Ever seen that movie about an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves,
gets wounded in the heist and is trapped at the gang's hideout while they try and
determine who the rat is? If you're thinking of Reservoir Dogs you're right but five years
before Quentin Tarantino put his name on the map, Hong Kong director Ringo Lam made a
gritty little film called City On Fire (pic), the second half of which was about....an
undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, gets wounded when the job goes
wrong and....you know the rest.
City On Fire was made in the early stages of an extraordinary period in Hong Kong
cinema where bullets blazed and heroics knew no bounds. During the peak years from
1985-1992 habitues of Chinatown cinemas around the world were treated to some of the most
mind-boggling action ever committed to celluloid, the influence of which can be spotted in
almost every Hollywood action blockbuster made in the 90's. The world's third most
prolific film making country had spent a decade fruitlessly attempting to unearth a new
Bruce Lee and in the process discovered ways of staging action still never bettered on
thirty times the budget. The fact that Hong Kong stuntmen could not get life insurance
says a lot about the atmosphere propelling this golden era.
"Politics and technology has put an end to Hong Kong
action cinema as we knew it"
Sadly a combination of politics and technology has put an end to Hong Kong action
cinema as we knew it. Some classy efforts have been made in the past few years but the
Chinese takeover in 1997 was effectively the last nail in a coffin riddled with the holes
left by the departure of major talents like Ringo Lam, John Woo and superstar Chow
Yun-Fat, all of whom were courted by Tinseltown's keen-eyed studio executives with
The ready availability of bootleg VCD's (a pre-DVD format popular in Asia) of new
releases before they even hit the screen has damaged industry profits so heavily in recent
years it's hard to imagine any sort of return to the good old days. Thanks to SBS
television's cult movie slot and the efforts of Siren Entertainment's home video division
an ever-growing number of gems from this era can be viewed. The distinguished efforts of
Siren who've been releasing titles under their Chinatown Video banner since (1996) deserve
special attention here; other companies have released HK fare but have tossed away their
treasures in badly dubbed pan and scan versions and, in the case of Jackie Chan's Police
Story, released the sequel first and then the original under the title Police Story 2!
"The cream of Hong Kong's cinema"
Until a few years ago the only way to see subtitled Hong Kong movies on video was to
rent dodgy copies from outlets in Chinatown, many of which were filmed on handycams in
cinemas and regularly co-starred audience members walking across the screen. Thankfully
that's all changed and with a number of major new releases about to hit the shelves it's
worth taking a look at some of the 100 or so titles from the Siren library, most of them
beautifully subtitled and many of them released in widescreen, representing the cream of
Hong Kong's cinema's explosive last stand.
The pick of the crop about to be released is undoubtedly The Killer (1990) [pic], John Woo's
masterpiece and the film which guaranteed his entry into Hollywood and the Fox lot in
Sydney where he's currently directing Mission Impossible 2 on a budget equal to about
twenty Hong Kong films.
This delirious combination of Sam Peckinpah action, Douglas Sirk melodrama and
crime-as-a-career philosophy ranks alongside Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967) as
the finest hitman for hire film ever made. It's also a chance to witness the great Chow
Yun-Fat at his best as Jeff, the contract killer who accidentally blinds a nightclub
singer (Sally Yeh) and decides to take one last job to pay for a sight restoring operation
(a twist lifted from Sirk's Magnificent Obsession) while hard-nosed cop Danny Lee closes
"Male bonding as never seen before"
Male bonding as never seen before eventuates as the cop and the killer eventually
become allies in one of the most furious finales you'll ever see. I used to watch this at
the now sadly defunct Chinatown Cinema in Sydney just to try and count the number of
fatalities and always lost track at about 120, but The Killer is about much more than
bloodshed (the finale takes place in a church for good reason) and its visual glory
remains intact in the subtitled, widescreen special edition box-set Siren have released.
If you want to know where action cinema as we now understand it comes from, The Killer is
the best place to start.
Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee were old hands at these types of roles by the time of The
Killer and the dynamic duo can be seen to great advantage in their first screen teaming,
City On Fire (1987) [pic]. Chow, lately the bewildered star of the dire The Replacement Killers
and the better The Corruptor is the Cary Grant of action cinema. He is equally smooth with
women and guns and can be seen handling both with sheer class in Ringo Lam's film. Lee's
the crook this time, playing a member of the gang whose relationship with Chow (pic) charts a
course similar to The Killer. Lam later directed the hard as nails Prison On Fire 1 + 2
and managed a respectable Hollywood debut with Maximum Risk. Like Woo, he is interested in
themes of betrayal and honour which gives City On Fire an emotional edge characterising
the best Hong Kong bullet-fests.
Heroic bloodshed is the term frequently used to categorise the best HK crime films of
the period and it's an apt description when you look at A Better Tomorrow (1986) - above -, the
turning point in a cycle which kicked off a few years earlier with Ronnie Yu's Jumping Ash
(1983) and Johnny Mak's The Long Arm Of The Law (1984). Made in 1986, A Better Tomorrow
established former kung-fu and comedy director Woo as the master of gangster gunplay and
also cemented the reputation of one-time daytime television heartthrob Chow Yun-Fat (pic) as the
coolest two-gun cat in the British colony, if not the whole planet.
