Dying art challenges the masters
As Hong Kong's kung fu movie legends fade from limelight, they fear there is no one able or willing to carry on the tradition
Kara Wai Ying-hung has brought the curtain down on a glittering career as a martial arts movie star, but not before delivering a parting elbow to the jugular about the way the genre is being treated today.
“This is my last action movie,” she said in an interview during the 21st Busan International Film Festival. “Another chance might not come and physically I just can’t do it anymore. I’m too old and too scared I’ll get hurt.
“It is a bit sad but I am someone who grew up in a different era. The way films are made today doesn’t feel as real to me and there are times when I wish people would put in the same kind of effort we did.”
Wai’s run of starring roles dates back to the heydays of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers hit factory in the 1970s, and to the golden era of her craft. While her latest film won’t rank with the classics, it certainly harks back to those heady days.
In Mrs K, which premiered in Busan and is set for an Asian roll-out in the new year, the 56-year-old Wai stars as a mother whose shady past catches up with her, and who is drawn once more into a fight for her family and for survival.
It’s a wild and for the most part entertaining mash-up of genres that doffs its cap to the realistic style of those Shaw Brothers epics, as well as the westerns of Robert Aldrich (The Last Sunset), and its Malaysian-born director Ho Yuhang never really lets his star stray from the focus of the cameras.
If Wai was hankering for one final workout before giving up on the action capers for good, she certainly gets its in Mrs K, playing off against – and often going toe-to-toe with – Simon Yam Tat-wah as the scenery-chewing villain of the piece.
Wai was among the superstars at Shaw Brothers, beginning with her breakthrough in Challenge of the Masters (1976) and culminating in the best actress prize at the first Hong Kong Film Awards for the action-comedy My Young Auntie (1982).
Ho – only four years old when Wai got her first break – was the one who resurrected her career, casting her in his acclaimed drama At The End of Daybreak (2009). The role as a mother dealing with her troubled son helped remind the industry of her talents and she’s been in demand ever since.
Ho said he’d spent five years working on a screenplay that he hoped would pay fitting tribute to “an icon of martial arts.”
A fitting tribute also, perhaps, to a lost era of Asian filmmaking.
“Back then we were actors but we also trained just like we were martial artists. It was real. No cheating”
“These days the actors don’t really need to know everything about martial arts because there are so many fast cuts when filming, and so many tricks filmmakers can use to make things look real,” Wai said.
“It doesn’t look as real because it’s not real.
“Back then we were actors but we also trained just like we were martial artists … audiences could see that in the films that we made. It was real. No cheating.”
“We often only did one take in one day,” she said. “Now you can do 20 – and because of the money being spent you have to!
“I hope there are filmmakers ahead who will spend more time making films that feel more real when it comes to the action.”
It’s a familiar refrain. The veteran actor-director-action choreographer Sammo Hung Kam-bo has recently been saying much the same thing.
Hung learned his martial arts at the China Drama Academy back in the 1960s, starting when he was nine. For a career spanning more than five decades, Hung has had a hand in a string of martial arts classics that helped mix the genre with flashes of comedy or gritty urban drama, from Pedicab Cab Driver (1989) to SPL (2005).
For real, fei tzai … Sammo vs. Lau Kar-leung
His film CV lists more than 200 productions, as well as helping the genre find a mainstream western audience thanks to the likes of the US TV series Martial Law.
The 64-year-old gave his body a decent old workout in this year’s The Bodyguard – also his first stint as a director for almost 20 years – and though the film played to decidedly mixed reviews, it was certainly old school when it came to the action sequences.
When picking up a lifetime achievement award (the Golden Mulberry at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy), Hung used the occasion to point out the differences he saw, on set and off, between “then” and “now.”
“I started work with King Hu – a great martial arts director [famed for hits such as Come Drink With Me and A Touch of Zen],” Hung said. “He loved to talk and after dinner he would continue talking until 4am. Every day. He loved to teach you, about movies, about the people, about the characters. I learned so many things, so much wisdom.
“In those days we really knew how to make martial arts movies … today there is a void in martial arts movies.”
Hung is looking to make matters right.
“There have not really been many action movie stars come out – maybe six from Hong Kong in 25 years,” he said.
“That’s why I want to establish my own school in Shanghai. I will ask all the champions in China to come visit me, every one one of them who wants to become an actor as well. I want to give them the opportunity to train, like I did, and become a complete martial arts actor.
“That is my biggest goal in the next few years – to discover the next stars and give them the start I had.”
The late, great filmmaker Lau Kar-leung – the man who discovered Wai and cast her in Challenge of the Masters – used to tell anyone who would listen just how ingrained the martial arts mindset was in his generation. Lau – who died in 2013 – also grew up under a rather brutal training system, by today’s standards at least. And the man who was responsible for classics such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) never really stopped working out, or thinking about how he could adapt his training for film.
Even in his 70s, the martial arts muse would suddenly take him, sometimes as he drove home, and he would have to heed the call, stepping from his car to put his ideas into practice. It apparently caused some consternation for Hong Kong traffic police who would often see this old man practicing martial arts routines by a darkened roadside. “But it is in my blood,” Lau explained in an interview before his death. “That’s why the martial arts in my movies looks so natural. These days this doesn’t happen so much.”