In a coincidence of programming in New York City a selection of the commercially most successful Hong Kong movies of the 1980s ran at the same time as a retrospective of work (some of it only marginally released in its country of origin) by the director and cinematographer Zhang Yimou, who lives in the People’s Republic and whose recent film Raise the Red Lantern was showing independently in New York.1 The contrast could hardly have been more extreme. While confirming that both China and Hong Kong have produced some of the most exhilarating films of the 1980s, the two series seemed to differentiate not so much two regions or political systems as two universes, universes nonetheless scheduled to merge seamlessly in five years, when Britain’s 150-year-rule over the Crown Colony finally ends.
Zhang Yimou is by now the best known of China’s “Fifth Generation” directors.2 Their movies, such as Zhang’s Red Sorghum (1987), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986), were the first to break decisively with the rigid dictates of Maoist “cultural work.” Out of imposed muteness came a film language consisting of splendid images seen in isolation—an empty sky, a river basin, a weather-roughened face, a ceremonial procession—hemmed in by a strained terseness suggesting multiple layers of historical, political, and social meaning that could not be directly stated. Nothing, it appeared, could be more challenging in the wake of the Cultural Revolution than sharply defined pictures devoid of any obvious didactic purpose, surrounded by silence and open to multiple interpretations. (An analogous strategy can be observed in the works of contemporary Chinese poets such as Bei Dao and Duo-Duo.)
The actions which make up the narrative of Red Sorghum—a bride jostled by the peasants carrying her to her wedding, the same bride raped in a field of sorghum, a rite of purification by burning, a punitive beating, celebratory orgies of drunkenness, a worker rebelliously pissing into a vat of newly made wine, a protracted final scene of wartime torture and massacre—are virtually undifferentiated occasions for the deployment of exquisitely modulated textures, compositions, and color combinations. The movie comes to resemble an aesthetic ritual dedicated to the proposition that fire, blood, and wine are merely different aspects of the color red.
Likewise in Zhang’s most recent film, Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the meticulously catalogued horrors suffered by a rich Shanghai merchant’s concubines during the 1920s run parallel with the contemplation of architectural harmonics and the symmetrical grace of even the most oppressive of domestic ceremonies. An ostensible study of deprivation becomes at the same time a celebration of visual pleasures.
Not far offscreen, both before and after Tiananmen Square, are pressures from a bureaucracy without whose approval the movie cannot be made or distributed, acting in the name of a largely voiceless mass audience on whose level of understanding bureaucratic approval ostensibly hinges. In the absence of a clearly measurable financial bottom line, the more experimental directors have been reined in by a putative popular discontent with the “foreign-influenced” artiness and obscurantism of their work. As the older film maker Wu Yigong argued in a widely disseminated attack on the Fifth Generation.
All the outstanding artists in history sincerely had a warm love for life and a warm love for the people. However, some of our artists now are fixated on salon art, which only a few people appreciate…I want to be a Chinese artist, and not a foreign artist or an artist enslaved to foreigners.
What is most striking about the Fifth Generation film makers is indeed their defiant ambiguity. Tian Zhuangzhuang, in Horse Thief, makes a point of not explaining the Tibetan religious rites with which he intercuts an already cryptic narrative about the tribal outcast of the title: he forces the viewer to gaze at bare appearances, without benefit of a tour guide’s commentary. Tian and his contemporaries cultivate a style at once lush and laconic, guarded in its statements while insistent on the right to linger over compositions as gorgeous as they are elusive in meaning: the surface of the river in which a girl is drowning off camera, an event we glean only from the sudden interruption of the revolutionary song she is singing (Yellow Earth), tribesmen in demon masks circling endlessly around a fire (Horse Thief).
Purposely “empty” images and gestures clearly have a liberating significance when they follow such oppressively legible productions as The Detachment of Red Women and Flowers of Friendship Blossom in Table Tennis Tournament. The most radical goal Tian Zhuangzhuang could assert in a 1986 interview (in tones which to hard-line ideologues must have sounded as maddeningly self-assured as the aphorisms of Oscar Wilde) was a self-indulgent hermeticism indifferent to audience comprehension:
I shot Horse Thief for audiences of the next century to watch… There are economic losses at the moment, but they’re necessary… If I had to depend on explanation, I couldn’t have made the film.3
The result can be a work like Chen Kaige’s The Big Parade (1985), a formally alluring, almost plotless fiction film about soldiers in training for the Red Army’s annual military parade in Tiananmen Square, into which can be read almost any political undertone the viewer—at any rate the Western viewer—cares to find there. When an officer declares that “only good drill will bring us honor,” one hardly knows with what degree of irony, if any, to take it. Is The Big Parade most akin to Full Metal Jacket? Olympia? Sands of Iwo Jima? A television spot for the army reserve? Should one take it as an individualistic protest, an imposed piece of militarist propaganda, a humanistic examination of teamwork, a subversively homoerotic evocation of male cameraderie? Or is it none of these, but rather an exercise in the kind of gratuitous abstraction which was for so long an ideological misdemeanor in China? Seen at a distance from its Chinese setting, the movie seems a decorative object from whose textures and patternings—the zig-zagging geometrics of troops on maneuvers, the sweat glistening on rows of anonymous faces, the shimmering haze in which the recruits stand at attention for hours, a soldier’s tears falling on his rifle as he cleans it for the last time—the pressures brought to bear on it must be dimly extrapolated.
