Of the members of the Seven Little Fortunes Peking Opera troupe to become major figures in the Hong Kong film industry in the last 20 years before the colony’s handover to China, Corey Yuen is the least well known. Unlike Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, he stayed mostly behind the camera, though he does have some memorable supporting turns in a few films, most notably in the Yuen Biao vehicle Righting Wrongs and as one of Hung’s Eastern Condors. He’s best known for his directorial work, on some of Jet Li’s best films (the Fong Sai-yuk series), on All for the Winner (the 1990 film that made Stephen Chow a superstar), and on the films that launched Jason Statham and Jean-Clude Van Damme into the action world (The Transporter and No Regret, No Surrender, respectively). With 1985’s Yes, Madam! he launched two careers (Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock) and a whole subgenre of the Hong Kong action cinema (the Girls with Guns cycle).
Made for the relatively small D & B studio owned and operated by the unlikely-named Dickson Poon, Yes, Madam! was produced by Sammo Hung and was Yeoh’s first starring role (she would go on to marry Poon in 1987, followed by a five year break in her acting career until they divorced in 1992). It was also Rothrock’s film debut. Yeoh was a beauty pageant winner (Miss Malaysia, 1983), while Rothrock was a legitimate athlete, a five-time world champion in a variety of martial arts disciplines. She’s one of the only white actors to become a major figure in the Hong Kong cinema, appearing in seven films between 1985 and 1988. Where Yeoh worked hard to give the appearance of competency on screen, Rothrock performs stunts as brutally impressive as any Hong Kong stuntman.
The film is a kind of variation on Chan’s Police Story, also released in 1985 and another key film in the shift of HK action cinema from period epics to contemporary crime dramas. Like the Chan film, it’s an uneasy mix of goofy comedy, extreme violence, breathtaking stuntwork and mildly fascistic vigilantism. A pair of petty thieves (John Shum and Hoi Mang) and their friend, a forger who dresses like Adam Driver and lives in an apartment designed by Buster Keaton (played by no less than Tsui Hark himself) accidentally find themselves in possession of a MacGuffin which a gang of villains will stop at nothing to retrieve. Yeoh is the detective in charge of the case and Rothrock is the Interpol agent assigned to help out.
Where Hung is the most cinematically inventive and generally (though certainly not always) introspective of the trio and Chan is the most invested in his star persona that seems to involve the exorcism of personal demons through masochistic stonework, Corey Yuen simply does not care about most of what we think are the determining factors of “good” cinema. He is a man who puts the viscerality of cinema above any and all more thoughtful concerns. His movies are lowbrow, crude, violent, messy, (usually) poorly plotted and acted, and quite simply among the most entertaining things ever caught on celluloid. Yes, Madam! is one of his “good” movies, but it still retains the anarchic, DGAF joy of his most primal efforts (say, 1982’s Ninja in the Dragon’s Den). This is the kind of movie where the villain is introduced spinning in a swivel chair while laughing maniacally and smoking a pipe. Where the cops hand in their badges and guns before going on an extra-legal rampage. Where Sammo Hung, Richard Ng and David Chiang try to steal chicken from a busty nurse at their nursing home. In other words: pure cinema.
Yes, Madam! plays Sunday, July 5th in Scarecrow Video’s Screening Lounge.