Friday, October 04, 2013

Part 1 - Fifty Essential Hong Kong Films to View

Note that I don’t say THE 50 Essential Hong Kong films in the title. I don’t have that sort of hubris. Not yet anyway. For one thing I haven’t seen thousands of Hong Kong films and secondly these things are to a large degree a matter of personal taste as well as ever changing social fashions. For example, in Hollywood this year the Hitchcock film Vertigo was recognized as the best American film ever made even though for years after it was released it was practically ignored by critics. The same could certainly happen for Hong Kong films. Who knows, perhaps someday Para Para Sakura will manage to make its way on to best of lists. I tend to doubt it but times change as do opinions. So this list is simply what my response would be right now if someone who knew nothing about Hong Kong films came to me and asked me for a list of films that I thought best represented Hong Kong cinema.

I would have to explain to them that I know next to nothing about Hong Kong films before 1960 and only a smattering before 1980. So the majority of my list falls on the north side of 1979 and is dominated as you will see by a few specific people in the film industry. Clearly there were thousands of films that led up to the films that I include but many of these movies have been lost and very few have made it to DVD with English subtitles. I would guess that a native Hong Kong critic would come up with a very different list; probably with some of the Cantonese films of the 1960’s or one of the Wong Fei-hung films in the series or an historically important film such as the House of 72 Tenants or Red Lotus Temple from 1928 which is considered the first epic martial arts film and almost certainly they would include more of the New Wave films of the late 1970’s and early 80’s than I do. My list is more personal than that. These are to a large degree the films that sucked me into Hong Kong films like a vortex and never let me go, but they are also I think important movies in the history of the film industry. Clearly many will disagree with much of the list but that is the nature of lists and likes. At the same time, I don’t think many of these films will surprise anyone.

In chronological order:

Mambo Girl, 1957 Director: Evan Yang

From the 1950’s till the mid-1960’s Cathay Studio was the Shaw Brother’s major competitor in the Mandarin language film market. But their appeal was very different from what the Shaw Brothers were trying to do. Their films were directed towards the burgeoning middle class and their stories in general were very family oriented. With Mambo Girl, Cathay produced a near perfect confection of comedy, sorrow and razzle-dazzle musical numbers from the opening matching floor and pants ensemble number till the joyously emotional seven minute musical finale. Oh, those crazy wild kids of yesteryear! The film also made a star of Grace Chang whose wide toothy smile, twinkly eyes and incredible voice was to captivate the city for years to come. Mambo Girl is like slipping comfortably into a warm vat of your favorite pudding knowing that everything in the world was going to be ok no matter your problems.

Most of the Opening Musical Number:

The Wild Wild Rose, 1960, Director: Wong Tin-lam

After Mambo Girl, Grace Chang appeared in a few other feel good musicals such as Our Dream Car, Spring Song and the marvelously techni-colored South East Asian travelogue Air Hostess. But none of these prepared audiences for her tragic heart rendering performance in The Wild Wild Rose as a nightclub chanteuse. It was a riff both musically and narratively of Bizet’s Carmen and it is dark, painful and glorious. It is a true tour de force from Grace that in some way took Hong Kong film to a more mature level.

Grace in a smoky nightclub number

Sun, Moon and Stars Part 1 and II, 1962, Director: Evan Yang

This two-part film from Cathay was in its way The Gone with the Wind of its time in Hong Kong. For Cathay who primarily produced small intimate films, this was a huge undertaking but it paid off with its huge popularity. This was an attempt by Cathay to respond to the pressure being put on them by the Shaw Brothers who were beginning to release grand epic all-color films such as The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959). Set against the background of the Sino-Japanese conflict, this took over a year to make and was released in two parts (totaling nearly 3.5 hours of running time). Though it is a two-parter, it is very much the same film simply split in half at a crucial moment (the outbreak of war) and is best seen back to back to capture the gathering emotional impact. With its trenchant drama, tragic trajectory and star-studded charismatic cast, it is difficult not to be pulled emotionally into this film.  Even with its grander scale and being set in turbulent times, the film still retains its sense of intimacy and in the end it is primarily a story of unresolved passions and the ill-fated romances of three women who seek to find their way in this emerging new world. The three women were played by huge stars at the time (Grace Chang, Julie Yeh Feng and Lucilla You Min).
Grace Chang singing for the troops:

The Love Eterne, 1962, Director: Li Han-hsiang

I am certainly no hardcore fan of Chinese opera (Huangmei) and this genre of film can admittedly be hard to take for most Western Hong Kong film fans.  But The Love Eterne has been such an incredibly loved film for over five decades that it bears watching and my guess is that you will be glad you did. And if not, just put it down as a growing experience! Starring two of Hong Kong’s great female stars from that period, Ivy Ling Po in the male role and Betty Lo Tih as her female lover, this film is beautifully designed by Li Han-hsiang who was sort of the Baz Luhrmann of his time though later he was to specialize in bawdy sex comedies. This is one of Hong Kong’s most enduring tragedies. Don’t fear it. Embrace it!