The pressures at work in the commercial cinema of Hong Kong (which in the 1980s produced over 2,000 films) are of a more familiar nature, revolving around market share, profit margins, and the need to keep one step ahead of television, video games, and the encroachments of global entertainment cartels. Compression and competition give the industry a particularly ferocious quality, as its controlling companies fight to keep both employees and rivals in line. As the director Allen Fong has described it, “It’s extremely condensed capitalism—a type you can’t find anywhere in the world. We’re more capitalistic and cut-throat than the United States. If you survive Hong Kong society, you can survive anywhere.”4
Hong Kong has the distinction of being one of the few places left whose population, given a choice, prefers its own movies to the American product; the global hits of Spielberg, Stallone, and company are regularly outgrossed by locally made comedies, sex movies, ghost movies, gangster movies, gambler movies, and hybrids of all these genres and more. Taken together, Hong Kong movies, which are now distributed throughout the world and particularly in Asia, constitute a single metanarrative incorporating every available variant of sentimental, melodramatic, and horrific plotting, set to the beat of nonstop synthesized pop music. The hundreds of movies—hardly any of them more than a few years old—on display in the video outlets of New York’s Chinatown suggest that Hong Kong is one of the last outposts of the kind of efficaciously formulaic medium-to-low-budget film making that in America faded along with the studios. To watch Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues (1984) or John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) or Liu Kunwai’s Mister Vampire (1985) is to sense the presence of an audience to whose response the cadences of pratfall, shock effect, and streetwise banter have been expertly calibrated.
Nothing could be farther from the meditative languors of the Fifth Generation. The images are not lingered over: they tumble one into the next with careless abandon, surrounded not by silence but by noise. Hong Kong at present makes the most raucous and least contemplative movies on the planet, movies which by turns recall the spirit of Abbott and Costello, George Raft, Bela Lugosi, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Hopping ghouls, cartwheeling comedians, heroines who sing and fire machine guns with equal flair, vampires kept at bay by chicken blood and sticky rice, passionate gangsters caught up in ruthless dynastic struggles, martial arts masters who set off cascades of special effects at the least flourish of their fingers: the hyperactive characters who inhabit Hong Kong cinema make the energy level of Hollywood types like Kevin Costner and Bruce Willis seem torpid by comparison.
Hong Kong movie production historically has owed everything to events on the mainland. The influx of film makers from Shanghai—in response to the Japanese invasion in 1937, and political pressures from the Kuomintang government (which, for example, banned ghost and martial arts movies) and finally after the Communist victory in 1949—expanded what had been a relatively small-scale local film industry into the worldwide center of Chinese-language film making, selling to a market that includes Taiwan, Southeast Asia, the Western diaspora, and—only in recent years, and fitfully—China. The paradox of such a small place becoming one of the key communications centers on the planet may account for much of the peculiar intensity of Hong Kong movies.
The dominant genre for most of the postwar period—as it had been (along with operas and ghost stories) from the earliest days of film making in China—was the martial arts film, a term that covers everything from traditional swordplay epics to contemporary thrillers about back alley gang wars. The assembly-line efficiency with which Hong Kong turned out such films in their heyday can be gleaned from the series of movies about Huang Fei Hong, a revered martial arts master of the Manchu period, described by the French film historians François and Max Armanet as “an 85-film cycle made between 1949 and 1969…. In 1956, the record year, 28 Huang Fei Hong movies were made.”5 Geared as they were to an audience that knew all the plots and all the codes of behavior, with the same stories being told over and over, these films might have seemed the epitome of local movie making with no wider international future.
The 1960s were dominated by the richly colored historical adventures that were the specialty of Shaw Brothers Ltd., the Hollywood-style production company directed by Sir Run Run Shaw. (Shaw, the extraordinary Shanghai-born mogul who parlayed his family’s string of movie theaters in Singapore and Malaysia into a near-monopolistic control of the Hong Kong film industry, had no major competition until his longtime associate Raymond Chow broke away to found Golden Harvest in the early 1970s. It was Chow, not Shaw, who had the prescience to sign Bruce Lee to a contract.)
