Tsui Hark Capsule Reviews

Tsui Hark Capsule Reviews

The Butterfly Murders (1979) — July 17, 2021

Tsui Hark’s, I don’t know, “Song to Woody”?

Here’s to King Hu and Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen too
And Roger Corman and Dario Argento
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
Who made crazy wuxias time and again

Something like that.

We’re Going to Eat You (1980) — June 8, 2013

I didn’t know how much there needed to be a mash-up of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Anatahan starring a Sam Spade as a badass, if slightly dim, kung fu fighter until I saw this movie. We should give thanks every day that Tsui Hark is here to show us the light.

Dangerous Encounters—First Kind (1980) — June 25, 2013

The DVD I rented looked to be a DVD-R of a VHS recording off of German television, so I just watched it on youtube instead, in a version that mixes together VHS with a high quality digital remaster to fill in all the parts that were censored out of this movie’s various versions. The samizdat quality of the enterprise fits well with the punky, nihilistic tone of the film itself, perhaps the ultimate Hong Kong New Wave expression of the exploitation 70s, from The Wild Bunch through Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Italian giallo cinema. Local flavor comes in the form of the warrens of the HK slums, populated by gangsters, prostitutes, and animal murderers, the perils and parallels of international finance and crime, and the relentless, psychotic, and heavily-armed swarm of muscle-bound white men who care very little for local Asian lives.

Once Upon a Time in China is Tsui Hark’s masterpiece: mature, expansive, and well-smoothed. This is Tsui with all his edges sharp, spiking off in every direction.

Added January 20, 2017:
Starts with our heroine torturing her pet mice, ends on top of a literal mountain of death. Movies don’t get any angrier.

All the Wrong Clues (…For the Right Solution) (1981) — November 27, 2013

Cartoonish parody of film noir from Tsui Hark and Cinema City. It was Tsui’s first hit after his dark and experimental first three films and, somewhat surprisingly, the film was nominated for a bunch of Golden Horse awards, winning for Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. George Lam plays a private eye who is the target for revenge of master criminal Ah-Capone, played by Karl Maka, and his №1 Killer Popeye, played by Eric Tsang. Helping Lam stay alive is the police Chief Inspector, Teddy Robin (actor, director, rock star). While the villains ham it up (Tsang in particular does a credible Tasmanian Devil), Lam’s calm focus almost keeps the film grounded. A scene where he and Robin reminisce on New Year’s Eve about the old days over cold milk at a local bar is even kind of touching, until the world explodes into farcical chaos. Maybe my perception of Lam is colored by having seen his in a brilliant performance the next year in Ann Hui’s Boat People.

Watch for Cantopop pioneer Tang Kee-chan, who plays the elderly conman and also appears running a snack bar and leading the beachside sing-along finale in Happy Ghost II.

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) — July 12, 2021

Tsui Hark said wuxia but make it anime.

Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (1984) — December 4, 2013

Disappointed in this considering Tsui Hark took over the directing reins. He ups the grotesque idiocy of the stars, matches a more composed visual style to more hectic editing, but the joy of the stunt-work that made the second film so enjoyable is lost in the giant effects.

Peking Opera Blues (1986) — July 16, 2021

Tsui Hark’s “All Along the Watchtower”.

I Love Maria (1988) — July 27, 2020

Took me like 15 minutes to recognize Tony Leung in this just because he was wearing glasses.

I imagine the only reason this movie exists is that late one night Tsui Hark watched Metropolis and thought it would be fun to make a robot movie.

Probably should have written a script for it though.

Just Heroes (1989) — August 16, 2015

With Chang Cheh on the edge of late-in-life bankruptcy, a bunch of his friends and admirers got together and threw this film together as a benefit fundraiser. As fun as it is to see Chang’s great stars David Chiang, Chen Kuan-tai, and Ti Lung mixed up in a Triad movie with younger up-and-comers like Danny Lee and Stephen Chow, the whole thing feels like it was rushed into production only half fleshed out. Former Chang assistant directors John Woo and Wu Ma share directing credits, with Tsui Hark producing, and it’s hard to say who was responsible for what. The scenario might have made sense after another couple of drafts, but as is nothing flows together and the central mystery of the film is both blindingly obvious and tonally incoherent.

