From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema

By Colin Odell and Mitch le Blanc

First published in Vector 210 (in 2000)

Hong Kong is the third largest producer of films in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, but most people think that its films are concerned only with kung fu. This could not be further from the truth, in fact it offers an enormous diversity of product and includes a large number of fantasy and horror films amongst its many genres. The perception of the output as ‘just’ martial arts presumably comes from the Seventies kung fu marketing boom and the fact that video availability in this country has yet to break away from this traditionally high-selling genre. To the uninitiated the world of Hong Kong cinema can appear bizarre, confusing and strewn with pitfalls. There is the frenetic pace of action, occasionally impenetrable plots, obscure humour and a completely different language (often with cheesy dubbing or minuscule subbing) to contend with. So why bother? The answer is simple. Entertainment. Hong Kong films have a kinetic energy that renders the rest of the world geriatric by comparison. The relentless action, comedy, pathos and range of ideas, and the fact that you never know how the story is going to end, leaves the viewer gasping for breath. Hollywood have latched on to this and in recent years have tried to imitate the Hong Kong formula with limited success. Many HK directors now work in the USA – The Matrix (1999) was choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, and the pace of the action is derived completely from HK cinema. Hollywood has also begun to approach the task of duplicating several Hong Kong genres; the Heroic Bloodshed genre (guns, cops, gangsters, slo-mo shooting and heavy casualties) has translated reasonably, but lost the emotional depth and characterisation of its Eastern counterpart. Its main innovator John Woo, who directed the sci-fi bloodshed film Face/Off (1998), is now exerting his vision on the Hollywood system with considerable success. The Swordplay genre has fared less well as the efforts generally seem lacklustre, although The Mask of Zorro (1998) was well executed and similarly owes as much to Hong Kong as Errol Flynn. In return Hong Kong has no scruples about raiding film ideas from anywhere – it just does it faster and, normally, better.

Because the market for Hong Kong films is confined predominantly to Asia, its genres are tailored to that market. As a result, there are few pure science fiction films made in Hong Kong and they tend to aim for either the international market (Black Mask, 1997), for the Japanese market (City Hunter, 1993; Wicked City, 1992) or just turn out to be financially unsuccessful (The Heroic Trio, 1993). Generally science fiction elements occur as a peripheral to the main plot or are used as a McGuffin. Far more common is the fantasy film, of which there is an abundance of superior examples. For example: Name three decent Hollywood fantasy films made in the last decade. Okay, name one decent Hollywood fantasy film made in the last decade. Movies such as Moon Warriors (1992), Blade of Fury (1993) and Burning Paradise (1994) are so far in advance of any Hollywood fantasy film as to render English-speaking fare futile. Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Willow (1988) don’t come close and it is only really the Ray Harryhausen films that stand up to scrutiny. There are also abundant numbers of ghost stories and vampire films, which are completely different to their Western counterparts and all the more exciting and stimulating for it. It is impossible to cover all the films served up by HK, so here are a few pointers to hopefully whet your appetite for further Far Eastern dishes.

Image result for Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain

As good a place to start as any is Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983), the film that breathed life back into the fantasy genre. Incredibly it hasn’t dated a jot, still looking as fresh and inventive as it did the day it was released. Warring factions are causing problems in the martial world, but not as much as the impending destruction of all life by a huge rock which is only being restrained by the sheer power of Sammo Hung’s eyebrows. Our hero, played by Yuen Biao, has to overcome many adversaries to get the magic sword and put an end to all of this madness. The kinetic energy of the film will leave you reeling. Unlike Hark’s debut The Butterfly Murders (1978) there is little time for introspection and plenty of opportunity for spectacle. There are flying dream goddesses with deadly chiffon scarves that dart out to capture weary travellers. There are monstrous mythical beasts, flying heroes, mighty weapons, huge battles and more clans than you can shake a red, yellow, blue or any colour flag at. The editing is fast, the cinematography dazzling, the plot either ludicrously simple or nigh on unfathomable. Masterpiece is not too bold a term.
Hark’s place as the most constantly innovative director, period, is difficult to refute. He has rejuvenated almost every genre held dear to the Hong Kong film community – usually as a director but sometimes in his capacity as producer. In this role he led the way for another new wave director of great interest, Ching Siu-Tung. From his debut Duel To The Death (1982), Ching’s outstanding use of wirework (actors strung on wires to produce the illusion of superhuman strength) and in-camera effects is second to none – his heroes leap a hundred feet in the air and clash swords on ridiculously high cliff tops. Later he directed such classics as Terracotta Warrior (1989), the mad ‘Indiana Jones on mushrooms’ style Dr Wai In The Scriptures With No Words (1996) and co-directed Heroic Trio (of which more later). He is perhaps best known for the wildly insane A Chinese Ghost Story films (‘87, ‘90 and ‘91). Based on the folk stories of Pu Song-Ling, the films follow the exploits of Leslie Cheung and his bizarre supernatural/fantasy encounters. These range from saucy, salacious sirens bathing provocatively in blossom-sprinkled lakes to vengeful tree monsters with hundred-foot-long lethal tongues, burrowing miners who use their hands to dig and thousand-year-old flying ghosts. You have been warned…

Like many others, Ronnie Yu has now started directing in the West. His recent film Bride of Chucky (1998) is surprisingly good and suitably deranged, and his bridging production Warriors of Virtue (1997) is a family film featuring a young boy hero and his companions – four vicious warriors who happen to be kangaroos.

