Explore the world of Hong Kong cinema as we put the spotlight on the most talented directors in the local film industry today
Once crowned “Hollywood of The East”, it’s impossible to overstate the influence of the local film industry. Whether it’s the martial arts icon Bruce Lee or the cult action hero Chow Yun-fat, Hong Kong cinema has captured hearts worldwide, bringing local idols to the global stage—all thanks to the gifted actors’ efforts, and of course, the film directors’ acumen in visualising the screenplays and managing all the creative aspects of the production.
From the legendary auteurs to the new stars emerging on the horizon, we’re putting the spotlight on Hong Kong film directors who have been striving to find innovative new ways to deliver their best works in our beloved city.
1. Wong Kar-wai
Notable works: As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood For Love (2000)
Arguably the most celebrated local film director of our times, Wong Kar-wai has a knack for creating moody and non-linear narratives, with unique cinematography and music selections that result in some of the most striking visual experiences movie buffs have enjoyed, and enjoyed again.
Having written and directed all his works in a career spanning over 30 years, Wong’s film aesthetics and interest in themes of identity, love, and nostalgia are a real feast for the eyes and mind, which have earned him great reputation and respect in the world of modern cinema by his peers, if not the general public.
Wong’s debut effort As Tear Goes By (1988) is considered one of the best takes on the crime genre after John Woo’s huge hit A Better Tomorrow (1986), while his most internationally acclaimed movie In The Mood For Love (2000) is lauded for its visual splendour and subtle storytelling, which cemented himself as a film legend who doesn't afraid to play with visuals to narrate tales of romance. We can’t wait to see what Wong has in store for the upcoming project Blossoms, a sequel to In the Mood for Love.
2. Derek Tsang
Notable works: Soul Mate (2016), Better Days (2019)
The son of Hong Kong comedian, actor and director Eric Tsang, Derek Tsang is considered one of the most notable filmmakers of his generation, whose works have predominantly been influenced by arthouse cinema. Throughout his career, Tsang worked in the industry as an actor and director, and his first feature film Soul Mate—which he directed and produced—was a landmark debut project. Despite being the first movie on his resume, the romance drama had garnered him a slew of nominations at the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards and other major film award ceremonies.
Tsang receives further acclaim for his next film Better Days—a beautifully told and emotionally intense teenage romantic crime thriller starring Jackson Yee and Zhou Dongyu. It grossed US$230 million in mainland China and even made history as the first film directed by a Hong Kong native to receive a Best International Feature Film Oscar nomination in 28 years.
3. Ann Hui
Notable works: Summer Show (1996), The Way We Are (2009), A Simple Life (2012), The Golden Era (2014), Our Time Will Come (2017)
There are few filmmakers on the level of Ann Hui working today. Hailed one of the best, most prolific female directors in Asia, she is a key player in the Hong Kong New Wave film movement, who has been producing and directing a vast array of solid and enjoyable films in such diverse genres as literary adaptations, martial arts, thrillers and semi-autobiographical works.
In a career spanning over 30 years, Hui is interested in themes about ordinary lives and everyday challenges, whose works often feature the ever-changing social and economic landscape of Hong Kong as the backdrop. The incredibly talented director is known as the record holder for the most Best Director wins at Hong Kong Film Awards, who was also honoured with a Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement at the 77th Venice Film Festival in 2020.
4. Stephen Chow
Notable works: From Beijing with Love (1994), King of Comedy (1999), Shaolin Soccer (2001), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), The Mermaid (2016)
What can’t the movie legend Stephen Chow do? He’s a charismatic actor who gave his finest performances in some of the most classic Hong Kong comedy movies such as Fight Back to School (1991) and Royal Tramp (1992). He’s a respected auteur who has the passion and acumen in plotting gripping tales that always entertain. What's more, he's also a creative martial artist who designed his own type of Kungfu-inspired fighting style to deliver a unique sense of humour to audiences.
Through his impressive features over the last two decades, Chow has proved himself to be a filmmaker who has the intelligence to blend action with comedy and fantasy elements for memorable jokes and scenes that will be always enjoyed as classics.
5. Johnnie To
Notable works: PTU (2004), Election (2006), Running on Karma (2004), Exiled (2007), Life Without Principle (2011)
Starting out as a TV shows producer at a very young age, Johnnie To surely knows a thing or two about performing some amazing feats of filmmaking. Action and crime movies are To’s trademark, who’s famous for his candid portrayals of fate, human relationships, Hong Kong’s changing political climate that come with a realistic characterisation of triads and police.
As well as winning plenty of major local accolades such as the best director and the best film awards, To’s works were also consistently shown and admired at a variety of international festivals in Europe and North America, including the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, to name just a few. Thanks to some clever themes, a handful of suspenseful moments and devious plot twists, To’s films have earned him a dedicated cult following around the globe.
