Can ‘Detective Dee’ be the comeback of Tsui Hark? Some of us have been waiting for over a decade! The younger generation may not know this – Tsui Hark is the foremost father of Modern Chinese Cinema. Many who grew up watching Chinese movies hail ‘Once Upon A Time In China II’ as the definitive Wuxia masterpiece. It came out 8 years before ‘Crouching Tiger And Hidden Dragon’.
Can anyone think of Modern Chinese Cinema without thinking of Tsui Hark? Can we talk about the evolution of Modern Chinese Cinema without talking about Hong Kong? Tsui Hark is credited with the rebirth of Modern Hong Kong Cinema. What he did in the 80s and the early 90s was the backbone that shaped how commercial Chinese films are produced today.
His works are wildly orignal as they are boringly formulaic. Since ‘The Butterfly Murders’, he mixed Wuxia, Chinese Opera with Horror and Sci-Fi. Such genre-blending resulted in ‘Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain’, ‘Peking Opera Blues’ and ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’. He was seen as the trend-setter of fused genres, the leader of the 5th generation of ‘New Wave’ Hong Kong directors.
He was also the king of sequels and retreads. From ‘Aces Go Places’ to ‘The Swordsman’ and ‘Once Upon A Time In China’ series, critics saw him as a sell-out and a prime example of Hong Kong directors not rising above vulgar commercialism. His company, Film Workshop which he formed with his then wife and sometime producer Shi Nansun, could do no wrong commercially. All their releases were synonymous with blockbuster success across Asia, minting big dollars and even bigger stars. They also include movies he produced such as the iconic ‘A Better Tomorrow’, ‘The Killer’, ‘Black Mask’, ‘Iron Monkey’ and ‘New Dragon Inn’.
The ‘New Wave’ label bestowed on him was a hopeful branding – of more aesthetically daring cinema, of even more daring experimentation, with special effects, with action choreography, costumes, sets, and re-telling of stories. His most long-lasting and fruitful collaboration with Ching Siu Tong created the renown ‘Tsui Hark Style’ – creatively manic, visually arresting, suitably funny and quintessentially Chinese. For the first time, audiences saw opera costumes with long flowing coloured cloths flying through the skies in action sequences choreographed to enhance Kung Fu and Sword Fighting in ways that were cinematically exclusive and unique to the East. ‘The East Is Red’, the sequel to ‘The Swordsman’, and ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’ had such visual sequences that are now classic in the annals of Chinese Cinema.
With major box office successes, some Hong Kong movie stars became almost legendary in their roles. The biggest benefactors were Brigitte Lin in her transgender parts, another Tsui trademark, Jet Li, Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Sally Yeh and Chiu Man Chuk. A few of Tsui Hark’s movies, some ironically sequels, are widely regarded as the most inventive in the golden age of Hong Kong Cinema.
Tsui Hark’s experiments are the sources of many cinematic marvels we see today. When ‘Hero’ came out, I remember Nansun exclaiming, “Daniel, all these people flying around in bright coloured clothes; we did those stunts decades ago!”
Will ‘Detective Dee’ signal the start of Tsui Hark’s second act? An act of yet more unconventional story-telling and stunning visuals? Can he infuse a new defining style into the present crop of China movies? The prequel to ‘Detective Dee’ is now in the works. And a new incantation of ‘Dragon Inn’.
From ‘The Blade’, his Hollywood forays – the two Jean-Claude Vann Damme movies – ‘Double Team’ and ‘Knock Off’ to his ‘Legend Of Zu’, ‘Time And Tide’, ‘Seven Swords’, and recently, ‘Missing’, the Tsui Hark we knew was sadly missing. There were occasional sparks, but the narratives were disjointed and the effects lacklustre.
We cannot know for sure. Like a mad scientist, his career has more ups and downs than any of his flying swordsman. Let’s hope this time he is flying all the way up, and the wires are strong enough to keep him up.