10. Mark Lee (AKA Mark Gor)
Played by Chow Yun-Fat
Gangster Mark sports a duster, Alain Delon sunglasses and constantly chews a toothpick – and it’s a well known fact it doesn’t get any cooler than that (in fact, Quentin Tarantino reportedly copied the look and sported it for months after watching the movie). Mark isn’t just the epitome of cool though – he is a hitman of considerable skill and flair, and you cross him at your peril. Blotted his copy book slightly by having a Deus ex Machina identical twin brother in a sequel, but you can’t really hold that against him.
See him in: “A Better Tomorrow” – Discover more
9. Sadako Yamamura
Played by Rie Inou
Who can forget the first time they saw the Ring’s screwed-up villain/victim climb out of a TV set in Hideo Nakata’s universally popular movie? Although in dire need of a haircut, she was the first character in an Asian horror film to completely flip me out, and I know I’m not alone. The often imitated style has somewhat diminished the power of the character, but Jesus Christ, someone crawling out of a TV set!
See her in: “Ring” (aka Ringu) – Discover more
8. Wong Po
Played by Sammo Hung
Sammo Hung is many things, but I have to admit I didn’t rate him as an actor until I’d seen him in Wilson Yip’s SPL. His character is both a thoroughly evil gang boss and a devoted family man capable of great kindness. Sammo gives the performance of his life at playing the only fully rounded (d’oh!) character he’s ever been given. Makes you wonder what else he’s got up his sleeve.
See him in: “SPL” (aka Sha Po Lang) – Discover more
7. Chen Zhen
Played by Bruce Lee, Jet Li and others
There are a few flavours of Chen Zhen available, but most prefer the smouldering, flag waving patriot of Fist of Fury or the new age, more diplomatic version seen in Fist of Legend. Whatever one you prefer, you can bet he’s going to kick some serious invader arse and look good doing it. What were the Japanese thinking by invading China?
See him in: “Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend” – Discover more Fury / Legend
6. The Golden Swallow
Played by Cheng Pei-Pei
Let’s face it, her habit of dressing as a boy doesn’t really convince, but cross the Golden Swallow at your own risk. Besides being deadly, she exhibits a low-key sexiness you wouldn’t be allowed to see on film these days. One of King Hu’s many masterpieces, Come Drink With Me showcases perhaps the most enduring female warrior to come out of Hong Kong. You can live without the tepid sequel that bears her name though.
See her in: “Come Drink With Me” – Discover more
5. Detective Bun
Played by Lau Ching-Wan
Johnny To had to feature somewhere in this list as he can cook up some fascinating characters, and after much pondering I’ve gone for the titular Mad Detective. A truly messed up guy who thinks nothing of slicing his own ear off to give as a gift (most people would prefer a gift token, I understand), he also has the quirk of being able to see facets of people’s personality as separate entities. Which is confusing as hell until you twig what’s going on, and then you too can feel like you’ve been let in on one of Hong Kong’s greatest secrets.
See him in: “Mad Detective” – Discover more
Played by Choi Min-Sik
He might be slightly unbalanced after spending fifteen years in prison, but Dae Su is not a man to cross. Played with brilliant flair by Choi Min-Sik, this character embarks on a rampage of vengeance, only pausing occasionally to eat live octopi and fall in love with young ladies. Also has a sideline in creative dentistry.
See him in: “Old Boy” – Discover more
3. Wong Fei-Hung
Played by Kwan Tak-Hing, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and many, many others
With his no-shadow kick, Dr Wong (the only real-life character on this list) is a formidable martial arts master and owner of the Po Chi Lam clinic. Featuring in literally hundreds of films, we have seen Wong as a small boy (Iron Monkey), a naughty adolescent (Drunken Master), a young adult (the Once Upon a Time in China series) and as an old man (the Skyhawk). Whichever portrayal you prefer probably comes down to how old you are, but for many, Jet Li and Tsui Hark’s 1991 Once Upon a Time in China is the definitive.
See him in: just about every kung fu film you’ve ever heard of
Played by Toshirô Mifune
He’s illiterate, drinks to excess and accidentally gives himself a girl’s name – what’s not to like about Akira Kurosawa’s samurai-wannabe Kikuchiyo? With his oversized sword (the most understated bit of over-compensation seen in movies) Kikuchiyo’s bleak, tragic past is belied by his oafishness and bravado. Once seen, never forgotten, Toshirô Mifune’s character steals every scene he’s in in one of the greatest movies ever made.
See him in: “Seven Samurai” – Discover more
Played by Faye Wong
Hong Kong has a better track record than the west of producing singers who can actually act, and Faye Wong plays the charmingly quirky character of Faye in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express like a dream. Back in the 90s, Wong was populating his movies with interesting characters, and Faye is the best of the lot. She literally steals into the world of her prospective beau (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and rearranges his life without him even being faintly aware of her presence. What might sound like creepy stalker-type behaviour is instead a joyous thing in the hands of the childlike innocence of Faye – think an even more loveable version of Amelie – and you simply cannot be infected by her charm.
See her in: “Chungking Express” – Discover more
Written and compiled by “Heroes of the East” editor M O’Callaghan.
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”.