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Planet Hong Kong: Science Fiction, Chinese Style

  In the wild world of Hong Kong film, science fiction seems at first glance, an underrepresented genre. Lack of Hollywood sized budgets isn’t an issue as much as cultural differences. Who needs a story set in a futuristic city or outer space when China’s mythological past conjures a landscape as tripped-out, fantastical and outlandish as any space opera?

Yet Chinese pop culture has shown enthusiasm for science fiction since the 1960s, when manhua - Hong Kong comic book - titles like Boy Scout, Flying Black Batman, and Uncle Choi regularly topped the bestsellers’ list. Eye-popping, colourful front covers showcased gadget laden, boy heroes battling evil geniuses with futuristic lairs, hi-tech death traps and hulking, green skinned minions: images drawn straight from Hollywood B movies of the Forties and Fifties.

The Brain Stealers (1968), the first science fiction movie produced by the venerable Shaw Brothers studio, trades on exactly that kind of pulp fiction imagery. Directed by Japanese ex-pat Umetsugu Inoue, it’s a fast paced tale of super-spies and radio controlled zombies, fusing James Bond thrills with body-snatcher horror. Secret agents Chin Ping, Lily Ho and Peter Chen Ho are out to foil the insane Dr. Zero, who is after a growth formula for his army of supermen.

Inoue specialized in crowd pleasing musical melodramas although he threw in an occasional leftfield item like his haunted house murder mystery: The 5 Billion-Dollar Legacy (1969). Brain Stealers showcases his flair for delirious set pieces, especially scenes featuring Dr. Zero’s nightmarish machine that transfers victims’ gloopy brain matter into the heads of his creations. Its psychedelic sets and comic book super-science are only sci-fi window dressing for one of Shaw’s many James Bond imitations, rather than a genuine attempt at a Chinese Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Peter Chen Ho - a regular leading man in Inoue’s musicals - is too mild mannered to convince as a suave lady-killer, but Lily Ho became a genre icon in films like Angel with Iron Fists (1966) and The Lady Professional (1971).

Japanese filmmakers directed many spy capers for Shaw Brothers. Their country had a stronger tradition of colourful, science fiction adventures that heavily influenced the studio’s next, gleeful extravaganza. In the early seventies, unauthorized reprints of manga such as Doraemon and Mazinger Z, sold out at news-stands and Cantonese re-dubs of Japanese superhero or sentai films like 5 Masked Riders against the Devil (1974) were big draws at the kiddie matinees. Shaw Brothers wanted a piece of the action.

The result was Super Infra-Man (1975), eighty-four minutes of non-stop kung fu, superhero thrills, laser battles, exploding aliens and rampaging prehistoric monsters, shot in glorious Shawscope. A devastating earthquake unleashes an invading army of shape-shifting beasties led by Princess Dragon-Mom, a whip-wielding, mini-skirted, blonde vixen who also sports a rather chic Viking helmet. World domination is what she’s after, but Hong Kong will do for starters, so her monster hordes proceed to stomp it into dust.

Danny Lee, future star of John Woo’s The Killer (1989), plays Raymar, the only man brave enough to endure a brilliant scientist’s mad experiment that turns him into - drum roll, please - Infra-Man! In his silver mask and red spandex, Infra-Man rockets across the screen. He leads an acrobatic kung fu squad, rescues the professor’s pretty daughter and her bratty kid brother, and battles giant spiders, super-powered dinosaurs with drills for arms and slinky cyborg agents. Rarely a second passes by without some fantastic feat or death-defying stunt from Shaw Brothers’ crack team of martial artists, captured in candy-coloured cinematography by director Hua Shan and his mentor, cameraman Ho Lan Shan (a pseudonym for the Japanese, Tadashi Nishimoto. Brought over by Bruce Lee to film Way of the Dragon (1972), he influenced a generation of Chinese cinematographers).

“The film relies almost totally on the impact of isolated fragments, without much overall structure other than its dream logic…” observed Phil Hardy’s Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction. “…the mise en scene is too haphazard.” To western eyes the colourful chaos of Infra-Man and many Asian fantasies were simply ‘bad’ filmmaking, but children recognized a manhua/manga brought to life. Super Infra-Man was a bigger international hit than the Japanese films that inspired it. Regular screenings on American TV’s Black Belt Theater drew many Caucasian kids and cult film fans like venerable critic Roger Ebert. Their enthusiasm kept Infra-Man a decade spanning, pop culture phenomenon, and eventually led to a special edition DVD.

For all its financial success, Shaw Brothers never bothered with a sequel. Hua Shan brought his energetic verve to the studio’s regular output of martial arts fantasies, crime thrillers, sexploitation and horror movies. He used a similar mix of flashy pyrotechnics and bizarre monsters in his charming fairytale Little Dragon Maiden (1983), but the closest Hong Kong cinema got to Infra-Man again was 1988’s, little-seen, Invincible Space Streaker. Effects shoddier than Infra-Man’s and relentless, puerile humour won it few fans.

