The New wave 1990’s
The second stage of the new wave saw Hong Kong cinema looking to the past, by focusing on real life heroes such as Wong Fei Hung and Fong Sai Yuk. Many films had been made concerning such characters but this was almost the first reboot period, showcasing better sets, more dynamic action and a story on a grander scale. The 3 dragons were still prolific in this era but it was the rising of a new star who came to dominate: Mr Jet Li!
Once upon a time in China (Tsui Hark 1991) aka Wong Fei Hung
One of the finest films on this list stars Jet Li as real life martial artist and healer Wong Fei Hung. Before the 90’s he was always featured as an unbeatable side character too strong to feature prominently, his disciples would be the star. Tsui Hark still presents him as an almost unbeatable valiant hero but cleverly displays his weaknesses : dealing with history itself as he find himself in tumultuous turn of the century Canton, as China is losing power to foreign investments and military presence. Wong is sucked into a battle with local gangsters over wannabe student and opera dogsbody Foon (Yuen Biao) .Things get worse when the gangsters start to work for the evil American: Mr. Jackson, who has been using Chinese workers for slave labour and ends up kidnapping Wong’s unrelated love interest Aunt Yee. This stands apart due to its commitment to build a believable and fascinating world, there are many great characters involved from Wong’s student Butcher Wing (Also a real person) to the misunderstood antagonist Iron Vest, and of course when Wong Fei Hung is called into action he gracefully and brutally dispatches his opponents with gusto. Jet is perfect as this stoic character who can deliver lighting fast and beautifully delivered techniques as well as showing the vulnerabilities of the character. You won’t regret taking this in.
Once upon a time in China 2 (Tsui Hark 1992) aka Wong Fei Hung 2
Considered by some to be superior to the original, for me it doesn’t have the range of characters and the depth of the first movie but it is still a fine sequel which feels part of the same world. Wong Fei Hung travels to a medical conference south of Fushan only to discover the region in turmoil. The government is fighting the White Lotus Clan, a cult that hates foreigners and claims to have mystical powers. Wong meets Dr. Sun Yat Sen (the real life revolutionary) helping him escape the region and avoid a corrupt government official played by Donnie Yen. The White Lotus are a brilliant adversary, crazy, determined and willing to die for their beliefs and having Wong helping the real instigators of the 1911 Chinese revolution adds gravitas. Only Aunt Yee and Foon survive from the first film and Yuen Biao has unfortunately been replaced by Siu Chung Mok who is sillier and his love for Aunt Yee is a little over played. However it is a thrilling ride along similar themes and features a great final showdown between Li and Yen, with only the fate of China on the line!
Drunken Master 2 (Chia Liang Liu 1994) aka Legend of the Drunken Master
A strange film in the canon of Jackie Chan’s career, in many ways it is a mess but features some of the finest fight scenes of his career and probably the best one on one end fight you will ever witness. This could be because the original director left half way through, as his style was too different to Jackie’s, whose creative power at this time was immense. Chan plays Wong Fei Hung again, I am not sure what age he is meant to be as Jackie plays him as the same rambunctious youth from the original, even though in reality he is pushing 40 here. Anyway he is helping his father at his medical clinic but gets into brawls and ends up using his drunken fist technique, openly encouraged by his overbearing mother played brilliantly by Anita Mui, even though she is younger than Jackie! When Wong gives a patient the wrong plant and almost kills him, his father kicks him out. Wong must prove his worth to his Dad by helping a militia take back Chinese treasures, which are being shipped to Europe for profit by unscrupulous dealers. As mentioned the plot is messy and the dynamic slightly off however the film is unique in its use of classic Kung Fu styles with a modern twist. Not many films have taken the essence of traditional Kung Fu from the 70’s and speeded it up with harder knocks and great stunt work with very little wires. The setting is great and it is good to see Chan in a slightly different role as a disobedient son. The two highlights are Wong fighting off an axe wielding gang in a tea house and the final showdown between Jackie and his former bodyguard Ken Lo. Ken is so good with his legs that they become as fast and versatile as his arms, delivering multiple strikes in the blink of an eye. Never has a villain looked so impressive and obviously superior to the hero. Only by almost killing himself can Wong overcome him. It is very hard to find the original Cantonese version but the American: Legend of the Drunken Master is a decent edition, Jackie Chan dubs himself and the only scene cut out is the final one showing Wong Fei Hung doing ‘retard Kung Fu’ due to over consuming alcohol. I think we can all accept that change.
Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo Ping 1993)
An early role for Donnie Yen, who will come to dominate the next decade. He plays Wong Kei Yi (Wong Fei Hung’s father) who travels with his son to visit southern China. It is being plagued by corruption and only a vigilante called The Iron Monkey is doing anything about it. When the corrupt governor imprisons his son, Donnie must try and discover the identity of the vigilante, only to discover they are kindred spirits and have a common enemy in an evil monk. Although the action is a little speeded up in places Yuen Woo Ping still delivers with some great set pieces, especially battling on flaming wooden poles. The film is hugely entertaining with 2 strong central characters, fighting oppression. Familiar themes but performed exceptionally well with Donnie Yen a stand out.
Fist of Legend (Gordon Chan 1994)
This movie is actually a remake of the Bruce Lee classic; Fist of Fury. Jet Li is studying in Japan during the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War when he is summoned back to China as his master has been poisoned. He must find out who the real killer is and help his Kung Fu school survive against the oppressive Japanese. The plot here is simple but effective with the Japanese army serving as the aggressors. Yuen Woo Ping instructs the action here, in his no nonsense hard hitting style, having Jet use a more traditional boxing technique to topple his opponents. The film offers more depth than the original concerning Li’s relationship with a Japanese woman and his rivals jealously, and own forbidden love for a prostitute. Of course the action is first rate, Jet takes on a whole school of martial arts students and beats a Japanese general with a belt. The stand out has to be the opening though where Jet’s classroom is invaded by racist students. He proceeds to dislocate and break various bones in their bodies in a shocking but thrilling beginning, which establishes the tone.
Supernatural Kung Fu
This is a curious but fun sub-genre featuring old Chinese folk tales of hopping vampires, ghosts and everything in between. When it is done well, it produces some of the most entertaining and fun films that revel in the ancient folklore as well as producing very imaginative action. Unfortunately there are only a few gems, after the genres initial success hundreds of films were produced on lower and lower budgets. The silliness increased as the action and effort went down. Luckily the below 5 are all great and a little golden well to dip into!
Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung 1980) aka Ghost vs. Ghost
Sammo Hung; who is a true fan of the genre and responsible for producing many of the Mr Vampire movies, takes this film on head first as Courageous Cheung, a loveable but gullible character, who is tricked into staying in a haunted house for 2 nights running when he declares ghosts don’t exist. Unfortunately for Cheung in this world everything exists- from black magic to sleeping zombies. When his cowardly boss tries to frame him for his cheating wife’s murder, he has to go on the run and enlist the help of a Taoist priest to help him survive. Just writing the plot reminds me how unique and imaginative this film is. With Sammo involved you can expect great action sequences with hard hits and acrobatics all the way, however he also includes demonic possession, vampires, ghosts and much more spiritual shenanigans. So many scenes to enjoy, again leaning on the right side of action and comedy. It also features the greatest magic fight between 2 opponents I have seen on screen, take note J.K Rowling!
Mr Vampire (Ricky Lau 1985)
The greatest of the genre sees the late Lam Ching Ying as Uncle Kau, a grumpy undertaker and part time Taoist priest. His life is made more difficult by his 2 misbehaving students, Chou can at least fight whereas Man Choi is useless but loveable with his heart in the right place. Their town is disturbed when a wealthy man decides to rebury his father fearing bad luck. Unfortunately Uncle Kau discovers that the father has become a vampire with murderous intentions. If you haven’t been exposed already this film will introduce you to the hopping vampire, who is allergic to sticky rice not garlic. The film revels in explaining the folklore behind this and invites the audience to enjoy every minute. The ratio of comedy to horror is perfect, the sub plot involving a lustful ghost is spot on, the characters are first rate and the Kung Fu is genuine. This really is pure entertainment from start to finish, unfortunately its many sequels just can’t live up to the original and it will have you wanting more, just be glad it exists.
