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Drawn and Dangerous: Hong Kong Comics on Film

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

The comic book industry in Hong Kong may not have found as much success as its counterparts in Japan, but it has nevertheless enjoyed a fairly rich history combining Chinese culture and foreign aesthetics. While the look of the comics seem to derive greatly from Japanese manga, the stories themselves are still uniquely Chinese, featuring themes of honor and loyalty and, of course, lots of fighting. With such enormous success over the years, it was no surprise that the Hong Kong film industry would eventually bring comics to the big screen.

True to Life? From Feel 100% to Young and Dangerous

Hong Kong comic adaptations are more similar to that of Japan than the United States, in that both Hong Kong comics and their adaptations cover various genres. While Hong Kong films had adapted various Japanese manga over the years (such as City Hunter starring Jackie Chan and the Tsui Hark-produced Wicked City), Feel 100% and Young and Dangerous, both released in 1996, marked the first notable big-screen adaptations of Hong Kong comics.

Modeled after Japanese manga but injected with a Hong Kong flavor, Feel 100% by Lau Wan Kit first appeared in a weekly comic anthology magazine in 1992. It follows the lives of two young Hong Kong urbanites and their pursuit for love, ranging from one night stands and infatuations to some possible incest. The comic found popularity quickly and was eventually released as independent volumes. However, due to the time it takes for Lau to pen and illustrate each volume, Feel 100% has only published 15 volumes to date (with its final 16th volume still in the works). Despite the comic's sporadic release schedule, Hong Kong director Joe Ma did not hesitate when he adapted Feel 100% for film in 1996. Starring Ekin Cheng, Eric Kot, and Sammi Cheng, Feel 100% found enough success to warrant not only a sequel in the same year, but also a "re-imagining" in 2001 (with the original pair replaced by Eason Chan and Daniel Chan and the character Cherrie eliminated), two web broadcast series (with Daniel Chan, Alex Fong Lik Sun, and Niki Chow as the fab trio this time), and yet another "re-imagining" in 2003 (this time without Joe Ma and with another recasting - Shawn Yue, Cyrus Wong, and all 9 members of Cookies). Even though the Feel 100% film series has been all over the place in terms of quality, it has solidified Feel 100%'s iconic status in Hong Kong pop culture history.

The less wholesome of the two big Hong Kong adaptations is Young and Dangerous. Originally based on the comic Teddy Boy by Cow Man, the Young and Dangerous films depict the lives of young triad members climbing up the ranks through violence while maintaining their codes of honor and loyalty. The first film was directed by Andrew Lau, written by Manfred Wong, and starred Ekin Cheng (a familiar name in this article by now) and Jordan Chan. Made as mainstream stylistic entertainment that some dismissed as glorification of the gangster lifestyle, Young and Dangerous became such a hit that it spawned not only 5 sequels, but also one prequel and several spinoffs. Despite the great number of Young and Dangerous films, its popularity on the big screen actually only lasted 4 years, with the last Young and Dangerous film, Born to be King, released in 2000. Nevertheless, it marked a very important page in Hong Kong pop culture history, introducing the world to not only a new image of triad youth, but also the genre of triad comics. The biggest accomplishment of all: it made a star out of the man who would become the Keanu Reeves of Hong Kong film - Ekin Cheng.

The Martial Arts Comics - Ma Wing Shing to Donnie Yen

Many comics in Hong Kong, released weekly in short 30-page issues, are martial arts comics adapted from famous novels, such as those by Jin Yong (most, if not all, of his well-known novels have been translated into comic form at some point by different publishers). Some of the most popular original martial arts comics in Hong Kong were actually penned by just one man - Ma Wing Shing.

Ma started his comic artist career in 1976, and has since penned such legendary Hong Kong comics as Tin Xia (now in its 470th issue and counting), The Chinese Hero, and The Storm Riders. The latter two were adapted into feature films by the Hong Kong master of comic adaptations (by default) - Andrew Lau .

