Cinema has a few producers who could be called the true auteurs behind their films. Though Val Lewton used the undeniable talents of Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise to reinvent the horror film, he also ran the productions obsessively, going as far as even determining the look of his films. David O. Selznick’s touch is felt all over the ambitious scope of Gone with the Wind and the hyper emotion of the psycho-drama western A Duel in the Sun. But few have gone as far as Tsui Hark, whose freewheeling creativity and box office ambition led his production company, Film Workshop, to create some of the most groundbreaking and inventive cinema of the ’80s, while also still directing, writing, and acting in other projects. Between 1986 and 1988, Tsui directed the massive hit Peking Opera Blues, was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for best supporting actor for his performance in Final Victory (with a script by future director Wong Kar-Wai), and produced John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which went on to break all Hong Kong box office records. He also produced and co-starred in the relatively obscure and wacko comedy/sci-fi film, Roboforce (aka I Love Maria, screening at the New Beverly July 18).
The Hero Gang uses their newest robot, Pioneer I, to literally shove its way through a bank heist. Reporter T.Q. Zhuang (played by legendary heartthrob Tony Leung at his dorkiest) gets caught in the middle and decides to follow the case. At a police station, he befriends experimental weapons maker, Curly (John Shum), who has blueprints for new weaponry that could destroy the Pioneer I robot. Meanwhile, The Hero Gang must restore their damaged Pioneer I or use their newest robot, Pioneer II, which is a robotic doppelganger of the Hero Gang member, Maria (Sally Yeh). After work, Curly tries to unwind with a beer, but ends up involved defending a drunkard he calls Whiskey (Tsui Hark) from being bullied by patrons. When he takes him home, Curly discovers that Whiskey secretly works for the Hero Gang, and they think that Whiskey is trying to betray that gang by conspiring with officer Curly. The gang sends Pioneer II to execute them, but instead the robot gets electrocuted after a geyser of water drops her right onto electrical equipment.
After Curly and Whiskey flee from some cops, they hide out at an abandoned seaside church, bringing along with them the remains of Pioneer II. This is where the lunacy starts to unfold. Though the plot is thick with coincidence and a lot of “how did that happen?”, it just adds to the level of comic silliness the film embraces. The gags then start to pour out, like when they both look hungrily at a dog from across the building, they debate how to kill and eat it, ultimately befriending the dog instead. It pays off beautifully when the dog scampers away from Pioneer I, who distracts the robot from killing Curly. There’s also a surreal moment during their repair of the beaten down version of Pioneer II when she suddenly adopts Sally Yeh’s real life pop star persona. She picks up a wrench and begins to sing Cantopop with Sega Genesis quality accompaniment (a great contrast from her opening performance in The Killer that creates a completely different mood). If that wasn’t crazy enough, Tony Leung, award winning dramatic star of films like In the Mood for Love and Lust, Caution, chases Curly and Whiskey on a kid’s bike, ultimately crashing into a porta potty.
And though Tsui doesn’t act much anymore, his comic performance as Whiskey proves that he has legitimate acting skill. Though he doesn’t have to emote much beyond acting excited or surly behind a pair of large sunglasses, he steals multiple scene. His love/hate relationship is beautifully handled with his nervous energy, squirrelly frame and his motor mouth that gives you the impression that his films are just an extension of his personality. You can’t help but think he’s doing a bit of fantasy role play when he emulates Tarzan by yelling and swinging on vines in a forest, ultimately saving the very beautiful Sally Yeh from falling to her death. Today he occasionally will still pop up in small cameo roles as he did in Ann Hui’s drama A Simple Life and Stephen Chow’s mammoth box-office hit The Mermaid.
Unlike the melodramatic, heroic bloodshed genre that started to dominate the Hong Kong box office in the wake of A Better Tomorrow, Roboforce is one of the few science fiction films Tsui has been involved with and is very uncharacteristic of his late ’80s works. Director David Chung, who previously was Tsui’s cinematographer on his early political thriller Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, stages the action in the way Tsui had done in his previous films. Scenes of action are often shot with handheld cameras and lenses so wide, you see the sides of the frame bubble out. And like the best of Hong Kong cinema, the stuntmen do extraordinary work rolling away from speeding cars, jumping off hills, riding bikes down steep cliffs, or even getting kicked onto the floor.