Times were changing. In the late seventies and early eighties, Spielberg/Lucas blockbusters hit big across Asia. Newsstands carried manhua like Solar Lord and Lies of the Journey to the West. These were sci-fi spins on eccentric, beloved Chinese fairytales. Solar Lord was created by Tony Wong Yuk-long, who became a multimedia tycoon and Hong Kong’s answer to Stan Lee, while Lies…was based on the classic tale of the Monkey King. Its star attraction was Electric Pig, a bullet proof, crime fighting, bionic porker.

Shaw Brothers were behind the curve. The studio pilfered a few lightsabers for their outrageous wu xia (swordplay) spectacle Buddha’s Palm (1982), but though Star Wars imitations were raining down from Italy, Japan and even Turkey, they steered clear of space opera. Until boy wonder Tsui Hark, at rival studios Golden Harvest, announced he was using American special effects maestros from Star Wars in his next, groundbreaking, big budget project.

Shaw Brothers grabbed themselves a whiz kid of their own: award-winning filmmaker Chan Kuo-ming, who made a big splash on television with his horror series Mystery Beyond. They gave him a budget of HK $10 million, a stellar leading lady in Cherie Chung - one of the decade’s biggest stars - and an unprecedented, two year shooting schedule just to get the special effects right.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (1983) was billed as “science fiction, Hong Kong style… a bright, crazy, truly out of this world epic.” Thought it featured numerous nods to Star Wars, the plot was inspired by that other sci-fi blockbuster of 1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. How do you top Steven Spielberg’s epic ode to UFOs and a vital sense of wonder? Turn it into a sex comedy of course!

Nuttier than your granny’s fruitcake, this Benny Hill-style farce features Chung as Ah Chen, a sexy, accident prone shopgirl, first introduced recreating Marilyn Monroe’s iconic, skirt blowing up scene from The Seven-Year Itch. Ah Chen’s relentless bad luck changes after abduction by aliens turns her into a major celebrity. Little Star’s special effects scenes are eye-catching, but brief: a giant spaceship made of stars reaches down to grab Ah Chen; shuttle bays cribbed from Battlestar Galactica; a Millennium Falcon lookalike swoops across the night sky; and vast, exterior sets are beautifully lit by Kuo-ming in swathes of orange, blue and gold.

Still, it’s a sex comedy and a pretty risible one at that, with bad taste gags about suicide, debt collectors and an unfortunate man who looks like a Chinese Rondo Hatton. Chung sings the bouncy theme tune, there’s a Jekyll and Hyde plot twist and Kuo-ming cleverly satirizes Eighties’ money-grabbing values and the shallow pursuit of fame, but his cast of petty, venal, tantrum-prone characters are entirely dislikeable and the speeded up slapstick wears thin.

Eventually, a lovelorn private eye (comedian Yi Lei) dons hooker’s garb to lure the alien abductors and boards their mother ship for a lightsaber duel with a Darth Vader clone. The sight of hairy Lei in a tight, leather miniskirt, twirling lightsaber-nunchakus isn’t something your likely to forget - unfortunately.

Shaw Brothers’ martial arts fantasies of 1983 - Descendent of the Sun, Little Dragon Maiden and Holy Flame of the Martial World - were all gems. Why did the studio stumble so badly trying to produce a sci-fi blockbuster? They were out of touch, unable (or unwilling?) to adapt the classic wu xia formula into the post-Spielberg/Lucas era.

Meanwhile over at Golden Harvest, Tsui Hark accomplished just that. His groundbreaking epic, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) was not science fiction but a glorious revitalization of Chinese mythology, a mind-blowing barrage of cosmic wonders. He took a wu xia scenario, fuel-injected it with Star Wars’ pace and added a philosophical subtext, something no Shaw Brothers’ fantasy ever attempted.

Hark was a manga fan and an admirer of films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He seemed the ideal candidate to make the first, decent, science fiction action-adventure of the eighties, but that film did not come from the era’s most ambitious filmmaker. Surprisingly, it came from the least.

Producer-director Wong Jing’s name is synonymous with schlock, some good (Naked Killer (1992)), some bad (Liquid Sword (1992)), and some downright nasty (Raped by an Angel (1993)). His best films combine an “anything goes”-atmosphere with frantic action and lowbrow comedy. It was in that spirit he made The Magic Crystal (1985).

