Center image: All’s Well, End’s Well; clockwise from upper left: Rumble in the Bronx, The Chinese Feast, King of Comedy, The Dream Factory
The Lunar New Year has long been a big and profitable time for the Chinese movie industry. Beginning in Hong Kong in the early 1980s and spreading to the mainland in the 1990s, the hèsuìpiān 贺岁片, or “New Year film,” packs the theaters during the holiday. Generally, these movies are family-friendly comedies, with an emphasis on the values of love and family. Reflecting the hope people have for the new year, these movies often feature happy endings as well.
To celebrate the new lunar year, I’ve put together a list of five classic hesuipian movies, arranged in chronological order. Classifying something as a New Year movie can be tricky, but for my list, I only counted comedies released during the New Year season. It’s by no means a definitive list, so feel free to mention in the comments section any other essential viewing I missed.
All’s Well, End’s Well 家有囍事 (1992)
Dir. Clifton Ko 高志森
A massive box office hit on its 1992 release, All’s Well, End’s Well was so successful that it led to six sequels between 1993 and 2012. The series is strongly associated with the Lunar New Year season, but personally, I think only the original is worth watching. It’s very over-the-top and funny, and includes three Hong Kong legends in its all-star cast: Leslie Cheung 张国荣, Stephen Chow 周星驰, and Maggie Cheung 张曼玉.
In this first entry, (Leslie) Cheung and Chow are brothers in the very dysfunctional Seung family. Chow plays Foon, a playboy DJ with a ton of female fans, while Cheung plays a girly flower arranger named So. Their oldest brother, Moon, is a well-off businessman. All three of the brothers have a troubled love life. Foon doesn’t want to settle down, So has no interest in getting married, and Moon cheats on his wife with a gold-digging mistress. After Moon blows off his own wedding anniversary, the brothers’ lives each take a dramatic turn.
Moon brings his mistress home, but his wife leaves and becomes a karaoke hostess. So continually clashes with his lesbian second cousin, while Foon dates a crazy Hollywood movie fanatic. Of course, everything ends happily for the Shang family, but there’s plenty of movie spoofs, slapstick, and nonsensical jokes along the way.
Rumble in the Bronx 红番区 (1995)
Dir. Stanley Tong 唐季礼
Is it really the Lunar New Year without at least one Jackie Chan movie? Chan vehicles have been a big draw for the New Year season for decades, and this year is no exception. Today, Chan’s latest movie, The King of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang 神探蒲松龄, will be released, with Chan playing the Qing-era supernatural writer Pu Songling 蒲松龄. (Reimagined, I might add, as a demon hunter.)
Jackie Chan’s movies have always been hit-or-miss, so if you don’t have faith in watching him beat up demons, you can watch him brawl with bikers and street thugs in the classic Rumble in the Bronx instead. Set in the Bronx — though clearly filmed somewhere elsewhere — Chan’s American outing saw him playing a Hong Kong cop in NYC for his uncle’s wedding. His uncle’s neighborhood is plagued by gang activity, and when Chan’s character defends his uncle’s old supermarket from being robbed, his act of goodwill embroils him in a fight with a gang, and later, a criminal syndicate smuggling diamonds.
The story’s pretty much an excuse for the action scenes, but considering it’s Jackie Chan and his all-practical stunts, that’s no complaint here. To look at just one escape scene, while fleeing bikers, Chan climbs steel fences, jumps from a truck falling off the roof of a parking garage, and leaps from the top of one building to another. The rest of the movie is packed with crazy stunts, all the more impressive today since there was no CGI or other digital trickery involved.
The Chinese Feast 金玉满堂 (1995)
Dir. Tsui Hark 徐克
Director Tsui Hark is best-known for action movies and special effects extravaganzas, having most recently directed Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings 狄仁杰之四大天王 (2018). In the late ’90s, he tried breaking into Hollywood, but has stayed in the Chinese market ever since. Before his brief Hollywood sojourn, Tsui co-wrote, directed, and produced this classic New Year comedy starring Leslie Cheung.
In The Chinese Feast, Cheung plays a former gangster and amateur chef named Chiu Kong-Sun. Sun wants to leave his old Triad life behind and go to Canada, where his girlfriend lives. The restaurant where Sun works, the Qing Han, is under threat of being swallowed up by Wong Wing, a wealthy mainlander looking to own and combine all the major restaurants in China. Sun’s boss Au refuses to give up his restaurant, so Wong challenges him to a competition for its ownership. The challenge? Cook the Manchu Han Imperial Feast, a Qing-era feast made up of 108 dishes, complete with monkey brains, elephant trunks, and bear paws.
The outlook for the competition is bleak; Au’s employees quit after being bribed, and he has a heart attack, leaving his indifferent daughter, Sun, a local cook, and a disgraced master chef named Kit to save the Qing Han. The Chinese Feast plays out like a sports movie, but it’s very goofy and full of slapstick. The flashy cooking sequences, edited with slow-motion and fast-motion like a kung-fu movie, are especially fun.
The Dream Factory 甲方乙方 (1997)
Dir. Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚
Director Feng Xiaogang has made a number of popular comedies, many of them New Year movies. In fact, Feng pioneered the genre for mainland China with his first comedy, The Dream Factory. Despite costing only 6 million yuan (about $800,000), the movie grossed six times its budget, beginning a string of box office hits for Feng.
The story follows a group of four jobless filmmakers who decide to set up a “dream factory,” where they help to make customers’ dreams come true for a day. Their clients range from ordinary people to the wealthy and famous. One customer is a bookseller, but his true dream is to be George S. Patton. Another is an actress who’s become tired of being famous, while there’s another man looking to give his cancer-suffering wife a house. No matter how absurd the request, the four friends set out to make their clients’ fantasies come true.
It’s a bright and heart-warming movie, and the scenes of the clients’ fantasies are pretty hilarious. Feng’s made other New Year’s comedies, and has also branched out to historical dramas like Aftershock 唐山大地震 (2010) and Youth 芳华 (2017), but for me, nothing he’s made so far has been as endearing as The Dream Factory.
King of Comedy 喜剧之王 (1999)
Dir. Stephen Chow 周星驰 & Lee Lik-chi 李力持
One of Stephen Chow’s most beloved movies, King of Comedy, sees Chow playing Wan Tin-sau, a struggling actor who ruins every chance he gets to perform as a movie extra. Although he can’t even play the role of a corpse without messing it up, Tin-sau is very devoted and offers to help other people with their acting skills. When he isn’t practicing or reading, Tin-sau spends the rest of his time working at a kaifong association (a kind of welfare organization in Hong Kong).
Tin-sau offers his acting lessons at the association for free. Lau Piu-piu, a club girl trying to learn how to act like an innocent college student, is advised to visit Tin-sau for some lessons. Piu-piu and her friends are skeptical and ridicule Tin-sau, and when Piu-piu gets angry at being called a club girl, she beats him over the head with a chair. It’s not the friendliest first encounter, but Tin-sau’s acting advice proves to work great. Piu-piu decides to take more lessons, and while the two grow closer, they end up falling in love.
It might sound like a typical love story, but King of Comedy is anything but a conventional romantic comedy. It’s weird, gross, and extremely funny, especially when it’s parodying John Woo movies and shilling Pringles. If you haven’t seen it, now would definitely be the time to check it out. In time for the Lunar New Year, Chow is actually releasing a sequel today, called The New King of Comedy 新喜剧之王.