Directed by the insanely prolific Hong Kong action veteran Wong Jing, Chasing the Dragon (China, 2017) is the filmmaker’s crime epic, a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of two notorious gangsters who thrived in the rampant corruption enabled by Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The title is slang for heroin addiction and looking for the next high but for the two men at the center of the film, it’s about power and money and carving out the island nation’s answer to the American Dream through an insidious partnership between the police department and the underworld gangs.
Inspired by a true story, Chasing the Dragon stars Donnie Yen, the zen master of martial arts action, playing against type as Crippled Ho, the Chinese immigrant who became a drug kingpin, and Andy Lau as top cop Lui Lok / Lee Rock (a role he played in two previous films), who centralized the system of graft as he rose through the ranks. Lau provides the smooth charm as the ambitious cop who bristles under the arrogance and abuse of power by the British officials but knows better than to challenge their rule as he consolidates his control. Yen brings his usual understated warmth as Ho, underplaying the ruthlessness as he builds his power base, and he trades in the grace and majesty of his martial arts style for a scrappy, street-fighting approach.
Hong Kong was the Hollywood of East Asia through the sixties and seventies, cranking out romances, melodramas, costume pictures, and especially martial arts action films. In the 1980s, the familiar style got an adrenaline boost when Tsui Hark returned from American film school with new ideas on moviemaking, and other young directors eager to make their mark in the movies. But where directors like John Woo (The Killers), Corey Yuen (Saviour of the Soul), and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong Kar-wai was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films. His debut film As Tears Go By(1988) turned the “heroic bloodshed” genre of Triad gangster movies into a young adult melodrama. Days of Being Wild (1990), his second feature and his first collaboration with his signature cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was Wong’s first masterpiece.
In the culture of Hong Kong pop cinema of the eighties and nineties, Wong Kar-Wai is a maverick. As directors like Tsui Hark, John Woo, and Johnnie To were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films with woozy color, dancing camerawork, and jagged editing, appropriating music video stylings for arthouse films with a pop sensibility.
Days of Being Wild (1990), Wong’s second feature, follows a half dozen characters and their wandering lives in 1960s Hong Kong. Pop singer and heartthrob matinee idol Leslie Cheung is all narcissism and insolence as a lothario who seduces lonely shop girl Maggie Cheung (who Wong helped elevate from popular movies to serious drama) and sneering, shallow showgirl Carina Lau. Andy Lau (another pop singer turned matinee idol) is the cop who watches over Cheung, Jacky Cheung (best known as a comic actor) is bittersweet as a sweet-natured idiot and Leslie’s doting best friend, and Rebecca Pan plays Leslie’s aging, alcoholic foster mom, who holds on to her “son” by withholding the name of his real mother.
Wong named the film after the title that Rebel Without a Cause (1955) received for its Chinese release. “Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes “our faith,” which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean,” explained Wong in a 1998 interview. The title was not a reference to the original film but to the era of the sixties.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Monday, November 25