The Prodigal Son (1981) — June 26, 2013
Lam Ching-ying is one of the great supporting actors of kung fu cinema, and this is a great showcase for both his acting and fighting. He plays an opera actor (specializing in female roles, as Lam himself did when he was a stage performer) who reluctantly takes Yuen Biao on as his pupil and teaches him the ways of Wing Chun. At one point Lam and Yuen even sing a duet on stage while fighting, literalizing the oft-remarked similarities between martial arts films and musicals. The first half ends in an inferno, the intensity of which leaves the second feeling more than a little deflationary, despite the presence of Sammo Hung. Sammo doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but his entrance is marked by the Wong Fei-hung theme and he does some acrobatic calligraphy, so it’s got that going for it.
There’s something stewing around here about authenticity, about two rich boys who think they’re great fighters that need to be educated about the real world by an actor, a professional faker who shaves his eyebrows and hides his asthma.
Added July 29, 2017:
Maybe Sammo’s most sophisticated plot, at least structurally with all the doubling (rich failsons, masters, villains, even more villainous bodyguards, etc), but mostly just an exceptional showcase for Lam Ching-ying, who by all accounts performs some of the best Wing Chun ever seen on film. A kind of response to Lau Kar-leung’s ideal of authenticity of martial art forms: where Lam’s kung fu is pure but incomplete, only Sammo’s improvisations upon it are able to fulfill its true purpose, which is explicitly and unabashedly deadly violence. No spiritual mumbo jumbo for Sammo the materialist: kung fu is not an art, it’s about poking the other guy in the eye then kicking him in the balls. But with style.
Carry On, Pickpocket (1982) — July 27, 2017
Sammo plays the rounder part of a pickpocketing gang, with Frankie Chan as the thin part and veteran Lau Hak-suen as their elderly teacher. It opens with demonstrations of technique, Bresson all sped up, then settles down for a club sequence that ranks as one of Sammo’s best. He shyly flirts with Deanie Ip, he does Chaplin’s roll dance, he discos, he gets into a fight. Pure Sammo.
Then the plot kicks in: Deanie wants Sammo and Chan (character names: Rice Pot and Chimney) to steal diamonds from some bad guys. Bumbling along on their trail is cop Richard Ng. There are many fights, balanced well with the comic sequences, and then the final battle gets weirdly bloody.
Chan doesn’t have the star presence of Yuen Biao, who probably should have played this role, but he moves with a lithe grace that contrasts nicely with Sammo’s plump form. Sammo’s scenes with Ip are lovely, though there’s much unexplained about her character and their romance (she has a kid?). He won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and his fine performance points ahead to his even better work with Mabel Cheung and Alex Law at the end of the decade.
Wheels on Meals (1984) — May 24, 2013
Some of the best action and worst clothing of the 1980s.
Added July 9, 2013:
Just as much fun the second time around. Saw a lot of things I wished I’d mentioned on the podcast, but most especially the fairy tale elements of the film. Three Chinese immigrants go to Europe, rescue a princess and defeat all the evil white men, in the end by appropriating and integrating the style and weaponry of the Three Musketeers.
The three leads also appear to be engaged in a game of “who can wear the ugliest jacket”.
Plus Sammo has a new hat in every scene.
Added July 16, 2020:
I’ve known two different women in my life who looked very much like Sylvia (Lola Forner). Both were incredibly cool.
Something about this I just learned from Wikipedia: it had a video game tie-in under the film’s Japanese title, “Spartan X”. That game was released internationally as “Kung Fu Master”, which inspired the Agnès Varda film of the same name. So technically, Varda is a part of the World of Sammo.
18 years ago this week, we were in Barcelona for our honeymoon. This is my favorite Barcelona movie, though I don’t recall hearing any Cantonese when we were there.
Added July 17, 2021:
Family movie night.
9 year old: 10/10. Liked the outfits and the fighting and the jokes. Biao was her favorite.
8 year old: 10/10. Liked the fighting. Jackie was his favorite.
Millionaire’s Express (1986) — September 26, 2013
Like one of those all-star light adventure comedies Hollywood put out in the era between, say, Around the World in 80 Days and Cannonball Run (big cast, little plot, less character), but this one has Sammo Hung fighting Cynthia Rothrock so it’s pretty good.
Added July 30, 2017:
Maybe the best cast of any 1980s Hong Kong film, but it feels like it could have used another hour of plot. As it is, things don’t make a lot of sense and subplots are dropped wholesale during the big final fight (Jimmy Wang Yu and Shih Kien, for example). Tremendous falling from buildings though.
Eastern Condors (1987) — July 8, 2017
A little over four years ago, I rented this on a whim and was so taken with it I launched the Summer of Sammo, followed by a still-ongoing deep dive into Chinese Cinema. Revisiting it now, the shock of the new is gone: Sammo’s lunatic mixing of tones and iconography is more familiar, as are the faces of his supporting cast: the only one I knew the first time I saw this was Dr. Haing S. Ngor, Oscar Winner. But this is one of the most impressive collections of talent ever put together in Hong Kong: Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo-ping, Peter Chan and Wu Ma, Dick Wei and Billy Chow, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah and Lam Ching-ying, Max Mok and Hsiao Ho and Kurata Yasuaki. But familiarity hasn’t dulled my appreciation: it’s still an amazing action movie, with some of Sammo’s best stunts (the leaf thing is still a killer) and prime supporting roles for Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah. The latter especially is astounding, maybe his best showcase outside of Kung Fu Hustle?
