Hong Kong’s Prime Movers A-Z
By Film Comment
A who’s who of top talent in the post-1996 era
Fruit Chan (b. 1959)
Chan began his career in the early Eighties as an assistant director and sometime actor in mainstream films. His first directing credit was the Sixties-set ghost film Finale in Blood (93), which served early notice of the director’s taste for oddball comedy and genre experimentation. But with 1997’s Made in Hong Kong, Chan engineered a collision of independent filmmaking and mass entertainment that became his trademark. Flipping off the pretentious local indie scene, his punchy, undisciplined take on the youth film used a DIY approach to woo mainstream moviegoers. The film’s arrival was accompanied by tales of Chan scrounging leftover film stock, discovering a lead actor skateboarding on the street, and shooting guerrilla-style with minimal crew—an unprecedented blast of indie street-cred for a movie slated for the multiplex.
Chan quickly capitalized on his cachet by presenting this hit as the first part of a trilogy centered on the city’s handover to China, following up with The Longest Summer (98), about local soldiers left in the lurch after the British forces headed home, and Little Cheung (00), a neighborhood drama centered on a 9-year-old boy. All three display a knack for exploring the lives of fringe dwellers, and all showcase Chan’s talent for self-promotion and for drawing out disarming performances from unknowns.
Chan’s filmmaking remained offbeat after “the handover trilogy,” starting with Durian Durian (00), a thoughtful Hong Kong– and Mainland-set film following a young female sex worker and using the pungent fruit of the title as a motif. This was followed by the absurdist village-set Hollywood Hong Kong (01), about a young Mainland prostitute who turns a tight-knit Hong Kong neighborhood on its ear, and the notably bizarre, DV-shot Public Toilet (02), a globe-trotting network of narratives each set in close proximity to a lavatory. His most commercially successful film from this period, however, was Dumplings (04). Expanded from its original form as a 40-minute segment of Peter Chan’s omnibus Three… Extremes (04), it’s an elegantly shot horror movie about a rich middle-aged woman whose quest for youth leads her to embrace a diet of rejuvenating dumplings made from aborted fetuses.
And then Chan left the limelight for close to a decade. Aside from directing shorts on the Mainland, including a quirky teahouse entry for the omnibus film Chengdu, I Love You (09), and helming the U.S. horror feature Don’t Look Up (09), he turned to producing films across Greater China. In 2013, he returned to directing in Hong Kong with the darkly comic short spooker Jing Zhe, for the horror anthology Tales from the Dark 1 (13). This year he came roaring back with The Midnight After, a film that veers into science fiction, a genre seldom found in Hong Kong cinema, and reaffirms Chan as one of the industry’s mavericks.—Tim Youngs
Peter Chan (b. 1962)
Hong Kong’s king of quality films for over 20 years, Peter Chan has demonstrated an uncanny grasp of Asian film trends that’s made him a leading industry figure. Chan’s multicultural background—born in Thailand, raised in Hong Kong, and educated in the U.S.—marks his work as a writer, director, and producer, starting with his directorial debut, the friendship drama Alan & Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye (91), which earned immediate notice for its audience-pleasing sentimentality and strong craftsmanship.
Chan went on to co-found the United Filmmakers Organization (UFO), a mini-studio that became a brand name, bringing fresh intelligence, slick production values, and a postmodern sensibility to topical stories of young men and women living in a cosmopolitan Hong Kong. In short, UFO made yuppie movies, with Chan serving as the company’s standard-bearer. He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (94) mines sexual politics and gender roles to spin a Hollywood-inspired screwball romance. For Comrades, Almost a Love Story (96), Chan dives deep into the Chinese diaspora, adding heaps of nostalgia to a glossily produced romance that has become a modern classic.