The trailer:


Come Drink with Me, 1966, Director: King Hu

In some ways you could almost say it all began here. To fans who love the high flying fast moving wuxia films of the 1980’s and beyond this is the Rosetta Stone. King Hu, who had been a character actor in a number of Shaw Brothers films, had moved into directing with two previous films but there was nothing in his background to prepare anyone for this film. He fought constantly with the studio over this film, the budget and the time it was taking him to finish it but in the end he produced this stunningly beautiful film that changed the course of Hong Kong film. Wuxia films had of course been around for decades but King Hu brought such a sense of design, history, depth, story and intricate choreography that the wuxia felt brand new, felt epic and grand. He also had a budget that far surpassed the hundreds of wuxia films that came before. Cheng Pei-pei as the deadly swordswoman Golden Swallow became iconic for this role. Everything that followed in this genre to some degree was built on this amazing film.

Hong Kong Nocturne, 1967, Director: Inoue Umetsugu

The Shaw Brothers had been making modern musicals for a few years at this point and though enjoyable, films like Les Belles felt old fashioned, stiff and rather staid. So they went to Japan to import director Inoue Umetsugu to make musicals in Hong Kong and add some splash, dash and color to them. He stayed for a few years and made a number of musicals but none was better than Hong Kong Nocturne.  It tells the tales of three sisters - all played by stars – whose lives get messy and go in different directions. It has some great tunes, well-staged musical numbers and great pathos. In fact, I would suggest that Hong Kong has never made a better musical.

The trailer:

One Armed Swordsman, 1967, Director: Chang Cheh

Ironically, the man who was to take violence to a whole new level in Hong Kong films had been an urbane scriptwriter for Cathay before heading to the Shaw Brothers to begin his onslaught on the senses of the Hong Kong audiences. Chang Cheh jumped on the wuxia bandwagon but had little interest in the elegance of King Hu. He wanted to show blood and guts and his filmmaking was brutally masculine and very basic. It was an enormous box office hit and his influence on Hong Kong film can be seen all the way up through the bullet ballets of John Woo twenty years later. Starring Jimmy Wang Yu who loses his arm in a fight and decides that revenge is even sweeter with only one limb.

The Chinese Boxer, 1970, Director: Jimmy Wang Yu

In his earlier films, Chang Cheh’s main vehicle of destruction was actor Jimmy Wang Yu, whose lack of acting chops and inability to emote has become legendary. He was nevertheless a huge star and felt the need to get away from Chang Cheh and make his own films. He was soon to leave Shaw Brothers and form his own production company but before doing so he directed this touchstone film of extreme violence and vengeance. It is also often credited with being the first strictly kung fu film of the modern era in a period of time when wuxia i.e. swordfighting films dominated the box office.  The popularity of the film needless to say led to thousands of other kung fu films that followed.


A Touch of Zen, 1971, Director: King Hu

With the direction of Hong Kong action quickly changing towards a much more violent nature, A Touch of Zen perhaps already felt a little dated at its release as the film had been three years in the making and Hu went way over budget and nearly drove the film company Union Film Company into bankruptcy. After Come Drink with Me, Hu had left Shaw Brothers to make another brilliant wuxia film, Dragon Gate Inn that had been an enormous success. But A Touch of Zen was not. It was a disaster at the box office but over time has rightfully come to be considered one of the great films from anywhere. Full of intriguing characters, a complex narrative, wonderfully staged action scenes and a layer of mysticism covering everything, it is as close to pure cinema as you can get.

A quick elegant scene from the film:

Fist of Fury, 1972, Director: Lo Wei

With only a few films Bruce Lee became perhaps the most famous actor from Hong Kong ever. He had of course been a child actor in Hong Kong in the 1950’s before departing to the United States where he honed his martial arts skills. He came back to Hong Kong in 1971 to make The Big Boss and his extraordinary intensity, speed and power quickly gained him a huge worldwide audience. After wooden boxes like Jimmy Wang Yu and other actors doing their best faux kung fu moves, Bruce was the real deal. He was to make only three more films before his death which only increased his legendary status. I suppose I could have picked The Big Boss since it was his first film after his return, but for me Fist of Fury is by far his best, a big leap forward from The Big Boss and some of the scenes of him defying the Japanese are burnt into the Chinese collective mind.


Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, 1972, Director: Chor Yuen

In the early 1970’s Hong Kong films added another new element into their films that was already quite popular in other cinema’s around the world; nudity. Guidelines began to loosen up around nudity in film and the Shaw Brothers jumped right into this swirling broth with a number of seedy exploitation films. But Intimate Confessions stands out from much of the other gruel because it is a terrific and visually stunning period film that goes beyond the sex, lesbianism and torture to create a volatile mix of action, death and drama. The credit for this has to go to veteran director Chor Yuen who had been directing since the late 1950’s but really found his place with a series of brilliant wuxia films in the 1970’s.

The trailer:

The Private Eyes, 1976, Director: Michael Hui

This is simply one of the best and funniest comedies ever made in Hong Kong, but it is also an important film in that it accelerated the transition from Mandarin being the prime language in Hong Kong films to Cantonese. That may seem crazy today since the language of Hong Kong was basically Cantonese, but during the 1960’s the popularity of Cathay and the Shaw Brothers who made the vast majority of their films in Mandarin (for markets outside of Hong Kong) nearly destroyed the market for Cantonese films. Private Eyes was so popular that it began the death march for Mandarin within a very few years. But that aside, this is a very funny film that starred the Hui Brothers and has many moments that are truly classic. Hui’s comedies were quick-witted, irreverent and perfectly reflected the changes that Hong Kong was going through and the working class people who lived and strived there.

Music Video for Theme Song:

The Magic Blade, 1976, Director: Chor Yuen

Chor Yuen more than anyone kept the wuxia genre alive during the 1970’s with a number of fine films before he was to hand off the genre to a new generation in the 1980’s. Of his wuxia films, The Magic Blade is probably the best with its dazzling action choreography, its stuffed plot and the immense charisma of the leading man, Ti Lung, who had starred in so many of the  Shaw Brother’s martial arts films. Adapted from a Gu Long story, it has many of the basic elements of the jianghu novels and films with a wandering swordsman of a great heroic and chivalrous nature, but The Magic Blade mixes and mashes it all together as only a consummate professional like Chor Yuen could have done.

The Trailer:

Broken Oath, 1977, Director: Jeong Chang-hwa

Female action stars have long been a staple of the industry going as far back as to the 1920’s, but none captured the imagination of fans around the world as did Angela Mao. With training in Chinese Opera from the age of five until she was signed by Golden Harvest, Angela had an incredible kinetic whirlwind physical presence with an angry scowl to match.  With the fast moving fight scenes choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo-ping, Broken Oath is easily the best film that Angela Mao starred in. It is basically a play on the Japanese film Lady Snowblood but instead of seeking revenge at the tip of a sharp sword, Angela Mao’s character batters them into submission and death with everything she has.

Angela in action:

The Five Venoms, 1978, Director: Chang Cheh

To Chang Cheh’s credit he was always reading the Hong Kong audience and when they looked like they were bored with a certain type of film, he came up with something new. In this case, he recruited five amazing martial artists who were not that well known into a team and starred them in a handful of films that have over time become worldwide cult extravaganzas. They had their different styles but they were all amazing acrobats and moved at something akin to the speed of light. The action is ferocious and mouth droppingly complex. This series of films took Hong Kong action to another level where you began to be in awe of what the human body was physically capable of. They were also enormous crazy fun and this one is probably the best as the five actors all take on the characteristics of poisonous animals – snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard and toad – and they are a riot to watch.


The Sword, 1980, Director: Patrick Tam

What has been termed the New Wave began emerging in Hong Kong cinema In the late 70’s with a group of young directors who had often been trained overseas or in television. Some of these directors were Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Alex Cheung, Yim Ho and Patrick Tam. There isn’t any specific trait that you would say was New Wave, it was more an attitude of experimentation, realism and often dealing with social issues. They also took well-known genres such as the wuxia film and re-invented them; Tsui Hark with Butterfly Murders in 1979 and Patrick Tam with The Sword a year later. The Sword actually seems to look backwards rather than forwards. Almost as if the kung fu and ultra violent Chang Cheh sword-fighting films had not existed, The Sword immerses itself nostalgically in the mood and style of the classical wuxia films of the 60’s but with some modernistic stylish touches thrown in. It is meticulously shot with beautiful detail. In its way it washes away all the excesses of the current wuxia film to create as pure a rendering of this genre as has ever been made.

