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Wong Jing, a Hong Kong Institution

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Love him or loathe him, and there are plenty of viewers who fall on either side of the line, Wong Jing is in many ways, and in a very real sense, the face of modern Hong Kong Cinema. Certainly, the uber prolific writer, director, producer and actor can be seen to represent the best and the worst of the industry, with his vast, everything but the kitchen sink output being characterized by both crazy creativity and blatantly cynical commercialism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sheer number of films Wong Jing has been involved with in one capacity or another, this has led to there being a huge variation in terms of the quality of his work, with many critics and fellow filmmakers seeming to blame him almost personally for the recent decline in Hong Kong Cinema.

This is unfair, and perhaps edged with a touch of jealously, for whilst the man has certainly been guilty of a fair amount of trash and soulless cash-ins, he has not only managed to keep afloat for so long in such a notoriously unforgiving field, but has been responsible for an impressive number of the all time domestic box office hits. This can be seen in the fact that during the boom of the early 1990s, his films accounted for around 30% of the total Hong Kong box office, an impressive figure that speaks for itself.

Although Wong Jing hasn't won too many awards, he has worked with almost all of the biggest names in the business, and though often critically reviled, his films have been undeniably influential, both at home and abroad. As such, whilst some have labeled him an opportunist and have bestowed upon him titles such as "The King of Crappy Cinema", it is undoubtedly he who has the last laugh, as he continues to thrive, having churned out three high-profile films already in 2010, including Black Ransom, Beauty on Duty! and the all-star Future X-Cops, with more still to come.

Gambling with Shaw Brothers

Wong Jing was born in 1955 in Hong Kong, the son of Wong Tin Lam, a noted director whose own career began back in 1950 and who was responsible for many martial arts and wuxia thrillers, including Fist that Kills and the early Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen outing Kung Fu Massacre. Having retired from the director's chair in 1984, he went on to work as an instantly recognizable character actor, featuring in many triad and Johnny To productions, including Election, for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. Interestingly, Wong claims not to have learned much from his father, citing Chor Yuen as an early mentor, who helmed many Shaw Brothers hits such as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, the hugely popular 1973 version of the landmark comedy The House of 72 Tenants and kung fu films Bat without Wings and Death Duel.

Before moving into film, Wong attended the Chinese University of Hong Kong, majoring in Chinese Literature. However, his love of cinema, and his great affection for the old Cantonese classics won out, and like so many others, he moved to TVB in 1975 to begin his career. Having initially planned to become an actor, he changed direction after meeting suave colleague Chow Yun Fat, and devoted himself to working behind the scenes instead. Finding success as a screenwriter for the popular gag show The Good, Bad, and Ugly, he soon moved into scripting films with the likes of Cunning Tendency, The Ghost and I, Itchy Fingers, and the Sammo Hung classic The Magnificent Butcher. Wong made his directorial debut in 1981 for the Shaws with Challenge of the Gamesters, a gambling film perhaps partly inspired by his father's success with King of Gamblers and Return of King of Gamblers the previous year. Even at this early stage in his career, he showed a shrewd sense for predicting audience trends, and the film was a massive hit for Shaw, even out performing Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon.

Having earned his stripes, Wong's career slowly advanced, mainly through more writing gigs, most of which were broad comedies or martial arts affairs, including another Sammo Hung hit with The Prodigal Son. At the same time, he returned to acting, appearing as a bumbler or amusingly unlikely male lead in films such as Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, 100 Ways to Murder Your Wife and The Ghost Snatchers. Most of his own directorial efforts during this period were similarly middle of the road comedies such as Winner Takes All and Mercenaries from Hong Kong, standard commercial fare that saw him trying his hand at a variety of genres. Gambling remained a popular theme, as seen in his 1987 outing Born to Gamble, which he not only wrote and directed, but also starred in.

God of Gamblers and Stephen Chow

The same year saw Wong Jing achieve one of his biggest hits to date with The Romancing Star, a comedy headlined by Chow Yun Fat, with support from a young Maggie Cheung and the popular Eric Tsang. The film was very much in what was quickly becoming his style, being an odd mix of gentle romantic comedy and off the wall spoofs of current films and television shows. This did make for some very funny moments which struck a chord with local audiences, including an amusing parody on John Woo's iconic A Better Tomorrow. Sequels inevitably followed, as did more success with the Andy Lau comedy vehicle The Crazy Companies and its quickly released follow up. In 1989 Wong also enlisted Lau for the thriller Crocodile Hunter, and the gritty gambling film Casino Raiders, in which he starred with Alan Tam and the gorgeous Rosamund Kwan.