The Shaw productions were steeped in a nostalgia for imperial China, and still bore stylistic traces of the gaudy, stylized, and acrobatic traditions of Chinese opera. Drawing on the enormous resources of the Shaws’ Movie Town, a forty-six-acre complex (shut down since 1987) encompassing sound stages, permanent sets, labs, and dormitories, these movies seemed intent on preserving a lost China, recreating it with a limitless inventory of brocades and lacquerware, and a timelessly unreal palette of red, gold, and blue. (The films of this era are difficult to see nowadays, but some sense of their robust elegance can be derived—despite atrociously dubbed dialogue and the loss of the original Shawscope proportions—from the video version of Chang Cheh’s Seven Blows of the Dragon, a tale of heroic outlaws derived from the fourteenth-century novel Water Margin.)
The finest flowering of the traditional martial arts film was the work of the director King Hu, who turned historical epics into flamboyant exercises in near-abstraction. In The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), Raining in the Mountain (1978), and above all the three-hour A Touch of Zen (1975), he integrated lighter-than-air combat sequences (often featuring the irresistible female star Hsu Feng) and tautly orchestrated palace intrigues with a richly imagined landscape of mountain gorges and hidden monasteries, spiderwebs and sun glare, bamboo groves and jagged wastelands. A Touch of Zen remains an unsurpassed masterpiece of Chinese film making; but commercially King Hu’s poetic adventures received only marginal international distribution by comparison with the cheaper, more rough-edged kung fu movies which by the mid-1970s had proliferated beyond what anyone could have predicted.
The revolution that transformed Hong Kong movie making and made it international will deserve a chapter when the media history of the 1970s is sorted out: the Kung Fu Moment in which Bruce Lee abruptly became (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali) the most recognizable human being in the world. It was the moment when spaghetti westerns went kung fu (The Stranger and the Gun-fighter), horror movies from England’s Hammer Films went kung fu (The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), Sam Peckinpah went kung fu (The Killer Elite), and even reggae and disco went kung fu to the strains of “Fu Man Version” and “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.”
The kung fu genre erupted into the burnt-out end of the 1960s somewhat like Bruce Lee injecting himself into the middle of somebody else’s brawl. Lee—born, as it happens, in San Francisco, where his father’s Cantonese Opera troupe was appearing—was a child star in Hong Kong movies of the 1950s, and returned to the United States to work as a martial arts instructor, stunt supervisor, and actor (he played the Oriental houseboy Kato on the television series The Green Hornet). Fists of Fury, made in Thailand in 1971 for something like $50,000, tells the bare bones story of a Chinese worker seeking vengeance for a murdered relative and in the process uncovering a drug ring. The direction (by the veteran director Lo Wei), devoid of effects or style, left it up to Bruce Lee to carry the movie with nothing but the mesmerizing self-assurance of his kicks, leaps, and lunges, punctuated by ominous vocal effects and hand gestures. Fists of Fury outgrossed The Godfather in many places, and gave America its first Asian superstar since Sessue Hayakawa.
Lee’s fight scenes restored a sense of real combat to Western audiences accustomed to movies in which stunt men and stand-ins did most of the difficult stuff. With Bruce Lee, the stunt man became the hero. If the movie musical died, it was in order to be reborn as the martial arts movie. Lee’s genius lay not in extraordinary martial arts mastery but in his Astaire-like sensitivity to spatial relations and camera placement. The climactic barehanded duels in Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection retain a choreographic delight transcending the rudimentary narrative.
Indeed, from the standpoint of Western viewers unfamiliar with earlier Hong Kong productions, Fists of Fury (or The Big Boss, as it was also known) seemed remarkable for the way it pared away superfluities of characterization and dramatic development to yield the purest possible action movie, predicated on the slow burn leading to a climactic convulsion of rage. The virtuous Bruce Lee, determined to remain from violence, determined to remain loyal to his industrialist employer, remains under control in the face of increasingly gross provocations until—finally aware that his employer is a drug dealer and the murderer of Lee’s friends and loved ones—he makes up for lost time by single-handedly overturning an entire power structure. He takes on an army of bodyguards before confronting the Boss himself (who, in keeping with the rules of the genre, is not merely ruthless and powerful but a martial arts master as accomplished as Lee) in a lovingly protracted duel on the manicured lawn of the Big Boss’s Western-style mansion.
The transition from stately, tradition-bound costume dramas to the violent directness of the kung fu movie owed much to the influence of Japanese chambara movies (the term is onomatopoeia for the clashing of swords). The traditional samurai genre had been revitalized in the early 1960s by a string of violent, starkly stylized films including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, and Hideo Gosha’s Tenchu (in which Yukio Mishima was given the chance to enact a dress rehearsal for his imminent suicide).