The Banquet (1991) — December 16, 2013

Hastily thrown together benefit project for victims of a Yangtze river flood, written and directed and shot by a number of people including Tsui Hark, Gordon Chan, Clifton Ko, Wong Jing, and more. Eric Tsang and Sammo Hung are rival real estate developers. In order to convince a Kuwaiti prince to give him the contract to rebuild his country after the war, Tsang tries to convince him of his filial piety. That means reconnecting with his estranged father (Richard Ng), without letting said father in on the scheme. The bulk of the film is Tsang’s preparation for the event, as they try to class up Ng Lady for a Day-style (or Jackie Chan’s Miracles-style) by bringing in a makeup artist (Karl Maka), a fencing instructor (Lau Kar-leung), and a movement expert (Simon Yam). Some weirdly dark scenes of domestic disagreement between Tsang and his wife (Do Do Cheng) bring the mood down, and there isn’t nearly enough of Tony Leung as Tsang’s harried assistant.

The primary pleasure in the film is in trying to identify all the actors and directors who make cameo appearances. I’ve watched about 200 Hong Kong movies this year, so I caught a lot of them, but there are still several I missed (including Johnnie To). Pretty much everyone who was somewhere around the Hong Kong film industry in the fall of 1991 appears except Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, and Wong Kar-wai. My favorite is a short scene between Michael Hui and Stephen Chow, a kind of passing of the comedy superstar torch moment that would have meant nothing to me a month ago, when I had never seen a Michael Hui film.

Twin Dragons (1992) — April 14, 2015

More interesting at the margins than the center, with a who’s who series of cameos ingeniously painting a portrait of Hong Kong cinema as it was in the early 1990s. An example: Lau Kar-leung plays a calm and rational doctor, trying to save a man’s life, when Wong Jing bursts in as a “Supernatural Doctor”, shouts a bunch of nonsense, and trashes the guy’s room. Lau dispatches the quack with a strong punch to the stomach, demonstrating the power and authority of Lau’s intellectual, focused cinema over the inane chaos of Wong. (By the way: this scene is cut out of the American release of the film, because Weinsteins.) Another: the final fight scene is set in a Mitsubishi factory, the only occupants of which are the film’s directors (Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam) and Ng See-yuen, the film’s producer. The three of them are playing cards and take every opportunity they get to cheat and look at each other’s hands, even as the scene around them descends into violence, their primary concern is with topping each other. A third: the love interests of the two Jackie Chans are played by Maggie Cheung and Nina Li Chi. Cheung at this point was well on her way to the international art house, having abandoned the girlfriend roles she perfected in Chan’s Police Story movies and here she falls for the intellectual Chan. Li, playing the daughter of wealthy businessman (veteran director Chor Yuen) falls for the other Chan, the kung fu expert, while in reality she was about to quit the film industry to become an investor and was dating and later married Jet Li.

It’s tempting to read the story in more general terms as well, with Jackie Chan’s twins (one a concert pianist and conductor — he does not play the violin, despite the Miramax DVD cover, which also has the wrong version of Chan as the musician) representing the disparate yearnings of the Hong Kong cinema, between populist entertainment and intellectual meaning. Problem is: Chan doesn’t appear to have ever had any highbrow desires (indeed his performance as the aesthete is wholly unconvincing: “Jackie Chan’s Stardust Memories” this is not) and Tsui Hark never once in his career has recognized a dichotomy between art and entertainment. Indeed, he’s spent his professional life fusing the two.

Chan reportedly hired Tsui because he expected him to be good at special effects (Lam handled the fight scenes) and wasn’t happy with the end-product (I thought they were fine, but I have pretty low standards for such things). Between that and Chan’s famous disputes with Lau Kar-leung on the set of Drunken Master II, I have to question Chan’s state of mind and sense of his own artistic limitations in the early 1990s. Also an indicator of hubristic egotism: thinking he can get away with that ponytail.

Wicked City (1992) — March 17, 2017

Roy Cheung turns into a giant octopus demon and rides an airplane that may be an illusion, but no it’s a real plane, but it’s an illusion, but no it’s real.

Leon Lai and Jacky Cheung and Yuen Woo-ping all wear glasses, though none of them actually appear to need vision correction.

Sometimes they wear sunglasses. At night.

This is about Hong Kong being surreptitiously taken over by demons disguised as humans, which hints at an allegory of the Handover. Except the evil demons (there are some good ones) are ruthlessly capitalistic drug dealers. The drug they sell is literally called “Happiness”. So it’s also an allegory of Western imperialism. It’s also an adaptation of a novel by Japanese writer Kikuchi Hideyuki, so it might really be about Japan. But after a prologue in Tokyo, Cheung whisks Lai back to Hong Kong, never to return.

Tsui Hark wrote and produced and Andrew Lau was the cinematographer. It was directed by Peter Mak, who co-directed another movie in 1995, but otherwise has apparently been working in television for the past 25 years.

