During the early 1980’s, martial arts films began to wane away from its period settings and settle down into the modern day world. Classic kung fu kickers like Hwang Jang-Lee and Casanova Wong continued to make films and settle pretty well. Other kickers like Tan Tao-Liang and Sun Chien would somewhat retire and comeback to the modern day era but not hold up the success they achieved during their heydays.
Nevertheless, a new generation of superkickers began to emerge in the midst of the New Wave genre. A select few got their starts in classic kung fu films but showed more prominence during this era while there are newcomers, who connected with the right mentors, and showcased their accurate kicking skills to good use.
Getting his start as a stuntman and bit-part actor in classic kung fu films, Yuen Biao began to showcase some of his best kicking ability in his lead role debut, KNOCKABOUT (1979), a classic kung fu film that co-starred and was directed by Yuen’s former schoolmate, Sammo Hung.
Yuen Biao was born Hsia Ling-Jun on July 7, 1957 in Taiwan. Emigrating to Hong Kong, Hsia was enrolled in the famous Peking Opera school run by Sifu Yu Jim-Yuen. Hsia proved to be a natural when another one of the school’s students, Yuen Lau (later to be known as Jackie Chan), showed him how to execute a somersault. The rest, as they say, is history.
The wiry natural would pull off some frenetic kicking in TWINKLE TWINKLE LUCKY STARS (1985). In a warehouse fight against veteran Philip Ko, Yuen flips off a crate, follows it with a tornado kick and ends it with a picture perfect side kick connecting to Ko’s face. Following it up with ABOVE THE LAW (1986), Yuen’s kicking and acrobatics came to full effect as he has memorable on-screen brawls with Americans Cynthia Rothrock and Peter Cunningham, while in the climatic battle against Melvin Wong, Yuen pulls off a jaw-dropping tornado kick that shows how much Yuen twists his body to execute it.
Yuen had memorable on-screen teamups with his two elder classmates, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Their teamups in PROJECT A (1983), WHEELS ON MEALS (1984), the LUCKY STARS series (1983-85), and DRAGONS FOREVER (1987) all were hits at the Hong Kong box office. Despite the films’ success, Yuen somehow felt overshadowed by his elder brothers and broke out on his own in the late 1980’s.
When Yuen’s career hit a standstill in the mid-1990’s, he relegated to making two films in the Philippines, TOUGH BEAUTY AND THE SLOPPY SLOP (1995) and THE HUNTED HUNTER (1997). Yuen would go on to settle in Canada with wife DiDi Phang and their children. In 2002, Yuen made a comeback in the Hong Kong-Japanese co-production NO PROBLEM 2, starring Japanese comedian Takashi Okamura. Since then, Yuen splits his time between Canada and Hong Kong, continuing in films such as ENTER THE PHOENIX (2004) and ROBIN-B-HOOD (2006).
Another superkicker who rose to prominence in the New Wave era yet got his start in classic kung fu films in Taiwanese-born Dick Wei. Wei studied tae kwon do at a young age and competed in tournaments in Taiwan. He would go on to enlist in the Taiwanese Army, where he was near the rank of Captain and even taught tae kwon do to his fellow soldiers. After his tour of duty, Wei opened up his own dojang in Taipei.
In 1977, he was discovered by legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, and after appearing in a Taiwanese kung fu film ASSIGNMENT, Dick left for Hong Kong where he starred as a member of the Green Dragon gang in CHINATOWN KID. In his short film time, Wei got to display his impressive kicking skills in a training scene. Wei would perhaps be best known in this era for his role of the Posion Clan Master in THE FIVE VENOMS. It is Wei who tells Chiang Sheng about the legendary Venoms before succumbing to a fatal illness.
After appearing in more films for Chang Cheh, Wei left the Shaw Brothers and headed for their top rival, Golden Harvest. Wei became a member of the Hung Ga Ban, the stunt team led by one of Golden Harvest’s most prolific directors and actors, Sammo Hung. He made his Golden Harvest debut as Mr. Suen in THE PRODIGAL SON (1981), yet made a huge impact when he was cast as the lead villain in Jackie Chan’s PROJECT A (1983).
