Legendary in Action! (大俠Action!, Justin Cheung & Li Ho, 2022)

An unsuccessful film director looks for new opportunities in gaining closure with the past in Justin Cheung and Li Ho’s behind the scenes comedy, Legendary in Action! (大俠Action!). Echoing classic wuxia, the film finds its heroes searching for themselves while on a quest to revitalise the Hong Kong film scene in which they must battle unscrupulous investors, idol stars with limited acting experience, divided loyalties, the changing nature of the industry, and the ghosts of wuxia’s past. 

40-ish Tiger (Bill “Tiger” Cheung) made a big splash in his earlier career but when his first feature flopped he discovered that second chances are hard to come by in the contemporary film industry. Since then, he’s been making a living shooting sleazy shorts for live streamers while privately dying inside. When a mysterious investor turns up wanting to make a retro wuxia, Tiger is the perfect fit. Shopping an old script he’d written to provide an ending to a serial he loved as a child which was abruptly cancelled, he sets about fulfilling his childhood dream even recruiting the original star to reprise his role but soon finds out that the past is not so easily resurrected. 

This fact is brought home to him by irascible former action star Master Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) who constantly reminds him that it wasn’t like this in his day usually because they had no health and safety regulations or working rights. Yet Master Dragon is also in a sense in search of himself in that he has begun suffering with dementia and is no longer able to separate fantasy from reality. Far too into his role, he ignores the script and attacks the actors playing bad guys for real but cannot quite recall his signature move while insisting on completing dangerous stunts by himself. He’d also insisted on trying to find the original actress to play the romantic lead, but finally settles for a feisty young woman, Greta (Wiyona Yeung), who is mostly in it for the cash but gradually warms to Master Dragon happy to know that someone cared for her after he waded in on her behalf when she was bullied by lecherous customers at the bar where she was working. 

Tiger meanwhile finds himself failing in his responsibilities as a husband and soon-to-be father, pouring everything into the film while neglecting his long-suffering wife who asks him why he thought now was a good time for his one last chance. When the shoot enters a crisis, he signs up for even more “meaningless” shorts and onerous employment contracts to get the money together to finish while asking his cast and crew to do the same, each of them facing their various issues while coming together as a team squaring off against the vagaries of the independent cinema scene.

Then again, Tiger doesn’t seem to have learned much about work life balance. Nor is Master Dragon a particularly good influence instructing those around him that if film is not their lives’ work, they shouldn’t be doing it. Master Dragon is on his own journey trying to reclaim his former self while dealing with the past just as Tiger is himself trying to bring something full circle in giving his childhood favourite the ending it deserves. In a closing speech, he aligns his struggles with those of the Hong Kong film industry in general positing the wuxia serial as a symbol of faded glory while implying that the contemporary film industry has run out of steam. “At some point we lost faith in Hong Kong Cinema”, he laments, complaining about rubbish films with bad scripts and terrible production values while praising the efforts of the crazy people who give their all to make them. 

“I won’t accept fate” he goes on, like the hero of a classic wuxia fighting for justice in an unjust world while insisting that it is possible to turn things around and restore the glory of Hong Kong film. Then again, as much as his film seems to bring closure and present a place from which to move forward perhaps its unwise to look for new directions in attempting to recreate the past rather than finding new ways to bring it with you into a more positive future. 


Legendary in Action! screens at Lincoln Center 17th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © Marigold Project

Weeds on Fire (點五步, Steve Chan Chi-Fat, 2016)

“Even though disappointed, do not lose hope” reads a piece of graffiti in the closing moments of Steve Chan Chi-fat’s nostalgic coming-of-age drama Weeds on Fire (點五步). Though touted as a baseball movie, as incongruous as that may sound given that the sport is a niche interest in contemporary Hong Kong, Chan’s strangely hopeful if quietly melancholy tale of ‘80s Sha Tin is bookended by scenes of the present day city in the midst of the Umbrella Movement protests the story the hero wants to offer seemingly intended for an audience of dejected youngsters as confused and disappointed as he once was in order to encourage them that what’s important isn’t winning or losing but staying the course and gaining the confidence to take the first step. 

Now in his mid-40s, Lung (Lam Yiu-sing) casts his mind back to the Hong Kong of 1984 when he lived on a rundown council estate in Sha Tin and attended a high school with a less than stellar academic record. A shy and nerdy boy, he was often bullied but always had childhood friend Wai (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), physically imposing and with a confident swagger, at his back. When the city comes up with additional funding for schools to use in the promotion of sport their enterprising headmaster Lu Kwong-fai (Liu Kai-chi) hatches on the idea of starting the region’s very first local high school baseball team, recruiting both Wai and Lung in the hope of teaching them teamwork and discipline. Nevertheless, being teammates begins to place a strain on their friendship and it becomes clear that the boys are destined for different paths. Wai quits the team in a huff and leaves school, mooching round in pool bars and hanging out with triads while Lung steps up to the plate but is troubled by the loss of his friendship and the fracturing relationship between his unhappily married parents. 

Chan somewhat unsubtly ties Lung’s personal development to that of Hong Kong as he finds himself coming of age in era of anxiety. The world is literally changing around him, 1984 being as says the year that the redevelopment of Sha Tin began in earnest while it also marked the signing of the Sino-British Declaration paving the way for the transfer of power in the 1997 Handover. A young man, Lung wants to “change” himself in that he longs for the confidence to ask out a young woman he’s developed a crush on but is too shy and disappointed in himself for doing nothing when witnessing her being harassed by a drunken creep in the lift of the apartment block where they both live. Yet in other ways change frightens him and really he wants everything to stay the same believing that saying nothing will maintain the status quo only to realise that there are situations over which he has no real control. 