At one point, Roy Cheung has sex with a demon who has taken the form of a pinball machine. He shouts that he’s going to get the high score.

Nakadai Tatsuya stars in this movie.

Green Snake (1993) — July 15, 2021

Tsui Hark’s Nashville Skyline.

The East is Red (1993) — June 22, 2015

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I think it’s the densest, most slippery thing Tsui Hark ever was involved with. The androgynous villain from Swordsman II is resurrected, tries on a bunch of different identities and roles, from prostitute to Japanese ninja general, and realizes that her pursuit of invincibility was pointless all along because all she really needed was Joey Wong. Also Brigitte Lin rides a flying swordfish.

Burning Paradise in Hell (1994) — November 22, 2016

Often called simply Burning Paradise, the full title captures my feelings on the present moment quite well.

This film from Ringo Lam, produced by Tsui Hark, is another in the Shaolin History series. Beginning with the burning of the Temple by Manchu forces, it follows young Fong Sai-yuk as he and one of his elders make their escape. They’re captured by a renegade band of Manchu and taken to the Red Lotus Temple, an underground complex packed with deadly traps lorded over by a homicidal maniac (shades of the demonic netherworlds of Painted Skin, Executioners, and The Bride with White Hair). There several Shaolin refugees are imprisoned, including Hong Hsi-kuan (who teamed with Fong Sai-yuk in Chang Cheh’s Heroes Two). Building on the gory excesses of Lam’s Full Contact, and pointing the way toward the apocalyptic wuxia of Tsui’s The Blade, the film is nevertheless peppered with dopey puns and physical comedy of the kind that would have been considered too lowbrow for Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai-yuk movies. And while star Willie Chi lacks Jet Li’s charm and grace as Fong (as he will again playing Wong Fei-hung in Lau Kar-leung’s Drunken Master III), Wong Kam-kong is impressively demented as the villain.

The Red Lotus Temple of course is the site of what is considered the first ever wuxia film, a 16 part serial produced from 1928–1931 which is now lost. It was also the subject with which Shaw Brothers moved from focusing on musicals to action films in 1965. Fitting that it would re-appear here in the last days before the Handover, in the hands of Hong Kong’s most visceral doomsayer.

Tri-Star (1994) — April 1, 2014

Possibly the weirdest Tsui Hark movie I’ve seen. Imagine Leslie Cheung as the helpful priest from Going My Way secretly manipulating the heroine’s life along the lines of the old man in The More the Merrier (Anita Yuen, who, not at all like Jean Arthur in that film, plays a dim-witted call girl) while being constantly chased by a bearded, cigar-chomping Lau Ching-wan as the cop from Bringing Up Baby. And Leslie Cheung’s cousin is a psychology student from America who has taken too many experimental drugs and is now a sex maniac, or at least she’s obsessed with trying to sleep with Leslie. And then Leslie dresses like Elvis. And then they all form a girl group and record a Cantonese cover of “The Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. You know, as people do.

The sound went completely out of sync on the DVD I rented for about ten minutes right in the middle of the film. It took at least five minutes before I decided it wasn’t intentional. That’s how strange this movie is.

The Blade (1995) — July 16, 2021

Tsui Hark’s “Pay in Blood”.

Black Mask (1996) — March 22, 2016

Saw this dubbed when it got released in the US in 1999. Surprisingly enough, it’s better in the original language. Best part of rewatching these movies now is recognizing the character actors: Lau Ching-wan as Jet Li’s cop buddy; Anthony Wong as a freaky drug dealer; Karen Mok as the librarian who might have a crush on Li. There’s even screenwriter Roy Szeto as one of the library co-workers and Story of a Discharged Prisoner director Patrick Lung Kong as the final villain.

Anyway, I’d still take this over every Marvel movie of the past decade.

Shanghai Grand (1996) — April 14, 2016

Like Once Upon a Time in America mixed up with Casino Raiders, that is to say, a mediocre heroic bloodshed story (too much plot) played out in a lush period aesthetic (Shanghai in the 1930s, 1935 it would appear, but for the fact that Gone With the Wind is playing at the local movie palace). It’s based on a 1980 TV Series (“The Bund”) that was also remade into a new TV series this same year[1].⁠ Perhaps there was something in the air in Hong Kong in 1996 that reminded folks of the last days of chaos before all out war with Japan?

