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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Australians don’t make many martial arts movies – but The Man from Hong Kong, the first example of this rare genre has now been restored and released on DVD. Its proud director, Brian Trenchard Smith, provides some entertaining commentary (in which he addresses some of the film’s faults). He also tells Andrew L. Urban Australians should make more genre films.

The Man from Hong Kong was the first film on which director Brian Trenchard Smith’s “cinematic instincts were given open slather,” he says on the eve of the film’s release on DVD. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have had the film restored,” he adds, gratitude that is eternally recorded at the start of the film’s audio commentary which he recorded at the Canberra studio of Screen Sound, the national film archive, which is releasing the DVD in its original Cinemascope aspect ratio (April, 2002).

Indeed, The Man from Hong Kong was the first Australian martial arts movie and Trenchard Smith is “very proud of it. But it has its faults,” he adds, and he points them all out in his audio commentary on the DVD, starting with his penchant in the mid 70s to use zoom rather too often in cliché shots of approaching helicopters and other action scenes. “But I got over it…” he says, in what is a refreshing and entertaining commentary track, augmented by brief chats with one of the film’s stars, Hugh Keays Byrne, and stunt maestro Grant Page. 

“I’ve listened to a lot of directors’ audio commentary on DVDs and they tend to be self-congratulatory. I feel that I’m still a film student after 30 films, and while I’m proud of The Man from Hong Kong, I recognise the flaws in it…”

This was only the second commentary he’s recorded for a DVD of his films; the first was Brittanic, which has only had a US release. The Brittanic was the sister ship to Titanic, and it also sank, but under mysterious circumstances. In the UK, ITV screened it in competition to James Cameron’s Titanic and “stole 8 ratings points”. (The Nine Network has the Australian tv rights.)

"Genre is meant to be transcended… "

Trenchard Smith, who has directed some 30 feature films, is now based in Los Angeles, but hopes to return to Australia at least once a year to make a film here. On this trip, which coincides with the DVD release, he directed Seconds to Spare, a thriller for the Nine Network (and the US arm of Carlton Television), starring Antonio Saboto jnr, Jerome Ehlers, Kate Behan and Jared Robisnon. Like many of his films, it’s a genre film. “It’s always been a little disappointing to me,” he says, “that genre ‘ain’t got no respect’ in Australia. We don’t have the budget to compete with Hollywood on its terms, but we can still make genre films with our particular take. Look at Chopper, that was a genre film in a way, as well as a black social realistic film. We shouldn’t try to make slavish imitations, but Gallipoli is a genre war movie but it transcends genre. Genre is meant to be transcended… 

“Look at Moulin Rouge,” he continues enthusiastically, “it took a special Australian sensibility to revive the musical, a genre thought dead. It’s not dead – if you run it on speed,” he laughs. “And suddenly you’ve got the audience’s pulse again. Genre was despised and dismissed – but The Man from Hong Kong was the hit of the Cannes film market, and sold to every territory within days.” In the US, of course, genre is respectable. Trenchard Smith has been making horror comedies, disaster movies and war movies for years. 

The Man From Hong Kong was the closing film at Sydney’s Asia Pacific Film Festival (August 2001) where Trenchard Smith happily noted that the festival audience “one third of whom were Asian, but all of them were young…got all the jokes. And when the Australian cops went through the racial stereotypes they imagined for Asians, the Asian audiences thought, wow, that was brave. It was a portrayal of patronising, 1975 Australia, but that’s why it was important for me to have an Asian hero, who is actually smarter than any of the Caucasians. I felt the audience would respond to it…”

Some of the action scenes still come up looking pretty good, says Trenchard Smith, likewise the stunts. For example, the car explosion near the start of the film, which was almost too realistic; one of the car’s doors flew off and missed the camera unit, with Trenchard Smith beside it, by a couple of feet. “That taught us a bit about the car explosion stunt…you’ve got to chain down the parts that could fly off.” But it looks great on film, the car door whizzing dangerously past the camera.

Published April 18, 2002

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Restored print premiere

Digitally re-mastered re-release on DVD: December 3, 2008 (Madman)


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