John Chong on Making ‘Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In’ an Authentic Dive into Notorious Kowloon Walled City and Yet Emblematic of Hong Kong’s New Wave (EXCLUSIVE)

Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In
Media Asia

Kowloon Walled City — one of Hong Kong’s most famous landmarks, or infamous trouble spots, depending on your point of view — fell prey to the developers’ bulldozer 30 years ago. But it remains an icon of the territory’s gritty spirit and is being painstakingly re-created for action thriller feature “Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In.”

The film is a beacon for how Hong Kong cinema is now evolving. Directed by hot-shot Soi Cheang, whose “Mad Fate” recently played in Berlin and is set for imminent local release, “Twilight” boasts leading stars Louis Koo, Sammo Hung and Richie Jen, plus emerging talents Philip Ng, Raymond Lau and Terrance Lau.

The film’s HK$300 million ($39 million) budget makes it one of the most expensive Hong Kong productions of all time. But principal backer Media Asia is sparing no expense promoting the title. The company’s corporate booth at the FilMart rights market has been reimagined as a creepy alleyway that was typical of the former Walled City.

The city was barely a hundredth of a square mile and was originally an imperial Chinese garrison that stood defiantly at the end of the Kowloon peninsula that 19th century China had been pressured to lease to Britain. The city has been characterized as a colony within a colony.

After the troops withdrew, unregulated development made the Walled City a den of crime and a base for five overlapping triad gangs. It was also home to some 33,000 people, hundreds of small businesses (manufacturing and food production especially), in a zone known for hidden passageways, improvised power supplies and pervasive damp.

Cheang’s film features troubled youth Chan, who accidentally enters the Walled City, discovers the order amidst its chaos, and learns important life lessons along the way. He becomes close friends with Shin, Twelfth Master and AV. Under the leadership of Tornado, they resist against the invasion of villain Mr. Big in a series of fierce battles. Together, they vow to protect the city, which they have come to regard as their safe haven.

“We were aiming for the look and feel of a Louis Cha novel. So our story is fictional but we paid great attention to getting the historical details correct,” John Chong, who produces alongside Wilson Yip, tells Variety. “I can personally testify to the amazing work of the production designer, as I lived in the Walled City for a time when I was a college student.”

With much of Hong Kong closed during the pandemic, the production was limited in its use of outdoor locations. Instead, standing sets were built at a film studio and in a deserted school.

Cheang, who has a reputation as an indie director with first-rate commercial sensibilities, is increasingly viewed as one of Hong Kong’s finest talents. (The Hong Kong International Film Festival will give him a 10-film tribute next month.) That enabled him to pull together the cast of name stars.

Over the last decade, there have been a growing number of question marks about the viability of the Hong Kong film industry, with a range of problems a including hot and cold relationship with the mainland Chinese industry, declining production numbers and the emergence of powerhouse multinational streamers, which have paid little attention to Hong Kong.

Chong says it was not possible to raise the budget from Hong Kong alone. And the producers brought in Lian Ray Pictures, a mainland Chinese company with strong credentials as a producer and distributor. Its production credits include “Little Red Flower” “Sister” and “Schemes in Antiques.” “They are helping financially and will head distribution and marketing, and are in charge of relations with [mainland China’s] Film Bureau,” says Chong.

“We were actually able to raise more money than we need. We had other Hong Kong investors, including Louis Koo, because they were so interested in this story of the Walled City and the things we built for it,” Chong adds.

Chong says that Hong Kong cinema’s recent turnaround run of success has been spurred by a coincidence of factors. These include the emergence of Dayo Wong, a stand-up comedian, as a major star (“A Guilty Conscience,” “Table for Six”), a slew of other new performers making headlines and local filmmakers’ rediscovery of values that resonate with local audiences. “Poor people may not be able to get economic justice these days, but they are very happy to see justice in the cinema,” says Chong.

While “Walled In” is in the familiar action genre, it is also an opportunity to showcase some of Hong Kong’s next generation of stars.

“Our aim was always to train up some of the newcomers as well,” says Chong. “Philip Ng once played Bruce Lee in a small film for us once before. Now he is second only to Sammo Hung. He can really, really fight. Raymond Lam is a TV actor who had never been trained as a fighter, but turns out to be just fantastic. Terrance Lau we’ve had in ‘Beyond the Dream’ and ‘Tales of the Occult Part 2,’ and here he only has a small part in the ‘Walled City’ film, but we all agree that he lights up the screen. The main five have amazing chemistry.”

The film is currently in post-production and headed for theatrical release at the end of this year or early 2024.