Most enduringly successful was the long-running series detailing the peregrinations through feudal Japan of the blind masseur and master swordsman Zatoichi, whose hypersensitive hearing enabled him to fend off twenty or more ambushers at a time as easily as he killed a fly in midair with a pair of chopsticks. (The masseur’s popularity throughout East Asia is indicated by Zatoichi Meets His Equal, in which he encounters his comparably handicapped Chinese opposite number, the One-Armed Swordsman; two endings were shot, so that the local favorite would always come out on top.)
The chambara movies’ mix of gritty, often gory realism, soaringly lyrical camera work, and the nastiest of black comedy culminated in such characteristically excruciating passages as the scene in Harakiri in which a masterless samurai, maneuvering for a handout by declaring his intention to commit ritual suicide, has his bluff called and is forced to disembowel himself with a blunt bamboo sword. They were among the great unacknowledged influences of the 1960s, leading directly to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (which went so far as to lift Yojimbo’s scenario outright) and the slow-motion blood geysers of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
Yet the Japanese movies did not enjoy the same kind of global success as the kung fu cycle; and whatever stylistic devices the Hong Kong film makers may have appropriated, the tone of their films remained entirely different from the Japanese, eschewing the strain of pessimism and ritual cruelty which informs movies like Lightning Swords of Death or Trail of Blood. The Japanese Sword of Doom and Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection have similar endings—the fatally wounded hero, in violent motion to the end, is caught in freeze frame as he manages one final burst of energy—but there is a world of difference between the demonic killing mania of Tatsuya Nakadai’s swordsman, hacking at shadows as the world around him goes up in flames, and the radiant enthusiasm of Bruce Lee’s avenging hero, triumphant even in death. The kung fu movies were about feeling strong, while the Japanese sword movies were often about feeling annihilated.
The stylistic elaboration of the Japanese chambara would in any event have been out of place in the kung fu movies, which preferred a head-on approach, with no frills to impede the performers’ moves. Beyond matters of tempo and mise-en-scène, the Japanese films were restricted in their range of influence by being so uncompromisingly Japanese, their tortuous plotting relentlessly inflected by the labyrinthine configurations of Japanese feudalism. Caught up in a series of obscure political conspiracies, clan vendettas, and endlessly splintering intrafactional conflicts, the uninitiated viewer rarely found it easy to determine which side the lethal contenders were on.
Kung fu movies, by contrast, moved through fine cultural distinctions with the force of a sandblaster. A fight was a fight. The vision of a free-lance army of third world streetfighters kick-boxing their way through all obstacles proposed an apocalyptic self-sufficiency just right for a moment when governments and revolutions alike seemed to be foundering. An unarmed fighter smashing through the complexities of technology by a combination of physical training, spiritual discipline, and simple enthusiasm was powerful enough to override any competing imagery. The martial arts notion of the body as deadly weapon had hitherto provided sight gags for Peter Sellers comedies—Bruce Lee himself had served mainly as comic relief when he tried his karate moves on a hardboiled and unimpressed James Garner in the 1969 Raymond Chandler update Marlowe. Now it became the occasion for a sacrament of violence, an invigorating equation of destruction and moral justification.
The mythology of kung fu was deepened and expanded in the desperate days that followed Bruce Lee’s death at the age of thirty-two, after starring in only four films. In an effort to stave off the catastrophe threatened by the disappearance of the genre’s only worldwide star, Hong Kong film makers reverted to the historical trappings that Lee had rejected. The Buddhist Shaolin Temple, legendary center of martial arts studies, founded in the sixth century and destroyed by the Manchu dynasty in the eighteenth, was taken to represent a perfect fusion of wisdom and power, spiritual grace and physical force. The longing for a virtuous, hermetic task force dedicated to the secret righting of all wrongs proved an equally seductive motif in American ghettoes, Andean provincial outposts, and Parisian cinema-thèques, providing an all-purpose metaphor for rebellion and resistance.6
At one extreme, the cycle produced increasingly sadistic scenes of bone-cracking, eye-gouging physical punishment; at the other, a more homogenized international version was achieved with the American television series Kung Fu (1972–1975), starring David Carradine, in which the lineaments of the tough fighter were softened with the more benign characteristics of the vision-seeking hippie as Carradine’s displaced Shaolin monk wandered in road movie fashion through nineteenth-century America. (Thereafter the martial arts film lost its Oriental connotation at the hands of Chuck Norris [Forced Vengeance], Jean-Claude Van Damme [Lionheart], Steven Seagal [Marked for Death], and other martial arts masters turned box office champs; today a karate movie is as likely to be produced in South Africa as in Hong Kong.) In the best examples of the genre, however, the grace and flexibility of the performers—augmented by razor-fast editing, slow-motion trampoline leaps, and the guttural and percussive punctuations of the soundtrack—created unmediated cinematic pleasure. The movie did not represent anything at all; it presented.
