In 1996 Andrew Lau Wai-Keung’s Young and Dangerous series appeared, exactly ten years after John Woo had reinvented the Hong Kong gangster film with A Better Tomorrow and given birth to the "heroic bloodshed" genre. Even though its influence on the Hong Kong film industry was not as important as John Woo’s movies, after five direct sequels, one prequel, and dozens of spin-offs, this series was to change the Hong Kong cinema of the nineties.
1996 was a significant year for the colony, which would break its hundred-year tie with Great Britain in 1997. No one really knew what would happen, and some people who had enough money left for places like Canada or the UK itself to start a new life. But for most of the citizens there wasn’t any chance to leave and movies were a way of forgetting everyday problems. It was this atmosphere of uncertainty and national angst that provided the perfect setting for the series to become a hit.
The series glorifies all the aspects unique to the indigenous Hong Kong culture, particularly the Triad system which is shown from the viewpoint of some of its young criminal members, Chan Ho Nam (Ekin Cheng) and Chicken (Jordan Chan). The first movie begins with a flashback to their early childhood and their first contact with Triad members. Ten years later, both are looking forward to a glorious future in the Triad society which is protrayed in a gritty but glamorous way.
Through six installments made between 1996 and 2000, Ho-Nam and Chicken live a dashing but dangerous existence in this violent but hip culture. The films are actually based on a comic book series, and its pulp origins are revealed through the narrative archetypes of love and betrayal, an essential part of the success of the series. Women, in partcular, play the traditional role of femme fatale, falling for fast sport cars and hard men, but disappear the second the men lose their lucky streak.
One reason for the success of the series is down to the choice of the actors. While big Hong Kong stars such as Anthony Wong or Simon Yam appear in most of the movies, they remain secondary to relatively new stars, Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan, who went on to become some of the most popular Asian actors. They also become pop stars, performing all the songs of the Young and Dangerous series themselves.
In terms of production, style over substance seems to be preferred. The primary locations are the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong by night, peopled by Wong Kar-Wai’s shadowy figures foregrounded in slow motion shots. It’s so pretty that nothing is really grim here: even though people do get shot, the overall tone is fairly positive. Being a Triad member seems unavoidably cool – hanging out with your buddies, beating up some people you don’t like and getting nearly every girl you want. So much so, that when it was released in 1996 Hong Kong politicians were critical of the series, which was accused of looking like a glossy advert for Triad culture.
Young and Dangerous Part 5 was the low point of the series. Released in the beginning of 1998 with the absence of Chicken’s character, the movie failed even its hardboiled fans thanks to a weak script. Even Hong Kong veteran actor Danny Lee couldn’t save the movie. Therefore the series was taken in another direction.
The next idea was realised by Andrew Lau himself later in 1998. He made a prequel showing what happened in the ten years before the first Young and Dangerous movie, introducing fresh actors Nicholas Tse as Ho-Nam and Sam Lee as Chicken, this movie was one of the highlights of the whole series.
Yip Wai-Man’s Portland Street Blues (1998) was the first real spin-off of the series and concentrated on the character of sister 13 (Sandra Ng), a female branch leader who was introduced in the fourth movie. This new appoach proved a winning formula; fans of the original series were also happy some of the characters returned, and even Ho-Nam had an appearance.
In 2000 Yip Wai-Man made his second spin-off movie focusing on Chicken while Andrew Lau made Young and Dangerous 6 in the summer of 2000, again with both Cheng and Chan in the cast. Whether there will be any further movies directly connected to the series is unclear, but at least the spirit of the series lives on and these young characters have become as essential a part of Hong Kong culture as Woo’s adult gangsters.