After selling UFO to Golden Harvest (a deal that required him to direct a 1996 sequel to He’s a Woman, She’s a Man called Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man), Chan left Hong Kong for a brief stint in Hollywood to direct DreamWorks’ The Love Letter (99), then returned to co-found Applause Pictures. Ahead of its time in recognizing that the future of Asian film rested on collaboration between neighboring territories, Applause co-produced movies with Korea (One Fine Spring Day, 01) and Thailand (Jan Dara, 01), along with two horror omnibuses (Three, 02; and Three… Extremes, 04) that combine filmmakers from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and Thailand. Chan’s bittersweet, behind-the-scenes musical, Perhaps Love (05), brought together talent from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and India, while his action drama The Warlords (07) was conceived as an epic pan-Chinese production with international superstar Jet Li headlining a cast that includes Hong Kong’s Andy Lau and Taiwan’s Takeshi Kaneshiro.
With his latest company, Beijing-based Cinema Popular, Chan has focused on action films for the Chinese and international markets. He oversaw Teddy Chan’s period action co-production, Bodyguards and Assassins (09) and directed action mystery Wu Xia (11), both to critical acclaim and solid business. But Chan recognized the softening grosses for action films in China and returned to yuppie dramas with American Dreams in China (13), about three friends starting an English-language school in Beijing, which stole China’s number-one box-office slot from Iron Man 3 on opening weekend.—Ross Chen
Soi Cheang (b. 1972)
Of all the new directors backed by director Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image production house, none are more promising than Soi Cheang. Able to deliver sensational genre filmmaking with powerful emotional undercurrents on a budget, Cheang stands head and shoulders above his style-over-substance contemporaries.
Entering the film business in the mid-Nineties, he served as an assistant director on nine films, including Wilson Yip’s Bio Zombie (98) and Juliet in Love (00), before writing and directing three DV movies in 1999. The trio—Our Last Day, The House of No Man, and Beach Girl—range from breezy romance to intimate family drama with touches of the supernatural, but their minor releases brought Cheang little notice.
That changed with Diamond Hill (00), a low-budget psychological-horror movie involving incest, which led to his mainstream debut, Horror Hotline... Big Head Monster (01). Silly title aside, Horror Hotline is a sustained exercise in atmospherics that employs desolate locations and a crushing sense of dread
to depict a cruel urban legend about a hideously deformed baby. Cheang’s subsequent film New Blood (02) is a chilly vision of urban Hong Kong from derelict housing estates to immense subterranean construction sites, while his youth flick The Death Curse (03) plays out amid the gothic towers of China’s Kaiping region.
Bleak landscapes and cynical twists of fate recur in Cheang’s cinema—in New Blood, good Samaritans who donate blood to save a man’s life are punished by the ghost of his dead lover—but alongside them are idealized family relationships and depictions of parenting. It all came together in Love Battlefield (04), an intense thriller about a young couple on the verge of breaking up who are tested to their limits when hardened criminals abduct the boyfriend. Cheang topped this with the squalid Dog Bite Dog (06), in which a monstrous, mute hit man is pitted against a sadistic cop, often within a mountainous garbage dump, with pathos provided by a developmentally challenged pregnant girl—all to bizarrely touching effect.
Having already earned credits on Milkyway productions ranging from minor acting roles to stints as assistant director, Cheang moved up to directing for the company. After the To-produced Accident (09), a cold psycho-thriller about paranoid killers who arrange elaborate accidents to eliminate their victims, Cheang directed Motorway (12), a no-frills B-picture about traffic cops featuring impeccably staged car action and anchored by a pair of warm central performances. Cheang’s latest, The Monkey King (14), saw him graduate to the big leagues when this IMAX 3-D Donnie Yen fantasy movie, based loosely on the Chinese classic Journey to the West, became a massive Lunar New Year’s hit in China.—Tim Youngs
Stephen Chow (b. 1962)
Megastar actor-filmmaker Stephen Chow is best known internationally for Shaolin Soccer (01) and Kung Fu Hustle (04), whose winning mixture of action, comedy, and Asian-flavored craziness won him a crossover audience in the West. Since then, Chow has directed only two films, the sci-fi comedy CJ7 (08) and the action-fantasy Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (13). Yet despite his reduced output and screen presence, he looms large over Hong Kong cinema.
