Tag Archives: Chor Yuen

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 . . .


Top 25 Films of the 1970s

25. The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, Spain, 1973)

24. F for Fake (Welles, France/Iran, 1973)

23. Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, France, 1972)

22. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)

Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.

21. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)

The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was in fact his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

20. The Magic Blade (Chor, Hong Kong, 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.

19. Turkish Delight (Verhoeven, Holland, 1973)

18. The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)

emigrants

17. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant and occasionally surreal lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three feature films in the career of its great director Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the love affair of a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various plans to make easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this with of social criticism (in which Senegalese and French characters remain unspared) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for characters and viewer alike.

16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)

15. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)

ascent

Larisa Shepitko was a director of enormous intelligence and integrity who tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 40 (with many more great movies undoubtedly ahead of her). The final film she completed before her death is this harrowing, indelible masterwork about the persecution of partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, which some feel is the finest Soviet film of the 1970s. In adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov – about the two Soviet soldiers and their futile mission to find supplies in a bleak, snowy landscape populated by Nazi collaborators – Shepitko has crafted an experience so austere, and infused it with so much Christian symbolism, that she makes Tarkovsky look both secular and populist. The drastically different way that her two protagonists meet their fates allows for Shepitko to engage the viewer in a dialogue of uncommon moral complexity. For sheer intensity, this wartime drama is topped only by her husband Elem Klimov’s Come and See from eight years later.

14. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)

The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

13. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)

12. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)

11. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)

Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

10. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)

My personal favorite Claude Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

9. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)

8. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)

7. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)

While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their affections. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)

5. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)

Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

4. The Mother and the Whore (France, 1973)

3. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)

2. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)

John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

1. Out 1 (Rivette/Schiffman, France, 1971)

Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s legendary 12-and-a-half-hour serial is Feuillade made modern, where the directors use an expansive running time to tell various mystery stories, most of them unresolved, which also serves as a psychic x-ray of the 1960s French counterculture and the apotheosis of the entire Nouvelle Vague. Rivette and Schiffman intercut between four different plots: two seemingly unrelated theater troupes rehearse different Aeschylus plays while two seemingly unrelated con artists (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) ply their trades in the cafes and streets of Paris. The con artists each receive information about “the 13,” a secret society with its origin in Balzac that may or may not currently exist. Their investigations lead them to interact with various members of the theater troupes as Rivette and Schiffman slowly bring their narrative threads together and remind us why paranoid conspiracy theories not only exist but are paradoxically comforting: they make us feel that disparate, unconnected events may be related and therefore part of a meaningful design. An intellectually vigorous, terrifying, funny, challenging and life-altering work.


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