If you go to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and you ask it for the earliest version of Heroic Cinema they have on file (Nov 3, 1999), you’ll find that we used to have a tagline on the front page: “Hong Kong movies are the best movies.”
It appears that the amazing people at GOMA in Brisbane agree with us, as they have just announced a huge program called Action, Hong Kong Style, an in-depth retrospective of Hong Kong’s action cinema. And when they say in-depth, they mean it: seventy films, covering everything from a couple of the Wong Fei-hung films from the 40s and 50s, through to the action hits of the last few years.
Along the way, they pick up all the important films from HK’s biggest action directors and stars: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, John Woo, Johnnie To, Sammo Hung…
Honestly, it’s as if someone took down all the films I loved when I discovered HK film, added a few that are simply impossible to get hold of on home video, and put together Justin’s Perfect Festival. (Update: we have some free passes to give away, as well!)
The program’s website covers everything that they’re showing in great detail, so I urge you to go there for all the details. That said, I thought I would highlight just a few of the more unusual or hard-to-find films they’re screening:
- The True Story of Wong Fei-hung, Part One (1949, dir. Wu Pang)
- Wong Fei-hung, King of Lion Dance (1957, dir. Wu Pang)
- Wong Fei-hung’s Battle with the Gorilla (1960, dir. Wu Pang)
Three films — including the very first one — from the incredibly long-lived series about southern Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, the part Jet Li played in the Once Upon a Time in China series (which is also in the program). Magisterial Cantonese opera star Kwan Tak-hing plays the titular hero, as he did in more than 100 films, and these are considered to be where it all began for Hong Kong’s more realistic kung fu cinema. I would imagine that 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive are about the best possible way to see these, and the opportunity doesn’t arise often!
- Pedicab Driver (1989, dir. Sammo Hung)
Pedicab Driver! Sought after by martial arts movie enthusiasts everywhere, I believe this has only ever been released for home viewing on VHS and LaserDisc (!!) — I suspect a tangle of rights issues has gotten in the way of anyone doing a DVD release. The film is an action comedy in true late-80s HK style, starring Sammo Hung as one of a group of pedicab drivers in 1930s Macau. There is a wonderful action scene in the middle of the film between Sammo and action director Lau Kar-leung, contrasting newer kickboxing-influenced action with Lau’s more traditional hung gar kung fu.
- Drunken Master II (1994, dir. Lau Kar-leung, Jackie Chan)
Unarguably Jackie Chan’s best film, Drunken Master II was a sequel to the 1978 film that made him famous, with plenty of star talent behind and in front of the camera: action director Lau Kar-leung, Shaws star Ti Lung, siren Anita Mui, and a host of others. Chan plays an impish version of the young Wong Fei-hung, proud of his abilities and constantly getting into trouble. It’s another film that is effectively unavailable in its original (uncut, uncropped, Cantonese audio) version.
- The Blade (1995, dir. Tsui Hark)
Tsui Hark’s most focused film, The Blade is a brutally dark, intense re-imagining of the Shaws classic The One-Armed Swordsman, swapping Jimmy Wang Yu for Vincent Zhao. Some of its cinematography, action choreography and editing is jaw-dropping. John tells it better than I could: see his review for all the details. Once again, this is not an easy film to see: the best DVD release I’ve seen is the French one, which doesn’t have English subtitles.
- Ashes of Time: Redux (1994/2008, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Perhaps the only film I can think of that can take on The Blade in the “drenched with colour” stakes, Ashes of Time is Wong Kar Wai’s take on the martial arts wuxia picture, though it’s infused with all the WKW themes audiences are familiar with from the rest of his work. One of those films you just have to see on the big screen. Here’s John’s review.
I am, of course, cherry-picking from the full line-up: there’s also a large complement of wonderful films made by the Shaw Brothers studio from the 60s to the 80s (including Come Drink With Me and 36th Chamber of Shaolin, two of my favourites), the four completed Bruce Lee films, John Woo’s big films from the 80s and 90s, a good slice of Johnnie To’s output, and more.
The program runs from 6 September to 8 November, and tickets will be available online (from early September) and at the GOMA box office just before each screening.
I may just have to book that trip up to Brisbane.