Encounter of the Spooky Kind, 1980, Director: Sammo Hung

Sammo was coming off his first years of directing and was already compiling a terrific list of kung fu films (Iron Fisted Monk, Warriors II, Enter the Fat Dragon, Knockabout and The Victim) when he had the brilliant idea of throwing the genres of kung fu, horror, comedy and the supernatural all into one big happy pot, stirring and bringing it to a hyper-satisfying boil. We also get a sneak preview of hopping vampires that were to later get much more exposure.  The film is enormously enjoyable with a constant barrage of something speeding by on the screen whether it is great displays of intricate kung fu or being chased by hopping vampires or coming under the spell of black magic or coming across ghosts or even having to battle the Monkey King.  There was nothing that Sammo was not willing to throw into the plot. His only aim was to entertain and this ground breaking film is like a big bouncy slobbering dog happy to see its owner come home.

Aces Go Places, 1982, Director: Eric Tsang

Aces Go Places spawned four sequels but very few equals in the annals of Hong Kong comedy. The studio Cinema City had formed in 1980 and their basic mission was to entertain and make you laugh. Aces does that in spades, but it is much more than a simple comedy. It is a snort of high octave fun. The film is incredibly high spirited – very silly at times – full of slapstick and pratfall humor, eye opening stunts, a wonderful tune from Sam Hui and excellent action sequences that would do Jackie Chan proud. It also had great chemistry between the three main actors, Sam Hui, Karl Maka and the ever understanding Sylvia Chang that made you want to take these characters back home with you.


Zu Warriors: Magic Mountain, 1983, Director: Tsui Hark

With Zu director Tsui Hark really began his twelve year run of masterpieces creating nearly every trend there was in Hong Kong film from the modern wuxia to the supernatural to hard boiled over the top action. Throw in a few great comedies as well. He did it all as either director or producer. I can’t think of any one person in any cinema who has been as influential as Tsui Hark was during this period. He began as part of the New Wave movement with three films but Zu was his calling card into the commercial world of wuxia film. It is an eye-popping film of imagination, searing color, nutty sets and high flying wire-work. He also took a beguiling actress from Taiwan who was primarily famous for dramatic weepies and began her iconic journey to stardom. That was Brigitte Lin of course. With Zu, wuxia was once again regenerated and was to become one of the dominant genres for the following decade.

The Trailer:

The Long Arm of the Law, 1984, Director: Johnny Mak

During this period Hong Kong film seemed so overrun with wuxia and kung fu films that this lean tense crime film felt like a breath of fresh air. This film is often cited as an influential forerunner of the Heroic Bloodshed films that were to become hugely popular only a few years later in the work of John Woo. Though this film certainly has elements of the Heroic Bloodshed genre – male bonding, loyalty and honor – it feels much more in the tradition of the gritty film noirs of the 1940s – in particular the work of Jules Dassin, Anthony Mann, Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Siodmak. It has a cinematic style that is pared down to the essentials, fast paced and imbued with an unromanticized edge that has “dead end” written all over it. This film would have felt very much at home in glorious black and white. The film becomes increasingly involving and tense as it progresses and as the characters become distinct individuals the viewer is faced with an intriguing moral issue. Mak makes these characters very human and likable – and yet at the same time they are remorseless killers who murder anyone in their way – cops, civilians and crooks. Yet there is still a part of you that can’t help but be sympathetic for their plight and root for them to escape an ending that seems inevitable.

Shanghai Blues, 1984, Director: Tsui Hark

This film is about as good as it gets. Very funny at times with a huge dollop of sentimentality but primarily at the core of its big enormous heart is a celebration of film and of the human spirit. It is a ménage de comedy with Sylvia Chang, Sally Yeh and Kenny Bee in a screwball roundelay of mistaken identities, pratfalls, music, joy and heartbreak. Beginning under a bridge in the dark as the Japanese bomb Shanghai it ends with a frantic run for the train and for love. Everything in between is near perfect.  It is cinematic magic of the best kind. The human kind.

Snippet from the film. The Violin Bit.

Mr. Vampire, 1985, Director: Ricky Lau

This wasn’t the first hopping vampire film, but it was the one that led to a hopping vampire craze in Hong Kong and the beginning of a love affair with Lam Ching-ying who plays the stern but understanding Taoist priest. Lam Ching-ying had been in a ton of films since 1970 but often in roles that zipped by so quickly you barely noticed him, but some genius – probably Sammo Hung – gave him the role of his lifetime. He plays the role with so much charisma and agility that you had to wonder why it took him so long to become a star.  He fights off vampires, ghosts, demons and basic bad guys to the delight and amazement of the viewer. Just file this film in the Enormously Entertaining folder.