Rising from TV actor to internationally renowned filmmaker, Chow is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. He started out as the host of a children’s television program before starring in nearly a dozen TVB dramas and then moving on to features, quickly dethroning Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s top box-office draw with All for the Winner (90), a parody of the 1989 Chow Yun-fat hit God of Gamblers. From there, Chow’s career took off like a rocket; he appeared in one hit blockbuster after another, usually opening at Lunar New Year’s, Hong Kong’s peak moviegoing season. In 1992, the five highest-grossing films of the year all starred Chow.
Chow’s success can be traced to his mastery of a Cantonese form of comedy called mo lei tau—loosely defined as nonsense humor constructed from sight gags, puns, complicated wordplay, and deep cultural references. Chow’s grasp of the form soon extended beyond performance into directing, and by the mid-Nineties he was co-directing his starring vehicles including Love on Delivery (94), in which he dispensed justice while wearing an oversized Garfield mask, and From Beijing with Love (94), a James Bond spoof that also takes aim at Jurassic Park and Wong Kar Wai. Subsequent notable Chow films include the Jeff Lau–directed version of Journey to the West, A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 & 2 (95); the Wong Jing–produced Sixty Million Dollar Man (95), featuring Chow as a cyborg with the ability to transform into a rice cooker; and Forbidden City Cop (96), a send-up of flying-swordsman films co-directed by Chow and Vincent Kok.
Though nominally comedies, Chow’s films are surprisingly personal, obsessed with lost love, self-loathing, regret, and redemption, and this emotionally resonant framework may explain their enduring popularity. Within the industry, Chow is a divisive figure—he’s been embroiled in contractual battles with actresses he discovered, and burned innumerable bridges—but his influence is incontestable and his legacy secure. Chow’s time-tested filmography and audience popularity trump his negative press, making him still the most surefire guarantee in commercial Chinese cinema, no matter how many years it takes him to realize his projects.—Ross Chen
Ann Hui (b. 1947)
Still carrying the Hong Kong New Wave torch three decades on, and without question the city’s most successful female director, Ann Hui has charted a singular course in the commerce-driven local industry. Hired to direct for broadcaster TVB in 1975, she first won notice for a string of socially conscious television shorts. These led to her association with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, for which she directed six episodes of the hot-topic ICAC anti-graft series—the first two, dealing with police corruption, were so controversial that they were banned.
After shifting to the government-run Radio Television Hong Kong, her interest in everyday characters came to the fore, most notably with Below the Lion Rock: The Boy from Vietnam (78), about the Vietnamese boat people. Hui’s TV works were often studies for subsequent features and she revisited the plight of Vietnamese refugees on the big screen with both The Story of Woo Viet (81), starring Chow Yun-fat, and the Cannes selection Boat People (82). Hui’s early features were a diverse mix, from the playful ghost flick The Spooky Bunch (80), which became a local hit, to her gently observed, semi-autobiographical mother-daughter immigrant drama Song of the Exile (90), another Cannes pick.
Since the mid-Nineties, Hui’s finest works have focused on local issues and slice-of-life portraits. Summer Snow (95) reaped awards and box-office success with its tale of a middle-aged woman finding herself sidelined in the workplace while coping with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father-in-law. Similarly outstanding, July Rhapsody (02) takes up a male protagonist—a schoolteacher in the midst of a midlife crisis—but garnered fewer box-office returns. More recently, Hui’s observational The Way We Are (08) depicts everyday public-housing life in a remote planned community, while Night and Fog (09) explores the dark side of the same district with a harrowing account of a family murder-suicide based on real events.
Thanks to her critical acclaim and long list of awards, Hui enjoys the status of something like a protected species. Investors have long given her plenty of room to take risks, from her experimental Ordinary Heroes (99), a nonlinear look at political activists, to her ultra-stylized Visible Secret (01), which melds J-horror elements with an intimate relationship drama. And occasionally the investment pays off handsomely, as with A Simple Life (11), an unsentimental portrait of the death of an elderly housekeeper that won four prizes at the Venice Film Festival and became an improbable hit in Hong Kong and China. Any fears that the 66-year-old Hui might choose retirement after such a sweep proved unfounded: the director wasted little time embarking on a new project, The Golden Era, about a female Mainland novelist whose short life was marked by upheaval.—Tim Youngs
Dante Lam (b. 1965)
The comparison runs dangerously close to hyperbole, but if there’s one Hong Kong filmmaker who could be called the “new John Woo,” it’s Dante Lam. With a string of gritty and emotional thrillers over the past six years, he’s shown a knack for marrying action and character. While his films aren’t as deliriously romantic or stylized as Woo’s, Lam’s solid character dramaturgy and technical showmanship have secured his reputation as one of Asia’s top commercial directors.
