Hong Kong cinema lost one of its most established action-film directors on Sunday when Benny Chan Muk-sing died of nasopharyngeal cancer in Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital. He was 58.
Perhaps best known internationally for directing several of Jackie Chan’s mid-career vehicles, including Who Am I? (1998), New Police Story (2004) and Rob-B-Hood (2006), Chan was widely recognised as one of the best directors of action thrillers in the city.
His last film, Raging Fire, which has nearly completed post-production, is now set to be released posthumously. The crime thriller stars Donnie Yen Ji-dan (who also produces the film) and Nicholas Tse Ting-fung as a pair of former colleagues in the police force who then find themselves on opposite sides of the law.
As Hong Kong film lovers mourn the loss of one of the industry’s most respected action filmmakers, we look back on five of the best directorial efforts in Chan’s career.
1. A Moment of Romance (1990)
Chan announced his arrival as a film director in some style with this debut, which went on to become one of the most recognisable Hong Kong films of the 1990s.
Produced by Johnnie To Kei-fung (with whom Chan worked as a production assistant at TVB, back in 1982), its melodramatic blend of gangster thriller and star-crossed romance provided one of the most iconic roles for Andy Lau Tak-wah.
Lau plays Wah Dee, a triad getaway driver who falls for his equally smitten hostage (Wu Chien-lien).
By deftly striking a balance between the litany of gangland violence and his protagonists’ unlikely romance, Chan came up with one of the most engrossing stories in his entire oeuvre – an irony, given how many audiences have since come to view action, instead of storytelling, as Chan’s bread and butter.
2. Big Bullet (1996)
Despite his career-long affinity for mainstream action movies, Chan was well recognised beyond the confines of genre filmmaking.
The filmmaker received the first of his five best director nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Big Bullet, which ranks among the best action movies ever made in Hong Kong.
Frenetically paced from start to finish, this action extravaganza sees Lau Ching-wan’s demoted policeman take an eclectic team – including Jordan Chan Siu-chun and Cheung Tat-ming – with him to catch a couple of criminals on the loose.
Despite the generic plot line, Chan showed his flair for action filmmaking with this oddly memorable effort.
3. Divergence (2005)
An entertaining crime thriller elevated by Aaron Kwok Fu-shing’s transformative performance, Divergence is an ambitious narrative experiment, Chan working with a convoluted script by revered screenwriter Ivy Ho.
Among the leading trio of Kwok (playing a policeman), Daniel Wu Yin-cho (an assassin) and Ekin Cheng Yee-kin (a lawyer), Kwok benefited the most from Chan’s twisty film.
It earned him a surprise best actor win at the prestigious Golden Horse awards in Taipei, and pretty much set the Canto-pop singer up for his next career phase as a reliable movie star.
4. The White Storm (2013)
Chan paid homage to John Woo’s heroic bloodshed movies in this preposterous yet utterly compelling drug cartel thriller, which was so popular with audiences that it spawned a blockbuster sequel – by another director, Herman Yau Lai-to – six years later.
With its outrageous body count and hysterical take on the theme of blood brotherhood, The White Storm plays like a forgotten masterpiece from the late 1980s.
It follows three childhood friends-turned Narcotics Bureau teammates (Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo Tin-lok and Nick Cheung Ka-fai) as they take down a Thailand-based drug-trafficking empire together.
5. Call of Heroes (2016)
Arguably Chan’s best film in the 21st century (in this writer’s opinion at least), this Chinese wuxia epic is a thrilling spectacle with echoes of classic spaghetti Westerns, as well as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai dramas such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
With Sammo Hung Kam-bo serving as action director, Call of Heroes sees Lau Ching-wan’s righteous sheriff take on the sadistic son of a warlord (Louis Koo Tin-lok); Eddie Peng Yu-yan’s wandering warrior provides unlikely assistance to the distressed townspeople.
For what initially appears to be a straightforward good-versus-evil story, the film throws up some moral quandaries, particularly about the heavy price of pursuing justice, adding unexpected intrigue to its exhilarating fight sequences.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.