Online Exclusive: An Annotated* Tsui Hark Interview (Part II, aka Annotation Overload)
By Grady Hendrix
1. Eighties New Wave: the late Seventies and early Eighties saw a huge influx of talent into Hong Kong from filmmakers who, for the most part, had studied overseas, and then returned to Hong Kong where they all wound up working for Selina Chow at TVB, the television giant, before starting to make socially conscious movies. Among the names that Selina Chow hired were Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Kirk Wong, Shu Kei, and Eddie Fong—all of whom would go on to become award-winning filmmakers.
2. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain: based on a popular wuxia novel, Zu is the movie that launched the Hong Kong special effects industry and created the basic vocabulary for the hundreds of wuxia movies that were to follow. Originally, Tsui Hark tried to recruit special-effects technicians from Hong Kong Polytechnic and Baptist University but their knowledge had mostly come from studying moviemaking books and magazines. Hong Kong labs weren’t equipped to handle the requirements of special effects and finally, in frustration, Tsui went to Los Angeles with his producer, and basically began knocking on doors, asking if anyone was home who’d worked on Star Wars. He eventually recruited Robert Blalack (composite photography on Star Wars), Chris Casady (miniature and optical effects on Star Wars), and Tama Takanashi (who was the model photographer on Blade Runner). Together, they would build the first Hong Kong facilities for blue-screen work, miniatures, optical effects, matte painting, stop-motion photography and computer-assisted effects, even going so far as to invent their own version of the motion-control camera that had revolutionized the effects in Star Wars. Peter Kuran (optical effects and miniatures on Star Wars) consulted but was afraid of flying and wouldn’t come to Hong Kong, but when the production was over he asked Golden Harvest to provide him with duplicates of all the footage, including discarded scenes, so that he could use them for future reference in his own work, a sign to Tsui Hark’s team that their effects had something to offer the world.
3. Cinema City: at a time when Mandarin-language martial arts filmed were flooding the marketplace, Karl Maka, Dean Shek, and Raymond Wong founded their production company, Cinema City, to produce Cantonese-language comedies. Packaging popular stars (often from TV), with soundtracks featuring hit Cantopop tunes and with Western production values they became the dominant force in Eighties Hong Kong cinema, producing movies like the Aces Go Places series (which ruled the box office in that decade), John Woo and Tsui’s A Better Tomorrow films, several of popstar/comedian Sam Hui’s comedies, and Ringo Lam’s On Fire series. Cinema City dissolved in 1991.
4. Nansun Shi: Tsui’s wife serves as his producer and was co-founder of their production company, Film Workshop. One of the smartest, best-loved, and most powerful women in Hong Kong film, she and Tsui were the dynamic duo of the Nineties: he was making the movies and she was making the deals. She also produces and is intimately involved behind-the-scenes with a host of non-Tsui projects, including the Infernal Affairs series (remade in the U.S. as The Departed) and she joins a long line of women who have shaped the HK film industry from behind the scenes, including TVB’s Selina Chow and the Shaw Brothers’s Mona Fong.
5. Teddy Robin: one of the world’s most unlikely rock ’n’ roll stars, the diminutive (about five-foot-tall) Teddy Robin started the Hong Kong rock scene singlehandedly with his band, Teddy Robin and the Playboys, kicking out the jams throughout the Sixties and Seventies. He became a film composer, then actor, director and producer, dipping his toe in at Shaw Brothers, then leaping into the pool with Cinema City. His most recent performance came in 2010’s award-winning kung fu movie, Gallants, in which Robin, now 65 years old, plays a martial arts master recently awakened from a coma and looking to party.
6. Aces Go Places: Hong Kong’s equivalent of Bollywood’s masala films, Aces spawned five sequels (the first three of which shattered Hong Kong boxoffice records) and pioneered a whole new genre of Canto-comedy. Packed with action, domestic comedy, special effects, drama, and the occasional pop song, the slaphappy Aces flicks were Roger Moore-era James Bondian romps featuring master thief Sam Hui (who happened to be a major pop star) and his bumbling sidekick, Karl Maka (who happened to be the movie’s producer).