Ironically Woo almost had to make the film without Chow whose nice-guy reputation on TV
was considered a box-office liability. The richly detailed plot finds Chow playing a
counterfeiter whose partner Ho (faded Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung about to have his career
rejuvenated) is double crossed in Taiwan. After much soul searching Ho's cop brother Kit
(Leslie Cheung) enters the fray for the first and still one of the best of Woo's explosive
finales. From its brilliant opening shootout at a restaurant (watch for the guns hidden in
the pot plants) to the incendiary climax A Better Tomorrow is balletic bloodshed
surpassing Peckinpah and the place where Kurosawa's samurai sagas and Melville's
meditations on crime and honour were transformed into a genre of awesome kinetic and
"Hong Kong cinema wasn't just about guns and glory
during it's heyday."
Hong Kong cinema wasn't just about guns and glory during it's heyday. At the other end
of the Woo-Lam scale is Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong's most dazzling visual stylist whose films
have earned festival and art-house plaudits world-wide. He's also one of the few leading
directors whose career has continued uninterrupted since the 1997 handover. Early efforts
such as As Tears Go By (1988) and Days Of Being Wild (1991) laid the groundwork; Chungking
Express (1994) Ashes Of Time (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) did the rest. The home video
release of Wong's Happy Together (1997) [pic] is a welcome addition to the Hong Kong library.
Ironically titled, it centres on gay couple Ho (Tony Leung) and Lai (Leslie Cheung) whose
tempestuous relationship is played out against tango rhythms in Buenos Aires where the duo
hope a fresh start can be made. Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle is
Wong's long-time shooter and the partnership yields stunning results as saturated colour,
black and white, 8mm, slow-motion and time lapse photography blend into a heady visual
cocktail and also enhance the themes of alienation and dislocation central to the story.
It's maybe not to everyone's taste but any film about two gay Hong Kong Chinese living in
Argentina which manages to weave the Frank Zappa songs Chunga's Revenge and I Have Been In
You into the soundtrack and make them work deserves attention. The judges at Cannes
thought so too and awarded Wong the best director prize at the 1997 festival.
These are the key films of the moment for Hong Kong buffs but the shelves of your local
video store should also be swelling with some of the other treasures.
"Plot and genre merrily jump around"
Jackie Chan (pic) needs no introduction other than a recommendation to look at his early
starrer The Young Master (when he was still Jacky Chan), the Police Story series (released
in the correct order!) and from 1994 Drunken Master 2, made just before Chan's global
popularity skyrocketed and the quality of his films dimmed a little.
Jet Lee (pic), who played the villain in Lethal Weapon 4, enjoys superstar status in Asia at
least equal to that of Chan and Chow and can be seen at his jaw-dropping best performing
traditional martial arts in period settings. Two of his best are the spectacular Fong Sai
Yuk 1+2 and the wonderfully funny New Legend Of Shaolin which involves a treasure map
tattooed on the bottoms of four young monks - now that's a plot you won't find being
remade Stateside! Lee made the leap to contemporary settings a few years ago and one of
his finest is the Wong Jing-directed High Risk, which out die-hards Die Hard by throwing a
helicopter inside the top floor of a high-rise building and also includes a devastating
Jackie Chan send-up in the shape of Jacky Cheung clowning around in a yellow action man
One of the pleasures of Hong Kong cinema is watching plot and genre merrily jump
around. Lan Dei Tsa's The Seventh Curse (1986) is one of the most fun examples and packs
more into its 80-odd minutes than you'll get in half a dozen films made anywhere else.
It's a jungle adventure...no, wait it's a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style treasure hunt . .
no it's a demon possession horror movie … no, it's.....fabulous entertainment, that's
what it is and even features a pipe-smoking Chow Yun Fat wielding a rocket launcher at the
creature. If sex-scorchers appeal, the wild excesses of Sex and Zen, Robotrix and the
infamous Naked Killer, starring sleazeball extraordinairre Simon Yam and indefatigable
sexpot Carrie Ng, all guarantee a good time - if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
"The spirit of unrestrained creativity"
What's worth discovering in these films is the spirit of unrestrained creativity and a
willingness to go to any lengths in the pursuit of sheer screen excitement. Up to 300
films a year were cranked out during peak years and it's worth remembering that actors and
technicians were frequently working on 3 or 4 films simultaneously. Imagine Tom Cruise
doing a morning's work on Mission Impossible 2, rushing over to Jerry Maguire in the
afternoon and finishing off the day with some closed set takes on Eyes Wide Shut and it'll
give you some idea of the times in which these stunning films were made, the best of which
are only a video rental (or purchase) away.
* Richard Kuipers is producer of The Movie Show on
SBS, and a regular contributor and critic for Urban Cinefile.