The same directness informs the hits that roll off the Hong Kong assembly line nowadays. The martial arts component is no longer the main attraction, but it is still there, taken for granted: an essential ingredient of the repertoire of such Peking Opera-trained stars as Jackie Chan and Samo Hung. Thanks in part to that theatrical tradition of bravura acrobatics and on-stage combat, the Hong Kong cinema retains an athleticism which Hollywood, with a few fleeting exceptions, lost after the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton. These days, however, kung fu often figures as an occasion for comedy, as in the energetically staged leaps, chases, and brawls of Jackie Chan’s Project A (1983) and the supernatural shenanigans of Mister Vampire and his hundred spinoffs. (The potential for physical comedy in the horror genre—dimly sketched in such American productions as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the Martin-Lewis Scared Stiff—has been developed in Hong Kong into a sprawling subgenre pitting whole armies of ghosts, monsters, and the living dead against an assortment of resourceful clowns. Ghastly special effects bring to life a rich tradition of Chinese horror quite different in tone from the seductions of Gothic Romanticism. These vampires and ghouls—leechlike, ravenous, preternaturally strong, and apt to travel in packs—are quite inhuman creatures, with the odor of the grave and decaying subterranean organisms about them.)
In the kung fu era, relentless dubbing (into cartoonish “Oriental” voices) made the soundtrack something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Dubbing could certainly never do justice to the verbal tones and speech rhythms essential to the charm of movies like Peking Opera Blues, Project A, or God of Gamblers, in which characters spend considerable time hurling rapid-fire insults and complaints at one another. The actors in these films are able to uncover infinite variations in the art of yelling. For all their special effects and jazzy editing, recent Hong Kong movies are primarily driven by their actors. Star performers like Angela Mui, Leslie Cheung, and Sylvia Chang combine comic flair, toughness, and glamor in ways that recall Hollywood in the 1930s.
In this respect Chow Yun-fat, the star of A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and God of Gamblers, is the exemplary performer, with a vocal range permitting him to range from lachrymose pathos to hard-boiled repartee; at moments he recalls James Cagney, and the persona he incarnates has much in common with Cagney’s agile and unrelenting working-class heroes. He lends an unfailing air of conviction to the outrageous plot twists in which his characters have a tendency to become enmeshed—twists which would themselves have been perfectly at home in the early 1930s: in God of Gamblers, a blow on the head turns him from a James Bond-like cosmopolite into a near-infantile naif, while in The Killer he plays a professional assassin who undertakes one last killing in order to pay for a cornea transplant for a woman he blinded inadvertently during a previous shootout.
Hong Kong movies are more notable for their storytelling than for their stories. The narrative tradition out of which they have evolved, which values the force of the episode and the flow of moment-to-moment continuity over large-scale plots and tidy resolutions, might be traced all the way back to the marketplace story-reciters of ancient China, the enormous classical novels like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and Water Margin, the endlessly recycled stock types and situations of the Chinese opera. (This is not to imply a lack of shape in those classics, quite the contrary: but the shape develops out of gradual accretion and adaptation rather than from following the strict lines of a blueprint.) The uncannily lifelike quality of ancient Chinese fiction has a great deal to do with the way new characters and elements keep entering the situation, and events move too fast to tie up all loose ends. In a comparable fashion, the impro-visatory messiness of Hong Kong movies—with their lurches of mood and their digressions that unaccountably become the main story line—gives them, despite their fantastic premises, a sense of underlying gritty reality.
That sense of reality is played off against a luxurious surface sheen. At first viewing, the spectator may feel that the historical and spiritual themes that informed earlier visions of imperial swords and Shaolin monks have been peeled away to disclose a cynical art of survival in an implacably material world well-stocked with consumer goods. The “newness” of the new generation is signaled by a consistently bright and shiny look, and an optimistic energy no matter how tragic a turn the scenario takes. A critic has written reproachfully of Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues (1984) that it “looks and sounds like a ninety-minute commercial”; that may be the point. The movie declares itself unencumbered by the past, part of a worldwide marketing universe in which only the freshest and most eye-popping packages survive.
