When Cinema City’s Aces Go Places shattered domestic box-office records in Hong Kong in 1982, rival studio Golden Harvest were keen to replicate its success. Sammo Hung, who had been with the studio for a while and was by then rising in stature as both a star and director, had an idea based around a handful of inspirations. For one, he looked to his background in training with the Peking opera school as a child and the close camaraderie he developed with his fellow ‘Seven Little Fortunes’. He felt due to the way they’d left their homes as children to train, they were a little like orphans growing up together, and Sammo said he “started thinking about what would happen if a group of kids like that met up as adults and had an adventure.”
On top of this, Sammo remembered a popular TV series he’d seen with a group of characters all with different skills and personalities working for the police force. The Cannonball Run had been a big hit too, which threw together a host of big stars in a wacky action-comedy.
Bringing all of these ideas together, Sammo came up with Winners and Sinners, an action-comedy featuring a wealth of Hong Kong film and TV stars, based around the idea of a rag-tag group of former criminals who end up helping the police. To add extra marketability, Sammo’s old friends and fellow ‘Little Fortunes’ Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao were drafted in to provide the action.
The concept paid off handsomely, with Winners and Sinners making a hefty HK$21,972,419 at the local box office on its release in 1983. As you might expect, the success caused it to become a franchise, with My Lucky Stars coming in 1985 and Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars soon after, that same year. Another four Lucky Stars films followed these too (on top of another closely related series, Pom Pom), but only this initial trilogy saw both Jackie and Yuen feature and Sammo only directed one more later episode, though he still acted in all but one of them.
Eureka are releasing the first three Lucky Stars films in a 3-Blu-ray set in the UK, as part of their Classics range. Being the Hong Kong martial arts fan that I am, I got hold of a copy and below are my thoughts.
Winners and Sinners
Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Based on a Story by: Barry Wong
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, John Sham, Richard Ng, Charlie Chin, Stanley Sui-Fan Fung, Cherie Chung, Jackie Chan, James Tien, Philip Chan, Paul Chang Chung, Ching-Ying Lam, Biao Yuen
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 108 min
The first film in the series sees five old friends, Teapot (Sammo), Curly (John Sham), Exhaust Pipe (Richard Ng), Vaseline (Charlie Chin), and Rookie (Stanley Fung), end up in prison at the same time for botched robberies and other escapades. When they’re released (all at the same time, conveniently), they attempt to go straight, forming a cleaning company, Five Stars Cleaning Co.
They all stay at Curly’s house and when they meet his beautiful sister Shirley (Cherie Chung), the rest of the gang constantly vie for her attention.
During all of this, we occasionally catch glimpses of a shady counterfeiting operation that’s underway and is headed by Jack Tar (James Tien), an important mob boss who was also released on the same day as the Lucky Stars.
Meanwhile, we meet a police detective (Jackie) who gets demoted for beating up an innocent suspect. While taking part in a rollerskating competition, he spots a mugging and goes after the two perpetrators.
However, what the muggers don’t realise is that they’ve stolen the counterfeiting plates from Tar. It’s not them that are landed in deep trouble, however, as, during the chase with Jackie, the criminals dump the briefcase they stole in the Five Stars Cleaning Co. van, leaving our hapless heroes Tar’s new target.
Winners and Sinners came as a bit of a disappointment to me (even though I think I’ve seen it before – my memory was vague) and will likely elicit the same reaction from likeminded Hong Kong martial-arts movie fans. This is due to a key factor you should bear in mind before giving the film a watch. Winners and Sinners (and the rest of the Lucky Stars films for that matter) is not an action movie with some comedy elements. It’s very much a comedy with a few action scenes.
So, your mileage will vary, depending on your taste for Hong Kong comedy from the 80s. I do have a soft spot for the goofy slapstick you often get in Jackie and Sammo’s films, but a whole film of it was a bit much for me. Plus, quite a lot of the verbal humour will be lost on Western audience members, like myself.
I did find quite a bit of it funny though. I’ve always been a fan of Richard Ng and he gets a lot of the best gags, including a ridiculous but well-executed bit where he’s duped into parading around the house naked in the belief that he’s invisible.
This scene does lead to one of the numerous comedy sequences that are in rather bad taste though. The constant letching over Cherie Chung leads to activities that could easily be classed as sexual assault. This certainly isn’t a film fit for the #MeToo era, so you have to constantly remind yourself this was a very different time and place.
The film is not free of action though. Jackie and Yuen were brought in for a reason and when they appear they do not disappoint. Neither are in the film much, but they have a fast-paced fight with each other and Jackie has an incredible sequence where he chases the muggers mentioned in my synopsis. This leads onto the road, with Jackie hanging onto the back of cars and sliding under trucks. It’s breathtaking stuff and culminates in an epic pileup that gives The Blues Brothers a run for its money.
Sammo gets to kick some ass in the final act too, showing his impressive athleticism and skill for directing action. I also enjoyed how the other Lucky Stars were given some spoof fight sequences, playing on the ‘animal style’ techniques popular in martial arts movies.
