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Is SPL Donnie Yen’s answer to Ong Bak?

SPL's highlight is Sammo Hung vs Donnie Yen

Editor Note: This is not a review of SPL (2005), but rather an article about where Hong Kong Cinema is, and where it’s going. For a review of SPL, please visit

An argument made by many Hong Kong action cinema aficionados is that the past 10 years of Hong Kong cinema (including those of Japan, Korea and Taiwan origin) have yet to exceed those produced during the profilic period between 1985 and 1997 era.

With actors such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li moving to the States, and directors such as John Woo and Ringo Lam trying their luck with “sober” action movies in Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema has had it hard trying to reinvigorate the action scene.

Hong Kong has moved from all-out action to a much more dramatic tone.
Films, like the brilliant Internal Affairs (due for a hollywood remake starring Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio) and the “Crouching Tiger”-style of films showcase Hong Kong’s transition from action to drama.

Whilst the highly visual “Hero” and the romantic “House of Flying Daggers” won many plaudits in the West, many still felt that action movies still haven’t moved on from the days of the John Woo’s and Ringo Lam’s of this world.

Until now.

Tony Jaa’s bone-crunching hit “Ong Bak” has awoken Hong Kong film-makers (especially Yen) and made them to started to take their martial art action movies much more seriousily.

Whilst the last ten odd years has seen action movies turn into “frivolous pop star vehicles” and romantic parodies; Ong Bak may have made film-makers wake up to the possibilities of combining “Internal Affairs” drama style with the Jaa-like action.

So along come Donnie Yen with his 2005 superhit SPL. SPL hasn’t hit the UK shores and has yet to receive distribution in the states, but the movie was one of the most talked-about films of 2005 and the hard hitting police actioner marked a return to the glory days of Hong Kong film.

Long before its release, SPL was being likened to Hong Kong’s answer to Jaa’s Ong Bak. But this comparison isn’t entirely appropriate. Sure, both films feature body-mangling martial arts action to wow their audience. But Yen’s fight work isn’t defused by show-stopping stunt work or propped up by the abilities of only a single actor. Rather, the film’s drama combined with superb fight sequences between Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen (including a brilliant knife vs baton fight) has made it a hit all around Asia.

Although having said that, Donnie Yen wasn’t impressed with Ong Bak, although it may have stirred Yen to start pushing himself forward as the next legitimate action hero seeing as Jet Li may or may not retire and Chan only with a few years left in him before he himself retires.

Yen’s argument over Bak’s success was, as he puts it;

“Donnie Yen: I think the film is a success due to several reasons, mainly because it has been way too long since movies of such ilk have been made. Let’s not talk about the movie content, rather we’ll talk about the fights. It’s merely rehashing what we’ve done before. And if we look at the style of martial arts, Ong Bak is strictly limited, only trading of fists and kicks. Some things we have done before can be found there, said it was Muay Thai, all that we see are but those few moves. Actually, I think well of that actor, he has remarkable skills. Yet, on the whole, it doesn’t present anything new. We have many wushu talents here, I don’t think Ong Bak is that exotic, it’s just a matter of timing, especially when we haven’t done anything like that in the recent years. The standards of our action films have great deteriorated, there is a lack of talents – I mean talented people who are not groomed in filming. This is the current situation in our market. I hope there’ll be more success stories like Kung Fu Hustle – even if it had little realistic martial arts …. and hope to see more of such action films in the future, and expand the market demands, so, newcomers will be given more chances.”

I think Yen’s sour grapes over Ong Bak can be taken with a pinch of salt as after several years of making less-talented screen fighters look good and making the occasional supporting screen appearance in lesser films he’s returning to the leading man status that many fans urge Hollywood to take up upon.

SPL could be a defining moment in Hong Kong action cinema and with a sequel is already in negoitations, I believe that action will start to take a much more pragmatic and dramatic turn.

Ever since the Matrix, movies have been trying to copy it’s bullet-time sequences, rather than create real innovation. This lack of innovation in action movies (both in the East and the West) have made audiences bored of the same-old, same-old. One only has to look at Mission:Impossible 3 to see the same old clichés; the same old ideas and the same old action sequences with little dramatic storytelling or innovative action choreographing.

That’s why I’m hoping that films like SPL, and it’s sequel will create the innovation that action movies both in the East and the West have lacked and engage a whole new kind of unrivalled variety, and thrilling movie that audiences from all around the world can sit back, and enjoy.

As soon as SPL hits the UK, I’ll be certainly purchasing it!