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.
One of the striking things about Woo's films is that innocent people sometimes get gunned down, by mistake, by his heroes. That's something that would never be seen in an American film. Americans expect their heroes to be perfect. But Woo's heroes are fallible. One of the heroes of A Better Tomorrow 2 asks, "Why is it so difficult for a man to be good?" That seems to be the question that Woo is dramatizing in many of his films. His movies are populated by men trying to maintain their honor while living in a world of disloyalty, greed, and lust.
Which brings us to Woo's other trademark: his serpentine, super-melodramatic plots. In A Better Tomorrow 2, for example, two brothers go undercover to infiltrate a counterfeiting gang. The gang's leader finds out that the younger brother is a policeman. At the same time he is suspicious of the other man (he doesn't know they are related), so he orders the older brother to prove his loyalty by shooting the cop to death in front of the assembled gang. The brother who is to be killed whispers to the other, "Better he trusts one of us." The other brother glances at the gang surrounding them, realizes they can't fight their way out, and shoots his brother.
A man driven by duty finds himself in an untenable position: He can try to save his brother, lose their quarry, and likely fail at the rescue in the process, or he must commit the most anguishing act in order to reach his goal. Woo faces the conflict unflinchingly. An American film maker would have forced a happier resolution on the situation, if he even wrote it at all.
But there's more to Hong Kong cinema than gore and violence. There's also sex. In this area, Hong Kong cinema is closer to European standards than to U.S. ones. Hong Kong film makers regularly turn out big-budget showcases of unabashed erotica. Indeed, films such as Sex and Zen, the Erotic Ghost Story series, and Escape from the Brothel can match anything the Europeans make in abundant nudity and sexuality. And they go far beyond even the unrated versions of such U.S. films as Basic Instinct.
Many of these films are erotic thrillers whose plots echo similar American films: Someone has sex and must pay. For example, in Cash on Delivery, the protagonist has a brief encounter with a sexy young woman who develops a fatal attraction to him. When he tries to break things off, their meeting degenerates into a brawl in which he accidentally kills her husband. It turns out that this is what the young woman was planning from the start, and she accuses him of murder. In true movie fashion, the man's girlfriend is a lawyer, and only she can get him free.
But what is unique to many other erotic films made in Hong Kong is their sense of ribaldry. We really don't have anything like them in America, although some classics of English literature, such as The Canterbury Tales, are similar to the spirit of these films. Indeed, many of the best of Hong Kong's erotic films draw upon ribald classics of Chinese literature.
For example, Sex and Zen is based upon a Chinese classic. In Zen, the leading man, deciding that he is "too small," has a wizard replace his penis with that of a horse. The wizard is one of the clumsiest men around, and before the (bloodless) operation is completed, it degenerates into a sickly hilarious piece of slapstick with people getting knocked unconscious and penises rolling around on the floor.
Hong Kong film makers also draw upon Chinese literature and legends for wild epic fantasies. One of the best of this genre is The Bride with White Hair. This film centers on two lovers: a beautiful young woman who is the assassin of an evil cult and a young swordsman who is the champion of those who oppose the cult. Despite its obvious resemblance to Romeo and Juliet, this film features many touches that are unique to Hong Kong cinema. The leaders of the cult are brother and sister magicians who cannot satisfy their incestuous lust because they are joined at the spine, Siamese-twin style.
Nowhere is Hong Kong film's disdain for realism more evident than in this movie. The entire film has the look of a dream. The daytime exteriors were shot at night using artificial lights, giving the movie its strange look.
Some have said that because of this rejection of naturalism, Hong Kong films will never be accepted by mainstream American audiences. Perhaps. But these movies are attracting a growing cult audience in North America. And John Woo has already directed one American film, Hard Target, and is set to direct another. Maybe given a chance, Americans will show themselves just as appreciative of good spectacle as Asians.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.