1989 was a landmark year for Wong Jing, seeing the release of God of Gamblers, a massive commercial success and a film whose influence can still be seen today. Starring Chow Yun Fat at his most charismatic as a gambling master who loses his memory and Andy Lau as a young upstart who slowly picks up the tricks of the trade, the film was apparently inspired by a 1960s Cantonese opera. Despite a rather odd, shifting tone, the film packs in laughter, melodrama, thrills, and of course plenty of gambling, and broke all local box office records, setting a new trend for the genre. Unsurprisingly, Wong returned the following year with a sequel, God of Gamblers 2, which was a master stroke of commercial thinking, also being a sequel to Stephen Chow's All for the Winner, which itself had been a take off on Wong Jing's original. Although Chow Yun Fat was absent this time around, the presence of Chow and Andy Lau proved to be box office gold, and the film grossed an incredible HK$52 million.

Given the success of All for the Winner and God of Gamblers 2, it is certainly no exaggeration to say that Wong Jing played a large part in Stephen Chow's journey to superstardom, and the two went on to combine their talents on a series of hits. After the inevitable God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai (which also featured a young Gong Li), Wong went on to direct and produce some of Chow's most popular films, including Tricky Brains, Royal Tramp and its sequel, Million Dollar Man, and Hail the Judge. As well as pushing Chow ever more into the limelight, the two effectively sealed the popularity of the "mo lei tau" or "makes no sense" form of comedy. Unfortunately, after Forbidden City Cop in 1996, the two began to disagree on their approaches to filmmaking, and relations cooled somewhat.

Of course, while enjoying success with Chow, Wong was hard at work on an amazing number of other films, many of which saw him teaming with Andy Lau, such as the Lee Rock and Casino Tycoon series, not to mention the bizarre Streetfighter knock off Future Cops, which somehow managed to drum up a cast that also included Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng and Simon Yam.

Wong also worked with Jackie Chan on the manga adaptation City Hunter, and Jet Li on the rather undignified Wong Fei Hung kung fu comedy Last Hero in China (co-directed with the legendary Yuen Woo Ping, and which featured the unforgettable sight of Li fighting while dressed in a chicken suit), The Evil Cult, The New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. In 1995, Li also starred in High Risk, a spoof of violent action films and a direct personal dig at Jackie Chan, with whom Wong had apparently fallen out with during the production of City Hunter. Although amusing, the film was not exactly subtle, and Li later apologized to Chan for having taken the role.

Naked Killer, the Category III Years and more

In 1992 Wong Jing wrote and produced Naked Killer for director Clarence Fok, a film which both raised his profile at home and abroad, and which provided fuel for the critics who claimed that he was pandering to the very lowest common denominator. The film, which revolved around female assassins and lesbian killers, starred Simon Yam alongside Chingmy Yau in the lead, a striking young actress who had already featured in a number of Wong productions. The lurid combination of sex and violence proved popular with audiences, and was a popular cult hit in the West.

Unsurprisingly, Wong capitalized on its success by delving further into sleazy Category III rated cinema. The following years saw him directing and producing a number of similarly themed films such as Raped by an Angel, again with Yam and Yau, which inspired several follow ups, A Chinese Torture Chamber Story and its sequel, Herman Yau's awesome Ebola Syndrome and Erotic Nightmare. In 1996 Wong produced Sex and Zen 2, which was notable for featuring Shu Qi, who he had spotted in a racy pictorial in a Taiwanese magazine, again showing his ability for highlighted up and coming talent.

The 1990s weren't all about sleaze for Wong Jing, and he continued to spread his efforts across pretty much every genre imaginable, from the comedy of Boys are Easy (with the impressive cast of Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Jacky Cheung and Chingmy Yau) and I'm Your Birthday Cake, through to more sequels in the form of God Gamblers Return, which teamed Chow Yun Fat with Tony Leung Ka Fai, God of Gamblers 3 - The Early Stage, and even Return to a Better Tomorrow. In 1996 Wong produced the hit influential triad thriller Young and Dangerous, which was followed not only by a number of sequels, but also several spin-offs, including the amusingly titled Sexy and Dangerous, starring Karen Mok, Francis Ng and Loletta Lee and Portland Street Blues, both of which he produced.

In 1998 Wong defied at least some of his critics by writing, producing and directing A True Mob Story, again with Andy Lau, a superb and surprisingly mature deconstruction of the modern triad genre. Also of note was in 1999 were the Andy Lau gambling hit The Conman, and The Tricky Master, an insanely creative avalanche of spoof set pieces sending up Hong Kong and Hollywood hits, which reteamed Wong with Stephen Chow and also featured Kelly Lin.

