Sadly Overlooked: The Career of Hong Kong actor Elvis Tsui Kam Kong
Throughout the history of Hong Kong Cinema there have always been those performers that have deservedly become stars. At the same time there are those that it is unfathomable how they did not become bigger stars, with as much talent and skills as their more famous counterparts. For every Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen or Chow Yun Fat there is a Chin Siu Ho, Fan Siu Wong or Yu Rong-Guang.
One of my favourite of these performers, and someone who should have become a bigger star is Elvis Tsui Kam Kom. Instantly recognisable to fans of Hong Kong cinema, Tsui has appeared in over 130 films and television series throughout his varied career. Perhaps sometimes guilty of being over the top, he has still managed to steal the limelight from many of his co-stars, numerous times being the best part of the film. Unfortunately a lot of the films in his filmography are sub-par and are definitely beneath his talents, although there are some genuine classics that should never be overlooked.
In his earlier years, Tsui attended the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts where he majored in painting. Whilst attending the Academy he studied under the famous Chinese artist Guan Shanyue. He ended up graduating from the Academy with a degree in art. In 1982 at the age of 21, Tsui moved to Hong Kong to further his prospects. He originally tried his hand at being an artist and photographer, subsidising his income by working as a part time model and nightclub singer.
Tsui began his film career the following year in 1983, originally in small roles for Shaw Brothers and other smaller production companies. He can be seen in films such as the classic martial arts film The Lady is the Boss (1983), Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983) and Shaolin Intruders (1983). He also made an appearance in Health Warning (1983), cast as a thug. This film gave Tsui a chance to work with famous director Kirk Wong of Crime Story (1993) and Rock N' Roll Cop (1994) fame.
The majority of the films Tsui was cast in at this time relied on his imposing looks. Unlike a lot of his fellow Hong Kong actors, Tsui is quite tall, and also with him usually having his head shaved, he further stands out from the crowd. This has been a blessing and a curse during his career, with him seemingly playing more villainous roles, although he is still capable of playing the hero which he has proved on a number of occasions.
He would carry on his association with Shaw Brothers until the mid-1980's, appearing in martial arts movies Opium and the Kung Fu Masters (1984), New Tales of the Flying Fox (1984) and also the modern day set thriller The Man is Dangerous (1985), acting alongside another one of Hong Kong's underrated actors Chin Siu Ho. Once again, none of the roles that Tsui was getting at this point were noteworthy, and he certainly wasn’t getting much of a chance to make an impression.
It wouldn’t be until 1986 that Tsui would eventually be offered better roles. He had a small part in the hilarious Chocolate Inspector (1986), starring comedy superstar Michael Hui. He would also act the same year in a more high profile role, appearing as the Sorcerer Aquala in Nam Lai Choi’s The Seventh Curse (1986). The film has went on to be major cult success and would find Tsui acting once again alongside Chin Siu Ho as well as working with future Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat who he would go on to work with again a number of times throughout his career. As well as featuring performances from Chin Siu Ho and Chow Yun Fat, The Seventh Curse also featured early roles for Maggie Cheung, Sibelle Hu and Dick Wei, once again appearing in anything and everything.
In 1984 director Johnny Mak had major success with his hard hitting crime drama Long Arm of the Law (1984). In 1987 his brother Michael Mak was planning a sequel. By chance he happened to meet with Tsui and ended up offering him a role in the film.
His meeting with Mak would be one of the most important meetings of his career, with him going on to work with both Johnny and Michael Mak a number of times throughout the years, with each of the productions being some of Tsui’s best work. Tsui recognised the importance of this meeting himself, commenting that Long Arm of the Law 2 (1987) was his first film, although he had already been working in the industry for five years at this point.
Long Arm of the Law 2 would be the first film of Tsui’s where he played a leading role, being the closest the film has to a leading man. More financially successful, the film did not have the same critical success as the original, but it is equally hard hitting with a number of excellent action scenes included. Slightly more commercial than the original, probably due to the advance in years since the original and Michael Mak taking over the directing reigns, although Johnny Mak stayed involved as producer.
