Action Hong Kong Style

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Production still from Golden Swallow 1968 | Director: Chang Cheh | Image courtesy: © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved

Hong Kong action cinema has undergone multiple revolutions and produced some of the world’s most famous stars and directors, including Bruce Lee, John Woo and Jackie Chan. Here, Sam Ho discusses the history behind this phenomenally popular film genre, which is the subject of a major retrospective at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque. 

Action, Hong Kong Style‘ is at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 8 November 2013. Purchase tickets in advance through qtix or at the GOMA Box Office from one hour prior to film screenings. Details on our website.

Don’t miss our Special Event, on Thursday 24 October, 6pm at the Gallery Cinema, join film specialists Sam Ho (United States/Hong Kong) and Professor Mary Farquhar (Australia), together with ‘Action, Hong Kong Style’ curator Kathryn Weir, Head of International Art and the Australian Cinémathèque, in a lively discussion exploring critical approaches to Hong Kong’s unique action cinema styles. Free, no bookings required.

It is at once ironic and appropriate to say that action cinema is the most influential of all Hong Kong arts. Ironic because the concepts of art and action are seldom considered in the same breath, especially by most of the very people who work on the films. Appropriate because Hong Kong is a dynamic place, where people are always on the go, things happen at top speed, and popular culture rules with such supreme splendor that all the action naturally coalesces into art.

The Hong Kong action film is an integral part of Chinese action film. A continuation of the wuxia (martial arts) craze that broke out in China in the mid to late 1920s, it started with a small number of martial arts films released before World War Two. But it wasn’t until after the war that the action film took off as a genre, partly because Hong Kong film was enjoying tremendous growth, partly because Chinese filmmakers had moved to the colony in droves, and partly because martial arts films were frowned on or outright banned in China. Releases occurred on both the Mandarin and Cantonese sides of the cinema,though the productions of the latter far outnumbered those of the former.

Two major types of action film were made during this period. One of these was the swordplay picture, mostly adapted from wuxia novels and largely following the conventions established earlier in Shanghai. They were often embellished with mystical elements: on a lighter scale, featuring characters with superhuman abilities, like leaping on rooftops or forcing powerful winds from the palm; or, on the heavier scale, flouting shenguai (fantastic or sorcery) attributes, like flying or unleashing remote-controlled weapons with palm power. The other major type was the southern-style movie, mainly based on folktales of the Guangdong region and featuring action that, though very much stylised cinematically, was more realistic in that authentic fighting techniques were used, with much fewer — or even no — shenguai touches. Representative of the southern school is the long-running and influential ‘Wong Fei-hung’ series, much of which features the formidable Kwan Tuk‑hing, which made its debut in 1949 with The True Story of Wong Fei-hung. These are in fact kung fu films, but the term had not yet been coined, not until Bruce Lee came along. There were also other types of action film, such as the spy thriller, the crime mystery, the World War Two film, the anti-warlord film and the heist flick, most of them heavy on the melodrama but sprinkled with physical feats or fits of suspense.

This first stage of action films lasted until the mid 1960s, when the genre was revolutionised by the emergence of two masters. King Hu and Chang Cheh, working on the Mandarin side, built on Hong Kong’s foundation in martial arts filmmaking, exercised their personal styles and visions, kicked the femininity of the swordplay films by the wayside and magnified the combat ferocity of the ‘southern-fist’ flicks, turning the genre into an always dynamic, often violent and sometimes grotesque cinema. King Hu’s incorporation of Beijing opera elements and Chang’s embrace of romantic fatalism gave influential and lasting definition to the action film. These directors were at the right place at the right time, when Hong Kong was taking its first strides into a fabled economic miracle, translating into bigger production budgets that allowed them to realise their visions more readily.

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Production still from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin 1978 | Director: Lau Kar-leung | Image courtesy: © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved

Then came another revolution. Only a few years later, Bruce Lee came along and made kung fu films a household name, first in Hong Kong, then the rest of the world. He died, but the revolution continued. Rather, the succession of quick revolutions continued. The popularity of hard-hitting kung fu films endured despite Lee’s untimely death, but they had gone through an evolution that was growing stale by the time Jackie Chan clowned his way into superstardom, integrating comedy with action into a mix that went on to become a staple of Hong Kong cinema.

Chan also paved the way for Sammo Hung, his ‘big brother’ at the opera school where he learned his trade, to widen the reach of the revolution. Hung was an extremely enterprising, energetic and creative filmmaker. As actor, director, writer, producer and company executive, he took advantage of the infrastructure laid down by the previous revolutions — performers who could both act and fight, well-trained stunts staff, experienced crews, refined effects techniques, efficient production flow — and fashioned a glorious boom in action cinema. He executed moves, devised gags, invented blends of elements, introduced genres and forged directions.

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Production still from A Better Tomorrow 1986 | Director: John Woo | Image courtesy: Golden Princess

Meanwhile, Hong Kong film was developing into a sophisticated urban cinema. Companies old and new — Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Cinema City and others — fortified themselves in the roaring economy and gave breaks to young directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark, who took the cue from the rapidly quickening pace of the city to formulate a corresponding aesthetics. Action films took on a metropolitan glaze, to which Police Story 1985 added a bright shine, followed by A Better Tomorrow 1986, its neon luminance giving rise to the ‘hero’ film, highly popular crime thrillers featuring the city as a lead character.

Tsui was another enterprising talent who experimented with diversity. As director and producer, he made films that took the action genre back to its roots, to the shenguai and southern realms, away from the city. Of particular significance is Once Upon a Time in China 1991, a revival of the ‘Wong Feihung’ saga that exalted the genre.

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Production still from Once Upon a Time in China II 1992 | Director: Tsui Hark | Image courtesy: © 2010 Fortune Star Media Limited. All Rights Reserved

Then came the touch of class: the art action film. Wong kar-wai’s Ashes of Time 1994 started the trend in Chinese diasporic cinema of works with an appeal far more cerebral than physical, often challenging generic conventions of action with the very staging of action. When a popular genre reaches such a point, it signals maturity, but also age, though not necessarily death. Hong Kong continued to produce action films, like the outstanding works of Johnnie To, while also branching into China with co-productions. Yet the wildly enthusiastic support among local fans had significantly faded, and the next revolution is nowhere in sight.

Sam Ho is a curator and researcher. He was Programmer at the Hong Kong Film Archive and has written extensively on Hong Kong and other Asian cinemas.

1  Before the 1970s, Hong Kong film was comprised of two separate cinemas, a Cantonese one and its Mandarin counterpart, the former catering to populations from the Guangdong area and the latter to those from other areas.

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Production still from Ashes of Time Redux 1994/2008 | Director: Wong Kar-wai | Image courtesy: Madman Entertainment