Hong Kong Action Cinema An Introduction

By David Eber

The action films of the Hong Kong cinema, now finally breaking ever so slightly into the mainstream, have had a cult following in the U.S. that is growing ever larger as more people are clued in to this unique style of movie making. For decades now Hong Kong has been churning out dozens if not hundreds of these films each year. Yet, despite tremendous success in Asia, these films are still by and large unheard of in the U.S. This is finally beginning to change, as the critical notoriety of John Woo and the breaking popular appeal of Jackie Chan in this country have opened the door for the rest of the HK cinema to filter through. Movies like The Replacement Killers and TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess borrow heavily from the Hong Kong style, while HK directors themselves have come to America and made films like Double Team and Face/Off. Though still relatively unknown, HK movies are beginning to show up more and more at indie cinemas, film festivals, college campuses, off-beat video stores, and even major rental chains and on cable TV. Those who are curious enough to delve into this still relatively untapped area now have more options, but the wider world of HK cinema is still often confusing to the uninitiated.

To the average person, HK action cinema most likely brings to mind the Shaw Brothers chopsockies of the 70's. These Saturday afternoon “kung-fu” films are still notorious even today for their atrocious dubbing, cookie-cutter stories, and lousy production values. Other than this, the only exposure most American audiences have had until how were the films of Bruce Lee. Although Hong Kong action cinema encompasses both of these things, it isn't really about either of them. Nowadays it mainly refers to films done within the last 10 to 15 years, films that are markedly different from their predecessors. Trying to define what HK action cinema is, however, is something else altogether. It may be a cliché, but words simply do not do it justice.

First and foremost, what separates Hong Kong cinema from the rest is its mind-blowing action. Incredible stunts, constant motion, a casual attitude toward the laws of gravity (and sometimes physics), and above all breakneck speed are the hallmarks of an HK action film. American movies seem sluggish and uninspired when matched against the chaotic energy of a Tsui Hark sword epic or the hyperstylized carnage of a John Woo film. The action in these films not only moves faster, it's also more inventive, more creative, riskier, and has more of an edge-of-your-seat quality. HK directors do not play it safe, and you'll see things that would be unheard of in a Hollywood film. What you have are movies that will literally make your jaw drop and your heart beat faster. You'll also sometimes get plots which are incomprehensible and stories which appear to have been constructed at random. It isn't Shakespeare or fine art, but these films are pure fun and excitement, something you just don't get much anymore in the mass-appeal, corporate controlled Hollywood studio films. Simply put, HK action cinema is fast, furious, and just a little bit demented.

HK cinema also mixes styles and moods in a a film in away that is quite unlike anything else. Comedy, melodrama, romance, tragedy, action, horror, and even musical numbers will all be thrown into one film (in fact, a good number of HK films will have at least one excruciatingly bad Hong Kong pop ballad somewhere in it, mainly because the most popular film stars in Hong Kong are also the most popular singers). These kinds of sudden shifts can be jarring to an unsuspecting viewer. HK movies do things that are unexpected and unconventional, and the hero doesn't always make it to the end of the film. On the contrary, sometimes much of the cast won't make it that far. You'll see things in popular Hong Kong films that you would never see in the U.S., things that can be surprising and unsettling. Yet, this too is part of the appeal of HK cinema: You never know what to expect, and this in a genre that thrives on clichés.

Melodrama is also a staple of HK films. While these scenes are occasionally overwrought and hokey, they can also be genuinely unexpected, shocking, or even tragic. Similarly, the oftentimes bizarre humor can be just as disconcerting. In some cases this is a matter of poor translations or cultural differences. In others, the humor is simply just plain weird. HK films aren't above inserting scenes of really low comedy into wildly inappropriate areas. This doesn't mean that these films aren't funny. On the contrary, humor is a big part of most HK films, and a lot of it is not only broad enough that it translates effectively, but it is often genuinely funny as well. There are HK movies which are low-key, even grim, but for the most part the films are sprinkled with loopy humor that only adds to the popcorn-crunching fun.

HK action cinema itself comprises a number of different subgenera, from modern gunplay to period Kung Fu to swords and sorcery and horror-fantasy. Jackie Chan, the best known modern HK action star in America is really a genre unto himself. Although he has done everything from historical pieces to modern cop flicks, his films are all stamped with his moviemaking style, a style which is unique within the wildly diverse HK film industry. Chan is known specifically for his blend of comedy, martial arts, and death-defying stunts. Although his first forays into American cinema were less than spectacular (The Big Brawl, the Protector, and Cannonball Run), the release Rumble in the Bronx was a bona fide success, introducing Jackie in a big way to western audiences. Several of Chan's other HK films followed with wide-screen releases in the U.S., eventually leading up to Rush Hour, Jackie's first starring role in a major American film.

After Chan, the next best-known HK film personality (outside of Hong Kong) is director John Woo. Woo is famous for ushering in the genre known as “heroic bloodshed”. These films depart from the usual HK mode in that the action involves gunplay instead of martial arts, and the films usually feature triad gangsters and cops in stories of loyalty, betrayal, honor, and revenge. Like the rest of HK action cinema, these films are done in a hyperkinetic style that blows away most anything similar from Hollywood. In fact, Woo's style has received a fair amount of attention in the U.S., and his films The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow are all widely available on videocassette. What's more, Woo has gone on to direct three American films: Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and the very successful Face/Off. A whole slew of similar films followed in Woo's wake which feature modern day action with similar themes. The best known of these came from director Ringo Lam, who made the now widely-known film City on Fire. Lam's movies tend to be darker than Woo's, his violence more gritty and his characters anti-heroic. Like Woo, he too has gone on to direct in America.

