Cherie Chung gets her big break playing an illegal immigrant torn between lusty carpenter and brash boxer. Stephen Tan reviews.


Before Clifford Choi's Hong Kong Hong Kong (1983), Cherie Chung was just a beautiful face in Hongkong cinema. She often came across as perky and vibrant - whether it's in a horror-comedy such as The Dead And The Deadly or action-fantasies such as the Superman rip-off, Descendant Of The Sun.

But in Hong Kong Hong Kong, and probably to movie-goers' surprise, Chung gets a shower scene and two bed scenes, one of which is a steamy sex scene with veteran actor Kwan Hoi San. Also probably to viewers' dismay, there is no full-frontal nudity in the film.

But whatever that is glimpsed or seen only heightens the sexual tension in the film. Chung is an illegal immigrant from mainland China in Hongkong trying to make something for herself. She falls for brash gambler/boxer Alex Man but realises that she will achieve her goal of getting Hongkong citizenship by staying with carpenter Kwan Hoi San. There is an interesting frisson in her scenes with Alex Man - in the beginning it is a forbidden love - but turns torrid later on; meanwhile, a growing domesticity creeps into her relationship (which is rather primal at the start) with Kwan.


Chung's predicament - her attraction for the more exciting but may not be dependable Man as opposed to a resigned life with the reliable and lusty Kwan - forms the heart of the movie; but it is also a motif of being caught in-between that recurs in various forms.

Staying in what looks like a squatter area with other mainland Chinese, Chung does not easily give herself to the other men in the house (where sex is available freely) but when she does, there is no enjoyment on her face. Caught between love and lust, she only knows how to keep her feelings to herself.

Long-time movie fans might remember Alex Man in Ann Hui's The Secret (1979) but he is probably better known for The Taiji Master TV series (1982) and as the supporting actor in Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987). Lured by the $ingapore dollar, Man had even acted in Brave New World, a 1996 MediaCorps TV series that starred Fann Wong and Phyllis Quek. Here, he plays a Thai-Chinese trying to make his mark in Hongkong. While his feelings for Chung is a pivotal part of the story, his relationship with boxer Lo Lieh is worthy of scrutiny. To prepare for his fight, Man trains under Lo Lieh but doubts that friendship when after losing his bout, he learns that Lo Lieh might have had a hand in his loss. Distrust, divided loyalties and the idea of being stranded alone in a foreign land are some of the thorny issues in Hong Kong Hong Kong.

In the '70s, the Vietnamese boat people were headline news and movies such as Boat People and The Story Of Woo Viet (which also starred Chung) were critical successes and box-office hits. It is no surprise that filmmakers such as Clifford Choi decided to turn inwards and look at illegal mainland Chinese immigrants in Hongkong. Mainlanders in Hongkong were already spoofed with the Ah Chan character in the hugely popular 1979 Man In The Net TV series and here, they are shown in a more sympathetic light. But they, as a group, are still an unrooted people in Hongkong. Attracted to material success on one hand, they still pined for a simple life of family and friends on the other (as exemplified by one of Chung's housemates who decides to become a prostitute and later tells Chung that she now has a number of girls under her charge).

If Cherie Chung and Alex Man represent the "new" people coming into Hongkong, then Kwan Hoi San represents the old generation of residents with the-then 1997 looming in front. For western viewers, Kwan is the ageing triad boss/mentor Tony Leung has to kill in Hard Boiled (1992). The traditional Kwan longs for a son and is willing to sacrifice for this - the frugal carpenter splurges on Chung to make her happy with the understanding that she will bear him a son eventually. But he is also caught in a bind when he realises that the child Chung is carrying is not his. If there is a failing in this movie, it is that the ending is a tad too melodramatic - in his rage, Kwan slaps and kicks Chung, and destroys the appliances (like TV) and things that are dear to Chung. But that's a minor quibble.

The early '80s saw the rise of the Hongkong New Wave cinema, with directors such as Ann Hui and Tsui Hark coming to the fore. Clifford Choi's Hong Kong Hong Kong can easily be seen as Shaw Brothers' entry into the New Wave genre. The street life and the squatter area look like authentic location shoots; there is a gritty hand-held camera and, by and large, the script is realistic and earnest with only the ending playing a formulaic part.

It is Chung who shines the most in this movie. In spite of her looks, she has to turn from someone with a simple demeanour to a person who accepts that in life, one has to make certain choices, however painful. In less glamorous state, she is brutally hit; falls down a flight of stairs and suffers a miscarriage. It is no surprise that Chung was nominated for Best Actress awards in both the Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Award (she won the latter). Hong Kong Hong Kong is now seen as the movie which gave Cherie Chung her big break - she was now an Actress; and secondly, someone with sex appeal, though movie-goers will see it the other way round. As if to show the fans were right, Chung next appeared in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (1983) and the risque Maybe It's Love (1984) and it would be a few years before celebrated movies such as Peking Opera Blues (1986), An Autumn's Tale (1987) and Wild Search (1989).

By winning the Golden Horse Award for Best Original Screenplay, the film also shot director Clifford Choi to fame. While Shaw Brothers is not seen as part of the Hongkong New Wave movement, it now has a New Wave movie of sorts in its catalogue.

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