News of Benny Chan passing away last August came as a shock to all fans of Hong Kong cinema. I wouldn’t count him as one of my favorite local filmmakers or anything, but he was one of the more consistent action directors of the past three decades and his filmography has given me many moments of pleasure through the years. As I often defend that film history shouldn’t be limited to masterpiece hunting, it seems worth to pay some attention to a “minor” filmmaker like Chan. His filmography is a particularly fascinating mirror of the past three decades of local filmmaking as his early work was heavily involved with a few heavy-hitters (Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan, Jeffrey Lau) and he later would be directly involved with attempts at the more cleaner action style of the early handover years and in the past decade after the local industry raised the white flag and mostly accepted to be assimilated by mainland film industry becomes one of the few filmmakers working with good budgets whose movies from the stars to their idiosyncrasies still suggested Hong Kong cinema first. It is an intriguing movement as midway through Chan’s career his name likely bring to mind to quite a few western fans “the decay of Hong Kong film” with his association with bland young stars, streamlined narratives and the lack of intensity one might associate with Woo or Tsui, as someone who thought people was unkind to Chan at the time, 15 years later he feels far more clear like his own man and if he will probably be more artisan than auteur, he was around Hong Kong sets when a lot of interesting moments and performances happened and that counts for a lot for me.
A Moment of Romance (1990)
Chan’s debut feature remains his best. Produced by Johnnie To who has long claimed auteurship of it, to such a point his later great romantic comedy Needing You has an entire subplot whose only reason to exist is to allude to it. It is probably worth mentioning that To and Chan are contemporaries who worked together on 80s Hong Kong TV with To jumping to movies a few years earlier (and that while A Moment of Romance stands out among Chan’s early films, it is also way better than anything To himself directed until the end of the decade). It is a romantic action film with Andy Lau as a sensitive triad who helps protect a middle class young woman Jacklyn Wu who he previously used as a hostage from his criminal pals who want a possible witness eliminated. Its obvious reference point is Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By also with Lau as a well-intended young gangster divided between love and his criminal ties, but A Moment of Romance is far more assured and emotional effective and it takes all its shameless melodrama with utmost conviction. Lau and Wu makes for a very appealing couple (this movie did as much to Lau’s popularity in eastern Asia as Titanic would later do to Di Caprio’s through the world and it is hard to doubt why as between A Moment of Romance and As Tears Go By, sensitive triad Andy Lau might be the dreamiest man in film history). The film is a perfect modulate mix of rich girl, poor boy romance and raw violence with plenty of artificial melodrama playing against a strong use of local streets to add some authenticity. This was one of the movies I was most disappointed not to be screening in the Hong Kong film retro I curated a few years ago, just a perfect distillation of what made local cinema so exciting 30 years ago, a perfect pop movie.
Son on the Run (1991)
Son on the Run stands out as one of the rare Hong Kong films that portrait the film industry. The main character is a stunt man which gives Chan plenty of opportunity to play around with recognizable beats and images. Beyond the parody fun, there’s some good material about life in the outskirts of the industry. The film feels very derivative from both Kenji Fukasaku’s Fall Guy and To’s All About Ah Long. The final stunt goes wrong is very memorable.
What a Hero! (1992)
An Andy Lau action comedy. It was written by Jeffrey Lau and brings to mind some of the films he did with Stephen Chow, only although Andy Lau has starred in many amusing comedies he isn’t quite a comedian and this misses a bigger funnyman at its center. It does have a wonderful supporting cast (Roy Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Anthony Wong, Paul Chun) and a very enjoyable atmosphere. Proudly lowbrow, full of energy and there’s a sense of community that Hong Kong film start to lose not long after.
A Moment of Romance 2 (1993)
There’s a long tradition on Hong Kong Cinema of sequels in name only that offer a lot of similarities between cast and plot. So this brings back Jacklyn Wu and a similar (if more overstuffed) plot, but the chemistry really isn’t there. The problem might be that Aaron Kwok replaced Lau and while he became quite a good actor with time his wannabe James Dean number here really sounds like someone went to the street stop the first good looking young man they found, gave him a motorcycle helmet and tell “be dreamy”.
The Magic Crane (1993)
The Magic Crane was made during the most productive days of Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop and it’s a perfect example of Tsui/Ching Siu-tung style of new martial arts film. Great choreography offered in a hyperactive chaotic style. There’s so much energy, so many over the top ideas, full of incredible images. Somewhere in the middle of the bodies on motion there’s also a pretty good cast (Tony Leung, Anita Mui, Rosamund Kwan).
Man Wanted (1995)
One of the last examples of 80s Heroic bloodshed only by the mid-90s there’s barely anything heroic in it. Very cynical and destructive with a pretty good Simon Yam lead performance. Rougher than most Chan’s action movies. Plenty of good violent action and ample opportunity to expand on the genre male melodrama. It is Chan doing a John Woo movie in a world whose characters have watched those, believed their myths and get paid for that in bullets.
