For a while there, it looked like Chow was ready to unseat John Woo as the king of Hong Kong action. After a decade as a highly sought after actor, he made the career choice to write and direct as well. Starting with the James Bond spoof From Beijing with Love and moving through God of Cookery and King of Comedy, Chow established his funny business chops. But it was Shaolin Soccer, and its fantastic follow-up, Kung Fu Hustle, that turned him into an icon. Since the “failure” of his ET riff CK7 in 2008, he’s been MIA. 2013 promises something new.
Tsui Hark began making defiant films linked to the New Wave of Hong Kong filmmaking. Indeed his first major success, Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind is considered a nihilistic masterpiece. But it was 1984’s Shanghai Blues that finally put him on the map around the world. Since then, he’s become a bit of a mogul, working on multiple projects at once. As a matter of fact, as a producer, he’s had his hand in such noted works as the original A Chinese Ghost Story, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow series, and the Once Upon a Time in China films.
Few on this list made the kind of splash that Woo did. While his career started way back in the ‘60s, it was his ‘80s/‘90s crime efforts A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled that introduced his unique slo-mo style to the action genre. He practically reinvented it right on the spot. Over the years, Woo has succumbed to that dreaded foreign filmmaker disease - going Hollywood - but if recent efforts like Red Cliff are any indication of his artist acumen, he’s still got it.
Kar-Wai got his start way back in 1988, riffing on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets for his crime drama debut, As Tears Go By. Over the years, however, Wong has gone from action (Ashes of Time) to auteur. Efforts like In the Mood for Love, 2046, and My Blueberry Nights emphasize his visual panache and unusual storytelling style, while the international community (including Cannes) have favored him with several awards. He is also a renowned script writer. While not a household name in the West, his creative canon has crossed over, finding devotees among many cinephiles.
Ang Lee stands toe to toe with some of the medium’s greats, one of the few filmmakers to earn two Oscars for his work (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi). But Lee represents more than just mainstream cinema acceptance. As one of the first directors to break through into the hallowed halls of Hollywood, he signaled that there was more to Hong Kong than action films and martial arts. His influence may have been stunted by the onslaught of talent now arriving on our shores, but as a trendsetter and benchmark, no one can better him.