Throughout the world American cinema reigns supreme. Hollywood movies capture up to 90 percent of the box office in many countries. European film makers cry for protection from American films. They claim that they cannot compete with U.S. movies and note that in some European countries film making has virtually stopped.
But movie makers in Hong Kong aren't complaining about U.S. competition. This city-state continues to turn out more than 100 films a year, films that dominate the box office, despite competition from American films. Hong Kong movies are also popular exports throughout Asia, and they have attracted a small but growing following in the United States and Europe.
Over the past two decades, government-subsidized European film makers have indulged their own increasingly obscure visions. And they have watched their share of their home nations' box office plummet. Meanwhile, American studios have become parts of ever-larger conglomerates, and they have relied more and more upon market surveys to determine which films they should make and upon audience reaction at test screenings to figure out how to edit those films.
But Hong Kong film makers have pursued a third path. Like the Americans, they make movies for a mass audience, but the Hong Kong version of movie capitalism is much more entrepreneurial. Instead of rehashing the old, Hong Kong film makers seem to compete with one another to see who can be the most original, the most daring, the most inventive.
Hong Kong cinema is characterized by incredible energy, dazzling visuals, and inventive action sequences. The word that most often crops up in Western descriptions of Hong Kong cinema is ultra: ultraviolent, ultrasexy, ultragory, ultramelodramatic, ultrafast.
As actor-director Samo Hung has said of the Hong Kong approach to stunt work, "I think we are usually more concerned with finding the line of safety...and then seeing how much further we can push it." Hong Kong movies push many of the accepted lines.
Aristotle said that the purpose of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror. Hong Kong film makers may not have read The Poetics, but they seem to have discovered this principle for themselves. Watching those films is like drinking strong whiskey--both deliver a very big kick. But it seems to be what many people want. The popularity of these films is proof that nothing succeeds like excess.
The best place to begin looking at Hong Kong cinema is with Jackie Chan. The most popular star in Asia, Chan is a link between the chopsocky films of the 1970s and new Hong Kong cinema. A former child actor, Chan began to really make a name for himself in the 1970s, when he was in his early 20s, in kung fu films. Boyish looking and charismatic, Chan was touted as the next Bruce Lee. But Chan soon began to create a different niche for himself. In contrast to Lee's swift and lethal- looking martial arts moves, Chan developed an acrobatic fighting style that incorporated quite a bit of slapstick and mugging. This mixture of humor and violence remains a Chan trademark.
But in the 1980s, Chan moved from chopsocky films into broader action films. Unlike Western action films, Jackie Chan's movies combine elements of broad physical comedy with nail-biting stunts, all at a breakneck pace.
Those films make terrific use of Chan's natural athletic ability. Like Samo Hung and many other Hong Kong stars, he does his own stunts. Again, this speaks to the drive of the people who make these films that so many are willing to endanger life and limb to please their audiences.
Chan's films are filled with stunts, which are their big selling point. After watching a few, one wonders how the man ever lived to see 30. For instance, in Twin Dragons, Chan is battling the bad guys in a car factory. At one point he falls to the ground to escape the villains and rolls under a car supported by hydraulic lifts. The bad guys release the car, and it falls to the floor, barely missing Chan as he rolls underneath. Just as he's getting to his feet, they release another car from a ramp. As it rolls toward him, Chan jumps the car and runs over the top of it. If either of those bits had gone wrong, he could have been killed.
And for all of the stereotypes of Asians as conformists, there seems to be a big place for individualists and nonconformists in Hong Kong cinema. The heroes that Jackie Chan portrays would be familiar types to American audiences: the rogue cop who defies his superiors and department procedures to battle crooks; the daredevil soldier of fortune who risks his life to obtain ancient treasures.
One can't talk about contemporary Hong Kong cinema without discussing director John Woo. Like Chan, Woo started out in the 1970s, directing his share of kung fu films and slapstick comedies. But in 1986, he wrote and directed A Better Tomorrow, establishing him as Hong Kong's premier director and making his frequent star Chow Yun-Fat the second biggest star in Asia, after Chan.
A contemporary gangster flick, A Better Tomorrow floored audiences with its fast-paced, expertly choreographed, and seemingly endless gun battles. Those gunfights became one of Woo's trademarks in his subsequent films. In fact, his films are filled with so much bloodshed, they make the most violent American films look positively anemic by comparison.
Still, Woo's violence is not nihilistic. Indeed, critics often talk of "heroic bloodshed" when referring to Woo's films. Usually, this refers to the fact that his heroes have to distinguish themselves by taking on numerous enemies and spilling their blood. But it also refers to the fact that Woo's heroes inevitably must spill their own blood. Woo's films often focus on a contrast: The spirit can be built up only if the body is ripped apart.