THERE'S A new skyline to be revered in the movies. It's not L.A. It's not New York. It's Hong Kong. No, do not sound that gong. We're not talking about the cheesy Kowloon of Bruce Lee and the old martial arts flicks of the 1970s.
This is the new backdrop to a revolution of creativity, strongly influenced by a crazy-quilt melange of Akira Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese, where characters worry about the Chinese takeover and cops play sax in cool jazz clubs in their spare time.
Yes, we're talking action pictures, gangsters and triads, but we're also talking love stories, mind-blowing stunts and pop-operatic poignancy. We're talking out-of-this-world supernatural encounters between men and killer witches, or between blue-faced, hopping vampires and goofy sorcerers' apprentices.
And last but not least, we're talking female action heroes who routinely bust the rib cages of their male assailants without so much as breaking a fingernail. Don't mess with Moon Lee! (Or is that Moon Li? One of the peculiarities about Hong Kong movies is the variety of names for each performer. With so many dialects of Chinese -- and so many cockamamie English translations thereof -- the spelling of names runs the gamut. There's no telling, for sure, whether the pop chanteuse who stars in "Chungking Express" is Faye Wong or Faye Wang. Many filmmakers give themselves English monikers to make it easy. Director John Woo, for instance, is an Anglicization of his original name of Wu Yusen. Performer Brigitte Lin's full name is Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia. But why is Michelle Li sometimes known as Michelle Reis? Beats us.)
You can find these films -- with whatever names happen to be in the credits -- increasingly in alternative video stores in Washington and around the country. And during July and August, you can sample a smattering of recent works at the Freer Gallery of Art, whose free Hong Kong film series is already underway.
But we must preface this paean with a huge caveat: Without guns, without fighting, without gallons of blood and multiple deaths, there would be no Hong Kong cinema. With the plague of violence that has recently permeated the United States, the issue is impossible to avoid.
But if you'll permit us to opine, there's violence -- such as the misogynistic kind in "The General's Daughter," which virtually salivates over its female victim -- and there's the Hong Kong brand, which turns violence into something akin to Keystone Kops slapstick.
The Asian variety is so obviously over the top, so deliriously zany, so obviously theatrical, it enters the realm of the cartoon. The adult cartoon zone, that is. Obviously, you wouldn't want to pop John Woo's "The Killer" into the VCR for family night. But, we think, there is a difference.
For one thing, Hong Kong cinema is graced with a sort of naivete, a goofy, anything-goes spirit that turns bedlam into bubble gum.
In the gun battles of the great filmmaker Woo, gun casings constantly hit the floor like castanets. Heroes leap through the air in slow motion, guns blazing from both hands, while most of their bullets tear harmlessly through walls and windows. Their victims get killed, sure. In droves. In piles. Hong Kong producers spend more money on blood squibs than scripts. But this kind of surreal violence evokes bouts of balletic paintball more than real world horrors.
That said, what are we telling you? That Hong Kong, the third-largest movie production center in the world (after Hollywood and India), happens to be one of the world's most creative, effervescent fonts of filmmaking.
Since the 1970s, the former British colony has turned out literally thousands of films, all of them on a shoestring and shot within days or weeks, and most of them loaded with high-octane vitality.
Because their audiences are so linguistically varied -- they have to make films for Mandarin, Cantonese and other Asian- and English-language markets -- Hong Kong filmmakers are forced to entertain on the most immediate level or perish. Creativity is the only means of survival.
It used to be Bruce Lee was the sole poster boy for Asian action films, with such '70s cult classics as "Enter the Dragon" and "Fists of Fury" (aka "The Big Boss").
These were the so-called "chop-socky" flicks, churned out during that decade by two production arms, the Shaw Brothers and Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest. They featured the cheap James Bond scenarios, the high-pitched battle yells and -- as all too many stand-up comedians have reminded us -- the bad dubbing.
But when the Shaw oligarchy shifted into television production, opportunities opened up for independent producers to make whatever they wanted. Commercial success was all that mattered. During the 1980s and 1990s, a veritable revolution occurred, which has continued virtually unabated.
Even though the People's Republic of China's assumption of control over Hong Kong has caused massive creative flight to Hollywood and other filmmaking locales, movies continue to proliferate.