His headmaster and coach of the baseball team Lu admits that he set Wai and Lung against each other in order to encourage him to come out from his friend’s shadow embracing his own identity and discovering a sense of self-confidence. Yet Lung continues to struggle, a little lost unable to find clear direction in his life while everything changes around him occasionally consumed by a sense of despair as perhaps are the young protestors in believing their movement has failed. In baseball what he realises that it isn’t about winning or losing but having the confidence to step up to the plate, subtly telling the protestors to hang in there because there’s still time to turn this around. “I never said we had to win”, inspirational coach Lu reminds the boys, “but I did say never give up!”.

Loosely based on the real life story of the Shatin Martins though as the closing credit reel reveals the original team were primary school children rather than high schoolers, Chan shifts away from sporting drama towards the more familiar youth movie metaphor of two former friends heading in different directions, the good boy knuckling down while the “bad” becomes a victim of his own hotheaded arrogance even if managing to repair his fractured friendship with Lung before tragedy strikes. Filled with memories of Handover anxiety and a healthy dose of ‘80s nostalgia, the film’s incongruous jauntiness is perhaps at odds with the gravity of the tale though that is perhaps itself part of the message the older Lung has for the young. “This is the city where I grew up. It’s become increasingly unfamiliar” he laments striding through streets filled with tents occupied by student protestors, sympathising with their cause while offering them a note of melancholy hope in his own, sometimes painful, tale of finding his feet in a changing Hong Kong. 


Weeds on Fire streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠, Sunny Lau, 2021)

“People have always been scarier than ghosts” according to the hero of Sunny Lau’s retro horror comedy, Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠). He is not in a sense wrong, the gang of down on their luck filmmakers unexpectedly uncovering a minor historical injustice while operating an “authentic” haunted house, and while the ghosts may be scary they are merely attempting to connect and right an old wrong. Filled with cynical humour, Lau’s witty screenplay is often disparaging of the contemporary Hong Kong film industry and an increasingly cutthroat society but finds unexpected pathos in the romantic tragedy at its centre. 

As the film opens, fast talking producer Pierre (Matt Chow Hoi-Kwong) has been hauled in front of mob boss Choi (Eric Kot Man-fai) who wants to know what the holdup is on their mutual film project. Boss Choi meanwhile has another problem in that the hotpot restaurant he’s just bought isn’t doing so well owing to the place being haunted. Ever enterprising Pierre comes up with a new idea: opening an “authentic” haunted house on the same site featuring real ghosts while shooting a movie in the same location. Getting the green light, Pierre enlists prosthetics guy Gary (Yatho Wong) to design the interiors for a horror show inspired by the real life studio fire of 30-years previously supposedly started by a clown in resentment after being turned down by the leading lady. 

Hoping to get more information, the guys talk to surviving actor Uncle Cheong (Chan Kwok-pong) who spins them a tale of his own heroism, claiming that he tried to intervene when the clown attacked his girlfriend and co-star but had to step out only to return after getting a pager message about the fire and attempt to save what lives he could. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cheong is all for their haunted house endeavour even making an appearance on opening night, but the gang can’t help but feel there must be more to this strange tale of arson and revenge. 

Mildmannered in the extreme, Gary finds himself conflicted in running Pierre’s unusual enterprise, wondering if it’s corrupting him or then again “Maybe to survive in Hong Kong, being mean is a basic necessity”. “Conning people diligently in Hong Kong is the path to success”, according to his friend even as they ironically prepare to open their “authentic” haunted house where encounters with “real” ghosts quickly find an audience who believe screaming in supernatural terror has therapeutic effects that can ease the depression and anxiety they feel as young people in contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pierre sells the haunted house idea partly on the strength that no one makes horror movies anymore because, famously, you can’t sell them on the Mainland and so co-productions aren’t interested. He describes Gary as the “tumour that’s killing the Hong Kong film industry” while constantly talking a big game, like a stereotypical producer willing to say everything and everything in order to get ahead, even hobnobbing with triads. “Hong Kong Cinema is all about discipline” he ironically claims despite being massively behind on all his projects, giving Gary a dressing down for being a few days late with his designs. 

“Some things don’t need to be completely understood” a zany medium claims, somewhat duplicitously, but it’s not until their own encounter with the ghost that the gang start to pick up on the dark legacy of the studio fire making use, possibly, of an unfair prejudice against clowns to sell the idea of a madman killer driven insane by lust and resentment towards a woman who had rejected him. What they discover is a sad tale of frustrated love, wounded male ego, and bitter regret that has perhaps manifested itself as a deeply held grudge as the guilty party holds on to their guilt and shame despite themselves. “It’s never too late to turn back” the villain is cautioned by a now elderly shaman, but in some ways it is, especially if you’ve already donned the clown suit of vicarious violence, “all debts must be paid”.  

Making the most of its whimsical premise, the increasingly surreal tale doesn’t skimp on the horror imagery with its scarred ghosts and scary clowns but also harks back to the horror comedies of old with its sutras and seals as the gang attempt to solve the mystery and right a historical injustice. Filled with amusing meta references to the contemporary Hong Kong film industry, ironic satire, and absurdist gags Lau’s charmingly off the wall comedy has only sympathy for its lovelorn ghosts of a bygone era and the hapless film crew attempting to navigate the vagaries of an often absurd industry.


Sugar Street Studio streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)