The highlight of his varied career is undoubtedly the monumental Bride With The White Hair (1993), an electrifying fantasy tale of love gained and lost. Brigitte Lin is the beautiful but deadly bride who falls in love with Leslie Cheung. Their relationship is doomed from the outset. Deeply moving and occasionally harrowing, the events are so beautifully shot you feel like crying. Being a woman in a Hong Kong film does not always mean letting the boys do the fighting – far from it. When Brigitte gets angry she wipes out an entire church full of beefy warriors, whipping bodies clean in two as her hair billows around her wild-eyed face. It is an image as hard to forget as Leslie, head bowed, waiting hundreds of years for his lover in the snow next to the single bloom that will give them everlasting life. A classic.

Andrew Lau is well regarded as the director of the popular Young and Dangerous series and also as cinematographer for some of Hong Kong’s greatest directors including Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and arthouse favourite Wong Kar-Wai. In 1996 he embarked on one of Hong Kong’s most ambitious fantasy projects – The Storm Riders (1998), based on the popular comics. Screen idols Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng (aka Dior Cheng) play Wind and Cloud, who battle evil with their mighty magic swords. To increase international sales, veteran martial arts actor Sonny Chiba also plays a substantial role.

The film spent an unprecedented two years in post-production (to put this into perspective the first three Young and Dangerous [1996] films were completed within eight months) and was the first Hong Kong film to make extensive use of CGI. The results provide a visual indication of the fundamental differences between Western and Eastern film practices. Hollywood films tend to approach effects work from a realistic perspective which, with advances in technology, dates the results rapidly. In contrast, Asian films adopt a fantastic reality that is representational rather than strictly accurate. This frees the filmmaker from the constraints of mundane physics and allows them to concentrate purely on the dynamics and aesthetics. The Storm Riders revels in the fantastical and makes a point of emphasising this in almost every shot. There is no attempt to disguise the effects because they are there to provide an artistic context for the action. At times the proceedings look akin to a live action version of the Final Fantasy games; the title sequence is almost identical. Hopefully some enterprising company will release the film or video in the UK, otherwise VCD or DVD is your only option.

Not successful in Hong Kong but very popular outside are the two Heroic Trio films, Heroic Trio (1993) and Executioners (1993). If you have not seen them go out and buy them now, you will not regret it. The ultimate in science fantasy, these are comic strips brought to vivid life. Starring Michelle Yeoh (you may have seen her in Tomorrow Never Dies [1997] but check out her Hong Kong c.v. – it’s incredible), Anita Mui (singer, actress, celebrity – memorable for her remarkable performance in Rouge [1987]) and Maggie Cheung (internationally renowned – even plays the central role in the French film Irma Vep [1997]) as the titular superheroines who team up to defeat the evil underground dweller who has kidnapped the city’s children. You really will not believe your eyes as a relentless barrage of images assaults your senses. You’ll gasp as a girl and a kitten are caught in mid-air and saved from certain braining. You’ll cheer as Superwoman bounds across telegraph wires. There’s an outrageous barrel ride. Anthony Wong is deranged as a henchman who eats his own fingers, wrenches motorbikes in half despite the fact they are hurtling towards him, decapitates commuters with a cage on a chain and tries to stop runaway trains with his bare hands. The Executioners (shot back-to-back with the first to spread the cost of the high budget) is only slightly less manic and works like an apocalyptic version of Phantom of the Opera.

Image result for irma vep
Irma Vep (1997)

There are some films which fall into the realm of science fiction, although many will contain elements of other genres, in order to broaden the potential audience. The Iceman Cometh (1989) is a science fantasy version of the underrated Time After Time (1979), where two ancient warriors (one good, one evil) frozen in ice are revived by scientists, only to continue their duel across modern day Hong Kong causing the special brand of mayhem and chaos that only superhumans can. Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah (Jackie Chan’s schoolmates) play the stunningly acrobatic and totally determined swordsmen. The Wicked City (1992), based on the anime, features aliens called raptors who have been dealing in illicit substances. Jackie Cheung and Leon Lai play two cops assigned to deal with these beings, but as the raptors can take human form, is everyone who they seem to be and can anyone be trusted? Robotrix (1991) stars Amy Yip as a robot undercover cop posing as a prostitute in order to supply ample quantities of gratuitous (and in the UK heavily censored) sex and a sprinkling of sci-fi kung fu action.

