Header image courtesy of Golden Princess Film Production (via IMDb)
Part of what propelled Hong Kong’s film industry to international acclaim was when gangster films burst onto our silver screens with guns ablaze. Whether or not you may think these movies romanticise the triad lifestyle too much, there’s no doubt that these over-the-top fights, unapologetic bloodlust, and skewed themes of loyalty and honour have made an indelible mark on Hong Kong, even to the point of spawning Hollywood blockbuster remakes! We sift out the good from the bad and the ugly and recommend 10 of Hong Kong’s best gangster and triad movies to add to your watch list.
Derived from the gangster genre in early American cinema, Hong Kong’s mobster movies came about in the 1980s, when your average working-class citizen’s living conditions mirrored the grittiness of the film’s backdrops. Hong Kong was going through a tumultuous period, dealing with social unrest, poor living conditions, and a rising mainland Chinese immigrant population, while existing as a colonial city edging towards being returned to China. Gang violence was a regular enough occurrence.
Taking inspiration from such real-life events—director John Woo has seen fatalities occur in police and triad clashes right where he lived—Hong Kong directors took the gangster format and placed the emphasis on the themes of loyalty and brotherhood. These are motifs already present and much venerated in traditional Chinese discourse, grouped loosely under the umbrella term yi (義; a virtue encompassing honour, loyalty, duty, and decency, closely associated with brotherhood).
Many also feel that this branch of Hong Kong cinema is inextricably linked with the sense of crisis that Hongkongers felt regarding the city’s impending return to Chinese rule in 1997. There was a feeling of alienation from traditional Chinese values that people feared might be reinforced upon them after the handover, and a certain resistance appeared in how gangster films turned the classic Chinese hero on its head with a delinquent identity while grappling with the topic of survival even in the face of calamity. Perhaps tellingly, the gangster in Hong Kong cinema is often presented as a hero hopeful for redemption.
Johnny Mak may only have directed one movie, but this would have been a hard act to follow anyway. Long Arm of the Law can be seen as a Hong Kong New Wave piece that is a precursor to the crime and gangster films that would follow. A group of ex-Red Army guards from mainland China cross into Hong Kong to attempt a jewellery heist, but everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Brutal, gritty, and amoral, the characters’ lack of wealth and values are sharply contrasted by the city’s glitz and glamour. The final chase sequence through the slums of the Kowloon Walled City is a scene that will likely go down forever in our cinematic history.
A Better Tomorrow launched director John Woo’s career and kickstarted the heroic bloodshed genre in cinema. A pair of brothers are on opposing sides of the law, one as a police officer and the other a master counterfeiter (played by Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung, respectively), and together with the gangster’s partner-in-crime Mark (Chow Yun-fat), the trio get embroiled in the schemes of the triad. While Mark is technically a side character, Chow Yun-fat undoubtedly steals the show; after all, what can be more iconic than his trench coat, shooting with a gun in each hand, and lighting a cigarette with a burning Ben Franklin?
While widely known as Quentin Tarantino’s inspiration for his Reservoir Dogs, City on Fire perhaps receives less recognition as an influence on the now-popular trope of undercover cops caught between worlds. Ko Chow (played by Chow Yun-fat) is a weary cop who reluctantly accepts an undercover mission to smuggle himself into the triad ranks. He ends up forming a strong bond with gang member Fu (Danny Lee Sau-yin) and struggles to decide where his loyalties lie. Keep an eye out for the final sequence with the Mexican standoff, and superb shots of a neon-drenched Nathan Road that will make you fall in love with Hong Kong all over again.
As auteur Wong Kar-wai’s first feature film, this title is less polished in the delivery of his signature style and vision, but is still a success for standing out from the slew of conventional crime films of its time. Wah (played by Andy Lau) is a small-time gangster, troubled by constantly having to keep his friend and subordinate Fly (Jacky Cheung) out of trouble. This differs from the other triad movies because the focus is centred on two low-ranking gangsters and their relatively petty squabbles and trials. As with all of Wong’s works, the plot is less the true focus of this film than its dreamy tone and fatalistic themes.
While definitely still violent and melodramatic, The Killer is a gangster film that is surprisingly passionate and in touch with emotions. Playing on the “one last job” trope, Ah Jong (played by Chow Yun-fat) is a veteran assassin who accepts a final hit job to pay for cornea transplant surgery for a nightclub singer whom he injured by accident. Unfortunately, a series of ambushes, attacks, double-crossing, and betrayal follow, while the detective charged with arresting him, Li Ying (Danny Lee), becomes increasingly intrigued by Ah Jong’s acts of goodwill. As a cop in the movie puts it, “Life’s cheap,” but it’s certainly made richer by strong comradely affection, even if it comes from somewhere unexpected.
Chow Yun-fat once again plays an impossibly badass, gun-toting character, Tequila, who is a police inspector. After his partner gets killed in a mission, Tequila joins forces with reluctant undercover triad member Alan (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) to bring down the gang responsible. It’s unclear how Tequila survives such high-stakes shootouts with a toothpick coolly clamped between his teeth the whole time, but by God, is it impressive. Just that iconic opening scene in the traditional Hong Kong teahouse, replete with old men and their pet birds in cages, is enough reason to watch Hard Boiled.
Based on a popular Chinese comic book series called Teddy Boy, this film gained immense popularity in Hong Kong and spawned a good number of spin-offs as well as its own sequels. It has also contributed much to the modern image of Hong Kong gangs as seen by the public and was rather criticised for glorifying the triad lifestyle. In the film, a group of hot-headed teenagers who idolise a local gang leader decide to join the triad ranks to work under him. After making a name for himself, lead character Ho Nam (played by Ekin Cheng) steps on some toes and gets sabotaged, with friendships falling to pieces around him. Ultimately, this is a story about lasting friendship and brotherhood, even within a society where loyalty does not exist.
Steering clear away from the romanticism of its predecessors, The Longest Nite presents no angsty character struggles over good or bad. Set in Macau, corrupt cop Sam (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is keeping the peace between two triad leaders, one of whom he serves, as they work towards striking a deal. Things are thrown into disarray with the appearance of a suspicious man (played by Sean Lau Ching-wan) who keeps tailing him and disrupting his plans. Sam tries to get rid of him by framing him for murder, and what follows is a series of plot twists that will leave your head spinning. Agonising, gritty, and at times even almost surrealist, there is no shortage of violence here, with scenes that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Arguably the most commercially successful of its genre, this tour de force is an ingeniously constructed tale about a cop working undercover as a gangster and a triad member working undercover as a cop. As each tries to smoke the other out in an increasingly tense game of cat and mouse, the film grapples more with the issues of identity, loneliness, integrity, and redemption, more so than it does with overt violence and flashy action sequences. Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau turn in amazingly nuanced performances, as do Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang, playing the superintendent and the triad boss, respectively. Martin Scorcese may have done a star-studded Hollywood knock-off, but watch the OG Hong Kong version for a richer and more emotionally complex ride.
Veteran actors Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka-fai give great performances as two gang leaders vying for the position of the new head honcho of a triad. As the biannual leadership term reaches its end date for the Wo Luen Shing triad, Lok and Big D are on opposing sides of an election to become its new head. When one man is eventually chosen, it threatens to destroy the sense of brotherhood within the gang, as well as its precariously teetering relationship with the police. This is a film which does not rely on as much overt violence as the genre’s predecessors but uses dialogue and mood to create a slow-burning thrill instead.