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SEPTEMBER 11, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 10


Jackie Chan/Columbia Tri Star.
Jackie Chan is Hong Kong's most durable film export.
Mad for Hong Kong Movies
Several new books pay passionate tribute to the vibrant, breathless cinema the former colony has been churning out for decades
By RICHARD CORLISS

If history is written by the winners, movie histories are written by the lovers. Film scholars, whatever their pretenses to objectivity, have to love the archaeological search for cool movies—perhaps because it replicates their earliest moviegoing memories. There you were, a small child in a big room, finding awe in grand images that presumed to dream for you.

That certainly applies when foreigners are exposed to the Hong Kong movie industry. Studious types, weaned on crabby little minimalist European art films, stumble onto an action film from Hong Kong's golden age—early '70s to late '90s, or roughly from when Bruce Lee came from Hollywood to when Jackie Chan went to Hollywood— and get the nifty buzz of culture shock. What's this? A foreign picture with a racing pulse? In a tepid movie era, popular cinema lives!

Instantly, the scholars are addicted. They scour the back racks in video stores, trek to their local Chinatown theater and dip into the banquet of Hong Kong pleasures. Horror movies, swordplay epics, crazily violent thrillers, raucous comedies, outlandish sex films—in sum, a cinema dedicated to satisfying the lurid adolescent that dwells in every true movie fan. The historians could say they're doing homework (these films do have subtitles, and in two languages!). But really they are playing hooky. Who knew scholarship could be such a gas?

And when the new acolytes of Hong Kong cinema sit down to describe it, normally dry writers get juiced on the energy of the films. Whether they are academics or journalists, their prose often has a doting, indulgent, often swoony skew. They want to convey in words the jolt of discovery, the ecstasy of cultdom, that they surely felt on first seeing a Hong Kong movie in a theater, accompanied by the similarly enraptured.

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Stefan Hammond has that virus (he is so loopy for Hong Kong movies that he now lives there) and wants to infect the unwary with it. In his introduction to Hollywood East: Hong Kong Movies and the People Who Make Them (Contemporary Books, $14.95), a bright survey of recent films (and, for no additional cost, a nifty primer on life in the territory), he warns: "Portions of this book are sheer rant, born of passion and love for the experience of the Lighted Wall. Abandon the solitary viewing experience of the Haunted Fish Tank and seek out the communion of your fellow HK crazies in theaters that present these films. There is nothing like being a single cell in the unified organism undergoing the collective experience of a rippin' good Hong Kong flick."

The region's film industry is now in retreat, a victim of video piracy, Hollywood's brain drain of top Hong Kong talent and the natural ebbing of any New Wave—nothing stays terrific forever. But if the glory days are over for Hong Kong movies, they may be dawning for Hong Kong movie books. There are a dozen recent English-language volumes on the subject, most of them written by Americans, and all available in Hong Kong and other Asian bookstores or through web stores such as Amazon.com.

Some are middling (Kenneth E. Hall's helpful if pedestrian John Woo: The Films), a few disposable (Wade Major's Jackie Chan, about the dozenth quickie-book on Hong Kong's most durable film export), but the majority are full of both affection for the art and knowledge of the industry. The authors don't seem to care that the cinema they are celebrating has been pronounced dead. They certainly don't write like coroners. They itemize the quirks and excesses of Hong Kong movies like a lover who stares raptly at the object of his obsession and sees so much that thrills him—and impels him to share his ardor with the reading world.

Even a relatively staid critic such as structuralist guru David Bordwell seems to be typing in his shorts, with a beer on his desk, in Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Harvard University Press, $29.95). Combining the study of film form and movie economics, analysis and field work, the University of Wisconsin professor cogently evokes what separates Hong Kong's buccaneer directors from Hollywood's current storytellers. The Americans use a vocabulary of scene construction, camera placement and editing rhythms that hasn't evolved much since the early talkies 70 years ago. Hong Kong directors are more adventurous, maybe heedless. They rev every scene with a frantic camera style, with slow motion, quick cutting, abrupt flashbacks—all to advance the art or to keep the moviegoer awake or just for the hell of it.

As Bordwell notes: "What Western fans consider 'over the top' in Hong Kong movies is partly a richness of stylistic delivery—an effort to see how delightful or thrilling one can make the mix of dialogue, music, sound effects, light, color, and movement... This delight in expressive technique is a local elaboration of the sensuous abundance sought by popular filmmakers everywhere."

