The Gangster as Hero in Hong Kong Cinema
Evolution of a genre through national culture
Originating in early American cinema, the gangster genre has evolved throughout a variety of eras and nations. Yet, over the course of film history the image of the gangster has remained one of the oldest and most enduring subjects in cinema. This essay will explore the appropriation of the gangster genre by Hong Kong cinema, by mainly focusing on some of the more acclaimed directors to have worked in the genre, John Woo, Johnny To and Wong Kar-wai. My analysis will examine the role of the gangster figure in their work and the evolution of the genre in Hong Kong cinema, specifically in relation to the mythology of gangster brotherhood and its place within the social and cultural identity of Hong Kong.
As a popular film genre, the gangster movie demonstrates a universal adaptability that allows filmmakers to alter its themes and conventions in order to comment upon a variety of social, ethnographic and even political issues. In effect, the power of the gangster story arises from its ability to span across international and cultural borders. As American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Yaquinto 1998: 230-231) noted:
the Yakuza movies they make in Japan, the triad movies they make in Hong Kong, the Italian Mafia movies, Jean-Pierre Melville’s films in France…we’re all telling the same stories…But we’re all telling [these stories] differently, because we’re all from different cultures, different nationalities, and that’s what’s really interesting to me, how different cultures attack the same story.
Remarkably, the screen mobster still remains a prominent figure in contemporary cinema, surviving over 90 years of cinematic history since the gangster genre first appeared in early American cinema at the turn of the 20th century. As a genre, hence, it has allowed for an ageless format, whereby the mobster figure can move through time and across cultures. As Marilyn Yaquinto (1998: xi) noted, “the gangster has a timeless quality, just like the sins he commits. He’s been described as possessing the leftover anguish of a character from Greek tragedy. He’s also been dubbed a twentieth century Macbeth armed with a smoking gun”. The first American gangster shorts, such as The Moonshiners (1904) and The Black Hand (1906) for instance, dealt with certain key social factors of the time, like “crowded tenements, immigrant life, street gangs, criminal ‘stars’” (Yaquinto 1998: xi). At the time, the traditional American screen gangster was rooted in the lower classes and slum neighbourhoods of big U.S. cities, such as Chicago and New York, which eventually became prototypical locations for gritty mob films over the years.
The American Gangster Icon
Interestingly, in Hong Kong during the 1980s similar factors of urban life can also be connected with the rise of the gangster film, as the city’s crowded neighbourhoods and neon-lit streets became a criminal underworld for Triad gang stories. The colonial city, with its rising Chinese immigrant population, unfavourable living conditions, street gangs, and social unrest, became an ideal urban environment that allowed filmmakers to employ the gangster film to depict the candor and camaraderie of people among the lower classes. Furthermore, the break between communist China and capitalist Hong Kong gave way to violent demonstrations between the years of 1966 and 1976 – the period of the Cultural Revolution in China (Ping-kwan 2000: 227). The high number of Chinese exiles that settled in Hong Kong, therefore, mostly left Mainland China due to political turmoil and an oppressive government. Director John Woo and his family, for example, were among those Chinese immigrants living in the slums of Hong Kong, which at the time were crowded urban spaces plagued with crime and gang violence. As Woo (Sandell 2001b: 4) described, “I saw too many people killed in disasters and by gangs. Growing up in the slums is like growing up in hell. In the `50s and `60s, there were riots, and I witnessed people killed by police right outside my own door”. Consequently, in the mid-1980s, similar factors of Hong Kong city-life and its struggle with the process of modern urbanization made the colonial city (along with the nearby gambling city of Macau) a perfect backdrop for gangster films. As a result, movies were based on “real-life” Triad gangs that ruled the Hong Kong underworld and, ironically, much of the entertainment industry.
