This could turn into an infrequent series of articles or it might get Vera Draked depending on my mood. Anyways the intent of this is to talk about cinematic collaborations.
The point of these articles will be to look at films that had an impact. I’m going to try and eschew the usual suspects and work more with stuff in my own wheelhouse (namely Asian cinema).
Today’s candidate, owing to a recent belated release on Blu Ray, is the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen collaboration Sha Po Lang (or Kill Zone to us unimaginative westerners). SPL would go on to revitalise the career of Wilson Yip, untarnish Donnie Yen in the eyes of a home-grown audience accustomed to stories of his arrogance and breathe new life into the flailing HK action industry.
Following the rampant success of HK action cinema in the 70s, 80s and 90s (owing to the great work of Messrs Lee, Chan and Woo amongst others) there was a perceived drop in quality and consistency in the 00s. What really happened is that HK cinema became more insular once it lost it’s biggest foreign stars (with Jet Li and Jackie Chan uprooting to America and even the fairly well know Yuen Woo-Ping favouring western over eastern productions). Without these marketable faces it became increasingly difficult for HK action films to find a foothold within Western markets.
Perhaps exacerbating the problem was the fact that films like The Matrix and even Kill Bill took techniques that were crucial to latter day action cinema (most obviously wire work) and fetishised them to the point where wire work was no longer acceptable as anything other than fantastical. As such HK action cinema, because of this fetishisation, started to look remarkably creaky.
With Korean and Japanese cinema slowly getting more aggressive marketing in the West it got to the point where aside from a few seminal features HK action cinema was left behind. In the same way that Kung Fu eclipsed Samurais as the clichéd western view of Eastern cinema the Japanese ghost stories exemplified by Ringu became the new face of eastern cinema. Then at its lowest ebb came the crashing, cacophonous, coup de grace delivered by Ong-Bak in 2003.
Ong-Bak with its questionable attitudes towards stunt man safety, kitchen sink mentality, energetic direction, and the devastating knees and elbows of its star Tony Jaa sounded the death knell of HK cinema in many critics’ eyes. This Thai film had a real back to basics attitude, supplanting the rigid narratives and esotericism which had driven HK action cinema to the art house with sheer visceral brutality. Even Chud’s own Devin Faraci hailed Ong-Bak as the punk rock alternative to HK action cinemas Prog Rock. But whilst Thai films like Ong-Bak, Tom Yum Goong, and Born to Fight had a certain scrappy charm (Tom Yum Goong’s inexplicable boat chase is a great example of the pleasantly shambolic tone of the films) they lacked the finesse and style that exemplified the great HK films.
In 2005 SPL would bring the differences between HK and Thai action cinema into sharp relief. Favouring a slow build (it could be argued that Ong-Bak has a slow build, but that film has more of a flat line until the action of the second half) and stylised action SPL could have fallen into the same trap as the Wuxia films that had ‘stagnated’ the industry. What SPL actually did was combine a new interest in stylised crime thrillers (typified by Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs and the work of Johnnie To) with action that was as hard hitting as it’s Thai counterparts, but also had the precision and style that Tony Jaa’s blunt force trauma lacked.
The action in SPL is fleeting, there are perhaps five major action set pieces throughout the film (if we count the car crash, assassinations and early scuffles) and only two of them can be considered traditional HK action set pieces. However these two set pieces were so excellently choreographed and luminously directed that they elevated Donnie Yen from an also ran to his current place as a legitimate action star.
Donnie Yen before his turn in SPL had had an interesting career. Starting out as a stuntman before working with Yuen Woo-Ping in his own film Yen found himself admired for his talents and athletic ability but unable to convince as a leading man. There was a perception of arrogance that surrounded Yen and as such audiences failed to warm to him. As such Yen found himself playing more taciturn characters (such as his roles in Iron Monkey and Butterfly and Sword) or even playing outright villains (he was perhaps best known in the west for his villainous turn (and epic duel with Jet Li) in Once Upon A Time in China Part 2).
Donnie Yen also found himself compounding his arrogant image by wanting greater control over choreography and direction on projects. This led to him being labelled as difficult to work with and Yen taking a more active interest in behind the camera work. His debut feature Legend of the Wolf, despite an overabundance of hand cranking, garnered mixed reviews but was reasonably popular. Donnie Yen would continue to appear in the occasional feature films but his roles would be slight and too type (Sky from Hero and Chu from Seven Swords are perfect examples of the passive aggressive douchebag role that Yen found himself filling). His behind the scenes work however gained him lots of praise, in particular his work on films like The Twins Effect, Princess Blade, Blade 2 and even Storm Breaker secured him a reputation as a great choreographer.
What SPL allowed Yen to do was combine his action director experience (choreographing the two key fights) and re-evaluate his image. Inspector Ma is the usual gruff Yen character, but there’s a quiet dignity and resolve which made him a lot easier to identify with. There’s still an undeniable air of arrogance, and vanity, to Yen in the film but it’s tempered by genuine humanity and it allowed Yen to transition from being an ensemble actor and villain into being a legitimate leading man.
Wilson Yip was a director who found himself in a similar situation to Yen. He was undeniably talented and reasonably popular but he had a troublesome reputation and tendency to butt heads with studios. His cult hit Bio Zombie failed to find an initial marker in
SPL subsequently put Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip back onto the map but also showed that HK action films could still square up against the new guys from
It showed that HK cinema could adapt and evolve and this evolving style would appear in Yen and Yip’s subsequent films Flashpoint (where Yen uses even more aggressive MMA against traditional kung fu fighters) and Dragon Tiger Gate which combined kung fu with an almost Manga like aesthetic in a way that was actually convincing. As such they revitalised HK action cinema in the way Bruce Lee did in the 70s, Jackie Chan did in the 80s and John Woo did in the 90s.