At the receiving end, those films are increasingly reaching beyond the traditional inner ring of demand -- the Chinatowns of London, Toronto, New York and San Francisco. Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan and directors Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Wong Kar-Wai have become cult figures in the alternative video circuit (see rental places, Page 36). And with the help of such champions as American director Quentin Tarantino (whose "Reservoir Dogs" owes a great deal to Lam's fantastic "City on Fire") and his Rolling Thunder Pictures, Hong Kong cinema has begun to be appreciated and distributed in the arthouse circuit.
Many leading lights of Hong Kong cinema, lured by Hollywood and concerned about China assuming control of the island, have made the crossover to Hollywood. Chan, heir apparent to Buster Keaton with his unbelievable gymnastic abilities, body-damaging stunts and insoluble good humor, has grinned, somersaulted and roundhouse-kicked his way into box office popularity in America with such films as "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Supercop."
Woo has already become a major Hollywood player with "Hard Target," "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off." He's currently shooting the sequel to "Mission: Impossible" with Tom Cruise. And Chow, Woo's leading man in Hong Kong, the Asian continent's hottest star and, quite possibly, the coolest man alive, has already starred in "The Replacement Killers" and "The Corruptor." Currently, he's making "Anna and the King" with Jodie Foster.
Prepare, too, for a greater Hollywood presence from actors Jet Li (who had a co-starring role in "Lethal Weapon IV"), Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, and Tsui, one of Hong Kong's more arty directors, who has already had the dubious distinction of directing Dennis Rodman in "Double Team."
But it's not the school of Hong Kong's latest Hollywood stuff that has us excited. It's the most recent past.
You just have to watch Chan's outstanding "Police Story" series to appreciate how much greater he was in the Hong Kong guerrilla-budget system than here. Woo's American films, such as "Hard Target" and "Face/Off," don't hold a candle to "A Better Tomorrow," "Hard Boiled" and his other low-budget HK classics. And there's no way that Lam, Tsui and Wong could replicate their extraordinary work over here. The American studio system simply isn't built for low-tech talent.
If the Hollywood industrial complex amounts to an ocean liner charting its formulaic course through America's territorial waters, Hong Kong movies are like Jet Skis, zipping in lunatic circles, churning wake, blowing smoke and zigzagging madly around their Titanic-sized competition.
Even though the characters and situations are extremely local -- the stories are almost always set in Hong Kong and occasionally mainland China -- the human situations get you where you live. The sensitive stuff is never far from a Hong Kong film. Fidelity to one's friends -- even to the point of shooting them in the head to put them out of their misery! -- is a big value. So are true love and blind devotion (literally blind in the case of "The Killer"). Male heroes, especially ones played by Chan, are often shy in romantic situations before exploding into action. And you never know what unexpected bit of comedy might ensue. Only in Hong Kong cinema will you find an entire restaurant staff spending almost 10 minutes trying to subdue an oversized, extremely slippery raw fish, this in Tsui's "The Chinese Feast."
What inventiveness! What variety! The pop-art world of Wong's "Chungking Express" is nothing like the mist-swirling mysticism of Ching Siu-Tung's "A Chinese Ghost Story" (two of my hottest picks in Top Ten box at right). And the almost-dorky comedy of Ricky Lau's "Mr. Vampire," with a whole squad of vampires who pogo through their afterlives, has zero connection to Woo's so-called "gun fu" shoot-'em-ups. But they're all from the same wellspring.
The Blockbuster video chain, powered by wholesale-dealing connections with Hollywood studios, continues to muscle independent video store owners out of business, neighborhood by neighborhood. But it's important to realize, there is life beyond Mel Gibson. There are entertaining worlds out there to be sampled in such progressive video stores as Potomac Video -- all over the Washington area -- and Video Vault in Alexandria. (See list on Page 36.) And as the Freer Gallery series proves, those movies are still coming.
Li is charming, almost Mickey Rooney-ish, in "Hitman," an energetic, amusing movie from Stephen Tung-Wai (aka Wei Tung), which screens Aug. 1 in the Freer series. A shy, former mainland soldier looking for ways to send money home to Mom, he hears of a $100 million "revenge fund" left posthumously by a Japanese industrialist to avenge his death in case assassins gun him down. Working with a two-bit hustler (the burly, hilarious Eric Tsang), Li looks for the sinister "killer angel" behind this murder.
Film noir -- a staple of the HK genre -- is very much the operating mood in "Dragon Town Story," Yeung Fung-Lung's murky drama set in rural China during the early 20th century. In the movie, which screens Aug. 20 and 21, a young woman recruits a professional to kill the warlord who slaughtered her family. The drama, which suggests a collaboration between Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Alfred Hitchcock, remains captivating all the way through to its twisteroo ending.
