If you've ever sat watching any number of Jackie Chan movies from the late 70s to early 90s, as well as the kinds of action movies and comedies from Hong Kong in the era; a few faces will start to become very familiar. Not only because many of them are part of the JC stunt team but also the fact that so many actors and stunt performers came from the same few opera schools as children, and had to make a living on the screen when demand for traditional entertainment died out. If you check out his biography (which is well worth reading) he talks about some of his 'brothers' from those days such as Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao who both went on to become stars in their own right. Here I'll be taking a look at the latter, the younger of this trio. As the acrobat of the group he often can be found doing hair raising physical feats alongside Sammo (Eastern Condors, Millionaires Express) Jackie (The Young Master) or even both (Project A, Dragons Forever) which are all worth seeing as genre classics in their own right. But for now I'll try and stick to those where he gets to show his stuff and have top billing.
Prodigal Son is the easiest place to start, featuring Mr Vampire star and fellow veteran performer Lam Ching-Ying in the typical master role, and Biao as Leung the typically brash youth that can be seen in many of these period comedies. After finding his skills have been a fraud set up by his father to keep him out of trouble, Leung insists on following a theatre troupe to learn some real kung-fu from a rather unwilling teacher. As with many of these stories they have to include one dark and sinister moment (in this case and others some murders take place) but it rushes onward with the usual comic slapstick and action set pieces that make up much of the running time. The stunts are impressive, particularly a fiery escape sequence and the training montages are fun. Sammo does show up in the third act and his calligraphy scene is probably the biggest laugh, but it's more or less an extended cameo and he stays behind the camera.
You can see Biao as the star in other films of this style like Knockabout and Dreadnaught but this is the big highlight during that turn of the century 'learning the new technique' phase where almost every finale seems to be filmed on one particular coastal road. In this way it's his own Drunken Master or Magnificent Butcher - a great example of this era.
Things get stranger as they move away from those traditional stories, as can be seen in The Iceman Cometh, aka Time Warriors. The latter seems like a better title in what is a Highlander style plot about two warriors from history facing off in the modern day. It has hints of what you also find later in Demolition Man and even a slight feel of the Terminator but doesn't include anything futuristic, instead opting for historical characters trying to find their way in current times. Some elements are familiar though it's pretty unlikely any other type of film would feature a Buddhist relic as a time machine! There are plenty of fish out of water gags and broad humour as ever, though perhaps it's trying to say something when the villain of the piece adapts so quickly to the new world and the good guy is shown confused at the hellish landscape.
In the role of antagonist is recurring evil doer Yuen Wah he shows up in many of these. Another stage buddy, he also kept the "Yuen" namesake of their opera teacher; he does both comedy and creepy with ease. Both get to show off their athletic prowess with swords, guns and hand to hand combat all entering the mix. The early comic scenes in mainland China where the frozen enemies are discovered is pretty awkward, but thankfully brief as things move quickly into the central plot where Maggie Cheung's call girl takes in the lost hero, mistaking him for a migrant from the countryside abusing his talents in her questionable lifestyle. The film looks great with plenty of 80s lighting schemes and some great set pieces including a horse and jeep chase. There are also nice touches that give it more character as 'man out of time' has to adjust and warms to his new employer.
Elsewhere I have to bring up The Champions, a oddball mashup of martial arts stunts and soccer rivalry which doesn't seem to have a big following compared to these others. Sports sequences of this kind had been done in films like Dragon Lord but this seems to be a unique entry to the genre up until Shaolin Soccer would add 21st century CGI to the experience. Here you've got another recurring bad guy actor Dick Wei as a celebrity player who comes to blows with Yuen Biao after an accident and takes him on as part of the grounds staff to teach him a lesson. Later of course they face off on the pitch itself after plenty of training scenes and a plot about illegal match fixing which allows for some fun action.
There's a certain charm to everything here which is helped a great deal by the main lead, and while type casting is almost a part of making these films his energy means these types of roles are always watchable. It's also fun to wait and see who makes an appearance when it's always so easy to spot who will be on the side of good or evil. This isn't always the case but a lot of the time having a certain face type lands these guys a role they will play up every time. Of course as long time stunt performers they always get to show off their abilities, in any type of storyline or setting. The actors often merge with their characters in a way, even if it's less flattering for some!
Now while many of these movies have crazy titles here I have to talk about ZU: Warriors From the Magic Mountain. It's a name up there with The Inspector Wears Skirts and Holy Virgin vs. Evil Dead. Biao plays a swordsman who escapes a war only to get tangled up in a battle between the forces of light and darkness. For me this will always be the one remembered as "the film where Sammo has magic eyebrows" which gives a good idea of the content, and there are a lot of other wacky elements of fantasy and sorcery. He also plays a soldier in the first scene who always reminds me of Super Mario... that's just the type of palette they are working with. There's a giant bearded gatekeeper chained on the edge of an evil realm, a temple frozen in ice and a land where skulls of cult victims litter the ground.
The special effects are not particularly great when you compare it to A Chinese Ghost Story, but they do a reasonable job... up until the finale when become a bit of an over-saturated mess of colour and blue screen backgrounds. I do kind of like the make up which show demonic possession and a scene where a master priest passes on his powers directly into Yuen Biao's body which stretches and contorts during the process. But as a standard swordplay movie it's entertaining enough with plenty of people zooming about on wires to show their magic abilities. The story is a bit muddled, but essentially comes down to a race to prevent a demonic spirit being reborn thanks to the warring nature of mankind. As you'd expect he heroes have to find new skills and meet many strange characters along the way, so that title delivers.
It's always going to be difficult to find every film that these guys have appeared in when they are so prolific and are often working on the screen and during planning and direction, but hopefully this highlights a good selection. Biao makes an appearance in Jet Li's first Once Upon a Time In China as his main student Foon but this is a role which seems to be someone new in every Wong Fei-Hung story. I could even go into the minor roles he has in the Lucky Stars/Winners & Sinners films - a comedy ensemble series too ridiculous even for me.
It's probably worth mentioning Millionaires Express (aka Shanghai Express, aka Noble Express etc, etc) which I brought up as a Biao/Sammo Hung feature but has to be included here just because of the bizarre wild west meets kung fu setting - a movie which includes so many rooftop stunts and eye watering falls that it seems to be a running joke by the end. If you ever need to find an example of veterans of Hong Kong cinema who specialize in leaping around and defying their physical limits, look no further than Jimmy Yuen.