7. ...how to survive with no sleep: all of Tsui Hark’s collaborators and colleagues have, at one point or another, remarked on Tsui’s ability to work and work and work, indefinitely. While making Shanghai Blues (84) his actors would sometimes bring their toothbrushes and pajamas with them as a typical shooting day could last 48 to 72 hours without a break.
8. ...a few successes with Cinema City: after achieving fame directing martial arts TV dramas, Tsui’s first three films were passionate, innovative, genre-busting experiments. The Butterfly Murders was an attempt to reinvent the martial arts movie as a steampunk murder mystery. We’re Going to Eat You was an explicitly political, über-gory, kung-fu movie. And Dangerous Encounters—1st Kind was so controversial that it ultimately had to be extensively recut and only received a release of its original edit in 2010. All three movies were massive flops. Tsui then started working for Cinema City and directed several hit comedies for them over the course of five years. Technically sophisticated, with surreal scripts, absurdist production design and, most of all, moving at 100 mph, movies like All the Wrong Clues, For the Right Solution, and Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street raked in big bucks and established Tsui as a career director.
9. ...a wuxia novel by Lee Sau-man: the wuxia (literally, chivalrous hero) genre is to China what the Western is to America: a pop cultural dialogue on national identity with a corpus that goes back over 100 years. Wuxia novels have been popular in China and Hong Kong for centuries and Hong Kong has been putting them on the big screen practically since film was invented. Although wuxia encompasses all martial arts movies, it’s come to stand for the flying swordsman (and woman) movies that the Western world fell in love with in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before filmmakers put wuxia on the silver screen, the field was cultivated by novelists, many of whom serialized their work in newspapers. The master of the form was Jin Yong, followed by Gu Long. Lee Sau-man’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a 60-volume epic that becomes extremely surreal at times. During the Thirties, the novel was actually banned by the Nationalist government because they felt it was subversive and encouraged citizens to form secret societies to oppose the government.
10. The Butterfly Murders: shot in Taiwan, Tsui was coming off his famous stint directing the CTV martial-arts drama, The Gold Dagger Romance. Producer Ng See-yuen wanted to shoot a straight martial-arts movie, but Tsui convinced him to let him attempt a “sci-fi” martial-arts film in which flying swordsmen were explained by ropes, and supernatural powers were justified via the use of gunpowder. The movie revolves around a series of murders being performed with the assistance of . . . gulp . . . swarms of flesh-eating butterflies. To shoot the film, Tsui had to wrangle thousands of the insects, a process that seems to have traumatized him.
11. Golden Harvest’s Raymond Chow: by the early Seventies, the only big dog left standing on the block was Shaw Brothers studios, having beaten down their competitors like Cathay. Then came Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho, and their film studio, Golden Harvest. First they took one of Shaw Brother’s rejects, Bruce Lee, and turned him into an international superstar. Following his death, they produced plenty of Leesploitation films, featuring look-a-likes and extra footage of Lee they had lying around. Then they picked up another Shaw Brothers reject, Jackie Chan, and turned him into a major star as well. They also embraced Hollywood and co-produced a number of movies with foreign studios, such as Enter the Dragon, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, The Man from Hong Kong, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
12. ...these types of effects were always considered untouchable before: in an interview with the Hong Kong Film Archive, Tsui says, “This subject was brought up again when someone said, ‘Special effects are for foreigners and not for the Chinese.’ I started questioning that. Why are Chinese so resistant to technology? Is it a race issue? Or a technology issue? An economics issue? An issue of intellect? Or do Chinese film genres not involve special effects?” Recruiting several Hollywood special-effects technicians for Zu, Tsui brought them to Hong Kong, and from scratch built the modern-day Hong Kong special-effects industry.
