Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985) — July 15, 2013
Added January 15, 2022:
The first time I watched this, I remember thinking there wasn’t nearly enough Lam Ching-ying in it, that he was sidelined for a bunch of mediocre Ricky Hui hijinks. And I didn’t remember Moon Lee at all. But this time, I barely noticed Hui — Billy Lau is the annoying one, but he really isn’t on screen much either. Instead, Lam dominates the film, at least any scene that Moon Lee doesn’t steal. (Me describing the cast to my wife, who sat down in the middle of the movie for a bit: Lam Ching-ying was a great stunt man and martial artist, a close friend of Bruce Lee; Ricky Hui was part of a famous comedy family in the 70s; Moon Lee is, well, perfect). Far from detracting from the whole, the slapstick comedy bits are perfectly balanced with the action and horror elements. It really is an ideal combination of everything that made early 80s Hong Kong film so great.
I think the first time I saw it, I was expecting another Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and was disappointed that it didn’t have enough action and that the comedy was sillier and that it lacked Sammo’s hard edge. I had the same problem with The Dead and the Deadly when I first watched it. But rewatching clarified that film’s greatness, just as this rewatch has done for Mr. Vampire. Odds are I’ll rewatch Encounters and be disappointed by it.
Iron Angels (Teresa Woo, 1987) — July 20, 2020
Teresa Woo wrote, produced, and directed this foundational Girls with Guns movie, a riff on Charlie’s Angels with Shaw Brothers veteran David Chiang as the guy in charge of a team of super mercenaries. He doesn’t do any fighting, but he does get to fly the helicopter. At one point he takes off his jacket like he’s about to fight, but then thinks better of it. The Angels are two women (a girl next door type played by Moon Lee and a more flamboyant woman who sings in a nightclub and wears deadly accessories played by Elaine Lui) and one guy, a Japanese martial artist played by pop singer Saijo Hideki (he had a hit with the Japanese version of “YMCA”).
The team is hired by the Hong Kong police (funded entirely by the American DEA) to deal with an international criminal organization that has been killing cops in retaliation for the cops’ burning the poppy fields of the Golden Triangle. The bad guys are led by Ōshima Yukari, a Japanese actress who, after her career in Hong Kong dried up, went on to success in the Philippines under the name “Cynthia Luster”.
Like a lot of low-budget action films, there’s way too much plot and not enough of the connective tissue that makes stories and characters work, but the fight scenes and stunts are really good, creative, dangerous, and often genuinely insane. They were choreographed by Tony Leung Siu-hung, The Other Other Tony Leung. An assault on a mansion anticipates the finale of A Better Tomorrow II by two months, albeit on a much smaller budget and with significantly less talent and dramatic weight. And the final fight between Moon Lee and Ōshima Yukari is worth all the abrupt scene transitions and nonsensical plotting that leads up to it.
Iron Angels II (Teresa Woo, 1988) — January 20, 2021
The Angels go on vacation in Kuala Lumpur (“do they have koala bears there?” asks Moon or Elaine, I couldn’t tell which). There they meet up with the guy-Angel’s old college buddies, one of whom is a CIA agent who is spying on the other one, because he is attempting to spark a socialist revolution with a few dozen guys and a whole lot of guns in the jungle.
Admirably short on anything in the way of backstory or characterization, it pretty much just zips along from one action set piece to another. (That is, aside from a brief aside where the boys engage in some frat-level transphobia at a local club.)
The fights are, like the first one, quick and brutal, with lots of explosions and great choreography. Moon Lee’s climactic showcase fight isn’t quite as spectacular as her fight in the first one, but it’s pretty good. She looks eerily like a smaller, cuter Sammo Hung.
Teresa Woo directed again, but Stanley Tong is credited as “acting director.” Which is either insane, because Stanley Tong is not a good director of actors at all, or a mistranslation of "action director," which is what Tong is best known for in his work with Jackie Chan. The film’s final third, set entirely in the jungle, is very reminiscent of the middle section of Tong’s Supercop (made five years later). I don’t know, but I’m confident that Teresa Woo is a more interesting filmmaker than Stanley Tong.
Devil Hunters (Tony Lou Chun-ku, 1989) – May 2, 2022
The subtitles on the file I have of this kept going increasingly out of sync, by over 90 seconds at the end, but weirdly that just kind of highlights the basic structure of the plot: a couple people talk for two minutes, followed by an action sequence or chase. There’s almost nothing in the way of plot or character here: Moon Lee and Sibelle Hu are on the opposite sides of the law, but team up to take down Francis Ng, who has betrayed his mob boss and killed lots of people in hopes of recovering the boss’s hidden stash of precious gems, which apparently he plans to use to fund further criminal activities. Ray Lui runs around too, but I’m not sure how, if at all he fits into the equation. I think he’s just out for revenge against Ng.