One thing I didn’t pick up on the first time: Joyce Godenzi and her Cambodian guerrillas are in Vietnam fighting the army there in 1976, which would make them agents of the Khmer Rouge. And it’s Godenzi who kills Haing Ngor. That’s messed up, even for Sammo.
Pedicab Driver (1989) — July 28, 2017
Wheels on Meals is probably his best film overall, but this is Sammo’s best mix of drama and action, his finest exploration of the improvised communities formed under migration-imposed poverty, their toxic ideologies and the spirit of fellowship that can counteract them. Plus it's got three all-time great fights: the opening union meeting clash, the final fight with Billy Chow, and of course the showdown with Lau Kar-leung, the only on-screen meeting of the two most important fight choreographers of the past 50 years.
One thing I didn’t pick up on in my Summer of Sammo review four years ago: during the wedding night attack, the cook who sleeps through it all is Lam Ching-ying. Recognizing him, we keep expecting him to wake up and come to the rescue of the young couple. He doesn’t, the movie is too tragic for that.
Moon Warriors (1992) — July 19, 2017
Probably the most beautiful and most romantic movie Sammo Hung ever made, the latter likely thanks to the team of Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, who are credited for writing the script and planning, respectively, but may have each directed parts of the film, along with Lam Ching-ying. The action is credited to Ching Siu-tung (along with Corey Yuen, Chin Kar-lok, and Bruce Law), and in many respects the movie is of a piece with the wire-fu wuxias Ching was churning out with Tsui Hark in the early 90s (the Swordsman series and the like). Except Sammo holds his shots, eschewing Ching's blinding editing. Combined with the distanced set-ups necessary to hide the fact that none of the primary cast (Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Kenny Bee) are actual martial artists, this leads to long takes of stunt performers dancing amidst wildly colorful landscapes, sun slanting through bamboo groves or burning incandescently in the afternoon sky (this is the same phantasmagoric sky Tsui finds at the finale of The Lovers).
And yet, Sammo being Sammo, he undercuts all this lush, bloody romanticism by having Andy Lau's best friend be an orca named, in the subtitles I saw, "Sea-Wayne".
Blade of Fury (1993) — July 28, 2017
Sammo hops on the patriotic wuxia train in the wake of Once Upon a Time in China and Tiananmen Square and comes up with this film about reformers fighting conservatives in the wake of the 1895 capitulation to Japan. Ti Lung is a leading reformer, he recruits Yang Fan, a former resistance fighter against the Japanese in Taiwan to come to Beijing and teach the people martial arts. They form a triumvirate of badass fighters with Zhao Chang-jun, a local general. But as they urge the Emperor to move forward with a vague but apparently ambitious set of reforms, they run afoul of a warlord prince, his kung fu master sidekicks, agents all of the Empress Dowager.
Based on the historical Hundred Days’ Reform (Ti Lung plays reformist martyr Tan Sitong), the title recalls Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, itself based on real figures with a tenuous connection to the ones depicted here: Yang Fan’s character Wang Wu was executed during the Boxer Rebellion, and according to legend his body was recovered by one of his students, Huo Yuanjia. Huo was later murdered by the Japanese (maybe), which sparks the revenge quest of Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen (a fictional character) in Fist of Fury.
Unfortunately Ti Lung doesn’t get to do much but stand around looking dignified, but it’s got a rare period performance from Cynthia Khan (star of the later In the Line of Duty films), so that’s cool. Yang Fan apparently only made one other movie, he’s got a kind of a Wong Fei-hung vibe to him, not Jet Li, but maybe Vincent Zhao (or maybe it’s just that the short sword he uses is similar to the one Zhao uses in The Blade). Sammo shows up late in the movie as a prison guard, where he fights with Yang. Like most of the fights in the film it’s bolstered by undercranking. That and the movie’s cartoonish goriness (more like Beheading of Fury) undercut the seriousness of its message. But that’s Sammo for you. His politics are vague, but his populism is always defiantly anti-authoritarian, even if his deep respect for martial skill is not.
Don’t Give a Damn (1995) — July 11, 2017
On the one hand, this movie (also inexplicably known as Burger Cop) is an incredibly silly farce with some decent undercranked fights where Sammo sports a hideous mullet and all the women cops (and there are a lot of them) are desperate to hook up with the male cops and Yuen Biao and Kaneshiro Takeshi spend the last 20 minutes in blackface. On the other hand, its ending is exactly the same as Taste of Cherry.
Sammo, Yuen, and Kaneshiro at dinner:
SH: He is wonderful. he is my boss. A smartass, invincible, well-educated yuppie, Officer Tang.
YB (nods to TK): Sir.
TK: Don’t call me “sir”. When we are in the office, I am his boss. Now we are off, we’re friends, right? You may call me anything.
SH: Well… Jerk, order anything you like.
Sammo interrogating Sean, an injured African-American gangster (note that Sammo’s dialogue is subtitled, while Sean’s is in English) Also, Sammo’s character is named “Pierre”:
Pierre: You bastard! How dare you bomb the police station? Who ordered you?
Sean: Fuck you, I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ motherfucker.
Pierre: You just know talking about the sex organs! You have to use that for pissing!
Sean: Stupid motherfucker. What the fuck you doin’ in here? Get the fuck out. When I get better, I’m gonna bust a cap in your ass. I swear, fuck, by the moon and the stars. . . .(loses consciousness).
Mr. Nice Guy (1997) — July 11, 2017
I can think of no better metaphor for the cinema of Sammo Hung than Jackie Chan driving an enormous dump truck through Richard Norton’s bullshit modernist mansion.