Lam’s first feature, Option Zero (97), was a cop soap opera depicting the working lives of members of the G4 unit, Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Secret Service. His follow-up, Beast Cops (98), put him in the spotlight: co-directed by his mentor, screenwriter and director Gordon Chan, it took its cop soap opera to delirious heights, mixing nuanced characters with healthy doses of quirkiness and heroic bloodshed.
In the ensuing years, Lam switched between genres, moving from action-comedy to comedy-romance to romance-fantasy, but amid this varied output, he turned in one key film, Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (00), which relates the offbeat tale of a mob boss (Tony Leung Ka-fai) confronting his mortality in the face of a threat on his life. Light on action, Jiang Hu demonstrates Lam’s unusually strong attention to character and emotional expressiveness. Another minor gem from the same period is Runaway (01), a crime comedy about two low-level triad members on vacation in Thailand that further established Lam’s sensibility and kick-started his collaboration with actor Nick Cheung, then considered primarily a comedian. Lam and Cheung went on to team up on the dramatically meaty and kinetic crime drama Beast Stalker (08), which completed Cheung’s transformation from lightweight comedian to heavyweight thespian, as a threatening yet humanized kidnapper. Since then Lam has been on a roll with a run of hard-edged yet emotional action films—Fire of Conscience (10), Stool Pigeon (10), and The Viral Factor (12)—that confirmed him as Hong Kong’s best current action filmmaker. Lam’s profile has continued to rise with his most recent works: the MMA drama Unbeatable (13), in which Nick Cheung sports a newly ripped physique, was Hong Kong’s top-grossing domestic film of 2013, while dark cop thriller That Demon Within (14), again starring Cheung, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.—Ross Chen
(see sidebar, available in print only)
Andy Lau (b. 1961)
If you had to identify Hong Kong cinema with a single actor, it would probably be Andy Lau. Like many Hong Kong performers who rose to prominence in the Eighties, Lau started at television station TVB and worked his way up from bit parts to lead roles in multi-part dramas. His first notable film performance was in Ann Hui’s Boat People (82), and he subsequently appeared in countless films by filmmakers ranging from Wong Jing to Sammo Hung. As a successful pop star, Lau had an early reputation as a lightweight actor but managed to shed that image with roles in Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By (88) and Days of Being Wild (90).
Lau became bankable with the comedy God of Gamblers (89) and the triad saga A Moment of Romance (90). In the latter he plays motorcycle-riding bad boy Wah Dee, a romantic figure still considered his signature role 25 years later. Lau’s star status played a big part in his turn of the century work with director Johnnie To, who hired him to reassure his investors, then promptly lampooned his heartthrob image in hits like Running Out of Time (99), Needing You… (00), and Love on a Diet (01). In To and Wai Ka-fai’s dark reincarnation thriller Running on Karma (03), Lau was even zipped into a latex muscle suit to play a bodybuilding Buddhist monk turned male stripper with the power to see people’s karma. Lau also executive-produced, among others, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (97) and Mainland director Ning Hao’s heist thriller Crazy Stone (06), a sleeper hit.
