Next list comes from Josh, of Varied Celluloid fame, a cool website tackling films from just about any genre. Wait though, not only does Josh run that website, he also co-hosts the VCinema show podcast. If that wasn't enough he also replaced Kingwho? as co-host on Podcast On Fire's This Week In Sleaze. As if to top it all off, Josh is also a facebook regular too. Honestly the amount of work some dudes manage to get through makes me feel ashamed of my time management skills!
When first approached by Hero with the opportunity to contribute to this project, I knew that it was something that I certainly wanted to do. However, I also knew that if I were to be honest, my list would probably turn out to be the most boring contribution among the entire set. I don't consider myself to be a novice when it comes to Hong Kong cinema, but I would hardly describe myself as an expert. Perhaps "intermediate" would best describe me. I have seen most of the classics, as well as many of the second and third-tier classics that are floating around. Yet, when I think of the films that made me love Hong Kong cinema, they are not the second or third tier movies. While those films are all great, the classics (from both the modern and past eras) are what initially sold me on this region and the rich film history. I could list favorites that I have discovered very recently, like Hong Kong Godfather, or maybe dig into some not-so-obvious titles that I have an affinity for (Peace Hotel, Time and Tide, etc.), but the truth is a list like this calls for me to name drop the movies that inspired me to take my own personal journey into the Hong Kong film library. Don't get me wrong, these are also movies that I still watch regularly and they aren't simply on the list as a way to pay homage. These are movies that stand up on their own and they are titles that I consider to be absolute classics. So, with that said, my list is going to look fairly generic. Hopefully it doesn't suck as hard as a Entertainment Weekly-style view of Hong Kong cinema, but... no promises. Another note, I have also included no definitive order. Why? Because I'm a big fat sissy. A sissy who is unable to assign any one film over the other because of his indecisiveness.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
This was the film that made me look at seventies-era martial arts cinema in a very different way. Originally, like many young Americans who were bumping the Wu Tang Clan in their car and keeping it "thug" during the nineties, I viewed these films as works of camp. I believed in all the cliches. Every person in ancient China knew Kung Fu? Pshh. People were fighting each other with exotic animal styles? Pshh. And how about that goofy dubbing? Pshh. There was a time where I assumed the entire genre was entirely about silly fun. I didn't realize that there were films within this genre that could grab you by the collar and genuinely make you feel something. 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one such film. It takes the revenge device that was so prevalent in films of this sort, and it somehow crafts something entirely unique while completely re-inventing the genre. There's a reason why it is a "must see" film over thirty years later.
Not everyone can agree, but Chungking Express truly opened my eyes to a very different side of Hong Kong cinema. Wong Kar-wai's opus is pure poetry in motion and it shows a unique blend of visual style along with musical accompaniment. Sure, there is a very repetitive use of one particular pop song that floats around during the movie, but after feeling the emotional impact that this movie carried, I decided years ago that I could live with a few dozen spins of California Dreaming'. Detailing a mix of sadness and classical romance, Chungking Express is a powerful movie that has the ability to reach numerous groups within any audience. If someone were new to Hong Kong cinema, I would wholeheartedly recommend the movie to them without a moment's hesitation. Subtitles or not, if Chungking Express grabs you, you will change your opinion of foreign/Hong Kong cinema.
I am a huge mark for the Venom Mob. I will certainly agree that Chang Cheh crafted numerous classier films before joining up with the Venoms, but I am a true sucker for the gimmicks. Crippled Avengers probably isn't their greatest collaboration in terms of narrative greatness, but what the movie lacks in cinematic technique it more than makes up for with its action. The original Five Deadly Venoms was one of the first two Shaw Brother movies that I had ever seen (along with the previously mentioned 36th Chamber), but it was Crippled Avengers that made me a fan for life. The movie sticks out as a cinematic oddity, combining pure silliness in terms of its story with exhilarating martial arts action, it stands out as one of my favorite kung fu films of all time.
Fist of Legend.
I still remember the summer when I first rented Fist of Legend. I was between the ages of 14-16 years old, and I had become a true cinematic junkie. Every day I was renting a classic film on VHS (the older films were around $1 per night, which was how I persuaded my family to give me the money), and I eventually turned to the few martial arts films that were available to me. Amongst these was the Gordon Chan/Jet Li classic Fist of Legend. Featuring choreography and techniques that I had never seen in any film before, Fist of Legend was enough to put hair on a young man's chest. I rented the VHS, copied it, wore out the tape, bought my own copy, then wore out THAT VHS from playing it over and over again. It was certainly a defining film from my teenage years, and it forever made an impression on me. No matter what, I can still throw the movie on at any point and waste away my entire afternoon. Insane choreography and one of the most progressive looks at the Chinese/Japanese dynamic, it is a film that should be owned by all kung fu film fans.