After Grandmaster Hwang In-Shik left the film industry in 1983, Dick Wei was one of Chan’s top on-screen rivals. Under the direction of Sammo Hung, Wei was able to unleash some impressive kicking skills against Chan in films like MY LUCKY STARS (1985), HEART OF DRAGON (1985), TWINKLE TWINKLE LUCKY STARS (1986), and DRAGONS FOREVER (1987). However, shortly after leaving Sammo Hung’s stunt team, Wei relegated to more lesser fare in villainous roles, with the exception of a lethal henchman role in PROJECT S (1993), the spin-off of Jackie Chan’s POLICE STORY III: SUPER COP (1992). Wei had a short yet sweet fight against Fan Siu-Wong in the film. Returning to Taiwan in the late 1990’s, Wei made his final film in 2001, THE DIED BODY.
While Yuen and Wei got their starts in classic kung fu films, a new generation of superkickers were about to emerge and one of its pioneers was a young man who has something in common with legendary folk hero Fong Sai-Yuk. He trained in the martial arts from his mother. His name is Donnie Yen.
Donnie Yen was born on July 27, 1963 in Canton, China. His father, Klyster Yen, is an editor for a Chinese newspaper, Sing Tao. His mother, Bow Sim Mark, is a respected wushu and tai chi master. At the age of 11, Yen and his family relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where Madame Bow opened up a martial arts school and Donnie, who began his training at the age of four, continued to train under his mother at her school. It was here where Donnie met two fellows who would become two of most trusted confidants in the film industry: John Salvitti and Michael Woods, names who would be synonomous with the Hong Kong film industry as villain actors.
In 1983, while on a trip to Beijing, China to study contemporary wushu, Yen was discovered by Yuen Woo-Ping, the man behind Jackie Chan’s first two successful films, SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER (both 1978). Yuen was looking for a new face to take the lead in his film DRUNKEN TAI CHI. Yen never intended to become a martial arts film star, but got his first role at the age of 19. The film was a modest hit, despite the fact it was made at the end of the first cycle of period kung fu films. The two collaborated on a modern day breakdancing/kickboxing film, MISMATCHED COUPLES (1985), that flopped when it was first released, but hailed today as one of Yen’s most underrated films.
Yen broke through in 1988 with TIGER CAGE, the first installment of a modern-day action trilogy directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Yen, who had a supporting role in the film, has an exhilirating fight scene against Michael Woods and Stephen Berwick before getting killed off by the film’s villain, Simon Yam. Yen would play another character in TIGER CAGE 2 (1990), where he pulled off one of his most impressive kicking performances to date when he uses his legs to take on Michael Woods, who has Yen’s hands chained together.
Yen continued to work in Hong Kong and has worked alongside some of Hong Kong cinema’s best talents, from taking on Jet Li in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II (1990) to teaming up with Michelle Yeoh in WING CHUN (1994) to name a few. Yen would also be active in television, starring as legendary folk hero Hung Hei-Kwoon in THE KUNG FU MASTER and as Chen Zhen, the role made famous by Bruce Lee, in the television series version of FIST OF FURY for Asia Television Limited.
In 1996, Yen formed his own production company, Bullet Films. Yen would star, produce, write, and direct LEGEND OF THE WOLF (1996), a tale about an ex-assassin who finds his true love and must deal with his past the only way he knows how. A blistering fight pitting Yen against a legion of bandits becomes the highlight of the film as Yen unleashes his super kicking skills to a tee as well as wielding a hatchet against the bandits. Yen would follow it up with two more films under the Bullet banner, BALLISTIC KISS (1998) and SHANGHAI AFFAIRS (1998).
In late 1999, Hollywood came calling as Yen geared up to make his Hollywood debut. Yen would play Jin Ke, a Chinese Immortal in HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME (2000), opposite Adrian Paul. In the film, Yen only has one fight scene, where he takes on Paul’s Duncan MacLeod in a weapons duel, followed by brief hand-to-hand combat where Yen does very minimal kicking. The fight scene, compared to the rest of the film’s action, was the best in the film as Yen choreographed that particular fight sequence.
