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I sit at the kitchen table waiting patiently for my husband (TIFF Programmer, Kung Fu Fridays founder, and Hong Kong movie mega-fan Colin Geddes) to answer my not-so simple question: what are the essentials of Hong Kong cinema?

“Essential Hong Kong cinema is such a broad topic,” he muses. “It’s just like saying “what are the essentials of American cinema. It’s a cinema that’s lasted like, a hundred years. So where do you start?”

“Before even beginning to make a list of must-see Hong Kong films, let’s consider the cultural context. There are many films that are important in Hong Kong itself that never made it across to the west. We’re making this film list from a western perspective, and for western audiences, so there won’t be many films on it from before the 1970s,” Colin says. “Those films are hard to acquire, they’re often not subtitled, or they’ve just never made it over here.”

“To really understand Hong Kong films, especially those of the ’80s and early ’90s, you have to be aware of the political and cultural context in which they were made, such as the looming Chinese takeover from British colonial rule. But there’s a cultural bias too, an ethnocentrism that rankles me,” Colin begins. “I’m guilty of it sometimes, but judging cinema by our own cultural norms is wrong.”

The subtitles on Hong Kong films are a perfect example. One of the reasons why Hong Kong cinema exploded in popularity overseas was the fact that, due to a British colonial law, all films made there required English subtitles. So, during the ’70s and ’80s, adventurous film fans in other countries could go to Chinatown cinemas and video stores and watch and understand these films. It’s easy to make fun of the badly done subtitles now, and audiences often smirk at the poor grammar and awkward phrasing on older film prints (though DVD reissues have largely fixed these problems) but it is really important to understand that the subtitles were the result of an annoying bylaw that producers were forced to follow. They were an afterthought, not a sign that nobody in Hong Kong could speak proper English. Because films were also being exported to Mandarin-speaking Chinese audiences, they were often shot silent, and then dubbed into both Cantonese and Mandarin. The high level of urban noise pollution in Hong Kong also makes shooting with controlled sound difficult (if not impossible) so dubbing was a great help with that issue as well. Dubbing into English often gets a bad rap here, but in Hong Kong, all films were dubbed, even in their original language.

“An essential list has to be a bit like a Chinese buffet,” Colin begins. “Every dish complements the next, influences your taste and appreciation of the others. You can’t simply have a single serving of rice. You need to have some spicy beef, dumplings, noodles, wonton soup, barbecued chicken feet and mango pudding to appreciate it all. And when I say that, I mean that you have to understand while you’re watching these films how the genre, the time the films were made in, the political and social atmosphere, and the influences of the directors and actors need to be given some thought. And that’s just to understand them even on a surface level.”

Take for example John Woo’s seminal 1986 gangster film, A Better Tomorrow . To appreciate the film’s significance, you first have to understand that John Woo was, at that time, a comedy director with a history of flops. The film’s star, now internationally famous Chow Yun Fat, was a TV actor and considered box office poison. The story itself was a loose remake of an older film. And Ti Lung, the lead actor, was a massive Shaw Brothers star during the 1960s and ’70s (the studio that gave John Woo his start as well). All these elements were put together by mastermind producer Tsui Hark, one of the key figures in Hong Kong cinema for several decades. With all that multi-layered history in mind, it becomes even more fascinating to realize that A Better Tomorrow kickstarted an entire gangster film genre in Hong Kong. But we’ll get to that in a bit. To make it easier for the beginners who are just dipping a first, tentative toe into the world of Hong Kong cinema, I’ve split up this essential viewing list into a few categories.

Kung Fu

Obviously one of the genres Hong Kong cinema is best known for is martial arts. Early Hong Kong martial arts films were adaptations of Chinese pulp novels, recounting the tales of Robin Hood-esque heroes and heroines. These were adapted for the screen throughout the ’50s and ’60s, but the emphasis was always on the soap opera dramatics rather than the physical action. One of the directors who changed all that was King Hu, with Come Drink with Me , made by the Shaw Brothers. The Shaw Brothers were already well established as Hong Kong’s major film studio, but King Hu ushered in the era of Shaw Brothers kung fu domination. King Hu reinvigorated the martial arts film by treating the fighting sequences with a respect and attention to detail of a dance choreographer. “He was the first Chinese director to win a prize in Cannes for Touch of Zen ,” Colin tells me, “and he’s the direct influence on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon , which is a total homage to his work. The importance of King Hu as a director is that he was trying to preserve history on film, and this is an important aspect of Hong Kong cinema. He was trying to preserve the history of southern-style Chinese martial arts. With Hong Kong being handed over to China, Cantonese culture, southern culture, is endangered there. It is being slowly taken over by the larger mainland culture.”

