The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997 by John Charles (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2000: Box 611, Jefferson, NC. 28640, USA. Mail order line: 1-800-253-2187)
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After reaching a peak of popularity at home and with cult audiences in the West in the early ’90s, Hong Kong cinema may have become a victim of its success. Many of its most talented and popular filmmakers and actors were drawn to Hollywood (where they’ve floundered, with the exceptions of Jackie Chan and John Woo), while American films themselves watered down the once-innovative styles of Woo and Tsui Hark. American studios acquired much of the Chan and Jet Li oeuvre, only to treat these films with utter disrespect by releasing them in dubbed and edited versions or leaving them on the shelf for years. Meanwhile, major films such as Comrades, Almost A Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996) and Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (Wai Ka-Fai, 1997) received minimal distribution in the West. However, there has been a boom in books devoted to the region’s cinema over the past few years, possibly because its heyday a decade ago can now be seen as part of a bygone historical period. For all the differences between Planet Hong Kong and The Complete Hong Kong Filmography, both make worthy contributions to the field, avoiding fanboy gushing and an overly dry tone that betrays their subject’s exuberance.
Written in a more accessible style than most of Bordwell’s work (and entirely avoiding his standard insistence that cognitive theory is the only valid method of understanding film), Planet Hong Kong simultaneously attempts a defense of the value of “popular cinema”, in-depth formal analysis and surveys of some of Hong Kong cinema’s major figures. As one might expect from the author of Making Meaning, Bordwell seems acutely conscious of his book’s hybrid position, but he treats almost every area that the book touches on satisfyingly.
When Bordwell complains that “intellectuals who expatiate on the cultural significance of a movie or pop song pay no virtually no attention to the ways in which the artisan has used the medium”, he may be exaggerating greatly, but no one could make this criticism of Planet Hong Kong. Rather than simply labeling Hong Kong action movies “over-the-top,” he offers a close reading of the way they tend to use “technical tricks…to enhance clarity, underscore rhythm, and amplify expressive force”, calling attention to the use of the zoom lens and sound editing as rhythmic devices, rather than simple means of imparting information or telling a story. Heavily supplementing the text with stills, Bordwell also examines how Gun Men (Kirk Wong, 1988) absorbs the influence of The Untouchables (Brian de Palma, 1987), while retaining some telling differences, using it as a case study of exactly how Hong Kong filmmakers have borrowed and departed from Hollywood.
Striving to examine the reception of Hong Kong cinema in its largest possible context, Bordwell offers a history of this reception at home, in East Asia and in the U.S., in between chapters on individual filmmakers (Tsui, Woo, Wong Jing and others) and performers (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan). One could quarrel with some of his choices – rather than a whole chapter on director/producer Wong, a rough equivalent to ’70s Roger Corman, I would have preferred one on Johnnie To, Ann Hui or Stanley Kwan – but for all his emphasis on visual style, Bordwell also does justice to the important role of Hong Kong’s stars.
Like Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost, Planet Hong Kong marks a notable return to formalist criticism. While Perez seems rather defensive about his choice of methods, Bordwell simply proceeds ahead on his chosen path, entirely avoiding the ideological paths opened up by his subject matter. While he thankfully eschews facile readings, in which almost every film made between 1987 and 1997 is interpreted as an allegory about the handover, the pervasive homoeroticism of Woo’s work and gender-bending of films like Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986) and The East Is Red (Ching Siu-tung and Raymond Lee, 1993) practically begs for feminist and queer analysis, which will have to wait for a book written by someone else. Nevertheless, even the most politically minded critic could learn from Bordwell’s firm anchoring of his judgments in the form and style of specific films.
As much a reference book as a work of criticism, The Complete Hong Kong Filmography includes brief reviews of 1100 films. (By contrast, Bordwell admits with embarrassment that he’s “only” seen 370 Hong Kong films.) Organized as an alphabetical collection, it also provides an oblique history of the time period it covers, which encompasses the tail end of the ’70s kung-fu boom, the early ’80s New Wave, the relatively well-known late ’80s/early ’90s period and the eve of the handover. In his preface, Charles states that “one of my goals with this book was to reveal the many ‘hidden’ pleasures available to adventurous film fans…consequently, this book embraces all of Hong Kong’s output,” and his book has the virtue of showing off its breadth, including evanescent sub-genres like girls-with-guns action movies, the UFO studio’s upscale romantic comedies and dramas and “true crime” exploitation films.
Most of Charles’ reviews consist of three paragraphs: the first providing a rating (on a 1 to 10 scale) and credits, the second a plot summary, and the third his opinion of the film. While a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable under this format, his reviews are relatively substantial given their limited amount of space. (Many originally appeared in longer form in the videophile zine Video Watchdog, for whom he has been a longtime reviewer, and its editor Tim Lucas contributes an introduction.) When particularly excited by a film, Charles does allot himself more space to cover it.
However, his book is most valuable as a resource for scholars and critics. He has gone to great lengths to include both the English and Cantonese names of cast and crew members, as well as detailing aspect ratios, North American video availability and the image and subtitle quality of those videos. (He even notes the frequent cases of scores “borrowed” from other films.) Apart from the hard-to-find Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogues, this information hasn’t been put in one place so conveniently before. Several books published by the zine Asian Cult Cinema (formerly Asian Trash Cinema) have attempted a similar task, but they’ve been marred by factual errors and a sensibility that values cheap thrills above all else. Charles’s opinions aren’t particularly groundbreaking – his highest ratings usually go to well-respected films, and he has little use for Category III (1) softcore porn and “Sadean gore,” as Bordwell calls it, but the book offers worthy defenses of relatively underrated films like Ashes Of Time (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) and Executioners (Johnnie To, 1993).
After its absorption into the American mainstream, Hong Kong cinema may have fallen somewhat out of fashion, but websites like Mobius Asian Film Discussion Board show that much of its rabid Western cult audience remains. While that audience is certain to enjoy both Planet Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Filmography, the former would also make a fine introductory text, while the latter is likely to appeal mostly to people who have seen almost as many of the films as Charles has.
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