The only other film I’ve seen from director Tony Lou Chun-ku is Dreaming the Reality, and that had all kinds of characters and plot (Lee with amnesia, Hu kickboxing, Oshima Yukari doing stuff). But this really is one non-stop action delivery device. Fortunately that action is pretty great. It’s a shame they incinerated Lee and Hu with a mistimed pyrotechnic stunt at the end. We’re all very lucky they survived.
Iron Angels III (Teresa Woo, 1989) — March 23, 2021
It probably says something about something that the further along these movies go the more they’re about the Angel men doing stuff than the Angel women.
Moon Lee dominates the first half of this, as a spy infiltrating a gang of terrorists in Thailand, single-handedly beating the hell out of scores of generic bad guys, but then almost disappears for the second. She doesn’t even get to take part in the final fight.
On the other hand, that fight does involves hordes of soldiers who don’t understand the concept of “cover” getting mowed down over and over and a couple of guys flying around in jet packs equipped with built-in machine guns, so it isn’t a total loss.
Princess Madam (Godfrey Ho, 1989) — March 23, 2021
One of the cool things about the Angels movies that Teresa Woo made with Moon Lee is that even though the plots are silly, the acting generally bad, and the dialogue worse, the action scenes are all creative and carefully put together, performed and shot. Woo makes sparing use of slow motion: the best thing about Lee’s fights are their speed.
This film (also called Angel Protection, depending on whether it's trying to capitalize on the Angels series or the Yes, Madam series) was not directed by Teresa Woo. It’s a Godfrey Ho film, the first one I’ve seen, and it’s one of the laziest Hong Kong action films I’ve seen in awhile. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many kicks and punches fail to connect — a matter of framing and editing more than performance or choreography.
And so much slow motion too. One of the many tones Ho appears to be aping is that of John Woo’s The Killer, and well, this ain’t it. But for the three main actresses, this would be just plain bad.
Fatal Termination (Andrew Kam, 1990) — March 25, 2021
The thing about Moon Lee movies is that there’s never enough Moon Lee in them. In this one she doesn’t do hardly anything at all, and nothing until the last third of the film.
Instead it’s a generic cop movie about Simon Yam tracking down a ring of arms dealers (the clients appear to be Australian actors dressed up as “Middle Eastern men”). This somehow involves the airport and corrupt customs officials and ends up with just about everyone dead.
Notable for large quantities of guns that don’t shoot straight and child endangerment stunts that seem reckless even by 80s Hong Kong standards.
Dreaming the Reality (Tony Lou Chun-ku, 1991) – January 16, 2022
Ostensibly an ideal paring of Moon Lee and Oshima Yukari, who dueled so memorably in Teresa Woo’s Iron Angels, but ultimately stolen by Sibelle Hu. Lee and Oshima play two women who have been raised since childhood by Eddy Ko to be the perfect assassins. Moon starts to feel some human emotions when one of their hits incinerates a van-full of children, but things really go wrong on a mission to Thailand, where Moon gets knocked unconscious and catches a nasty case of amnesia. This is where the other part of the film, which has actually taken up most of the running time, becomes relevant.
Sibelle Hu plays a foul-mouthed ex-cop who drinks and gambles at the local underground kickboxing matches. Her younger brother dreams of being a fighter, and gets involved with a skeevy local gangster. There are several lengthy, and excellent, fights, with Hu herself eventually taking on a top fighter to protect her brother. Amnesiac Moon hooks up with Hu’s brother, just as the gangster starts sending masses of anonymous guys with machine guns after him and Oshima and her silent and psychotic “brother” also track them all down. Lots of shooting ensues. Our heroines get shot several times each, but that doesn’t slow them down. It’s everything you want in a Girls with Guns movie: brutal fights, charismatic performances, and insane plotting.
Bury Me High (Tsui Siu-ming, 1991) — March 22, 2021
Just as depressing an action movie as Mirage, with the three leads (Chin Ka-lok, Moon Lee, and director Tsui Siu-ming) fighting the tyrannical Yuen Wah in a fictional Southeast Asian country, but really just playing out the destinies ordained by their parents thanks to the placement of certain graves at certain key locations. History literally haunting the geopolitical and personal present.
It’s all underscored by a highly expressive use of smoke and shadows and those distinctive HK reds and blues. As well as Tsui used the desert locations in Mirage, he uses the cliches of Hong Kong lighting here.
Not as much action as Mirage, but what there is is terrific, as you’d expect with this cast and crew. Chin especially gets a lot of great stunts and fights, but Tsui under-utilizes Lee. She really only gets a couple fights and one completely insane stunt. Tsui does almost set himself on fire, again, though.