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.
Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.
I have nobody to blame but myself. I mean, by now I should know that Hong Kong movies are not what they once were (i.e. good). And I should certainly know not to expect anything much from pop duo The Twins, a.k.a. Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – I did, after all, suffer through their crummy vampire action mess The Twins Effect. So why in the Gay Blue Hell would I be interested in Protégé De La Rose Noire, their latest box office smash? Well, because one of my Hong Kong heroes, Donnie Yen, was the man behind the camera, and Donnie kicks ass. He was the action choreographer on The Twins Effect, and deserves the credit for making the mostly non-fighter cast look halfway competent. So maybe, just maybe, he could pull something out of the fire. Also of interest is that the movie features Donnie’s little sister Chris Yen, returning to the big screen for the first time since her debut in the little-known 1986 Yuen Woo-ping film Close Encounter With A Vampire. Still, I didn’t dare get my hopes too high, which is just as well because the movie still couldn’t live up to them.
Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
Me and Benny Chan go back a ways, and our relationship has been stormy. Some of his directorial efforts, like Who Am I and Big Bullet, I really like. Others, like New Police Story and Gen Y Cops, I really dislike. So I guess I come out even enough that when Chan makes a new movie, I figure I might as well see it. Shaolin, Chan’s first stab at a big budget period epic, is in a way the ultimate Benny Chan film for me in that I really liked about half of it and really didn’t like about half of it. It’s a movie that seems specifically designed to highlight both his strengths and weaknesses as a director.
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.