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HONG KONG MOVIE MASTERS: FROM ACTION TO ARTHOUSE

THE UNINSURABLES
Take a look at some of the 100 or so titles from the Siren library, urges RICHARD KUIPERS*, most of them beautifully subtitled and many of them released in widescreen, representing the cream of Hong Kong cinema's explosive last stand – when the stuntmen couldn’t get life insurance.

Ever seen that movie about an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, gets wounded in the heist and is trapped at the gang's hideout while they try and determine who the rat is? If you're thinking of Reservoir Dogs you're right but five years before Quentin Tarantino put his name on the map, Hong Kong director Ringo Lam made a gritty little film called City On Fire (pic), the second half of which was about....an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, gets wounded when the job goes wrong and....you know the rest.

City On Fire was made in the early stages of an extraordinary period in Hong Kong cinema where bullets blazed and heroics knew no bounds. During the peak years from 1985-1992 habitues of Chinatown cinemas around the world were treated to some of the most mind-boggling action ever committed to celluloid, the influence of which can be spotted in almost every Hollywood action blockbuster made in the 90's. The world's third most prolific film making country had spent a decade fruitlessly attempting to unearth a new Bruce Lee and in the process discovered ways of staging action still never bettered on thirty times the budget. The fact that Hong Kong stuntmen could not get life insurance says a lot about the atmosphere propelling this golden era.

"Politics and technology has put an end to Hong Kong action cinema as we knew it"

Sadly a combination of politics and technology has put an end to Hong Kong action cinema as we knew it. Some classy efforts have been made in the past few years but the Chinese takeover in 1997 was effectively the last nail in a coffin riddled with the holes left by the departure of major talents like Ringo Lam, John Woo and superstar Chow Yun-Fat, all of whom were courted by Tinseltown's keen-eyed studio executives with inevitable results.

The ready availability of bootleg VCD's (a pre-DVD format popular in Asia) of new releases before they even hit the screen has damaged industry profits so heavily in recent years it's hard to imagine any sort of return to the good old days. Thanks to SBS television's cult movie slot and the efforts of Siren Entertainment's home video division an ever-growing number of gems from this era can be viewed. The distinguished efforts of Siren who've been releasing titles under their Chinatown Video banner since (1996) deserve special attention here; other companies have released HK fare but have tossed away their treasures in badly dubbed pan and scan versions and, in the case of Jackie Chan's Police Story, released the sequel first and then the original under the title Police Story 2!

"The cream of Hong Kong's cinema"

Until a few years ago the only way to see subtitled Hong Kong movies on video was to rent dodgy copies from outlets in Chinatown, many of which were filmed on handycams in cinemas and regularly co-starred audience members walking across the screen. Thankfully that's all changed and with a number of major new releases about to hit the shelves it's worth taking a look at some of the 100 or so titles from the Siren library, most of them beautifully subtitled and many of them released in widescreen, representing the cream of Hong Kong's cinema's explosive last stand.

The pick of the crop about to be released is undoubtedly The Killer (1990) [pic], John Woo's masterpiece and the film which guaranteed his entry into Hollywood and the Fox lot in Sydney where he's currently directing Mission Impossible 2 on a budget equal to about twenty Hong Kong films.

This delirious combination of Sam Peckinpah action, Douglas Sirk melodrama and crime-as-a-career philosophy ranks alongside Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967) as the finest hitman for hire film ever made. It's also a chance to witness the great Chow Yun-Fat at his best as Jeff, the contract killer who accidentally blinds a nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) and decides to take one last job to pay for a sight restoring operation (a twist lifted from Sirk's Magnificent Obsession) while hard-nosed cop Danny Lee closes in.

"Male bonding as never seen before"

Male bonding as never seen before eventuates as the cop and the killer eventually become allies in one of the most furious finales you'll ever see. I used to watch this at the now sadly defunct Chinatown Cinema in Sydney just to try and count the number of fatalities and always lost track at about 120, but The Killer is about much more than bloodshed (the finale takes place in a church for good reason) and its visual glory remains intact in the subtitled, widescreen special edition box-set Siren have released. If you want to know where action cinema as we now understand it comes from, The Killer is the best place to start.

Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee were old hands at these types of roles by the time of The Killer and the dynamic duo can be seen to great advantage in their first screen teaming, City On Fire (1987) [pic]. Chow, lately the bewildered star of the dire The Replacement Killers and the better The Corruptor is the Cary Grant of action cinema. He is equally smooth with women and guns and can be seen handling both with sheer class in Ringo Lam's film. Lee's the crook this time, playing a member of the gang whose relationship with Chow (pic) charts a course similar to The Killer. Lam later directed the hard as nails Prison On Fire 1 + 2 and managed a respectable Hollywood debut with Maximum Risk. Like Woo, he is interested in themes of betrayal and honour which gives City On Fire an emotional edge characterising the best Hong Kong bullet-fests.

"Heroic bloodshed"

Heroic bloodshed is the term frequently used to categorise the best HK crime films of the period and it's an apt description when you look at A Better Tomorrow (1986) - above -, the turning point in a cycle which kicked off a few years earlier with Ronnie Yu's Jumping Ash (1983) and Johnny Mak's The Long Arm Of The Law (1984). Made in 1986, A Better Tomorrow established former kung-fu and comedy director Woo as the master of gangster gunplay and also cemented the reputation of one-time daytime television heartthrob Chow Yun-Fat (pic) as the coolest two-gun cat in the British colony, if not the whole planet.