While the films of John Woo and Jackie Chan are the most well known in this country, they represent only the tip of the iceberg. The period martial arts film, usually set during the reign of the Manchus, is still a favorite in HK cinema, and is probably closest to what Americans think of when they think of HK films. However, these “kung-fu” films are light-years ahead of the films of the past, featuring some of the fastest, most fluid, and most visually exciting action scenes ever filmed. The current king of these films is actor Jet Li, who is also a favorite among American fans. The combination of his dramatic onscreen presence and incredible martial arts skills in films like Once Upon A Time in China and Fong Sai Yuk has made him stand out from the crowd. His introduction to American audiences was as a villain in the film Lethal Weapon 4, a performance which earned him critical acclaim. Incidentally, although Li is a real-life Wu-Shu champion, in his films he is known for his “wire-fu”, a style of stuntwork common to many HK films which uses (near) invisible wires to propel the actors around in gravity-defying scenes. Some martial arts purists decry this sort of thing, but many other fans (myself included) feel that it makes the films more spectacular. Wirework is commonly found in the period martial arts film as well as the fantasy-horror, or “wuxia” (flying people) genre. The latter films feature strong supernatural elements, including hopping vampires, seductive ghosts, walking corpses, eunuch sorcerers, flashy swordplay, and special effects-laden magic. The acknowledged master of this genre is Tsui Hark, who has produced and directed literally dozens of films. Women also make a strong showing in HK cinema, with a specific sub-genre devoted to films in which they are the action heroes. There are also other action films which don't fit into any of these specific genres, and there are, of course, plenty of non-action films made in Hong Kong. However, the action films are those that have made the biggest impact in the U.S., and this site is devoted to them specifically.

HK action cinema has its own stars too, both male and female. Besides Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, the star of numerous John Woo films, is one of the best known and most popular actors in Hong Kong, and is rapidly gaining ground with American audiences in the films The Replacement Killers and The Corruptor. Meanwhile, film legend Sammo Hung delights audiences with Martial Law, a TV program which blends humor and HK style kung-fu action. Watch enough Hong Kong films, and names like Leslie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Anita Mui, Tony Leung, and Brigitte Lin will soon become very familiar. This is because the HK studios have a smaller talent pool to choose from, and they tend to make a lot of movies every year as well (at his peak, Andy Lau appeared in roughly a dozen films a year). The studios constantly release new films, all made on tiny budgets (by American standards) and in a fraction of the time a U.S. release would take. Sequels are often released within months of the original, performers will play the same types of roles in the same types of movies repeatedly, and hot topics in the media are turned into films almost overnight. Despite all this, many HK films showcase excellent performances, good stories, and production values that rival films with much larger budgets. Sure, they're sometimes rough around the edges, but what they lack in polish they make up for in energy, inventiveness, and sheer chutzpah. One thing that is almost a constant is the universally bad subtitles. Most HK films are subtitled now, and almost all of them are done in a hurry. This results in some wildly inaccurate and often unintentionally hilarious translations, something which is a part of the charm of these movies. This, and the differences between dialects in the Chinese language, is also the reason the names of the actors and actresses seem to vary so much from film to film.

Of course, not everything that comes out of Hong Kong is pure cinematic magic. Hong Kong action films are made quickly and cheaply for mass consumption, and thus quality control is usually not at the forefront of the production. Worse, many films are little more than cheap knock-offs or imitations of the latest box office success. In fact, this is one of the major failings of HK cinema. A good number of the films made are just a series of fight scenes and a few lame jokes in place of a real plot or story, while others simply re-use tired formulas over and over again. However, the good far outweighs the bad, and its simply a matter of starting out with the right movies. There are plenty of sites on the Web that offer reviews and information on Hong Kong action cinema, most bigger and better than this one. However, this site is designed specifically with the newcomer in mind. I got interested in this genre a little over a year ago, and I was lucky enough to have a friend who lent me a lot of great films. I've seen nearly 60 movies, and I still consider myself a newcomer. I've written up reviews of some of those films with the new viewer in mind. Experienced fans probably won't find anything they aren't already familiar with here, and so may proceed straight to the links page. Or, if you're curious, you can check out my Feng Shui page. Feng Shui is a roleplaying game that attempts to simulate the conventions of HK action cinema, including all the over-the-top action and stunts. The reviews of each film are appended with Feng Shui notes that will hopefully give GMs and players some ideas on adapting the style of the movies to their games.

And finally, one last note: writing an overview of Hong Kong action cinema is difficult because all the reviews end up using the same adjectives, like “supercharged”, “hyperkinetic”, “breathtaking”, and “over-the-top”. Not only do they all sound the same, but none of them, including this one, can really capture what it's all about. It's really easy to find hype, but in this case it really is all true, and then some. Hong Kong action films are truly some of the most innovative, amazing, and just plain fun movies you'll find out there, and I really can't stress that enough. I mean everything I've said here, but in order for you to really know what I'm talking about, you'll have to go see it for yourself.