Yen would work between Hong Kong and Hollywood. Some of his work in Hollywood includes BLADE II (2002), where he co-starred as a vampire and served as the martial arts choreographer opposite Wesley Snipes and SHANGHAI KNIGHTS (2003), where he fought Hong Kong legend Jackie Chan.
2005 proved to be the year of the Yen. Growing tired of the overused wirework that had plagued Hong Kong cinema, Yen decided to go back to basics and minimize wirework and add the element of mixed martial arts in his fight choreography. S.P.L. (2005) was the first film to employ Yen’s new style of fight choreography. Yen took on the likes of the returning Wu Jing and then the legendary Sammo Hung with his new style. The new choreography earned Yen the Award for Best Fight Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2006. Yen continues success to this day as he plays Ip Man, the real life wing chun teacher of Bruce Lee, in a biopic directed by recent collaborator Wilson Yip.
Another superkicker who made quite an impact during the New Wave era is a Taiwanese-born martial artist named Chou Hsiao-Long. Perhaps you know him as Ngai Sing, or you may know him today as Collin Chou as he has taken on Asia and Hollywood and shows no sign of slowing down.
Born the eighth of twelve siblings on August 11, 1967, Collin Chou trained in various styles of martial arts from four different masters in primarily animal styles such as mantis and tiger claw. At the age of twelve, while studying tae kwon do, Chou got his start as a stuntman in Taiwanese martial arts films, usually doubling the female actors due to his size and height at the time. However, as he grew older, Chou continued to work as a stuntman until he was discovered in 1987.
Chou made his lead role debut in the Taiwanese film PROMISING YOUNG BOY, a film about a young tae kwon do fighter. Chou’s nemesis in the film was another Taiwanese tae kwon do expert and movie star, Alexander Lo. The film was produced by Wu Ma and Sammo Hung. Chou would then take the next two years and enlist in the Taiwanese Army. After serving his tour of duty, he met up with Sammo Hung again in Hong Kong. This time, Chou would become a member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team, the Hung Ga Ban. It was here where Chou began to use the stage name of Ngai Sing.
During the 1990’s, Chou appeared in many films, showcasing his impressive kicking skills. Some of his best kicking can be seen in LICENSE TO STEAL (1990), where he has a brief fight against Yuen Biao and a nicely shot fight against fellow superkicker Tsui Jing-Yat; THE BODYGUARD FROM BEIJING (1994), where he takes on Jet Li in the final reel; and THE RED WOLF (1995), where he faces off against Kenny Ho.
In 1997, Chou announced that he was no longer using the stage name of “Ngai Sing” and was reverting back to his birth name of Chou Hsiao-Lung and using the English name of “Collin Chou”. That same year, he married model/actress Wanda Yung and continued to work in Hong Kong films from THE DEATH GAMES (1999) to NO PROBLEM 2 (2002).
In 2003, Hollywood got their first taste of Chou when Jet Li turned down the role of Seraph in the two back-to-back sequels to THE MATRIX, THE MATRIX RELOADED and THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (both 2003). Chou took the role and with his experience in Hong Kong, was able to not only handle the fight scenes well but showcase his acting skills as well. Today, Chou splits his time between Hollywood and Asia, recently appearing in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (2008) as the lead villain opposite Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
During the new wave, two superkickers emerged who got their starts not by training in Opera schools or learning for the passion of the art. These two got their starts in the world of professional kickboxing. These two proved to be true sportsmen in the ring before becoming two of the most feared kickers of the New Wave Era. They are none other than Billy Chau and Ken Low.
Billy Chau, or Billy Chow (as most film fans know him by), was the Hong Kong Muay Thai Champion from 1981 to 1984 as well as the World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight Champion in 1983 while his fellow kickboxing counterpart Ken Lo began training in Muay Thai kickboxing at the age of fifteen after his family fled the battlegrounds of Cambodia and headed to Thailand. After moving to Hong Kong, Ken became a champion in the ring, but only competed in seven matches before retiring.
