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Wilson Yip - Master of Genre Films

Written by John Snadden Tell a Friend

In the late 1990s, Chinese director Wilson Yip Wai-Shun could do no wrong; his ability to breathe life into genre films was second-to-none. There's almost a seamless feel to many of his best movies. He is a prolific director, writer and occasional actor and a contemporary (and sometimes collaborator) of Hong Kong filmmakers such as Fruit Chan (Little Cheung), Barbara Wong (Women's Private Parts) and Andrew Lau (The Storm Riders).

As a director, in less than five years his career had moved from the making of low budget exploitation flicks to high budget "event" movies. Unfortunately, the latter hasn't been as successful or as satisfying as his earlier more personal films.

Wilson Yip's love of genre films stems from a filmbuff background which saw him, from an early age, watching movies wherever and whenever he could - often writing reviews on the backs of ticket stubs. A passion so strong could only lead to work in the Hong Kong film industry and during the 1980s Yip worked as a gopher on scores of Cantonese films eventually rising to the position of an assistant director. It was the perfect training ground for a person who could soak up all these different influences.

His first directing credit came by pure chance when film-maker Andy Chin (Love Among the Triads) offered his commission to Yip to direct two of the three episodes in a horror film compendium titled 1.00 AM. Yip's segments are the best and have Veronica Yip (no relation) as a nurse who sees dead pop stars, and Anita Yuen's spooky and funny interview with a demon.

With a solid commercial hit behind him, Yip then went back to basics with Daze Raper, a Category III exploitation movie detailing the downward spiral of a prison guard with delusions of criminal grandeur. Based on a true crime spree in the early 90s, Daze Raper had critics and audiences starting to take notice of this precocious talent, someone cheeky enough (and clever enough) to give this Category III oater an art house look and create a genuinely scary film with a menacing psychological edge.

In hindsight, the mid-90s saw Yip to be marking time, it was only a Young and Dangerous type movie, Mongkok Story, that garnered any critical attention. Midnight Zone followed, another trio of horror shorts, this time taking its inspiration from a series of Cantonese urban myths. However, what shouldn't be overlooked is Teaching Sucks, an incredibly lame title masks a slight but totally captivating comedy-drama covering the professional and personal lives of two unenthusiastic Hong Kong teachers played by Anthony Wong and Jan Lam. Director and writer Yip had produced a little gem - a picture that deserves a much wider audience (and maybe a new title?).

It was the creation of the Production Company Brilliant Idea Group that really sent Wilson Yip's career into orbit. With producer Joe Ma, Yip and co-writer Matt Chow (Too Many Ways To Be No. 1) spawned the cult horror hit Bio-Zombie. Taking his lead from Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Yip had triad layabouts Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee) as the unwitting carriers of a lethal bio-bomb which is set to zombiefy Hong Kong's population. The action unfolds in a shopping plaza where heads begin to roll and explode after a sushi chef becomes the first infected. Director Yip paints the screen with the horror film hues of blues and greens giving the impression that everybody is either dead or seriously ill. Low budget, low rent, very violent and, at times, funny as hell - and easily one of the best movies of 1998.

Joe Ma loosened the purse strings and Wilson Yip was given the budget and talent for Hong Kong's big summer release of 1999 - Bullets Over Summer. If Yip stopped making films tomorrow it would be this crime/ drama/ comedy/ romance that he would be remembered for. Again, with writer Chow, Yip creates a genre buster of a film that for many good reasons just should not have worked...this production was a real gamble. Thankfully, it worked, and worked incredibly well. Top Cantonese stars Francis Ng and Louis Koo are two detectives hunting a vicious gang of robbers / murderers led by a human scar named Dragon. They set up a surveillance point in a HK apartment owned by an elderly woman (Helena Law Lan) who sees life through a haze of dementia and thinks the police officers are her long lost sons returning to visit her. What evolves in this unique urban setting is a finely wrought story of people dealing with the hands that life has dealt them. Great performances from all, especially Helena Law Lanwho won a HK film award for her role. Newcomer Stephanie Lam is superb as the pregnant Jennifer, as is Michelle Saram as the truant schoolgirl Yen, a dead ringer of French star Audrey Tautou (Amelie). Also, watch for writer Matt Chow as a bespectacled, interfering neighbor. This film is rich in memorable scenes and sequences and shouldn't be missed by any one interested in quality cinema.

On a roll now, Yip's next feature also starred Francis Ng. Juliet in Love is a bittersweet romance set amongst the brutal tribalism of Hong Kong's triad gangs. Jordan (Francis Ng) and Judy (Sandra Ng) are two of life's loners who find love with each other through an accident of fate involving a newborn baby. Hong Kong comedienne Sandra Ng (Golden Chicken) is a revelation as the sad-eyed restaurant worker who has seen the best and worst her world has to offer. Juliet in Love eschews much of the humor of Bullets Over Summer but showcases some of the finest screen drama of the past decade.

Director Yip was now a bankable filmmaker and in 2000 the company Golden Harvest had him tagged to direct Skyline Cruisers, a big budget action flick aimed at a world market. A semi-sequel to 1997's Downtown Torpedoes, Skyline Cruisers is a slick Mission Impossible rip-off, starring Leon Lai and Shu Qi. It turned out to be a bitter experience for Yip who didn't get along with the cast and clashed with Golden Harvest management. He had no script input to the film and his original ending was deleted from the final cut.

The next three years saw Wilson Yip become a high priced director-for-hire. The movie 2002 starred Nicholas Tse in a sci-fi / action pic, owing much of its storyline to Hollywood's Men in Black. In an attempt to cash in on the romcom boom Yip helmed Dry Wood, Fierce Fire with Miriam Yeung and Louis Koo, and a Shanghai-bound love story Leaving Me, Loving You with Leon Lai and Faye Wong. Both were standard RomComs - innocuous enough as entertainment and eminently forgettable.

As a favor to his friend Fruit Chan, Yip took a small but significant acting role in Lam Wah-Cheun's 2002 low budget pic The Runaway Pistol. He takes the part of Ming, a Kowloon pimp and pathetic brute of a man. The Runaway Pistol isn't the type of movie Yip would readily make, but to be associated with such a brutally honest and shocking film might have been a sobering experience for the director-for-hire.

Director Yip's flirtations with romcoms and bland action pics may have peaked with last year's Cecilia Cheung martial arts-comedy the White Dragon. Based on a 1968 martial arts feature of the same title, Yip's remake has Francis Ng as a blind, love struck, wandering swordsman. With Cheung's bizarre contemporary consumer references throughout the film, many viewed it as a step backwards for Yip, but some still found it sufficient as light entertainment.

The good news is Wilson Yip is back in the saddle and directing Sha Po Lang, a crime flick starring Simon Yam, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung with the latter playing a mainland gangster who Yam and Yen are out to get. The early word on Sha Po Lang has it being a real return to form for cast and director - a lean 1980s-style, hard-as-nails, last-man-standing crime-action pic. - We can only hope!

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Published January 24, 2005

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