Lovers of Chinese cinema are in for a treat this Lunar New Year with our special extended 16-film season on SBS TWO.
10 Jan 2013 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 10 Jan 2013 - 3:30 PM

Sunday February 3, 10:30pm
Come Drink with Me
Director: King Hu
Starring: Pei-pei Cheng, Hua Yueh, Hsi Chang
King Hu's breakthrough feature is today acknowledged as one of the greatest wuxia films ever made. Bandits kidnap the son of a general, using him as leverage in their quest to have their leader freed from prison. Instead, the general dispatches his other child—a daughter—to rescue her brother; she's aided in her quest by the 'drunken master' Fan da-pei. The role of the avenging daughter, Golden Swallow, made HK actress Cheng Pei-pei a major star—and decades later. Ang Lee paid tribute to her achievement when he cast her as the Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, her first-ever role as a villain.

Tuesday February 5, 9:30pm

The Lost Bladesman (2011)
Directors: Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Starring: Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Betty Sun
Made by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, who wrote and directed the Infernal Affairs trilogy, and with action scenes overseen by star Donnie Yen, this is a solid Chinese historical epic, though one which occasionally gets lost in the convulsions of its own plot, adapted from the brilliantly-titled Luo Guanzhong tale 'Crossing Five Passes and Slaying Six Generals'. It's best viewed as a string of set-pieces, of increasing complexity and significance (though the scenes of vast armies clashing on the battlefield, while spectacular, pale beside the close-quarters intensity of the hand-to-hand combat here), and also as a vehicle for Yen, whose imperturbable screen presence anchors the drama nicely.

Friday February 8, 9:30pm

Fearless (2006)
Director: Ronny Yu
Starring: Jet Li, Shidô Nakamura, Betty Sun
Before he ran off to Hollywood to make C-grade junk like Freddy vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky, director Ronny Yu crafted one of the greatest-ever HK romps, in 1993's The Bride with White Hair. And while this Jet Li vehicle doesn't quite surpass that achievement (mostly, due to some overly-busy editing), it's a welcome return to form for the director, nonetheless. A biopic of early 20th century martial-artist Huo Yuan Jia, it allows star Jet Li to do what he does best: kicking ass while, at the same time, musing on the futility of revenge. Unsurprisingly, though, the star—then aged 42—announced this would be his last traditional martial-arts role.

Friday February 8, 11:25pm
Armour of God (1986)
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Rosamund Kwan
Blurring comedy with thrills in his trademark style, this Jackie Chan vehicle verges on Indiana Jones territory, as the star and a bumbling sidekick (played—well—by Alan Tam), former Canto-pop stars, embark on a quest to locate missing pieces of medieval armour, a journey which takes them into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The film's production, however, was far from seamless: during a relatively routine stunt (seen at the beginning of the film), Chan leapt onto a tree from a ledge; however, the branch he grabbed snapped, sending him plunging to the ground, and badly injuring his skull; the star later said it was the closest he ever came to death.

Sunday February 10, 10:30pm
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Chia Hui Liu, Sheng Fu, Lily Li
Only two of General Yip's seven sons survive an ambush by the evil Khitan Dynasty. One, badly traumatised, returns home; the other enters a monastery, where he learns to master the secrets of pole-fighting. But when his younger sister is captured by their enemies, he must break his Buddhist vows to save her . . . Sadly, star Alexander Fu died in a car accident during filming, necessitating a last-half shift in focus. Given that Fu had recently bought the late Bruce Lee's Kowloon house, HK film fans spoke of a curse. Even today, his ghost is said to haunt the Shaw Brothers studio backlot . . .

Tuesday February 12, 10:30pm

The Message (2009)
Directors: Kuo-fu Chen, Qunshu Gao
Starring: Xun Zhou, Hanyu Zhang, Bingbing Li
Billed as an espionage thriller, and lavish in scale (its Hong Kong distributors billed it as “the first billion-dollar budget Chinese-language spy movie in sixty years”), The Message turns out to be something else altogether: a traditional Agatha Christie-style, country-house whodunit. It's 1942, in Nanjing, and five officials working in the puppet government of Wang Jingwei are held captive in a castle and interrogated by Japanese colonel Takeda, who believes one of them to be a code-breaking resistance infiltrator . . . But which is it? The torture scenes, when they come, are surprisingly grisly, but the real bonus here are the characterisations—far richer than expected, and ably performed by some of the Mainland's biggest names.

Friday February 15, 9:30pm

New Police Story
Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Nicholas Tse, Mak Bau
A reboot (as the title implies) of the Police Story series which helped make Jackie Chan an international star in the mid-1980s, this version dispenses with much of the playful, semi-comedic tone of the originals, seeming both darker and grittier—and Chan's performance as a down-and-out detective, trying to redeem himself, ranks among his best latter-day roles. There's a nice line in social commentary—turns out, the villains of the piece are the children of some of Hong Kong's richest citizens—and a few extraordinary stunts: a slide down a burning rope is sure to make viewers wince. Only a cloying sentimentality in the final reel threatens to derail proceedings.

Friday February 15, 11:45pm
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
One of Tsui Hark's greatest films—evincing, at times, the influence of Western directors like David Lean—this 1991 effort almost singlehandedly re-ignited interest in the martial arts genre, spawned a host of sequels, and made a star of its leading man, Jet Li. As the 19th-century doctor and martial artist Wong Fei-hung (the same character played, a decade earlier, by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master series), Li owns every frame in which he appears—and the difference between his performance and Chan's is telling: he's grave where the older actor was comic, serene where Chan was manic. It's a different interpretation, for a different time. And the fight sequences are breathtaking.