Big Bullet (1996)
A key film in the development of post-handover Hong Kong action film. Big Bullet was probably the first local film to be clearly influenced by Michael Mann in a hybrid style Johnnie To would later make his own (and the Infernal Affairs series would vulgarize and turn into the 21st Hong Kong action style). There’s still a good deal of Tsui Hark abstract action and Kirk Wong authenticity detail. A sense of imminent violent threat in both sides of the law and a mix of quick close up inserts, heavy blues and Tsui’s beloved foggy background that allows the action some allegorical bent most later movies in a similar style lacks. The action splashes in quick violent bursts and often comes with good unexpected beats. There’s some similarities with Ringo Lam’s Full Alert also starring Lau as an obsessed supercop, but this has better action, if less thematic weight. The movie wouldn’t work without some great work from Lau Ching-wan (as Hong Kong’s Dirty Harry) and Anthony Wong as the violent gangster he will stop at nothing to catch, they settle not as Woo-style doubles, but unmovable objects on a violent collision course. When Big Bullet came out it felt like a new style of action with its recognizable western bits, but now it feels a blast from the past, clearly out of the 80s excessive out of control Heroic Bloodshed cycle, but with an identity that feels very removed from later movies.
Who Am I? (1998) (co-directed by Jackie Chan)
How much of Who Am I? did Benny Chan actually directed is anyone’s guess. Jackie Chan had been trading self-directed vehicles with movies done by his friend Sammo Hung for over a decade when he got such a bad fall in the set of Operation Condor (1991) that not only forced production to shut down for months but reportedly left Jackie with an actual cracked skull. After that Golden Harvest fearing their by far biggest star would eventually kill himself on a set for his believe of giving his body for his fans, decided Chan wasn’t allowed to direct anymore that he could choreograph action but someone more manageable (usually Stanley Tong) would make sure things were safe. Who Am I? was the only film Jackie Chan had a credit as director between Operation Condor and its 21 year later sequel Chinese Zodiac. I assume Benny’s major function here was making sure things run smoothly and Chan didn’t kill himself (late on this Jackie actually literally goes down from a building on foot for no good reason, so Golden Harvest was probably not happy). The non-action stuff here isn’t very inspired, but the action and comedy are among Jackie’s best. The amnesia plot beyond serving as an obvious allegory to Jackie’s in a crossroad between East and West in his career (he would go fully Hollywood for his next movie Rush Hour) offers him his best opportunity at playing Buster Keaton and that always brings his most inspired self. Most Jackie Chan fans consider Lau Kar-leung’s The Legend of Drunken Master made 4 years before as the last great Jackie Chan film, but I’ve always been partial to this one. So I don’t know how much of Who Am I? did Benny Chan direct and he obviously isn’t the film’s auteur, but he was around the set while great things happened.
Gen-X Cops (1999) and Gen-Y Cops (2000)
When you mentioned Chan name and some western cultist winces they almost always have these two movies in mind. They have very young stars most people thought were no Chow Yun Fat, a clean action style that seems aimed for west consumption (Gen Y even brings in a young Paul Rudd as a co-star) and generic plots. I wouldn’t exactly defend them against accusations of being slick and westernized, but I really like Gen X-Cops whose only really serious flaw is an atrocious performance by a young Daniel Wu that to this day makes me surprised when he shows up at something and I think “hey, I like Daniel Wu”. Otherwise the action is well designed, Eric Tsang is around to give it some weight and between Nicholas Tse and Sam Lee the young cast here has far more likability and personality than detractors claim. As for Gen-Y? It is a rushed sequel, it is even more western-oriented and besides Lee it didn’t bring back any of the more likable cast members. It is far from everything that was wrong with Hong Kong cinema around 2000, but it is no good.
Heroic Duo (2003)
Very obviously derived from the spirit of Johnnie To’s great Running Out of Time, like that film it has an artificial mise en scene, a taste for trickery and a self-actualization plot. The plot deals with hypnotism so Chan proceeds like anything that needs to happen will happen because hypnosis made someone do it which is annoying at first and increasingly amusing as the film goes along. It has very good action, some strong supporting performances by Karena Lam and Francis Ng, and Leon Lai’s lack of expression is put to very good use. Heroic Duo is a ridiculous film, but as long as you get into its peculiar rhythms it is very enjoyable.
New Police Story (2004)
The major flaw with New Police Story is that it is called New Police Story. This was the first Jackie Chan vehicle made without the western market in mind in a decade and the title obvious brings to mind his most beloved film series, but it isn’t really a sequel and by 2004 Chan’s athleticism was starting to leave him so the stunts are nowhere near as exciting as those from Who Am I? let alone the early Police Story movies. The plot plays up Jackie as an aging man having a hard time get along with the times, there’s a few echoes of Kirk Wong’s underrated Crime Story (Jackie’s one attempt to mess with the formula) minus the gritty, but as a portrait of post Hollywood Chan at loss with his legacy this works. One of the few Jackie Chan movies from the past 2 decades that I like.
