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.
Back in 1996, it seemed so unlikely that of all the action heroes in Hong Kong, Donnie Yen would be the one called on to foil Satan’s foul schemes. But now it makes a strange kind of sense that Donnie Yen would, well, not so much punch the Devil in his face as knee the Devil’s Envoy repeatedly in the ribs and once in the jaw, because here we are and Donnie Yen is the state-sponsored inheritor of Bruce Lee’s sifu and nunchaku. Who else is left?
I had to watch this movie more than once to verify that George Lazenby actually has more dialog than just, “Hmm? Hmmmmm,” mumbled with that smug chin-in-the-air look as if to say he has discovered something important and must now jut forth his chin and stroke it slyly. Who the hell does he think he is? Mr. Bean? He does have a few other lines, but for the most part, he just hums through the whole movie. I know this isn’t the best way to kick off a review, but come on! Speak, damn you! This isn’t Quest for Fire.
The pain and glory of watching a Thomas Tang movie is that you never know what you are going to get, but it will almost always be stunningly terrible. Tang, for those fortunate enough to require an introduction, is part of the unholy trinity that also includes director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai, film makers in only the broadest and most liberal definition of the term. Their specialty, often working in concert, was to take part of one cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, splice it together with parts of a second cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, pepper in some original footage — usually of ninjas, hopping vampires, or white dudes (and by “white dudes” I mostly mean “Richard Harrison”) — then dub the entire thing into English in a lackadaisical attempt to make some sort of halfway coherent plot out of the mess. Using this formula, a guy like Thomas Tang could make ten or twelve movies out of just a couple movies, with very little production cost. By the time people paid to see whatever Frankenstein monster resulted from the process, it was too late for them to be pissed off. Thomas Tang — or Godfrey Ho, as the case may be — already had your money.
Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.