In the mid-80s, the Hong Kong crime film gained popularity with films like Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law (1984), Stephen Shin’s Brotherhood (1986), Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) and John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1987). Such films adapted the American gangster format by foregrounding spectacular action sequences and concentrating on stories that emphasized brotherhood and male bonding, which were themes closely linked with ancient Chinese tradition. Mainly connected to the ancient Chinese code of yi and its principals of honour, duty, loyalty and decency, such themes would later be dominant in most of the Hong Kong crime films that followed. Stephen Teo (1997: 176) defined yi as an unwritten code that “postulates a system of brotherhood, honour and justice binding all who operate within a (class-and caste-defined) fraternity, whether criminal or otherwise”. As a result, the Hong Kong gangster movie emphasized the codes of loyalty and the myth of brotherhood among Triad Society. A patriotic political organization that originated in China over 2,000 years ago, Triad Society still exists in present-day Hong Kong. Most of its members are lawful citizens, yet there are a few criminal members attached to the society, who are “deep into narcotics, stand-over protection rackets, illegal gambling, prostitution – [sic] and murder” (Robertson 1977: 2). In effect, it was those criminal members of the secret society who became protagonists of the Hong Kong gangster film.
In addition, much has been made concerning the mood of Hong Kong cinema during the 1980s, as many critics have linked it with the sense of crisis felt by Hong Kongers in relation to the turning over of the British colonial city to mainland China in 1997. Consequently, it has often been argued that Hong Kong was taken by feelings of alienation from Chinese traditions and values that people feared would probably be reinforced after 1997. The gangster genre, hence, began to develop in such a climate, as filmmakers revised historical Chinese “survival myths” into stories of criminal outlaws struggling with strict Triad codes of brotherhood and honour. As Hong Kong critic Li Cheuk-To (Williams 2000: 141) noted, “People have a feeling of foreboding over 1997…These heroes from the lawless days show that people can survive and even succeed in a bad situation”.
In effect, the Triad underworld was an interesting subject for filmmakers because it offered them the opportunity to focus on “real-life” figures of their society that belonged to an age-old organization still adhering to ancient Chinese codes and rituals. Nevertheless, modern Triads were also strongly motivated towards financial success, hence, embodying both traditional Chinese values and more modern Hong Kong ideals, such as the strong capitalist drive associated with Western culture and ideology. Accordingly, Triads became exemplary models by which to represent the modernization of the East through an assimilation of Western values. Furthermore, when not dealing with Triads, filmmakers would focus on Chinese ‘Big Circle’ gangs, which were, “next to the Triads, Hong Kong’s most notorious criminals” (Teo 1997: 230-31), and whose membership was solely open to immigrants of mainland China. One of the earliest and most influential of the ‘Big Circle’ films, for instance, is Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law (1984), which has been considered by many critics as a precursor to Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” films. With these broad social/political factors behind the rise of the real life gangster
the Chinese exiles of the Cultural Revolution, the unfavorable urban living conditions, the sense of foreboding leading up to 1997 it is instructive to recall that the rise of the American gangster was also tied to social changes, mainly American Prohibition (1920-1933), which provided the gangsters with the means to amass financial wealth and to make friends in high places.
In America, the classic screen gangster is mainly viewed as an outlaw figure who defaces the sanctity of the “American Dream” by extorting the capitalist system through crime. As a result, American screen gangsters are often depicted as a threat to the social fabric of the nation and are not given much chance for redemption. In the end, they are usually punished for their sins, either through death, imprisonment or a life of eternal guilt. In Hong Kong cinema, however, the gangster is often presented as a hero figure with hope for redemption – an image that is most evident in the work of John Woo.
With A Better Tomorrow, The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), Woo created a gangster trilogy that was not only instrumental in shaping Hong Kong cinema, but had a wide international impact as well. A Better Tomorrow, the most influential of the three films, probed the state of modern Chinese civilization in Hong Kong through a gangster format that demonstrated Woo’s masterful skill in mixing Western cinematic traditions with aspects of Chinese folklore. Within a modern urban setting of Hong Kong, Woo stylishly molded the gangster genre to explore issues concerning the absorption of western influences and modernization in the colonial city. In doing so, he infused the genre with elements of Chinese folklore and tradition. For instance, in A Better Tomorrow, the Triad mobster becomes a romantic “hero” figure reminiscent of the brutal martial-art movies from the 1960s and `70s. The film centers upon a melodramatic battle between good and evil in a story about the honour-bound relationships of three men: Mark (Chow Yun-fat), Kit (Leslie Cheung) and Ho (Ti Lung). The film attained a “heroic” sensibility that set Woo apart from other local filmmakers working within the gangster genre at the time. As David Bordwell (2000: 99) noted, “Woo’s unrestrained approach – not just the airily choreographed gun battles but the moist, soulful exchanges between urban warriors bound together in duty and friendship – was atypical of the local industry”.
