[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
I had a pretty good time coming up with my top five Jackie Chan films last month, so I wanted to continue the split between listicle and retrospective going forward. I may eventually run out of list ideas, but it’s a fun way to share some insight into films I don’t have a nostalgic connection to while also highlighting newer stuff in the process. Since I kicked this off with Jackie Chan, it was only fitting that I continue with the three dragons and spotlight Yuen Biao.
One of my rules for Chan’s list is that I wanted to stick to pure Chan movies. That wound up being a list of his directorial efforts, but Biao’s career wasn’t as lucky. Known for his incredible acrobatic skill and for his ability to nail stunts in a small number of takes, Biao played most of his career as a supporting character. He was primarily featured in many Sammo Hung productions, but also starred alongside Chan. The three would even collaborate a number of times, resulting in Wheels on Meals, Project A, and Dragons Forever.
If I limited Biao’s best films to pure Biao movies, I’m not sure it would be fair. Biao did direct a few films, but they aren’t particularly good. Most of his starring roles also have Hung as a side character or are produced by Hung. His later career reflects a change in that Biao wanted to strike out on his own, but a lot of his best work is under the tutelage of Sammo Hung. With that said, this list will be a combination of his films from throughout his career. Surprisingly, though, a lot of his later movies top the list.
So right away, I’m kicking the list off with a predominantly Sammo Hung-focused film. Eastern Condors represents one of the most mature productions Hung made in his career from a technical standpoint. While it has every bit the goofy Cantonese comedy and slapstick humor, there are also some tremendous stunts and action set-pieces that are leaps and bounds ahead of what he had previously done.
I would normally put this higher if I felt the pacing was better. The movie drags in bits due to a lot of setup, but that’s neither here nor there. One of the best aspects of Eastern Condors is Yuen Biao’s performance as Chieh Man-yeh, aka Rat. Eastern Condors takes place during the Vietnam War and features a band of Chinese criminals that are forced into a mission by the US military to liberate Vietnam. It’s a little out there, but Biao’s role is the closest he ever came to embodying Hollywood stereotypes.
Sporting a hairstyle similar to Leon S. Kennedy in Resident Evil 4, Biao constantly throws his hair over his eye and deals out ass-kickings with finesse. His character also cares deeply for the refugees that are being pinned down by the Vietcong, helping to steal goods and feed them during his journies. It all culminates in a brutal battle against Yuen Wah at the end that puts both men to their limits. Funnily enough, they would clash again in the top spot on this list.
Righting Wrongs was the turning point in Biao’s career where he firmly went on his path away from Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. While he would collaborate with them a few more times, this was the film where a new direction for him emerged. He didn’t like being constantly compared to his “brothers,” and he took to darker films in the late 80s and early 90s. Righting Wrongs is one such film.
The plot revolves around Biao’s character, Ha Ling-Ching (a play on Biao’s Cantonese name), a lawyer working to indict a criminal he watched shoot his mentor to death. Frustrated with how the law has loopholes that can protect killers, he takes the law into his own hands and starts hunting down those involved.
The plot maybe doesn’t go deep enough with its dissection of what it means to be lawful or righteous, but the action more than makes up for any deficiencies. Directed by the careful eye of Corey Yuen Kwai, Righting Wrongs not only puts Yuen Biao front and center but gives a dual starring role to the magnificent Cynthia Rothrock. Both go through the wringer in this movie and have some legendary brawls, but the original HK ending is what makes this movie so memorable. All around, this is an excellent film and one that any fan of Hong Kong action must see. Props to the ridiculous airplane stunt that possibly inspired Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
On the Run
While produced by Sammo Hung, On the Run couldn’t be further from one of his films. The most exciting quality of On the Run is how Yuen Biao and his fellow Hong Kong stunt doubles are able to convince you that none of them can fight due to the plot. A film dealing with the looming handover of Hong Kong to the mainland, the action is predicated on the idea that everyone is an average person looking to skip town as Hong Kong has no future.
An oppressively dark movie that manages to kill almost every single character in it, Biao’s Heung Ming is a cop that wants out of Hong Kong and turns to his estranged wife to do so. The two are soon to be divorced, but she has a travel visa and can keep the marriage going just long enough to get him across the border. Sadly, killer Chui Pai, played magnificently by Pat Ha, executes her and robs Ming of the chance.
In all honesty, Pat Ha is the star of this film, but Biao gives one of the most dramatic and impassioned performances of his entire career. There’s a moment when he finally gets hold of Chui Pai and the facial expressions Biao gives tell it all. He isn’t mad that she killed his wife, but mad that she robbed him of his chance at freedom. What comes next will consistently surprise you, even if you are familiar with Hong Kong cinema.
The Prodigal Son
Realistically, I could put this as the number one slot as it is one of my favorite movies of all time. While Sammo Hung helped launch Biao’s leading man career with Knockabout a few years earlier, this is the movie that made him into a bankable star. It is one of the very best films of 1980s Hong Kong and showcases Sammo Hung at the top of his game. Eastern Condors maybe ups the ante a bit, but it loses focus and doesn’t feature as tight of comedy.
I don’t have to write too much more as I’ve already covered The Prodigal Son a few years back, but my thoughts have never really wavered on this. I’ve always been in love with the fight choreography, the juxtaposition of tones, and the parody aspects of its plot. The newer Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment restored a visual gag that was missing on all prior home video releases, so it was fun to get a better understanding of what happened during the dressing room brawl.
As much as it makes sense to call this Biao’s best film, there is one movie that holds a special place in my heart as the peak of Biao’s talents.
The Iceman Cometh
I don’t think it’s possible to enjoy Biao’s work and not be enamored with The Iceman Cometh. Made just before the turn of the decade in 1989, The Iceman Cometh is like part-Highlander and part Back to the Future. The plot kicks off in 16th Century China at the height of the Ming Dynasty. Royal guard Fong Sau-Ching (Yuen Biao) is sentenced to death for failing to stop outlaw Feng San (Yuen Wah) from raping and killing several court maidens. Fong is given a chance to redeem himself if he can kill Feng, which leads us to the sci-fi aspects.
Since I’m going to be featuring this in a few weeks as the final Kung Fu Corner for 2022, I’ll refrain from detailing too much here. The highlights of this film are (obviously) the action and the performances of the principal cast members. Biao has always been a great comedic talent, but he is practically one-upped by Maggie Cheung. She plays a modern-day prostitute and Biao has no idea what is happening when he first meets her.
Yuen Wah is also ridiculously over the top in his role as the villain. While the movie sort of sidelines him for a majority of the second act, he takes what would otherwise be a one-dimensional villain and plays him like a comic book character. The closest comparison I can give is to Willem Dafoe’s performance as Norman Osborne in Spider-Man. He’s so maniac that he winds up stealing the spotlight in every scene.
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