1998's The Storm Riders, a martial arts CGI spectacle about two young warriors with one common goal of revenge, was not Andrew Lau's first comic adaptation (he had already directed 6 Young and Dangerous films and produced the first Feel 100% film at that point), but the risk was nevertheless high. Even though it was Lau's 15th film, it was also his most ambitious. The biggest Hong Kong special effects martial extravaganza since Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, it was the greatest challenge to date for local special effects house Centro, whose only other film credit at the time was Soong Sisters (not known for its groundbreaking special effects). Expectations were high - advertisements and cross-promotions blanketed the city, rumors of a feud between stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng surrounded the production in the months leading up to its release, and clips of the phenomenal special effects had audiences hankering for more. At the end, all the work paid off, as The Storm Riders became the top-grossing Hong Kong film of the year, beating out both Jackie Chan's Mr. Nice Guy and Stephen Chow's The Lucky Guy. Most of all, it ushered in a new era for the film industry by proving Hong Kong's ability to successfully adapt computer graphics into films.

After the success of The Storm Riders, the creative team decided to take it one step further with A Man Called Hero in 1999, the screen adaptation of The Chinese Hero. Director Andrew Lau, Centro Digital Pictures, writer Manfred Wong, and star Ekin Cheng all came onboard for the epic journey of a Chinese warrior in turbulent early 20th-century America. The film boasted a larger budget, a grander story, and even a climactic battle on the Statue of Liberty. A Man Called Hero became one of the top grossing films of 1999, but failed to reach the box office heights of its predecessor due to mostly bad word of mouth. Since then, Centro has gone on to become one of Asia's premier digital effects house, and director Andrew Lau would find even greater success years later with Infernal Affairs.

7 years have passed since A Man Called Hero, and the man to bring the martial arts comic adaptation back is none other than Donnie Yen. After the successful pairing of Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip in 2005's SPL, the two teamed up again, this time adapting Dragon Tiger Gate, the classic martial arts comic about three street rascals' fight for justice and honor. Started in the 1970s by comic legend Wong Yuk Long, Dragon Tiger Gate enthralled a generation of young men who faithfully followed the brothers' adventures through weekly installments. In 2000, Wong himself revived the comic. 77 monthly issues later, the comic is still going strong. The Dragon Tiger Gate adaptation stars Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, and Shawn Yue. With Yen as action choreographer, the film features explosive martial art sequences that stunned fans of both Yen and Dragon Tiger Gate. Released in late summer, Dragon Tiger Gate became one of the top grossing local films of 2006 in Hong Kong and in Mainland China.

The Odd One Out - Master Q

The only family-friendly comic adaptation in recent memory is also the one with the longest history - Alfonso Wong's Old Master Q. Started in 1962, the Master Q comic strip (or Lo Fu Ji in Cantonese) chronicles the hilarious mischievous adventures of Old Master Q, Mr. Qin, and Big Potato. Over the years, it became a household name as its popularity traveled across generations. Old Master Q finally made it to the big screen in 2001 when Tsui Hark and Herman Yau collaborated with Wang Studio for Master Q 2001. Taking years of production, the live-action film adaptation stars Nicholas Tse, Cecilia Cheung, and the digitally animated Master Q characters. The film recalled the mo lei tau style of the comic with its absurd silliness and irrelevance, and it was a moderate hit in an ailing industry. However, because of the extensive special effects, the box office gross didn't warrant a sequel.

One might be surprised about how closely the film and comic industries work in Hong Kong. After the success of both Shaolin Soccer and Infernal Affairs, comic book artists were commissioned for comic adaptations of the films. In addition, covers of many triad comic books feature characters that happen to look like popular actors who have found success playing young triad members, such as Andy Lau and Ekin Cheng. With the Japanese film industry churning out one hit comic adaptation after another, it would be no surprise if the Hong Kong industry follows suit in the coming years.

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Published September 22, 2006

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
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