Cantopop star Andy Lau (from international hits like Infernal Affairs (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004)), his young nephew Pin Pin (Siu Ban Ban) and portly, comedy relief Pancho (director Jing) travel to Greece in search of their missing friend, Shen (Philip Ko Fei). Shen is on the run from agents of the KGB and Interpol, after discovering a rare, invaluable gem, which he later hides in Pin Pin’s backpack. The gem turns out to be sentient. An alien life form stranded on Earth for billions of years, it befriends our heroes by communicating telepathically.

Having a glowing rock for an alien is both an outrageous, budget saving device and a neat sci-fi concept. Wong Jing stages some flashy optical effects as the magic crystal swaps body parts and endows its friends with super strength. Evil magician Karov wants to harness its power, but the heroes team up with an American secret agent (Eighties martial arts queen, Cynthia Rothrock) to keep the alien out of KGB hands and send him home. An exciting climax has Andy and Karov fight a furious martial arts battle atop a flying saucer about to launch.

While Jing’s antics as whiny, sex obsessed Pancho wear thin, his direction keeps The Magic Crystal a fun mix of kung fu action, Cold War thriller, sci-fi spectacle and Spielberg pastiche. He references Raiders of the Lost Ark and even recreates E.T.’s famous ‘fingers touching’ scene.

Not every Hong Kong sci-fi actioner drew from the Spielberg school of feel good family entertainment. In 1983, new wave filmmaker Kirk Wong released Health Warning, a.k.a. Flash Future Kung Fu. Set in a dystopian future, its smoky, neon lit visuals recall Blade Runner, David Cronenberg, and the early films of Japanese auteur, Sogo Ishii. Society is breaking down and a traditional, martial arts school struggles to keep the peace amidst rampant drug use and ultra-violence. The neo-Nazi Ex Gang slaughters the entire school, save for Master Lau and his pupil Ah Wei, who set out for revenge.

Health Warning’s bleak, cyberpunk atmosphere masks a plot that is hackneyed, old school kung fu. Though he never quite transcends its limitations, Wong, an ambitious filmmaker, conjures impressive, low budget visuals - backlit alleys, fluorescent tubes, an ether-powered, twin-engine car, flickering video game screens - and hard hitting exploitation scenes. Two, drug-addicted women spray a dying martial artist with a stimulant and use him for sex; Ah Wei gets stabbed with rabies- infected syringes; an electro-dance stage show features a woman being clubbed to death; and the Ex Gang plots to experiment on an unborn child.

It adds up to a flawed, yet striking portrait of Chinese society in decay and traditional values at risk, but Health Warning wasn’t a box-office success. Kirk Wong’s gritty, downbeat style graced several crime thrillers that were well received, but dark, dystopian visions were never as popular with Hong Kong audiences as they were with the Japanese.

Wong Jing’s Future Cops (1993) features a post-apocalyptic setting, but draws its frantic imagery from video games like Streetfighter. Jing’s main concern is recreating game battles with popular stars like Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, amidst endless bouts of inane comedy. The amazing Saviour of the Soul (1991) sees co-directors Corey Yuen Kwai and David Lai mix sci-fi noir, magical sects, a cape-swishing, drug-snorting supervillain (Aaron Kwok), retro-fifties imagery, and fairytale storytelling into a wu xia love story.

Here the tone is warm, wistful and romantic, with high-tech gadgets - a bullet that drains the room of oxygen, a yo-yo that transforms into a flexible sword, lead heroine Anita Mui’s arsenal of hand held, heat-seeking missiles - peripheral additions to screenwriter Wong Kar-wai’s reworking of a classic, swordplay novel.

Hong Kong cinema’s finest example of dystopian science fiction arrived in the unlikely form of Heroic Trio II: Executioners (1994), which continued the adventures of superheroines Wonder Woman, the Thief Catcher, and Invisible Woman (megastars Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh). The tone is far removed from the carefree fun of its predecessor, with a darker, more complex storyline.

Ten years into the future, environmental pollution leaves Hong Kong in chaos and under thrall to disfigured genius Mr. Kim, head of the Clear Water Company. Controlling the water supply is just his first step. Handsome messiah Chong Hong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is Kim’s political puppet, doomed for assassination as part of a plan to destabilize the government and seize absolute power. Wonder Woman’s husband, a police commissioner, is framed for the murder and killed, which spurs the heroic trio into action.

Instead of grafting sci-fi elements onto a wu xia plot, Executioners is that rare, Hong Kong movie founded on a genuine, science fiction concept. Without the melodramatic excess that marred Health Warning, Executioners conjures truly frightening visions: mass riots, political skulduggery, widespread poverty, police corruption, bootleggers, and senseless violence reminiscent of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Its not all doom and gloom - Mui, Cheung and Yeoh share a memorable bubble bath, and co-directors Ching Siu Tung and Johnny To stage exciting shootouts and fantastical, superheroine action. But what truly impresses are the plot twists, compelling characterizations and political undertones in a film of a genre often dismissed as juvenilia.