Currently Lau is the Hong Kong film industry’s standard-bearer, having appeared in some of its most representative films, from the movies of Wong Kar Wai, to the incredibly popular Infernal Affairs trilogy, to Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (11), which Lau both executive produced and starred in. He has also made the transition to successful Mainland Chinese star, while maintaining his status as a top pop singer and public-service spokesperson. There’s a running joke in Hong Kong that people love him so much that if they had the right to vote they’d elect him to be their Chief Executive. Honestly? It’s not so far-fetched.—Ross Chen
Jeff Lau (b. 1952)
Lau is a writer, director, producer, and excavator of talent who has influenced the tastes of millions while often staying behind the scenes. His sensibility encompasses a dizzying range of deep cynicism, romantic sentimentality, broad slapstick, deft satire, subversive politics, over-the-top visuals, vulgar dialogue, time travel, reincarnation, musical numbers, animated interludes, insane characterizations, and gleeful send-ups of classical Chinese literature. His East Meets West 2011 tells the story of a goth chick who discovers that she is one of the Seven Heavenly Dragons, superpower-endowed Buddhist heroes reincarnated to fight an evil demon. It manages to spoof Batman, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the cult of celebrity, and organized religion while pulling off stop-on-a-dime gear shifts from hilarity to heartbreak.
Lau got his start as the producer of some of the most important New Wave films of the early Eighties including Dennis Yu’s The Imp (81), Alex Cheung’s Man on the Brink (81), Patrick Tam’s Nomad (82), and Terry Tong’s Coolie Killer (82). He and then-writer Wong Kar Wai formed a production company, In Gear, which produced Lau’s directorial debut, Haunted Cop Shop (87), as well as Wong’s As Tears Go By (88). Then Lau’s All for the Winner (90), a parody of the popular film God of Gamblers featuring hitherto-dramatic actor Stephen Chow, became one of Hong Kong’s all-time biggest hits, made Chow a star, and transformed their particular style of mo lei tau (nonsense comedy) into the city’s most popular genre.
Lau spent the early Nineties producing Wong Kar Wai’s massive wuxia film Ashes of Time (94), directing his own films to prop up the budget of Wong’s boondoggle, and stepping in to direct Eagle Shooting Heroes (93), a preemptive send-up of Wong’s movie, complete with the same cast and story, thereby fulfilling their contract with the distributor and saving Wong from a lawsuit. But Lau’s true creative response to Ashes was his two-part Chinese Odyssey (95), starring Stephen Chow as the Monkey King and featuring many of the same locations and characters as Ashes. The movie was a high-water mark for Hong Kong cinema, and lines from the film are still quoted today. It also saw Chow abandon his anything-goes, Zucker Brothers style of moviemaking for more carefully crafted, character-based comedies. Returning to Lau after an eight-year break, Wong produced Lau’s Chinese Odyssey 2002, and his subsequent send-ups of Chinese period dramas helped make him one of Mainland China’s most popular comedy filmmakers, turning out what can only be described as “Jeff Lau Films.”—Grady Hendrix
Pang Ho-cheung (b. 1973)
Hong Kong cinema’s onetime enfant terrible, Pang Ho-cheung now runs his own miniature hipster empire, producing and directing films that are wildly popular with the cynical, media-saturated set. His recent movies have scored so decisively at the box office that his name has become like a brand for topical, high-concept, low-budget movies spiked with sharp dialogue and sexual candor, plus must-watch end-credit sequences.
Breaking into the industry with his self-produced short, Summer Exercise (99), Pang worked as a screenwriter on clever but largely forgotten crime films like Undercover Blues (00) and The Cheaters (01). Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai turned his novel, Fulltime Killer, into their 2001 action thriller of the same name, and that year Pang made his feature debut with the low-budget You Shoot, I Shoot (01). A satirical hit-man movie about both the Hong Kong economic crisis and the film business, You Shoot, I Shoot marked the arrival of a witty and creative talent who may have seen too many movies. But Pang’s deep love of genre filmmaking is balanced by his emphasis on social messages and character development. Men Suddenly in Black (03) is an adultery comedy full of references to gangster films and heroic-bloodshed movies, while AV (05) is about deluded teens and their fascination with Japanese porn.
Pang’s Isabella (06), a sober drama about a young girl looking for her father, was a breakthrough on the festival circuit and solidified the director’s longtime partnership with actor/producer Chapman To. Pang returned to his signature ebullience with Exodus (07), a dry-as-the-desert comedy about a cop who uncovers a female global conspiracy to destroy men; Trivial Matters (07), an omnibus film based on his short stories (some segments lasting mere minutes); and the high-budget ultraviolent slasher Dream Home (10), a black comedy about the Hong Kong housing crisis. Unfortunately none of them were hits.
