b. January 2, 1951, French Cochinchina (Vietnam)
by Grady Hendrix
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of Subway Cinema, a film programming collective in New York City dedicated to increasing exposure for popular Asian movies neglected by Western critics and audiences.
|When it rains it pours and for five years in the mid-1990s Hong Kong cinema was swamped by a flood of critical enthusiasm that managed to be refreshing and patronizing at the same time. Looking back at the raves and the cover stories one reads of a Hong Kong film industry that has no independent identity, just a more extreme notch on a dial where Hollywood is the “normal” setting. Described as the id to Hollywood’s super-ego, Hong Kong was seen as a land of noble savages making primitivist movies that were valuable only in their inadvertent transgressions or excesses. Those who appreciated Hong Kong’s industry on its own terms were regarded as hick fans, girly sentimentalists or humorless, anti-Hollywood multiculturalists who just didn’t “get” the glib, party hearty film writing that carried the day.
But Hong Kong’s film industry is more than a playground for cultural gatekeepers on vacation. The twentieth century shattered Chinese identity, forcing overseas Chinese who longed for a collective homeland to look beyond the China of the Communist party to a pre-Revolutionary, pre-Republican China. The Chinese Nation, so mistreated by its twentieth century custodians, was placed for safekeeping in the hearts and minds of dreaming Chinese all over the world. So while Hong Kong’s film industry was on the one hand a slick, sophisticated machine that exported itself internationally, it was also the only agent of Chinese culture that could move freely between overseas Chinese communities. Consequently, it became the keeper of the flame, the custodian of a mythic Chinese identity.
No one takes this curatorial job more seriously than Tsui Hark. Called “the Steven Spielberg of Asia”, at this point in his career, Steven Spielberg should be so lucky. As a director and producer, Tsui has made 54 films, directing 31 of them, producing blockbusters in every genre known to man, and creating most of the stars in the Hong Kong heavens (John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, Ching Siu-tung, and Brigitte Lin all owe their current careers to Tsui). (1) The genres most identified with ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong film (heroic bloodshed, fantasy swordplay, ghost romances, period martial arts) were genres he created. His Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) created, from scratch, the modern Hong Kong special effects industry, and his A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation (1997) built an animation industry from the ground up.
You’d think a guy like this would be sitting behind a desk with his feet up, puffing on a big cigar, but Tsui Hark struggles. He believes that he is the only person who understands the wonders of Chinese culture and history and that with his great understanding comes great responsibility: he must save it. Tsui looks at Chineseness and sees a neverending source of ideas, a river of strength that will never run dry. People dismiss this and it drives him crazy. He wants to knock off the dust and kick out the jams. And he’s been surprisingly successful. He’s revitalized almost every major trope of Chinese popular culture and, if background counts, he’s barely even Chinese.
No one becomes a patriot like an immigrant and Tsui, born in Vietnam, learned about China from secondary sources: books, movies, comics. He moved to Hong Kong when he was fourteen, lived there for only three years, and then moved to Texas to study film. Eight years later he wound up back in Hong Kong, via New York, and was hired by Selina Chow to direct television at TVB, the petri dish in which a modern Hong Kong identity was crafted.
Hong Kong was as turbulent as any other nation in the late 1960s, but its youth movement came to a screeching halt as the Cultural Revolution buried China in a foaming sea of blood. Intellectuals and students severed their political ties with China and with the Communist party, repulsed by its descent into violence and anarchy, and many of them channeled their energies into anti-colonialism. On the one side they were cutting their ties with China, on the other they were burning the bridges that linked them to the West. As they slashed and burned they became the mouthpiece for a modern Chinese identity: rootless and nostalgic, fast-talking and materialistic, forging their future out of pluck and luck. Globally, Chinese hold a hodgepodge of passports, but they all identify as Chinese. And the China they identify with was made in Hong Kong.
Foreign-educated students flocked to TVB under Selina Chow’s guidance: Tsui, Dennis Yu, Ringo Lam, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Kirk Wong, Alex Cheung, Allen Fong, Shu Kei, and Eddie Fong, among others. These pointy-headed intellectuals, rigorous filmmakers, and cultural omnivores turned out the most popular television in Hong Kong history. When Selina Chow left TVB for upstart station, CTV, she took them with her and there Tsui made his landmark 52 episode Gold Dagger Romance (1979). Going over-budget before he shot the climactic duel, he just turned out the lights and staged it in pitch darkness. Intellectuals swooned and film offers followed.
