It’s been a while since I wrote about something just for fun that wasn’t dependent on it being released that week. Nostalgia and a recent Hong Kong gangster movie drove me to look back at the TV show that first made Chow Yun-Fat a star back the 1980s.
The Bund was the top-rated TV series in Hong Kong and all over Asia back in 1980. The first series had a 25-episode run, starring Chow Yun-Fat and Ray Liu Leung-Wai as best friends in 1930s Shanghai who become gangsters in love with their boss’ daughter. It was shot on video as all Asian shows were at the time, and, not unlike the telenovelas of South America, was the type of Appointment Television that entire countries stopped everything they were doing to watch when it came on.
I now realise this show is the Rosetta Stone of both Hong Kong Cinema and Chow Yun-Fat’s career. Hong Kong TV series were the most-watched in Asia back in the 1970s and 1980s, and while he had already been a rising star in other shows, The Bund is the one still fondly remembered by everyone who saw it the first time. The theme song, sung by Francis Yip, is considered a Cantopop classic and a karaoke favourite to this day.
It was in The Bund that Chow Yun-Fat first played the type of role that would make him a global movie star: the gangster with a heart of gold who meets a tragic bloody end. He only became a major movie star in 1986 when John Woo cast him as such in A Better Tomorrow, despite starring in mainly comedies between that and his TV contract running ou
If you followed the gangster movies he’d starred in ever since, over 50 of them, you’ll come to realise that they’re all essentially the same role as Hui Man-Keung, the doomed antihero of The Bund. As a result of his gangster roles, Chow Yun-Fat probably shares with Klaus Kinski the world record for having the most movie death scenes any actor has ever played throughout his career. It’s a rare gangster movie when Chow Yun-Fat’s character doesn’t die at the end.
For you young’uns who never experienced him in the movies of John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat’s coolness was a big deal in Asia and then for anyone in the West who fell in love with Hong Kong movies. His gangster with a heart of gold became the model of manhood for a lot of Asian boys. They may have enjoyed Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but Chow Yun-Fat was the action hero they felt could be them: honourable but trapped by circumstance and ultimately doomed, but always cool with a cigarette and a gun in each hand. The Bund had two more seasons without him, featuring his co-star Ray Liu as Hui Man-Keung’s best friend Ti Lik, and who continued to have a busy TV career but never became a movie star like he did.
The literal translation for The Bund’s Chinese title is really Shanghai Beach, and the action takes place around Shanghai’s waterfront. The appeal being that Shanghai was always considered the most modern, cosmopolitan city in China. Hong Kong pop culture has been insanely meta before the term became commonplace in the West, and it seems Shanghai Beach is the seed of Hong Kong pulp from which new flowers never cease to spring.
It is the Point Zero for modern Hong Kong gangster movies made after 1980. Western film critics and bloggers who write about Hong Kong gangster movies but never bring up Shanghai Beach are missing a major piece in their understanding of Hong Kong movie history. You can’t really blame them for not knowing about it, since The Bund was never subtitled in English, since they never planned to sell it to Western audiences. The show was only finally released on DVD in Hong Kong in 2009 – without English subtitles – and just as quickly went out of print. Even so, between 1980 and now, key scenes from The Bund continue to be referenced, remade in other Hong Kong gangster movies, even taken the piss out of in various comedies and sketch shows.
And the saga of the doomed Hui Man-Keung and his best friend Ting Lik refuses to go away. The original show was so popular that it was remade into a 40-episode Hong Kong series in 1996 called Once Upon a Time in Shanghai with a new cast. Tsui Hark even produced a slick movie remake called Shanghai Grand in 1996 with thinly-veiled subtexts alluding to Hong Kong’s impending handover to Mainland China, starring Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung as Ti Lik and Hui Man-Keung.
And it doesn’t end there. 2007 saw a lavish, big-budget Mainland Chinese TV remake called Shanghai Bund, in which Mainland actor Huang Xiaoming played Hui Man-Keung with an air of Alain Delon-esque cool, similar to Chow Yun-Fat’s, and made himself a star.
This series has been released on DVD, but like The Bund, has never been subtitled in English. Scenes and even entire episodes of the show have been posted on Youtube by fans in ways that are probably utter copyright violations, but the producers have not bothered to have them taken down. Like The Bund, it’s also out of print, but bootleg boxsets abound.
It’s as if Hui Man-Keung is the quintessential Chinese existential antihero of our times. Every decade sees him back in another version of the Shanghai Beach story, with the thematic and political obsessions and anxieties of Hong Kong and now Chinese culture. To track the progression of each version is also to see the progression of film-making in Hong Kong and Chinese Cinema, the move towards better production values, editing and camerawork. The archetypes remain constant: Hui Man-Keung as the existential bad boy girls fall in love with and Ting Lik as the dependable, earnest guy they settle for, always overshadowed by his more roguish best friend). You can track the different styles of screenwriting with each decade, details of the characters’ histories and where the plot goes might differ, but the story always following the rules of melodrama and morality tale: the gangster is always doomed. Hui Man-Keung is always going to die after a (short) lifetime of choices he was forced to make.
And now we come full circle with the late 2012 release of The Last Tycoon, a new big budget Hong Kong movie remake of the story starring both Chow Yun-Fat as a Hui Man-Keung manqué – renamed possibly because of rights issues – and Huang Xiaoming as his younger version. It even starts martial arts star and choreographer Sammo Hung as his best friend, a Ting Lik manqué. Produced by Andrew Lau, who directed Infernal Affairs, and helmed by now slightly-subdued schlockmeister Wing Jing, who had directed Chow Yun-Fat in the late 1980s hit God of Gamblers (which established yet another antiheroic archetype, the heroic and cunning gambler-gangster), this new movie is as meta and slick as you’re going to get. The audience will see this with fond memories of the original The Bund, God of Gamblers and all the other Chow Yun-Fat movies they saw in the 80s and 90s as if in a library of Hong Kong Gangster Movie History. It is a typically postmodern Hong Kong movie, albeit shot in China, in active reference and dialogue with just about every other Hong Kong gangster movie of its type made since 1980. As a sop to current trends in Mainland China, the plot now involves the encroaching Japanese invasion that would lead to World War II, reflecting China’s present tensions with Japan and a nationalist message.
I feel like all this seems to prove one thing: Hong Kong Cinema always comes back to Chow Yun-Fat.
I don’t have a problem with that.
It’s a Shanghai of the Mind at firstname.lastname@example.org
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