Furthermore, Woo’s carefully choreographed gun-battle sequences are also reminiscent of the Chinese tradition of swordplay fiction. Essentially, Woo combined Western and Eastern elements within the gangster formula by replacing ancient knights with modern Triad criminals who fought with pistols and explosives as opposed to swords. Thus, the term “heroic bloodshed” relates to Woo’s “spectacles” of violence, which give his protagonists super heroic qualities through the stylistics of cinematic excess, that center upon bodies and bullets “floating” in slow-motion. In Hard Boiled, for instance, one of the characters best explains the concept when he states, “Give the guy a gun and he’s Superman. Give him two and he’s God.” In addition, Woo’s virtuoso gun-battle sequences also reveal strong associations with the staging of violence in the work of American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, who employed slow-motion and similar montage techniques to stretch-out time in violent gunfight sequences. Furthermore, Woo often achieves an operatic quality in his films through hyper-stylized sequences of violence that are “spectacular” in the melodramatic sense, hence pushing his films into the realm of gangster-melodramas. That sense of melodrama is further heightened through the overly sentimental nature of Woo’s gangsters, who are sometimes shown weeping – an attribute that is seldom seen in the American counterparts.
Moreover, the Chinese code of yi is central to A Better Tomorrow, where it is closely linked with the character of Mark, who serves as a loner and outsider reminiscent of the traditional Chinese hero with his conservative ideas and values. As Jillian Sandell (2001a: 7) explained, “This kind of hero is old and tired, a throwback to China’s past with no place in contemporary Hong Kong.” Mark is presented as a tragic gangster hero, who, in the name of brotherhood and loyalty, becomes a martyr at the end of the film when he takes a fatal bullet in the head while trying to get brothers Ho and Kit to make peace with each other. Ironically, his last words are, “for a brother…” hence Mark becomes the modern gangster equivalent of a romantic mythical hero. As John Woo noted in an interview, “I always worshipped the chivalrous behaviour of ancient knights, the loyalty of the Samurai spirit and the French romantics. A real knight should come and go like an autumn leaf. He does not look for recognition” (Sandell 2001b: 5). It is a sensibility that is well illustrated through Woo’s characterization of Mark as a humble hero representing traditional codes of honour and bravery in a modern era. Also, Woo infuses his gangster characters with a sense of morality, as they struggle with the age-old conflict of good versus evil.
In addition, the urban setting (i.e. neon-lit city streets and modern architecture) of A Better Tomorrow serves as a film noir-type backdrop for a gangster story that emphasizes Hong Kong’s cultural struggle between old and new. That representation of the cityscape, combined with Woo’s excessive violence offers a visualization of an apocalyptic attitude towards the city’s future. Consequently, that hyper-stylization and excess would later characterise other Hong Kong gangster films made during that era of anxiety and uncertainty. As Stephen Teo (1997: 233) noted:/ gangster movies have constantly pushed Hong Kong cinema over the edge. they are tough, raw and jagged – often frighteningly so. A Hong Kong gangster movie can make viewers feel that civilization is indeed at risk and that Hong Kong is the last place on earth they want to be.
