An Interview with Actor-Stuntman-Director Bruce Fontaine

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Bruce Fontaine was once a Gweilo actor, that is to say one of those Caucasian performers who were hired in Hong Kong’s action cinema heyday to play – often villainous – supporting parts. A high-level practitioner of Wushu, he appeared in some of the most famous films of that time: Operation CondorOnce Upon A Time In ChinaShe Shoots Straight… But when the well of classic Hong Kong action dried up, his career endured, as he took the knowledge acquired from working with the likes of Jackie Chan, Corey Yuen or the Sammo Hung stunt team, and applied it to a career in Canadian stuntwork, quickly rising through the ranks to become a stunt coordinator, including for American Video Game developer Electronic Arts. And yet his main ambition remained unfulfilled: to direct a feature film. In 2015, he kickstarted the third phase of his film career by completing and premiering Beyond Redemption, an action thriller infused with the soul of Hong Kong action cinema.
From martial artist and Hong Kong film fan to Hong Kong film fighter, from stuntman to director, his is a story of wish-fulfillment through hard work and passion. Now in the preparatory stages for his second feature film, Bruce Fontaine was kind enough to answer my questions.

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YES MADAM 5 (1996) short review

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With its title, Lau Shing’s Yes Madam 5 positions itself clumsily as part of a kind of franchise whose first two intallments are also (and mostly) known as In the Line of Duty 2 and 3 (in 1985 and 1987 respectively). Then comes Yes Madam 92: A Serious Shock in 1992, then a Taiwanese Yes Madam in 1995, which brings us one year later to Yes Madam 5. One has to wonder if making this the fifth film in such a vaguely delineated franchise was such a clever move. Of course it doesn’t really matter, as the only connection between most of these films is Cynthia Khan playing a cop (which she did in 90% of her filmography anyway). By 1996 the Girls With Guns genre was quickly dying away, as was Khan’s career : and indeed Yes Madam 5 is a sad sight. Barely sustained by a plot too mundane to dignify with a summary and constantly mired in a horribly dated synth score, it wastes most of its runtime on numbingly procedural scenes and a patience-trying love triangle, all the while botching its few action scenes with shoddy editing that constantly re-uses the same shots of kicks and punches to artificially draw out the fights. The always watchable Cynthia Khan, along with familiar faces like Chin Siu Ho, Philip Ko (who also directs the action), Billy Chow or the steely Sharon Yeung (a wasted talent if there ever was one), help make the whole thing look professional, but in the end the 85 minutes are a chore to get through. *

THE INSPECTOR WEARS SKIRTS 4 (1992) review

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This is the final film in an enjoyable but trashy film series that had used up its thin concept by the first installment, then rehashed it for a second film, before injecting a big dose of craziness for the third episode. And so it comes to The Inspector Wears Skirts 4, with the only returning cast members being Sandra Ng, Kara Hui and Billy Lau, as well as Wung Fu in the role of the superior officer. A botched operation has led to the disbanding of the female commando : Sandra Ng has become a widow and overbearing single mother, Kara Hui has entered a mental institution after a nasty fall left her nuttier than a Pecan log, and Billy Lau is now a school supervisor, and has married Sheila Chan after a short fling with Sandra that ended in near-castration. A new female commando has been formed, headed by Moon Lee, but is found to fall very short of its tactical objectives, which is why Sandra and Kara are called back, and a tough cop and instructor, played by Cynthia Khan, is brought in to whip them back into shape.

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THE AVENGING QUARTET (1992) short review

51DKD1ZDVKL There are few films in the genre of Hong Kong action films more misguided than Stanley Siu Wing’s The Avenging Quartet. Its plot, about a Mainland cop (Cynthia Khan) who comes to Hong Kong to look for her boyfriend (Waise Lee) with the help of a kind but ass-kicking Hong Konger (Moon Lee) and a overeager cop (Chin Kar Lok), only to find out he is involved in the theft of a priceless painting that he’s about to sell to Japanese gangsters (among whom Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki), is neither better nor worse than the average screenplay in the Girls With Guns sub-genre. Its title is misleading because the four actresses never join forces, but misleading or over the top titles were commonplace at the time. No, the film’s hugely grating shortcomings are the following : it sets itself up as a tough action film, but is content to just noodle around for more than an hour, as Cynthia Khan and Moon Lee plays video-games, go shopping and look for Waise Lee ; it casts Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki, two smouldering, statuesque and charismatic actresses, only to give them about 15 minutes of combined screen time ; and most jarringly, it suddenly breaks up its fairly light tone to feature an ugly rape and torture episode that is completely out of place. The final 10 minutes finally deliver on the film’s promise by having the four actresses fighting each other in a house on fire, and it’s a suitably intense and brutal finale, but it’s simply too little, too late. *1/2

TOUGH BEAUTY AND THE SLOPPY SLOP (1995) short review

5132J64CRFL._SS500_ With its pairing of a stern Mainland police woman and an affable Hong Kong cop, who stage a prison break to infiltrate a drug trafficker’s gang, Yuen Bun’s Tough Beauty and the Sloppy Slop (its original title refers to a kind of speedboat) is a not-too-subtle rehash of Police Story 3, with cheaper alternatives to Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh in the lead roles. In step Yuen Biao, a hugely underrated actor who was at the nadir of his career at the time, and Cynthia Khan, who had already stood in for Yeoh in the In The Line Of Duty series, and whose career was waning quickly by 1994. Indeed this is a cheap film, and while it flashes a lot of familiar, welcome faces besides its leads (Waise Lee, Yuen Wah, Alan Chui who directed the action, and Billy Chow all appear), it is so derivative, loosely narrated and – more damningly for this kind of production – light on action, that it’s hard not to be sorry for Yuen and Khan, who turn in game performances despite having little chemistry together, but deserved so much better. Their short final fight against Billy Chow (scored with Elliot Goldenthal’s Demolition Man score) is the only worthwhile scene in an otherwise flabby little actioner. *

