At a time when Hong Kong’s status as a semi-autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China is under threat, we should not forget what the area’s former independence from the mainland once meant for its citizens and their cultural identity. During the 99 years that Hong Kong was under British governance, the tiny territory grew into an economic powerhouse. Without much government support, but with unusual financial and creative freedom, it built one of the world’s largest movie industries. This was a commercial cinema, much like Hollywood’s, designed to entertain audiences everywhere with local stars and home-grown genres such as kung fu, Triad gangster films, and a unique brand of Hong Kong comedy.
1. Drunken Master (Zui quan, 1978)
Typically, the humor in these films is manic, self-mocking, and robustly physical. Drunken Master makes fun of the martial arts action movies popularized by Hong Kong’s best-known practitioner, Bruce Lee. Here, it’s Jackie Chan who plays the legendary master of “drunken boxing,” a style of combat in which the fighter pretends to be drunk to confuse his opponent. Chan plays him as a lazy, mischievous youth who must learn discipline the hard way. Time and time again, he’s punished for his buffoonery—a fitting role for Chan, who acquired his gymnastic skills as a boy while suffering the rigorous, often brutal training for Peking Opera. Watch him practice under the tough tutelage of Beggar So. Then watch him put this training to the test against a formidable foe, with one hand in a fist and the other balancing a cup of wine. Among other things, these scenes remind us that pain and laughter often go together.
2. Project A (“A” gai wak, 1983)
Chan also starred in a series of comic action films. In Project A, he is a military cop fighting pirates in 19th century Hong Kong. The time and plot are pretexts for a parade of rollicking chases, funny faces, side-splitting stunts, and other visual jokes. There’s a tumultuous bar fight between rival police groups, a whacky bicycle pursuit, and an acrobatic fall from the clock tower that alludes to Harold Lloyd.
3. Spooky Encounters (Gui da gui, 1980)
Vampires, of course, are not native to Hong Kong, but director Sammo Hung managed to borrow the fanged menace of Transylvania and give him a distinctly Chinese identity. Delving into local lore, Hung came up with the spooky jiangshi, or “hopping vampires.” While western vampires wear capes, Jiangshi dress in Mandarin robes. They approach their victims in standing jumps, with long purple fingernails outstretched. As re-animated corpses, jiangshi can be subdued only by Daoist spells or a red dot on the forehead. In Spooky Encounters, Hung takes on a bet to spend the night in a haunted temple. The fun begins with an apple and a mirror. Before it’s all over, the encounter has involved fifty chicken eggs, dog’s blood, coffins, witches, sorcerers, and a monkey god. Mr. Vampire (Geung si sin sang, 1985) revived the jiangshi ghosts, who continued to run amok in sequels and spin-offs well the 1990s.
4. The Chinese Feast (Jin yu man tang, 1995)
The Hong Kong industry had perfected its formula for commercial success. Take a tested genre (action, horror), add some indigenous ingredients (kung fu fighting, jiangshi ghosts), and serve with healthy heaps of comedy. The recipe was put to delicious use in Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast, a high-energy lampoon of dueling chefs. Leslie Cheung plays a celebrity cook down on his luck who must fight his way back to the top by preparing the legendary Manchu Han Imperial Feast. His involvement with a street gang, a rival restaurant conglomerate, and the peculiar delicacies of Chinese cuisine—all give the film a home-made quality.
5. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Xi you: Xiang mo pian, 2013)
No Hong Kong actor or director has created more mischief and mayhem on the screen than Stephen Chow, the region’s undisputed King of Comedy. Best known in the West for Shaolin Soccer (Siu Lam juk kau, 2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (Gung fu, 2004), his wacky sendups of sports mania and the martial arts, Chow has also taken affectionate aim at foodie films (The God of Cookery/Sik san, 1996), romcoms (Love is Love/Wangfu chenglong), sci-fi (C17, 2008), and much more. A master of slapstick and smartass repartee, he perfected a style known as “tricky brain humor.”
Chow can be regarded as an avatar of China’s archetypal trickster, known as Monkey in the West. In countless stories, Monkey’s impudent behavior is endlessly amusing. He can be as playful as a child or as endearing as a clown, but he is also a constant threat to the established order. Even in heaven he causes havoc, which is why Buddha locks him in a cave. In Journey to the West, Chow retells the 1,300-year-old tale with live actors and CGI monsters. Their interaction is both fantastically flamboyant and unusually violent. Witness the scene in which a fish demon attacks a village. Not even children are spared. Or watch the ferocious fight between a pig demon and a warrior woman (Qi Shu as Miss Duan). Other moments can be more frolicsome, like the gender-bending scene in which Miss Duan manipulates a timid monk (Chow as Sanzang) like a marionette. As the tale bounces along, these shape-shifting figures cycle through the spectrum of human greed, rage, hubris, and other cardinal vices.
None of these films is overtly political. Like much commercial cinema, Hong Kong comedy is more about diversion than direct confrontation. That is not to say that Chinese humor always steers clear of criticism. In fact, there is a long tradition of questioning authority in clever ways that dodge punishment or censorship. Early scholar wits (huaji) told anecdotes and fables to temper the misuses of power. One story was about the King of Chu, who insulted an ambassador from the neighboring state of Qi. “There must be very few people in Qi,” sniped the king, “or why would they send me someone like you as envoy?” The ambassador replied, “We have a method for selecting envoys. If a state’s leader is competent, we send a good one. If not, we send an incompetent envoy. I’m one of the ineptest ambassadors in Qi, which is why I was sent to you.” More recent protests take the form of homonyms, a form of Chinese wordplay. In the 1930s, a popular anti-communist slogan was “Kill the pig and pluck its hair.” Everyone knew that the family name of Chairman Mao sounds like the word “hair” and that the family name of Marshall Zhu can also mean “pig.” The slogan was a code for killing Zhu and removing Mao from power. In our own time, political puns like this are common on the Internet.
Comical combat with hopping vampires, contentious chefs, or pig demons may seem remote from today’s confrontation between the people of Hong Kong and the leaders of China. What consolation does slapstick offer when real sticks are being wielded in the streets? But these Five films do demonstrate what can be achieved with creative freedom and an abiding sense of humor. They remind us that humor and survival are linked.
Featured Image Credit: A Birdseye View of Hong Kong by Ruslan Bardash on Unsplash.