The 21st century signalled the end of the golden era for Hong Kong cinema. Golden Harvest studios, which produced greats like Prodigal Son and Police Story along with many other classics, closed its doors. Hong Kong went back to China in 1997, China stepped into the ring with its large budgets and interest in international markets. Of course industry and people move on, Jackie Chan set up his own production company and Donnie Yen came to dominate with a mix of movies all with great choreography and a wish to be innovative. Less great movies were available in the early 2000’s and even more so now. But you just have to dig a little deeper…
New Police Story (Benny Chan 2004)
Again not directly related to Jackie’s original Police story, it is what it says on the tin; a new story about the police, fit for the 21st century. Jackie is Inspector Chan Kwok-wing, we meet him in a bad place as he is emptying his guts in a Hong Kong alley; in a flash back we are introduced to the source of his drinking and guilt. His team is murdered as they are investigating a young gang of criminals obsessed by video games and technology. A young officer played by Nicholas Tse is assigned to help Chan get over his drinking and bring the gang to justice. They truly do a good job of updating this for a modern audience, the gang of disaffected youths feels very current for the time, they try and flesh out the characters surrounding Chan a lot more and it has a homage to the original, by having a bus chase and a fight in a shopping mall, this time involving Lego. Of course the action is not on par with the 1985 version but the emotional weight and story is superior with Nicholas Tse not quite being the character he first betrays adding a nice twist to the story. Considering Jackie was 50 at the time the action is still impressive and the ideas work. Don’t see this as an update of the original, just a separate new story concerning the police in 2004; how things have changed since the 80s!
SPL (Wilson Yip 2005) aka Kill Zone
Sha po Lang in Chinese astrology are 3 stars symbolising power, destruction and lust; this has some bearing on this hugely enjoyable crime thriller if you really look into, or you can just accept the title Kill Zone as it is known in the US. The film is set in 1997 as Hong Kong is returned to China (interesting a lot of films in this period are, I guess it symbolises upheaval.) Sammo Hung plays Wong Po a ruthless gangster who the retiring police chief Chan has been trying to take down for years. Donnie Yen is taking over and discovers a team of police officers willing to bend the rules to take Po down. Yen has his own history of rule breaking but is trying to fly straight. He clashes with his colleagues and a deadly assassin played by Jacky Wu who is hired by Po. Jacky Wu was an actor who showed a lot of promise early on, with a similar Wushu background to Jet Li, he struggled to establish himself to leading man status however but is still working, with some decent titles to his name. He is on point here though, with a crazy shock of blonde hair and large knife in tow, he is maniacal and deadly. Donnie Yen has a great confrontation with him before he must take down Po once and for all. This film excels not only for its great cast and action set pieces but the story is interesting and really tries to play with the idea of what it means to be good or evil, much more greys than black and white. It also features a shocking ending which plays into the SPL idea. I strongly recommend; forget Kill Zone though, this film can only truly be appreciated if you think about the stars.
Fearless (Ronnie Yu 2006) aka Huo Yuanjia
Jet Li plays the real life Huo Yuanjia who created the first Wushu school and is the master who is killed in Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury. Huo overcomes asthma to become a formidable fighter, challenging any opponent he can find to become the champion of Tianjin. He becomes obsessed with this aim but goes too far; killing his main rival in a brutal contest. In revenge the rivals son murders Huo’s daughter and kills himself. Huo is distraught and wanders for months eventually being saved by a blind woman, who belongs to a village community who respect the simplicities of life. Huo learns how me misused his abilities and returns to Tianjin as many foreign fighters have been insulting the Chinese; calling them the ‘weak men of the east’. Huo is successful in defeating a variety of western fighters including a wrestler and a fencer. Eventually he must put his life on the line to defeat a tough but noble Japanese fighter. The story is very tight and the action is first class but it is Jet Li who really makes this film great, it feels like he has truly grown as an actor and plays Huo as initially violent and arrogant and then tranquil and accepting. It isn’t giving too much away to tell you that he is poisoned before he can defeat the Japanese fighter, but he goes out as the true winner who could have dealt a killing blow, but as the character and audience has learnt, there are better ways to handle such things.
Ip Man (Wilson Yip 2008)
Donnie Yen stars as the real life Ip Man, who was Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun teacher and popularised the art teaching it widely for the first time. This tale is largely fictional as the influential and rich Ip’s world is destroyed as the Japanese army invade 1930’s China. Donnie is great as the stoic but playful Ip Man and impresses with his use of Wing Chun, rarely seen on screen since Prodigal Son. He stands up for the people taking on 10 men for bags of rice and defeating the evil Japanese general, who is a karate expert (if you think this is a spoiler you haven’t been paying attention!) the film’s higher budget gives it a historical quality and the performances are engaging, plus Donnie’s Wing Chun is first rate. This spawned many Ip Man movies with Ip Man 3 being the strongest. Needless to say the original is best.
True Legend (Yuen Woo Ping 2010) aka The Legend of Beggar So
This film really feels like a modern Kung Fu film, complete with digital effects that don’t get in the way of the action and some smart shots and transitions. The underused but talented Vincent Zhao plays Su Can – a respected and tough general in the army. His jealous brother in law is promoted on Su’s request as he wants to spend time with his family. Unfortunately he goes mad with power learning a deadly poison Kung Fu technique complete with sewn on armour. He brutally injures Su, who is left in exile with his wife jumping into a raging river to follow him. Somehow they both survive with the help of a mountain woman played by Michelle Yeoh. Su starts drinking to deal with the pain of not knowing if his son is dead or alive, growing his hair and beard and learning the drunken style. Yes that is right, this is the origin of Beggar So – who famously teaches Jackie Chan in Drunken master. This will not be that clear to some western audiences and is why it was given a generic title in the west. Of course Su Can returns to defeat his bother in law and rescue his son, who thankfully is unharmed. This results in an epic and brutal fight, which should be the frame work of how to execute an end fight. There is so much emotion and build up to the revenge sought by Su Can that the excitement makes your hair stand up on end. Of course this is helped by the excellent choreography of Yuen Woo Ping and Andy On’s over the top but great villain. Strangely the film doesn’t end after this battle as you feel it should, instead Su Can goes on to battle westerners in a sleazy port town. Even though this action is first rate it does feel tacked on and not consistent with the rest of the movie. I think they were looking to add an extra chapter in Beggar Su’s story making it feel epic, either way it does not affect this film, which is a must for action fans who crave for a 21st century extravaganza.
A note about Bruce Lee
I know what you’re thinking, the best martial arts movies and Bruce Lee doesn’t get a mention! Sacrilege! This all comes down to personal taste and I have just never been a fan of his films. He was a great and unique martial artist who pioneered MMA and arguably UFC itself, and even though he had charisma and a fascinating life, the films he starred in are very dated and a lot of the choreography just doesn’t work for me. It is slow and the other stuntmen don’t play well off Bruce. Feel free to completely disagree and it won’t take long for you to catch up, as he only made 4 and a half Kung Fu movies (he died half way through filming Game of Death) I would actually recommend Bruce Lee My Brother (Manfred Wong, Wai Man Yip 2010), which accurately and entertainingly documents this fascinating character, with some decent spots of action. For me Bruce Lee’s best film is Fist of Fury (Lo Wei 1972) it has the most consistent Hong Kong style with some good action scenes and a familiar- defiance against the oppressive Japanese story line. It is seen as a classic, but for me doesn’t beat the films listed above, sorry.