DEADEND OF BESIEGERS (1992) short review

600full-deadend-of-besiegers-cover A Mainland Chinese production, Cheung Sing Yim’s Deadend of Besiegers differs from most martial arts films of the time in a few ways, most notably in that it is a fairly old-fashioned film that has none of the wild angles and choreography in vogue at the time in Hong Kong cinema, and is actually reminiscent of an Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest film of the late seventies. It stars Yu Rong-Guang as a disgraced karateka who flees Japan and finds himself tagging along with a gang of Japanese pirates. When the pirates raid a Chinese village, the karateka breaks free from them and saves a little Chinese girl, who in turn helps him get accepted into the village, as he seeks to learn a new fighting technique from her aunt (Cynthia Khan). The film’s main asset is Yu Rong-Guang, a fairly unsung martial arts actor who here both stars in the film, giving a warm and sympathetic performance that develops an endearing chemistry with the little girl, and choreographs the fighting with earthbound flair and engaging classicism. Cynthia Khan is a welcome presence and has some nice sparks with Yu. Really, the only thing ground-breaking about Deadend of Besiegers is the awkwardness of its title, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable, well-made martial arts film, that even manages to carry a more conciliatory message on Sino-Japanese relations than most films of its time. ***

PAY BACK (2013) review

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A Mainland Chinese production starring mostly Hong Kong actors and with the kind of urban, contained storyline you might expect from a Milkyway Image production (which it isn’t), Fu Xi’s Pay Back – also known under the equally generic but much clumsier title Hunting Enemies- is an often puzzling film. Its plot is nothing new, but has a potential for grit and poignancy. It concerns Yang Yan (Francis Ng), a taxi driver bent on getting revenge for the rape of his daughter (Chen Yirong), that led to her suicide and his wife’s (Cynthia Khan) subsequent fatal seizure. His main target is Zhang Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) a triad henchman with father issues, who it turns out is innocent but took the fall for his boss Borther Hai (Chang Cheng). Zhang Jin aims to make amends and clean up his life, and out of guilt (he didn’t commit the rape but did witness it without doing anything to prevent it) he helps Yang Yan in his quest for revenge, all the while trying to dissuade him from taking the violent way out.

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SEA WOLVES (aka IN THE LINE OF DUTY 7) (1991) short review

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Sometimes marketed as the 7th installment in the In The Line Of Duty franchise (and indeed, 90% of Cynthia Khan’s filmography could be from that franchise), Sea Wolves actually puts an emphasis on Gary Chau (a D&B Films protégé whose career never took off) and Simon Yam, as two Vietnamese friends separated by fate after emigrating to Hong Kong: Yam joins a gang of modern-day pirates who prey on Vietnamese boat people (how is that a logical step for a Vietnamese immigrant?), while Chau loses his sister in a pirate raid by that very same gang, subsequently finding himself stranded in Hong Kong, deprived of his memory by a nasty fall on his head. Cynthia Khan comes into play as a tough female cop on the trail of the pirate gang, and Norman Tsui adds another fine bad guy to his scintillating repertoire of villainy. For one hour the film noodles around pleasantly but unfortunately not thrillingly, with some tame comedy and slightly overwrought drama, but also thankfully the welcome grit and efficiency that can be expected from those late eighties, early nineties action films churned out by the D&B film company. Ultimately though, only the ever-reliable Simon Yam, the beautiful Cynthia Khan and a brutal, thrilling final action scene on a boat elevate Sea Wolves slightly above mediocrity. **1/2

MADAM CITY HUNTER (1993) short review

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Bearing not even the faintest connection to the famous City Hunter character which received its Jackie Chan-starring film adaptation the same year, Madam City Hunter is a bafflingly-scripted action comedy in which a tough police officer (Cynthia Khan) is framed for murder and takes advantage of her suspension to investigate on her shady young stepmother (Kara Hui), who may be a venomous gold-digger with ties to the mob. She is helped by her love-struck commissioner (Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung) and a private investigator (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his hyperactive girlfriend (Sheila Chan). It’s a film that noisily goes nowhere, a string of lazy gags peppered with bouts of fairly inspired action (Yuen Woo Ping produces and had a hand in the fights). The trite comedy balances between playing ground-level hijinks and viagra jokes. Still, outside of the scant fight scenes, the film’s one redeeming aspect is its cast: Cynthia Khan may not be quite at home in that kind of comedy, but Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is always eminently watchable, Kara Hui ramps up the sexy and has a lot of fun, and Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung is enjoyably cast against type as Khan’s swooning, well-meaning superior officer. A fun film, in an obnoxious way. **

IN THE LINE OF DUTY 5 : MIDDLE MAN (1990) review

Some say the In The Line Of Duty franchise started its decline with this fifth installment, directed by Cha Chuen Yee in 1990, a time when the Girls With Guns genre was starting to recede to alternative Asian film industries like Taiwan or the Philippines. It’s true that while it has been the common lot of the films of this franchise to have mostly disposable plots, the story in In The Line Of Duty 5 is particularly uninspiring and trite. It involves things such as the CIA, a marine on leave and drug dealers, all intertwined in the least interesting ways possible. At the center of these wholly uninteresting goings-on is, again, the endearing Cynthia Khan, who it must be said got more and more credible as an ass-kicker with each installment.

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