Also, the opening sequence of A Better Tomorrow further reflects the sense of modernization within Hong Kong and Triad society. The film opens with Mark and Kit, who are introduced as high-end Triad gangsters producing counterfeit U.S. currency (the symbol of capitalist ideology and success) with state-of-the-art technology and printing presses. Moreover, their flamboyant gangster look suggests the decadence and materialism of the modern-day Triad crime world, yet it also reflects a working class desire to want to dress stylishly. For instance, that glamour-look has been a typical characteristic of American gangster films since the 1930s, with films like Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), where the protagonists are lower class guys who make it big in the criminal underworld (respectively, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Paul Muni). From the start of A Better Tomorrow, Woo places emphasis on fashion, money, and luxurious cars, as symbols representing an American capitalist desire for financial success and social status. As a result, the “gangster look” donned by the characters, with their designer suits, flashy overcoats, stylish sunglasses and “matchstick between sullen lips” (Bordwell 2000: 99), established a norm for screen mobster fashion in Hong Kong cinema. Yet, in A Better Tomorrow, Woo gradually strips away the glamorous image of gangster buddies Mark and Ho, as Ho ends up in prison and Mark is reduced to being a homeless cripple. At the start of the film, they are introduced in a sympathetic manner and given childish qualities that dissipate, as the film progressively gets darker in tone, eventually building to a sense of crisis that can only be overcome through loyalty and “brotherhood”. It is a crisis that mainly arises from a conflict between the individual and social institutions. For instance, Mark, Kit and Ho are presented as “loner heroes, marginalized from their respective organizations” (Sandell 2001: 5) and the conflict between brothers Ho and Kit results from the social organizations to which they each belong. Ho is part of a criminal organization, the Triads, while Kit is a police officer and member of law enforcement. So, although the brothers are members of the same family unit, they are torn apart because of the social institutions of which they are a part, resulting in each of them questioning their individualism and respective positions within Hong Kong social institutions. Such a conflict, therefore, can be viewed as a reflection on the fear of returning to an old-fashioned world order under communist Chinese rule, whereby society is based on tradition, conservative social relations and family-centered establishments that suppress individuality and freedom.
Furthermore, the increasing popularity of gangster films like A Better Tomorrow during the 1980s gave rise to another type of gangster-as-hero film at the start of the 1990s. They were known as “Big Timer” films, in which the gangster figure was presented as “a leader, a general, a first among equals” (Teo 1997: 236). Largely influenced by epic American gangster films, such as The Godfather trilogy (1972-90) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the Big Timer films are basically gangster crime-sagas charting the rise and fall of real-life mobsters. Interestingly, Stephen Teo credits Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone as being a key influence on the Hong Kong gangster film. As Teo (1997: 183n) wrote:
Leone’s influence was seminal and stems not so much from his westerns but from his one gangster movie, ‘Once upon a Time in America’ (1984), particularly in its theme of loyalty and betrayal which understandably evokes a great sense of empathy with Hong Kong filmmakers who saw in the theme parallels with the code of yi. It is not too far-fetched to say that it was really Leone’s film which provoked the production of a rash of gangster movies in the mid-80s centered on male bondage and gang loyalty…
The Big Timer films were usually characterised by big budgets and high production values. For instance, the two most notable ones, To Be Number One (1991) and Lord of the East China Sea (1993), were produced by Golden Harvest, one of Hong Kong’s largest studios at the time. Johnny Mak’s To Be Number One, an extremely violent and sensational portrait of real-life Triad godfather Ng Sik-ho, is considered as the first Big Timer movie. Lawrence Ah Mon’s Lee Rock (1991) is another notable grand-scale gangster film, which took a different approach to the treatment of Triad gangster mythology by focusing on a real-life corrupt police officer as opposed to a Big Time criminal. The Big Timer movies, hence, were more nostalgic and epic-in-scale than John Woo’s hyper-stylized films. Also, unlike Woo’s films, they tended to romanticise the Triad gangster figure without any moralistic judgment. As Teo (1997: 236) noted, “the Big Timer films adopted a moral ambivalence towards its heroes” as the films were “downright hagiographic”.