Ironically, a fictional sci-fi author became a popular, reoccurring character in Hong Kong genre cinema. Wai Si Lei was a scholar, adventurer and expert on all things paranormal, created by prolific pulp author Ngai Hong. The character reached the silver screen, with the iconic Chow Yun-Fat as dashing, pipe smoking Mr. Wei, alongside an all-star cast and a cameo from Hong, in Golden Harvest’s spectacular, supernatural horror The Seventh Curse (1987). Later that year Sam Hui played the role, re-christened Wisely, in the science fiction tinged Legend of Wisely.

Mysterious billionaire Howard Hope (Bruce Barron) enlists Wisely’s help to find his missing friend, David Ko (Teddy Robin Kwan). A plucky female reporter (Joey Wong, star of A Chinese Ghost Story) tags along and together they discover David stole the sacred Dragon Pearl from Tibetan monks. Gangster Pak Wei (martial arts legend, Ti Lung) wants the pearl but so, it turns out, does Hope.

With three huge stars, stunts, special effects, and expensive locations - Egypt, Kathmandu and the Himalayas - sumptuously photographed by Academy Award-winner Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Legend of Wisely is a BIG movie; one of the most lavish of its era. Diminutive Cantopop star turned actor/director Teddy Robin Kwan packs a lot into eighty-eight minutes, with Indiana Jones action, X Files-style conspiracies, a five-year old prophet with ESP superpowers, and the climactic arrival of extraterrestrials aboard a spectacular UFO.

Story-wise there is a superficial similarity to The Magic Crystal, but Kwan crafts his opus with greater care. The comedy tickles, the stunts are remarkable and the plot takes pleasing twists and turns, as Wisely struggles figuring out whom to trust.

Wisely returned in 1991’s Bury Me High, which downplays fantastical elements - in this case, feng shui - in favour of fast, furious action. But 1992’s The Cat, with Wisely in a supporting role (played oddly enough, by actor Waise Lee. No relation.), is the craziest Chinese science fiction film ever made. Which is saying something.

It begins with strange noises overheard by Li Tung, who worries about his creepy neighbours: a spooky old man, a mysterious young girl (Gloria Yip), and the titular otherworldly feline. He sneaks inside their abandoned apartment and discovers a mess of entrails, which Wang - his jovial, cop buddy - claims are not human. Tung and Wang consult their old friend Wisely.

“That girl and her cat look like characters from Greek mythology”, says Li Tung, which is enough to persuade Wisely. “I’m convinced they’ve come from beyond the stars”, he muses.

Meanwhile, some impressive, pulsating, radioactive alien goop arrives from outer space. It possesses an unfortunate tramp then goes on a killing spree. Since the cat, girl and old man have been sighted at several museum raids, the clueless cops pin them for the murders. A canine loving eccentric lends Wisely his fiercest attack dog, Lao Pu. Alongside the cops, they stake out the next museum.

Sure enough, the cosmic cat strikes again, literally flying away with a stolen artefact (He leaves a cat-shaped hole in the window). There follows a jaw dropping, slow motion, kung fu tussle between Lao Pu and the alien kitty, with acrobatic leaps, kicks and tumbles. Mixing trained animals, split-second puppetry and stop-motion animation; it’s a flabbergasting sight, captured with pouncing “cat-cam” photography by director Nam Nai Choi (who made the similarly outrageous The Seventh Curse).

Of course the super-strong, super-fast kitty and its young mistress turn out to be good guys, alien visitors out to save mankind from the evil Star Killer. The slimy goop becomes an impressively realised mass of slithering tentacles and possesses Wang, while Wisely and co. search for the ancient super-weapon able to destroy it.

Changing tone every five minutes, The Cat goes from Disney-esque whimsy (recalling The Cat from Outer Space (1978)), to sexploitation (lingering, sweaty close-ups of Wisely’s girlfriend), Terminator-style action (after scoring weapons, Wang blows away the arms dealers, just like Arnie did), and graphic horror. Melting faces, bodies torn to shreds, and the stomach churning appearance of the Lovecraftian, Star Killer will delight gore fans.

In the eighties and nineties, Tsui Hark was the most influential filmmaker of the Hong Kong new wave. However, his attempts to film science fiction manga like Mai, the Psychic Girl and Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy never got off the ground. Hark’s first science fiction production turned out to be I Love Maria (1988), a movie strongly influenced by manga and featuring numerous nods to his beloved Metropolis.

Co-directed by David Chung, I Love Maria is a tale of future crimes, unrequited love and giant, transforming robots, set to a bubblegum pop soundtrack. The maniacal Hero Gang, led by evil, cyborg genius Saviour and his sadistic girlfriend, Maria (Sally Yeh) try to take over Hong Kong using a colossal, weapons-laden robot called Pioneer 1.