Another defining film for me. While The Killer and A Better Tomorrow were likely my introductions to the work of John Woo, it was Hard Boiled that became the movie that I would use to try and impress my friends. I am, as can be seen by my love for gimmicks in kung fu movies, a lover of all things that drip of excess. Hard Boiled has a strong narrative behind all of its outlandishness, but the action is of such a ridiculously high pitch that it stands out as one of the most over-the-top spectacles that any filmmaker has ever produced within the action genre. Sure, it might not be an exceptionally smart film and the melodrama is about as subtle as a jackhammer, but this is a movie that gets the job done. Hard Boiled delivers, and I still watch it at least two or three times per year.
Once Upon a Time in China.
I owe a great deal to the Once Upon a Time in China series. I discovered it around the time that I stumbled upon Fist of Legend, and it was responsible for introducing me to a very different side of both Hong Kong cinema and the rich culture of China in general. Despite being a period piece, the movie was incredibly unique in the way it handled its genre tropes. The movie mixed action, drama, and comedy into a very different sort of concoction than I was used to. Seeing the Chinese patriotism on display in the movie also gave the younger version of myself a brand new look at the world around me. Recently, I have went back to visit the film yet again and I have surprisingly found a movie that I enjoy even more than I did when originally watching it. A beautifully choreographed piece of work that is impeccable in its quality, the movie still holds up.
Police Story III.
How does one choose a Jackie Chan movie for a list such as this one? With so many of his films making a profound impact on me, it comes down to which one have I most thoroughly enjoyed? Well, Rumble in the Bronx was a definite contender for me. After all, it was my first Jackie Chan movie, and after seeing it in the theater as a kid, I wanted to fight off my own swarm of infinite bad guys. However, when I look back on the Jackie Chan title that received the most play in my VCR, I have to choose Supercop aka: Police Story III. Before I knew that Police Story had its own trilogy, my friends and I would rent (perhaps you're seeing a running theme at this point) the Miramax VHS tape and sit in awe of Jackie Chan's brass balls. Not only did Jackie prove to be completely out of his mind within this movie, we were also introduced to a very tough woman by the name of Michelle Yeoh. Many evenings within my late teenage years were spent staring at poor Michelle Yeoh fall off of a moving car. Sigh, now I just want to watch Police Story III again!
She Shoots Straight.
From all of the movies on this list, this is probably the one that is newest to me. While I would love to put a Moon Lee/Yukari Oshima joint in this position, when it comes to female-led action cinema - She Shoots Straight is about the most highly-charged example that I can think of. Featuring outrageous stunts, fine storytelling, and a lightning fast pace, the movie defines everything that I love about Hong Kong action cinema. It is quick, it is violent, and it is fun! If this movie were to define any part of my life, it would probably point to the previous three years which have seen me going through this girls-with-guns genre. Yet, when I think of my alltime favorite, I will usually go back to She Shoots Straight.
This is another title that I do not have an exceptionally long history with, but after first watching it the movie jumped up my list of all-time favorites. Director Lau Kar Leung made a laundry-list of classic films, but Shaolin Mantis was one that came into my possession without the slightest hint of hype behind it. When I first discovered the movie I didn't even know a plot synopsis, but after watching the movie... I was blown away. From a filmmaker who made so many great films, Shaolin Mantis stood out to me as one of his most impressive efforts. With top-notch action and a very engaging plot that is far more tangled than one might expect, Shaolin Mantis is a must watch for any fan of classic martial arts cinema.
I look at Shaolin Soccer as my introduction to contemporary Hong Kong cinema. While I had, up until the point of its release, watched many films from Hong Kong's glory days, I didn't view many movies from the current marketplace (“current” being the late nineties and early 2000s). Shaolin Soccer turned out to be a drastic wake-up call for me. It finally introduced me to Hong Kong comedy in a way that I could fully appreciate. This was something that was far wittier than the cross-eyed/hairy mole schtick that I had seen in the past. This was a slick and polished piece of comedy that was vastly different from anything I had seen before, and I laughed my ass off every time I watched the movie.