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Beyond Kung Fu: Seven Hong Kong Firecrackers




by Harlan Kennedy


Hong Kong is a tiny community ex­ploding with the kind of demo­graphics that film producers swoon over. From a population of 600,000 in 1945 it has grown to more than 5 mil­lion today, forming a big enough regi­ment of movie customers to allow me­dium-budgeted films to recoup their initial costs. (Bigger profits then come from sales to Taiwan, the Philippines, and other Asian ports of call – and, for ultra-successful movies, the West.) And since most of that Hong Kong population is under 30, and 40 per­cent are under 20, the large cinemas perform to regular capacity business.

The best-known product from this British crown colony is the wu xia pian – the martial arts film. More than 800 have been produced in Hong Kong since the war, ranging from costumed sword-and-swashbuckle to modern-dress kung fu, absorbing and canni­balizing a rich diversity of Asian physi­cal arts, from Chinese Opera to swordfighting to wrestling.

Until recently, popular Hong Kong cinema was dominated by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, two companies that pushed the kung fu boom Westward with such marketable human firecrackers as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. But in the last ten years, as Shaw Brothers decelerated and Golden Harvest got stuck in a popular entertainment groove, a host of inde­pendent production companies have helped prove that barnstorming mar­tial arts pics are not a Hong Kong cine-qua-non. In addition to the innovative cutting and jugglings with time and space of Ann Hui, there could also be thought and grace and beauty of line (King Hu); passionate and compas­sionate social realism (Allen Fong); and adventure films totally transfi­gured by a new aesthetic of visual bravura and sardonic wit (Tsui Hark and Patrick Tam).

King Hu's A Touch of Zen was the forerunner and perhaps the finest flower of the new movement: a Ming Dynasty costume Epic as strong on philosophy as fisticuffs and composed with a dazzling painterly eye for wide­screen images.

Hu, born in Peking in 1931, is the oldest and longest-working of the new directors. He was a supporter of the Communist takeover in China in 1949 and became a Hong Kong resident almost accidentally – stranded in the colony on a visit when the borders were closed. He has lived and worked there ever since, making seven fea­ture films, of which the most recent to reach the West were Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain, both made in Korea in 1977-78.

His feature debut was Come Drink With Me in 1966. But it was with his second film Dragon Gate Inn (1967) that his career achieved lift-off. The movie was an explosive box-office success in South-East Asia, outgrossing even The Sound of Music. This helped to win financing for A Touch of Zen, shot in 1968 and the subject of tribulations and litigation. Hu's pro­ducer first determined to split the story into two separate full-length movies, then whittled the material down for mass distribution to a single two-hour feature. The final version shown in the West in 1975 was all one movie but the footage ran to a near-complete three hours.

None of Hu's later films have equaled the extraordinary episodic structure of A Touch of Zen, a slow-mo­tion relay race with three different "heroes." Nor have they matched Zen's sumptuous visuals: the war of ghosts in a deserted fort; a battle of soaring limbs and stylized cries in a bamboo forest lanced by dazzling shafts of light. But of his other films, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) had a cunning, chess-game plot, and a typi­cally astounding action showdown. The Valiant Ones (1974) flaunted inter­mittent visual bravura in its tale of rival warlords and pirate bands. And Raining and Legend use their wild and beautiful Korean locations to mysti­cal, lyrical effect.

Allen Fong, 38, sits firmly en­sconced at the opposite end of the seesaw between mysticism and real­ism. He served his apprenticeship in Hong Kong television, after getting his B.A. in film at the University of Georgia and his M.F.A. at the Univer­sity of Southern California, and like Ann Hui he made his name with two episodes in a vérité-style TV film se­ries called Below the Lion Rock. Fong's episodes (Wild Children and Song of Yuen-Chow-Chai) proved him a bril­liantly acute and unsentimental realist who could catch the big-eyed expres­sion of slum children caught between wonder and mischief, the frozen, stoic grief of a bereaved family, or the tiny truthful details of waterfront poverty.

His first feature film, Father and Son (1980), was financed by Mainland China and partly shot there. It pooled all Fong's strengths in the tale of a shanty-dwelling Hong Kong family and the generational conflict between Dad, a paper-shuffling office clerk, and Number One Son, a semi-delin­quent who wants to be a filmmaker. Again Fong's forte – indeed fortissimois his handling of children. "I get them to make up their own lines," Fong says. "As shooting goes on, they come to trust me, we become friends, and there's no shyness or diffidence in front of the camera. With grown-ups as well, I try to allow space for impro­visation in my films. That way a movie creates its own life inside the structure you build for it." Fong's new­est film, Ah Ying, is due to bow at Western festivals later this year.

After the Big Three of Ann Hui, King Hu, and Allen Fong, the liveli­est young Hong Kong helmers today are the three or four giving a novel twist to wu xia pian forms.

Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders (1979) was a magnificent morsel of costumed derring-do, set in an action-packed castle and boasting an inven­tive use of composition and cutting. It was balanced on a knife-edge be­tween lyricism and absurdism. His second film Don't Play With Fire (also known as Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind) toppled right over the edge and onto the knife. This visceral and freely chaotic melodrama contained many examples of the ancient art of disembowelling and caused much tut-tutting among the Hong Kong cen­sors. The unpredictable Hark re­cently finished shooting Hong Kong's most expensive ever spectacular, Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain.

Meanwhile, Kirk Wong has made the stylish underworld movie The Club (for Bang Bang Films!). Patrick Tam (The Sword, 1980; Love Massa­cre, 1980; Nomad, 1982) is a dashing poet of the action story. Alex Cheung has hit the big time this year with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, a pop­ular special-effects extravaganza. Shu Xuan's The Arch was the hit of this year's Pesaro Film Festival.

Next spring, London's National Film Theatre will mount a giant retro­spective of the Hong Kong New Wave. And in June 1984, the Pesaro Film Festival will concentrate on Asian films. Hong Kong turns out about 150 films each year; and because it is still a British Crown Colony (until 1997 when the lease runs out), they are all sub-titled in English. Hui, Hu, and Fong have lit the way to the new Hong Kong Cinema. Now it's high time Americans started enjoying the fireworks. Why shouldn't we have some fun as well?







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.