Out to stop them are Maria’s childhood friend, the lovelorn Whiskey (Tsui Hark), a nerdy reporter (the normally super suave Tony Leung, star of Infernal Affairs and Lust, Caution (2007)), and Curly (comedian John Sham), an inventor/secret agent. The geeky trio are hopelessly outgunned and on the run (A memorable jungle chase has them escape them and the machine gun-toting Hero Gang all swinging on vines, while Whiskey recreates Tarzan’s famous yell!), until they discover femme-bot Maria II (Yeh again).

Created by Curly, stolen and redesigned by Saviour to resemble his beloved, Maria II is rescued by Whiskey who mistakes the robot for her human counterpart. With her machine gun fingers, rocket powered feet, super strength and missile launching arms, Maria II battles it out with the twenty-foot tall Pioneer 1. The special effects are incredibly impressive, pre-CG with full-size model robots that actually transform.

Singer/actress Sally Yeh’s performance is a delightful piece of pantomime, all wide eyes and herky-jerky, robotic movements. Her character’s name and design clearly reference Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but Chang and Hark pull a clever reversal of that film’s plot. Here, it’s the human woman who is the femme fatale while her robot twin is a saintly innocent. Neither character remains one-dimensional; as a dying Maria questions the choices she made in life, while Maria II becomes unnerved by their physical resemblance. Hark explores two themes that reoccur throughout his work: transgression and humanity. An inhuman desire to become human, but what is humanity? Is it love? Feelings? Morality?

Such emotional complexity is not readily apparent in Hong Kong cinema’s other robot-women movie, Robotrix (1991). Better known among cult movie fans than I Love Maria, probably because it’s a sci-fi themed, sexploitation vehicle for busty starlet, Amy Yip. The film opens with a robot competition, where a runaway android is subdued by Eve R27, the astounding creation of Doctor Sara (Hui Hsiao-dan). Police enlist Sara’s help after mad scientist Ryuichi Yamamoto and his sex-mad android (Billy Chow - in real life, Jackie Chan’s bodyguard) kidnap the son of a wealthy oil sheik. The plan is to convince the sheik to bankroll a robot army, but Chow’s android spends most of his screen time murdering hookers.

Eve R27 pretty much vanishes from the story as the focus shifts onto a beautiful policewoman (Chikako Aoyama), killed in the line of duty and resurrected as a cyborg without any memory of her former life. This complicates her relationship with a fellow detective (David Wu - whose eclectic career includes fantastic work as an editor for John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ronny Yu, and directing the fairytale mini-series, The Snow Queen (2002) starring Bridget Fonda). He tries to rekindle their love affair amidst numerous, sweaty, sex scenes.

Meanwhile, Billy is still killing prostitutes and torturing the sheik’s son (remember him?) with his power drill. The dim cops turn to Sara’s shapely assistant, Anna (Amy Yip), who turns out to be another android. Anna agrees to pose as a hooker, not just to set a trap for the robo-gigolo, but because she wants experience sex.

Robotrix is an absolute mess. The quirky storylines, multiple shifts in genre and stylistic u-turns present in many Chinese movies have produced some exhilarating examples of alternative cinema, but here they’re plain annoying. The sudden focus upon Aoyama’s character comes because the Japanese actress is less reticent about nudity. Anna’s hooker sub-plot goes nowhere. Her trap fails (though having made it with multiple clients, she pronounces her experiment a success!) and director Jamie Luk Kin-ming wheels on yet another supporting character - a police informer - just to get some plot closure. His death provides the movie’s best concept, as scientists remove his eyeballs and use a hi-tech computer to capture the last image he saw.

For all its faults, the film’s garish style enlivens the meandering, sexploitation plot. Yip’s pin-up status combined with campy humour, kinky set pieces and an overall air of outrageousness have made Robotrix an enduring, fan favourite.

Sex, gore and off-the-wall, effects-driven action all figured in Tsui Hark’s second SF production, but the contrast between Robotrix and The Wicked City (1992) could not be greater. Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novel had already been adapted into an outstanding horror anime by genre specialist Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Hark’s movie recreates the anime’s infamous opening scene. Secret agent Taki (Leon Lai) has a rendezvous with a beautiful prostitute, but when they go up to his hotel room she transforms into a hideous spider-creature. Taki is rescued by his partner Ken Kai (Jackie Cheung) who flies - like many Tsui Hark characters, regardless of genre - in through the window. The opening is campier and fails to match the intensity of the anime, but thereafter all imitations end. Hark - collaborating with former pop video director Mak Kit-tai - reworks the original supernatural premise into a political, science fiction thriller.

