Why this might not seem so easy
Describing Tsui Hark’s standing within the Hong Kong film industry is far from straightforward. He’s a director, producer and sometime actor, a restlessly industrious polymath with more than 80 films to his name in one capacity or another. As director, he helped usher in the Hong Kong New Wave with a trio of biting (quite literally with 1980’s We’re Going to Eat You) political satires before an abrupt left turn towards populist blockbusterdom with All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution (1981). This hit paved the way for his landmark effects extravaganza Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), a film that brought Hollywood tech-wizardry to the domestic marketplace.
As producer, he introduced the world to the bullet ballets of the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre, making a star out of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989), before reinvigorating the Chinese ghost story with a domestic smash called, um, A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).
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Yet little of Tsui’s domestic output could be easily seen in the west, at least until the home video market started playing catch-up. His films are distinctly Chinese in their cultural sensibilities, resuscitating and reconfiguring unfashionable genres by the dozen – often within the same film. He’s a master stylist with few peers when it comes to intricacies of staging, and, in his predilection for female leads and gender-bending subversions, stands as the feminist yin to John Woo’s hyper-masculine yang.
The best place to start – Peking Opera Blues
There’s no better introduction to the cinema of Tsui Hark than his 1986 masterpiece Peking Opera Blues, a film that seems to draw from all manner of Chinese cultural touchstones to create a wholly unique, breathtakingly constructed confection. Set in 1913, during a period of political unrest, the film sees 3 women team up to steal a military document that could prevent the takeover of the country’s south. Describing it as a period action-comedy does little justice to its seamless blending of tones, or Tsui’s facility for hurtling movement through the multi-levelled planes of its hermetic sets.
Then there’s the gender dynamics epitomised by the Peking Opera itself, in which all the female parts are traditionally played by men. In another director’s hands the film’s central character would be played by a male actor too, but under Tsui the role goes to Brigitte Lin, iconically kitted out in male drag throughout.
The film culminates with one of his greatest set-pieces, a fight that erupts through the theatre for a rooftop escape. But Tsui’s genius isn’t reserved for his action sequences. An earlier comic interlude sees the trio sharing a bed before being woken by one of their fathers – cue a game of hide-and-seek staged solely within the confines of the bed. It’s the kind of startling invention for an otherwise throwaway scene that exemplifies Tsui’s casual brilliance.
What to watch next
Tsui has turned his hand to so many different genres, you can really pick your poison when it comes to deciding where to head next. If you took to Peking Opera Blues, the earlier Shanghai Blues (1984) offers an adjacent vibe. A romantic comedy of lost and missed connections set between the world wars, it boasts a central set-piece of remarkable ingenuity as a woman caught in the rain has to hide in a man’s apartment when his love interest shows up. Tsui throws in a burglar for good measure, hiding from the 3 of them in the same flat. It’s a sublime bout of comic staging as rich as any of his better-known action sequences.
If it’s action you’re after though, head to the epic Once upon a Time in China (1991), a film that breathed new life into the ailing kung fu genre. Starring Jet Li as the folkloric hero Wong Fei Hung, the film broke with the Jackie Chan model of comic ebullience for a straight-faced dose of nationalistic reverence. In its final ladder-balancing battle, it contains one of the greatest fight sequences committed to film.
For a darker action proposition, The Blade (1995) sees Tsui take on Chang Cheh’s influential wuxia classic The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) in a stylistic blitzkrieg leagues away from the classicism of the Once upon a Time films. It’s a blistering, brutal watch, but nothing compared with his first masterpiece, Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (1980), a contemporary political thriller of intense rage that was banned on its initial release. It’s hard to think of another film as nihilistic – or as relentlessly grim – and as much as it’s crying out for restoration, it’s a wonder if it could get past the BBFC even today.
If you’re after Tsui at his most playful, the 2 English-language features he made with Jean-Claude Van Damme are a hoot, especially Knock Off (1998), which sees the muscles from Brussels as a fashion designer in Hong Kong on the eve of the 1997 handover, caught up in a ploy by Paul Sorvino to import some exploding pants into the US and detonate them en masse. As gloriously ludicrous as it sounds, it’s irrepressibly energetic and resourceful in its hyper-caffeinated direction. Want even more showmanship? Time and Tide (2000) barely stops for breath and finds Tsui at his most explosively propulsive.
If sword and gun fights leave you cold, you’ll find a pair of beautiful melodramas in The Lovers (1994) and its meta-twin Love in the Time of Twilight (1995), as well as a terrifically lively comedy in The Chinese Feast (1995) – think Big Night (1996) shot with the breakneck verve of a kung fu picture.
For more personal films, A Better Tomorrow III (1989) saw Tsui deliver the best in the series by breaking with his old pal John Woo for his own take of what would become Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990). Green Snake (1993), meanwhile, sees him at his most lyrical and painterly – it’s a supernatural, feminist fantasia steeped in Chinese mythology.
Where not to start
Tsui has always been a technological innovator, beginning with Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which saw him bring VFX technicians who had worked on the likes of Star Wars (1977) over to Hong Kong. An animated version of A Chinese Ghost Story from 1997 saw him integrate computer animation with traditional techniques for the first time in Chinese cinema. Experiments with CG would continue with the live action remake Zu Warriors (2001) and most of his output this century has relied heavily on computer generated effects.
Your mileage with Tsui’s later films will vary depending on how well you take to an aesthetic that holds little truck with Hollywood-style seamlessness of CG design and integration. If you can get on board, you’ll find the likes of Journey to the West: Demon Chapter (2017) an eye-popping wonder of colour and movement delivered at serious scale. For the more trepidatious, try the 3 Detective Dee films (2010-18) for some period swashbuckling-adventure or The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014) for an epic men-on-a-mission yarn mounted with the kind of directorial flair that by this point, with Tsui, it’s easy to take for granted.
Double Team, Knock Off and The Master are available now from 88 Films.