I’ve been wanting to write about Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan 陳果 for a while, but I always get stuck. I finally figured out the problem: his films don’t fit neatly into any of our preconceived categories. It wouldn’t be far off to call him the first neorealist of Hong Kong cinema — but you have to remember the “of Hong Kong” part. His films are nothing like De Sica’s, or even of contemporary British filmmakers like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. They have some the working class humor of Stephen Chow’s 周星馳 films without the slapstick. Fruit Chan’s films often contain graphic and disturbing violence, but it is not the aestheticized violence of John Woo 吳宇森. Rather, it is a more disturbing, sudden, and realistic style somewhat reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano’s 北野 武 films. Like John Sayles, his films are political, but they lack Sayles’ preachiness.
Which is not to say his films are not without their flaws. They do have some of the qualities that make Hong Kong films so uniquely Hong Kong: a certain over-the-top style of storytelling, sometimes bordering on melodrama. I suspect that it is this quality which has prevented his films from getting wider attention. They refuse to be the kind of pretty asian films Wong Kar-wai 王家衛 and Zhang Yimou 張藝謀 have gotten so good at making. Although his last film, Dumplings 餃子 (2004), makes use of cinematographer Christopher Doyle 杜可風 (who made those other two filmmakers look so good) his films can be difficult to watch.
In many ways, his recent movies move him in a new direction. Dumplings and Hollywood Hong-Kong 香港有個荷里活 (2001) have less of a documentary feel. Dumplings even uses well known professional actors.
But see, I still haven’t said anything about the substance of his films. Part of the reason is that I don’t want to give anything away — especially about Dumplings. Although the film’s “secret” is revealed quite early on, I still think it would ruin the first twenty minutes if you were already clued-in. Let me just say that it isn’t really a “horror film” as some have portrayed it. It is more of a drama with an element of horrific magical realism. For summaries of his earlier films I recommend this article, translated from the German, or this page with longer discussions of the same four films. (Durian Durian 榴槤飄飄 (2000), Little Cheung 細路祥 (1999), The Longest Summer 去年煙花特別多 (1998), and Made in Hong Kong 香港製造 (1997)) Time Asia had a review of Hollywood-Hong-Kong, and Christoph Huber wrote a review of Public Toilet, which I haven’t yet seen.
NOTE: “Fruit” is a literal translation of his Chinese name, but I suspect his parents had a different meaning in mind for that character. Perhaps “resolute”?