Pang finally achieved commercial success equal to his cinéaste credibility with the sharply written romantic comedies Love in a Puff (10) and Love in the Buff (12), about a couple who meet on smoking breaks during work hours. But it was Vulgaria (12), starring Chapman To and shot in a mere 12 days, that cemented Pang’s place in Hong Kong cinema. A celebratory ode to Hong Kong’s reputation as a realm of vulgarity—in both linguistic and cinematic terms—the movie is about a producer coerced into making gangster-financed soft porn (and possibly having sex with a mule). It improbably became one of Hong Kong’s top domestic grossers of the year. Following Vulgaria’s lead, the Pang-produced comedy SDU: Sex Duties Unit (13) opened strong at the Hong Kong box office but, like Vulgaria, couldn’t be released in Mainland China due to its racy content. But its main hook was that it’s branded as another “Pang Ho-cheung Film.”—Ross Chen
(see sidebar, available in print only)
Wong Jing (b. 1955)
Poop jokes and poolside bikini parties never grow old in the cinema of Wong Jing, famed as Hong Kong’s prime purveyor of bad taste. With more than 200 credits as writer, director, or producer, Wong strives to have something for everyone—no matter how lowbrow he has to go.
The son of prolific director Wong Tin-lam, Wong started out as a television scriptwriter at TVB before moving to Shaw Brothers and directing 1981’s Challenge of the Gamesters. Making comedies focused on gambling and lotharios on the loose, Wong turned old Cantonese-cinema chestnuts into the stuff of blockbusters, culminating in the record-breaking God of Gamblers (89), starring Chow Yun-fat as a dapper card shark with amnesia and Andy Lau as the street tough who befriends him.
Wong’s filmography contains countless lowest-common-denominator quickies, like the tasteless Raped by an Angel softcore series (1993-2000), whose five installments spanned uniform fetishes, political sex scandals, and rapists forming a union. Today Wong is a brand, offering everything from trashy exploitation thrills in films such as Naked Killer (92), a cult fave about an underground war between lesbian assassins, to raucous comedies like Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters (13), an inane family crowd-pleaser.
But Wong defies pigeonholing. As a producer, he’s had a hand in a slew of trend-setting films, like the Young and Dangerous series (96-13)—which spans six films directed by Andrew Lau through to prequels, spin-offs, and a reboot—as well as attempts to battle Hollywood imports with CG-saturated epics like The Duel (00). And not everything’s necessarily sensational in Wong’s world: he also backed three of Ann Hui’s recent dramas, starting with her art-house-friendly The Way We Are (08).
As filmgoers increasingly look for more sophisticated cinema, Wong has shifted smoothly to Hong Kong–Mainland co-productions to expand his audience, turning out trendy period epics like The Last Tycoon (12) as called for. But he still covers his bases by continuing to fly the Canto-comedy flag in Hong Kong, offering a seemingly endless string of pictures with distinctly local appeal, from the low-budget My Wife Is a Gambling Maestro (08) and MicroSex Office (11) to this year’s high-end action comedy From Vegas to Macau, starring Chow
Herman Yau (b. 1961)
It took just three films to crown Herman Yau as Hong Kong’s splatter king. As if the true-crime horrors of human-meat buns in The Untold Story (93) weren’t enough, the director upped the ante with the B-movie tale of an everyman’s brutal revenge against cab drivers in Taxi Hunter (93) and, most depraved of all, the gruesome viral mayhem of Ebola Syndrome (96).
Yet to dwell on the gore oozing from Yau’s 59-film filmography is to sell him short. A workaholic, as well as a noted cinematographer (Tsui Hark calls him “the fireman” and has frequently hired him to rescue troubled productions), he specializes in delivering a steady stream of quality B-grade cinema and is adept at stretching budgets, assembling value-for-money casts, and satisfying genre expectations. Since his directorial debut, No Regret (87), Yau has deftly hopped from one genre to another, turning out as many as five releases per year.
