The next list comes from Michael,
Dead End (Chang Cheh, 1969)
Many know Chang Cheh for his sixties Wuxia epics or the (oft-camp) “Blood & Thunder” martial arts massacres of the seventies, but Dead End offers in an insight into what his career might have been had he taken a different path. Essentially just a melodramatic, sometimes turgid, romance between a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (Ti Lung) and an innocent young thing from a wealthy family (Li Ching) Chang’s film is an explosion of light and colour enlivened by the pop sensibilities of the late sixties. Of course, untamed passions of young love aside, things eventually take a dark turn for the worst once Ti’s raging hormones explode in a murderous rage. Beautiful yet sometimes troubling, this is the antithesis of the Shaw’s glittery bubblegum-teen productions of the era and an oft roughshod emotional ride to boot. A bonafide hidden gem of its age and one of Chang’s finest.
The Big Boss (Lo Wei, 1971)
Bruce Lee’s breakout Hong Kong box-office hit under the umbrella of a Golden Harvest still in its infancy is the jewel in Lee’s Southeast Asian legacy. As a brawler looking to find inner-serenity as a factory hand in Thailand, Lee shines in his first major leading role outside of America (maybe even going so far as to eclipse the veteran domestic performers that surround him). What sets The Big Boss apart from Lee’s successive features is its earthy grounding in traditional Chinese values of family and community. It’s also drenched in blood and gore as well as packed to bursting point with Lee’s signature choreography, but it remains its golden heart that endears it beyond simple low-budget kung fu programme filler.
Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)
With the global impact of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, it seemed only the Italians had the gall to cash-in on the Vietnam War film phenomenon. But Sammo Hung took the formula and refashioned it into one of the most jaw-dropping exercises in action cinema seen anywhere in world cinema. Assembling a gung-ho team of misfits and mercenaries, Lam Ching Ying takes his mini-militia back behind enemy lines to decommission an abandoned military base. Once Hung and his remaining crew down tools and square off against their Cambodian opponents (led by Yuen Wah), Eastern Condors proves that you don’t need heavy artillery to put on an explosive show. Arguably one of the greatest spectacles in the annals of global action cinema and electrifying entertainment into the bargain.
My Heart is That Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1988)
In the wake of the box office success of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) everyone who was anyone was pumping out triad-actioners, but it took New Wave artisan Patrick Tam to take the genre in a bold, divisive arthouse direction. Tam’s variant on the genre is high-art, sweeping romantic melodrama shot through the sweaty neon-lens of Australian auteur Christopher Doyle. And the violence, when it perforates the narrative, erupts with a raw, gritty style far removed from the operatics of the remainder of the genre. Equal parts brilliant, brutal and beautiful this one eclipses all other triad-dramas for me and remains an unchallenged personal favourite. Kenny Bee may never have been better than he is herein, unless you factor in the below title…
A Fishy Story (Anthony Chan, 1989)
At the tail-end of the eighties, the impact of earlier New Wave movement could still be felt, and the closing year of the decade produced a bumper crop of some of Hong Kong’s finest. Anthony Chan’s understated, noirish romance remains one of the underground gems of eighties Hong Kong cinema yet it references the best of the decade as well as foreshadows what was to come in the later works of Wong Kar Wai et al. Against the factual backdrop of the 1967 riots (which furnishes the viewer an important history lesson) there really is nothing quite like A Fishy Story when it comes to evoking a people and period at a precise moment in time. As such it demands the attention of any serious student of Hong Kong cinema, or realistically any filmgoer with the slightest interest in the broader world and its varied cultural identities.
The Killer (John Woo, 1989)
For those of us of a certain age who grew up with Hong Kong cinema as big-screen entertainment, the eighties closed with a cinematic bombshell that marked a turning point in the international recognition of the region’s filmmaking output. It’s nearly impossible to articulate to modern audiences, who only know Woo’s magnum opus from video or DVD, the impact it had on audiences who came to it as cinema audiences over twenty years ago, but behind Tony Ching and Lau Chi Ho’s groundbreaking action choreography (that stretched the climax of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch out to feature-length) was a explosive tale of love, honour, revenge and chivalry that was elevated to near mythical proportions via its execution. For all the flubs and exaggerated melodrama, Woo’s love triangle-cum-juggernaut morality tale is one two hour block of Hong Kong cinema I never tire of. It’s hard not to walk away from this one without having either been moved to the core, or having fallen in love with the charisma of its leading triumvirate (Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee & Sally Yeh). A classic, pure and simple, no questions asked.
