City of Darkness: Revisited



The Walled City’s influence on and appearances in both Hong Kong-produced and international films is long and illustrious, hardly surprising for a location that provides such rich and unforgettable visuals as well as the mystique of a place ideal for all sorts of criminal goings on. A few years after the reprinted softback edition of City of Darkness first appeared – in 1999 or thereabouts – there was a sudden flurry of sales through a Los Angeles bookseller which, it turned out, was down to the book being discovered by Hollywood’s many production designers, and it can be found in many of the British studios’ reference libraries too.

Echoes of the Walled City can therefore be found in any number of films portraying one form of dystopian future or another, perhaps most notably in Batman Begins where the Walled City was directly cited as a source. Asked in an interview, in June 2005, what had been the inspiration for the look of Gotham City, the film’s director Christopher Nolan replied: “When Nathan Crowley, my production designer, started discussing the look of the film with me, we immediately rejected any reductive notions. … [We looked] at interesting geographical features of different cities of the world. A lot for New York, some from Chicago, a lot from Tokyo because of elevated freeways and monorails. From Hong Kong we took the Walled City of Kowloon [which] is the basis for The Narrows, which is this kind of walled-in slum. So what we really did was put together the elements that let you exaggerate all the socio-economic factors that feed into Gotham as an exaggeration of the modern American city.”

A sense of the Walled City’s ‘spirit’ can be glimpsed in this clip where Batman is set on fire when first coming across the Scarecrow in his lair within the Narrows, but it is the model made for distant views of The Narrows (subsequently shown stripped into CG-rendered images of Gotham’s skyline as above) that truly shows the Walled City’s influence.

But for a true feeling of what it was really like to be in the Walled City, one has to look at the some of films made in Hong Kong that were actually filmed there. The 1982 Shaw Brothers production Brothers from the Walled City might sound the most interesting of these, but is largely filmed at other locations that only bear a passing resemblance to the City proper, while part of the Jackie Chan film, Crime Story, was only filmed on the roof of the Walled City after it had been cleared of its residents. And to add insult to injury, it is used purely as a location for a fight scene that, according to the film’s plot, takes place in Taiwan and so has nothing to do with the Walled City at all.

Perhaps surprisingly then, only two films were actually shot within the confines of the Walled City, the Jean-Claude van Damme vehicle, Bloodsport, and the far superior Johnny Mak film, Long Arm of the Law. In fact, the Walled City and one of its alleys only make a short appearance in Bloodsport, when the Jean-Claude character and his Chinese minder are making their way to an illegal fighting venue supposedly located there. It does, however, include possibly one of the most excruciating lines of expositionary dialogue ever recorded on celluloid.

Far better all round, both as a film and for its views of the Walled City’s interior, is Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law, the classic story of a robbery gone wrong with the robbers fleeing to the Walled City hoping, in vain as it turns out, to escape the chasing police force. Amazingly, the film’s entire denouement and shoot-out, the final 15 minutes or so of the movie, is actually filmed within the Walled City’s alleys and stairways – a technical achievement in itself, not to mention the interesting negotiations with local Triad leaders it must have involved. Unfortunately, Johnny Mak has since retired from film-making, much disheartened by not being able to make the films he wanted, and we were unable to track him down and talk to him directly. However, the film is available at certain specialised outlets and we include here a trailer for the film that can be found on YouTube.