1. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 96)
The pinnacle of Chan’s style of glossy filmmaking, this romance stars Maggie Cheung and Canto-pop star Leon Lai as two Mainland immigrants who fall in love to the sound of Teresa Teng’s Eighties hits.
2. Full Alert (Ringo Lam, 97)
More than Lam’s farewell to pre-handover Hong Kong. As the film fades to black with its hero cop (Lau Ching Wan) sobbing alone in his car, Lam seems to be bidding farewell to the entire crime genre. One film later, he walked away from his directing career.
3. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Wai Ka-fai, 97)
A Choose Your Own Adventure gangster flick in which a low-level triad (Lau Ching Wan) deliberates over whether to pull a heist in Taiwan or Mainland China. Wai’s blackly comic Buddhist essay on the fickleness of fate is punctuated by camerawork that at one point flips upside down and homes in on the characters’ faces with wide-angled, demented delight.
4. The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau & Johnnie To, 98)
A corrupt cop spends 24 hours trying to keep the peace as two gangs sit down for a negotiation. To took over after credited director Yau had shot five scenes, and brought in Wai Ka-fai to rewrite on the fly. The result is the first full flowering of Milkyway’s dark, brutal, beautiful style.
5. Tempting Heart (Sylvia Chang, 99)
Seventies teen star Chang was one of the most popular comediennes in the Eighties, before becoming one of Hong Kong’s most interesting directors. Here she diagrams a high-school love triangle from every angle, within a framing story about the making of the movie, and asks forgiveness for the follies of youth.
6. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 00)
Wong’s career shifted into moody overdrive with this apparent extension of 1990’s Days of Being Wild. This story of an almost-love-affair between Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung made emotional restraint sexy and kicked off a Sixties nostalgia trend in Hong Kong.
7. From the Queen to the Chief Executive (Herman Yau, 01)
A raw, heart-on-its-sleeve, ruthlessly unsentimental protest film about juvenile offenders lost in legal limbo after the transition from British to Chinese rule. The real-life models for its main characters committed terrible crimes, but Yau insists that they’re as entitled to justice as their victims.
8. Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 01)
A slick internationally accessible comedy blockbuster in which washed-up Shaolin monks regain their dignity by playing soccer. The next stage in Chow’s comedic evolution, this is what everyone hoped would happen after his performances started to mature with Jeff Lau’s Chinese Odyssey.
9. My Life as McDull (Toe Yuen, 01)
Hong Kong’s sole animated star, McDull is a slightly stupid piglet devoted to his go-getter mum. The flagship of a five-feature franchise that specializes in cultural whiplash, it’s a poignant mix of ultra-local humor, musical numbers, and heartbreaking flash-forwards to McDull’s future as a lonely office worker.
10. Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Jeff Lau, 02)
Lau’s reunion with Wong Kar Wai eight years on stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Faye Wong in a deconstruction of Ashes of Time that celebrates and satirizes Chinese classical literature, Hong Kong film, and anything else that’ll fit inside Lau’s zeitgeist blender.
11. Lost in Time (Derek Yee, 03)
Former Shaw Brothers actor Yee directed the iconic romance C’est la vie, mon chéri (93) and the intense thrillers, People’s Hero (87) and One Nite in Mongkok (04). But this film about a woman who takes over her dead fiancé’s minibus route exhibits an emotional naturalism not customary in Hong Kong films.
12. Election & Election 2 (Johnnie To, 05 & 06)
To’s one-two punch tells the secret history of Hong Kong through its criminal triads. Part one gets all the attention, but it’s part two, which exposes triad connections with Mainland Chinese officials and their funding of criminal activities overseas, that really stings.
13. After This Our Exile (Patrick Tam, 06)
Returning to directing after 17 years, Tam transforms the Hong Kong gambling comedy into a no-holds-barred tragedy. Cantopop king Aaron Kwok plays a compulsive gambler who betrays his son in every way imaginable over the course of three riveting hours.
14. Gallants (Clement Cheng & Derek Kwok, 10)
A low-budget love letter to old-school martial-arts filmmaking packed with old-school stars. Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai, and Teddy Robin play elderly martial-arts masters whose rundown school is about to be replaced by a gleaming new gym.
15. Love in a Puff & Love in the Buff (Pang Ho-cheung, 10-12)
Pang’s sophisticated script makes Puff, about a couple who meet in the alley where they take their smoke breaks, feel like an update of Thirties Hollywood romantic comedy. But Buff ups the stakes as the lovers break up, head to Mainland China, and wreak havoc on everyone around them—because only someone from Hong Kong can understand someone from Hong Kong.
16. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, 11)
This hard-edged and unsentimental story of an elderly woman struggling to die with dignity became a huge hit. Superstar Andy Lau plays real-life producer Roger Lee, and former pop star Deanie Ip plays Lau’s amah (family maid) whose health rapidly declines after a stroke. Contemplative, meditative, and quietly dignified, it’s a gem in Hui’s career.
17. Cold War (Longmond Leung & Sunny Luk, 12)
Fueled by relentless advertising campaigns, producer Bill Kong scored big with campy suspense films Murderer (09) and Nightfall (12). This slightly more butch police thriller is loosely inspired by the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Told it was the most important movie of the year (like all Kong’s releases), audiences attended in droves.
18. Ip Man: The Final Fight (Herman Yau, 13)
In this warts-and-all valentine to Hong Kong, kung fu is on the back burner with Ip Man (Anthony Wong) serving as a lens through which to view Hong Kong’s half-century of labor unrest, left-wing activism, and anti-colonial politics. The final fight of the title turns out to be the unwinnable battle against death.