HONG KONG CINEMA





AN APPRAISAL

Let's wind the clock back to three or four years ago. An Asian-Pacific film festival in the City of Melbourne. Perusing the program for the festival, a Chinese film with a French title, C'est La Vie, Mon Chérie, catches my attention. The story, a romance, appeals to me. Sounds promising. I should try to see it.

A few days later entering the theatre to see the film, I run across Antony, a work colleague with whom I have never had much to do. I find out he is a filmbuff too. I learn from him that the film we are about to see was made in Hong Kong, the third biggest film producing nation in the world after the United States and India. Antony tells me that for many years he has been watching Hong Kong movies regularly at a cinema in Chinatown. Discussing a few films, I discover that we share some of the same likes and dislikes. His opinion seems valuable. Have I been missing something somewhere? I have never really heard of Hong Kong cinema before. Anyway, on with the film…

As the lights were coming back on at the end of the screening, I realized there would be no turning back. I had caught a glimpse of a whole new world I knew I would have to explore. I had loved the film, although I was not sure about the last reel; I would have to revisit it later. I had also fallen desperately in love with the main actress, Anita Yuen, but that's another story.

The next session of the festival was featuring another Hong Kong film, The Bride With White Hair. I stayed for the screening. The film was totally different from the previous one. I must admit I didn't like it half as much, but I was impressed by its formal beauty and there was an 'alienness' to the film (for this viewer at least) that was strangely seductive; I wanted to understand this culture, to have access to it. In a word, I wanted more.

Since this filmbuff epiphany I have had the chance and opportunity to see a few hundred films made in Hong Kong, as Melbourne was for a time blessed with having two Chinese cinemas both with the habit of showing double-features. Unfortunately, one of them eventually had to close its doors. Still, the remaining one, Chinatown Cinema, continues to screen regular double features on its two giant screens and laser disc versions of Hong Kong films on a third smaller one, so it is still possible to sustain a habit reasonably well in Melbourne.

So why do I love Hong Kong cinema? As befits such a large national output, Hong Kong films vary greatly in quality. Like all major film producing nations, it churns out every year a great number of films that are bad (some appallingly so) or at best average while at the same time producing many good or very good ones, as well as a few gems (last year's Lost And Found comes to mind, as well as the films of Wong Kar Wai). I have seen examples of all, and in quite the same proportions. Still I find that I have more time for the average Hong Kong movie than I have for its Western equivalent. Why is that so?

There is at the heart of Hong Kong cinema a yearning for understanding the complex web of influences which rule and determine human relationships, although the 'political' is noticeably absent from this equation; a desire and a will to explore emotions that from my point of view are sadly lacking in modern Western filmmaking, particularly in contemporary American cinema (of course, there are many exceptions). In the postmodern world, we know that truth is an illusion. Nothing is revealed. As postmodern beings, we have no hope of ever making sense of the world because there is no sense. I accept this. Yet I also acknowledge the fact that though there is no final destination, each of us is still at each and every moment journeying. The fact that there are no answers doesn't mean the end of wondering (or wandering, for the sake of the metaphor). I truly believe that asking questions is the essence of what makes us human; that life is basically a quest for truth, for some kind of transcendence however absurd this may be. I believe that going against this innate yearning for knowledge, self knowledge, is as absurd as suicide, which is to say it might be a solution but it is not really conducive to living a fully-fledged life... which is what all genuine filmbuffs want to do! Contemporary Western filmmakers in general have not only accepted the fact that human behavior is inscrutable; they have embraced it. Since we can never begin to understand what makes us do the things we do, there is no point in their view in even trying to do so; all that can be done is to show, to be the eye of the camera so to speak, a mute/dumb witness. The result of this attitude is a cinema that I find somehow vacuous. This kind of cinema grabs one's attention the same way an accident does: when I hear a crashing sound, I have a look to see what happened; when I watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, I'm entertained (well… most of the time). I want more than this.