I ask Colin about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon , though we’re jumping around chronologically a bit. The Ang Lee film screened in Cannes (though out of competition) in 2000 and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Is it essential? “I don’t consider that a Hong Kong film, so no,” he tells me. “It’s an American film by a Taiwanese director who was educated in the west. It’s a good film, but why praise an American-made version when you can see something way better from the source?”

The Shaw Brothers used the blueprint of the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood studio and star system to run their movie empire. Because they had exclusive contracts with a large stable of talented actors and directors, there was a consistent style and self-contained universe to their films, whether they be adventures of wandering swordsmen or tales of heroic Shaolin monks. Two absolute essentials from the Shaw Brothers kung fu heyday are One Armed Swordsman , which was directed by John Woo’s mentor, Chang Cheh, and stars one of the first leading men of Kung Fu Cinema, Jimmy Wang Yu, and Liu Chia Liang’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin , which in addition to inspiring the Wu Tang clan, was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill .

Another notable film from the Shaw Brothers is Liu Chia Liang’s The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter , which is important because the film’s star, Fu Sheng, who  died in a tragic car accident during filming. “Of that kung fu generation,” Colin tells me, “he was the James Dean. He should have been the successor of Bruce Lee. People loved him. He should have been what Jackie Chan became. Actually, he wasn’t like Jackie in that he didn’t have the Peking Opera chops, but he had a remarkable onscreen charisma and he worked with some really great directors who knew how to make him look great.”

Martial Arts Masters

Obviously there are a few stand-out stars of martial arts cinema that can’t go unmentioned. Bruce Lee was the first star who inspired generations internationally to learn Chinese martial arts and watch kung fu films, and his power is still being felt to this day. His 1972 classic, Fist of Fury  doesn’t require too much cultural contextualization to be enjoyable to a western audience, but the popularity of the film in Hong Kong is based on cultural and historical context. It’s about a Chinese hero rising up against the oppression of occupying Japanese forces, and its success is very much rooted in Chinese national pride.

“There’s been enough written about Jackie Chan,” Colin laughs when I ask him about the kung fu mainstay of the past 20-ish years. “I don’t have much new to add, but it’s interesting that while he was originally touted as the successor to Bruce Lee, his solo films were all flops. It wasn’t until he teamed up with Yung Wu Ping, who was the martial arts choreographer on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix on comedic collaborations like Drunken Master  and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow  that he truly became a star. He started out as a comedian, mixing his fighting style with a unique, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick physical comedy. But in Police Story,  he changed the game once again, delivering action through death defying, over-the-top stunt set pieces.” So, what’s the one essential Jackie Chan film, I ask? “All three” is the answer.

Sammo Hung is another true master of martial arts cinema, who worked closely with Bruce Lee and was one of Jackie Chan’s supporting players and collaborators. He’s got an incredible body of work as actor, director, writer, action choreographer and producer, and is known to audiences for his comedy chops and his stout physical appearance, which makes his gravity-defying kung fu skills all he more impressive. “It’s hard to pin down his diverse career to just one film, but The Prodigal Son  is one of the best kung fu films ever made, so it should definitely be on the list”, Colin states definitively.

When I ask Colin who the top dog of Hong Kong kung fu cinema is in the present day, he confirms what even a beginner like me could have guessed. “The current reining champ is Donnie Yen,” he says. Yen’s recent success has culminated in his portrayal of Bruce Lee’s real-life teacher Ip Man, in the film by the same name.

For Part Two of Katarina Gligorijevic’s look at Essential Hong Kong Cinema wherein she discusses gangster style, Wong Kar Wai, Cantonese comedy and Hong Kong Horror, check back with Toronto Film Scene on Thursday, November 22, 2012.