Gary Collinson selects his Five Essential Hong Kong Action Stars…
From the fantasy swordplay of early wuxia films to the kung fu explosion of the 70s and 'Heroic Bloodshed' of John Woo and Ringo Lam, the action genre has always held a prominent position in the cinema of Hong Kong. The innovative output of the former British colony – at one time home to the third largest movie industry in the world – proved attractive to Western audiences, producing a number of cult classics during the 1970s and 80s that remain among the very best that the genre has to offer. The burgeoning world-wide popularity of the Hong Kong action flick saw a number of key figures heading to Hollywood in the mid-90s (an exodus from which the industry is yet to fully recover), although by this time its legacy was already firmly established.
Here we explore some of the leading names in the genre with our Five Essential Hong Kong Action Stars…
5. Michelle Yeoh
Described by Rotten Tomatoes as 'The Best Action Heroine of All Time', Michelle Yeoh made her name in a host of martial arts films alongside the likes of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung and Cynthia Rothrick before making her Western debut as ass-kicking Bond girl Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Notable for being one of the few actresses to carry out the majority of her own stunts, Yeoh's biggest success came in 2002 with Ang Lee's wuxia-influenced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which she received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress. After shifting to more dramatic material working alongside directors such as Rob Marshall and Danny Boyle, Yeoh has since returned to the genre with 2010's True Legend.
4. Jet Li
With a successful wushu career paving the way to bring his expert martial arts skills to the screen, Jet Li rose to become one of Asia's biggest stars and most successful exports to Hollywood. His role as folk hero Wong Fei Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series established Li's credentials as an action hero and he went on to headline a number of hit movies including Fist of Fury remake Fist of Legend (1994) before his first American role as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). Li starred a number of modest actioners such as Romeo Must Die (2000) and Kiss of the Dragon (2001) before global success in 2002 with the Chinese epic Hero. He has since juggled his Hollywood career with Chinese/Hong Kong co-productions Fearless (2006) and The Warlords (2007), while in 2008 he co-starred with fellow martial arts legend Jackie Chan for the first time in The Forbidden Kingdom.
3. Chow Yun-Fat
Already a star in Hong Kong as a result of his TV work, Chow Yun-Fat received his big-screen breakthrough courtesy of his collabarations with director John Woo. Headlining Woo's 'gun-fu' classics A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), Chow became a favourite of the heroic bloodshed sub-genre working alongside respected directors such as Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. After moving to Hollywood, he struggled to replicate his domestic success with his early American films but enjoyed a career resurgence with the smash-hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2002. Yet to give up on Hollywood success, Chow has recently featured in supporting roles in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) and live-action anime adaptation Dragonball Evolution (2009).
2. Bruce Lee
American-born Bruce Lee was raised in Hong Kong where he made twenty film appearances as a child. Moving to the US, Lee's skills soon led to a television career including a starring role as side-kick Kato in The Green Hornet. Frustrated at a lack of career progress in the US, Lee returned to Hong Kong to discover 'The Kato Show' a huge success and he was quickly snapped up by Golden Harvest producer Raymond Chow. Lee starred in two hit films from director Lo Wei - The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) - and made his directorial debut that the same year with Way of the Dragon. His next film Enter the Dragon (a joint production between Golden Harvest and Warner Bros) went to become one of the most profitable movies of all time, although Lee would not live to enjoy his success; the actor mysteriously dying just prior to its release in 1973. With just five features (Game of Death was released posthumously in 1978), Lee managed to attain an iconic status that remains to this very day.
1. Jackie Chan
With over a hundred action-packed credits to his name, Jackie Chan has become a cultural icon and one of cinema's most recognisable and well-loved names. Filling the void after the untimely death of Bruce Lee and breaking out of the 'Bruceploitation' scene with a humourous style of action and hair-raising stunt work and fight choreography, Chan was propelled to stardom on the back of comic kung fu hits Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978, from director Yuen Woo-ping), His stock continued to soar with classics such as Project A (alongside fellow 'Three Dragons' Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao), Police Story and Armour of God throughout the 80s and, after a handful of failed attempts to crack the American market, Chan finally enjoyed success in Western cinemas with Rumble in the Bronx (1995). Rush Hour (1998) then secured him global recognition, with the actor going on to firmly establish himself in the family market with the likes of Shanghai Noon (2000), The Tuxedo (2002), and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008).
World Cinema: The Hong Kong Film Industry
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