Which I think is 1982. To understand why is to also understand why Corey Yuen (a.k.a. Yuen Kwai) had moved to Seattle in 1983 (as mentioned in an interview for the Qigong magazine) so that he could kick-start a career in the American film industry (this person’s review pretty much uncovers his agenda). In 1982, everyone was firing on all cylinders to the extent that it was hard to imagine how martial arts cinema could be improved upon.
There are four categories of the major releases that were coming out in 1982. The first one is pinnacle, the second is superior, the third is exhaustive and the fourth is jaded. The third category refers to Corey’s taxing work. Even the less-esteemed fourth category has a better-than-usual quality than what came before in the realm of Chinese martial arts cinema. Before you get confused, the below still is from The Dead and the Deadly whereas the above photo is from The Miracle Fighters – which was responsible for the idea of a palm with an eye on it that was seen in The Gate (this 1987 film influenced the gimmick in Pan’s Labyrinth).
As for the first-rate category, The Shaolin Temple (a Mainland China production) was like what if David Lean made a martial arts film in China. The unusual locations, budget and athleticism surpassed the majority of what could be found in any Hong Kong martial arts movie. It certainly made for a better sight than the interior sets which passed for exterior locales in many of the Shaw Brothers movies (whose productions were like watching theater). When watching the film, Corey had no idea that Jet Li would be the person who he would work more than anyone else.
As for the second-tier category, The Miracle Fighters proved that Yuen Woo-Ping was the best at Taoist Kung Fu (i.e. Kung Fu mixed with Chinese magic). A long time ago, he was going to direct a Disney remake of Snow White except it was to be about seven Shaolin monks instead of dwarves. If it had some of the magic that Ping’s earlier movie had then it would have gone from greenlit to hit.
Also notable was an attempt at a Western-style film (co-starring Chow Yun-Fat) which Ronny Yu directed – The Postman Fights Back. It was the darkest martial arts film of that year. The idea for ninjas skating on ice was re-envisioned as ninjas rollerblading in Lethal Ninja (a South-African ’90s movie). The fight scenes were choreographed and directed by one of Ping’s brothers – Yuen Cheung-Yan.
This guy also worked on a 1982 gambling comedy titled Winner Takes All (this proved that Wong Jing was just as much of a genius when conceiving concepts for fights). These two movies were the most original, story-wise, of the H.K. movies. Ironically, they were less profitable.
As for the third category, Corey poured a lot of energy into Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (a directorial début which surpasses the débuts of other choreographers) and Dragon Lord (assisting Jackie Chan in the first major martial arts sports movie). It’s easy to get the impression that the first movie was where Corey reached the apex of his imagination within the confines of a period martial arts movie. I mean this as a compliment instead of an insult when I say that you get the feeling that he ran out of ideas by the time that the film comes to an end.
He must have been disappointed when The Miracles Fighters turned out to be more successful than his ninja movie. In a way, this makes sense. Ping’s movie boggles the mind with its unusual imagery. Even the most jaded of Chinese audiences found things which they hadn’t seen before. From a Western point of view, Corey’s ninja movie was the most accessible because of the theme of Chinese styles versus Japanese arts. The post-pagoda finale turns the movie on its end but in a way which ties in with something that happened in the first act.
Dragon Lord, on the other hand, hinted at a realm of possibilities that were more likely to be concocted within the culturally relevant confines of sports-crazy America. In some ways, it’s his best film. He reinvented the Kung Fu genre in an incredibly epic way. It contains his most impressive stuntwork (the movie broke the Guinness world record for the most number of takes).
My favourite scene is the one where he’s on a roof and has to avoid the spears which come from underneath. Dragon Lord was fleeced of a mainstream theatrical release in America, since distributors often show a partialness to their other distributed darlings. Had it been released in a cut and dubbed format, Jackie would’ve been a bigger star much earlier.
I don’t usually approve of U.S. distributors heavily cutting up H.K. movies, but Dragon Lord really needed to be much shorter to be a huge hit on either side of the Atlantic. I don’t mind broad comedy if it’s done well but the movie had too much humour that wasn’t relevant to the plot. Adding to Corey’s overall disappointment was the gradual disillusionment when Dragon Lord grossed less money than Aces Go Places.
The latter became the highest-grossing H.K. movie for being a more modern take on an action comedy. It’s basically a comedic version of 007 which surpasses the overly broad Austin Powers franchise. Jackie was the one who ended up being the most humiliated because the trailer for Dragon Lord implied that it would break the H.K. box office record.
The implication was in the introduction: Jackie’s The Young Master broke the record in 1980 before Security Unlimited did so in 1981. You have to give credit to Jackie for making a movie that narratively is similar to The Fog in that you have two separate storylines that end up becoming related, although John Carpenter’s movie was different because the two characters never got to meet each other.
Corey was drained after working on Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (a Tsui Hark film). Despite being released in 1983, he spent a good deal of 1982 working on it. He was convinced that the film had the best wire-work until January in 1983. He saw the directorial début of Tony Ching – Duel to the Death. Granted, Tony’s movie was 10 million dollars shorter than the box office take of Tsui’s movie but it has more rewatch value as a martial arts movie whereas Tsui’s movie was more of a fantasy film.
As for the fourth-grade category of 1982’s Chinese martial arts movies, these movies were updated versions of familiar stories but with enough narrative twists, martial surprises and production values to be seen as the crème de la crème. Legendary Weapons of China, Legend of a Fighter along with The Dead and The Deadly surmounted Kwai’s mind with the feeling that the ceiling had been reached.
Now you can see why he moved to Seattle in 1983. He came to the conclusion that the sky was the limit in America because it’s more multi-cultural. He would still work in H.K. but he had his mind set on making it big in Hollywood. Years later, Jet would make the same mistake by thinking that it could be accomplished with a H.K. production company. Both men had only gained mainstream U.S. acceptance when they reunited to work on Lethal Weapon 4.