Changing Fortunes

By the time of the new millennium, Hong Kong cinema in general was in somewhat of a creative and commercial decline, a sad state of affairs to which even the shrewd Wong Jing was not immune. Of course, many of his detractors were quick to point the finger, claiming that it was his brand of low brow, artistically disinclined film making that had smothered and brought the industry low. Still, even during difficult times, his output continued unabated, despite the fact that many of his films were receiving increasingly hostile reactions from critics and disinterest from audiences.

To his credit, Wong did manage a number of respectable productions, including a rare stab at serious drama with Crying Heart, which dealt with the plight of the mentally handicapped, and won a Hong Kong Awards nomination for Deanie Yip. This aside, it was very much business as usual, as he tried to cover almost every genre imaginable, writing and producing Infernal Affairs and The Storm Warriors director Andrew Lau's The Duel, and directing his own selection of comedies, romances, actioners and fight films in Everyday is Valentine, Martial Angels, Love Me, Love My Money, and My Schoolmate, the Barbarian, all of which met with varying degrees of success.

In 2002 Wong had a high-profile release with The Wesley's Mysterious File, which he wrote and produced for director Andrew Lau, as well as starring in alongside Andy Lau, Shu Qi and Rosamund Kwan. Despite its heavy use of special effects, the film was somewhat of a dud, failing to coherently combine its many disparate plot elements. Sleazier and far more memorable was Naked Weapon, written and produced for Chinese Ghost Story director and master choreographer Ching Siu Tung. Starring Maggie Q and Daniel Wu, the film was an action-packed slice of top-notch trashy exploitation that saw Wong doing what he did best.

The following year Wong directed what many still consider to be his best film, the cynical triad thriller Colour of the Truth. Co-directed with Marco Mak, the drama benefited from an outstanding cast that included Anthony Wong, Jordan Chan, Francis Ng, Chapman To and Gillian Chung. Although the plot was fairly familiar, with Infernal Affairs having popularized the undercover cops and gangsters theme, the film was a superb example of the modern noir form, dark, gritty and more mature than many might have expected from a man best known for undemanding shlock. Needless to say, Wong soon got back to his old tricks with the likes of The Spy Dad, Sex and the Beauties, and Love is a Many Stupid Thing, before returning with the equally gripping sequel Colour of the Loyalty in 2005, for which he won an HKFCS Award for Best Screenplay.

This kind of switching between the serious and the silly very much characterised the next few years for Wong Jing, as on one hand he cheerfully continued to serve up wackiness with the Kung Fu Hustle rip off gambling comedy Kung Fu Mahjong, which was popular enough to spawn no less than two sequels, My Kung Fu Sweetheart, Beauty and the 7 Beasts (which starred his aging father alongside the rather attractive Meng Yao), My Wife is a Gambling Maestro, and the distinctly desperate The Vampire Who Admires Me. At the same time, he also wrote and produced the hard hitting undercover drama Wo Hu, which won him another HKFCS Best Screenplay Award.

I Corrupt All Future X-Cops

The last couple of years have seen the unstoppable Wong Jing continuing to impress, confound and dismay in roughly equal measures. 2009 was a year that underlined this as he directed the tough, edgy thrillers I Corrupt All Cops and To Live and Die in Mongkok, both of which were arguably among the year's best genre films, as well as the far out period set comedy On His Majesty's Secret Service, a throwback to his outings with Stephen Chow. The latter in particular was a great success for Wong, pulling in over $100 million at Mainland box office.

2010 has so far seen him returning to more familiar ground with the Simon Yam kidnap thriller Black Ransom, the Charlene Choi comedy Beauty on Duty!, and Future X-Cops, a truly oddball film in the classic Wong Jing style, with Andy Lau as a time travelling cop and a plot which tries to combine almost every genre imaginable with scant regard for logic or cinematic good sense.

Wong Jing's recent output provides a fairly accurate picture of his career as a whole, mixing in serious attempts at dark drama, unfettered spoofery, cheap melodrama, and near surreal weirdness. Although as a writer, director, producer or actor he certainly has his critics, many of whom at times do have a point regarding the lack of craftsmanship evident in some of his works, the fact remains that he is one of the longest standing, most successful, and locally minded film makers that Hong Kong has ever produced - and certainly one who is unlikely to be calling it quits anytime soon.

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Published July 29, 2010

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