You will find in the most absurdly improbable Hong Kong action films, characters experiencing recognizable emotions like for instance love, compassion, grief, as well as anger (the stock in trade emotion in action films). John Woo (Ng Yu-Sam), slightly overrated as a director although not when it comes down to the choreography of action scenes, provides perfect examples of this. His films and those of countless other Hong Kong directors are peopled with cold blooded killers who basically just crave love, friendship, tenderness… power and money also I guess, which is pretty much the lot of the vast majority of us, ordinary people living in the real world. Where a character is seemingly hopelessly irredeemable, Wu Chien-Lien in Beyond Hypothermia for instance (she kills a child at point blank), the Hong Kong filmmaker will provide a motivation that against all odds will be believable as it will entail emotions or sentiments of a kind we have ourselves felt in our lives, be it loneliness, sadness, nostalgia or love. This leads to some gaps, some less charitable soul would say chasms, in the internal logic of many scripts, i.e. if the character is such a sensitive soul, why is he or she also a perfect killing machine going around shooting countless people? But then again, who said life was meant to always run a logical course? Who can truly say that his or her actions have never been at odds with the way he or she was feeling at any particular time? Hong Kong cinema acknowledges human failings, although sometimes unwittingly. I appreciate that.

In most Hong Kong films, there is a pervading sense of sadness, or so it seems to me, that I find very affecting. Even in the broadest comedies, there is very often a feeling that life is precarious, that the world, people, even the emotions we believe we feel are never really quite what they seem to be, and that all of our life expectations could be thwarted at any moment. Who's The Woman, Who's the Man, the successful sequel to He's A Woman, She's A man is the perfect example of this. From what I can remember of it, Tom, Dick and Hairy (a film I would like to see again) is another good example. This essentially tragic outlook on life, which possibly finds its finest expression in the films of Clara Law Cheuk-Yiu, adds layers of meaning to films that would otherwise be indifferent.

In spite of this shall I say melancholy I perceive in Hong Kong cinema or maybe because of it, what seems to me to be in the final analysis the dominant trait of all the films I have seen is an all-encompassing love of life. Hong Kong films embrace the humanity of the individual to a much greater extent than is the case in Western cinema. Characters are often portrayed attending to their most basic needs, i.e. eating, sleeping, relieving themselves. Hong Kong filmmakers never shy away from showing their characters in a light that is less than flattering: when the beautiful heroine cries, her nose is likely to run profusely; if she eats, morsels of food are likely to be spilling out of her mouth. If a character happens to be sick in a Hong Kong film, it is not unusual for the camera angle to encompass the product of his retching. This concern with the physical being the Western viewer cannot help but notice (sometimes be repelled by) demonstrates an acceptance of all that is life; acceptance that may be considered morbid curiosity by some, but acceptance nonetheless. In my opinion, even the most excessive bloodshed in a John Woo film is more celebration of life than ode to death: blood by the bucket splattering in slow motion is evidently the stuff of life. Life may be cheap, violent and ugly yet it is what was given to us in the real world. It is all we have in the end. It is all. Even in death, life is what we are. The penultimate hope. Wu Chien-Lien and Lau Ching-Wan, Beyond Hypothermia's tragic lovers, under a storm of bullets, in the end will never die.

Still, all that precedes falls short of explaining my fascination for and love of Hong Kong cinema. Many if not all of my comments could apply as well to all the films I love, from Buster Keaton's to those directed by Ingmar Bergman, or to name a director currently working, Rolf de Heer. There are specific reasons rendering Hong Kong cinema irresistible in my eyes. Some are inherent to the films themselves while others arise from the Western viewer's point of view.

A characteristic aspect of Hong Kong filmmaking is the mixing of the genres. It is not unusual for instance to find in the one-film, elements of slapstick, horror, drama, and romantic comedy. Unfortunately, I have no particular film in mind at the time of writing that would illustrate this point (one could maybe offer the films starring Stephen Chow Sing-Chi as an example although they are essentially comedies with some pathos thrown in for good measure). It may be that the best examples of this mixing of the genres are less than memorable, nonetheless it is another facet of Hong Kong cinema that contributes greatly to its charm.