6. Andrew Lau
Notable works: Young and Dangerous series (1996-1998), Dance of A Dream (2001), Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003), Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)
Andrew Lau is an independent-minded filmmaker who’s renowned for his brilliant cinematography and adeptness at working across genres from comedy to crime thriller. Before making his directorial debut Against All (1990), Lau has been working closely with other prominent producers and screenwriters in the industry, such as Wong Kar-wai and Sammo Hung, holding himself to high cinematic standards while pushing himself even further.
His most successful pictures are the Young and Dangerous film series and the Infernal Affairs trilogy—both are highly-stylised action crime thrillers set against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s triad society, exploring enduring themes of loyalty and brotherhood. The star-studded Infernal Affairs is Lau’s crowning achievement, which was a huge box office success that swept a number of major film awards and even being remade by Martain Scorsese as The Departed in 2006.
7. Fruit Chan
Notable works: Made in Hong Kong (1997), Hollywood Hong Kong (2001), Durian Durian (2001), The Midnight After (2014)
Fruit Chan has been a gem since the late '90s, who has been widely recognised as one of the most influential auteurs in modern cinema. Realism is Chan’s key approach to filmmaking, in which politics, social issues and everyday experiences are all frequent themes of his works.
Chan’s triumph came in 1998 when his groundbreaking directorial debut Made in Hong Kong (1997) earned him the Best Director and the Best Film Award at Hong Kong Film Awards. Co-produced with superstar Andy Lau on a tight budget, this indie movie not only marked Chan’s efforts and success in using social dynamics as a powerful tool to create an emotional connection between the audience and the film, but also signalling a new phase of the local film industry with his distinctive style.
8. Kiwi Chow
Notable works: A Complicated Story (2013), Ten Years (2015), Beyond the Dream (2020)
One of the least well-known names on the list, but an ingenious director who has the ability to distil the alienation and complexity of city life—Kiwi Chow is an emerging talent who deserves to be watched by a wider audience.
After graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), Chan started his career by working as a film editor and assistant to some established directors in the industry, including Ronny Yu, for the blockbuster project Fearless (2006). During the fertile years in which Chan forged his reputation, he pursued themes very close to home with truthful films that were set mostly in his native Hong Kong, frequently touching on uncommon and controversial topics such as human rights, politics and mental disorders. Chow’s works can be heartbreaking at times, but he also reminds us it’s always possible to find hope and to heal from trauma for a better future.
9. Ray Yeung
Notable works: Cut Sleeve Boys (2006), Front Cover (2015), Suk Suk (2019)
As one of the very few local directors who dedicated to bringing queer subjects to the silver screen, Ray Yeung is such a unique, important voice in cinema today that cannot be overlooked.
In the past few years, Yeung has shown himself capable of creating thought-provoking, indelible works centring on issues of sexuality and gender identity. Apart from offering a rare look at the challenges and emotional struggles faced by the sexual minorities, Yeung is also very keen on creating meaningful LGBT representation in Asian cinema through his lens. If you haven’t watched his most recent work Suk Suk (2019) yet, make sure you do. This award-winning film is a heart-touching tale that revolves around a Hong Kong homosexual couple in their twilight years.
10. Oliver Chan
Notable work: Still Human (2018)
Originally working as a management trainee in a local bank, Oliver Chan Siu-kuen knew she was destined for a more creative path. It wasn’t long before Chan made a career move to pursue her passion for filmmaking after taking a few movie production courses, who hit the Hong Kong screen with her heartwarming debut Still Human in 2018.
Featuring a story of a disabled middle-aged man and his young Filipino maid where both learn to embrace their lives despite adversity, Chan’s work has made a lasting and deep impression on audiences with its sensual details and raw human emotions. The movie was so successful that it won Chan multiple awards including the Best New Director at the 13th Asian Film Awards, the Best New Director at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards. Without a doubt, this young indie director is one of the biggest rising talents to watch in our film industry.
11. Wong Chun
Notable work: Mad World (2017)
Wong Chun is a new, young talent who only has a few director credits to his name, but the ones he has are significant, especially his debut award-winning feature Mad World (2017). Wong’s goal of using film as a form of art to convey the lives of ordinary people and to nurture empathy is evident in the movie, in which he transports audiences into the “mad world”—a space where the marginalised groups with mental disorders living in the community. He has demonstrated his proficiency at plotting the movie as a mirror to reflect the actual societal situation and capture the pain of those struggling with mental health problems, creating a mood and setting that keep audiences in suspense throughout.
This article was originally published on July 29, 2020 and was updated on March 14, 2022.