Yuen Biao Capsule Reviews
Dreadnaught (1981) — June 24, 2013
I want to spend a month or five just watching all the movies where Kwan Tak-hing played Wong Fei-hung. There's only like 80 of them dating back to the late 1940s. Should be pretty easy to find.
Weird seeing Yuen Biao, who played Wong's disciple Foon in the first Once Upon a Time in China film play a different Wong disciple here, right after seeing him play a third one in Magnificent Butcher. It's about time for Yuen to play Wong himself, isn't it?
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.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) — July 12, 2021
Tsui Hark said wuxia but make it anime.
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.
Righting Wrongs (1986) — July 5, 2013
“So we had this theme, but there was too much dialogue. So I said ‘why not add some action, some fighting?’” — Yuen Biao
Stuntmen make the craziest movies.
Added March 4, 2018:
It’s like Corey Yuen and Yuen Biao watched the last 15 minutes of Police Story and said, “Anything Jackie can do, we can do better, crazier, and more destructively.”
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.
On the Run (Alfred Cheung, 1988) — July 19, 2020
One of the more fascinating little mini-generic cycles in Hong Kong cinema was when in the late 80s, following the success of A Better Tomorrow and City on Fire, folks who made their names in the period kung fu film started making bloody, brutal cop movies. Films like Yuen Woo-ping’s In the Line of Duty 4 and Tiger Cage, or Lau Kar-leung’s Tiger on the Beat movies. This one’s got Little Fortune Yuen Biao as a cop who stumbles onto a ring of corrupt homicide detectives when they hire someone to assassinate his ex-wife, the cop who was about to expose them. He doesn’t do any kung fu, or really any acrobatics to speak of. Mostly he just gets shot while everyone around him also gets shot. He does have a fight scene at the end, but rather than Yuen’s typical grace and elegance, it’s quick and savage, formless and manic. It reminded me more of Donnie Yen’s 2000s fights in movies like Flash Point than anything Yuen had ever done before or since.
More than just riding on John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Chow Yun-fat’s coattails, these movies at the end of the 80s are as much a result of the older generation of Shaws/Golden Harvest stars merging with the more confrontational sensibilities of the Hong Kong New Wave. On the Run's director, Alfred Cheung, is mostly known for comedies, but he also (co-)wrote the screenplays for New Wave classics The Story of Woo Viet (directed by Ann Hui) and Father and Son (directed by Allen Fong). And while the gang of bad cops features kung fu stalwarts Lo Lieh and Yuen Wah (and is led by Charlie Chin, a veteran of Hong Kong and Taiwanese film who was one of the “Two Chins & Two Lins” of 70s Taiwanese film who crossed over to the Hong Kong in the 80s, along with Brigitte Lin), the assassin is played by Pat Ha, star of Patrick Tam’s Nomad and Angie Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie.
The uneasy balance between the two styles, New Wave angst and dread versus the old school ideals of heroism and craft, is palpable, and gives the film its queasy, unstable feeling. It’s a world completely inexplicable to its hero, more cruel than he can comprehend. And as in many of these films (Johnnie To’s The Big Heat, for example, from the same year), the sense of doom is explicitly tied to the fear of the impending Handover. But it could just as well be anything else: there are no shortage of things in the world to make one feel like the end is nigh.
The Iceman Cometh (Clarence Fok, 1989) — July 18, 2020
Demolition Man, but with Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah coming from the Ming Dynasty into the present as a somewhat garbled metaphor for the Handover with Maggie Cheung in her wacky crazy girl phase (see also A Fishy Story) around to liven things up.
Yuen Wah is effectively nasty but Yuen Biao is too goofy either for the darkness of this world or for the romance with Cheung to really be convincing. Imagine not having chemistry with Maggie Cheung.
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).
The Legend is Born: Ip Man (Herman Yau, 2010) — April 1, 2019
It’s at least three different movies, only one of which is any good — the one that one has a bunch of really cool fighting in it. The rest is either undercooked (the romance with Lam Suet’s daughter) or just bizarre (Japanese sleeper agents infiltrating Chinese martial arts clubs for reasons I guess).
I like Dennis To, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to do anything interesting since. Apparently he was in the Jeffrey Lau movie that came out last year that I haven’t seen yet.