Sunday February 17, 10:30pm
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Chia Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Chia Yung Liu
For Wu-Tang Clan as well as wuxia fans, this is the crucial text—the kung fu classic from which those hip-hop legends borrowed not only album titles (Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers) and names ('Masta Killa'), but an entire philosophy and aesthetic; a recent DVD release sees a commentary track by The RZA—who recently directed his own, distinctly retro-flavoured martial arts flick, The Man With the Iron Fists. But that's to take nothing away from the breathtaking ingenuity and excitement of this 1978 classic, which follows a young student's swift progress through the 35 chambers of martial arts training, on his way to Grand Mastery.

Tuesday February 19, 9:30pm
Shaolin (2011)
Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Bingbing Fan
1982's Jet Li-starring The Shaolin Temple was set during the Tang Dynasty. But HK action director Benny Chan moves the action forward a thousand years, to the 1920s, and cast Andy Lau, charismatic as ever, as a ruthless warlord, whose plan to assassinate his own brother turns one of his most loyal henchmen against him. Chan's a little too in love with slo-mo—watching, you feel the film could lose a half-hour if everything just played at normal speed—but he certainly knows how to stage a fight-sequence. And the film's visual palette is interesting, its predominantly monochrome palette disturbed, every now and then, by splashes of vivid colour—usually blood-red. Stylish and slick, this is a popcorn movie par excellence.

Friday February 22, 9:30pm
The Warlords (2007)
Directors: Peter Chan, Wai Man Yip
Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Peter Chan is one of Hong Kong's most versatile and consistent filmmakers, and he brings real emotional punch as well as considerable visual flair to this remake of a 1973 Shaw Brothers classic (simply titled The Blood Brothers). Hopelessly outnumbered, the three men (Jet Li, Andy Lau and the always-great Takeshi Kaneshiro) must rely on ingenuity to prevail . . . yet occasional moments of cornball sentiment—damp-eyed speeches about heroism and honour—are consistently undercut by an underlying tone of fatalism. As Li's first-person narration notes, when he emerges from a corpse-strewn battlefield in the opening shot, “As I crawled out from under the bodies, I was already a dead man.”

Friday February 22, 11:30pm
Project A: Part II (1987)
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Rosamund Kwan
A sequel to the wildly successful original, this sees Jackie Chan go it alone, without original co-stars Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung: fellow graduates of the Peking Opera School, who with Chan had formed the 'Three Dragons', the pair were away shooting Eastern Condor. Unfortunately, in doing so, it loses one of the primary advantages of the first film: the funny, fractious relationship between the three leads. Instead, Chan is reduced to playing the fall-guy in a series of stunts and set-pieces more indebted to the Marx Brothers (one scene here is a direct homage to the ship's cabin scene from A Night at the Opera) and Buster Keaton. Not classic Chan, perhaps—but enjoyable.

Sunday February 24, 10:30pm
The Magic Blade (1976)
Director: Yuen Chor
Starring: Lung Ti, Lieh Lo, Li Ching
Together with Yan, his sometime friend and occasional rival, swordsman Fu Hongxue must journey to the mansion of a reclusive villain, Yu, to safeguard the 'Peacock Dart', a weapon of extraordinary potency. Fu's poncho and stubble might suggest Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, but such comparisons pale beside the bizarre arsenal of villains assembled here—from a flesh-eating demon granny, to a weirdly polysexual assassin, who speaks with a woman's voice. And while the scale isn't quite as vast as some of the earlier Shaw Brothers' classics, it compensates with some memorable production design, lashings of (very fake-looking) gore, and rather more sex than usual, including a giggly lesbian scene.

Tuesday February 26, 9:30pm
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong, Jay Chou
The third of Zhang Yimou's 'epic trilogy'—following Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004)—this Imperial-court-set drama also saw the director reunited with his former leading lady, Gong Li, for the first time since the end of their romantic relationship in 1995. As visually ravishing as you'd expect, it's even more operatic than its predecessors, with a tone that, at times, veers close to 1930s melodrama, all palace intrigues and femmes fatale. (Unsurprisingly, since it's based on a famous play—Cao Yu's 'Thunderstorm'—from that decade.) As the Empress, Gong displays her trademark combination of seduction and fragility, and is well-paired with co-star Chow Yun-fat.

Friday March 1, 9:30pm
The Myth (2005)
Director: Stanley Tong
Starring: Jackie Chan, Hee-seon Kim, Tony Leung Ka Fai
A fusion of historical fantasy, comedy, lite sci-fi and martial arts, with action set between China and India, this 2005 Jackie Chan vehicle (he produced as well as starred) is a genre-bending romp—one whose outlandish narrative neatly masks the need for Chan to shift into different kinds of projects (and less physically-demanding roles) as he settles into late-middle-age; and also, for Hong Kong cinema—increasingly overshadowed by the Mainland—to revisit the large-scale ambitious works of its 1980s heyday. It mostly succeeds, though at 118 minutes, goes on rather too long for its own good—but individual set-pieces (notably, an extended fight in a paper factory) more than reward attention.

Friday March 1, late

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Donnie Yen
Even more commercially successful than the original, this second instalment of the franchise re-teamed director Tsui Hark and star Jet Li, here tackling the fanatical 'White Lotus Society', an extreme nationalist cult, opposed to any hint of Western influence or modernity, that's led by a seemingly invincible priest. The romance sequences between Fong and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) are slightly hokey, and the action is a little slow to start—it's over an hour into the film before any of the major combat sequences begin—but, when it does arrive, the wirework is jaw-dropping, not least for being shot in a series of meticulously-choreographed long takes. The visuals, meanwhile, are suitably painterly and grand.