Neiky Yim (left) and Sam Lee, the romantic leads in “Made in Hong Kong.” The iconic 1997 film, made right before the handover to China, is finally getting a North American release.

An iconic Hong Kong film, almost lost, finally gets a U.S. release 23 years later

Mar 19, 2020

Filmed on a shoestring budget with amateur actors, Fruit Chan’s groundbreaking 1997 film ‘Made in Hong Kong’ was almost forgotten until it was recently restored. Now, it’s set for release in 15 cities in the United States.

When Aliza Ma studied Hong Kong cinema in college, Made in Hong Kong was the primary focus.

“The course was about how important this film is, an independent feature made at the time of the handover to China,” says Ma, now head of programming for New York’s Metrograph cinema. “But you could only watch it on a poorly copied VHS cassette.”

Fruit Chan’s groundbreaking 1997 film was shot on leftover film stock with a minuscule budget and crew. The story followed four young people facing a new and hostile world as Hong Kong was about to transition from British to Chinese rule.

Sam Lee (left) and Neiky Yim play two discontented youth in “Made in Hong Kong.”
Sam Lee (left) and Neiky Yim play two discontented youth in “Made in Hong Kong.”

With its improvised scenes, largely amateur crew, and vivid locations, Made in Hong Kong expanded the language of cinema and had a deep impact on subsequent filmmakers. It won awards in Hong Kong and internationally, and launched Chan’s career as a director and producer.

(Read more: Why Wong Kar-wai takes forever to make a movie)

But the film never received theatrical distribution in North America—and was almost lost until an Italian company restored it.

Made in Hong Kong had become nearly impossible to watch on any analogue or digital platform,” says Sabrina Baracettil, who first programmed Chan’s film back in 1998 for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. “This was the movie that made us fall in love with Asian cinema.”

“This was the movie that made us fall in love with Asian cinema.”

Sabrina Baracettil, film programmer

So she worked with L’Immagine Ritrovata, a Bologna-based film restoration company, along with Chan and his cinematographer O Sing-pui, to restore the film from the original camera negative.

Now, Made in Hong Kong is due to open in 15 cities across the United States after an extended run at Metrograph in New York.

Sam Lee in a still from “Made in Hong Kong.”
Sam Lee in a still from “Made in Hong Kong.”

When Chan first made the movie, he did it on impulse to record one of the most defining moments in Hong Kong’s history.

“At that time, the mainstream film industry did not care too much as to what would happen to Hong Kong,” Chan recalls. “That is why I decided to make it an independent film. It was completed with a tiny budget and a small crew of five people.”

(Read more: Why ‘Spirited Away’ still topped the Chinese box office 18 years late)

Ma, the programmer at Metrograph, admits she had no idea films like this even existed in Hong Kong.

“With very few resources at their disposal, they managed to make something larger than life.”

Aliza Ma, film programmer

“I associated cinema there with the Shaw Brothers studio—formulaic movies that were telling the same stories over and over again,” she says. “Then here’s Fruit Chan cobbling together leftover film stock for his shoot.

“His DIY energy really translates to what you see on the screen. The way the film moves is intuitive. With very few resources at their disposal, they managed to make something larger than life.”

Fruit Chan after winning best director at the 1998 Golden Bauhinia Film Awards for “Made in Hong Kong.”
Fruit Chan after winning best director at the 1998 Golden Bauhinia Film Awards for “Made in Hong Kong.” / Photo: Dustin Shum/SCMP

Ma was also struck by the way Chan blended genres. The film follows Autumn Moon (Sam Lee), who is on his way to joining a triad gang, the easy route out for a kid from public housing.

But his loyalty to Sylvester (Wenders Li) and Ping (Neiky Yim) makes him reconsider. Looming over them is the suicide of Susan, a schoolgirl.

“There’s a pun in the title that doesn’t often get talked about,” Ma says. “Autumn Moon is a gangster, he’s ‘made’ throughout the course of the film. But this is the least gangster of all gangster films. He’s really this emo dude trying to find the meaning of life.”

(Read more: The real-life story of a high-achieving drug dealer)

Since the original release of his movie, Chan has noticed a generational shift among Hong Kong’s youth, especially in light of the recent unrest in the city.

“In the past, young people in Hong Kong did not care for society and politics,” he says, “but now they are much more aware. They are no longer indifferent or resistant. This is beyond my imagination.”

Fruit Chan at his office in Hong Kong. His first name comes from his Chinese name, which translates to “fruit.”
Fruit Chan at his office in Hong Kong. His first name comes from his Chinese name, which translates to “fruit.” / Photo: Thomas Yau

Chan believes that while youth across the globe may be dissatisfied with social systems, Made in Hong Kong addresses unique social issues.

“What caused the recent unrest in Hong Kong is that the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ did not blend well,” he says. “Hong Kong young people [are] so afraid to lose the most precious thing in the world—and that is freedom. I bet youngsters in the States are just the same.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

FilmHong Kong