Jumping Ash [跳灰] (1976)

Starring Josephine Siao Fong-Fong, Ga Lun, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Chan Sing, Nick Lam Wai-Kei, Lee Yin-Ping, Wu Fung, Lo Hoi-Pang, Lee Chi-Chung, Cheng Chi-Tun, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Cheung Sek-Aau

Directed by Josephine Siao Fong-Fong & Po-Chih Leong

Expectations: Very interested. Don’t know what to expect, though.

Jumping Ash was a huge hit in its day, reaching #3 at the 1976 Hong Kong box office, but unfortunately I watched it faded, full-screen and dubbed. Hopefully it can be restored in the future and seen by fans in its original format, because in addition its success, Jumping Ash was also highly influential. It exhibited all the qualities of the Hong Kong New Wave, a few years before it really began in earnest. Some cite Jumping Ash as the first film of the New Wave, while others list it as a stylistic forerunner, but no matter what you call it, it’s a film that feels ahead of its time and far closer to what Hong Kong cinema would become than what it was in 1976. It’s hard to know from my position in 2018 America, but it also seems like it has its finger on the pulse of Hong Kong at the time, set in specific locations during May 1976 and then released just a few months later in August 1976.

Defining the style of the Hong Kong New Wave is a tricky thing to do. Like many film movements, it was something that happened organically and was only named and grouped together later on. Basically, the new crop of filmmakers in the late ’70s/early ’80s redefined what Hong Kong movies were, eventually taking over the industry from the fading studio-based model of Shaw Brothers. Location shooting and experimentation became the norm as this new generation of filmmakers put their artistic stamp on their films. Much of the previous generation thought of their work as nothing more than a job, so the emergence of singular talents like Tsui Hark, Ann Hui or Sammo Hung left a limitless impact on the industry. The films of this era firmly re-established Cantonese filmmaking as the dominant force of Hong Kong cinema, resulting in films that better reflected Hong Kong culture and society. It is also in this era where the genre-blending and multi-tone films took hold, bringing Hong Kong into what I consider its best and most fruitful period. This, too, is present in Jumping Ash, which deftly mixes drama, action and comedy on a moment’s whim.

Story is not the strong point of Jumping Ash, but this isn’t so much a flaw as it is a calculated choice. The film brought a more realistic type of crime story to the Hong Kong screen with its scattered narrative and its shifting focus. The camera captures actors in real locations, and is ever-moving and often handheld, giving the film more of a documentary vibe than its similarly themed contemporaries. Through all of this, though, there is a defined, basic storyline that provides for lots of triad intrigue and police investigation. Simply put, a gang in Hong Kong is attempting to eliminate one of their rivals, stirring up the status quo and attracting the attention of the police. In some ways, it reminded me of Kinji Fukusaku’s yakuza series Battles Without Honor or Humanity, but in Jumping Ash the focus is split evenly between the two gangs and the police.

Unlike later Hong Kong efforts in the genre, Jumping Ash is more police procedural than action film. There’s a fair amount of assassinations and violence, but not much is classifiable as action in the traditional Hong Kong sense. There are a couple of fun fights, but unlike the rest of the film they are dated compared to the rest of Hong Kong’s 1976 output. This rears its head most obviously when strikes are often shot at poor angles, exposing the wide distance between the punch/kick and its connection point. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s always something that bothers me, no matter how good the rest of the movie is. The finale between Michael Chan Wai-Man and Chan Sing is easily the best bit of action in the film, although Chan Sing’s stairwell altercation (that reminded me a lot of a similar scene in Payment in Blood) is also quite exciting.

Jumping Ash was ahead of its time, and its influence on Hong Kong filmmaking is undeniable. It feels like a film made in the early ’80s, but it is also unmistakably full of ’70s fashion and styles. It’s easy to see how it was a success, because it’s just so different from the then-current norm in Hong Kong. Various earlier films contained elements of what defined the Hong Kong New Wave (such as many Kuei Chih-Hung films), but none of them are as complete and unique as Jumping Ash. Fans of Hong Kong cinema history will definitely want to check this one out for its influence and its uniqueness within the era.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the next film in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle: The New Shaolin Boxers! See ya then!