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Hong Kong Action
by Patrick Macias

Just where would popular cinema be today if not for Hong Kong films? For starters, Keanu in The Matrix would cease to "know Kung-Fu," Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would have been about as exciting as watching paint dry, and Jackie Chan would be unavailable to sell Hanes underwear on TV.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

The truth is, from graceful bullet ballets to gravity defying wire-fu fight scenes, Hong Kong films have been the biggest influence on Hollywood filmmaking in recent memory. Whether this has ultimately been for good or ill is a call that's up to you. Still, there's no denying the incredible energy and blazing passions embedded in the original works of folks like Bruce Lee, John Woo, Chang Cheh and Tsui Hark. Heck, who even needs Hollywood when the history of Hong King film has consistently unfolded like a much-needed and far more imaginative alternative?

The Roots

As early as the silent era, Hong Kong cinema was already full of magical beings ripped from ancient legends and ferocious martial arts beatdowns, which typically came in the form of the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Robin Hood-like hero named Wong Fei-Hung. The massive Shaw Brothers studio was the main hub of activity during Hong Kong cinema's Golden Age during the 1960s. The Shaw's produced hundreds of dramas, musicals, thrillers and chivalrous swordplay films (a genre known as "wuxia pian," meaning "martial arts film"). But it would not be until the late 60s and early 70s that the West suddenly began importing Hong Kong films en mass. The catalyst for this sudden interest was largely a San Francisco-born kung fu instructor and champion cha-cha dancer named Bruce Lee.

Enter the Dragon

The Shaw Brothers, along with independent directors like King Hu, essentially wrote the rule book for modern martial arts films with their endless cycles of betrayal and revenge. But these films, such as Hu's Come Drink With Me (one of the major influences on Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), were usually set in the past; either a mythological or a historical setting - often a little of both.

Simply by being himself, Bruce Lee brought the warrior spirit of old into the present day - and without any of the weapons that had been fundamental to the "wuxia" genre. Developing his own fighting style, known as the "Way of the Intercepting Fist," and possessing superhuman charisma, Lee rose from the ranks of playing second banana on the Green Hornet TV show to become a bona fide international movie star. His first two films, Fists of Fury (1972) and The Chinese Connection (1972, later remade as Fist of Legend, starring Jet Li) are considered by fans to be the best testaments to his talents. Chinese Connection in particular, with it's fierce patriotism, "you killed my master" revenge plot, and expressionist cinematography is perhaps the all-time archetypal kung fu film.

Bruce's mysterious death in 1973 at the age of 32 left a void that could not be filled, but that didn't stop nearly everyone in Hong Kong from trying...

Kung Fu Theater

A rash of independent film productions were unleashed in Hong Kong and landed in the grindhouse theaters and drive-ins of America. Crudely dubbed in English and featuring performers with dubious names like "Bruce Li" and "Casanova Wong," these exploitation films fall squarely under the Z-movie banner of "chop sockey." Made as little more than cheap cash-ins, some of these films have aged spectacularly well and still make for primo viewing in a rowdy party environment. So where to start? Ex-Shaw Brother's star "Jimmy" Wang-Yu wrote, directed, and starred in the incredible Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975), which concerns a one-armed boxer's attempts to dodge a blind monk wielding the titular weapon: a kind of collapsible lampshade with buzz saw teeth. Then there is The Shaolin Invincibles (1977), starring Carter Wong battling guys in flimsy gorilla suits in a laugh-a-minute train wreck of a movie that must been seen to be believed. But just about any title on Tai Seng's Martial Arts Theater label (such as Dirty Kung Fu or Ninja Vs. Bruce Lee) should fit the bill.

Deadly Venoms

During the 70s and 80s, the prosperous Shaw Brothers studios were the best qualified to met the worldwide demand for martial arts films. Blessed with gifted directors like Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen, the studio turned out a stunning number of films which, long beloved by a cult audience, are finally beginning to be embraced as the true classics that they are.

Looking like the love child of Bruce Lee and Yul Brynner, Gordon Liu joined the ranks of the all-time greats in Shaolin Master Killer (1983), one of the few Shaw films to emphasize elaborate training sequences and philosophy over fight scenes (Liu also stars in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, itself a homage to the old-school Shaw Brothers aesthetic). Director Chang Cheh's often-fantastical films often featured a band of young acrobatic fighters known as "The Venoms." In Five Deadly Venoms (1978) and Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms (1979, aka Crippled Avengers), the group engaged in a kind of passionate male bonding via blood and guts, which created a new Hong Kong genre known as "Heroic Bloodshed." One of Chang's assistants was John Woo, who would later bring back the burning manly spirit of Heroic Bloodshed a decade later in his own unforgettable films.

The New Wave

By the mid-1980's, the Shaw Brothers had fallen into decline. Meanwhile, Golden Harvest (a company founded by an ex-Shaw employee) had found a new superstar in Jackie Chan.

Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2

Chan began his career as one of countless Bruce Lee clones, but was soon dazzling audiences on his own merits by expertly mixing up comedy and kung fu in such titles as Drunken Master (1979) and Young Master (1980). Within a few years, Chan would be doing death defying stunts in Project A (1983) and Armour of God (1986, released on video in the US as Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods), making him an international superstar and earning him comparisons to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China

Meanwhile, a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers had arrived on the scene armed with radical politics and visions of grand fantasy films inspired by both childhood memories of cinema-going and the post-Star Wars possibilities of special effects. Writer/director/producer Tsui Hark stood at the forefront of this New Wave. His epic Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) set the tone for the era to come, with rapid fire editing, frantic performances, flying around on wires and Byzantine storylines. Hark's craft as a filmmaker would reach its apex with the Once Upon a Time in China films, which starred loveable Jet Li as old-time hero Wong Fei Hung. With Hark in the producer's chair, Ronny Yu (later to helm both Bride of Chucky and Freddy Vs. Jason) made the beautiful Bride with White Hair (1993). Ching Siu-Tung delivered the exquisite Chinese Ghost Story trilogy and the peerless gender-bending Swordsman II (1991, aka Legend of the Swordsman) and it's sequel The East is Red (1993). All of these titles offer incredible sights to behold, many of them boosted by choreographers like Yuen Woo-Ping (later to perform similar duties on The Matrix) who created elaborate fight scenes the likes of which audiences had never seen before.

A Bullet in the Head

But there was more to the Hong Kong New Wave than just flowing robes, killer swordplay and fancy footwork. John Woo handed out automatic weapons to his actors and brought back the old Heroic Bloodshed genre with a vengeance in his gangland epics A Better Tomorrow (1986) and A Better Tomorrow II (1988), which made a movie icon out of the cool, effortlessly charismatic Chow Yun-Fat. The pair reunited for the explosive gunplay and slow motion carnage of The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992), two of the best action films since Sam Peckinpah yelled "Cut!" on The Wild Bunch.

Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Dean Shek and Kenneth Tsang in A Better Tomorrow II

But Chow also found the time to team up with director Ringo Lam for the gritty City on Fire (1987), a heist film that some believe was the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs, and the outrageous comic book action of Full Contact (1992). Meanwhile, future Bond Girl and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Khan presented a strong image of pistol-packing, kung fu-equipped lady cops in the amazing In the Line of Duty series.

The Present

In 1997, the United Kingdom handed control of Hong Kong back to mainland China. Fearing a crackdown on civil and artistic freedoms, many filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam fled the territory, taking stars like Chow Yun-Fat with them. While the Hong Kong film industry has been in something of a fiscal and creative depression since then, some key talents have remained to produce quality work. One to watch is director Andrew Lau, who is capable of creating both epic CGI assisted fantasies like The Storm Riders (1998) and police dramas like soon-to-be-remade-by-Hollywood Infernal Affairs (2002). Milkyway Productions has been a powerhouse of startling revisionist gangster and crime movies like Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997) and A Hero Never Dies (1998), both of which star Lau Ching Wan, perhaps Hong Kong's most intense and imminently watchable actor.

But the top reigning HK star and director of the moment is easily Stephen Chow, whose hilarious action-comedy Shaolin Soccer (2001) takes Hong Kong cinema all the way back to where it began with a head-whirling mix of special effects and martial arts.

From here, anything is possible. But again, that's simply par for the course for Hong Kong cinema.

GreenCine Recommends...

In the Beginning

  • A Touch of Zen (1969). Director King Hu sets the stage for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with this period epic of swordplay about a feisty female fighter.

    Bruce Lee

  • Chinese Connection (1972). Scheming Japanese foreigners have made the mistake of killing Bruce Lee's kung fu master. A tidal wave of sublime and classical ass-kicking ensues.

    Chop Sockey

  • The Shaolin Invincibles (1977). Kung-Fu gorillas go ape in the Ching Dynasty. Need we say more?
  • The Last Duel (1978). The fearsome art of bad English dubbing has never been better than in this already surreal film featuring characters whose voices sound like they were provided by heroically drunk Australians.
  • Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1981). Purporting to be a serious investigation into the mysterious death of Bruce Lee, Ed Wood himself could not have made a more stupefying mix of stock footage, B-list actors (among them Fred "The Hammer" Williamson), and unintentional comedy.

    Old School Classics

  • Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (1979). Also known as Crippled Avengers, a crack team of legless, blind, deaf, and brain-damaged fighters seek to spoil the birthday party of the man who maimed them.
  • Chinese Super Ninja (1982). Another of director Chang Cheh's manly "Heroic Bloodshed" masterpieces, this one features gory demises galore, along with plenty of ninja dirty tricks.
  • The Shaolin Temple (1982). Jet Li's debut film retells an essential chapter in kung fu history and features stunning examples of authentic Wu Shu martial arts.
  • Shaolin Master Killer (1983).