Welcome to Hong Kong. Hope you keep coming back for more.
Gang of Five
HONG KONG has produced many assured directors, but there should be little doubt as to the industry's Fab Five. These filmmakers have produced consistently great work, not just one hit or two. If you see their names on any video box, chances are you're going to love the movie.
The five masters with a list of their best works:
Wong Kar-Wai: Wondrous images, deep sensitivity toward characters, artistic maturity. Recommendations: "As Tears Go By" (1988), "Days of Being Wild" (1991), "Ashes of Time" (1994), "Chungking Express" (1994), "Fallen Angels" (1995) and "Happy Together" (1997).
John Woo: Kinetic, bullet-studded set pieces par excellence. Recommendations: "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), "A Better Tomorrow 2" (1988), "The Killer" (1989), "Bullet in the Head" (1990) and "Hard Boiled" (1992).
Tsui Hark: Creates parallel universes of his own, so "out there" he's practically sci-fu. Recommendations: "Once Upon a Time in China" (1991), "Once Upon a Time in China II" (1991), "Green Snake" (1993), "Peking Opera Blues" (1986) and "Swordsman II" (1992).
Ringo Lam: Action purist, gritty crime master. Recommendations: "Full Contact" (1992), "City on Fire" (1987), "Prison on Fire" (1987), "Prison on Fire 2" (1987), "School on Fire" (1988), "Wild Search" (1990) and "Burning Paradise" (1994).
Jackie Chan: Asia's Buster Keaton. A man who has broken everything there is to break in a body just for the best stunts he can produce. Exhilarating. Recommendations: "Police Story" (aka Police Force) (1985), "Police Story II" (1988), "Police Story III: Supercop" (1992), "Project A" (1984), "Armour of God" (1986), "Project A II" (1987), "Miracle" (1989) and "Wheels on Meals" (1984).
Fast, Freer and Out of Control
An emerging generation of Hong Kong filmmakers is thriving, as a series at the Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Drive and 12th St. NW, near the Smithsonian Metro stop) shows. Directors Ann Hui and Patrick Yau Tat-Chi are among those starting their careers. And veterans such as Gordon Chan and Wong Jing -- who is one of Hong Kong's most prolific directors -- are also represented. You can also catch such familiar performers as Jet Li, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, who continue their wonderful work. "Made in Hong Kong," a free program of recent Hong Kong films continues through August at the Meyer Auditorium. Tickets -- limited to two per person -- are distributed one hour before the event. But if two performances are on the same day, you must line up for tickets one hour before the first performance. (Any remaining tickets will then be distributed one hour before the second showing.) Call 202/357-2700 (202/357-1729 TDD) or visit www.si.edu/asia for more information.
Hong Kong Heaven
A list of the coolest Hong Kong films is clearly a subjective affair. But here are 10 movies guaranteed to show you the best of Hong Kong. In no particular order of preference:
"The Killer" (1989). In John Woo's gun-blazing pop noir, a professional assassin (Chow Yun-Fat) is haunted by the woman he inadvertently blinded, when he's not busy ducking fusillades of hostile bullets and returning fire with his trademark two-gunned attack. Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman called this " `Magnificent Obsession' remade by Sam Peckinpah." Indeed.
"Hard Boiled" (1992). If "The Killer" was over the top, Woo's crime opera -- in which Chow joins forces with rebel cop Tony Leung against the usual Triad suspects -- rockets into the stratosphere. From the opening gun battle in a tearoom to the climactic finale involving SWAT teams, unprecedented gunfire and endangered newborns in a hospital nursery, Woo never lets up.
"Chungking Express" (1994). Director Wong Kar-Wai's love story -- between a zany sandwich-stand waitress (Faye Wong) and a sweet-natured, jilted policeman (Tony Leung), known only by his badge number (223), abounds with staccato style and frenetic charm. It's the cinematic equivalent of popcorn on a hot stove with jump-cut shots, freeze frames, stirringly beautiful images and boundless energy.
"The Bride With White Hair" (1993). Ronny Yu directs this surreal fable, in which an all-powerful, flying, man-killing warrior (Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia) falls in love with a handsome stranger who comes from an opposing clan. Extraordinary visual effects show Lin flying through the air and slicing adversaries into pieces with her scimitar sharp hair.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Leslie Cheung plays an idiotic debt collector, Ning Cai Chen, who becomes the object of a pretty ghost's fancy. But their love is threatened by the ghost's evil tree master and they can't really consummate their romance until the ghost (Joey Wong) is rescued from the underworld. Swordsmen, Taoist priests, ghosts and denizens abound in this visually stunning melodrama from Ching Siu-Tung. It's the kind of movie in which you're here today, drained of your life forces by a tree demon tomorrow.