13. ...and reshooting, and reshooting, and more reshooting: For decades, Hong Kong movies were shot MOS (without sound), giving them a lot of flexibility. Tsui has used this freedom to shoot the hell out of his movies. Stars are sometimes collared on their way to the airport as they leave for other productions so he can steal just one or two more shots. Entire plotlines, stories, scenes, and subplots are often added, or even dropped, at the last minute. The term “lip rape” was eventually created by critics for Tsui, citing the fact that he would often dub entirely different dialogue that fundamentally changes his films, at the last minute.
14. Once Upon a Time in China: released in 1991, the film chronicles the clash between Chinese and Western culture during the Republican Period (late-19th and early-20th century), centering on real-life folk hero, doctor, and martial artist, Wong Fei-hung, considered a paragon of traditional Chinese virtues. Starting as an action-comedy, it darkens into an elegiac drama and then a gothic horror show as capitalism and imperialism tear Chinese culture to shreds. The film relaunched the career of Jet Li, then a washed-up wannabe with a series of flops under his belt and kicked off a craze for period martial-arts films (then a defunct genre), spawned five sequels, a TV series, and numerous parodies.
15. A Chinese Ghost Story: at a time when modern-day heroic bloodshed and action movies were all the rage, Tsui produced and Ching Siu-tung directed this special-effects-laden supernatural romance that has since become one of the best-loved Hong Kong movies of all time. Spawning two sequels, an animated feature film version, and a 2011 remake, the cast changed in every film (Wu Ma was replaced between 1 and 2 with Jacky Cheung, and lead actor Leslie Cheung was replaced between 2 and 3 with Tony Leung Chiu-wai), but there’s something about the story of the love affair between a ghost and a scholar that has made this movie an essential part of the Hong Kong canon. Needless to say, it inspired a million copycats, all featuring ghosts flying through misty, blue-lit, haunted forests, trailed by yards of billowing silk.
16. Ching Siu-tung: a long-time action director, Ching Siu-tung was directing his own movies, featuring elaborate wirework (which allows actors to seemingly fly during combat), when he first encountered Tsui while working as an action director on Peking Opera Blues. Tsui hired Ching Siu-tung to direct A Chinese Ghost Storyand its sequels as well as the three Swordsman films. Between these two series, their collaboration brought to the screen a style of elegant, phantasmagoric action where bodies become endlessly mutable objects, capable of being folded, bent, spindled, and mutilated, where gravity was a matter of opinion and where Chinese history was a frantic, surreal free-for-all, that would go on to influence hundreds of imitators. Ching’s most recent credits as an action director include all of Zhang Yimou’s wuxia movies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower).
17. ...your movies really do scream along: distributors and exhibitors have always had a huge influence on the running time of Hong Kong films. Their interest is to pack as many lucrative screenings into each day as possible, and there’s a lot of pressure not to let movies run over five reels (90 to 100 minutes). Tsui’s movies stick around the 95-to-110-minute mark, occasionally coming close to 120 but never going over. In fact, his preferred cut of his film, Dragon Inn, is the 99-minute version. The distributor later edited back in 10 minutes of extra footage in order to spread the movie out over two VHS tapes so he could charge more for it when it hit the retail market, a common practice at the time.
18. The Enchanting Shadow: this 1960 film directed by Lee Han-hsiang is based on the classic 1740 Chinese book Strange Tales from a Scholar’s Studio, a collection of supernatural stories that have gone on to influence hundreds of works. They’re something like the Grimm's Fairy Tales of China, and have found admirers from Kafka to Borges. The Chinese titles of A Chinese Ghost Story and The Enchanting Shadow are written with the same characters.
19. At that moment in my career...: in the early Eighties, Tsui was a force to be reckoned with but he was chafing at the control of Cinema City. After making Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street he felt hemmed in by Cinema City’s single-minded focus on comedies and considered quitting filmmaking completely. He was pitching ideas to the Gang of Seven that got him into action and drama, but the scripts would always come back transformed into comedies in the signature Cinema City style. As a reaction, he founded his own production company, Film Workshop, and managed to get Cinema City to take a chance on his action film, A Better Tomorrow, directed by his collaborator, John Woo, who was at the time considered a washed-up journeyman director with no future. The success of A Better Tomorrow gave Tsui the power he needed to renegotiate his relationship with Cinema City.
