by Martin Cleary
Youngest Brother: Yuen Biao
The youngest of Hong Kong’s legendary ‘three brothers’, Yuen Biao is probably the least well known in the West but with his amazing gymnastic flipping and kicking ability and a talent for both comedy and serious acting, Yuen Biao has produced some serious work to equal that of the higher profile Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.
School Of Hard Knocks
Born in Hong Kong on 26th July 1957, Ha Ling Tsan was the fifth child in a large family of eight children, with three older sisters, one older brother and three younger sisters. After showing an interest in singing and dancing, he energetic – and sometimes troublesome – boy was enroled in Yu Jim Yuen’s Chinese Opera Academy by his parents at the age of just five years old. As was common practise at the school, the children’s names were changed to ‘Yuen’ out of respect for their Sifu, and Ha Ling Tsan became known from that time forward as Yuen Biao. While at the school the young Biao developed his amazing gymnastic ability and at the same time befriended an older boy, the eight year old Yuen Lo – who would one day become better known as Jackie Chan. From his very earliest days at the school Yuen Biao displayed a natural talent for physical performance. In his autobiography Jackie Chan describes the impression Yuen Biao made on his first day:
‘The new kid took a deep breath, ran forward a few quick steps, and performed an almost perfect somersault. The master looked on with pride and surprise; the other kids watched with envy… For the rest of the day, the kid proved that he was a natural, a born acrobat.’ (Taken from I Am Jackie Chan by Jackie Chan, p54)
The two boys Yuen Biao and Yuen Lo became members of the academy’s ‘Seven Fortunes’ troupe and after the rigorous (and near abusive) training regimes they performed in shows to earn money to keep the school running. Other members of the Seven Fortunes troupe included Yuen Wah (seen recently as the landlord in Kung-Fu Hustle) and Yuen Kwai (who would change his name to Corey Yuen and become the successful director and choreographer). Another member of the troupe was the ‘Big Brother’ to the children – a chubby boy called Yuen Lung. Although the young boys and girls disliked Yuen Lung who they considered to be a bully, he would later prove to be a massive help in the boys careers and become famous in his own right – after he changed his name to Sammo Hung.
Enter The… Film Industry
At the age of fifteen, Yuen Biaos’ ten-year contract at the school finished and in his search for paid work he decided to visit Sammo Hung who was at that time working as an action choreographer on a film set. Sammo helped the young Biao secure work as stuntman and extra on several films. When Bruce Lee arrived in Hong Kong in 1971 to make what would be his martial arts masterpieces, Sammo was a part of his team and his involvement meant that Yuen Biao also worked on the projects. Employed as a stuntman and general assistant on the films Fist Of Fury, Way Of The Dragon, Enter The Dragon and the uncompleted Game Of Death, Yuen Biao even sometimes stunt-doubled for Bruce himself, such was his skill and ability.
After the death of Bruce Lee in 1973 the Hong Kong film industry went into a recession and Yuen Biao found it increasingly difficult to find work so he made the decision to go on a tour of America with his old Sifu, Yu Jim Yuen. The tour, which consisted of Chinese Opera and Martial Arts demonstrations, was unfortunately unsuccessful and was cancelled mid-way through. Biao searched for alternative work in the U.S., and lived for a while both in Los Angeles and New York. Around 1976 he was contacted by his father who told him that there seemed to be a renewed local interest in the Hong Kong film industry. On his return to Hong Kong he quickly found work again with his biggest brother, Sammo. Once again, as a stuntman and an ‘extra’ Biao appeared in many films including the groundbreaking Hapkido. He also at this time worked on some of Jackie Chan’s early (and less successful) films such as Shaolin Chamber of Death and the John Woo directed Hand Of Death (which featured both Sammo and Jackie in supporting roles). Although not all of the projects were financial successes, on a personal level Biao managed to establish himself so successfully that he soon found lots of new opportunities coming his way. It wasn’t long before he became an assistant choreographer on films such as The Snuff Bottle Connection, The Invincible Armour and Secret Rivals 2. He then even worked on classmate Jackie’s smash-hit and break-out film Drunken Master as a stunt double for Yuen Siu Tien. Slowly, Biao’s onscreen roles also increased in size and in 1978 came his biggest break so far – the lead role in the film Knockabout. The film wasn’t a massive box-office success but it showed that Biao could confidently carry a lead role. In the subsequent years since its release the reputation of the film has grown, and Knockabout is widely considered to be a Hong Kong classic.