Another scholarly work that smartly blends interview with overview is City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover (Verso Books, $22). This tossed salad of history, film analysis and political theory makes occasional obeisance to leftist critical doctrine: Karl Marx gets more index citations than Hong Kong actor-producer Karl Maka, producer Johnny Mak and actress Karen Mok put together.

But there's little jargon and much insight in this admirable work. Stokes and Hoover give the briskest synopsis of the colony's first half-century of film; they buttress their discussion of triad films with statistics on Hong Kong crime; their long critiques of several dozen films are provocative and acute. Just one perplexity: the authors teach at Seminole Community College. What are these Hong Kong savants doing in the swamps of Sanford, Florida?

John Charles, author of The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997 (McFarland, $75), is from Guelph, Ontario, Canada; yet in his canny notes to 1,102 Hong Kong movies he displays an insider's knowledge of production disputes, casting changes, mutant versions of favorite films. It's the ideal browse before visiting a Chinatown video store—and, though pricey, much preferable to the Encyclopedia of Chinese Film (Routledge Press, $140!), by Yingjin Zhang and Zhiwei Xiao. Rife with errors and omissions, the encyclopedia also proffers risible generalizations, such as this one on Hong Kong's supersexy Category III pictures: "they appear to speak to the class resentments held by those who have failed to work Hong Kong's economic miracle." Excuse us, but don't these films speak to the horny minds and idle hands of male moviegoers?

Paul Fonoroff, the U.S.-bred film critic for the South China Morning Post, doesn't care much for Cat. III pictures—or for most Hong Kong movies of the so-called Golden Age. His collection Paul Fonoroff at the Hong Kong Movies (Film Biweekly Publishing House, $24) amasses 600 reviews of films from 1988 to 1997, and, man, is he crabby. Woo's The Killer, Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series, Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and other official modern classics take their lumps from a critic whose columns "chart the downfall of the Hong Kong film industry."

Fonoroff is an unashamed nostalgiac for Hong Kong's postwar decades—when sweet and sour glamourpusses such as Zhou Xuan and Grace Chang (Ge Lan) dominated Mandarin-language musicals, and teen stars Connie Chan Bo-chu and Josephine Siao Fong-fong festooned Cantonese comedies, operas and martial-arts dramas. In his ravishing Silver Light: A Pictorial History of Hong Kong Cinema, 1920-1970 (Joint Publishing, $45), he has assembled hundreds of photos from old magazines and lobby cards to create a poignant collage of an era whose glories are largely lost. Of the 500 features made in Hong Kong before 1941, Fonoroff notes, only four are known to exist today.

Americans aren't the only ones writing books on Hong Kong movies; there are some impressive hometown surveys, and much invaluable historical research, snailing toward fruition. Stephen Teo's Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (BFI Publishing, $24.95), issued in 1997, was the first English-language history of the colony's film industry, and is still the most comprehensive and authoritative.

Many of Teo's chapters appeared originally in the terrific book-length catalogs published annually since 1978 in conjunction with retrospectives at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. These bilingual studies, each devoted to an aspect of Hong Kong film (Cantonese comedies, ghost stories, swordplay movies), are a splendid resource for academics and fans alike. No film festival in the world has produced a series to compete with this one in breadth and scholarly vigor.

A challenge of minute and heroic dimensions faces editors Winnie Fu and Yu Mo-wan in compiling the multi-volume Hong Kong Filmography (Hong Kong Film Archive, $28 to $30 each). Their mission is to compile credits, production info and a photo for each of the 20,000 or so movies made in the Hong Kong industry's 90-year history. The newest volume, a handsome treasure chest that took two years to produce, covers the 1950-52 output; at this rate of publication, the project will be current by the year ... 2047. Keep at it, guys!

In City on Fire, director Ronny Yu recalls that comedian-director Michael Hui once told him to make a movie only if "you feel a fire inside." Then Hui reminded the younger man: "When we die, our movies don't die... Movies are immortal." Hong Kong movies may be playing dead just now, but they live on the screen, on video and dvd, and in the pages of books like these—filled with the snazzy expertise of writers from the West, the monkish scholarly precision of the local historians. Every cinema should have such devoted lovers—writers who feel the fire inside.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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