A Better Tomorrow" (1986)
Chow Yun-Fat in “A Better Tomorrow” (1986)

Here’s the movie that famously popularised the heroic bloodshed subgenre throughout the late 80s and beyond. A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> showcases John Woo’s directorial prowess in blending solid themes of honour, loyalty and brotherhood and stylised violence. Then, there’s Chow Yun-Fat’s charismatic turn as Mark and most of the cast is just as memorable including Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung and then-newcomer Waise Lee.

3) A Chinese Ghost Story <倩女幽魂> (1987)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987)
Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong in “A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987)

A milestone of a 1987 genre classic, A Chinese Ghost Story <倩女幽魂> successfully combines a folklore ghost story with martial arts, romance and comedy. At the heart of this Tsui Hark-produced and Ching Siu-Tung-directed movie lies the unforgettable chemistry of two star-crossed lovers played by Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. The movie is also notable for its innovative special effects and yes, they are amazingly executed in a practical manner. The success of the first movie spawned two immediate sequels in the early 1990s and even Wilson Yip’s ill-fated 2011 remake starring Louis Koo and Liu Yifei.

4) All About Ah Long <阿郎的故事> (1989)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "All About Ah Long" (1989)
Chow Yun-Fat and Ng Man-Tat in “All About Ah Long” (1989)

Chow Yun-Fat’s unsightly mop-like hairstyle, which pretty much dominated All About Ah Long <阿郎的故事>, it wasn’t until the third act that his titular character finally has a decent haircut (see the photo above). Putting that aside, this 1989 tearjerker classic showcases Johnnie To’s (in one of his earlier feature-length works) masterful direction in blending heartfelt family drama and lighthearted comedy. The movie also benefits from great onscreen father-and-son chemistry played by Chow Yun-Fat (he even won a well-deserved third HKFA win for Best Actor) and Wong Kwan-Yuen while Sylvia Chang delivers solid support as Ah Long’s ex-girlfriend, Sylvia.

5) As Tears Go By <旺角卡門> (1988)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "As Tears Go By" (1988)
Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung in “As Tears Go By” (1988)

Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut is something of an odd one out, particularly when you compare As Tears Go By <旺角卡門> with all of his later works. Here, the movie is more mainstream than the distinct auteur style that you come to expect from Wong Kar-Wai. The plot more or less belongs to a typical triad-drama mould.

But he certainly has a good eye for atmospheric visual aesthetics that complements well with Andrew Lau’s stylish cinematography. Action sequences are deliberately shot in a hazy and frenetic style, complete with expressionistic motion blur. The movie also benefits from above-average performances from Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and especially Jacky Cheung in his loose-cannon supporting turn as Fly. And of course, who could forget Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung’s passionate kissing scene with Sandy Lam’s Cantonese version of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” played in the background?

6) Boat People <投奔怒海> (1982)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Boat People" (1982)
George Lam and Season Ma in “Boat People” (1982)

Ann Hui’s third and final movie in the Vietnam trilogy (the first one was TV’s The Boy From Vietnam <獅子山下:越南來客> in 1978, followed by the feature-length The Story Of Woo Viet <胡越的故事> in 1981) stills resonates with her engaging, yet thoughtful look at the plight of the Vietnamese people — and more specifically, refugees — after the Fall of Saigon.

Hui’s direction is masterful, where she successfully mixed humanist drama and matter-of-fact moments that are either tragic, shocking or pessimistic. Boat People <投奔怒海> is also blessed with an overall great cast led by George Lam in his rare dramatic role as the sympathetic Japanese photographer, Shiomi Akutagawa, given the fact he’s mostly associated with comedies. Hui also brings out the best in then-newcomers Andy Lau and particularly, Season Ma in their respective roles as To Minh and Cam Nuong.

