Fans of Hong Kong cinema have been somewhat spoilt recently with a number of companies stepping in to release remastered versions of past greats. We’ve had a good chunk of Jackie Chan’s back catalogue (though, why no ‘Magnificent Bodyguards’?), some Sammo Hung greats, a sizeable stack of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and, of course, the wonderful Shaw Brothers Blu-Ray releases. If there’s one film that I especially look out for, one that deserves a UK release and a gorgeous remaster though, it is ‘I Love Maria’, the 1988 Hong Kong sci-fi film from producer Tsui Hark.
80s Hong Kong cinema and science fiction… rarer than hen’s teeth. You might think they go together like cheese and concrete. And it seemed audiences thought so too as, on its release, this action comedy was something of a flop at the local box office. I had read that, during this period, Hong Kong audiences couldn’t conceive of a future as 1997 was around the corner and no one was quite sure what that would mean. Whether that is true or not, it’s a real shame that it didn’t resonate with viewers at the time. Yet, like so many forgotten films of the era, there is a growing groundswell of support for it and this might be the perfect time to introduce younger Western audiences to ‘I Love Maria’.
Hidden behind this somewhat incongruous title (it had a limited release in the West as ‘Roboforce’) is an immensely enjoyable film, a perfect example of a flick that leaves you with a dozy smile on your face at the end. The talent behind the screen is enviable: Tsui Hark produced this, Ching Siu-Tung choreographed the action, and the underrated David Chung, director of great films like ‘Magnificent Warriors’ and ‘Royal Warriors’, was behind the lens. The imagery is part manga, part Western sci-fi (Maria is an obvious nod to Fritz Lang’s classic ‘Metropolis’), but the content is pure Hong Kong exuberance. It’s peopled by some iconic stars of the era, namely John Shum, Tsui Hark, a young Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Sally Yeh, who is superb in her dual role. The practical special effects hold up very well and are a breath of fresh air during a time when CGI is used for just about anything conceivable. The aesthetic is full of blues and cold steel that gives the whole thing a memorable look and sets it well apart from its local contemporaries at the time.
One of the things that I often found delightful about Hong Kong films was something that was never easy to put into words. Now I have a few more words – and am quite happy to sound self-indulgent, I would say that the best way to describe it is Pseudo-Quixotic Heroism Ensemble, PQHE for short. It’s that ethereal magic that was so well developed in Hong Kong cinema of the 70s-90s, but doesn’t usually find its way into American films. That said, a few examples show how it has been utilised and it is no coincidence that they are among my favourite movies: ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, ‘The Hot Rock’ and the James Caan action comedy ‘Slither’ are very close to being Hollywood PQHE, having that almost indefinable quality in their writing that makes them memorable.
So what is PQHE, and why does ‘I Love Maria’ have it in abundance? What I am coining ‘Pseudo-Quixotic Heroic Ensemble’ is this cast of unlikely heroes and heroines, thrown together, bonding and fighting incredible odds. You see it in everything from ‘The Water Margin’ to ‘Dragons Forever’. It’s an ensemble cast who find their inner strength in the face of situations far bigger than they could imagine. Each character has their own quirk or personality, but they all seem ordinary and relatable, despite their extraordinary circumstances. I cannot convey how much I enjoyed that aspect of Hong Kong cinema back in the day; the sense of friendship, brotherhood and/or sisterhood, finding fascinating characters from a mundane source. ‘I Love Maria’ is a perfect example of this – there probably aren’t any less likely looking heroes than John Shum, Tsui Hark and a callow Tony Leung, yet combined, they become a winning team. There is an element of the old Hollywood musical ‘Let’s Put On A Show’ spirit where adversity is fought against by a disparate group of characters. It is pure escapism, the wonderful ability that cinema has to fuse you into a group of oddballs and make you feel part of the team.
With wit, whimsy and no short amount of fine action, ‘I Love Maria’ is a perfect advertisement for the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema. A Hong Kong Blu-ray was released in 2021 though I’m still hoping that a UK company will give this the luxurious treatment that we are seeing so many classics (and some definitely NOT classics) get. It deserves a new audience.