20. Film Workshop: founded in 1984 by Tsui and Nansun Shi, this was their run for the fences from what they viewed as the confines of Cinema City. Working with an outside investor (whose name they wouldn’t reveal to their colleagues at Cinema City), Tsui and Shi made Shanghai Blues, a comedy-drama that’s considered one of his best films. The movie did well, and led to a sit-down conference with Cinema City to clear the air in which it was agreed that Film Workshop would do the shooting and Cinema City would serve as producer on future projects. In rapid succession, Film Workshop made A Better Tomorrow, Peking Opera Blues, and A Chinese Ghost Story, three of the most iconic movies of Eighties Hong Kong cinema. After that there was no looking back. Film Workshop would then go on to produce such equally iconic movies of Eighties and Nineties Hong Kong cinema as The Killer, Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, The Lovers, and many, many more.
21. Swordsman: originally conceived as a directorial project for master Chinese filmmaker King Hu (who had a huge influence on Tsui, as well as an entire generation of Chinese directors with his masterpieces A Touch of Zen and Come Drink with Me), this production collapsed when Hu fell ill during the early stages of shooting. His assistant director, New Wave auteur Ann Hui, action choreographer Ching Siu-tung, and assistant director Raymond Lee (who would later direct Dragon Inn) were joined by Tsui in Taiwan to finish the production. Tsui hit the ground running, rewrote 30 scenes in one night and they were all shooting the next day. The film is credited as being based on Hu’s concepts, but directed by Hui, Ching, Lee, and Tsui (among others). Either way, it became a hit and launched two very successful sequels and inspired a new wave of swordplay movies.
22. Dragon Inn: produced by Tsui and directed by Raymond Lee, this remake of King Hu’s 1967 Dragon Gate Inn stands as one of the most iconic of the Nineties wave of wuxia pictures. A feminist updating of the genre, it posited mega-stars Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung as dueling swordswomen (one an upright hero, the other a mercenary sneak) in what amounts to a riff on Casablanca, only with Donnie Yen as a bloodless, superpowered eunuch standing in for the rise of Nazism.
24. ...a very powerful gangster head: triads (Chinese gangster societies) had a huge influence on the Hong Kong film industry in the Eighties and Nineties, and many people attribute the collapse of the industry in the late Nineties to massive overproduction fueled by fly-by-night film companies glutting the market with cheap, crummy movies that featured a proven box-office star who was often drafted into the movie against their will. Early in his career, Jackie Chan had to seek the assistance of Shaw Brothers star, Jimmy Wang Yu, to get him out of a sticky situation with a triad claiming they had a “contract” to retain his services, and comedian Stephen Chow was denied entrance to Canada back in 1995 because of his former links to a triad-backed production company. Charles Heung, one of the most powerful men in Chinese show business (he founded Win’s Entertainment and mega-production company and distributor China Star, and is also a producer and actor) has been permanently denied entrance to the U.S. due to the fact that his father is the founder of the massive Sun Yee On triad. The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations has named him as a Sun Yee On leader, but Heung denies any involvement and has distanced himself from his brothers who are believed to still be linked to Sun Yee On activity. The triad leader Tsui is referring to in this interview is not Charles Heung, nor anyone involved in the Sun Yee On.
25. Brigitte Lin: an incredibly popular star in Taiwan since the age of 18, Lin starred in numerous Taiwanese romances and melodramas before moving to California for college. While there, she was contacted by Tsui in 1983 to appear in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. It launched her Hong Kong career, but it wasn’t until she played the transsexual swordsman/woman, Asia the Invincible, in Tsui’s 1992 Swordsman II that she became a white-hot motion-picture diva and one of the most sought-after actresses in the world. Six years later, at the height of her fame, she retired.