7) City on Fire <龍虎風雲> (1987)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "City on Fire" (1987)
Chow Yun-Fat in “City on Fire” (1987)

The late Ringo Lam has made a few great crime movies during his formidable years in the 1980s and one of them includes City on Fire <龍虎風雲>. It was the movie that turned him into an overnight sensation and his collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, who plays the award-winning role of a conflicted undercover cop as Ko Chow is unforgettable.

Credits also go to Lam’s assured direction and Tommy Sham Sai-Sang’s emotionally resonant screenplay for depicting both sides of the law not only from Chow Yun-Fat’s Ko Chow’s perspective but also from Danny Lee’s point-of-view as one of the jewellery thieves. Lam doesn’t shy away from violence too, where everything is uncompromisingly gritty and visceral.

8) Chicken and Duck Talk <雞同鴨講> (1988)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Chicken and Duck Talk" (1988)
Michael Hui, Ricky Hui and Lowell Lo in “Chicken and Duck Talk” (1988)

Clifton Ko’s Chicken and Duck Talk <雞同鴨講> may have been 34 years old at the time of writing. But this 1988 hit comedy still resonates even today, combining actor-screenwriter Michael Hui’s largely effective comic timing and entertaining performances all around (among them include Sylvia Chang, Ricky Hui and Lawrence Ng). The story — credited to Hui and Clifton Ko — brilliantly satirises the cross-cultural exploration between traditional (Hui’s old-fashioned roast duck restaurant) and contemporary (Lawrence Ng’s Danny Poon’s fast-food chain selling fried chickens) mindsets and approaches. The movie also incorporates relevant themes like adapting to an ever-changing business landscape and of course, the wry commentary on Hong Kong culture that has a uniquely local feel and tone.

9) Coolie Killer <殺出西營盤> (1982)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Coolie Killer" (1982)
Charlie Chin in “Coolie Killer” (1982)

Terry Tong (Gei-Ming)’s flawed but stylish feature-length debut in Coolie Killer <殺出西營盤> features one of Charlie Chin’s best acting performances as the stern and cooly charismatic Ko Da-Fu. He leads a team of hired assassins but one night, all of them are brutally killed by unknown gang members, leaving Ko Da-Fu the only last man standing.

The first 25 minutes showcase Tong’s directorial prowess at his finest in building ominous dread and suspense and notably, Tony Leung Siu-Hung’s largely grounded and well-crafted action set-pieces (the gritty shootout and car chase scene in the parking garage come to mind).

Coolie Killer <殺出西營盤> also served as a (sadly forgotten) precursor for future like-minded Hong Kong movies about hired assassins, notably John Woo’s The Killer <喋血雙雄> (1989) seven years later, where they shared some of the thematic similarities.

10) Eight Taels of Gold <八兩金> (1989)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Eight Taels Of Gold" (1989)
Sammo Hung and Sylvia Chang in “Eight Taels of Gold” (1989)

Mabel Cheung’s third and final migration trilogy explores the recurring themes of unfulfilled love, loss and regret, which previously defined her earlier works in The Illegal Immigrant <非法移民> (1985) and of course, the award-winning An Autumn’s Tale <秋天的童话> (1987). Eight Taels of Gold <八兩金> benefits from Sammo Hung and Sylvia Chang’s terrific chemistry as Slim and Jenny. Hung’s restrained performance is a further testament that he can handle dramatic or non-action roles as seen in the likes of Heart of the Dragon <龍的心> (1985) and Painted Faces <七小福> (1988). The movie itself is charmingly simple but affecting enough to keep you watching, thanks to Alex Law and Mabel Cheung’s solid screenplay that combines rom-com tropes and emotionally-driven romantic drama.

11) Father and Son <父子情> (1981)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Father and Son" (1981)
Shi Lei and Lee Yue-Tin in “Father and Son” (1981)

Allen Fong’s 1981 award-winning family melodrama about the relationship between the son (Lee Yue-Tin and Cheng Yue-Oh playing the same character at respectively different ages) and his conservative working-class father (Shi Lei) may have been dated by today’s standard. But Father and Son <父子情> still resonates even today, thanks to Fong’s deliberate and sympathetic direction. The movie also made its mark as the first Hong Kong movie to win Best Film and Best Director at the 1st Hong Kong Film Awards in 1982.

