City on Fire: The Hong Kong Films of Chow Yun-Fat

image, chow yun fat god of gamblersAside from the title (if you’re particular about this sort of thing, it should really be "…Hong Kong Action Films…") and the fact that none of his noteworthy "straight" films are featured (e.g., Mabel Cheung’s An Autumn’s Tale, Ann Hui’s The Story of Woo Viet or Leung Po-Chi’s Hong Kong 1941), the upcoming Chow Yun-Fat retrospective at the Brattle is a solidly constructed happening. Featuring many of his most notable films in West and spreading the directorial focus around a little (this used to exclusively be a John Woo series, if my memory serves me right) the ten films featured serve as a excellent primer on his career and may offer some insight on why some folks call this Hong Kong superstar the "God of Actors."

What follows is a handy little roundup of what you can expect should you decide to take the Thursday plunge.

Thursday, January 13


Directed by John Woo. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Ti Lung

It’s fitting that they kick off the series with this film as it was really the start of it all for both John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. The two had had some previous success (Chow as a TV star and Woo as a director of a couple of successful comedies), but the release of this film saw the both of them propelled to the upper echelon of the entertainment circle in Hong Kong.

A mega-hit locally (according to some calculations it’s the highest grossing HK film of all time), A Better Tomorrow also stands as one of the most influential films in the country’s cinema history. Like the Yuen Wo-Ping/ Jackie Chan collaboration Drunken Master before it and Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (the film that made Jet Li a star) after it, A Better Tomorrow immediately spawned an army of imitators.


Directed by Ringo Lam. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Carrie Ng

Yeah, this one. It’s not like this is the only film Quentin Tarantino ripped off to make Reservoir Dogs (there’s a slew of films.) This is the one everyone picks on though.

Thanks Premiere.

To be honest, except for the "Madonna’s big d*ck" dialogue and the obviously Hong Kong inspired bloodletting, Reservoir Dogs reminds me a lot more of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killng than it does this particular Ringo Lam flick.

That aside, City on Fire is a fine film on its own merits. Featuring the dynamic duo of Heng Dai films (see sidebar), Chow and Danny Lee, Lam’s initial "…on Fire" offering is a gritty, well- acted piece. It’s not the equal of Lam’s later masterpieces (like the amazing Prison on Fire) but it’s still a healthy genre entry.

Thursday, January 20


Directed by John Woo. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Dean Shek, Leslie Cheung, Ti Lung

image, chow yun fat a better tomorrow Not as good as either the first or third films in the series, this one is mostly notable for Dean Shek’s raw performance and the blistering finale. A reel which includes, among other things, something like 10100 bullets, a gazillion explosions and former Shaw Bros. martial arts star Ti Lung wielding a samurai sword with zeal.


Directed by John Woo. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh

Brilliant. If you’re reading this and you’re at all interested in either John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat and you haven’t seen this movie, then you’re interacting with the wrong sort of media at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of reading in general and I’m flattered you’d waste some of your day checking out what I’ve got to offer, but honestly your time would be much better spent at the present by marking off this date on your calendar or (maybe even better) waltzing on down to the local video store and immediately putting your hands on this particular tape.

The subtitled/ unrated/ uncut version, by the way, not that nasty dubbed/ R rating re-edit.

The tag line should sell you: "One Cop. One Killer. Ten Thousand Bullets."

Thursday, January 27


Directed by Tsui Hark. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Anita Mui, Tony Leung Ka- Fai ("Big Tony")

Tsui Hark’s entry into this series is a departure from the testosterone exclusive club of the first two films. Set in Saigon during the end of the Vietnam War, A Better Tomorrow III features the prodigious talents of Anita Mui Yim-Fong in the role of Mark Gor’s mentor and basically serves to answer the question, "How did Mark Gor get to be so goddamned cool?"

God of Gamblers (1989)

Directed by Wong Jing. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau

image, hard boiled tony leung chiu waiAn enormous hit that features the genesis of what might be Chow’s most charismatic character, the titular God of Gamblers (hence the nickname, "God of Actors"– See? It all makes sense.)

Well worth your time.


Directed by John Woo. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Cheung

A light-hearted caper film. Not my favorite, but it’s certainly better than the god-awful American remake Woo himself did for Fox a few years back.


Directed by John Woo. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu- Wai ("Little Tony")

<a fictitious reenactment.>

"Hmmm…. let’s shoot the finale in a hospital and let’s have the hospital be full of guns, rockets and enough ammunition to conquer a third world nation."

"That’s a great idea."

"How about a warehouse gun battle complete with motorcycles, hand grenades and Chow Yun-Fat swinging into the fray on a zip line."

"That’s good, just make sure our action director and former Venom Philip Kwok gets to play a really badass role. How’s this? He can ride into the middle of the warehouse fight, let his motorcycle slide out from underneath him and then he can calmly start hucking hand grenades around like a paperboy on crack."

"That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard."

Thursday, February 10

image, chow yun fat a better tomorrow 2


Directed by Ringo Lam. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Simon Yam, Anthony Wong

’92 was an over-the-top-rope-and-into-the-crowd-doing-a-corkscrew-plancha kind of year for Chow. This can be gleaned from the character of the two films featured here from that year. Starting above with Woo’s ode to ballistics and finishing up with this genre mocking sleaze-fest, the man must’ve seen more squibs burst than all the extras in Saving Private Ryan combined.

This one is ridiculous. Violent to the extreme, (psycho-) sexually twisted and absolutely devoid of likable, honorable characters, Full Contact pares away the romantic elements of the classic Heng Dai films and presents a smoldering, seedy world full of death and betrayal in it’s stead. Gone is the charismatic, honorable Mark Gor of A Better Tomorrow and in his place is Chow at his meanest, playing a revenge driven hoodlum out for nothing more than blood. Brutal film.

Soon to be remade by Hollywood.

Starring Pras from The Fugees…

Someone stop this madness.


Directed by Wong Jing. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Charles Heung, Chingmay Yau, Tony Leung Ka Fai ("Big Tony")

This long-awaited sequel to God of Gamblers is a confused, childish, sleazy, violent and exploitative mess.

It’s also the greatest film of all time.

image, prison on fire chow yun fatWell, maybe I shouldn’t go that far (I might get locked up), but it’s still one of my personal favorites. Utilizing director Wong Jing’s carpet-bombing style to it’s fullest, God of Gamblers Return is a dizzying whirlwind of a film that features an apparently random mix of elements. Imagine a cross between Benny Hill and James Bond, add some quality gunplay, toss in a little high stakes gambling action and top it off with a comedy of errors premise and you’re only halfway there. For the other half you’re going to have to check out the film yourself.

As a note, this is the only film out of the series that I’m guaranteed to be at the Brattle to see.

I guess I’ll see you there.

Thursday, February 17


Directed by Ringo Lam. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Cheung, Roy Cheung

Chow Yun-Fat and Ringo Lam get together and what do they do? A remake of Witness? The Harrison Ford movie?!? What the?!?

Yep, it’s true. Two icons of Hong Kong action cinema get together and they produce a practically blood-free drama. You know what else is really interesting about this one?

It’s really good.

Seriously, it’s a well done, well acted little movie. Don’t go in expecting Hard Boiled and you’ll be all set.


Directed by Jeff Lau. Featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Ng Sin-Lin, Lau Ka-Fai

To be honest, it’s not the film it could have been considering the talent involved.

I would’ve preferred to see Chow’s last Hong Kong film, Wai Ka-Fai’s Peace Hotel, one of the dramas mentioned above, or Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire in its place, but that’s just me.

An okay film.

Originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in 2000