Anyway, Leslie Cheung plays an anti-Japanese freedom fighter from Taiwan, he washes up in Shanghai where he meets Andy Lau, a low-level gangster with big dreams. The two of them unite to take down a local gang leader, but, on the cusp of glory, find out that they’re in love with the same woman. Everything falls apart. Stephen Tung does the gleefully violent action: one scene prominently features a board studded with nails that finds many a head, another features a giant snake that tries to eat Andy Lau. Tsui Hark produced, the screenplay was co-written by Matt Chow (who wrote both Golden Chicken and Bio Zombie), and the film was directed by Poon Man-kit, who has spent the last 20 years working in television.

  1. “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai”, not to be confused with Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, a 1998 Chinese film by Fifth Generation director Peng Xiaolian set in the late 1940s or Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, the 2014 action film by Wong Ching-po that is itself a remake of Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung. ↩︎

Double Team (1997) — April 4, 2014

My live-tweet of Tsui Hark’s American directorial debut, Double Team, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, and Mickey Rourke, released in 1997.

10:00 — Gonna watch JCVD and Rodman in DOUBLE TEAM because Tsui Hark. Hoping for many basketball-related puns, cameos by Teddy Robin and Eric Tsang.
10:03 — Mickey Rourke is in this too because of course he is.
10:13 — Rodman: “I don’t play with the Bad Boys anymore.” “Defense wins the game.” Ho-ho.
10:14 — JCVD: “Who’s my dead-eye?” Everyone in this has dead eyes, Jean-Claude. Everyone.
10:18 — Clowns! A tiger!
10:25 — Babies with bombs! Mickey Rourke’s villainous white high-tops!
10:29 — Did this just turn into LOGAN’S RUN?
10:33 — Underwater lasers!
10:43 — “Scalawag”!
10:53 — Basketball parachute. “Now that’s what I call hang time!”
10:54 — The baby is a bomb!
10:58 — Tall man in a little car! “You look like a carrot with earrings.”
11:00 — “It’s time to get off the bench.”
11:02 — JCVD’s plan revolves around enraging Stavros by inviting people to “Stavro’s Halloween Party”.
11:06 — Goes without saying that Rodman has a different hair color in every scene, right?
11:07 — Suitcase gun!
11:08 — Chinese guy with knife in his toes!
11:12 — Dennis Rodman’s gang of cybermonks!
11:15 — “Oops, air ball!” “You need practice.” “I hate practice.”
11:20 — JCVD’s fur vest.
11:21 — A tiger!
11:22 — In a minefield!
11:26 — JCVD, Rodman, and Rourke: three muscly men, one shirt.
11:30 — Nifty quick little track zoom in the middle of the fight. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
11:31 — Flying Coke machines!
11:35 — A credit for “Special Action Choreographer” for “Samo Hung”.
11:36 — So yeah, that was glorious.

Knock Off (1998) — April 7, 2014

Imagine if Tsui Hark directed that episode of The Simpsons where Marge is a cop and catches Herman running a counterfeit jeans racket out of her garage. And Marge was played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. And Homer was played by Rob Schneider. And the jeans contain “nano-bombs” that Herman (played by Paul Sorvino) wanted to use to blackmail the entire world on the installment plan (100 million dollars a month for. . . forever I guess). And Michael Wong was there too.

This is like that, only crazier and better.

They’re both so much fun. But, I think I prefer the loopy 'Handover as fake jeans' allegory more than the Prisoner homage plus basketball puns in Double Team. Tsui really lets loose with the camera in Knock Off too, putting the camera anywhere in a scene as long as it’s interesting (usually up high looking down on the actors, or swooping into and through an electronic device), where Double Team is more conventional.

I can easily see why his American films failed. People go to a Tsui Hark/Van Damme film and expect an English-language Once Upon a Time in China, not unofficial sequels to the Aces Go Places series.

Time and Tide (2000) — March 25, 2014

Feels less like a Tsui Hark film than an adaptation of Wong Kar-wai devices into the Milkyway Image world. Of course, that had already been done with the Patrick Yau-Wai Ka-fai (and probably Johnnie To too) 1997 film The Odd Ones Dies, in which a Wongian hopeless romance bursts out of an ultra-violent gangster picture, seemingly against its will. Time and Tide starts Wong-style, with a narrator (Nicholas Tse’s character but apparently spoken by Tsui himself) rambling over quick-cut shots of Hong Kong nightlife. Much of this artifice is dropped as the plot proper gets started, a slick tale of a young bodyguard who gets caught up in a war between an ex-assassin and his old gang. The two men (Tse as the younger and rock star Wu Bai as the older) both are trying to support pregnant women: Wu his wife and Tse the lesbian cop he knocked up one drunken night. Anthony Wong is around being fairly cool as Tse’s boss, but apparently much of his stuff was cut out. And also Hou Hsiao-hsien regular Jack Kao appears at the end as a cop.