Divergence is a thriller on trauma, past histories and legacy of violence. It is very likely the most ambitious film Benny Chan was ever associated. The script by Ivy Ho (who wrote Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story and is a fine filmmaker herself) creates a complex wave of guilt and trauma for a series of flawed characters in the line between law and criminality to move around. What sets Divergence apart is that Chan still direct everything with the practical eye of an action movie director, there’s a great foot chase, some fine shootouts and fistfights and he never allows it to bog down with themes but let them play over his character’s actions. Aaron Kwok and Daniel Wu are great (Kwok even won the first of back to back Best Actor prizes at Hong Kong Film Awards, something I’d claim was impossible around the time of A Moment of Romance 2).
Robin B-Hood (2006)
This was the last Jackie Chan vehicle, Benny Chan was involved with and by far the lesser. That’s a shame as this is the first time Chan and his childhood friend Yuen Biao got to co-star since the 80s and I always thought Biao was his best on screen partner, there’s some moments the movie comes alive when their old competitive tension is allowed to play up. Michael Hui is around as Jackie’s boss in already another great piece of wasted casting. Overall, this is just uninspired in both action and comedy fronts.
Invisible Target (2007)
My pick for the finest film Chan was involved that Johnnie To doesn’t claim to have ghost directed. One of the last hurrahs of Hong Kong action film if not for some noticeable CGI to erase cables, the 130-minute running time and cooler cinematography could almost pass for a 1989 movie. The plot is both very complicated and beside the point (it pretty much is called Invisible Target because someone involved thought it sounded good), an exercise in male bonding through shared pain for getting hit in the middle of dangerous stunt work. In one of Chan’s beloved foot chases, Nicholas Tse gets hit by a bus, gets up, walks over multiple moving cars until falling on the rooftop of the taxi he is chasing, so it is that kind of movie. There doesn’t seem to be a single action idea that was shut down because it was too hard to pull and the three leading men (Tse, Shawn Yue and Jackie’s son Jaycee) are more than willing to let a few bones get broken and some goes for Andy On and Wu Jing as the bad guys. No regard for gravity or worries with grounded scale. A masochist ballet.
Some Chinese producers bought the rights of Larry Cohen’s script for Cellular, translated it and hired Chan to direct a local remake. This is a better film than the American original, showcasing stronger choreographed action (specially an early chase), Louis Koo is a much better lead than young Chris Evans (and it helps that a decade older he makes more sense in the role) and unlike Hollywood guys the producers here know they have a good thing so they mostly stick to Cohen original concept instead of beefing it up too much. Cellular is a fine B movie on studio budget, but the contrast between them says a lot about the two industries and Connected is for more ingenuous.
City Under Siege (2010)
This isn’t the movie I’d pick to defend Chan to anyone as it is really really ridiculous superhero/body horror mashup, but it does showcase a lot of what can still make a good Hong Kong movie stand out both in willingness to embrace excess and craft: Great colors, well design sets, creative editing, lots of overwrought melodrama and misplaced lowbrow comedy bits, pretty good supporting cast (Wu Jing, Shu Qi), tons of bad CGi and wonky makeup, a knife throwing duel finale and zero pretense to good sense or taste. It is certainly far more memorable than your average Marvel movie.
The fall of Shaolin temple closer in spirit to Peter Chan’s The Warlords than to Chang Cheh. It has a great cast (Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Wu Jing, Fan Bingbing plus a small part for Jackie Chan who is more likable here than anything else he did this century) and some very well-choreographed action. It does a very good job at selling the tragedy of the temple’s fall although unlike Cheh it can’t quite give it much philosophical weight. This is one of the few big contemporary Chinese epics that exist beyond being CCP propaganda.
The White Storm (2013)
A throwback Heroic bloodshed movie aimed clearly at a nostalgic audience. It stars the Lau Ching-wan-Louis Koo-Nick Cheung trio which has long become the local industry answer for “they don’t do them like they used to”, lots of betrayal, declarations of male love and reversals of fortune and no shortage of grand action scenes. If you like your male weepies packed with bullets, The White Storm is good for both action and tears. It is no John Woo, but it does the job of contemporary fac-simile.
Call of Heroes (2016)
One of Chan’s very best movies is pretty much a Chinese Rio Bravo. His previous two movies played with Chang Cheh themes but never gave them weight, but this one is fully realized. The comedy between the sheriff’s stubborn dedication to do the moral thing and the villagers pleas for him to do the practical thing is very well deployed. Sammo Hung contributes some of his very best action choreography. One of Lau Ching-wan’s very best roles as well and Eddie Peng turns what amounts to the Ricky Nelson part into a big Mifune homage for no reason but that it makes me happy.
What if Chris Marker made a Spielberg movie, Now seriously this a very unfunny comedy full of bad cat fart jokes and a reminder Chan was never that good when trying to be funny, but Meow is also one of the weirdest mainstream movies of the past few years. The starting point is more or less “cats are actually alien warriors who get sent to Earth and end up corrupted by capitalism into the fat, lazy adorable creatures that we know”, no joke. If you are going to make a bad movie it is always preferable to make a memorable one. Still, I’m glad Chan still has one movie to be released, an action one called Reigning Fire starring Donnie Yen that was in the last stages of post-production when he passed, hopefully it is a more positive curtain call.