Posted by: asianfilmreviews | December 31, 2009

Project A (1983)

Project AProject A – A 計劃

Director: Jackie Chan

Cast: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung (洪金寶), Yuen Biao (元彪), Mars (火星), Lee Hoi San, Kwan Hoi-San, Dick Wei, Isabella Wong

After the disaster that was Sophie’s Revenge, let’s move on to a good film, a true classic of Hong Kong cinema – Jackie Chan’s Project A. Though not his first job as director, it was the film that first demonstrated his matured sense of action filmmaking and his ability to provide a competent story with amazing action scenes that are funny, incomparable, yet a part of the story – not just a distraction, as seen so often in lesser action films. Make no mistake, this is required viewing not just for Hong Kong cinema fans, but lovers of action cinema. The creativity is light years beyond what is done today and the sense of fun and adventure is undeniable.

Project A is set in the early 20th Century when Hong Kong, the jewel of the East, the economic and cultural hub of Asia, is a colony of the British Empire. Not all is well, however, as the city is threatened by vicious pirates led by evil bastard San-po (Dick Wei). Ships in and around the harbor are systematically attacked, their cargo stolen, and their passengers kidnapped and held in the pirates’ secret base for a fat ransom. When the film begins, Dragon Ma (Jackie Chan) and his fellow naval police officers are preparing a full-scale assault to find the pirates’ headquarters and put an end to their marauding. But when their ships are sabotaged before they set sail, the naval police are disbanded and assimilated into the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, for whom they have a deep seated hatred due to their more bureaucratic nature. Complicating their already tenuous relationship is the appearance of Captain Hong (Yuen Biao), with whom Dragon brawls at the beginning of the film and who now leads the naval officers’ new training routine. After learning that certain members of the police force are working with individuals close to the pirates to sell them weapons and after a high-ranking military officer and other British socialites are kidnapped when another ship is attacked, Dragon, Hong, and Fei (Sammo Hung, playing a mercenary type in-between the police and criminals) lead a joint mission to stop the pirates, free the hostages, and make it back to Hong Kong in time for Project A 2 (to be reviewed later).

Another film that I screened for my Asian Cinema class, Project A is a remarkable achievement in action filmmaking and one of Jackie Chan’s finest efforts. Let’s begin with the remarkable trio of Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung – three of the Seven Little Fortunes (martial arts stars who emerged from Yu Jim Yuen’s Peking Opera School) and popular Hong Kong fixtures for 30 years now (though Yuen Biao is not seen as much). When you watch a film with these three, such as Wheels on Meals (快餐車) or Dragons Forever (飛龍猛將), you get a tangible sense of the trust they have in one another. To this day, the action scenes they have done remain some of the best and most complex ever committed to film, and their success is due in large part to their history together and their combined knowledge of action filmmaking. In short, these guys know how to choreograph, shoot, and edit action for maximum effect. Take a look at these short scenes for examples:

From these clips, you can see why these three were the premiere Hong Kong action stars in the 1980s. The action is clear, the moves, whether they are punches or kicks, are sold by the performances, and they have a real sense of fluidity that doesn’t dilute their impact. And it’s not just the performances of Chan, Hung, and Yuen that sell the film’s remarkable action, but the contributions by the entire stunt team, including familiar faces like that of Mars (trust me, once you see his face, you realize that he is the most reconizable supporting player in Hong Kong cinema). So in the end, what you have throughout the film is the quick, effective, staccato rhythm that Hollywood films are simply unable to duplicate to this day (unless producers hire someone like Cory Yuen, but then they have to deal with charismatically-bankrupt actors like Jason Statham) because the best in Hong Kong edit for clarity and continuity, whereas Hollywood edits for disorientation. This disorientation is used with the pretense that discontinuity and a lack of clarity create impact, as though we are part of the action (as in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, not to mention modern musicals such as Chicago and Nine). I don’t know about other people, but when I watch classic Hong Kong films like this one, I get a greater sense of physical exertion as a result of real action than I do when I watch anything by Paul Greengrass.

Despite the bloated complaints of naysayers, Jackie Chan demonstrated with Project A that the Hong Kong film industry could make room for a film that focused on characters and story amidst the action. And you’ve gotta admire the bravado that Chan injects into his character and his belief that Hong Kong is a very self-sufficient territory (hence the swimming British ex-hostages in the film’s final shot). Granted, the overall story is a very conventional yarn told with very little emotionality (although there is emotion in the action) and no real sense of danger, but the film as a whole is complete and consistent in addition to being a hell of a lot of fun to watch — which is why it made me want to weep like a little baby when I finally saw the trailers for both The Karate Kid and The Spy Next Door… Watch, and share my pain!

When Jackie Chan is reduced to an onscreen babysitter, you know we are truly witnessing the end of an era. Oh well, at least the Oldboy remake got canned!


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