26. Maggie Cheung: born in Hong Kong and raised in the U.K., Maggie Cheung entered films after coming in second at the Miss Hong Kong Beauty Pageant. Popular on TV, she was a bit of fluff best known as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in a number of his movies, until she appeared in Wong Kar Wai’s first film, As Tears Go By, which instantly sent her career in a more serious direction. Juggling comedy, action, and dramatic art-house roles, she quickly became a mercurial, charming on-screen presence, and for several years in the Nineties it felt like every movie was practically required by law to feature a part for her (or for an actress delivering an inferior impersonation). Dragon Inn was her first film with Tsui, and she’d go on to deliver a smoldering performance for him as a giant snake transformed into a human in his psychedelic Buddhist epic, Green Snake.
27. Tony Leung: known as “Big Tony,” Tony Leung Kar-fai is not to be confused with Wong Kar Wai perennial Tony Leung Chiu-wai (known as “Little Tony”). One of the most promising young actors in Hong Kong, his second film (which won him a “Best Actor” award) was shot in mainland China, prompting Taiwanese distributors to blacklist him for three years. Hiring Big Tony would prohibit a movie from being released in the lucrative Taiwanese market, and he hit the skids, winding up as a street vendor at one point. He credits Tsui with helping get the unofficial ban on his films lifted, and he made a triumphant comeback in the 1987 Cinema City film, Prison on Fire. He went on to star in a huge number of movies, at least seven of them for Film Workshop. At the time Dragon Inn was shot, he was at the height of his fame, shooting, on average, one movie a month.
28. Ng See-yuen: one of Hong Kong’s best-known producers, Ng See-yuen is considered a genius talent spotter, having produced Jackie Chan’s first two hit movies (Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master) as well as Tsui’s first two films (The Butterfly Murders and We’re Going to Eat You).
29. ...two Jean-Claude Van Damme movies: these would be Double Team and Knock-Off. For some reason, Van Damme seems to work frequently with some of Hong Kong’s best directors, including John Woo, Tsui, and Ringo Lam. He was the only actor in Hollywood who intensely courted Tsui, flying to Hong Kong several times and then sending lawyers, producers, and everyone else involved in the production to meet at Tsui’s convenience. Tsui had wanted to check out the Hollywood film industry for a while, and he found himself in Los Angeles for personal reasons and decided to stay and take up the offer to direct some movies for Van Damme. Neither movie was shot in the U.S. and a large part of Knock-Off was shot in Hong Kong in order to keep costs under control, but Tsui parted ways with the producers when they wouldn’t give what he felt was enough screentime to the film’s Chinese characters. Neither film is a triumph, but both feature some innovative cinematography and they introduced him to non-linear digital editing systems, while his work with action directors Sammo Hung and Xiong Xin-xin continued to push his action design in a direction that started with The Blade and climaxed with 2000’s Time and Tide.
30. The Blade: this 1996 film is viewed by many as Tsui’s last unqualified masterpiece before he made Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame in 2010. Dismissed by critics (Paul Fonoroff, then writing for the South China Morning Post, called it “perfunctory” and “confusing”), it was a massive flop. The film, to a large extent, explored differences that Tsui saw between dao and jian—both Chinese words for sword. But whereas jian connotes an elegant sword, wielded with technique, restraint, and chivalry, dao is a heavier, more cleaver-like weapon that connotes butchery, brutality, and the hacking of flesh and bone. The Blade was Tsui’s chance to explore the qualities of dao after spending a decade making movies about jian.
31. Chang Cheh’s landmark 1967 martial arts film: Chang Cheh, one of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, best known for his works for the Shaw Brothers, responded to the Fifties and Sixties dominance of feminine films, musicals, and major female film stars by launching a wave of masculine, Mandarin-language, violent young man films in the late Sixties and early Seventies, starting with One-Armed Swordsman, the tale of a young martial artist who loses his arm and then learns a form of one-armed swordplay and seeks revenge. Bleak, nihilistic, and macho, it was a blood-soaked roar that virtually wiped the Cantonese-language film industry from the map for almost a decade.