The actors of course contribute enormously to the charm of Hong Kong cinema. Chow Yun-Fat's winning smile, Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei's lovely mannerisms, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's brooding gaze, Anita Yuen Wing-Yee's endearing exuberance, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun's grumbling gentleness, Wu Chien-Lien's impenetrable beauty, Takeshi Kaneshiro's emotional vulnerability and Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk's quivering sensibility have few equivalents in the West. The particular attributes I chose to emphasize do not mean that these actors are limited in any way in their acting abilities (I could as well have referred to Chow Yun-Fat's steely gaze or Wu Chien-Lien's disarming smile); on the contrary, they all display an amazing range. Chow Yun-Fat was seen in 1989 playing a cool assassin in The Killer, a charming and childlike (following a hit on the head!) high rolling gambler in God Of Gamblers and a working class single father in All About Ah Long. He earned a Best Actor Of The Year nomination at the Ninth Hong Kong Film Award for his performance in God of Gamblers, but it is his acting in All About Ah Long that won him the prize (I still believe his performance in God Of Gamblers was the most deserving one). It is a well-known fact that Hong Kong actors are hard working. Maggie Cheung, answering questions following the screening of her latest film Irma Vep (a French film) during the 1997 Melbourne International Film Festival, told the audience that in the earlier days of her career she had often played parts in films being shot concurrently, her personal record being five! Of course with success and fame comes a more leisurely schedule of shooting, although "leisurely" might not be the right word when you consider someone like Anita Yuen for instance. A star by any standard (she won the Best Actress Award at the Hong Kong Film Award two consecutive years, and has a following that reach all the way to Japan), she signed in 1996 a contract committing her to appear in no less than eleven films in the following year! While it is unavoidable that with such workloads the quality of Hong Kong actors' work suffer from time to time, the fact that they still come up regularly with good performances, occasionally with great ones, is in itself an impressive achievement. In any case, from the point of view of the fan a lackluster performance is better than no performance at all; I will never miss a film starring Anita Yuen if I can help it, even though I have often been bitterly disappointed!

The low profile of Hong Kong cinema in the West is in itself an added attraction to the Western viewer (or at least to this one) as it offers the great pleasure of discovery; discovery of a work of art, and of himself. We live in a world where culture is pre-digested. Marketing people, art commentators, theoreticians, so called specialists and experts in everything from ancient cave paintings to the latest trend in body adornments all tell us constantly what is "significant". We are told what is good, what is bad, what is worthy of our attention and what is not. By the time a film is released, we already know everything there is to know about it; we have seen the photos, we have read the articles, we have heard the interviews; we have a good idea of its content, of its sources and of its significance in the scheme of things. In these circumstances, the film itself becomes almost redundant. We might decide to see it or not, yet in the end we will not "see" it. Films are made of light. They have the power to enlighten; they offer us the opportunity of interpreting ourselves in their light. Yet what we will do if we finally decide to enter the luminous dark room is to "interpret" this miracle that is human creativity in the light of our preconceptions. Instead of engaging in a conversation with ourselves, we will be drawn into a chattering exchange with this or that commentator with whom we care to agree or disagree. It is a shame! Hong Kong cinema offers the Western viewer a rare occasion of exercising his critical judgement, hopefully exploring the depths of his own thoughts and feelings, free from the dictates of the arbiters of good taste.

Hong Kong films are hardly ever reviewed in the non-Asian media (Wong Kar-Wai's recent releases are an exception as they have attracted the attention of the art film market). In Melbourne for instance, the Chinatown cinema schedule is not even listed in the Arts section of the city's only broadsheet. In conditions such as these, the weekly trip to the Chinese cinema is something the Hong Kong film aficionado always looks forward to. The only source of information on the films currently showing at any given time are more often than not the poster boards in the lobby of the cinema itself, therefore one always has to be open-minded and adventurous when entering a Chinese cinema. Surprise is the essence. Of course we all know how movie posters can be misleading. Hong Kong photographers and graphic artists can be very stylish. On a few occasions, I have come out of a Chinese cinema thinking that the greatest part of the budget of the film I had just seen had been spent on the design of the poster! Although I have had my share of disappointments, the prospects of coming once in a while across an unexpected great film, a cinematic experience that for the filmbuff that I am has no equal, provide all the incentive needed to embark over and over again upon that great adventure that is Hong Kong cinema.

In the end, films are films wherever they come from. Since that fateful day years ago at the Asian-Pacific film festival when I caught my first glimpse of an alternative cinema universe (not to mention Anita Yuen), I have seen countless films from all around the world. I do not claim that during that period more good films came out of Hong Kong than out of any other countries; all I mean to say is that there has been as many. The fact that this is rarely acknowledged and that there has not been more Honk Kong films released in the West up until now is a total mystery to me, and a great source of frustration to boot.

There is a concept that surfaces over and over again in Hong Kong films; it is the concept of "giving face". It has to do with pride and respect. I give you face in front of your peer group, and you will owe me. For years, Hong Kong and Asia in general have given face to the West by showing an interest in its culture, and in the context of this essay in its cinema. I think it is about time we pay our dues by starting to open ourselves to theirs. Such a gesture would be a simple mark of respect. This is the least we can do... and in any case, theirs is such a rich and diverse culture that it deserves our respect.

With respect one hopes comes understanding; with understanding, love. See a Hong Kong film today.