The next few years saw the collapse of CTV (TVB eats its young) and all these bright young directors started erupting into feature films, dazzling local and foreign critics. Social agendas worn on their sleeves, they welded Western forms to Chinese stories and placed them in shrieking confrontation with the modern world. Critics foamed at the mouth, and Tsui leapt into the fray with Butterfly Murders (1979), We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (1980). Mondo psychotronic genre pi
The New Wave was an injection of fresh blood but its long-term effects were merely stylistic. As it flashed and sizzled the novelty of seeing social issues onscreen briefly captured the public imagination. But people don’t go to the movies to learn lessons, they go to be entertained. Cantonese comedy quickly emerged as a guaranteed moneymaker and Cinema City, feeding off the freshly killed corpse of the New Wave, became the leader of the production house pack.
Able to market failsafe Canto comedy in a competitively shiny package, Cinema City couldn’t make a flop. When they gave Tsui a chance to direct, he jumped at it. This is where he turned out his first hits, and it’s where he seemed to have Chinese film structure laser-etched into his genes. Rejecting confrontation and extremity for surrealist parody and broad farce, he became Cinema City’s top director, then rejected their commitment to hassle-free hustler comedies to found Film Workshop with his wife and partner, Nansun Shi. Their first film, a candy-colored kiss marinated in 1940s Mando-pop, Shanghai Blues (1984), was a Canto comedy but the humor was eked out of post-war pathos, lost love and lost jobs, not movie spoofs and swindler switcheroos. The stale slapstick of the early scenes dissipates like a bad smell as the movie sets sail for deeper waters, leaving Cinema City’s conventions stranded on the shore. Thrilled with the humor and heartbreak produced by his two female leads, Tsui then tried three in his next Film Workshop production, Peking Opera Blues (1986), which triples as a Peking Opera tribute album, a stage door knockabout comedy, and a stern lesson about the disappointments of history. Tsui Hark was now a snowball rolling downhill, becoming more and more of an unstoppable force with every film.
Tsui is an omnivorous re-maker, mining Chinese history and culture for some of its most unpromising material and transforming it into panting pop masterpieces, crackling with relevancy. Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967) becomes A Better Tomorrow (1986). Chang Cheh’s macho One Armed Swordsman (1967) is super-heated and reshaped into The Blade (1995). King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967) is turned into Dragon Inn (1992). Touchstone Hong Kong comic books, Master Q and Uncle Choi, are remade as Master Q 2001 and The Raid (1991). Martial arts novelists Jin Yong and Huanzhu Louzhu are given an upgrade in Tsui’s Swordsman (1990) and Zu series, respectively. The creaky black-and-white film serial, Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, is blasted with hard radiation until it mutates into Burning Paradise (1994), and the 100-film Wong Fei-hung series becomes Tsui’s landmark Once Upon a Time in China films. Chinese folktales provide the fodder for Green Snake (1993) and The Lovers (1994), both of which Tsui strips of decades of fusty traditionalism until he finds the bloody meat beneath their skin.
But while offering the stability of historical continuity with one hand, he takes it away with the other. His movies exist in a perpetual state of flux, where the only constant is change. Immigrants know the bitter taste of premature partings and the absurdity of keeping a place in their hearts for a homeland they barely remember. They know that borders make all the difference and that citizenship is destiny: a chemical engineer in Bombay is a cab driver in New York; a screw-up in London is a bank manager in Hong Kong. A Better Tomorrow III (1989) takes place in Vietnam and never has so much apocalyptic angst been unleashed in an airport departure lounge. Dragon Inn wrings 88 minutes of pathos and paranoia out of a single attempt to cross a border without a passport. Tsui’s characters are neither here nor there, subject to sudden, traumatic changes in status and identity. Demons become human, men become women, swordsmen become monks, criminals become heroes, and heroes become villains. Shape-shifting aliens become bangable pinball machines, robots turn into sexy sirens, human bodies are pulled apart, hung from hooks, deflated, de-faced, skinned alive, castrated, amputated, and exploded. Twins and endlessly replicating time travelers proliferate exponentially.
It’s a whirlpool of shifting identities that spills off the screen. Witness poor, mutable Jet Li. First, Sam Hui in Swordsman is replaced by Jet Li in Swordsman 2 (1992). Then Jet Li plays folk hero Wong Fei-hung in two Once Upon a Time in China movies, morphs into Chiu Man-cheuk for the next two, then turns back into Jet Li for Once Upon a Time in China and America. Jet Li would later transform into Andy On between Black Mask 1 (1996) and 2 (2002), just as Leslie Cheung would be Leslie Cheung for A Chinese Ghost Story 1 (1987) and 2 (1990), but suddenly became Tony Leung for A Chinese Ghost Story 3 (1991). Brigitte Lin plays women who dress as men, then a man who becomes a woman, then her role in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain gets replicated by Cecilia Cheung in Legend of Zu (2001). Chow Yun-fat turns into Andy Lau, Yuen Biao becomes Max Mok, Cecilia Yip becomes Michelle Reis: no actor is safe. All identities are subject to change.