The gangster figure, however, can also be found in so-called “art-house” films made by such internationally renowned filmmakers as, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. In Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2000) for instance, gangster figures play key roles. In Hong Kong, stylish director Wong Kar-wai has also dealt with gangster personalities in two of his films, Fallen Angels (1995) and his debut feature-film As Tears Go By (1988). While both movies center on criminal protagonists, it is Wong’s As Tears Go By, which specifically deals with the theme of gangster brotherhood and honour. Loosely based on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), (and Jim Jarmusch’s non-gangster related film, Stranger Than Paradise ), As Tears Go By follows the story of two feizai (young small-time hoods) “brothers”, Fly (Jacky Cheung) and Wah (Andy Lau), who struggle with the codes and mythology of gangster brotherhood. Bound by codes of honour and respect for Triad camaraderie, they refer to each other as “Big Brother” and “Little Brother”. Fly (Little Brother) is the weaker of the two and like Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets, he often acts on impulse and gets into trouble, out of which Big Brother Wah usually bails him. For example, Fly borrows money from Tony (Alex Man), a local gangster, in order to pay for Little Brother’s wedding, which is a duty that Fly strongly believes he must fulfill, even if it costs him his life. As a result, Fly gets into a large amount of debt with Tony and is unable to pay him back. Thus, honour-bound Wah is forced to defend his Little Brother, resulting in a violent fight that leaves both Wah and Fly beaten to a pulp. Unlike Fly, however, Wah seems to be unhappy with life as an A Fei (small-time hood), and has dreams of settling down with his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), an innocent young country girl with whom he has fallen in love. Yet, due to his loyalty to Fly and the code of “brotherhood” the gangster organization calls for, Wah is unable to escape the savage crime world and dissolution of city-life. In the end, Wah dies during a final show of loyalty while defending Fly, who is shot and killed in an attempt to assassinate a police informant – a mission he accepted in order to prove himself to Wah and gain his respect. The secret gangster code of honour, hence, is upheld when Big Brother and Little Brother die together while fulfilling their respective duties to each other.
Furthermore, the film’s prominent theme of country life versus city life has been a part of Hong Kong cinema for several decades and can be traced back to popular Chinese folklore. As Ping-kwan (2000: 228) noted, “One of the main features we find in the mainstream literature and cinema in 1930s in China, especially in those within the leftist ideology, is a clear-cut dichotomy between the city and the country”. In effect, Chinese literary tradition associates rural life with innocence, honesty and purity, while the city is represented as a corrupt environment plagued by greed, immorality and temptation. Wong Kar-wai, therefore, incorporates that classic Chinese theme into his gangster story to express the struggle between modernity and tradition in Hong Kong. For instance, both Fly and Wah are country boys who came to the city with hopes for success. Throughout the film, Tony often taunts Fly, telling him to run back to his mother in the country because city-life is not for him. Also, Ngor embodies the peacefulness and honesty associated with the country life for which Wah longs, but fails to attain. She is depicted as a sickly young woman who comes to visit Wah in the Kow Loon area of Hong Kong. During her stay there, however, she wears a surgical mask to protect her from germs and pollution. The mask, hence, acts as a metaphorical barrier between the uncorrupted “country girl” and the corruption of city life, in which her cousin Wah is dangerously immersed.
What is more, although Wong adheres to several of the stereotypical aspects of the gangster genre, his film works at a more poetic level than Woo’s spectacular “action” cinema. Like several of Wong’s other films, the fight scenes in As Tears Go By take on a lyrically abstract quality through the masterful use of colour and editing. David Bordwell (2000: 276) described Wong’s directorial style as being “poly-stylistic”, when he wrote, “As Tears Go By is filmed in hard blocks of red, ultramarine, and orange, all pierced by solid black shadows; silhouettes and unexpected angles are linked by restless cutting.” For instance, the climactic sequence that concludes the movie is not simply portrayed as a spectacle of violence, but is infused with a poetic sensibility as well. Throughout the sequence, Wong employs step-printing to blur character movement and give the images an “impressionist” look. During the violent spray of bullets and blood that ends the sequence, Wong cuts away to a rumpled piece of orange plastic twitching in the wind, hence, creating a poetic visual reference to the fragility of life.