32. ...we didn’t use really big stars in the movie: more than even Hollywood, Hong Kong’s is a star-driven film industry, with producers and distributors often needing to know little more about a potential project than what stars are attached and what roles they’ll play. The Blade was a lower-budget movie and it starred Zhao Wen-zhuo (who had replaced Jet Li in the fourth and fifth Once Upon a Time in China movies, but did not duplicate his success), character actor Moses Chan, unknown actress Song Lei, and Tsui’s action choreographer, Xiong Xin-xin, as the main bad guy. To the investors, this lack of marketable stars was basically a form of box-office suicide.
One thing in The Blade that’s so different from so many martial-arts movies is the approach to the action design. Could you talk a little about the philosophy behind the action in this film?
I think there are two kind of rules that we usually see in an action movie. The monk, or maybe the hero, is usually winning the battle. But at the opening of this movie, we start off with a monk, one of the icons of justice, not really winning. Sometimes battles are really ugly, really bad, really threatening on the screen, instead of making you feel excited. Another thing is, I tried to create a style that is very close to documentary. I didn’t use wirework—only two shots used wirework. Other than those two, everything is real action and real fighting.
You weren’t in the theater, but for the final battle behind Sharp Manufacture, I was standing in the back, and the audience went completely nuts right at the beginning of that sequence. Can you talk a little about shooting that and how long it took?
Well, that was not very long, about a week to do the end sequence.
That entire end sequence in one week?
Right, right, right.
And was one of the wirework shots in that sequence?
The wirework was earlier, but other than that everything was actually present at the moment.
But Xiong Xin-xin, he’s flying down from such a great height…
Okay, that’s wirework. [Laughs]
I thought you were just throwing the actors. There’s also the shot where the character On (Zhao Wen-zhou) is coming in one side of the frame, and then suddenly he’s on the other side of the frame? Without special effects?
That shot was actually three guys doing the action, using the same costume. But I think we were playing with the camera movement, and I was one of the cameramen during shooting.
Yeah, I was one of the camera people in the movie, so also this movement was done by me, yes.
34. Time and Tide: released in 2000, this modern-day action-thriller split viewers (the main character can’t fight and spends most of the time running away, the multinational cast required that the dialogue be delivered in a blend of Portuguese, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, and the over-the-top climax features a woman blowing away bad guys while giving birth). But, inarguably, it represents a high point in action filmmaking. Continuing their experimentation, Tsui Hark and Xiong Xin-xin push the choreography into the realm of haiku, with action coming fast and abstract, often indicated by showing the reaction of the defender or victim, rather than the action of the perpetrator or attacker. Coupled with thrill-seeking cinematography (including a setpiece shot in an occupied housing block, which required the production to pay HK $1 million to tenants for damages done to their apartments) and some of the most sophisticated sound design ever laid on a feature film, the movie winds up feeling like something truly new in action filmmaking.
35. 2002 remake of Zu: imagine if Apocalypse Now hadn’t wound up being a masterpiece and you’ve got Legend of Zu, Tsui Hark’s digital-effects-heavy 2002 remake of the movie that originally helped put his name on the map—all that hardship, all that heartbreak, all those dangers endured only to produce a movie that was dead on arrival. An expansion of the Zu story, loaded with computer effects, and featuring an all-star cast, the film saw almost the entire crew hospitalized for pneumonia and other injuries at one point or another. Cinematographers were brought in to shoot long, epic setpieces that were later discarded. And finally, in order to bring the movie in on budget, the special effects were turned over to a Hong Kong post-production house. Featuring more CGI shots than The Phantom Menace the movie overwhelmed the capabilities of the Hong Kong team and the result has been largely dismissed as a cinematic car wreck of epic proportions, with beautiful art design, occasional glimpses of inspiration, but largely unsuccessful.
36. Seven Swords: shot in Mainland China, this wuxia film was a riff on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, about seven swordsmen brought together to defend a village from marauding soldiers. Passionate about the project, Tsui turned in a four-hour cut, described by those who viewed it as a new page in his artistic development, focusing on the use of long takes. But it was an expensive film backed by Mainland, Hong Kong, and Korean investors and it was ultimately cut to two-and-a-half hours. The box office result was okay, but nothing special.
