Back around the turn of the century, there were few directors as committed to the maligned Hong Kong horror genre as Tony Leung. Unfortunately, Tony Leung wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And double unfortunately, he wasn’t a bad enough filmmaker. Everything he made had an air of middling, uninteresting near-competency about it, the work it seemed of a talented amateur or an untalented professional. Now before you fire off an angry email (do people still use email?) telling me how great Tony Leung is, keep in mind that I am not referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Ashes of Time. Nor am I referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Tom, Dick, and Hairy. Oh wait, that’s both Tony Leungs. Oh, you know the guys: Chiu-wai and Kar-fei. And maybe that third Tony Leung, action choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung (Bloodmoon, Superfights).
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
In the 1960s and 1970s — at the very least — there was no bigger star in Turkish cinema than Cuneyt Arkin. Whether he was a medieval dude with a steel claw defending Turkey from dastardly Crusaders, or a tough-as-nails cop in a plaid blazer defending Turkey from drugs and ninjas, no one could throw down with as much cool as Cuneyt. He was Bruce Lee (well, Jimmy Wang Yu maybe) and Maurizio Merli all rolled up into one glaring package. Similarly, in the 1970s, there was no bigger star in Hong Kong cinema than Bolo Yeung — and by “bigger” in his case we mean the size of his muscles. This bodybuilder turned kungfu movie whipping boy first rose to prominence when he showed up in Enter the Dragon to stand around with his arms folded, looking impressive until he gets his ass kicked by John Saxon — who kicks Bolo’s ass even though he could barely kick. After that role, which actually gave him his stage name, Bolo was in high demand. Pretty much every kungfu star in the world wanted to be filmed beating up the Chinese muscle man, and Bolo was always happy to oblige. The man has been beat up on screen by pretty much every martial arts star you could think of. It was inevitable, perhaps, that Cuneyt would one day cross paths with Bolo — even if it was only in the editing room of notorious hack movie makers Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang.
In the mid sixties, Hong Kong’s Cantonese language film industry, faced with the emerging dominance of the considerably more well-funded and increasingly action-oriented Mandarin language Shaw Brothers Studio–as well as changing audience tastes in a rapidly modernizing society–found itself in need of retooling its output. Melodramas, romances and period martial arts films featuring heroic female swordsmen had been staples of the industry, but it now appeared that films reflecting the cosmopolitan tastes and hyperbolic pace of a more technologically driven age were in order. Of course, nothing celebrated speed, style and technology like the James Bond films, so it only made sense for Cantonese filmmakers to adapt the conventions of those films to their audience and capabilities. Furthermore, since Cantonese cinema was at the time largely driven by female stars–and appealed to a largely female audience–it also made sense that these culturally specific re-imaginings of the Bond film should feature young women as their protagonists. The resulting flood of films, made mostly between 1965 and 1968, left enough of a mark on their country’s cinematic landscape to deserve a genre moniker all their own, and have since been retroactively dubbed the “Jane Bond” films by HK film critic Sam Ho.
My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.
Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.
Old Hong Kong movies use the presence of a Taoist priest as a license to print crazy, despite the real world practice of Taoism’s emphasis on quiet contemplation and equilibrium with nature. As these filmmakers would have it, that age old philosophical tradition is all about people shooting cartoon lightning bolts out of their hands, repelling one another with weapon strength, supersonic laughter and, of course, watermelon monsters. In short, exactly the type of religion that might get me to turn my back on my secular ways once and for all.
Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
The slower Jackie Chan gets in his old age, the more he has to figure out what the hell it means for him to still be making movies. He’s given everything for his art, everything to his fans. He’s broken down, beat up, and will be lucky if he can remember his own name or walk in another ten years. Chan has sacrificed himself, his family, and just about everything else. I’m not saying whether this is good or bad, worth it or not; merely that it occurred. You can play armchair psychologist if you’d like, analyzing how the fact that he was abandoned by his parents (who sold him to a Peking Opera school, where he met Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Kwai, among others) has driven this insatiable need on his part to be loved and accepted by fans while crippling him when it comes to close personal relationships (his marriage was a sham and his flings with sexy female starlets were constant fodder for Hong Kong gossip rags). He’s cocky and egotistical (though honestly, wouldn’t you be the same way if you were him), but he’s also nervous and humble around certain reporters and throngs of fans. If you’ve ever seen an ignored and lonely puppy desperate for attention and reinforcement, then you’ve seen Jackie Chan in interviews.
Thanks to the release over the past decade of a large portion of the Shaw Brothers catalog on DVD, it should no longer be a secret to anyone who cares that the venerable Hong Kong studio was responsible for far more than the martial arts movies that got imported to the U.S. or horror movies in which people vomit up snakes. Among the more delightful discoveries to come out of this digital mother lode is the handful of James Bond inspired pictures churned out by the studio during the late sixties. Of course, since most of these movies don’t actually feature any spies or espionage (among the exceptions being the Angel With the Iron Fists series, which features Lilly Ho as a lady super spy ranked Agent 009) that influence is expressed mainly in terms of attitude and design.