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The Hui Brothers: The First Family of Hong Kong Cinema

Written by Sean M. Tierney Tell a Friend

In the mid 1970s, Hong Kong cinema underwent a significant linguistic shift; new local productions increasingly used the Cantonese dialect as opposed to the Mandarin that had predominated the cinema during much of the 60s and early 1970s. This allowed for a greater display of local idioms, culture, and humor. Nobody is as closely associated with Cantonese humor of the period, and neither does anyone deserve any more credit, than the Hui Brothers.

Michael, Sam and Ricky Hui became the leaders of the Cantonese resurgence in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s, gaining fame for their work in front of as well as behind the camera and, of course, on the concert stage and in the recording studio. Sam Hui's work as a solo artist as well as the lead singer of Lotus helped to solidify the Hui brothers' place at the top of Hong Kong's entertainment world.

Michael made his debut in 1972's The Warlord, switching into film from a well-established television popularity. His role in this film makes plain not only his already well-developed comedic talents, but also his sheer enjoyment of the role and the comic opportunities it provided. He was the first truly local star of his generation, and this made a big positive difference for him. Even with the locality of the actor and his films, they were successful even outside Hong Kong. Hui can take a lot of credit for helping spread Hong Kong cinema beyond the city limits.

Michael's first film for his own production company (and as director) was 1974's Games Gamblers Play, a story of two degenerate gamblers who ceaselessly scheme to get money with little or no work involved. While the film's runaway success might be partially due to the Chinese fixation with gambling, it is more fair to credit the Hui's comic aptitude. After all, the film parodies the already-established gambling movie genre. Michael Hui's character was no tuxedoed locus of suave; he was a rough-edged everyman, much like the film's audience. The film co-starred Michael's brother Sam, also an established star, albeit as a pop singer. Brother Ricky also appears in the film, though in a limited role.

Michael also directed 1975's The Last Message, an offbeat film about insanity, capitalism, and Hong Kong society (all of which, many people say, are deeply interdependent). Michael's character, Ah Tim, is the classic transplanted mainlander, lacking in social graces but with no shortage of avarice. The film features brother Sam's soundtrack contributions with his band The Lotus, an added attraction.

The Private Eyes, Michael's 1976 film about a detective firm, has no social commentary, but still manages to make some very important points. Modeled on the classic premise of two opposites attracted and bonded by adversity, the film is an ensemble piece showcasing the strength of each brother's acting skills. Sam plays the seemingly naive young kung fu expert, while Ricky plays a stuttering, neck brace wearing comic foil. Though Sam and Ricky work for Michael, he lets them sleep in his apartment and gives them meals. Of course, he also (un)scrupulously keeps tabs on virtually every expenditure the two engender, leading to the conclusion that they will need several centuries to pay off their debt by film's end. While Michael plays his meanest role here, he still shows us a human side we all must acknowledge, for he teaches us about ourselves.

The Contract (1978) is a brutally comic (comically brutal?) look at Hong Kong's literally murderous television industry. That Michael was an alumnus only guarantees that the situations and characterizations have undeniable bases in reality. Michael once again plays the small man trying to get bigger who eventually realizes that there are things even he won't do. The film's comedy leavens what might otherwise be a very black comedy. While aversion to spoilers prevents me from being more specific, suffice it to say that this film does not disappoint in the Only-in-Hong-Kong-Cinema department.

Security Unlimited (1981) reflected the get-rich aspirations of the people who paid to see Hui brothers films; Michael yet again plays the bad guy who eventually found his conscience without foregoing his fortune. Hui plays Chow, the senior officer in a security firm that is often anything but secure. He connives against and brutalizes his subordinates, two of whom are played by Ricky and Sam. Still, by film's end, Chow has yet again rediscovered his humanity, and as formulaic as these films are, it is testament to Michael Hui's acting, writing and directing talent that he still evokes our sympathy, and, more importantly, respect; we all might wish to have friends like this.

In Teppanyaki (1984), Sally Yeh does more for the tan than even God intended. Michael Hui is married to an immensely fat shrew of a wife and working a dead-end job for her alcoholic, gun-happy father. Assisted by one of his co-workers, he is constantly running off for extramarital adventures, literally sneaking out the window, even when his leg is in a cast. The stereotypes abound, but this is a Hui production; everybody is fair game, even Jesus.

