Once a Thief (1989)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

The second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema, by Lisa Odham Stokes and Rachel Braaten, surpasses an earlier 2007 edition edited by one of the key Western scholars in Hong Kong cinema, that contained contributions by Jean Lukish, Michel Hoover, and Tyler Stokes (who once worked in China with John Woo). Three years later an expanded and supplementary version appears that will be an essential edition to the library of anyone specializing in Hong Kong Cinema. This cinema emerged from a once independent region now threatened by the iron-fisted Mainland China regime. In view of the fact that “cinematic cleansing” may occur in the future, it is important that a record of the former Colony’s achievements exist so that those interested in a rich, challenging cinema – and they will find little of that in contemporary European and Hollywood productions – have the appropriate research tools so that they can not merely excavate the treasures of the past but also see key connections between pre and post 1949 Mainland China influences. At its best, Hong Kong cinema has been hybrid, both exhibiting a specific Hong Kong/Shanghai/Chinese identity in various productions but also blending various outside influences into its productions whether from Hollywood or the Italian Western, and making it a creative and distinctive entity.

Supervised by Lisa Stokes, who updated her original entries on John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat as well as Terence Chang, and providing a new entry on Roger Lee (1), this new edition contains new contributions by co-editor Braaten, the above-mentioned names, and Albert Valentin. Four contributors have associations with Florida’s Seminole State College, this questions the myth that community college faculty are inferior to their more  privileged university counterparts since the expertise revealed here is unique and indispensable. New entries also appear on Jason Bowers, Flora Law’s Bends (2013), Pauline Chan, Janet Chun, and several others.

(I must confess that Dr. Stokes invited me to take over the project a few years ago but due to being overwhelmed by other issues that have since removed me from active involvement in the fields of Hong Kong and Viet Nam Cinema, I respectfully declined. Also, the huge task of following up the first version intimidated me. So I must begin by congratulating all involved on the magnitude of an achievement I felt obligated to read cover-to-cover, and only finished the last page [614] the previous evening.)

Naturally, the length of the book and detailed entries prevent me form interrogating multiple entries, but I will select a few for praise: those on Chow Yun- Fat, John Woo, Terence Chang, Jimmy Wang Yu, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, Jackie Chang, Roy Cheung, Chang Cheh, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Anthony Wong Chau-sang (who, to his credit has been one of the few celebrities to support the pro-democracy movement and thus placing him under personal risk), Cai Chuseng, Roy, Cheung, the Shaw Brothers, Mona Fong, veteran cross-over actress Lisa Lu, Angela Mao Ying, Kwan Tak-hing, the Wong Fei Hung series, the Young and Dangerous series, Cantonese Opera, Stephen Chiau, Roy Chiao,  Eileen Chang, King Hu, Michelle Yeoh, Li Li-hua, Ng See-yuen, Cheng Pei-pei, King Hu, Wong Kar-wai, Tsui Hark, Tang Shuxuan, Johnnie To, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai, the Beijing Opera influences, comedy, television, and the cross-overs between cinema and Cantopop as exhibited by the late Anita Mui, Andy Lau and many others. The female contribution – whether in acting scriptwriting, direction, martial arts, and musical composition – also receives detailed coverage that would lead readers to compare the differences between past and present Hong Kong cinema and even today’s Hollywood.

For those seeking necessary diversions into past achievements, especially in comparing the delightful Amy Ling Bo 1964 Shaw Brothers version of Mulan, The Lady General Hua Mulan, containing musical numbers and teasing gender references, with the current 2020 Disney disaster. Yet some errors occur and the lack of some important references that may have necessitated a longer time between both editions of this dictionary. Fortunately, in today’s “direct-to-print” editions world, they could be corrected in later versions but it is important to check material in advance before publication. Lau- Kar-leung’s surname is misspelled as “Lan” on. P79. Did Chow Yun-fat actually appear in God of Gamblers 2? (p.162). His voice is heard at the end but it was probably imitated. In the Xioa Sheng entry, Bai Ying is listed as a female actress (p.525). This causes some confusion since the name is generally associated with a male actor who appeared in King Hu films and has his entry on p.27. This needs correction. Kara Hui’s comeback cameo in Peter Chan’s Wuxia (2011) is not listed in a film that pitted fellow veteran Jimmy Wang Yu against Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Titles and names sometimes are in bold type, then in italics resulting in stylistic confusion. Dates of death and departures are often not listed. This may be understandable with veterans who began in the early years of Hong Kong and Mainland cinema but data could easily be accessed on director, producer screenwriter Janet Chun active since 1989 to the present day. Although listed for his early years under Master Yu Jim-yuen’s rigorous Chinese opera school which also produced Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung and others in the “Seven Little Fortunes Group, Yuen-wah’s distinctive villainous performances in The Iceman Cometh (1989) and Sammo Hung’s Dirty Dozen revision Eastern Condors (1987) where he matches his martial arts skills against his former peer group school members sadly remain conspicuously absent from his entry.

Although Nicholas Tse and Daniel Wu receive many references, both of these young stars have now done enough films as to justify separate entries in their own names that will highlight distinctive nuances in their performances.  

These issues should not detract from recognizing the detailed and distinctive work everyone has out into this project. With bibliography listing key books on this subject area as well as a list of articles, some of which need additions, this is both an important work of dedication and an important contribution to exploring and recognizing a very distinct cinematic tradition that has every right to stand in the same rank as other national cinemas.


1. Personal email June 15, 2020.

Tony Williams is an independent critic and a contributing editor to Film International.

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