As good as the action is, however, I didn’t feel there was enough of it for my tastes. The narrative is a big issue too. I loved the opening where the Lucky Stars are introduced, getting arrested for different botched crimes. However, as the film goes on, it soon becomes erratic, with often little connecting one scene with another.
So, overall, though fans of goofy Hong Kong comedy will likely get a big kick from Winners and Sinners, action fans might be disappointed. There are a couple of great set pieces and the cast are game for a laugh, but the material is weak so the Lucky Stars’ hi-jinx wear thin after a while.
My Lucky Stars
Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Barry Wong
Based on a Story by: Barry Wong, Cheuk-Hon Szeto, Kin Lo
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Richard Ng, Charlie Chin, Stanley Sui-Fan Fung, Eric Tsang, Sibelle Hu, Jackie Chan, Tat-Wah Tso, Biao Yuen, Paul Chang Chung, Ching-Ying Lam
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 96 min
My Lucky Stars opens with Muscles (Jackie Chan) and his partner (Yuen Biao) trying to track down and arrest a corrupt Hong Kong cop who’s fled to Japan to join a triad gang. Unfortunately, the operation fails and Muscles’ partner is kidnapped by the triads.
In hiding, Muscles calls his department for help and requests they bring in some old friends of his, the Lucky Stars.
So, the team re-assemble (with new names and John Sham swapped out for Eric Tsang) and head to Japan.
They’re given support in the form of Empress Flower (Sibelle Hu), a policewoman who the Stars fall madly in love with, of course. The five hapless buddies clash whilst trying to win over the beautiful Empress Flower and adapt to the Japanese way of life. Eventually, they meet up with Jackie and help him sort out the triads too.
My Lucky Stars is very much in a similar vein to its predecessor, but it worked better for me this time around.
It helped that I was better prepared for what was coming (again I’d seen this before, but it had been so long I barely remembered it), but I think it’s a slicker, better-paced film overall. The story seems more focussed too, though the Stars never seem in a hurry to track down the bad guys and I’m not quite sure why Muscles thought they could help.
There’s still not a lot of action, but here it’s used to grab your attention in the opening 10 minutes, which are great, then leave you satisfied with a brilliantly choreographed and directed fight-filled finale. This sequence helped gain My Lucky Stars a nomination for Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards and rightfully so. Sammo, Jackie, Yuen and Hu all get decent fights in the climactic scenes and are joined by some skilled villains, in Ching-Ying Lam and Michiko Nishiwaki.
Also impressive in this second film is its visual style. Sammo seems to have upped his game here, with some interesting camerawork (particularly in the opening scenes at the amusement park) and bold use of colour. The finale kicks off with a visually impressive scene too, with Jackie in a haunted house, which has hints of horror in its approach.
The goofy humour is still a bit hit and miss, but I found myself giggling out loud on occasion. A low-brow gag when the Stars try to order dinner in Japan without knowing the language certainly raised a snicker. It’s hardly a witty sequence, but it’s well-executed.
The horrifically inappropriate sexual assault ‘jokes’ are worse than ever though. In one scene one of our supposed heroes even declares he’s going to rape Empress Flower and, though he’s stopped, the group do discuss the idea. It’s hard to imagine this was acceptable even in the 80s but maybe things were different in Hong Kong. Thankfully, Empress Flower does always win out in these scenes and the Stars tend to get some sort of comeuppance.
So, like Winners and Sinners, this is not really a Jackie Chan vehicle and the action is largely restricted to the start and end but, either due to me being more primed for this or otherwise, I felt it worked more effectively. With a clearer focus, slicker delivery and some great action setpieces, it’s a fun romp, even if a couple of scenes are disturbingly dated.
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars
Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Barry Haigh, Barry Wong
Based on a Story by: Barry Wong, Cheuk-Hon Szeto, Kin Lo
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Richard Ng, Kiu Wai Miu, Stanley Sui-Fan Fung, Eric Tsang, Sibelle Hu, John Sham, Rosamund Kwan, Jackie Chan, Biao Yuen
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 89 min
After their sojourn in Japan, the Lucky Stars (seeing Charlie Chin only featuring briefly but replaced by an alter-ego, Kiu Wai Miu) head to Thailand in Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars. They’re supposed to be there on holiday, but get caught up in more criminal goings-on when a witness Empress Flower (Sibelle Hu) is asked to meet ends up getting assassinated.
It turns out this witness had sent important information to an actress, Wang Yi-Ching (Rosamund Kwan), so her life is thrown into danger. The authorities, for some reason, believe the best course of action will be to leave the beautiful Yi-Ching in the hands of the Lucky Stars. They, of course, proceed to fawn over her.
Meanwhile, Muscles (Jackie), an associate (Andy Lau), Ricky Fung (Yuen) and Empress Flower try to stop the assassins sent to kill Yi-Ching and intercept the important letter on its way to her.
After the step-forward made by My Lucky Stars, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars felt like a bit of a step back. Again, the plot is rather nonsensical, with the Lucky Stars chasing after women whilst the side characters deal with the central drama sporadically, throughout.