After working fairly consistently with Sammo in the 70’s, Biao began the 80’s on a high – finally appearing onscreen as a co-star with Jackie Chan in The Young Master. In the late 1970’s Jackie had risen to become the Hong Kong industry’s biggest star and for Biao to be able to co-star alongside his old friend in the film (Jackie’s directorial debut for Golden Harvest) was a testament to his own success and hard work. The film was a record breaking success.
Although Knockabout had been a successful leading-debut for Biao, in 1982 he starred under the direction of Sammo Hung in the film Prodigal Son. The film – which features a film-stealing performance from Lam Ching Ying, as well as a powerful appearance from Frankie Chan – won several film awards and Yuen Biao’s own exceptional central performance didn’t go unnoticed. With Prodigal Son Yuen Biao cemented his reputation as a genuine action star.
The Three Brothers Unite
In 1983 the seemingly inevitable happened – the three brothers, Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao – appeared together onscreen in the film Winners & Sinners. Although this was not specifically a project designed for the trio (Yuen Biao was busier on the set as an action choreographer than as an actor) it became clear that as a threesome they really shone together onscreen – and the financial success of the film proved that audiences were desperate to see more.
For years Jackie Chan had dreamt of making a film about sailors and pirates and after the success of Winners & Sinners he decided to enlist Biao and Sammo to star alongside him in the film Project A (originally titled Pirate Patrol). Project A gave all three action stars a chance to show their unique talents, highlighting Biao’s gymnastic ability against Jackie’s slapstick martial-arts fighting and Sammo’s own huge physical presence. The film was a massive success and again made Yuen Biao even more of a recognizable face not only across Asia but also over in the West too. Confusingly, as Yuen Biao’s face was becoming more recognizable to Western viewers, it seemed that his name itself was not. In the Western film market some of the earliest releases of the films in which he appeared he was credited under the name Bill Yuen. Then, when many of the first Jackie Chan films were released in the West, Golden Harvest decided to credit him under yet another name – as Jimmy Yuen. Eventually his name credits were changed back to Yuen Biao – but not before all of these alternative names had caused some confusion among Western fans and critics.
In 1983 Tsui Hark cast Biao in the lead role for the film Zu Warriors: Warriors From The Magic Mountain. The film was a special effects extravaganza and received worldwide acclaim. It received a wide audience as it played for many years at different festivals globally. The next year was an eventful one for Biao, he reunited with Jackie and Sammo again for the film Wheels On Meals, and he united with a wife as he married DiDi Phang Sau-Ha. Wheels On Meals was a blockbuster box-office success and featured an amazing fight between Biao and Keith Vitali, and his marriage seems to have been an equal success – Biao and DiDi have two children together. After Wheels On Meals the three brothers soon reunited again in supporting roles in two ‘Lucky Stars’ films.