Ironically Woo almost had to make the film without Chow whose nice-guy reputation on TV was considered a box-office liability. The richly detailed plot finds Chow playing a counterfeiter whose partner Ho (faded Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung about to have his career rejuvenated) is double crossed in Taiwan. After much soul searching Ho's cop brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) enters the fray for the first and still one of the best of Woo's explosive finales. From its brilliant opening shootout at a restaurant (watch for the guns hidden in the pot plants) to the incendiary climax A Better Tomorrow is balletic bloodshed surpassing Peckinpah and the place where Kurosawa's samurai sagas and Melville's meditations on crime and honour were transformed into a genre of awesome kinetic and emotional power.

"Hong Kong cinema wasn't just about guns and glory during it's heyday."

Hong Kong cinema wasn't just about guns and glory during it's heyday. At the other end of the Woo-Lam scale is Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong's most dazzling visual stylist whose films have earned festival and art-house plaudits world-wide. He's also one of the few leading directors whose career has continued uninterrupted since the 1997 handover. Early efforts such as As Tears Go By (1988) and Days Of Being Wild (1991) laid the groundwork; Chungking Express (1994) Ashes Of Time (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) did the rest. The home video release of Wong's Happy Together (1997) [pic] is a welcome addition to the Hong Kong library. Ironically titled, it centres on gay couple Ho (Tony Leung) and Lai (Leslie Cheung) whose tempestuous relationship is played out against tango rhythms in Buenos Aires where the duo hope a fresh start can be made. Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle is Wong's long-time shooter and the partnership yields stunning results as saturated colour, black and white, 8mm, slow-motion and time lapse photography blend into a heady visual cocktail and also enhance the themes of alienation and dislocation central to the story. It's maybe not to everyone's taste but any film about two gay Hong Kong Chinese living in Argentina which manages to weave the Frank Zappa songs Chunga's Revenge and I Have Been In You into the soundtrack and make them work deserves attention. The judges at Cannes thought so too and awarded Wong the best director prize at the 1997 festival.

These are the key films of the moment for Hong Kong buffs but the shelves of your local video store should also be swelling with some of the other treasures.

"Plot and genre merrily jump around"

Jackie Chan (pic) needs no introduction other than a recommendation to look at his early starrer The Young Master (when he was still Jacky Chan), the Police Story series (released in the correct order!) and from 1994 Drunken Master 2, made just before Chan's global popularity skyrocketed and the quality of his films dimmed a little.

Jet Lee (pic), who played the villain in Lethal Weapon 4, enjoys superstar status in Asia at least equal to that of Chan and Chow and can be seen at his jaw-dropping best performing traditional martial arts in period settings. Two of his best are the spectacular Fong Sai Yuk 1+2 and the wonderfully funny New Legend Of Shaolin which involves a treasure map tattooed on the bottoms of four young monks - now that's a plot you won't find being remade Stateside! Lee made the leap to contemporary settings a few years ago and one of his finest is the Wong Jing-directed High Risk, which out die-hards Die Hard by throwing a helicopter inside the top floor of a high-rise building and also includes a devastating Jackie Chan send-up in the shape of Jacky Cheung clowning around in a yellow action man jump suit.

One of the pleasures of Hong Kong cinema is watching plot and genre merrily jump around. Lan Dei Tsa's The Seventh Curse (1986) is one of the most fun examples and packs more into its 80-odd minutes than you'll get in half a dozen films made anywhere else. It's a jungle adventure...no, wait it's a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style treasure hunt . . no it's a demon possession horror movie … no, it's.....fabulous entertainment, that's what it is and even features a pipe-smoking Chow Yun Fat wielding a rocket launcher at the creature. If sex-scorchers appeal, the wild excesses of Sex and Zen, Robotrix and the infamous Naked Killer, starring sleazeball extraordinairre Simon Yam and indefatigable sexpot Carrie Ng, all guarantee a good time - if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

"The spirit of unrestrained creativity"

What's worth discovering in these films is the spirit of unrestrained creativity and a willingness to go to any lengths in the pursuit of sheer screen excitement. Up to 300 films a year were cranked out during peak years and it's worth remembering that actors and technicians were frequently working on 3 or 4 films simultaneously. Imagine Tom Cruise doing a morning's work on Mission Impossible 2, rushing over to Jerry Maguire in the afternoon and finishing off the day with some closed set takes on Eyes Wide Shut and it'll give you some idea of the times in which these stunning films were made, the best of which are only a video rental (or purchase) away.

* Richard Kuipers is producer of The Movie Show on SBS, and a regular contributor and critic for Urban Cinefile.

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WINNERS
of a copy of John Woo’s classic,

A Better Tomorrow
starring Chow Yun-Fat.

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While John Woo woos Sydney’s filmmaking talent (with his humour and antics) on the set of Mission Impossible II, the film that gave him the key to Hollywood, The Killer, is being launched here on video, through Chinatown Video.

To find out more and to check on your nearest stockist, visit

CHINATOWN VIDEO

and

SIREN ENTERTAINMENT


A BETTER TOMORROW

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John Woo


City on Fire

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