It's not easy to succeed in Hollywood as a foreign director, but that hasn't stopped a bunch of Hong Kong directors from taking the plunge. Very few made a noticeable impact, even fewer made anything truly worthwhile and just about every single one returned to their homeland to reboot their careers. Ronny Yu is one of those brave men and while his Hollywood work isn't exactly A-grade material, he did direct some memorable films over there.
But like most Hong Kong directors crossing over, Yu started his career in Hong Kong. I can't say I'm very familiar with Yu's early work though, somehow his first couple of films have completely eluded me. Yu started his career in 1979, co-directing a film with Philip Chan. The first somewhat famous title he directed was Xun Cheng Ma [The Postman Fights Back], an action vehicle starring Chow Yun-Fat. All in all he directed 9 films before the '90s, none of which I've seen.
The first Ronny Yu film I did see was Qian Wang 1991 [Great Pretenders], an amusing comedy romp featuring Teddy Robin Kwan and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in a typical (Jing Wong-like trickster setting. He followed it up with Huo Tou Fu Xing [Shogun and the Little Kitchen], a martial arts comedy featuring Yuen Biao, Leon Lai and Man Tat Ng. Funny films if you can stand the typical Hong Kong sense of humor, but probably not the best entry points in Yu's oeuvre.
In the magical year 1993 Yu directed his two breakthrough films. Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan I & II [The Bride with the White Hair I & II] are two solid fantasy epics that are sure to appeal to fans of 90s Hong Kong cinema, travelling far beyond the borders of Yu's home turf. Two years later he would repeat his success in a more historically correct setting with Ye Ban Ge Sheng [The Phantom Lover], though that film failed to generate the same international buzz as its predecessors.
'97 was the year that Yu began to actively woo Hollywood. At first tentatively, with Hong Kong/USA cross-over film Warriors of Virtue, later he would move on to direct two high-profile horror franchise sequels (Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs Jason) while delivering a weird Guy Ritchie clone (The 51st State) in between. While not great films, they possess a baseline quality that make them quite enjoyable still.
It wouldn't be until Yu's return to Hong Kong in 2006 that he would finally direct his masterpiece. Huo Yuanjia [Fearless] is a grand martial arts epic recounting the life of its titular character. The film did well, not in the least because Jet Li announced it as his last Wushu film. It would take Yu another 7 years to direct a follow-up, but sadly that one failed to really excite audiences. Yang Jia Jiang [Saving General Yang] is a decent enough film, but a little below Yu's usual quality standard.
Ronny Yu isn't a great director, nor the kind of director who has a clear signature style. But he can handle big budgets remarkably well and even when he's given weak source material he is able to make something fun with it. While Huo Yuanjia is pretty much his only stand-out film so far, I haven't really seen a weak film by Yu either. Though I presume you need a soft spot for Hong Kong's legendary sense of humor to appreciate his older work.
Best film: Huo Yuanjia [Fearless] (4.5*)
Worst film: Qian Wang 1991 [Great Pretenders] (3.0*)
Average rating: 3.30 (out of 5)