The tiny territory of Hong Kong has been responsible for producing some of the greatest action movies the world has ever seen. Here are ten of the very best from before the digital age; a time when often the only thing an actor had to save him from a painful trip to the hospital was a thin straw mattress or a small cushioning pad under the shirt! In reverse order, I give to you:
10. CRIPPLED AVENGERS
Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Phillip Kwok, Lo Meng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lu Feng, Chen Kuan-Tai
Definitely the least well known of the ten, but that shouldn’t put you off. A standard revenge tale is given a bizarre twist by giving the team of heroes a crippling disability each. The result is unbelievable in every sense of the word in a film best watched in a “loose” frame of mind!
9. 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Starring: Lau Kar-Fai (Gordon Liu), Lo Leih
Classic training sequences make this a kind of martial arts “torture porn” movie. The hardships San Te (Lau) goes through really bonds the viewer to the character. Sparked a whole wave of Shaolin movies where an everyman undergoes a rigorous and gruelling training regime to become an invincible fighting machine. This is the best.
8. PRODIGAL SON
Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Yuen Biao, Frankie Chan, Lam Ching-Ying, Sammo Hung
Incredibly rich, with a scene-stealing Lam Ching-Ying on fine form as an Opera performer/Wing Chun master. Yuen Biao shows he can take a leading role, and his brutal ending fight with Frankie Chan (the man who composed so many movie scores in Hong Kong) is definitely not for the squeamish! Elsewhere, Hung appears in an extended cameo in the first of many appearances in his own movies where he gives others a chance to shine.
7. ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA
Director: Tsui Hark
Starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung
The return of the traditional kung fu movie showed that the genre had grown up somewhat in this sumptuously shot film depicting China’s favourite hero Wong Fei-Hung. Jet Li would go on to play Wong three more times in the six film series (and once more in an unrelated comedy film!) but this is his strongest performance.
6. HARD BOILED
Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Teresa Mo
John Woo’s Triad thrillers gave a fresh spin on the old Wuxia Pian and set them in the modern world, but the old themes of loyalty and brotherhood are still in very much in evidence. HARD BOILED trades enchanted swords for guns and bullets, and was Woo’s last film in Hong Kong with his muse Chow Yun-Fat. That one-take shot following the protagonists as they shoot their way through a hospital is unforgettably exciting.
5. THE WAY OF THE DRAGON
Director: Bruce Lee
Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris
Many would choose FIST OF FURY, but for me this film is the pinnacle of Lee’s all-too-short movie career. Lee plays it for laughs in the early stages as the fish-out-of-water Chinese country bumpkin in modern day Rome. Meanwhile, the small-scale war between Chinese restaurant workers and the Mob escalates into a deadly life-and-death struggle. Lee takes on Chuck Norris in the Coliseum (and in the Golden Harvest backlot!), in one of the most famous fights in movie history.
4. PROJECT A
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Dick Wei
Jackie Chan teams up with his former Opera school brothers Hung and Yuen in this fun-packed action comedy that pleases on every level. This was also the first time Chan brought his stuntwork to the fore, making this an unmissable mix of gags, fisticuffs and death-defying feats.
3. MILLIONAIRE’S EXPRESS
Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Richard Ng, Eric Tsang
Sammo throws everything at the screen in Hong Kong’s answer to IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, and surprisingly, it works like a charm. Sammo plays a ne’er-do-well who intentionally scuppers a trainload of wealthy travellers in the hope that they will spend money at his brothel. What follows, though, defies explanation in a film that really needs to be seen a handful of times before it can be truly appreciated.
Heroes of the East review / More
2. A TOUCH OF ZEN
Director: King Hu
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Tin Peng
OK, it’s not actually a Hong Kong film (it was made in Taiwan with a largely Taiwanese cast), but King Hu (originally from mainland China) cut his teeth working through the ranks of Hong Kong filmmaking before becoming a director in his own right (and producing a bona-fide classic along the way in COME DRINK WITH ME). After leaving the Shaw Brothers studio and moving to Taiwan, he came up with this: an epic Wuxia Pian fairytale shot in truly remarkable style. It took three years to make, and its echoes are still felt in CGI-heavy swordplay movies being made to great acclaim today. Sadly, a decent home version has yet to be produced.
1. POLICE STORY
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Bill Tung
Some films are action packed. This is everything packed! There’s not a single frame where there isn’t something going on, whether it be Jackie recklessly endangering himself in some way or getting himself into difficulties with his girlfriend May (Cheung) or his boss (Tung). And the finale, which takes place in a shopping mall and involves more fake glass than you would have thought possible to have in one place, is so relentlessly manic it will leave you breathless.
When you come to do these lists you realise just how many films you’ve got to leave off! So while there’s nothing by Ringo Lam, no PEDICAB DRIVER, DRUNKEN MASTER, A BETTER TOMORROW, ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN etc, hopefully the list won’t offend too many people and hopefully tempt any curious observer not yet familiar with these films to try one or two and maybe become one of the converted!
Heroes of the East is a comprehensive introduction to east Asian cinema with reviews of 100s of films from Hong Kong, China, Japan, and South Korea. The site also includes features and special-interest articles including the popular “A Beginner’s Guide to Kung Fu Films”.
“Damn you, Fatty”: Funny subtitles in Hong Kong movies
Kong-Cast – cinema, media, and culture from Hong Kong and Abroad
Ross V Bruce Lee – radio interview with Ross McD on Spin 103.8 discussing the career of Bruce Lee and east Asian cinema.
The Way Of The Dragon – John Derbyshire, an extra in the film discusses Hong Kong action cinema and working with Bruce Lee.
Asian Movie Pulse – Hong Kong cinema overview