Imagine a Hong Kong remake of Mrs. Doubtfire. That takes place in Thailand. And features a man with a chrome prosthetic hand. That doubles as a power tool. Throw in a heaping spoonful of jokes, plots and situations so sexist that you almost cringe, and you've got Happy Din Don (1986), a film worth catching if only to see Michael Hui cross dress. Not that I'm into that sort of thing, mind you.

In Chocolate Inspector (1986) Michael plays Inspector Chocolate and brother Ricky plays Inspector Tart, two cops named for their respective favorite foods. They run afoul of almost everyone as they try to solve a missing child case while also keeping an eye on their superior's daughter, a policewoman and Miss HK contestant played by Anita Mui. The real-life pop star revels in her own self-parody, making light of herself without losing her dignity. The film mixes high melodrama and low comedy, as most Hong Kong films of the period will. Yet again, at the film's critical moment, Michael turns out to be just as human as the rest of us, and maybe even a better one.

Chicken and Duck Talk (1988) is a masterpiece of comedy that thinly conceals an acidic indictment of Hong Kong's changing cultural landscape. Michael Hui plays the proprietor of a roast duck shop threatened both covertly and overtly by a newfangled, Westernized fast-food competitor (and his shrewish mother-in-law, whom he loathes). At once a hilarious comic romp and biting social commentary, the film is a sterling example of how Michael Hui's films could be comedic while meaningful, achingly funny as well as poignant, indulging in ribaldry, yet avoiding didacticism. Besides, you get to see two Hui Brothers in mohawks.

One of the greatest things about the Hui's films is a strong yet subtle class consciousness sadly lacking in today's industry. Sam Hui's role in Tsui Hark's Working Class, as well as The Lotus' soundtrack contributions (with lyrics thankfully subtitled) give us an invaluable glimpse into what life was like for the un-rich of Hong Kong's boom years and how they felt about being the have-nots surrounded (and controlled) by the haves.

Michael's 1992 Hero of Beggars is a film at once offensive and touching in its wildly stereotypical portrayal of Mainlanders chasing the ever-evasive Hong Kong Dream of riches. Michael yet again plays the stern taskmaster who turns out not to be such a monster after all. An ensemble cast provides strong support, each character fleshed out enough to be individuals, but none of them detracting from the cohesive appeal of the group. The film's final dialogue exchange perfectly captures the tenor of the times, a nervous smile for an uncertain future hurtling towards the colony.

Ricky Hui is Moe Howard's illegitimate Chinese son; his omnipresent deadpan, hanging as it does beneath that god-awful haircut (didn't anyone ever say anything about it?) gave him a look that was half Easter Island, half Eeyor and totally hilarious. His recent cameo in Supermodel only cements his status as one of Hong Kong cinema's comic legends. How one man can be so funny by doing so little is one of Hong Kong cinema's greatest and most wonderful mysteries.

Ricky starred in some of director John Woo's pre-A Better Tomorrow films like From Riches to Rags (1980), Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982), and To Hell with the Devil (1982). He also starred in some of Hong Kong's most successful horror films of the 1980s and 90s. He starred alongside Lam Ching Ying and others in Mr. Vampire (1985), The Haunted Cop Shop (1987), The Haunted Cop Shop 2 (1988), Ghost for Sale (1991), and Mr. Vampire 1992 (1992). Ricky also appeared in some of Hong Kong's earliest Girls With Guns films. Providing comic relief along with Sandra Ng, his deadpan offsets the luminous beauty of Kara Hui and others in The Inspector Wear Skirts (1988), Operation Pink Squad (1988), and The Inspector Wears Skirts 2 (1989).

Singing brother Sam Hui starred in one of Hong Kong cinema's most popular series of films after he split from his brothers' films; he was the star of Aces Go Places 1-5 (1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1989). He also starred in The Dragon From Russia (1990) and The Swordsman (1990), both attempts to establish him as an action star, an attempt that met with mixed results. Still, his importance to action film, and even the martial fantasy craze must be acknowledged. While The Swordsman may not be the greatest wuxia film ever made in Hong Kong, remember that without it, no East is Red.

The impact of the Hui Brothers on Hong Kong cinema would take a lot more space than I have here to give it justice. But I hope I've at least introduced you to some of the films that they created. They earned, and deserve, a place in Hong Kong's film history; one or more of the Brothers appears in significant films of three different decades. They truly are the first family of Hong Kong cinema. Lest anyone need any more convincing about the Hui brothers' status, talent, or appeal, look no further than Fantasia (2004). When people make a movie about your movies, chances are you made some pretty damn good ones. They did, and Hong Kong cinema, and us, are better for it.

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Published May 12, 2006

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