As Yuen Biao sailed on a career high, 1986 proved to be a very busy and fruitful year. Firstly he met up with former classmate Corey Yuen and a then up and coming martial artist called Cynthia Rothrock to work on the film Righting Wrongs. The film was a dazzling display of Yuen Biao’s skills and acting talent and is a classic of 1980’s HK cinema. The involvement of Rothrock ensured that the film was distributed well in the west under the title Above The Law, and yet again Biao gathered an even stronger fan base. After the success of Righting Wrongs, Biao co-starred with Sammo and a group of Hong Kong stars (including Lam Ching Ying, Yuen Woo Ping, Billy Lau, ex-classmate Yuen Wah and Righting Wrongs director Corey Yuen) for the film Eastern Condors. The film, which is a sort of Hong Kong Dirty Dozen, displays some amazing fight action and stunt work and has become a classic. Yuen Biao shows off some of his amazing acrobatic moves – as well as a bad Eighties haircut. Next up, Biao joined forces with Lam Ching Ying once again for Mr Vampire 2 which was produced by Sammo and was the sequel to the smash-hit original Mr Vampire film released the previous year. Although not as strong as the original film, the presence of Biao back alongside Lam Ching Ying (his Prodigal Son co-star) in the second instalment of the series marks it out as one to watch.
The very next year, 1987, Biao teamed up once again with his two brothers to star in the film Dragons Forever. Although the film was a massive critical success and today remains one of HK cinema fans favourites, it marked the last time to date that all three actors starred together on-screen in a project. Working on the film somehow highlighted tensions between the trio. There were disagreements over the direction the film should take and even though Sammo was officially the films director (and as the eldest he should traditionally have been the decision maker) it was Jackie who was the biggest star and he had been used to a lot of control over his own projects. In the middle of this power struggle Yuen Biao felt side-lined and after filming was completed he made the decision that he would concentrate on his solo career. One of his first films in this next phase of his career was the bizarre Peacock King, a Japanese financed project which saw him play a Taoist monk who has to stop the gates of hell from opening on Earth. Although the film makes little sense, it proved to be good fun and was a huge success in Japan. After the Peacock King, Biao took the role of Ming Hsiang in the film On The Run – and gave a serious and dramatic performance which was rewarded with critical acclaim.
In 1989 Biao teamed up again with his old classmate, Yuen Wah, for the film Iceman Cometh, a sort of Hong Kong reworking of Highlander. This action comedy was another big success for Biao, helped in no small part by strong performances from his co-stars Maggie Cheng and Wah. Although his projects were financial successes, Biao found himself struggling to find especially good roles. As popular as he was with audiences, he couldn’t find particularly strong projects, and so opted for parts in a few lower budgeted films including Saga Of The Phoenix which was a sequel to the Peacock King.
Once Upon A Time…
In 1991, Biao was finally offered a role which was strong enough for him to get his teeth into, in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China. The film, starring Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung, was a massive box-office success and also allowed Yuen Biao to stretch his acting skills alongside his action abilities. Sadly, some of Biao’s screen-time was cut from the released film to shorten the running time. Tsui Hark and Yuen Biao subsequently fell out over the project, and Biao did not return for the sequel. After starring in the under-rated Shogun and Little Kitchen in 1992, Biao decided that it was time to take more control of his own projects. He set up his own production company called Yuen Biao Films and he made his directorial debut with A Kid From Tibet. The film proved to be a difficult project – although Biao was allowed unprecedented access to shoot in Tibet, it was a long shoot and the rigours of both starring and directing took their toll on the actor. The film wasn’t a big success on its release, although it is since gaining a reputation as a cult classic. The stress of the project was too much for Biao, and he has not yet returned to the directorial chair to repeat the experience.
In 1993 Yuen Biao produced and starred in the film Kickboxer. The film, which was directed by legendary Hong Kong director Wu Ma, was another take on the Wong Fei Hung legend .After feeling slighted by his experiences on Once Upon A Time In China, Biao had managed to return to the Fei Hung story. Although the film did not have the same production values of the Tsui Hark series, Kickboxer features enough good action scenes to make it worth a look – and was the last time (so far) that Yuen Biao would face off against Yuen Wah onscreen. The next year Biao was lined up for a project which would have him once again starring alongside Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. The project, Don’t Give A Damn, didn’t fully come together and Jackie couldn’t sign on for his part due to prior commitments. The film went ahead anyway with Yuen Biao back alongside his big brother Sammo. The rest of the nineties were not a great time for Biao on the big screen. New comers such as Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Steven Chow began to take the main big-screen roles, and Yuen Biao found himself in a lot of projects which didn’t really utilise his acting or physical skills to their best abilities.