"City on Fire" (1987). For sheer, stripped-down street action, it's hard to beat director Ringo Lam. Chow Yun-Fat (as much Lam's leading man as Woo's) plays an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of violent bandits led by Danny Lee and runs into the usual honor-versus-loyalty quandary of HK cinema. This classic has all the usual cliches -- the gangs, the moodiness, the neonscape, the multiple gunfights -- but Lam's astringent direction makes everything grittily original.
"Police Story" (1985). Jackie Chan has made many fine pictures, but this one -- which costars Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia and Maggie Cheung -- set the standard for his amazing stunt work. Plotwise, this is pretty ho-hum private-eye stuff, but Chan's set pieces -- including a car crash that cuts a path through an entire hillside shanty town, an amazingly choreographed fight scene involving panes of shattering glass, and Chan's slide down an enormous pole festooned with dangerous electric lights -- will take your breath away.
"Green Snake" (1993). Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong play -- there's no other way to describe this -- snake women. Son Ching (Wong) has learned to evolve into human form through 1,000 years of practice. But Green Snake (Cheung) is still a tenderfoot and still resorts to snakelike behavior, such as catching rodents with her two-foot-long tongue. If the story bogs down in places, the metaphysical content in Tsui Hark's movie will make you stand up and pay attention.
"As Tears Go By" (1988). In Wong Kar-Wai's stunning debut -- a reworking of "Mean Streets" -- low-level crook Ah Wah (Andy Lau) has his work cut out for him, taking care of his hotheaded friend Fly (Jacky Cheung) on the streets of Hong Kong. When Ah Wah's cousin (Maggie Cheung) comes into their lives, she brings only fleeting hope of a life beyond this no-exit existence. Lau's performance is terrific; and Wong's evocation of the life around violence is head and shoulders above the pack.
Ashes of Time (1994). I dare anyone to follow the story details of Wong Kar-Wai's flash-edited, elliptical martial-arts mood piece. The dreamlike story, full of narrative introspection, has to do with various anguished swordsmen and their personal, ethical and financial woes: Basically, it's hard to be a great swordsmen in love and without work. Also, the annual peach blossom season and yin and yang dualism figure pretty big. But visually and emotionally, the movie, featuring an all-star cast of Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin and Jacky Cheung, is stunning. And Wong's appreciation of Kurosawa epics and Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns is abundantly clear.
Your Own Private Video
Okay, so how do you get these Hong Kong videos? Usually by visiting such independent video rental stores as Potomac Video (with 15 locations in the greater Washington area, from Edgewater, Md., to Fairfax) and Video Vault in Alexandria. Not only will you find great Hong Kong stuff at these locations, but other international and classic films as well. And their staff members are -- get this -- friendly and knowledgeable.
However, the offerings at Potomac depend on the demand of the neighborhood. The fullest selections -- in terms of Hong Kong and international films -- are in four locations, whose telephone numbers and addresses are listed below.
Most video stores get their Hong Kong videos from Tai Seng Marketing (170 Spruce Ave., Suite 200, South San Francisco, CA 94080; 415/871-8118) or World Video & Supply Inc. (150 Executive Park Blvd., Suite 1600, San Francisco, CA 94134; 415/468-1381). You can order tapes from them directly through the Internet at www.taiseng.com or www.worldvideo.com. Many Hong Kong movies are also advertised through other distributors, but Tai Seng and World Video seem the best -- in that order.
Here's a short list of local rental stores with Hong Kong fare. Apologies to those I couldn't find.
NEW MY-A VIDEO COMPANY -- 11216 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. 301/946-6146.
POTOMAC VIDEO -- 4828 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 202/333-0985.
POTOMAC VIDEO -- 5536 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/362-6695.
POTOMAC VIDEO -- 7300A Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301/699-3377.
POTOMAC VIDEO -- 9579 Braddock Road, Fairfax. 703/764-3456.
UNIVERSAL BOOKS AND VIDEO CORNER -- Eden Center in Seven Corners, 6763 Wilson Boulevard, No. 5, Falls Church. 703/241-7070.
VIDEO VAULT -- 323 S. Washington St., Alexandria. 1-800/828-5866 or 703/549-8848.