I don’t know how well it all hangs together, but it’s got some first rate gunfights (check the nod to John Woo early in the film, as two men face off, guns to each other's heads). Like with Tsui’s 2005 film Seven Swords, I’d like to see the longer cut (this originally clocked in at over three hours, but Tsui felt it dragged, so says Kung Fu Magazine).

Added: September 5, 2016:
The first time I watched this, I was caught up in what seemed to me a confusing plot (it really isn’t that complex, it just doesn’t really go where you expect it, shifting protagonists about halfway through in a way that’s anathema in Hollywood but not all that uncommon in Chinese cinema) and didn’t seem to notice that the action scenes aren’t merely good, they’re the best of Tsui Hark’s career, the perfection of the aesthetic of speed he and Ching Siu-tung introduced in the 1980s. The camera rushes in and out and around, the editing quick but never obscuring. There’s a two second sequence where instead of a simple short zoom in on a character at not-especially dramatic moment, Tsui uses two axial cuts. There’s no particular reason for it, it just saves a half second of screen-time. There’s no time to waste.

Pair this with the original SPL: films about the neuroses of fatherhood in 21st century jianghu. Or if you squint you can almost see it as a materialist remake of A Touch of Zen.

Triangle (2007) — March 9, 2013

Predictably enough, Johnnie To’s section of this three-director film was my favorite, but it's a fun experiment and shows the distinctness of To, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark. If you’re the least bit familiar with their work, it’s shockingly easy to tell who directed which parts of the movie, an experiment in proving the Auteur Theory if ever there was.

I watched the version on Amazon Instant and it is dubbed. Be warned and stay away. The only reason I can think of for the persistence of dubbing Hong Kong movies is racism on the part of American film distributors. If Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, and Luc Besson collaborated on a noir thriller, there’s no way it would have been released in a dubbed version in the US. It would have been treated as the high art event of the year.

Missing (2008) — January 25, 2017

Much less lugubrious than Johnnie To’s ghost romance Linger, released the same year, playing out for a long time like a kind of pop (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa-knockoff horror film before switching gears into full melodrama. But while Tsui’s willingness to subvert expectations of tone and genre is always admirable, ultimately Sylvia Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts, by playing the melodrama straight (though as a family love story rather than as romance: same two lead actresses, but Anjelica Lee and Isabella Leong are time-separated mother and daughter rather than best friends/future sisters-in-law), with a dash of whimsy and a jumbled timeline proves to be the more effective heartstring attack.

Of course, none of these hold a candle to To’s My Left Eye Sees Ghosts or Romancing in Thin Air.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) — April 24, 2014

“Detective Dee, you’re so pathetic. The world is so big yet you can’t fit in. Everyone wants to kill you.”

Richard Ng digitally turns into Teddy Robin, fulfilling a dream/nightmare of every 80s Hong Kong comedy fan.

Is there any difference between Zhang Yimou’s Hero, generally read (and denounced) as an excuse for autocracy on the grounds of national unity and cohesion, and this film’s argument that, bad as Carina Lau’s Empress Wu is (and she’s very bad indeed), she’s still necessary to keep the nation whole and strong (because apparently “civilization is on the brink of collapse”)? Is it any better for Andy Lau’s Dee to give the Empress a lecture on justice and then walk away, retiring into the sunset than for Jet Li’s Nameless assassin to give the Emperor a lecture on unity and then walk away, to face certain death?

The Detective Dee character is defined as anti-authoritarian (he begins the film in jail for opposing the Empress’s seizure of power), which would seem to undercut the less savory implications of the allegory. But doesn’t that just make it worse when he essentially gives her his blessing to take over? A final title card informs us that she only held power for 15 years, strengthening the country and then honorably resigning, which is great, but the benevolent dictator voluntary walking away from absolute power is a marked rarity in world history. Also, that’s a vast simplification of the story of Empress Wu.

A perplexing film from Tsui Hark, who usually mixes more subversion in with his nationalism, deflating its more dangerous implications with punk humor and transnational cosmopolitanism (something he does effectively in this film’s prequel, Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon).

Added July 22, 2018:
Tsui Hark made a better Mission: Impossible movie than John Woo, he just set it in Tang Dynasty China. He was aided immensely by the fact that Andy Lau is the movie star people want Tom Cruise to be.