This is an example of the Category III film, typified normally by its high quota of sex/violence/glorification of gangsters, blossoming into a rich source of exploitation cinema unrivalled in the West since the early Eighties. Black Mask features Jet Lee as a librarian by day, superhero by night fighting against (literally) brainless denizens in a fetching… black mask. Forbidden City Cop (1996) is a totally crazy period film that is worth a mention for a hilarious Schwa autopsy scene in a circus tent in ancient China. This, the James Bond pastiche titles and the plethora of barmy gadgets has to be seen to be believed. Hong Kong’s biggest star Stephen Chow Sing Chi is breathtaking in his stupidity – he is often compared to Jim Carrey but this is really an insult to Stephen. Those seeking low-budget superhero action should check out Midnight Angel (1991) with cape-wearing skateboarding Japanese star Nagisha Oshima in the title role.

Ghost and supernatural stories have an immensely important part to play in HK cinema. Eastern myths and legends are fundamentally different to Western ones, but no less interesting, and add a new dimension to the enjoyment of horror films. Chinese vampires, for example, are not the dark charismatic individuals with whom we are familiar, but bonkers hopping zombies. They sense humans breathing and can be stopped by a Taoist prayer written on yellow paper and placed upon the forehead. You can poke them about a bit once pacified but this, combined with an inevitable breeze, usually results in the loss of the prayer and ensures that mayhem ensues. Sticky rice also restrains vampires effectively, but must be pure, and some unscrupulous traders tend to mix expensive sticky rice with the cheaper ordinary variety, allowing the vampire to continue unhindered. Chinese ghosts may be frenetic or tragic, and the humans who encounter them usually have to go to extraordinary lengths to defeat them.

Stanley Kwan’s Rouge is one of the most beautiful and elegant films produced in years. It tells the compelling tale of the tragic courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) a ghost who has returned to earth to find her lover (Leslie Cheung) who was meant to have died with her in a suicide pact. Refined and tender, this is a remarkable film that should be seen at all costs. If Rouge is too delicate, then perhaps the Mr Vampire films (at least six have made since 1985 – Hong Kong’s capacity to produce sequels is peerless) may be of interest. These are nothing short of deranged and enormous fun to watch. The early ones feature everybody’s favourite vampire hunter Lam Ching Ying and an assortment of hopeless associates. What sets the vampire films apart is that they are invariably fast, furious and funny. Some of the techniques used in these films are audacious in the extreme – in Mr Vampire 2 (1987), the vampires terrorise their keepers by chasing them, but under the influence of a ‘slow motion potion’. Rather than shoot the scene in slo-mo, the film makers opted to have the actors hopping, jumping and bending v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, in an absolutely hilarious manner. The child vampire of Mr Vampire 2, known as the OK Boy, makes friends with some of the local schoolkids, who pretend he is an illegal immigrant from the mainland and smuggle him into hospitals to find him blood.

Other classic ghost stories include Spiritual Love (1987), the everyday story of boy meets girl, girl is ghost, boy’s living girlfriend isn’t impressed, and Close Encounters Of The Spooky Kind (1989) where Sammo Hung has to contend with zombies and kung fu mummies, and the success of exorcisms depends largely upon the height of the altar the priests can build.

Naturally, we can only scratch the surface of what Hong Kong cinema has to offer, there is so much out there, but do give it a go and approach with an open mind. When Hollywood films seem stale or pedestrian you know where to go – what Hong Kong films lack in budget, they more than make up for in sheer exuberance, pace and inventiveness. Some of these films are so bright you need sunglasses to see them, some so fast you’ll feel the G-forces rippling your face, some so mad you’ll think your tea’s been spiked. Enjoy!

Availability

Sadly science fiction and fantasy are not as strong sellers as martial arts or heroic bloodshed films so the range of videos available is fairly limited in the UK. That said most video shops should have a few, normally filed as Martial Arts. Do try to get subtitled versions as the dubbing is invariably poor and go for widescreen if possible, many fantasy films are shot in epic 1:2.35 ratio and lose composition if cropped. After dipping your toes in Blighty’s meagre waters, you may feel the need to feed your addiction from the deeper pools of foreign lands. Those with internet connections, a credit card and a DVD player will find a far wider selection available on-line. Be sure to check region compatibility when buying DVDs, but take heart from the fact that most Chinese DVDs are Region O and should play on any player, albeit in NTSC.

All recent releases come with the option of English subtitles. Many DVD players can also cope with the old VCD format which is still a commonly used video format in Asia. This is a real boon to the HK cinephile as VCDs are cheap and plentiful, you can often pick them up from Chinese stores in the UK. While the quality of picture can be a bit ropey (as the information is highly compressed) the access to films that will never see the light of day on Western release schedules is irresistible. A big bonus is that most, but not all, are subtitled into English, but even if they are not you can still derive a great deal of enjoyment from the visual assault alone. Be adventurous and treat yourself.

(c) Colin Odell and Mitch le Blanc. All rights reserved.

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