After appearances in 1994’s Circus Kids and Dragon From Shaolin in 1996, Biao found himself once again under the directorial control of classmate Corey Yuen for the film Hero. Biao’s performance as the Triad leader Tam See reminded audiences that he could still pack a punch on screen. A similarly strong performance in The Hunted Hunter showed the same thing. Unfortunately neither film was as convincing at the box-office.
In 1998 Biao took a break from the big screen to appear in several television series including Righteous Guards and The Legend Of A Chinese Hero made for Taiwan and China. His only film-work this year was as action director on the film Leopard Hunting. The next year he made a big-screen return in what was hoped to be a big come-back in A Man Called Hero, the semi-sequel to the smash-hit CGI-heavy film The Storm-Riders. Although A Man Called Hero was similarly popular with worldwide audiences, Biao’s character gets buried in between the confused narrative and amazing special effects.
Over in the U.S., Biao’s old schoolmate and friend Jackie Chan had finally made the breakthrough in Hollywood that he had always dreamed of. The films Rumble In The Bronx and Rush Hour had been world-wide box-office smashes, and Jackie’s next film Shanghai Noon needed to be something special. Going over to work with Jackie’s stunt-team (which Biao had always been a sort of honorary member of) he worked as fight choreographer and stuntman on the film. The film was a big success on its release – and the fight scenes did not disappoint Jackie’s fans – even those who were upset that Jackie had left Hong Kong to work in America. Although he enjoyed working on a film-set again, Biao found himself less interested in the film business and was during this period described by Jackie as being more interested in being on the golf course than on a film set.
Eventually Biao was convinced by Sammo to get back in front of the camera, and he appeared in the film The Avenging Fist, an unofficial (someone forgot to buy the rights!) Hong Kong film version of the popular video game Tekken. What could have again proved to be a promising role in was swamped by an over reliance on special effects. Like his experience on A Man Called Hero, Yuen Biao found himself secondary to computer wizardry. The next few years saw only minimal appearances from Biao, in 2002 he appeared in No Problem 2, and in Hero Youngster in 2004. In that same year he made a notable cameo in the Jackie Chan-produced Enter The Phoenix, and he followed this in 2005 with another return to the small-screen, starring in the Hong Kong television series Real Kung-Fu which ran for forty episodes and was a popular success.
In early 2006 an announcement was made that Yuen Biao would once again be starring in a film alongside Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. While Hong Kong fans salivated at the prospect of seeing the three Hong Kong screen legends back together, the excitement proved to be short lived. Sammo Hung couldn’t commit to for the film due to contractual scheduling. The project – eventually called Rob-B-Hood – still went ahead with Jackie starring and Yuen Biao taking a small role, and has been a big recent success. Recently Yuen Biao has returned to the small screen once more, this time for the Hong Kong series Wing Chun. The series, which also co-stars Nicholas Tse and Sammo Hung see’s Biao returning to the character he played for his classic film Prodigal Son. Hopefully it will receive a wider screening than most HK shows.
As one of Hong Kong’s beloved ‘Three Brothers’ and as a star in his own right, Yuen Biao has been involved in making some of the most groundbreaking, influential and just-downright-amazing films to come out of Hong Kong – or anywhere in the world for that matter – in the last thirty years. He may or may not appear on the big screen again anytime soon, time will tell, but Yuen Biao is one of Asian and action cinema’s living legends.
Prodigal Son (1982)
Project A (1983)
Wheels On Meals (1984)
Eastern Condors (1986)
Righting Wrongs (1986)
Dragons Forever (1988)
The Iceman Cometh (1989)
Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
Buy Yuen Biao’s movies at YesAsia