The Kung Fu action film is an integral part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity, as the city turned out to be an ideal location for the genre to flourish. Densely populated, quirky and diverse, Hong Kong provides plenty of visual stimuli: At a first glance it resembles a large film-set, which could be described as a miniature of Asia itself with radically different micro-worlds existing in astonishing physical proximity. But the critical factor behind its initial success was the more liberal stance of the colonial Hong Kong towards martial arts, which welcomed numerous talented artists and teachers that during those times were not allowed to practice their art in the Mainland. In Hong Kong there was no shortage of talent and skill.
This three dimensional vertical metropolis has been a source of inspiration for movie makers around the world. Watching films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell you cannot help identifying corners and aspects of Hong Kong. It is the only place in the world with so much contrast, complexity and dramatic cityscape, and it represents the epitome of the Asian futuristic metropolis.
The Kung Fu Tradition in the Spotlight with Enter the Dragon: The Kowloon waterfront Avenue of Stars has been visually linked to the statue of Bruce Lee, the greatest Hong Kong martial artist. Its location is not accidental since the statue blends in with the iconic skyline of the Hong Kong Island and it becomes part of the city’s narrative. The talented actor and kung fu genius put Hong Kong again on the radar with Enter the Dragon (1973),one of the most famous and-according to some-the greatest martial arts film ever made.
The kung fu film was the basis upon which the Hong Kong film industry’s confidence was built. Not only did it launch a relatively unexplored genre that stemmed from thousand year old Chinese martial arts tradition and philosophies, but it was also a source of empowerment. It introduced the storyline of the Chinese standing up to the Western imperialists that became a popular theme, which is used today in the new historical martial arts dramas like Ip Man. The foreign official in the Ip Man films is depicted as being a “Gweilo”, a foreign devil. Narrow-minded, unrefined and coarse, the “Gweilo” understands very little of the Confucian principles of peace, dignity and respect that underlies the mindset of the Chinese hero.
Enter the Dragon showed the world that Hong Kong is more than a British colony, and even though its heritage is no doubt Cantonese, it is a unique place where cultures, stories and ideas meet. In the years that followed its release and the death of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, a talented martial artist, comedian and stuntman reached stardom with comedic kung fu films like Drunken Master and Project A.
The importance of these Kung Fu figures is immense. They are considered to be legitimate cultural ambassadors of the city and very much represent that heritage as individuals. Jackie Chan’s documentary Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong is an example of how a prominent artist in Hong Kong inevitable becomes one with his city of origin.
The Years of Transformation and The Birth of the Triad Film. During the 1980s, as the city speeded up its frantic vertical expansion, the Hong Kong Film industry reached its most prolific point. With the impending 1997 Handover to China, the awkward Gweilo character was already becoming irrelevant. The action had shifted to the Triad underworld and its constant battle for power and resources in a complex city-labyrinth that never sleeps. The thin line that separates the policeman and the triad member is a popular theme in these films, that aim to show that there can be goodness in a scoundrel, and evil in a man of law.
John Woo became the pioneer with iconic gangster melodramas such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer that replaced Kung Fu action with fast-paced gun play-otherwise known as Gun Fu– in the street of Hong Kong. In the 1990s, the Young and Dangerous films showed the western world how it is to be a young and hip Hong Kong gang member, as it combined action with light comedy.
Even though these first triad films were initially heavily influenced by similar Hollywood films, in time they became more and more faithful to their own cultural origins. Johnnie To’s Election (2005) is one of the most accurate depictions of the Triad world, and for some it is considered the Godfather of Asia. The filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) when making Reservoir Dogs, while Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is the american version of Andrew Lau’s intense cop drama Infernal Affairs.
The Triad/Underworld killer became something of a cult figure in Hong Kong film, and an important part of its film imagery. In Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, even though the stylised parallel storylines are more about alienation in a modern metropolis than a gangster film, one of the main characters is a paid killer and member of the underworld. The plot develops mainly at night in the dark alleys and narrow spaces of a complex and claustrophobic city, where the heart of the Hong Kong lies. In a very similar style the famous Chungking Express by the same director explores the ideas of love and alienation as a lonely policeman falls in love with a mystery woman that is an underworld killer.
Today the Hong Kong martial arts film industry strives to emulate the enthusiasm, spirit and energy that originally defined it. The recent Ip Man and its sequels is the perfect example of a nostalgic classic Hong Kong kung fu action film, that re-introduced this fascinating genre to the new generations.