Tsui Hark might be known as the Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong, but back in the 1980s he also had a substantial acting career. Hark won a best supporting actor award for The Final Victory (1987), played Michelle Yeoh’s sidekick in In the Line of Duty (1985), then unexpectedly went the action hero route. 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. It also offers a once in a lifetime sight: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, super-suave star of Infernal Affairs (2002) and In the Mood For Love (2000), playing Tsui Hark’s geeky sidekick.
The maniacal Hero Gang, led by evil, cyborg genius Saviour and his sadistic girlfriend Maria (Sally Yeh - from John Woo’s The Killer (1989)), 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 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Curly (frizzy-haired comedian John Sham), an inventor/secret agent. The goofy trio are hopelessly outgunned and on the run (a memorable chase has them and the Hero Gang swinging on jungle 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. Hark’s first science fiction production is strongly influenced by his favourite manga, Tetsuwan Atom / a.k.a. Astro Boy and features numerous nods to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I Love Maria is a wacky, wayward romp, but stays surprisingly true to his pet themes.
Singer/actress Sally Yeh’s performance is a delightful piece of pantomime - all wide eyes and herky-jerky, robot movements. Her character’s name and visual design clearly reference Metropolis, but Chang and Hark pull a clever reversal on Fritz Lang’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: a dying Maria questions the choices she made in life, and Maria II gradually grows unnerved by their physical resemblance. Hark explores themes that reoccur throughout his work: transgression and humanity. An inhuman desires to become human, but what is humanity? Is it love, feelings, or morality? Like so many Hong Kong movies, you need to love sudden shifts in tone if you’re going to enjoy the ride. Still, I Love Maria is an intriguing oddity in the filmography of a major artist.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.