A Chinese Ghost Story III (Tony Ching, 1991)
Everyone has their favourite entry in the trilogy, with most citing the first film as the classic of its genre, but in reverse-engineering Pu Songling’s “Nie Xiao Qian” (1740) and making Leslie Cheung’s tax-collector Tony Leung’s novice monk Ching and Tsui Hark gained their finest hour. It also presented an additional element of sexual politics that pushed the comedy of the tale into much more amusing territory, as Leung wrestled between his Buddhist teachings and his earthly desires. Coming from a time where Chinese actors sailed about over our heads on wires almost as gracefully, and naturally, as birds in the Summer sky Ching’s third act is magical romantic fantasy at its finest. When people say “They don’t make films like that anymore” this is kind of cinema they’re referring to.
Sex & Zen (Michael Mak, 1991)
If you came to the Hong Kong movies in the late-eighties/early-nineties, it’s just not cricket to draw up a list of favourites without at least one entry from the region’s higher-concept, more modestly budgeted Category III films. Though Li Yu’s “Carnal Prayer Mat” (1657) had been adapted for the big screen a number of times prior, it was Michael Mak’s 1991 glossy big-budget version that proved the most popular in enthralling, delighting and (occasionally) offending international audiences. Sex and Zen is everything that fans of nineties Chinese adult cinema loved, all wrapped up in one colourful sexually-charged bundle. The penis transplant sequence is the stuff of cinematic legend. And as a trivia point, though scholars and writers have always pointed to the film as the sole outing where Amy Yip “bared all”, Mak dispelled those stories in later years by admitted that body doubles had been extensively employed throughout the production (going so far as to commission Japanese voice-artists on the soundtrack when the main Chinese actresses moans and groans of pleasure didn’t prove “erotic” enough).
The Bride with White Hair (Ronny Yu, 1993)
First adapted as a feature film in 1959, Liang Yusheng’s “Story of the White-haired Demoness” (1957), made for a thrilling inclusion amidst the early nineties New Wave Martials Arts/Wuxia set, going on to secure its director, Ronny Yu, international acclaim and employment. However, the film wasn’t simply just a high-wire kung fu fest akin to many of its peers; it was an artistic and cultural phenomenon whose impact is still felt to this day. The pairing of entertainment icon Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung didn’t harm its box-office potential either. Comparative with some of the more sprawling, painterly epics of Japanese Chanbara cinema, Bride is a film of extraordinary beauty and rich emotions. Seeing something of this calibre on the big screen, in widescreen Panavision and Dolby stereo (one of the earlier HK films to adopt the format), was pretty much a life-changing experience. Yu came close to nearing this one’s almost improbable heights with ‘95’s The Phantom Lover, but has seldom achieved anything as ornately unique as Bride since. One of the few films, from pretty much anywhere, I’d praise as a “masterpiece”.
Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
Produced during the downtime on Ashes of Time’s extended shoot, and originally constructed as a three-act anthology (the third story outgrowing its original narrative and becoming the “Killer” portion of Wong’s successive Fallen Angels), Chungking Express is as close to perfect Hong Kong cinema as any viewer is likely to get. Although the repetitive use of The Mama & The Papa’s “California Dreaming” can give rise to irritation, and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s opening story is nowhere near the naturalistic delight of Tony Leung’s successive episode, the fact that such a simple message ends up looking and sounding so extraordinary is testament to Wong Kar Wai’s brilliance as a filmmaker. Wong’s central message – that dispensing with regimented routines and fear of the unknown opens up one’s life experience to countless possibilities – transcends all cultural and language barriers. Fine filmmaking often makes us think, but exemplary filmmaking has the potential to enrich our lives as well as change the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Chungking Express is almost a letter perfect representation of that latter ideal and one of the few films I’d attribute as harbouring such an impact that it changed my own global outlook irreversibly.
Content © 2012 M.C. Thomason