As part of this year’s awards season, the Hong Kong International Film Festival is doing a retrospective on the films of legendary martial arts director Sammo Hung, known in the Hong Kong film industry as “Da Ge Da” (大哥大), or “Biggest Big Brother.”
Hung’s younger sibling, Jackie Chan, has achieved worldwide popularity with his distinct style of stunts mixed with martial arts, but the comedic style was pioneered with the help of his older brother. The style is distinctly showcased in an old movie from my parents’ shelf of films they brought to the US when they immigrated titled Wheels on Meals.
As a kid, I loved this movie. If you had asked me why the title was spelled that way, I would’ve chalked it up to shady distribution practices, but I would find out years later that the film’s title is purposefully mixed-up; the studio manager was superstitious and had had a string of flops with films starting with the letter M.
Wheels on Meals was, in its time, a pretty big deal, as the film’s three stars, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao, were all at the height of their careers. Imagine if a Jonas Brothers film was to drop at the height of their popularity, except one of the Jonas Brothers has gone on to be Tom Cruise and another has gone on to become Kevin Feige. Wheels on Meals features both the stunt-driven action that Jackie Chan would bring overseas to audiences internationally and Hung’s particular style of martial arts and comedy. And it got the budget to film abroad!
Written and directed by Hung with action directed by Chan, it’s a sort of prestige project from their glory days, and it’s fantastic. Martial arts fans will note that it boasts the first fight scene between Jackie Chan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a legendary fight scene by all means. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link:
Sammo Hung is Jackie Chan’s big brother in more ways than one; the two attended the same China Drama Academy, where Hung was the elder student to Chan. A hospital accident made him bedridden, the lack of exercise making him the biggest brother, as well, but he worked his way up behind the scenes on Shaw Brothers movies. Eventually, he landed at Golden Harvest, where he and his younger brother started an improv group.
Kind of. Sammo Hung produced a whole series of kung-fu comedy films called Lucky Stars. They feature his brothers from opera school, Jackie Chan included, doing martial arts and comedy slapstick in various ensemble settings that flow like classic Charlie Chaplin films. The humor derives from situations, characters, and just a dash of kung-fu. Much like Three Stooges serials, they mostly feature the same actors playing different roles in various sorts of ensembles.
Wheels on Meals is a prime example of this silent comedy style plot design. Like a train driven by Buster Keaton, the action flows from an austere working mens’ apartment to the streets of Barcelona to famous landmarks, through a car chase, and finally, into the Gothic towers and halls of the villain’s enormous castle. In every location, the movie stops to have some fun with the environment.
As such, Sammo maintains an edge of slapstick throughout the whole film, often at his own expense. His chubby character falls through an awning that his more nimble costars easily navigate, and he’s set up from the beginning as a target of this Stooges-esque abuse. He bears it all in stride because he’s the comic relief character and lets his younger brother Jackie have the big fight scene while he gets his clothes sliced up in a sword duel that he is definitely not dressed for.
Perhaps that’s why he broke off from the Three Brothers two years later, with 1988’s Dragons Forever being the last film starring Hung, Chan, and Biao together. Chan began to move on with American pursuits and Hung himself felt like he wasn’t getting enough of the limelight. He went on to do fantastic producing and choreography work. In particular, his fight sequences, with their more urban setting and extensive duels, shifted the entire focus of Hong Kong action away from fantasy. But he also flexed his producing and networking muscle, helping Drama School graduates across the industry find jobs with each other, truly earning the name “Biggest Brother.”
During this time of introspection, he revitalized a folkloric monster by mixing horror with his action-comedy, Frankensteining together the jiangshi genre in 1980’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, where he is like Ricky Baker with kung-fu skills in the world of What We Do In the Shadows. He also produced 1985’s Yes, Madam, which first introduced Michelle Yeoh to audiences as a badass kung-fu lady cop. Eventually, he became the first East Asian face to headline a US primetime TV series with 1998’s Martial Law.
As Asian representation in media grows, there are some names that we pass over, so let’s not forget what we owe to our ancestors and big brothers, as it were. Sammo Hung’s legacy speaks to the value of rigorous discipline in a physical pursuit, fitting for a martial arts filmmaker. His success should be celebrated, and maybe we can get a reunion? Jeez, imagine an episode of Supernatural with kung-fu zombies directed by Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.