But even when working fast, Yau leaves a personal stamp on his output. His noted early efforts in the Troublesome Night horror anthology series (now at 18 installments) delivered the green-lit ghoul action, but also added smart diversions, from the culturally taboo topic of camaraderie among mortuary staff in part three (98) to a grim look at media ethics in part six (99). Then there’s Walk In (97), a story about a body-swapping cop that combines gunplay, supernatural comedy, romance, musings about Hong Kong identity, and a double-decker bus chase.
Yau’s filmmaking is also deeply informed by local Hong Kong political and social issues. From the Queen to the Chief Executive (01) dramatizes the plight of youth offenders detained indefinitely without sentencing. Whispers and Moans (07) and True Women for Sale (08) are humanist melodramas centered on prostitutes and based on extensive research by screenwriter Yeeshan Yang, who spent a year interviewing sex workers.
Yau’s 2013 postwar drama Ip Man: The Final Fight, about martial-arts grandmaster Ip Man, delivers action in spades yet also devotes time to Ip’s philosophy, local history including scenes of mass labor protest, and homages to classic Hong Kong cinema. It’s a movie that pulls together all the qualities of Yau’s long career, including his social and political concerns, into one sleek, marketable package.—Tim Youngs
Donnie Yen (b. 1963)
When Jackie Chan and Jet Li left for Hollywood in the late Nineties, and everyone was wondering where the next big action star would come from, the answer was right under their noses. Donnie Yen was a longtime also-ran in Hong Kong films, playing either bad guys in big movies, or good guys in small movies, and nobody imagined that less than a decade later he’d be the biggest action star in the world. Yen has annoyed people by comparing himself to Bruce Lee, but the two stars have much in common, most notably the fact that neither got their big break until they were well into their careers, Lee at age 31, Yen at 43.
Yen was born in China, but raised in Boston, where his mother, Mark Bow-sim, a tai chi master, taught him wushu and tai chi. In the early Eighties he went to China for two years to train with the Beijing Wushu Team, and on his way home stopped off in Hong Kong and met action director Yuen Wo-ping. Yuen was looking to replicate his collaboration with Jackie Chan on the kind of kung-fu comedies, like 1978’s Drunken Master, that had made their names, and he was thrilled to discover that Yen knew multiple martial-arts styles (plus break dancing). Yuen put him in Drunken Tai Chi (84), then co-starred with him in Mismatched Couples (85), a contemporary kung-fu comedy featuring Yen popping and locking his heart out. It was a huge flop. Yen returned to Boston where he developed a slick, savage martial-arts style that would stand out on screen, and three years later he was back in Hong Kong appearing in (and co-choreographing) a series of Yuen B-list action pictures like Tiger Cage (88) and In the Line of Duty 4 (89).
Yuen brought Yen with him when he directed the action for Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II (92), in which he played a righteous but conflicted Qing general—for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He went on to play an evil eunuch in Tsui’s Dragon Inn (92) and star in Tsui and Yuen’s ebullient period wirework movie, Iron Monkey (93), but then he hit a nine-year slump. He worked in Hollywood on Blade II (02) and Shanghai Knights (03), but except for an appearance in Zhang Yimou’s prestigious Jet Li vehicle Hero (02), he was considered a has-been. Then came SPL (aka Kill Zone), his out-of-nowhere 2005 collaboration with director Wilson Yip. A tough, dynamic showcase for Yen’s action choreography that by now combined judo, wushu, MMA
fighting, wrestling, and boxing, the movie launched a string of collaborations between the two men, paying dividends at the box office and delivering Yen multiple Best Action Choreography awards.
Their partnership hit its high point with Ip Man (08) and Ip Man 2 (10),
a two-part biopic of Bruce Lee’s wing chun teacher. Not since Jet Li played Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China movies has an actor stepped so comfortably into a role. The very picture of Chinese cool, an avatar of Confucian virtue, Yen’s Ip Man has become a screen icon who has inspired prequels, sequels, and rip-offs across Asia while making Yen a massively bankable star in Mainland China. With a third Ip Man movie slated for 2015, he has become a bona fide box-office king.—Grady Hendrix
Miriam Yeung (b. 1974)
Miriam Yeung is Hong Kong cinema’s ugly duckling turned beautiful swan. These days she’s everything you’d expect from an award-winning actress: versatile, accomplished, and able to turn on the glamour in a heartbeat. She’s come a long way from her clumsy beginnings, entering showbiz in the mid-Nineties when, as a nurse, she started winning singing contests. Record deals followed and, as is the norm for new Cantopop singers, so did film projects. She made her debut in 1998 with appearances in youth drama Rumble Ages and minor actioner The Group, but it wasn’t until she scored the plain-Jane lead in Joe Ma’s Dummy Mommy, Without a Baby (01) that she broke through.