It’s days before 1997, Hong Kong stands poised for its handover to mainland China, but the city is under threat. Raptors - alien shape-shifters from another dimension - have infiltrated society by assuming human form. The government’s Anti-Raptor Bureau assign Taki and Ken to investigate a street drug called Happiness, supposedly created by Raptors. Suspicion falls on Daishu (Tatsuya Nakadai, award-winning star of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), whose presence reflects the prestigious nature of this production), a powerful Japanese businessman rumoured to be 150 years old.

Ken and Taki harbour secrets of their own. Ken is actually half-raptor, struggling to find a soul mate and earn the respect and trust of the Bureau. Taki abandoned his lovely girlfriend Windy (Michelle Reis), after discovering she was a Raptor. Now she is with Daishu, and the former lovers share an awkward reunion at the tycoon’s birthday bash.

It turns out the raptor community are also being ravaged by Happiness. Ken, Taki and Windy are caught up in a war between the benevolent Daishu, who seeks peaceful integration with human beings, and his rebellious son, Shudo (Roy Cheung), the drug’s real inventor, who stages a violent coup. A spectacular set piece features liquid raptors hidden in cocktails, exploding heads, and a flying killer clock assaulting our heroes with razor-edged cogwheels.

Wicked City zips by at breakneck speed with imaginative action (a group of Anti-Raptor agents use telekinesis to sling Taki at his enemies) and bizarre sensuality (Shudo’s monster-girlfriend transforms into a sexually voracious pinball machine and a shrieking motorcycle for him to ride). Yet it’s also the most thematically ambitious science fiction film Hong Kong has yet produced.

Like much of Tsui Hark’s work from this period - such as historical romance The Lovers (1995) and revisionist, swordplay drama The Blade (1996) - it reflects his concerns about Hong Kong’s future beyond 1997. The city faces a moral dilemma, as a “foreign presence” (Nakadai’s casting cleverly alludes to this) raises questions about racial and philosophical identity. What will Hong Kong become in the face of changing values? Are they truly Chinese, or western, or communist? What makes them different from the shapeshifting Raptors? Characters question their own motives but continue to do the wrong thing, and while morality is meant to reflect what is human, the only truly moral character, Ken, is the one person nobody trusts.

The delirious climax finds good guys and bad battling for telekinetic control over a jumbo jet circling Daishu’s corporate tower. However, Kit-tai and Hark sidestep the anime’s optimistic conclusion, in favour of a darker fable. As with Green Snake (1993), The Lovers and The Blade, Harked hoped a tragic ending would provoke a happier one in real life.

Post-1997, Hong Kong cinema was mired in a box office crisis. Genres that were once popular - ghost stories, action movies, period martial arts films - no longer pulled in big audiences. A number of costly failures left producers floundering, but the one filmmaker able to weather the storm was good old Wong Jing. His workmanlike output of lowbrow comedies and sleazy exploitation pics raked in the cash needed to fun more ambitious productions.

Beginning with the manhua-derived, fantasy epic Storm Riders (1998); Jing transformed himself from a schlock merchant into a maker of colossal-budget, effects heavy, star laden super-productions. Working with gifted director/cinematographer Andrew Lau, Jing shot these films on digitally generated sets and backgrounds prefiguring George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels and movies like 300 (2007).

After adding the superior A Man Called Hero (1999) and The Duel (2001) to his trilogy of manhua adaptations, Jing and Lau chose to resurrect Ngai Hong’s scholarly hero under yet another, confusing name change, for The Wesley’s Mysterious File (2002). Wong’s Magic Crystal leading man, Andy Lau (no relation to director Andrew) took the title role. It was intended to be the most ambitious Wisely/Wesley adventure to date: a large scale alien invasion epic, shot in English and Cantonese, with big stars and lavish special effects, two years in the making. Instead, The Wesley’s Mysterious File emerged as one of Hong Kong cinema’s biggest disasters.

Our hero Wesley (And when did he become The Wesley? Do his frat brothers call him that? Is he like The Fonz?) is introduced at a museum, where a recently discovered, fossilized skeleton becomes the object of a fierce bidding war. The mysterious Fong (Rosamund Kwan) claims the skeleton is her brother. Wesley discovers they are Blue Bloods, an alien race who came to Earth six hundred years ago from planet Dark Blue.

Fong wants to resurrect her brother and, with Wesley’s help, searches for the Blue Blood Bible. Matters are complicated by a government agency, Double X, who despatch agents (Shu Qi and Roy Cheung) to capture Fong, and the arrival of two, evil aliens (Mark Chen and Almen Wong) also after the Blue Blood Bible.