Spooky Encounters (Ricky Lau 1989) aka Ghost! It’s a Ghost!
This is an unofficial sequel to Encounters of the Spooky kind with similar ideas but the actual characters are not meant to be the same, which is a Hong Kong classic! Sammo stars as another lovable fool called Abao who is engaged to his boss’s daughter. Unfortunately she is the target of a rich and lecherous man called Mr Shi. After he is beaten in public by Abao, Mr Shi enlists the talents of a black priest to gain his revenge. Luckily Abao’s teacher is Lam Ching Ying, again playing a Taoist priest. Supernatural warfare and fun ensues. This film is hard to get hold off but it is well worth it, again it feels as if Sammo has brain stormed so many great ideas from Chinese folk lore, to put into this movie, and most of them made it in! It isn’t as polished as Encounters but features great fight scenes including Sammo fighting Mr Shi, who has been possessed by a monkey and Sammo and his teacher taking on snake men in the finale. Fantastic ideas with decent action and Sammo on top form, worth searching for. Oh and at one point Sammo’s soul is transferred to a pig, well you wanted something different didn’t you?
A Chinese Ghost Story 2 (Siu - Tung Ching 1992)
You may think it strange that the original film is not in the list. The original Chinese Ghost Story based on a series of short stories is more of a straight romance about a man falling in love with a ghost, whereas this sequel retains some of those elements and then lets its imagination run wild! You also don’t need to have seen the original as this film not only tells you what happened, it features the same central story. Lin Choi the righteous man who falls for a ghost in the original, find himself in prison, but manages to escape to an abandoned building where he is hiding from rebel factions of the government. Also hiding out at the same building are two sisters one of whom is a reincarnation of Lin Choi’s beloved ghost, who has crossed back into the spirit world. The sisters want to rescue their father from the government with the help of a magical monk called Autumn Leaf. It would be too difficult to explain more, just trust me in that if you like the supernatural, just strap yourself in and marvel at the imagination and ambition of this film. Hollywood could certainly learn from this, audiences want to see new things they are not expecting and A Chinese Ghost Story delivers just this. We have martial arts, magic, giant demons, ghosts, conspiracy and possession and oh yes a giant flying centipede. No more talk; time to watch this.
Exorcist Master (Wu Ma 1993)
This films USP is that it features a traditional European vampire and a Chinese vampire in the same movie. The only film I know of to do this, strangely the movie Vampire vs Vampire just features vampire children and prolonged silliness. Lam Ching Ying plays Master Chiou a Taoist priest who is just a little grumpier and racist than Uncle Kau. An abandoned Christian church, which was closed due to a supernatural occurrence is reopened in a small Chinese village, much to the chagrin of Chiou. He rejects all things Christian and is annoyed when his troublesome student starts to visit the church to impress a girl. Unfortunately for the town a western vampire is lurking in the church, wanting to feed and when a criminal posing as a vampire herder turns up in the town, Chiou must eventually team up with the Christian priest to defeat vampires from all continents. When the film gets going it really delivers; the ideas and action surrounding defeating the vampires is as good as you want it to be, and very imaginative. Unfortunately as is the case with many films within the genre, it takes a while to get going and the middle of the film is largely dedicated to comedy. It also features some casual racism and it begins with Chiou urinating on the church – so don’t watch this with a person of strong faith! However it isn’t dragged down by the silliness and the concept is so unique and well done, it is well worth taking in. It is also quite rare, probably for the reasons detailed above! It could have been amazing- but you will be glad that they tried.