Both men got their starts in film from two of the Hong Kong legends. Chau was discovered by Sammo Hung and got his start as a member of the Hung Ga Ban, Sammo’s stunt team. After appearing in three lesser known films, Chow got his first taste with Sammo in EASTERN CONDORS (1987), where he played Yuen Wah’s number one henchman who uses Muay Thai to face off against Yuen Biao and Sammo. Chow would give Sammo one of his best on-screen duels in PEDICAB DRIVER (1989) and even got to face Jackie Chan in MIRACLES (1989) as the lead fighter of a rope factory.
After retiring from kickboxing, Ken Low was working as a doorman at a local club when he met Jackie Chan. Chan was impressed by Ken’s kickboxing skills and offered him a spot on his stunt team, the Sing Ga Ban, or Jackie Chan Stuntman Association. Ken took the spot and made his debut in NAUGHTY BOYS (1986), which Chan produced. Ken appeared in many of Chan’s films in small roles but it was 1994’s DRUNKEN MASTER II that put Low on the map as his final fight against Chan showcased Ken’s impressive kicking skills to the max.
What many Hong Kong film fans will know is that Chau and Low put their kickboxing skills to use in the 1991 film KICKBOXER’S TEARS, starring Moon Lee. The opening fight of the film is a kickboxing match between both Chau and Low. From the looks of things, it looks as if both fighters’ put their real-life skills into the heart of the match. Low’s character ends up killed by Chau, and as a result, Moon Lee seeks revenge.
While Ken Low continues to appear in many films today, Billy Chau has decided to take a break from films and concentrate on working as a kickboxing coach. However, Chau does make the occasional film appearance. Low has appeared recently in Steven Seagal’s INTO THE SUN (2005), where he speaks English for the first time as well as FATAL MOVE (2008). Chau runs Billy’s Gym in Hong Kong and Canada. He had trained UFC Champion Michael McDonald as well as the cast of the film STAR RUNNER (2003), including Vanness Wu, Andy On, and Shaun Tam.
In 1992, a young Korean fighter emerged after starring in some films in his home country. Discovered by Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-Leung, this young martial artist made a huge impact in an otherwise obscure film. The film is OPERATION SCORPIO and the fighter in mind is Kim Won-Jin.
Kim began training in his country’s national martial art of tae kwon do at the age of eight. He would study wushu and other Chinese martial arts while acheiving his 5th-degree black belt in tae kwon do. He would use everything he learned to create his own form of screen fighting. Beginning as a stuntman in Korea, Kim would work there for ten years before starring as the lead role in three films. This was all before he made an impact on Hong Kong in OPERATION SCORPIO.
In the 1992 Hong Kong film, Kim plays Sonny, the son of local pimp Mr. Wang, played by Ku Feng. His opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission as Kim uses minimal wirework and shows off some incredible flexibility when it comes to his legs. He even poses as a scorpion, hence the name of the film and its alternate title THE SCORPION KING (not to be confused with the 2002 Hollywood action film). Despite Kim’s presence, the film didn’t do extremely well at the box office. Kim would go on to play villains in two more Hong Kong films, WOMEN ON THE RUN and HERO BEYOND THE BOUNDARY OF TIME before returning to Korea to take a well needed break.
In 2000, Kim returned to Hong Kong when he appeared as the “waiter assassin” in CHINA STRIKE FORCE. Kim still showcased his impressive kicking skills against lead star Aaron Kwok in only one fight scene before getting killed off by none other than American rap star/actor Coolio. Kim would go on to work between Korea and Hong Kong, working as an action choreographer in Korea in films like MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER and ROMANTIC KILLERS, and taking on Yuen Biao in NO PROBLEM 2 in 2002. While Kim works mainly as an action choreographer today in Korea, he is perhaps best known for his role in OPERATION SCORPIO.
These are the top superkickers in the New Wave era as they showcased their powerful leg techniques in front of the screens. Whereas Hwang Jang-Lee and Tan Tao-Liang led the classic kung fu era in superkicking, these men are the tops when it comes to kicking in the New Wave era of Hong Kong cinema.