Yet Tsui Hark—a Vietnamese-born film maker who came to Hong Kong at age fifteen and subsequently spent eight years studying in Texas and New York—speaks in interviews of roots and heritage, and is influenced as much by traditional Chinese story-telling as by the special effects technology and disjunctive editing that are his trademarks. It is his particular genius to combine the flavor of very ancient narrative with a jarringly futuristic tone: folktale as video game. (His newest film, the two-part Once Upon a Time in China, goes so far as to revive the 1950s martial arts hero Huang Fei Hong, with an exuberant inventiveness that may rejuvenate the kung fu genre.) As a director (Peking Opera Blues, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and producer (A Chinese Ghost Story, The Killer, Swordsman), Hark has emerged as the most influential figure of the past decade, a virtuoso of high-speed narration and optical panache whose films sometimes resemble a music video co-directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Steven Spielberg.
At his best, as in the period comedy Peking Opera Blues (1986), his interlocking machinery of cues and responses induces a euphoria in which one is happy to mistake the screen’s leaps and convolutions for a semblance of reality. The movie, set in a fantasy world that purports to be China in 1913, mixes together an assortment of warlords, government spies, assassins, student revolutionaries, and the representatives of a mysterious entity identified in the subtitles as “the Ticketing Office” and drops them into the midst of a Shanghai theatrical company with all its machinery of deception.
The result is a constantly evolving game of concealment, evasion, and disguise, in which trysts, cabals, masquerades, and police raids become inextricably entangled with theatrical illusion, culminating in a finale in which the disguised heroes make their escape through the roof of the theater. The cutting throughout is so rapid that one actually needs to see the film twice, once to watch the images and once to read the subtitles. Hark cultivates giddiness as a deliberate style, and even the occasionally lethal violence is not permitted to dampen the festive atmosphere: indeed, one of the best gags involves a resourceful heroine extricating herself from a difficult situation by pretending to make love with the general she has just murdered.
A characteristic Hark production evokes the experience of watching several different movies at once. He raises to its highest pitch the tendency of Hong Kong films to mix genres with abandon, allowing for radical shifts in emotional tone from scene to scene. The grimmest of melodramas will explode unexpectedly into farce, and a horror movie will interrupt its exorcisms and eviscerations for a romantic musical interlude. A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), for instance, oscillates continually between the comic and the horrific, while remaining grounded in a poignant love story on the traditional theme of a naive young man infatuated with a beautiful ghost, a mélange held together by an up-to-the-minute electronic soundtrack in which a Taoist monk’s mantric patter is made to sound uncannily like an archaic anticipation of rap.
Hark’s supernatural extravaganzas—Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Swordsman, A Chinese Ghost Story—restore something of the fantastic quality of the silent films of Georges Méliès; their transparently fake special effects are to be savored for decorative value rather than any quality of realism. The supernatural movies hurtle through a space whose coordinates alter from shot to shot as protagonists catapult themselves from one dimension to another, plunge into microscopic nether regions, or go into free fall through etheric spirit-zones, emitting luminous tendrils and changing size and shape at will. (Here again the link with traditional fiction is strong, for example with the contests of magic in The Journey to the West.) The screen becomes an arena from which everything not flagrantly unreal has been rigorously excluded, a condition exhilaratingly close to the landscape of dreams.
The sense of gaudy unreality persists even in movies ostensibly set in the contemporary world, like the gangster trilogy A Better Tomorrow (1986–1989), directed by John Woo and Tsui Hark, in which swords and thunder kicks are replaced by calligraphic cascades of automatic weapons fire. The psychic space elsewhere commandeered by monks and demons becomes a geopolitical hyperspace linking Hong Kong, New York, and Saigon. The characters shuttle from city to city, executing a complicated dance of conspiracy and betrayal redeemed by periodic arias of fraternal loyalty. Questions of motivation and story logic have about as much relevance as in Italian opera: the question is only what will make for the most rousing scene.
From A Better Tomorrow’s opening image of Chow Yun-fat, in dark glasses and tailored suit, lighting a cigarette with a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill, a sleek and ruthless tone is cultivated: this is the universe of power, of high rises and cellular phones. But it has the same dreamlike instability as the magic mountains and ghost-haunted villas, an instability that mirrors the uncertain loyalties of the gangsters who spend their lives conspiring to wrest power from one another. There are no secure bastions: no interior, no matter how expensively decorated, is safe from sudden incursions of explosive violence.
Like other places in Hong Kong movies, the city of the successful is a malleable space that can be transformed or swept away by the force of desire, in this case the desire for revenge. The premise of movies like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer is that deep and sincere feeling has the volcanic power to overwhelm the world around it: their fundamental story is that of the loser who triumphs, the wronged man who comes back. The triumph remains complete even if the avenger also has to die, as is frequently the case—a small price to pay for the emotional satisfaction of bringing the world down with him. The image of Chow Yun-fat, in A Better Tomorrow, riding in a speedboat toward the harbor where his enemies are all gathered together, his machine gun blazing and his face erupting in a victorious grin, evokes not death and destruction (the bloody results of all that gunfire are barely indicated) but a blissful erasure of the world and its encroachments.