12) Hong Kong 1941 <等待黎明> (1984)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Hong Kong 1941" (1984)
(L-R) Alex Man, Cecilia Yip and Chow Yun-Fat in “Hong Kong 1941” (1984)

Two years before Chow Yun-Fat become a certified Hong Kong superstar in A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> (1986), he has already proved his worth in Hong Kong 1941 <等待黎明>. His affecting, yet charismatic role as Yip Kim-Fei earned him a much-deserved HKFA’s first Best Actor nomination, even though he eventually lost to Danny Lee for Law with Two Phases <公僕>. He shares great chemistry with co-stars Alex Man and Cecilia Yip, both of which deliver respective above-average, though at times, over-the-top performances. Director Leung Po-Chi does an overall good job exploring the friendship and love triangle between the three principal characters and how the war — World War II — changes everything. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence (e.g. the exploding firecracker in the ear and decapitation) while bringing enough dramatic tension to his pessimistic viewpoint of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in 1941.

13) Long Arm of the Law <省港旗兵> (1984)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Long Arm of the Law" (1984)
Lam Wai in “Long Arm of the Law” (1984)

Long before Ringo Lam becomes synonymous with gritty crime dramas, Johnny Mak was here first with his seminal genre masterpiece, Long Arm of the Law <省港旗兵>.

The movie’s storyline centres on a group of wannabe thieves from China (among them includes Lam Wai) looking to make a big fortune to pull a jewellery heist in Hong Kong may have dated. It was also a product of its time from the pessimistic way (most) Hong Kong filmmakers depicted the lives of mainland criminals.

And yet, the movie still resonates in many other areas, notably the unflinching violence and the fact there are no black-and-white certainties regardless of law or otherwise, only desperate and determined individuals doing whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. Long Arm of the Law <省港旗兵> is equally notable for its violent final shootout, which takes place in the tight and claustrophobic maze of back alleys of Kowloon Walled City.

14) Mr Vampire <殭屍先生> (1985)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Mr Vampire" (1985)
Lam Ching-Ying in “Mr Vampire” (1985)

Ricky Lau’s seminal geung si (hopping vampires)-centric Mr Vampire <殭屍先生> is one for the ages, where he largely succeeds in blending several genres into a 96-minute of good fun. I have to admit the movie does linger a little too long in certain parts but Lau’s overall entertaining direction manages to make up for the most of it. The action-horror vibes are executed with enough style and it helps that Lam Ching-Ying’s signature role as the no-nonsense Taoist priest, Master Kau pulls off some excellent fighting moments. The practical special effects still look great even after decades have passed while the movie features some worthwhile slapstick comedies, thanks to Ricky Hui’s hilarious supporting turn as one of Master Kau’s dimwitted disciples.

15) Nomad <烈火青春> (1982)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Nomad" (1982)
(L-R) Kent Tong, Pat Ha and Leslie Cheung in “Nomad” (1982)

For most parts of the movie, Patrick Tam’s freewheeling look at the Hong Kong youth culture of the 1980s as we see four friends (Leslie Cheung, Cecilia Yip, Kent Tong and Pat Ha) having the time of their lives, is cinematic bliss. From the meet-cute moments of Pong (Kent Tong) and Kathy (Pat Ha) in a pool and outside a record store to the elaborate make-out session in a double-decker bus, Nomad <烈火青春> is certainly packed with enough romantic charm and sexual energy.

But Tam’s gradual tonal shift towards the final third act on the deserted island is more of a love-or-hate mixed result, complete with a sudden burst of violence and the antagonistic subplot involving the Japanese Red Army. All of the then-young four stars deliver impressive performances but it was then-newcomer Pat Ha who steals most of the show, thanks to her alluring turn as Kathy.