Over the past decade, many of the stars and directors who established the gangster film genre in Hong Kong have left for careers in Hollywood, but the screen gangster still remains a prominent figure in Hong Kong cinema. In the 1990s, for example, the genre was reinvented for a younger audience in the "Young and Dangerous" series, which consisted of six films produced between 1996 and 1999. Known as “Triad Boyz” movies, they provided a postmodern reworking of the mobster genre and presented a pop-cultural image of the gangster figure. Adapted from a popular Hong Kong comic book, the films centered on young Triad gangs and were aimed at a younger audience. For example, comic book illustrations are often intercut with live action, and fight sequences attain a cartoonish quality designed to reflect a video game aesthetic of violence to which the 1990s youth generation was accustomed. Furthermore, beginning with Young and Dangerous I (1996), the relationships between the young “rascals” and their bosses are like surrogate father-son relationships that serve to emphasize the importance of respecting the traditions and rules of the elders in society. Young and Dangerous II (1996), however, deals mainly with the superficiality and materialistic aspects of the young Triad gangs, to whom appearance and the gangster “look” are important in gaining respectability and acceptance within the gangster world. For instance, the film opens with Chan Ho-nam (Ekin Cheng), a young gang leader, trying on a series of different outfits in an attempt to find one that will fit his “tough guy” gangster image. In another scene, Ho-nam’s right hand man, Mountain Chicken (Jordan Chan), pawns his Rolex watch because he is desperate for money. While in the next scene he immediately buys a fake Rolex to replace the real one, so his glamorous gangster “image” will not be tarnished. Gangster fashion is also updated throughout the series, as the classic pin striped suits and greasy hair are replaced by trendy `90s Hong Kong street fashion, which consist of skin-tight latex and multi-coloured hair.
Moreover, since the 1990s, filmmakers such as Tsui Hark and Johnny To have continued to rework the gangster movie, reconstructing its formulas to conform to the climate of a new-millennium Hong Kong. Johnny To’s work in recent years has been infused with a level of creativity and insight, mainly through a mastery of film technique that attempts to break genre convention and constraints. With The Mission (1999), for example, To revised the gangster formula and experimented with conventions of the action film, focusing on stillness and non-movement, as opposed to hyper-action and movement. The film deals with a formulaic gangster premise; five mobsters – Shin (Jackie Lui), Mike (Roy Cheung), Roy (Francis Ng), Curtis (Anthony Wong) and James (Lam Suet) – with varied backgrounds are given a special task, they must protect a “Big Time” Triad boss named Mr. Lung (Eddy Ko). With its emphasis on waiting and stillness, The Mission is quite different from the more excessive action-packed gangster films of the 1980s. In the fight sequences, for instance, To does not use Woo-like slow-motion and a kinetic editing style, but uses “slow-action” and controlled camera movements instead. He redefines the staging of gunfight sequences through carefully paced camera movements that create tableaux-like images containing very little or no movement within the frame. The most remarkable gunfight scene in the film occurs in a shopping mall, where To elevates the staging of gunfights to a new level.
Such sequences play with audience anticipation and invert the “heroic-bloodshed” aesthetic of the 1980s by focusing on narrative waiting and elongated action. Also, the story development is quite unique for an action movie, as To diverts from the conventional action packed narrative structure with its numerous plot twists and moments of crisis. Instead, the filmmaker places emphasis on the mundane activities of the men, as they fulfill a rather routine surveillance assignment. For instance, one scene consists of them kicking a paper ball around while waiting in Mr. Lung’s office. Also, they repeatedly fool each other with trick cigarettes in order to add some excitement to their work. Yet, although the relationship between the men is not strictly determined by rules of brotherhood and loyalty, their relationship is still mainly based on friendship and camaraderie. In the end, however, once their “mission” is complete, the men are faced with one last obstacle that challenges their loyalty. Before going their separate ways, it is discovered that one of them has had an affair with the boss’s wife and he must be killed. Therefore, To raises the question; what will happen when contract killers are ordered to kill one of their own? Do they obey their boss or do they remain true to each other as “brothers” in crime? Their response is in keeping with the code of yi: the men fake their friend’s murder and then each goes their separate ways. As a result, the ending serves to reinforce the central theme of the film, which is, survival in the face of death. Such a theme, therefore, is reflective of the change in attitude among filmmakers in post-1997 Hong Kong, who seem to have developed a more optimistic view towards the future of the city.
In conclusion, considering the mammoth number of gangster films produced in Hong Kong over the past 15 to 20 years, it is understandable that an essay of such brevity cannot attempt to provide an exhaustive study of the genre as it evolved throughout that period. Yet, I believe that the films analyzed and discussed here do offer apt examples of the recurrent themes and social concerns found in Hong Kong gangster cinema as it progressed and amalgamated several aspects of Hong Kong culture and identity.
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