Once upon a time, the Oscars used to give out awards for “Dance Direction.” These days the art of choreography goes mostly unnoticed at Academy Award time.
They should revive the award, or invent a new one, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The award wouldn’t be for dancing, per se, but for the beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes in this hugely enjoyable movie. The fight choreographer is Yuen Wo-Ping, who also designed the kung fu action in The Matrix. His work here is literally breathtaking.
The courtyards and compounds on display in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pare elegant yet stifling domains, warmly beautiful but so hushed you can practically see the sounds being absorbed into the darkly lacquered wood. There’s no surprise, in these places, that legendary Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) can never declare his love for fellow martial-arts expert Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). When Li arrives at the home of his longtime friend and confesses to her that he’s retiring because his efforts to achieve enlightenment failed (his meditations instead leading him only to “a place of deep silence”), he might be describing the very room that holds their conversation, or even the conversation itself—a series of palpable desires and simmering glances whose meanings are left unspoken.
Jackie Chan’s landmark action spectacles “Police Story” and “Police Story 2” debut on Blu-ray stateside this week on a double-feature disc (reviewed on Videodrone here). These films were blockbuster smashes in Hong Kong and international hits everywhere except the U.S., and they changes the course of Hong Kong film industry.
If you like this brand of action cinema – and what’s not to like? – here’s a list of a dozen more landmarks from the madcap glory days of Hong Kong action cinema from “Police Story” to 1995. All of these were released on disc stateside (a lot of great Hong Kong action is still only available as imports) and while some are out of print, they can usually be found at surviving video stores that cater to fans of cult movies. Support one today! Those available on streaming services are also noted.
This is not a definitive list, mind you, just completely subjective a starting point: a dozen gonzo action films with a delirious sense if kinetic logic that made Hong Kong cinema of the eighties and early nineties the cult destination for films fans the world over.
Armour of God (renamed Operation Condor 2: The Armour of God for American home video) (1986, Echo Bridge Blu-ray and DVD / Netflix streaming) – Jackie Chan’s globe-trotting parody of the “Indiana Jones” films remains bright, colorful, and great fun. As befits an international adventurer, Jackie spends more time in grand set pieces and elaborate stunts than actual hand to hand combat, but the slam bang finale has more kinetic action than most American films offer in an entire feature. Try to get the Hong Kong import because the American version is cut.
A Better Tomorrow (1986, Anchor Bay DVD) – While not John Woo’s first films, I consider this gangster thriller the first “John Woo” film: his articulation of speed and movement, runaway-train pacing, and razor precise editing explode onto the screen unlike anything he’d created before. His elemental themes of ideals and family, duty and honor, emerge from the story of a high level triad and his younger brother, a rookie cop oblivious to his elder’s activities, but supporting player Chow Yun-fat shines them off the screen with his cool charm.
The Killer (1989, Vivendi Blu-ray and DVD) – The suave and silky Chow Yun-fat is the soulful hitman in the explosive crime thriller that established John Woo’s international reputation. Woo balances high octane action, hard edged violence, operatic melodrama and stylized editing that would make Peckinpah catch his breath into a magnificent obsession of an action movie classic.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991, Sony DVD) – Tsui Hark’s sweeping martial arts epic is a historical action picture as new wave pulp. Jet Li rose to stardom as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung: healer, teacher, and wicked scrapper when his mild mannered ways are pushed to the limit. That’s easily done when the British, the Americans, and the French bring gunboat diplomacy to 1875 China. The history is pure flag waving heroics, but the set pieces are masterful, the color and the choreography are magnificent, and Jet Li get almost airborne while fighting on ladders swooshing back and forth in a grain elevator.
Bullet ballet maestro John Woo was lured to Hollywood in 1992, leaving his country on his ultimate Hong Kong bullet-fest spectacle, Hard Boiled. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Full Contact, still Ringo Lam‘s most celebrated film, came out the same year. Stripped down and savage where Woo is big, busy, and whirring with more flying bullets than a small war, you could call Full Contact the anti-John Woo Hong Kong gangster film. Where Woo prized loyalty under fire—even adversaries found themselves bonding via bullets—for Lam, violence is the catalyst for mistrust, betrayal and a poisoning of one’s character by hate and vengeance.
Full Contact is also Lam’s answer to the American crime movie, driven by the hyperactive energy that powered the entire Hong Kong industry and populated by crazed, unstable personalities extreme even by HK movie standards. It’s all about devoted friends colliding with treacherous partners, with betrayal, vengeance and collateral damage left in its wake. Three buddies join forces for a heist that leaves one dead, another maimed, and the third forced to betray his best friend or die. Loyalty under fire only destroys what family they have left, and reveals the weaknesses of the survivors.
Hong Kong movies of the era sometimes borrowed from American movies and Full Contact has more than a few echoes of John Boorman’s 1967 crime film, Point Blank. Chow Yun-fat plays Jeff (as he’s called in the English subtitles), the Lee Marvin role here, a former bar bouncer and papa bear of a small group of devoted buddies who agrees to join forces with a gang led by a flamboyant, sadistic, unabashedly gay crime lord named Judge (Simon Yam) for a heist that will pay off the debt of his best friend, Sam (Anthony Wong). Judge has other ideas, turning on Jeff and leaving him for dead along with an entire family that they gleefully execute out of nothing but pique. But Jeff comes back from the dead and returns for revenge like a phantom, wreaking havoc on those who betrayed or forgot him, losing his brotherly warmth in the cold forge of revenge. He turns himself into an agent of chaos and leaves his own collateral in his wake.