We all need someone to revere when times are tough, and with superheroes dominating at the box office the world over, the genre has never been more popular. Hong Kong cinema has always venerated their own heroes, Wong Fei Hung (a real-life martial artist and healer who lived in Southern China at the end of the 19th century) is the most well-known, appearing in multiple black and white films and a TV series throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. He is righteous, patriotic and renowned for his Kung-Fu ability, something he has in common with most Chinese heroes. The golden era was a playground for the defenders of the weak, defeating tyranny with an iron fist and a shadow-less kick.
DRUNKEN MASTER (Dir. Yuen Woo Ping, 1978)
Jackie Chan’s breakout film sees him playing a younger more rambunctious version of Wong Fei Hung, who is trained in the Drunken Fist by Beggar So (also a classic folk character and part of the Chinese version of the Avengers - The Ten Tigers of Canton). Chan’s energy and acrobatic ability ignite the screen, and his chemistry with So (played by Simon Yuen, the director’s father) is genuine. Select the original Cantonese version, which fleshes out Hwang Jang Lee’s villain, and sees the protagonists reciting drunk poetry. It will enhance what is already a stone-cold classic.
THE PRODIGAL SON (Dir. Sammo Hung, 1981)
Yuen Biao plays a fictionalised version of real-life Wing Chun practitioner Leung Jun, whose rich parents pay martial artists to lose to him, so he doesn’t get hurt. When he is humiliated by an effeminate opera performer played by Lam Ching Ying, he strives to learn the art for real. Wing Chun, which is more of a close-quarter art, made famous by Bruce Lee, had rarely been seen on screen. As director, Sammo uses this innovative style mixed with brutal violence to create a visceral and pioneering from of action. With a homage to the cast’s Peking Opera past, the film is a turning point, introducing a form of action that would colour the decade to come.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (Dir. Tsui Hark, 1991)
Traditionally the character of Wong Fei Hung was used as a side character, considered too strong and powerful to encounter any real threat. Tsui Hark cleverly makes history itself the enemy, with Jet Li’s stoic hero becoming the protagonist in tumultuous turn of the century Foshan. Western powers are dominating the land, with little left for the Chinese. Wong helps opera dogsbody and wannabe student Foon (Yuen Biao on impressive form as usual) in a quarrel with gangsters, only to discover a greater plot concerning an American captain using Chinese labourers as slaves. This film has gravitas, with fleshed-out characters, impressive sets, a wonderful soundtrack, and of course impressive set pieces, featuring Jet at the top of his game. The magic created here has been replicated many times but never improved.
IRON MONKEY (Dir. Yuen Woo Ping, 1993)
Donnie Yen plays Wong Fei Hung’s father; Wong Kei-ying (another member of The Ten Tigers) who arrives at a small village with his son in tow, only to encounter a corrupt general and a masked vigilante called Iron Monkey. Naturally, the two must join forces to fight for the rights of the people. There is a good analogy made between ingredients in a soup and how individuals get caught up in a given situation. Luckily for the citizens in this situation, they have two awesome heroes on hand to dispatch the villain in an unforgettable fight on wooden poles above a raging fire. Hot stuff!
THE LEGEND OF FONG SAI YUK (Dir. Cory Yuen, 1993)
Jet Li plays another folk hero, one which probably didn’t exist, but his prestige is almost equal to Wong Fei Hung. He is younger and unrulier than the martial artist and healer, with an overbearing mother who is also a martial arts expert. Fong is introduced to us as a great athlete, easily winning a tournament as his pigtail floats in the air, an odd concept but one that masterfully shows the power of the young man. He soon comes to the aid of The Red Flower Society, an organisation looking to overthrow the government, of which his Dad is a key member. This sets him on a collision course with Vincent Zhao’s governor (Vincent would go on to replace Jet in the Once Upon a Time in China series) with two excellent fights that capture the energy of this period. There is an odd subplot featuring a woman falling in love with Fong’s Mum dressed as a man, strange to western eyes, however you watch these films not only for the action but the unique cultural perspective. Again, Jet is the master of the personable but stern hero, something we can all look up to.
Click here for ESSENTIAL HONG KONG TOP 5: SUPERNATURAL KUNG-FU
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For more from author Jacob Walker, visit his website www.jakeonfilm.com