A pivotal figure in the evolution of Hong Kong cinema, action virtuoso Tsui Hark was one of the most popular and influential filmmakers ever to emerge from the Pacific Rim motion-picture community. Famed for his work's rapid-fire pacing, gymnastic camerawork, and visceral intensity, Hark also won acclaim for his rapier wit and impressive stylistic range, moving easily from the martial arts to gangster dramas to even romance. In addition to reviving the moribund swordfighting and kung-fu genres in the early '90s, he was also instrumental in bringing the special effects wizardry of Western filmmaking to the East, eventually following the lead of longtime friend and associate John Woo to Hollywood.
Born Xu Wen Guang in Vietnam in 1951, Hark made his first 8 mm amateur film at the age of 13. After relocating to Hong Kong in 1966, he later attended the University of Texas, graduating in 1969. The following year he directed a documentary, From Spikes to Spindles. After relocating to New York City in 1975, Hark accepted an editorial position at a Chinatown newspaper, later helping develop a community-theater group while working on several cable television projects aimed at Asian audiences. In 1977, Hark returned to Hong Kong, beginning work as a television producer for TVB. Two years later, he made his directorial debut with The Butterfly Killers, followed in 1980 by the back-to-back efforts Dangerous Encounter -- First Kind and Hell Has No Door. After completing 1981's award-winning All the Wrong Clues, the first in a string of box-office smashes, Hark mounted his most ambitious project yet with the 1983 sword-and-sorcery epic Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, a visual effects extravaganza employing technicians previously involved with the creation of Star Wars and Tron.
Remaining a remarkably prolific talent, Hark returned in 1984 with a pair of new features, Aces Go Places 3 and Shanghai Blues. After 1985's Working Class, he turned to his acknowledged masterpiece, 1986's Peking Opera Blues; a frenetic martial arts farce set in 1913, the picture was one of the first Hong Kong productions to receive global interest, heralding a new era in Eastern filmmaking. That same year, Hark produced John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, a landmark effort which switched the focus of the industry from chop-socky adventure to hardboiled crime action. Hark spent the next two years working almost solely as a producer, supervising films ranging from the superb A Chinese Ghost Story to I Love Maria to The Big Heat. Only in 1989 did he return behind the camera to direct A Better Tomorrow 3.
While maintaining his busy production schedule, in 1990 Hark co-directed Swordsman with filmmakers including King Hu, Ann Hui, and Ching Siu Tung. The solo effort Once Upon a Time in China, the first in a series of films about the character Wong Fei Huong -- an herbalist healer and martial arts master -- followed a year later, making mainland actor Jet Li a massive star. After following with parts two and three in the Once Upon a Time series, Hark adapted the Chinese fable The Green Snake in 1993. Between 1994 and 1996, he directed a staggering six films -- Once Upon a Time in China 5, The Lovers, A Chinese Feast, Love in a Time of Twilight, Tri-Star, and The Blade, respectively -- before traveling to Hollywood in 1996 to film Double Team with Jean-Claude Van Damme and NBA star Dennis Rodman. Teaming again with Van Damme two years later for the wildly unsuccessful Knock Off, it soon became obvious that the spark that Hark displayed in his imaginative Hong Kong productions simply didn't translate well to American celluloid. Back on his native soil and making something of a comeback in 2001 with his spastically kinetic action thriller Time and Tide, Hark took the conventions of the Hong Kong thriller that he had defined alongside John Woo in A Better Tomorrow and turned them on their head, retaining some of the old magic and resulting in one of his more entertainingly original chaotic offerings in some time. Next up Hark would delve into fantasy with the effects-heavy sequel to his 1983 hit Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Zu Warriors (2002).