16) Police Story <警察故事> (1985)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Police Story" (1985)
Jackie Chan and Chor Yuen in “Police Story” (1985)

Six Police Story <警察故事> movies from sequels to reboots but the first one remains unsurpassed even if it was released back in 1985. The story is pretty much your standard-issue cop vs. criminals genre but Jackie Chan, who pulled off multiple duties both onscreen (as the dedicated police officer Chan Ka-Kui) and offscreen (among them as a director and co-screenwriter) famously go all-out in the action department.

And this is where the first movie excels the most, beginning with the visceral opening 15-minute sequence from the hillside shantytown car chase to the speeding double-decker bus moments. The fight scenes are more brutal, particularly when compared to most of Jackie’s later works and this can be evidently seen during the climactic finale in Tsim Sha Tsui East’s Wing On Plaza.

17) Rouge <胭脂扣> (1988)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Rouge" (1988)
Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in “Rouge” (1988)

Stanley Kwan’s third directorial effect finally won him a much-deserved HKFA’s Best Director award in addition to bringing home the Best Film. Rouge <胭脂扣> benefits from combining two different genres seamlessly: a 1930s-set tragic romance and a modern-day ghost story backed by Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung’s affecting turns as two star-crossed lovers with different backgrounds (one’s a courtesan and the other is a wealthy young heir). The movie is even served as a subtle metaphor for the ever-changing time and place between the past and the present not just about love and longing but also about the overall Hong Kong landscape.

18) Shanghai Blues <上海之夜> (1984)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "Shanghai Blues" (1984)
Sylvia Chang and Sally Yeh in “Shanghai Blues” (1984)

Tsui Hark’s 1940s-set Shanghai Blues <上海之夜> is a breezy 90-minute masterpiece that showcases the director’s ingenuity in mixing old-school screwball comedy, impeccable pacing and great acting all around. The latter has Kenny Bee excels in his leading-man role as Tung Kwok Man a.k.a. Do-Re-Mi, who is longing to reunite with his mysterious lover when they first met under the dimly-lit bridge during the war.

But it was the female stars that impressed the most including the lovely Sylvia Chang as Skinny Bags and of course, Sally Yeh in her wonderfully exuberant turn as Stool. The movie is blessed with witty dialogues and Tsui Hark sure knows how to make good use of tight spaces to his visual advantage. This is particularly evident during an elaborate moment of misunderstanding and coincidence in Tung’s apartment involving Skinny, Stool and a thief — the same concept that can be seen three years later in Jackie Chan’s Project A II <A計劃續集> (1987).

19) The Killer <喋血雙雄> (1989)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "The Killer" (1989)
Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in “The Killer” (1989)

Another action-movie masterpiece from John Woo that made it on the list, where The Killer <喋血雙雄> features unforgettable performances from Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee as two opposing sides of the law (one’s a professional assassin and the other is a cop). Woo pulls out all the stops in the action department with the help of Ching Siu-Tung and Lau Chi-Ho, giving us some of the most stylish and visceral gunfights ever choreographed in the Hong Kong cinema (both respective opening and climactic finale in the club and church immediately come to mind). His cinematic influence on Sam Peckinpah-style slow motion and balletic violence is put to great use. The male-bonding moments between the two leads may have been packed with borderline homoeroticism. But there’s something lyrical with the way John Woo made us care about the fates of these two aforementioned characters.

20) The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> (1986)

The 20 HKFA Best Films of the 1980s: "The Lunatics" (1986)
Stanley Fung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in “The Lunatics” (1986)

It’s hard to believe that The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> was actually then-29 years old Derek Yee’s directorial debut. And what a remarkable debut it turned out to be — a thematically engaging social drama about mental illness, complete with great performances all around. Stanley Fung proves he’s more than just a comedian from the Lucky Stars <福星系列> movie series with his rare dramatic turn as a social worker, Tsui. The movie also featured solid supporting turns from Deannie Ip and of course, Paul Chun in his breakthrough performance as the mentally unstable Tsuen.

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