Tsui gives a terrific performance in the film, finally showing film makers and audiences alike that he was capable of so much more than the thug and villainous roles that he had been getting up to this point.
Long Arm of the Law 2 has a number of excellent performances especially from the equally underrated Alex Man, who at that point was probably still a higher profile name than Tsui, giving an excellent supporting performance in the earlier Hong Kong 1941 (1984), starring alongside Chow Yun Fat and Cecilia Yip.
Long Arm of the Law 2 also featured an early role for martial artist Ben Lam. His character is probably the most heartbreaking with him apparently having a future before everything goes to hell. Lam had previously appeared as a different character in the first Long Arm of the Law as well as small appearances in a number of Jackie Chan films. Like his co-stars Lam has had quite a prolific career, although due to his talent and good looks, should have been more of a leading man.
As well as being given the chance to prove himself in Long Arm of the Law 2, Tsui still managed to appear in a number of other films in the same year. He has a small role at the start of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), with his character being the catalyst to the main plot of the film. There would also be small roles in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Born to Gamble (1987). Lastly he would also once again make an appearance in a Chow Yun Fat film, having a small role in Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero (1987).
For fans of Tragic Hero I would recommend watching the first part, Rich and Famous (1987) first. This may seem a strange recommendation but this is due to the production company releasing the second part first, under the impression its the better film.
By 1988, Tsui was now getting better roles. As well as making a brief appearance in the drama Moon, Star, Sun (1988), which also some him once again working with Michael Mak, he also went on to act in the classic action movie Gunmen (1988). Based somewhat on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Gunmen is one of the best Hong Kong action movies of the late 1980’s. Gunmen also found Tsui working once again with director Kirk Wong in a more worthwhile role from the earlier Health Warning. Considering he acts alongside performers such as Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Adam Cheng, Tsui is still a standout and thankfully turns out to be one of the films heroes, involving him-self in the excellent action scenes.
1989 would find Tsui once again working with director Michael Mak, having a co-starring role in Long Arm of the Law 3 (1989). Unlike the previous film in the series, Tsui is the films antagonist for the majority of the film. He portrays Mo Heung-yeung a mainland officer assigned to capture ex-soldier Lee Cheung-king (Andy lau). His character is ambitious with him not being a villain and believing in what he is doing is the right thing. At some points in the film he is like the human terminator and is a force to be reckoned with. The role doesn’t give him as much of a chance to stretch his acting muscles compared to the last film due to him not being the primary focus of the film this time. Still, Long Arm of the Law 3 should not be missed, and is definitely the most accessible film of the series.
During this time Tsui would act in the fantasy action film The Iceman Cometh (1989), an excellent Hong Kong movie that unfortunately doesn’t use Tsui to its advantage.
He would end out the year with the Category 3 thriller Sentenced to Hang (1989). Teaming up once again with Tragic Hero director Taylor Wong as well as his Gunmen co-star Tony Leung Ka-Fai along brilliant character actor Kent Cheng, Sentenced to Hang is probably the best film to come from Taylor Wong and a major improvement on Triads: The Inside Story (1989) which was released previously. Although it just misses being a classic due to some ill-advised comedy scenes (I enjoyed these scenes myself, but some may think they are in poor taste when they realise that this is a true story).The film still has excellent performances from its three leads, who manage to give their characters a modicum of sympathy.
Sentenced to Hang is notable as being based on a true crime case that happened in the 1960’s. The real life case famously became known as The Strange Case of the Three Wolves, and was also the last case in Hong Kong history to carry out the death penalty.
Famous director Herman Yau worked on Sentenced to hang, as director of phoyography a good number of years before he would make his own memorable Category 3 film, The Untold Story (1993). It is also worthwhile noting that the script was co-written by Johnny Mak who also executive produced, making another in the line of contributions between Tsui and the Mak brothers.