As plots go, it’s reasonably compelling and certainly not as crazy as The Cat. Wong Jing and Andrew Lau seem to be emulating the moody atmosphere of The X Files, but their film is reminiscent of the show’s worst episodes, with a pace that is tortuously slow, plodding from one unremarkable discovery to the next. The decision to shoot some scenes in English was a big mistake, as capable actors like Shu Qi (who shines in art-house fare like Three Times (2006)) struggle with their dialogue.

Wesley remains a two-dimensional pulp hero, more a reactor than an active protagonist, a role that depends largely upon an actor’s charisma. Andy Lau makes a passable Wesley, no worse than Waise Lee or Sam Hui, but certainly not as dynamic as Chow Yun-Fat. His namesake director throws a flashy bit of CGI at the screen now and again to keep the audience awake, but the movie lacks the phantasmagoric wonder of his wu xia fantasies, or even the modest charms of The Magic Crystal.

Fast-forward six years and the Hong Kong film industry was in much healthier shape. The old staples: romantic comedies, gangster flicks and ghost stories were packing them in once again, while lavish martial arts epics made a comeback. But after the disaster of Wesley’s Mysterious File no one, not even Tsui Hark, wanted to tackle science fiction.

Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most revered, art-house auteur, featured a sci-fi author as the central protagonist in his mesmerizing romantic drama 2046 (2004). Tantalizing glimpses of a futuristic city, robot girls and space-age hairdos, led early reports to suggest the film would be a science fiction love story, but these were scenes imagined by the main character. It was not meant to be. Instead, it was Wong’s production company partner, the more commercially successful Jeff Lau, who truly took to the genre.

Lau had earlier dabbled in science fiction with his offbeat high-concept romantic thriller Second Time Around (2002), a rare Hong Kong genre outing driven by ideas rather than spectacle. Set, unusually, in a Las Vegas where everyone inexplicably speaks Cantonese, the plot concerns a policewoman (reigning box office queen Cecilia Cheung) and a gambler (heartthrob Ekin Cheng) caught in a temporal loop whilst attempting to prevent a terrible accident-cum-murder from happening and avoid interacting with their past selves. An intriguing premise plays second fiddle to a nonetheless engaging central romance, though Cheung and Cheng struggle with their few lines of English dialogue and the languid pace proves somewhat problematic.

For his next genre outing, Lau delivered arguably the era’s most ambitious science fiction epic. Not just a sci-fi love story, but a blockbuster that encapsulates the whole, colourful chaos of Asia’s take on the genre. Ten different movies scrunched into one, truly bonkers epic: A Chinese Tall Story (2006).

The film reworks the legend of Monkey King, a story beloved by children across Asia, and begins like a spoof. Pious monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse) and his companions Monkey King (Chen Po-lin), Pigsy (Kenny Kwan) and Sha Wujing (Steven Cheung) arrive at Shache City, and strike boy band poses before hordes of adoring fans. The heroes are betrayed and the city attacked by a towering, supernatural entity called Root of All Evils and his flying army of CGI-horrors.

A spectacular battle sees Monkey summon thousands of levitating apes, but the heroes are captured and only Tripitaka escapes, armed with - but incapable of using - Monkey’s magic staff (Animated with human traits, just like the carpet in Disney’s Aladdin). A tribe of lizard demons catches him, planning to consume his flesh and attain immortality. Their matriarch (martial arts diva Kara Hui Ying-hung) entrusts handsome Tripitaka to the one person immune to his charms, her hideous daughter Meiyan (Charlene Choi - one half of Cantopop megastars Twins - under toady makeup).

Choi’s flair for improvising kooky comedy and Lau’s delirious imagination propel the film from beauty and the beast romance, to gross-out comedy (gags about genital hygiene), Hollywood spoofs (Tripitaka dresses up like Spider-Man), and rocket-ship journeys to magical worlds (including one made entirely of traditional Chinese ink drawings). Meiyan and Tripitaka rescue a wisecracking, cosmic princess (Fan Bingbing) and the film suddenly transforms into a post-Phantom Menace space opera.

Lau delivers incredible transforming spaceships battling kung fu bandits. Martial arts superpowers versus alien death rays. A twist reveals Meiyan is an orphan from outer space. Reborn as an angel-winged beauty, she becomes an all-powerful, galactic warrior. Lau cribs directly from Star Wars’ race to destroy the Death Star, as Meiyan rescues Monkey and co., and saves the day. He mixes Infra-Man’s over the top superheroics (Meiyan conjures hi-tech super weaponry to blast away Root of All Evils), with lyrical animated fantasy reminiscent of Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki’s regular composer Jo Hisaishi does the score), gags funnier than those in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and goes back to the root of all Chinese science fiction - the reworking of old myths in manhua such as Lies of the Journey to the West.