Ma, then on a roll as producer-director of slick middlebrow commercial films, regarded Yeung as his ideal dowdy everygirl. Playing an office worker pretending to be pregnant, she won over audiences with her unpolished performance and infectious laugh. Yeung and Ma reteamed with even greater success on his cop comedies Love Undercover (02) and Love Undercover 2 (03), with the actress reprising her everygirl role (only now as a shambolic patrol cop), with touches of improv creeping in, including moments that looked suspiciously like outtakes of the young actress cracking up. Other filmmakers soon cottoned on to the fact that audiences adored Yeung’s rough edges.
The turning point came when Yeung ditched her casual look and glammed it up as a fading, wealthy, middle-aged woman seeking an elixir of youth in Fruit Chan’s sordid Dumplings. By the time Law Wing-cheong gave her emotionally demanding roles in the breast-cancer drama 2 Become 1 (06) and the decade-spanning Hooked on You (07), a gentle drama set in a community market, Yeung had matured into a polished screen talent.
These days Yeung faces stiff competition as makers of Hong Kong–Mainland co-productions often pair Hong Kong leading men with Mainland actresses. But she has continued to make her mark, in particular with Pang Ho-cheung’s streetwise romantic comedies Love in a Puff (10) and Love in the Buff (12), which not only made her a local romantic icon but netted her Best Actress at the 2013 Hong Kong Film Awards.—Tim Youngs
Wilson Yip (b. 1965)
Currently one of Hong Kong’s most successful mainstream directors, Wilson Yip has yet to find a comfort zone between his commercial and personal impulses. He started out as an assistant director, but his early films were standard programmers like Daze Raper (95) and the horror anthology Midnight Zone (97). His deconstructed triad drama Mongkok Story (96) and cynical comedy Teaching Sucks! (97), however, demonstrated a prodigious talent for quirky humor and memorable characters. His discovery at the hands of fans came with Bio Zombie (98), a cheap horror film set in a shopping mall that riffed on Dawn of the Dead with surprisingly sharp humor and a downbeat ending.
Yip followed up with his cop film Bullets Over Summer (99) and another triad drama Juliet in Love (00); in terms of characterization and execution, both far exceeded audience expectations. Bullets sees a standard stake-out movie transformed into a shaggy dog story about a surrogate family, while Juliet mixes traditional triad bloodletting with weightier plot elements such as breast cancer, babysitting, and a doomed love affair. These character-driven genre films feel original and alive, and signaled the emergence of a major voice.
All of Yip’s early films were box-office flops, and he spent the next five years on for-hire commercial projects in multiple genres, with only light horror-comedy The Mummy, Aged 19 (02) showing any personality. But he found his feet again with SPL (aka Kill Zone, 05), a high-impact cop thriller starring the actor now most identified with Yip’s oeuvre, soon-to-be martial-arts superstar Donnie Yen. SPL kicked off a string of increasingly popular Yip + Yen films. Comic-book adaptation Dragon Tiger Gate (06) and gritty actioner Flash Point (07) solidified the pair’s partnership, while Ip Man (08) and Ip Man 2 (10) earned critical acclaim and blockbuster grosses across Asia. While lacking the personal touches of Yip’s earlier films, this impressive run made the director and his star international names.
Despite his success, Yip’s output outside his collaborations with Yen has not gained much traction with critics or audiences. Until he can fuse his commercial instincts with his personal vision, Yip will likely remain just a step below Hong Kong cinema’s very best. His next project, however, is guaranteed money in the bank: Ip Man 3 in 3-D, starring Donnie Yen, naturally.—Ross Chen