    Wire-Fu

  • Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983).
  • A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).
  • A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990).
  • Once Upon a Time in China (1991): Director Tsui Hark delivers both a thoughtful meditation on China's move into modernity, and an action packed yarn about old folk hero Wong Fei Hung (played here by Jet Li).
  • Iron Monkey (1993).
  • Fong Sai Yuk (1993). More fun with Tsui Hark and Jet Li. This time however, the emphasis is more on comedy and sassy kung fu mom Josephine Siao steals the show.
  • Legend of the Swordsman (1991, aka Swordsman II). Jet Li falls for androgynous, all-powerful eunuch Brigitte Lin in this dazzling gender-bending pic about warring clans. Incredible swordplay.
  • The East is Red (1992). Brigitte Lin returns in this sumptuous, overripe, and deliciously decadent sequel to Legend of the Swordsman.

    John Woo

  • A Better Tomorrow (1986).
  • A Better Tomorrow II (1998). "Over the top" doesn't even begin to describe this hothouse sequel to John Woo's original gangland classic. The last reel has yet to be topped, by anyone, for ferocious gun-fu (think Kung Fu with Firearms).
  • The Killer (1989). Much imitated, never duplicated. Simply put, this is John Woo's and Chow Yun-Fat's action masterpiece.
  • Hard Boiled (1992).

    Pure Action

  • Eastern Condors (1986). Director Sammo Hung leads a motley Dirty Dozen style crew on a suicide mission to Vietnam. Much kung fu and mass destruction ensues.
  • In the Line of Duty III (1988). In this cavalcade of electrifying stunts and fiery explosions, lady officer of the law Cynthia Khan teams up with a Japanese cop to bust a pair of Uzi-packing jewel thieves. By the end credits, you'll be thanking sweet Jesus you aren't a Hong Kong stunt man.
  • Wicked City (1992). Tsui Hark produced this frantic live-action adaptation of a sci-fi/horror Japanese anime. Featuring demons, psychics, and human pinball machines galore, it is guaranteed to push your sanity to the limit.

    Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung in Executioners

  • Executioners (1992). The beautiful, but deadly, team of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Chung take on a baby kidnapping conspiracy for much eye-popping comic book action.

    Comedy

  • Drunken Master (1979). Still Jackie Chan's quintessential mix of Kung Fu and inebriating humor.
  • The Miracle Fighters (1982). Before he taught Keanu and the Matrix cast kung fu, Yuen Woo-Ping made this magic-filled flick about bickering warring magicians.
  • Mad Mission II: Aces Go Places (1983). Henry Kissinger, "Filthy Larry," and an army of wind up toy robots are after top comedy stars Karl Mak (as "Baldy") and Sam Hui (as "King Kong"). A more purely insane movie would be hard to imagine.
  • From Beijing With Love (1994). Stephen Chow takes on 007 in this anarchic send up of spy films.
  • Shaolin Soccer (2001). Stephen Chow leads a rag-tag kung fu soccer team from training, all the way to the special effects-laden championships. A new masterpiece of comedy, it was rightfully awarded top prizes at the 2002 Hong Kong Film Awards.

    Recent Titles

  • Too Many Way to be No. 1 (1997). Lau Ching Wan gives a terrifying performance in this Pulp Fiction inspired tale of a lowlife hood on an epic losing streak.
  • A Hero Never Dies (1998).
  • The Storm Riders (1998).
  • The Mission (1999).
  • Time and Tide (2001). Director Tsui Hark shows he still has what it takes to dazzle an audience in this globe spanning action-drama which pits pop idol Nicholas Tse against rock star Wu Bai.
  • Infernal Affairs (2002).
  • Naked Weapon (2002). No stranger to sleaze, Wong Jing (producer of the highly recommended 1992 classic Naked Killer) delivers the best Women in Prison movie, and maybe exploitation movie period, in ages.

    Suggestions for further clicking:

  • Bright Lights Film Journal has a fine collection of Hong Kong-related articles, and so does writer David Chute.

  • All About Bruce Lee. Bio, filmography, photos, etc. Bruce Lee.com goes deeper, with more documentation, including the essay, "Jeet Kune Do," written by Lee himself. Just for fun, try the interactive "Kung Fu Mixer," I Know Where Bruce Lee Lives.

  • Jackie Chan and Jet Li have official sites. Action Web is devoted to John Woo and Tsui Hark.

    Suggestions for further reading:

  • Hollywood East: Hong Kong Movies and the People Who Made Them is Stefan Hammond's follow-up to the more provocatively titled Sex and Zen & a Bullet in the Head and features a forward by Michelle Yeoh.
  • If you're looking to pull back to take in the really big picture, Stephen Tao's Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions reaches all the way back to 1909 to begin telling its story.

    Patrick Macias is the author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (Cadence Books).

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