This is not to say that history is successfully bypassed; by necessity it is everywhere, in everybody’s family story and in the oppressive contingencies of geography. The heroes assert a freedom whose impossibility is tacitly acknowledged by their frequent failure to survive the last reel. They do not so much participate in historical events as try to find a way to live in their shadow. In A Better Tomorrow III, the fall of Saigon is simply the catalyst for a private melodrama involving the loves and power struggles of glamorous black marketeers.
Even the military heroics of Samo Hung’s Eastern Condors (1987) are given an aura of cartoonish fantasy. The American withdrawal from Vietnam opens the way for a Hong Kong paratrooper team to pick up where the Green Berets left off; the set-up provides for more or less broad parodies of The Dirty Dozen, Rambo, and The Deer Hunter, not to mention Stage-coach, reenacted with an ox-drawn cart galloping madly to evade Vietcong sniper fire. Nothing suggests that a serious political point is being made when one of the team kicks away the butt of a machine gun with kung fu footwork, beyond the proposition that if the cut-and-run science of street-fighting were carried into the jungle, hooligans from Hong Kong could out-fight the Vietcong any day. They have no real reason for being there anyway, and the film’s final recriminatory line puts the blame where it is perceived to lie: “Fucking America! Goddamn America!”
Of modern-day Hong Kong itself not all that much can be seen; there is little of the travelogue footage so conspicuous in the grandiose American miniseries adapted from James Clavell’s best-selling novel Noble House or in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s multinational thriller Shadow of China (1990). As the last great producer of studio films, Hong Kong specializes in making fantasies visible. A few of the more realistic crime films (The Long Arm of the Law, Gangs) offer glimpses of battered back streets and brief vistas of neon signs, but this mode of film making suggests a world in which real estate is at a premium. The intensity of the confrontations has a great deal to do with the sense of the characters being crammed together in a confined area.
For instance, in Lawrence Ah Mon’s Gangs (1988), an unusually glum juvenile delinquency saga whose teen-age protagonists smoke heroin and play video games in between gang rapes and turf battles, no one is ever alone. There is nowhere anyone can walk without running into some of the other characters. In such a tight little world, questions of turf are clearly paramount, and among the refugees and illegals of Hong Kong there are scapegoats to spare, outlanders like the hopelessly rural and inept mainland criminals whose schemes come to a bloody end in The Long Arm of the Law, or the Vietnamese-born villain of God of Gamblers. As the racketeer tells his hit men in Gangs: “Any more screw-ups and it’s back to China for you.”
A fearful undertone of geographical precariousness hovers around these movies, although it rarely surfaces with such painful explicitness as in the last shot of Ann Hui’s anti-Communist polemic Boat People (1982): the heroine and her surviving family, after passing through the tortures of the damned in their efforts to escape from Vietnam, are abandoned in a freeze frame to the emptiness of the open sea. The movie’s uncharacteristic documentary style (at the time of its release it was taken as the harbinger of a new realism which never took hold) further erodes the security zone established by the brilliant artifice of the studio films.
Themes of separation and homeless-ness impinge even on the most commercial projects. In A Better Tomorrow II, a couple of displaced Chinese racketeers stand in a Long Island field staring across at the Manhattan skyline and have a melancholy exchange:
“This is after all not our place.”
“Many try to leave at all costs. Many want to go home. Many cannot even find a temporary place to live.”
“One’s home is always better.”
Or, as a character in Peking Opera Blues chimes in: “The world is so big. Where can I run? Everyone is running away.” Dispersals, farewells, reunions, memorials: between the comings and goings there are few moments of durability and stillness. The restless energetic movement which gives the movies their vitality implies that to stop moving is to become a sitting target.
Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues plays on a nostalgia for the Shanghai of the 1930s, which is also a nostalgia for the sort of coincidence-ridden plotting in which the Astaire-Rogers musicals reveled: identities are mistaken, long-separated lovers live next door to each other without knowing it, an aspiring songwriter finds sudden fame, an unemployed young woman accidentally wins a beauty contest. The predominantly farcical tone is sweetened by a constant sentimental undertone which bursts out in images of the hero playing his violin on a tenement rooftop at night, against a backdrop of neon signs, or a young woman fighting her way across a crowded railroad platform just as the last train to Hong Kong is carrying her friends away. The escapism, so carefully crafted and self-aware that it becomes an analysis of escapism, has a cruel aftertaste: even the most unreal of movies is finally forced to accept an inevitable cataclysm.