Tsui kicked off the 1990’s with the fourth part in the Long Arm of the Law series, Underground Express (1990). Tsui is again back as the lead of the series, with director Michael Mak once again also at the helm. Unfortunately Underground Express doesn’t live up to the quality of the previous three films. Still a worthwhile thriller, but visually it looks as if the film had a considerably lower budget than the others.
He would follow up Underground Express with one of his best villainous roles, acting once again alongside Chow Yun Fat in Prison on Fire 2 (1991). He would round out this year by appearing in Poon Man Kit’s To Be Number 1 (1991), a decent gangster drama that sadly underuses Tsui by casting him in a mute role. He would finish off the year by once again working with Michael Mak, appearing un-credited in the infamous Category 3 erotic comedy Sex and Zen (1991). Sex and Zen went on to be a massive success, and is one of Michael Mak’s most financially successful films. It would also appear that this would be the start of Tsui’s association with this genre and films that were definitely beneath him.
Tsui would carry on differentiating himself in 1992 by starring in a number of comedies. He would act with comedy superstar Chow Sing Chi in Royal Tramp (1992), and then go onto make the action comedy The Shootout (1992). Starring a young Aaron Kwok as the lead and co-starring Lau Ching Wan, Tsui was on main bad guy duties which he appears to revel in, stealing the film from its (at the time) inexperienced lead. The shootout also saw Tsui once again working with Michael Mak who was on directing duties. The shootout is typical of Hong Kong fare at the time, and although enjoyable, is below par considering the talent involved. The Shootout also had Jackie Chan as a producer.
In the same year he would also make smaller appearances in two excellent Hong Kong films, Jacob Cheung’s Lovers Tear (1992), and Raymond Lee’s New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), which fans of Hong Kong Cinema should definitely seek out, although Tsui doesn’t play an important part in them.
He would follow on his association with Michael Mak, making an appearance as the villain in Mak’s wuxia Butterfly and Sword (1993), acting alongside Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michelle Yeoh, Joey Wong and Donnie Yen. Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, the film is surprisingly lackluster with even the action scenes by Ching Siu Tung not being enough to save it. He would fare better in the superior All Men are Brothers: Blood of the Leopard (1993), based on the famous novel The Water Margin, which saw him again working with Tony Leung Ka-fai. His role of Lo Chi-sam would see him being nominated for best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, but lost out to Paul Chun for Derek Yee’s C’est la vie, mon cheri (1993).
He would continue to appear in wuxia’s, having lesser roles in Sword Stained by Royal Blood (1993) an inferior remake of the Chang Cheh classic. Tsui also found time to appear in a number of smaller roles in the year, once again working with director Poon Man Kit on three films, The Sword of Many Lovers (1993), the epic gangster drama Lord of East China Sea (1993) and its sequel.
As the 1990’s kicked into gear, Tsui got busier, sometimes making appearances in over 10 films a year. In 1999 alone, he appeared in 18 films, although the quality of these films varies. As well as once again working with previous co-stars Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Ka-fai by giving an excellent comedic performance in Return of the God of Gamblers (1994), this would also be where he would begin to act in considerably more Category 3 films than he had in the past, accepting inferior roles in subpar films such as Trilogy of Lust 2 (1995), Erotic Ghost Story: Perfect Match (1997) and Severely Rape (1998) amongst others too poor to mention. Even though inferior material, Tsui always gives these roles his all, and even makes some of the films watchable just be his presence. It is obvious that a number of these films would have contributed to Tsui not becoming a bigger star, as Category 3 films do carry a certain stigma.
Not all of the Category 3 films that he made in this period of his career are poor, with a number of them being worthwhile memorable films. Sex and Zen 2 (1996) is a hilarious Hong Kong comedy, typical of the work of its producer Wong Jing. He also had a role in horror film The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995), an over the top tale that could only be made in Hong Kong.
