Asian cinema saw an enormous renaissance, creating everything from routine action thrillers to deeply moving and intimate dramas. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, spent much of his youth in Hong Kong, and went back to America to work in the television series “The Green Hornet” (1966-67) and Paul Bogart’s film Marlowe (1969) before returning to his homeland and reclaiming his cultural heritage. Lee redefined the action genre with a string of balletic action films such as Wei Lo and Jiaxiang Wu’s Tang shan da xiong (Fists ofFury, 1971), Wei Lo’s Jing wu men (Fist of Fury, a k a The Chinese Connection, 1972), Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (1973), and Lee’s own Meng long guojiang (Return of the Dragon, 1972) before his sudden death in 1973 at the age of thirty-two, just as his international career was taking off.
In the wake of Lee’s meteoric success and untimely death, a host of imitators sprang up, but none was more inventive or successful than Jackie Chan. Chan started as a child actor, then was tapped as a Bruce Lee clone in Wei Lo’s Xin ching-wu men (New Fist of Fury, 1976). He soon developed his own personality based on the acrobatic fight gags of the classic Hollywood comedians Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charles Chaplin. In such Hong Kong-produced films as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo’s A’’ gai waak (Project A, 1983), Chan’s Ging chaat goo si (Police Story, 1985), and Jing Wong’s Sing si lip yan (City Hunter, 1993), Chan perfected his comic timing, performing stunts that set the bar for a new generation of action stars.
Both Chan and Lee often worked for the two most prolific studios in Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers Studio, operated as a twenty-four-hour film factory by brothers Run Run and Run Me Shaw, and the Golden Harvest Studios. These facilities churned out an enormous amount of commercial product and dominated Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and 1980s.
It was also during this period that the action director John Woo emerged as a fierce visual stylist, starting with a string of low-budget action films for the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, including Dinü hua (Princess Chang Ping, 1975), Liang zhi lao hu (Run Tiger Run, 1985), and Ying xiong wei lei (Heroes Shed No Tears, a k a The Sunset Warrior, 1986). He made his first major impact with Ying hung boon sik (A Better Tomorrow, 1986), a violent, hard-boiled crime drama starring Chow Yun-Fat, and followed it with Dip hyut shueng hung (The Killer, 1989), Die xue jie tou (Bullet in the Head, 1990), and Laat sau sen taan (Hard Boiled, 1992), all bravura action pieces. Since 1993, Woo has worked in Hollywood with less passion and originality, making big-budget thrillers and action films such as Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997), and Mission: Impossible II (2000).
The twin brothers Oxide Pang (a k a Oxide Pang Chun) and Danny Pang first teamed as co-directors on Bangkok Dangerous (1999), a violent action film, but then went on to create their signature work, Gin gwai (The Eye, 2002), an unsettling psychological horror film, in which a blind girl gets a cornea transplant with unexpected results. The film was so successful that it almost immediately spawned a sequel, Gin gwai 2 (The Eye 2, 2004). Tsui Hark, another Hong Kong action specialist, created his own brand of cinematic mayhem in Die bian (The Butterfly Murders, 1979), Suk san: Sun Suk san geen hap (Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, 1983), Shanghai zhi ye (Shanghai Blues, 1984), and many others, while also producing films by other directors. But Hong Kong’s future as a vibrant cinematic center was put in doubt when the British handed over the tiny nation to mainland China in 1997, and many of its most talented directors, actors, and technicians fled to the West. Jackie Chan, for example, went on to a long and profitable career as an action/comedy star in Hollywood.