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Tag Archives: Cecille Tang

A Hong Kong Cinema Primer, pt. 1

For many cinephiles Hong Kong remains synonymous with the kind of wild and woolly action typical of the movies that first broke through in the West in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the kung fu of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the outrageously choreographed shootouts of John Woo and the wuxia (or period martial arts) films featuring physics-defying “wirework” characteristic of director Tsui Hark and choreographers Ching Siu-Tung and Yuen Wo-Ping. But Hong Kong cinema has always had much more to offer, as the list of titles below (including comedies, musicals, melodramas and unclassifiable art films) should make clear. In the early 1990s Hong Kong could boast of having the third most prolific movie industry in the world (after only Hollywood and Bollywood), an astonishing statistic given the then-British colony’s small size. In 1994 alone over 400 locally made films were released in Hong Kong theaters. In recent years that number has sadly dwindled to a couple dozen features released annually due to a downturn in the economy, rampant piracy and the migration of talent to Hollywood and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the rich, glorious past of Hong Kong’s film industry, fully justified in being called “the Hollywood of the East,” is well worth exploring in depth. One can only hope that it will someday rise again.

The list is divided into two parts. Part one below covers the late 1950s through the early 1980s, an era with which even some Hong Kong cinema aficionados aren’t familiar (although it was arguably the territory’s true classic period). Part two, to be published next week, covers the mid-1980s through the present. In chronological order:

The Kingdom and the Beauty (Li, 1959)

The Shaw Brothers Studio was the most significant movie studio in the history of Hong Kong, ushering in the territory’s first golden age in the late 1950s. One of the quintessential films of this era is Li Han-Hsiang’s The Kingdom and the Beauty, a handsomely mounted musical/historical drama about a young Emperor (Zhao Lei) during the Ming Dynasty who goes AWOL and falls in love with commoner Li Feng (Linda Lin Dai), the “beauty” of the title. A great example of Hong Kong’s “yellow plum opera” genre as well as a terrific showcase for Lin Dai, an icon of style and beauty who committed suicide at the height of her fame – and thus sealed her legend as the Chinese Marilyn Monroe. Remade as Chinese Odyssey 2002.

The Wild, Wild Rose (Wong, 1960)

In the 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong enjoyed a prolific, star-studded golden age in which films were made according to an assembly line style of production similar to Hollywood’s studio system of the 1930s-1950s. The chief rival of the Shaw Brothers Studio (the MGM of Hong Kong) was the MP&GI Studio (later Cathay) who were known less for lavish sets and costumes than for documentary-style location shooting. The Wild, Wild Rose is an MP&GI masterpiece directed by the formidable Wong Tin-Lam (father of the future hack director Wong Jing) that transposes Bizet’s opera Carmen to the noirish setting of Hong Kong’s Wanchai district. A fantastic vehicle for the immortal Grace Chang, a musical star who usually played innocent ingenues but who burns up the screen here as the notorious man-eating nightclub singer Sijia.

Come Drink with Me (Hu, 1966)

King Hu was arguably the greatest of all Chinese directors. He got his start with the Shaw Brothers where he made the wuxia classic Come Drink with Me in 1966. Unfortunately, his slow, meticulous working methods caused him to run afoul of his superiors and most of his subsequent masterpieces were made in exile in Taiwan. Come Drink with Me is one of the most influential martial arts films of all time and a very unique one in that it centers on a female protagonist (Cheng Pei-Pei). This is just one of the many respects in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (where Cheng was cast as the villainous Jade Fox) pays homage to Hu.

The Arch (Tang, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

Have Sword Will Travel (Chang, 1969)

Hong Kong’s most important martial arts director in the wake of King Hu’s departure was Chang Cheh; he directed both Golden Swallow (the sequel to Come Drink with Me) as well as the massively influential One Armed Swordsman starring Jimmy Wang-Yu. My own favorite Chang movie is Have Sword Will Travel from 1969, featuring the popular duo of David Chiang and Ti Lung. The plot concerns a love triangle between three people whose job is to transport a large shipment of Imperial silver but it’s the action set pieces and dreamy, expressionistic cinematography, which achieves an almost abstract purity in its focus on form and color, that prove to be the real stars of the show.

Fist of Fury (Lo, 1972)

Bruce Lee was a genius martial artist and a charismatic actor. Unfortunately, in his short career he never quite found the proper movie vehicle to match his talents. Fist of Fury is the film that probably comes the closest with Lee playing Chen, a Chinese martial arts student trying to avenge the death of his teacher at the hands of Japanese oppressors. Worth seeing for a number of iconic scenes such as Chen smashing a “No dogs or Chinese” sign, the first appearance of Chen’s nunchaku and the climactic fight between Chen and Petrov (Lee’s real life bodyguard Robert Baker).

The Magic Blade (Chor, 1976)

Chor Yuen is one of the most neglected of the major Hong Kong directors. He started off as an independent in the ’50s and ’60s, directing low-budget but charming Feuilladean mysteries like Black Rose and The Spy with My Face. But Chor really hit his stride in the ’70s after signing a contract with the Shaw Brothers and making a series of stylized swordplay films based on the period novels of Ku Lung. This outing, about rival swordsmen teaming up to find a mysterious weapon known as “the peacock dart,” is his best – a beautifully directed action film that combines the conventions of traditional wuxia with elements from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone as well as the James Bond franchise.

The Private Eyes (Hui, 1976)

Most of the films produced in Hong Kong prior to The Private Eyes were spoken in Mandarin, the predominant dialect of mainland China, even though the majority of the population of Hong Kong speaks Cantonese. This changed almost overnight with the phenomenal success of writer/director Michael Hui’s hysterical, Cantonese “nonsense comedy” about a low-rent detective agency staffed by Hui and his real-life younger brothers Sam and Ricky. Like all Hui brothers comedies, this is characterized by Groucho Marx-style wordplay that is probably best appreciated by Cantonese speakers; however, there is also a healthy dose of physical comedy – Michael Hui brandishing sausage link nunchaku is funny in any language.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau, 1978)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is The Searchers of kung fu movies – the absolute pinnacle of the genre, often imitated but never equaled. The plot tells the fictional story of how Shaolin martial arts spread beyond the Buddhist temples in 17th century China as the native Han learned to fight against their Manchu oppressors. Starring the charismatic Gordon Liu and directed by his brother, the legendary choreographer Lau Kar-Leung, this film focuses almost exclusively on training sequences rather than fights, which contributes mightily to the uplifting theme of self-empowerment. Essential viewing whether you are a martial arts fan or not.

Project A (Chan/Tang, 1983)

Jackie Chan is to martial arts what Buster Keaton was to physical comedy; both pioneered a way to combine their respective genres with jaw-dropping and death defying stunts in order to bring the world first rate entertainment. This stuntman-as-auteur style looks increasingly impressive from our 21st century CGI-laden vantage point; dangerous stunts have become obsolete simply because they’re no longer necessary from a technological point of view. However, something has been lost in the process – audience excitement over knowing they are seeing something done “for real.” Having said all that, I’m not the world’s biggest Jackie Chan fan. As much as I love his insane stunt work, I find his outrageous facial mugging and frequent indulgence in low comedy to be annoying. But these aspects are more subdued in Project A, an exhilarating action-filled comedy with Chan as a Chinese coast guard officer fighting pirates at the turn of the 20th century. The clock tower climax, an homage to Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, is nearly as impressive as in the original.

To be continued . . .

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Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

mauds

20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.


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