Make no mistake. Hong Kong does not separate the boys from the girls when it comes to fighting. There are several female stars who are revered for their destructive capabilities -- and woe to the male assailant who thinks otherwise. Here are just a few of the best-known female stars, with some videos you might want to check out.
Moon Lee, whose aerial attack is equal to any male contender, is a tremendously lethal action hero who has appeared in countless films, including "Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain" (1983), "Mr. Vampire" (1985), "Killer Angels" (1989), "Beauty Investigator" (1993) and "Secret Police" (1994).
Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia. Known usually as Brigitte Lin, this powerhouse (her box office nickname, The Cheekbones) retired in 1994, but not before she put herself on the Hong Kong map as a supernatural killer diller. She's the powerful, floating, man-killing presence in "The Bride With White Hair." Other films: "Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain" (1983), "Police Story" (1985), "Peking Opera Blues" (1986) and "The East Is Red" (1993).
Cynthia Khan may look demure, but she's another deceptively dangerous fighter, capable of damage to any man. Check her out in her "In the Line of Duty" sequels 3 (1988), 4 (1989) and 5 (1990), in which she took over the role left by Michelle Khan/Yeoh in the first two installments ("Royal Warriors" and "Yes, Madam"). Also "Sea Wolves" (1990).
Cynthia Rothrock may be a tall, blond American from Pennsylvania, but she's no shirker when it comes to martial arts. Check her out in "Righting Wrongs" aka "Above the Law" (1986), "Yes, Madam" (1986), "Blonde Fury" (1989) and "City Cops" (1990).
Michelle Yeoh. Malaysian-born pugilist who started her career as Michelle Khan in such classics as "Magnificent Warriors" (1986), "Royal Warriors" (also 1986) and "Yes, Madam" (1986 too). In her most famous Hong Kong role she played opposite Jackie Chan in "Police Story 3: Supercop" (1993), and many will remember her sidekicking role in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies."
Jade Leung is another female weapon, who first appeared in "Black Cat" (1991), a remake of "La Femme Nikita," as well as "Black Cat II: Assassination of President Yeltsin" (1992), "Satin Steel" (1993), a remake of "Lethal Weapon"! And "Spider Women" (1995).
What I Meant to Say ...
Talk about losing something in the translation. In the mad, low-budget free-for-all that is Hong Kong filmmaking, such post-production considerations as English subtitles are pretty low on the priority list. The result: hilariously inept translations that often make no sense. Authors Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins have pointed out a slew of these howlers in their well-written, illuminating book on Hong Kong cinema, "Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head":
"Take my advice, or I'll spank you without pants." -- "The Seventh Curse"
"Watch out, the road is very sweaty." -- "Aloha Little Vampire Story"
"I'm not Jesus Christ, I'm Bunny." -- "Double Trouble"
"You always use violence. I should've ordered glutinous chicken." -- "Pedicab Driver"
"Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my instep." -- "Pedicab Driver"
"Your dad is an iron worder, your mom sells beans." -- "Legend of the Liquid Sword"
"Bump him dead." -- "Police Story 3: Supercop"
"You daring, lousy guy." -- "Satyr Monks"
"Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected." -- "Savior of the Soul"
"And you thought. I'm gabby bag." -- "Dragons Forever"
"Quiet or I'll blow your throat up." -- "On the Run"
"Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?" -- "Armour of God"
CAPTION: Jet Li: from "Fist of Legend" to "Lethal Weapon IV" and beyond.
CAPTION: Part of the Hong Kong legacy, "Dragon Town Story" (1997) will screen for free at the Freer Gallery of Art.
CAPTION: Jackie Chan has translated his HK fame to U.S. screens.
CAPTION: Director Gordon Chan's "Fist of Legend" stars action hero Jet Li.
CAPTION: Freer for all. Check out new Hong Kong cinema at the Freer Gallery of Art: In "Expect the Unexpected" (1998), directed by Patrick Yau, a detective tries to bring down a ruthless gang; "Hitman" (1998) stars Jet Li (above left) as a hitman with a heart; and "Moonlight Express" features Leslie Cheung (right), who has starred in some of John Woo's and Wong Kar-Wai's most memorable films.
CAPTION: More than gunplay: Director Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" tells the story of a sweet-natured cop (Tony Leung) who gets jilted and eventually finds a new love.
CAPTION: Yeow! Michelle Yeoh -- from "Supercop" to James Bond's sidekick.