But action aside, the combination of goofball comedy and future tech right out of a William Gibson novel wasn’t what Film Workshop was known for. The dynamism and choreography of gun battles or tightly staged fist fights is replaced with large robots kicking down walls, crushing goons, or flying across the screen at top speed. The two Pioneer robots are made out of bits and pieces of other films and shows: Pioneer I stealing the sound effects from RoboCop’s ED-209 while maintaining a football player stature right out of Mobile Suit Gundam and Pioneer II taking both the name Maria and its design right from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But unlike those two films, Tsui’s future tech is earthier and feels like an optimistic extension of the screwy characters. There’s a sense of wonder and joy about the new tech that draws more from the manga being published in boys magazines like Shonen Jump or from reruns of Mazinger Z.
Roboforce represents the changing Hong Kong film market at its highest point of experimentation. There was angst and worry over the idea of the English colony being transitioned over to the Chinese in 1997 and that it might change their industry negatively. Hong Kong’s ’80s new wave brought an endless flow of creative filmmakers trying new stories, visual tricks, or even breaking levels of censorship in reaction to China’s impending takeover. This level of freedom and creativity is impossible to imagine without Tsui Hark. Although Tsui’s early films were far from financially successful, their go-for-broke audaciousness and frenetic energy were refreshing to Hong Kong audiences and critics. The stately staging and classic structure of Shaw Brother’s kung fu tales felt passé in the wake of Tsui’s wild camera movements and fast cutting that seem to draw equally from comic books and American action films of the ’70s.
After reaching moderate success with Dangerous Encounters and critical success with Zu Warriors, Tsui and his then wife, Nansun Shi, went on to create the studio Film Workshop. Tsui used the studio less as a funding platform for simply getting films made, but to oversee most aspects of production. He made calls regarding casting, did script rewrites, and in some cases even filled in as director when he was dissatisfied with the direction a film was going. During the filming of Johnnie To’s first crime feature, The Big Heat, Tsui reshot parts of the film after forcing multiple last-minute script changes and encouraging Johnnie To to amplify the level of violence (eventually leading to mandatory edits by the censor). Roboforce came out of this system and, though the director of the film is David Chung, it has Tsui Hark’s cinephile fingerprints all over it.
In the mid-80s, after a series of films where director John Woo walked away ultimately dissatisfied with the production and changes he had to make, Tsui Hark invited him to make a film if the budget was kept relatively low. Instead of sticking to the genres that John Woo had made to that point, he ended up making A Better Tomorrow, a film that created a new style of Hong Kong action films. It transposed the violent theatrics of Sam Peckinpah, the visual design of Sergio Leone, and the filmic poetry of Martin Scorsese to reinvent the crime genre. Suddenly the steely heroes of the past were replaced with characters filled with emotion and a sense of pride and honor. But Tsui, himself a visionary director, had conflicting feelings about the film and Woo’s style, despite the incredible box office success of the film. For the sequel, Tsui re-edited the film and changed the focus of the story leading to a compromised film for Woo. Their last collaboration, The Killer, only happened because Chow Yun Fat involved his contracted company, Golden Princess, to co-finance the film.
Tsui Hark is far less prolific today but continues to be a powerhouse for the Chinese box office, and he remains a legendary figure of their cinema. His 2009 film Detective Dee and the Mystery Flame and 2014’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, were both major critical and financial success, each winning at the Hong Kong Film Awards. And his 2017’s sequel to Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West is currently the 8th highest grossing film in Hong Kong history. But there’s still something more beautiful, crazy, and even dangerous about his early, lower budget features. Though it doesn’t have the hundreds of extras, lavish costumes, or epic CGI of his newest films, Roboforce has plenty of charm and enough gonzo ideas that it still feels as exciting and imaginative as ever.