The only thing missing is the political subtext present in Wicked City, but just when you think it’s all over, A Chinese Tall Story pulls an ace out of its sleeve, transforming once again, into a philosophical tragedy. A jury in heaven (headed by Gordon Liu, Kill Bill’s maniacal monk, Pai Mei) place Meiyan on trial for the crime of being inhuman. Tripitaka realises his sanctimonious sermonising only masks an intolerance of simple, human frailties. It’s that familiar theme: identity. Meiyan, the girl he loves, is the most humane person in heaven. A mind-blowing climax sees the arrival of a gigantic, computer generated Buddha and a bittersweet final scene. In weaving all these disparate threads together into A Chinese Tall Story, Jeff Lau produced arguably the most distinctive Hong Kong sci-fi fantasy of all.

He continued in this vein with his next film: Kung Fu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction (2008), a self-styled mash-up of Spider-Man and Transformers. Honest cop Tsui Dai Chun (Hu Jun) is recruited into a secret government agency and paired with K-1 (Alex Fong), a handsome, hi-tech crime-fighting super-robot not so subtly styled after Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe from Steven Spielberg’s A.I. K-1’s cyborg superpowers enable him to crack one-hundred-and-one unsolved cases in Chun’s hometown. He also wins the heart of nerdy, bespectacled lady cop Zhou Su Mei (Betty Sun Li), whom Chun has had a crush on for years. Unfortunately, K-1 discovers a default in his system programmed to shut him down should he ever fall in love.

Sadly, Kung Fu Cyborg proves a dishearteningly sluggish effort. Viewers have to put up with a lot of misfiring, sitcom level gags before things get to the mind-blowing, anime-styled robot battles. Lau’s typically disarming pathos and romance fall flat here thanks to an oddly diffident cast with Alex Fong a lacklustre leading man and reliable Betty Sun Li uncharacteristically flat. Some gags do work, notably a memorable quip about how the proliferation of cheap Chinese software knock-offs in the future means no-one remembers Bill Gates or Microsoft, but the film only wakes up late in the game with the arrival of renegade robot K88 (Jacky Wu Jing). “If god created humans the way they created robots, shouldn’t we question our creators the way they question their’s?” is the question K88 poses his conflicted colleague. Whereupon the film, in characteristic Jeff Lau fashion, morphs into a meditation on the nature of free will. Even so, Lau does not devote enough time to the provocative concept of robots as an oppressed underclass seeking liberation.

Two years on, a superior cyborg superhero yarn arrived in Future X-Cops (2010) with good old reliably low-brow Wong Jing producing a variation on his earlier, Future Cops. In the year 2020, visionary genius Doctor Robert Masterson has turned Hong Kong into a gleaming hi-tech, eco-friendly metropolis. However, a shadowy cartel of oil tycoons plot to steal his latest techno-wonder: a time machine. Future cop Kidd (Andy Lau) loses his partner-cum-spouse Millie (Fan Bing Bing) when they foil an assassination attempt by mutant cyborg terrorists led by the maniacal Kalon (Fan Siu-Wong). When the villains hatch a plan to travel back in time and murder the infant Dr. Masterson, Kidd allows scientists to transform him into an impressively-armoured cyborg super-cop and journeys back to the year 2020, bringing along his brainy little daughter Kiki (Xu Jiao, who played a boy in Kung Fu Hustle). Posing as a Clark Kent-style mild-mannered traffic cop partnered with the swiftly smitten Holly (Barbie Hsu), Kidds anonymous feats of daring-do alert the bad guys to his presence resulting in mucho mecha action, some startling revelations and poignant plot twists.

Despite lacking the philosophical subtext found in Kung Fu Cyborg, Future X-Cops outdoes its role model in every aspect. Its a modest but wholly engaging, rip-roaring adventure yarn with outstanding production design and specially effects heavily influenced by the manga of Osamu Tezuka, particularly Astro Boy. Action choreographer Ching Siu Tung delivers turbo-charged fight sequences but, while it is fun to watch Lau’s robo-hero rocket across the Hong Kong skyline, bounce off buildings and become a human corkscrew, Wong Jing surprises his detractors by downplaying computer graphics for the most part in favour of drawing warm, wholly likeable characters.

Where will the Chinese science fiction film go from here? Lately we’ve had the bonkers, effects laden City Under Siege, an X-Men influenced tale of mutants running rampant starring Aaron Kwok. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Danny Pang’s oddball Forest of Death (2007) goes the M. Night Shyamalan route. Glum but gorgeous detective Shu Qi enlists maverick botanist Ekin Cheng, who talks to the trees (just like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon!), to persuade a grove full of sentient saplings to help crack a rape-murder case. Largely supernatural goings-on take an inexplicably extraterrestrial twist as the third act leaps into sci-fi territory. If nothing else, science fiction in Hong Kong cinema is guaranteed to bound down its own defiantly idiosyncratic path.
Author: Andrew Pragasam

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006