My biggest problem though was simply the fact that it was too similar to the previous films. Watching the Lucky Stars once again try to force themselves on any attractive woman they come across was a bit creepy the first time, flat out disturbing in places the second time around and, by this point, it just felt tiresome. Saying that, the boys’ techniques do get pretty ridiculous in this film, so at least their slightly ‘rapey’ acts are so bafflingly bonkers they seem less offensive.
Like in the previous entries though, the action scenes are great. The fights are more brutal this time around, with a few splashings of blood and some tough, heavy-hitting combat, particularly in Jackie and Sammo’s scenes with Richard Norton (who soon became a staple Hong Kong action bad guy). We also get a fun early-career cameo from one of my favourite Hong Kong stars, Michelle Yeoh, and Andy Lau, who became huge in future years, gets a chance to show some impressive action chops.
So, the plot is as flimsy and clumsy as ever and the horny antics are wearing paper-thin by this third episode, but the cast still have a lot of charm and chemistry, the running time is kept lean (in the shorter Hong Kong cut at least) and the action scenes are excellent. It falls short of My Lucky Stars as my favourite of the three, but Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars is still good fun and worth a watch.
The Lucky Stars 3-Film Collection is out on 22nd March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics range. The picture quality on all titles is excellent. The colours are bold but not unnatural, detail is incredibly high and the prints are as clean as a whistle. You get plenty of audio options on each film too, leaving no stone unturned for those with specific preferences. The original Cantonese tracks I opted for sounded decent.
There are plenty of special features included in the special 3-disc Blu-ray edition:
– O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling (First print run of 2000 copies will feature a Limited-Edition unique variant)
– All three films presented in 1080p on Blu-ray from brand new restorations
– Winners and Sinners – new 4K restoration!
– My Lucky Stars – new 2K restoration!
– Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars – new 4K restoration, plus the alternate extended Taiwanese version also fully restored in 4K!
– Cantonese audio tracks (original mono presentations)
– Optional English dubbed audio tracks for all films
– Newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new feature length audio commentaries on all three films by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Winners and Sinners – Archival interview with director and star Sammo Hung (6 mins)
– Winners and Sinners – Archival interview with director and star Sammo Hung (13 mins)
– Winners and Sinners – Sammo Hung retrospective featuring interviews with friends of the legendary director, actor, and action choreographer (20 mins)
– My Lucky Stars – Archival interview with Michiko Nishiwaki (20 mins)
– My Lucky Stars – Archival interview with Sammo Hung (18 mins)
– Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars – Archival interview with Richard Norton (33 mins)
– Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars – Archival interview with Richard Ng (21 mins)
– Behind-the-scenes featurettes on all three films originally produced for their Japanese releases
– Outtakes, NG (“No Good!”) shots for all three films
– Trailers for all three films
– Limited-Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver (First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only)
Frank Djeng’s commentaries all help explain some of the jokes lost in translation as well as pointing out the numerous cameos in the series that non-Hong-Kong natives wouldn’t necessarily spot. He’s a fountain of knowledge surrounding Hong Kong films of the era, so also offers plenty of illuminating facts about the production and those involved.
One extra feature I didn’t see listed on the blurb I was sent was an archive TV recording of a special show featuring the Lucky Stars team on stage together. It’s a low-quality recording and largely just a series of song and dance comedy numbers but it’s a lot of fun. You get some impressive acrobatics from Jackie, Sammo and Yeun too.
The Sammo interviews overlap in places but they all have something to add. I preferred the one he does largely in his own language as he’s more natural and clear in his points. It’s a longer interview too. He talks of his love for Buster Keaton in this, which is great to hear.
The piece about (but not featuring) Sammo is OK, though it’s largely just a lot of co-stars praising him to high heaven. The anecdotes can be a bit random too. One ‘friend’ spends far too long talking about when Sammo gave her a spicy chilli to eat!? There are some nice stories too though, about how supportive he was to the contributors.
The Michiko Nishiwaki interview is fairly lengthy at 20 mins. Like a few of the pieces here, it’s an archive entry that showed up on the old Hong Kong Legends DVD but it’s decent, discussing her life and work.
In another archive interview, Richard Ng talks about his career. He started off doing walk-on parts in the UK, which I didn’t realise. His first was on A Countess of Hong Kong, directed by Charlie Chaplin! He seems to be a nice chap with quite a surprisingly ‘luvvie’-esque British accent due to his time in the country. He seems quite honest too when discussing his co-stars and the production. Not in a nasty way but talks of their pros and cons.
I love the archive Richard Norton interview too. He’s led a fascinating life, starting out as a bouncer, working with big rock bands in the 70s, before he started his acting career. He’s good friends with Chuck Norris too. It’s a pleasure to hear him talk about his experiences.
The outtakes or NGs are always good for a laugh and a wince when stunts go wrong, so are a welcome inclusion.
The booklet is decent, offering a handful of short essays on each entry to the series.
So, the films may not be the best Sammo, Yuen or Jackie have to offer, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless and Eureka’s Blu-ray package is loaded with enough decent supplements to warrant a recommendation.