Police Story, 1985, Director: Jackie Chan

Hey, it’s Jackie Chan, probably the most famous Hong Kong actor in the world other than perhaps Bruce Lee.  His films from the early 1980’s to the present day have generally thrived on the same basic formula of astonishingly quick witted action, mind blowing stunts and goofy humor. He is almost his own genre and he deserves every bit of it. Of late lots of people knock him for sticking around too long, for selling out to Hollywood and then later to China and for aspects of his personal life, but sometimes you have to just sit back and watch one of his early films and be reminded just how much fun those films were. You could probably pick a few of his films for this list, I chose two, but I think Police Story is his best all-around film with action scenes that are simply dazzling; intricate choreography and death defying stunts that leave you shaking your head. And lest we forget, there is also the presence of Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin.

The Trailer:

Yes Madam, 1985, Director: Corey Yuen

After the traditional kung fu films of Angela Mao, Polly Shang-kwan and other female action stars came to a close in the early 1980’s there was a mini-drought in action female films, especially ones that took place in contemporary times. That came to an end with Yes Madam. The film company D&B had been formed in 1983 by the wealthy businessman Dickson Poon and Sammo Hung. A year later they signed Michelle Yeoh who hailed from Malaysia to do a watch commercial and then trained her in martial arts for the movies. Her first starring role was Yes Madam which established her as the major female Hong Kong action star of her time. In this film they team her up with another female action stalwart, Cynthia Rothrock, from the United States. Admittedly, big chunks of the film are dreadful when it focuses on three dimwitted thieves (Tsui Hark being one!) but whenever Michelle or Cynthia are in it, it is electrifying. The action choreography by Corey Yuen is as hard as nails and just as sharp. The last fifteen minutes of the film will take your breath away. Out of this template came the Girls with Guns genre with many wonderful female stars; Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Khan and Michiko Nishiwaki to name a few. Most of the films were low budget but whenever they busted out in high voltage action it was like drugs to a junkie.


A Better Tomorrow, 1986, Director: John Woo

In the early 70’s as an assistant director John Woo had worked on a few films (Boxer from Shantung and The Blood Brothers) with Chang Cheh, whose themes of male bonding and heroic bloodshed very much influenced him. As a director Woo was to make a few period martial arts films but they never made much of an impact. Then he was forced to make a series of comedic films that again did not really go anywhere. By 1986 his career was at best iffy, but he still wanted to make a film about friendship, revenge and betrayal, but he wanted to update these old themes to the modern time. No one was really willing to invest in his idea until Tsui Hark as a producer put up the money and allowed Woo to make his film. And what a film it turned out to be. It wasn’t only redemption for Woo but also for the actor who took on the main role of a broken down former high flying gangster seeking revenge and honor. This was Chow Yun Fat who up until that time was generally known as a genial light comedian and romantic man. This film and its success put both men into the stratosphere of stardom. Bloody and violent yet at the same time sentimental and poignant, it took Hong Kong by storm and created a new cottage industry in similar films. Woo himself was to make a few more of these films, upping the ante each time and two more of his Heroic Bloodshed films as the genre became known as are on this list.

Part II is in the post below.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian! Thanks a lot for putting this list together. I'm looking forward to spending some time this weekend watching all the clips. Some of these films I have not seen in more than 15 years, so it will be like a reunion. And some, I just never saw, like Aces Go Places, which looks like a whole lotta fun. I think though that I will maintain my avoidance of Red to Kill and Ebola Syndrome. I'm just not ready for those sharp tenterhooks!

P.S. I watched Naked Soldier last weekend after reading your review. I really enjoyed it. Sammo is always a pleasure to watch. And I liked that girl who played his adopted daughter. Wouldn't mind seeing more of her.

Brian said...

The same goes for me. I have not seen most of these films in a very very long time and watching the trailers made me really want to see them again. So be careful! I used to see a few of them - Peking, The Killer, Chungking, Heroic Trio, Ashes - on a regular basis but not for a while. I liked a comment I saw on the Ebola youtube page - "I used to show this to family and friends. Now I don't have any." Aces is great and so is the 2nd from what I recall, then they get weaker after that. Maybe if I redo this list in 10 years Naked Soldier will be on it!