During this period in his career, Tsui still found time to appear in critically acclaimed films such as Derek Yee’s racing drama Full Throttle, starring as an retired race car driver. In the same year he would also once again work with Chow Sing Chi in the special effects heavy comedy Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995). One of Chow Sing Chi’s lesser films, Tsui still manages to make an impression, walking away with a number of scenes, no mean feat considering he’s acting against one of the best comedy performers in the business.
The following year he would once again work with director Derek Yee, as a supporting actor in Viva Erotica (1996), an adult comedy set in the sex industry. The film was another one of Tsui’s Category 3 films, a film that went on to garner major critical acclaim. His role in Viva Erotica would see him once again being nominated for best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He lost this time to Eric Tsang for his role in Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), which can’t be denied, is as equally good as Tsui’s role in Viva Erotica. His female co-star in the film, Shu Qi would however win best supporting actress and Best New Performer that year. They would also both appear in the inferior Street Angels (1996), a poor attempt to cash on the success of the Young and Dangerous series.
Come the latter half of the 1990’s, there is a noticeable drop in quality off the films Tsui was acting in. With less leading roles being offered, it is no doubt that Tsui had to settle for what was made available. There was the odd higher profile film such as God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage (1996), sadly not reprising his hilarious character from Return of the God of Gamblers. He also gives a great comedic performance in the otherwise routine Street of Fury (1996), which is only otherwise notable for an early lead role for Louis Koo.
In the mid 1990’s Tsui ended up transitioning to television starting with Secret Battle of the Majesty (1995). He has continued to appear in a number of television productions, something which he continues to do to this day. Like his film work some shows are better quality than others although I can’t judge them all due to their availability outside of Hong Kong. Tsui is not the only actor in Hong Kong who has turned to television when more prominent film roles dried up. Notable stars such as Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung have gone down this route.
As the 1990’s drew to a close, his roles in bigger budget fare was getting to be less and less with only The Storm Riders (1998) and A Man Called Hero (199), both directed by Andrew Lau, giving him a chance to act in a blockbuster, although his roles in these films are admittedly smaller than his roles in the past. The same year he would also act in the extremely sleazy Body Weapon (1998) which is a poor attempt to mix martial arts with an erotic thriller. It is sporadically entertaining and features a couple of decent fight scenes involving the films lead, Chiu Man Cheuk.
Moving into the 2000’s Tsui would make more appearances in television productions than he would films, although there would still be the odd film. As well as some bottom of the barrel stinkers like Hong Kong Pie (2000) and A Gifted Scholar and a Pretty Girl (2000), which even Tsui’s fans should give a miss, he would also have roles in Andrew Lau’s The Duel (2000) and Wong Jing’s The Spy Dad (2003), which once again gave him a chance to act in a film alongside Tony Leung Ka-fai.
As the 2000’s drew to a close, Tsui was only making fleeting appearances in some films. There were some years where he had no film credits at all, the total opposite of his 18 films in 1999. In 2011 he acted as the village chief in Wilson Yip’s remake, A Chinese Ghost Story (2011). The role was beneath his talents but it was good to see him back on screen. He also had a blink and you’ll miss it role in Wong Kar Wai’s version of the Ip Man legend, The Grandmaster (2013). Since then he has managed to fit in a few more film credits with his latest, comedy drama Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal (2015) being especially enjoyable. Although a small supporting role, the film is worth watching due to the number of recognisable faces from Hong Kong cinema’s past that is included. Tommy Wong, Ken Lo, William Ho Ka-kui and Lam suet are just some of those in the cast.
Considering Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat are now nearing their mid 60’s, it is not unfeasible that Elvis Tsui Kam Kom could still make somewhat of a comeback. At his relatively young age of 54, it is about time some producer decided that it was time to make another Long Arm of the Law film, and finally get Tsui the lead roles that he deserves.