37. Zhou Xun: regarded as one of the four great young actresses in China (the other three are Zhang Ziyi, Xu Jinglei, and Zhao Wei) she has a high international profile thanks to her appearances in Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, the French-Chinese art-house film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Feng Xiaogang’s Hamlet adaptation, The Banquet. Her first movie with Tsui was 2008’s All About Women.
38. Shanghai Blues: the first movie from Film Workshop is all about lovers meeting and then parting in Forties Shanghai, drawing direct parallels to Hong Kong in 1984. Featuring an indelible performance by comedienne, director, writer, and producer Sylvia Chang, it has become a modern-day classic and one of the best-loved Hong Kong movies of all time.
39. Peking Opera Blues: a thematic follow-up to Shanghai Blues, this movie was Tsui’s reaction to the lack of action roles and leading parts for women. He cast three of the most popular stars of the day (Cherrie Chung, Sally Yeh, and Brigitte Lin) as a band of women from diverse backgrounds (prostitute, wannabe opera performer, general’s daughter) who get caught up in a plot to overthrow the government. Fast-paced, hilarious, and deeply affecting, it draws on a lot of the traditions of Chinese Opera, much like its soul sister, Shanghai Blues.
40. Once Upon a Time in China 2: the most accomplished and complex of the series, this second installment saw Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) travel to Canton where he takes on the fanatically anti-Western White Lotus Cult as they plunge the city into a Chinese version of the Night of the Long Knives, while also spiriting revolutionary Sun Yat-sen out of the clutches of Imperial assassins.
41. ...in '84: while many Western critics like to claim that Hong Kong movies in the Nineties are full of anxiety regarding the handover to China in 1997, this is largely based on an ignorance of Hong Kong history and politics. By the time 1997 rolled around, anyone who wanted to leave Hong Kong had either already left, or was holding a passport from some other country. The two great crisis points in modern Hong Kong history came in 1984 and 1989. In 1984, the United Kingdom signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration that agreed to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, under the model of “one country, two systems.” It also denied British citizenship to everyone who currently held it in Hong Kong. Even though passports issued pre-1997 were left with some citizenship status, all Hong Kongers were denied the right of residency in the U.K. This caused a massive emigration, as Hong Kongers, some of whom had fled China for political reasons, raced around the world grabbing any passport they could. A huge number wound up taking Australian and Canadian passports, but some went as far abroad as Austria. The second trauma came in 1989 with China's brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, which sent a chill through Hong Kong and made the future of any democratic movement in the territory look extremely bleak. Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues best embody the 1984 anxiety, and Tsui has been very vocal that A Chinese Ghost Story II deals with his feelings about 1989.
42. ...to somewhere: Tsui moved to Austin where he attended the University of Texas film school (where he supported himself working in the cafeteria), then moved to New York City for several years, only later returning to Hong Kong to work for Selina Chow at TVB.
43. Empress Wu: Detective Dee is, more than anything, Tsui’s attempt to rehabilitate the Empress Wu, who is generally regarded by historians as an example of what goes wrong when a woman is left in charge of things. Empress Wu interrupted the Tang Dynasty to take over China and start her own dynasty, ruling as emperor from 690 – 705 (although she had been the power behind the throne for over 20 years before that). She was finally deposed in a coup that saw her ineffective son made the next Tang Emperor. Although she executed and tortured many of her opponents during her rule, she’s also viewed as having come around by the end and not been a total psychopath (a lot of this rehabilitation is due to the efforts of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who led a campaign to make Empress Wu look better during the Cultural Revolution in an attempt to pave her way to leadership after Mao died). In Chinese history, when Empress Wu is said to have mellowed over time, this is largely attributed to the influence of Di Renjie (Detective Dee). The backstory between the two of them is much as it’s reflected in Tsui's movie: he was a favored court official who opposed her rule and was exiled, then promoted back to the court when she needed his big old brain to help run the country.