No movie evokes separation across abysses of time and space more movingly than Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988), in which a 1930s courtesan who committed suicide for love returns to modern-day Hong Kong in search of her lover, who somehow survived their suicide pact. Moving back and forth between past and present, the film alternates between the voluptuous slowness of a vanished culture symbolized by the color schemes and rhythms of Peking opera—a culture lending all its aura to a luxuriously extended love-suicide—and the more drab, anti-heroic, wistfully comic present, whose grayness is barely offset by omnipresent consumer goods and by the pyrotechnic effects of the supernatural adventure movie whose filming provides the background to the climactic sequence. Only a Hong Kong movie would dare to be so divided against itself, cutting back and forth between two altogether contradictory moods as if to deflate its own nostalgia in acknowledgment of an unavoidable and unbridgeable gulf.
In film production, however, the pre-1997 tactics seem to center on bridge-building between Hong Kong and the mainland. Signs of imminent convergence are apparent in the increasing number of international co-productions and Chinese–Taiwanese–Hong Kong–Japanese–American hybrids.7 This process can result in a clunky curiosity like Code Name Cougar (1989, codirected by Zhang Yimou and Yang Fenliang), a would-be edge-of-the-seat hijacking thriller whose Maoist-style rhetorical devices (a huge closeup of clasped hands to signify Chinese-Taiwanese cooperation) alternate uneasily with awkardly timed bouts of bloodletting.
But at least in this competition over cultural fusion Hong Kong appears to be winning the style wars. Kung fu movies (although now only one genre among many) are remaining popular by expanding their scope, with the whole of China to play with instead of just the Shaw Brothers backlot, making possible the dazzling vistas and cavalcades of Ann Hui’s The Romance of Book and Sword (1987), an epic of dynastic struggle between Han Chinese and Manchu overlords. The archaeological treasures of Xian—not to mention several thousand more extras than one expects to see in a Hong Kong movie—give an unaccustomed solidity to the fantasy-comedy A Terra-Cotta Warrior (1991), in which Zhang Yimou and his star Gong Li, under the direction of Hong Kong special effects expert Ching Siu-ting (director of A Chinese Ghost Story), display an unexpected gift for comic turns and romantic silliness. The solemn pageantry of the first half gives way to noisy slapstick as the terra-cotta warrior of the title comes to life in the twentieth century in order to unite with his reincarnated lover. The resulting clash of moods, in which an august archaeological monument is enlisted in the service of frivolous sight gags, is no doubt an indicator of a coming era of unpredictable fusions.
If anything, the new grandeur of scale runs the risk of detracting from the reckless, catch-as-catch-can improvisation and picaresque flexibility which characterize Hong Kong’s recent movies: but that is one among the many pitfalls that may befall an industry that has until now been strengthened by its isolated independence. Already some directors and actors are being lured away to Hollywood; many of the money men behind the Hong Kong industry are likely to be among those who take the escape route to North America in 1997; and the continued dominance of conservative forces in Beijing has led to a momentary resurgence on the mainland of old-style, big-budget, thoroughly unpopular propaganda movies, while work with less official approval continues to circulate more or less freely in the samizdat of videotape.8 The permutations and compromises to come can only be guessed at in a situation that changes daily. It is only one of the ironies of the situation that the potential dangers of 1997 can make a frankly commercial, assembly-line cinema—dedicated to nothing more uplifting than the fleeting pleasures of spectacle and narration—look somewhat like an endangered ecosystem.
September 24, 1992
Cinema of Blazing Passions: Hong Kong Films in the Eighties, Asian Cine Vision, February 12–25, 1992; and A Tribute to Zhang Yimou, The Asia Society, February 21–April 10, 1992. ↩
The “five generations” are the successive classes of film-making students who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, founded in 1956. The fifth, the class of 1982, were the first to graduate after the long suspension of instruction resulting from the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. ↩
Quoted in Chris Berry, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema (BFI Publishing, 1991). ↩
Quoted in John A. Lent, The Asian Film Industry (University of Texas Press, 1990). ↩
François and Max Armanet, Cine Kung Fu (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1988). This remarkably detailed account can be supplemented by the informative special issue which Cahiers du Cinema devoted to Hong Kong cinema in September 1984. ↩
As an indication of the enduring significance of these movies, a recent New York Times report (March 22, 1992) on insurgency in Burma (Myanmar) notes in a description of a rebel camp: “On one morning not long ago in Manerplaw the loudest sound was the dubbed English soundtrack of an old Hong Kong-made Kung Fu movie. The movie was being shown on video to several dozen young Karen soldiers as part of a wake for a dead comrade . His body, set on a platform a few feet from the video screen, was covered by a thin white shroud, awaiting burial.” ↩
Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, while filmed in the People’s Republic, is in fact a Taiwanese–Hong Kong coproduction. ↩
See J. Hoberman, “The Countdown from Hong Kong,” The Village Voice, May 19, 1992. ↩