Before They Came to America: Giants of Hong Kong Cinema


A niche knowledge and passion of mine is Hong Kong cinema, most specifically the Gun Fu films (you read that right) of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It disturbs me when my friends lament over a bust like Rush Hour 3, snooze off during Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or roll their eyes at Windtalkers, not because I disagree with their take on these films, but because it saddens me that the luminary stars or directors "“ Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and director John Woo, respectively "“ are no longer getting the respect they deserve. With that in mind, I want to give three of my favorite Hong Kong boys their due.

Jackie Chan

You probably know Jackie Chan as the lovable and goofy martial artist who teams up with Americans for fast-paced action thrillers (as well as a man who has perfected the art of the blooper reel). But did you know that Chan was set up to be the next Bruce Lee? Rigorously trained in martial arts, music, and dance, the young Jackie Chan had bit roles in several Bruce Lee films before Lee's untimely death. Afterwards, Chan was seen as the natural substitute for Lee, except that young Jackie did not want to spend his career in Lee's shadow. Instead, he formulated his own brand of entertainment "“ that which combined humor and martial arts.

A fan of American slap-stick comedians such as Buster Keaton, Chan worked hard to make a name for himself, often performing his own stunts (which puts him as Enemy Number 1 on insurance company's lists). Sure, he still plays smiling, goofy good-guys in his American films, but his extraordinary martial arts work developed in his early days of Hong Kong cinema is worth noting, especially because it infused a humor that sought to take Kung Fu a little less seriously. Check out this compilation video, made from my favorite Chan film, 1978's "Drunken Master." It highlights his signature move "“ the manipulation of objects around him (tea cups, poles, water jugs), as well as his top-notch martial arts skills and inclination for downing plenteous amounts of liquid courage.

Chow Yun Fat

Before the Chow Yun Fat of Bulletproof Monk and Pirates of the Caribbean, there was Chow Yun Fat ... romance star? Prior to being cast ironically in action films by directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam, Chow was a romantic leading man in Hong Kong cinema. But, as his characters increasingly gained a penchant for wielding double Beretta 92s to serve their justice whilst sporting sunglasses at night with toothpicks gritted in their teeth, Chow became the quintessential Hong Kong action hero. In fact, Chow became such a huge action star that hordes of young men began dressing up like one of his most famous characters, Mark Gor from Better Tomorrow, a trend parodied in this clip from its sequel, "A Better Tomorrow 2," where Chow returns, without narrative apology, as the slain Mark's twin brother.

The clip ends with one of Chow's most passionate and beloved scenes from Gun-Fu cinema, giving us the obscure t-shirt slogan "Respect the Rice." Speaking of respect, if you're a fan of this genre and don't mind copious amounts of arterial spray, the final scene from the movie is considered one of the bloodiest ever - but also one of the greatest - in action history.

John Woo

Likely familiar are John Woo's American works such as Face/Off, Mission Impossible II and Broken Arrow (OK, maybe not that last one). But what about the films that made Woo an internationally innovative force? A great deal (though admittedly, not all) of American action cinema is constricted to very obvious convention, perhaps based on an assumption that viewers are solely interested in explosion rather than dramatic content. Sure, we all love a little Bay and Bruckheimer, but in his early films, John Woo perfected something deeper than the buddy-cop bond and the arbitrary love plot. Something far more visceral to which Hollywood has never fully allowed him to return "“ the concept of Heroic Bloodshed. Perhaps it came from one of the more interesting aspects of Hong Kong cinema itself "“ its palpable sense of urgency. Films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s often had nihilistic or despondent themes (see: the filmography of Won Kar-Wai) inspired by the country's looming return to China in 1997. One of the best films of the prolific Woo-Chow collaboration, and possibly Woo's last great Hong Kong film, is 1989's The Killer (originally titled, in Chinese, Bloodshed of Two Heroes). The film's fusion of Kung Fu and gun fighting is inspirational, but the heart of the film lies in the relationship between an assassin looking for one last hit, and the inspector looking to bring him down. Not as conventional as you might expect. Watch the trailer and judge for yourself!