Even the production process is a victim of this dynamic. Films are never finished until the day of their release, and even then they’re often re-made. Tsui’s a fan of re-editing, re-shooting, re-writing and re-dubbing right up until the eleventh hour. The term “lip rape” (dubbing new, plot-altering lines over an actor’s dialogue) was coined for him. All of his collaborators over the years feel that his movies would be better if he focused on fully expressing one idea rather than several, but Tsui doesn’t have the time. He’s saving China from extinction and if he has a thousand ideas in the three months when he’s making a movie, then that movie will contain a thousand ideas.
But there are constants. Tsui’s plots feature good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, and the protagonists caught in the middle, just trying to keep their heads down and attached to their necks. He often turns off the dialogue and allows the imagery to build into musical interludes that can wring tears from the most grizzled Chinese granddad. His happy endings are qualified to the point of tragedy, and he knows that every Chinese understands the heartbreak of leaving home. Our heroes are caught in a maelstrom, briefly colliding, endlessly parting. Ning is eternally pursuing the reincarnation of his ghostly lady love. Ling and Kiddo will always be riding for Ox Mountain. Like an arrow through the heart, our heroines in Peking Opera Blues are captured in a freeze frame as they scatter. If anyone deserves a happy ending, they do. But Tsui just takes a cruel breath before he reveals the nasty surprises history has in store for them.
© Grady Hendrix, June 2003
Butterfly Murders (1979)
We’re Going to Eat You (1980)
Dangerous Encounter – First Kind (1980)
All the Wrong Clues (For the Right Solution) (1981)
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)
Aces Go Places III – Our Man From Bond Street (1984)
Shanghai Blues (1984)
Working Class (1985) also producer, actor
Peking Opera Blues (1986) also producer
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989)
Swordsman (1990) executive director, also producer
The Raid (1991) co-director also producer
Once Upon a Time in China (1991) also producer
The Banquet (1991) co-director
Twin Dragons (1992) co-director with Ringo Lam
Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) also producer
The Master (1992) also producer
King of Chess (1992) co-director with Yim Ho, also producer
Once Upon a Time in China III (1993) also producer
Green Snake (1993) also producer
The Lovers (1994) also producer
Once Upon a Time in China V (1994) also producer
The Chinese Feast (1995) also producer
Love in the Time of Twilight (1995) also producer
The Blade (1995) also producer, editor
Tristar (1996) also producer
Double Team (1997)
Knock Off (1998)
Time and Tide (2000) also producer
The Legend of Zu (2001) also producer
Black Mask II – City of Masks (2002)
Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang, 1982) actor (cameo)
Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang, 1983) actor (cameo)
All the Wrong Spies (Teddy Robin Kwan, 1983) associate producer, actor
The Perfect Wife (Dean Shek, 1983) associate producer
The Winter of 1905 (Yu Weizheng, 1981) actor
Yes, Madam! (Corey Yuen, 1985) actor
A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986) producer
Final Victory (Patrick Tam, 1987) actor
A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987) producer
A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987) producer
I Love Maria (Chung Chi-man, 1988) producer, actor
Diary of a Big Man (Yuen Chor, 1988) producer
The Big Heat (Andrew Kam and Johnnie To, 1988) producer
Gunmen (Kirk Wong, 1988) producer
The Killer (John Woo, 1989) producer
Just Heroes (John Woo and Wu Ma, 1989) producer
Web of Deception (David Chung, 1989) producer
A Terracotta Warrior (Ching Siu-tung, 1990) producer, special effects director
Spy Games (David Wu, 1990) producer
A Chinese Ghost Story II (Ching Siu-tung, 1990) producer
The Laserman (Peter Wang, 1990) producer
A Chinese Ghost Story III (Ching Siu-tung, 1991) producer
The Wicked City
Swordsman II (Ching Siu-tung, 1992) producer
Dragon Inn (Raymond Lee, 1992) producer
Swordsman III: The East is Red (Ching Siu-tung and Raymond Lee, 1992) producer
Once Upon a Time in China IV (Yuen Bun, 1993) producer
The Magic Crane (Benny Chan, 1993) producer
Iron Monkey (Yuen Wo-ping, 1993) producer
Burning Paradise (Ringo Lam, 1994) producer
Forging the Swords (Zhang Huaxuan, 1994) producer
Shanghai Grand (Poon Man-kit, 1996) producer
Black Mask (Daniel Lee, 1996) producer
Once Upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung, 1997) producer
A Chinese Ghost Story – The Animation (Andrew Chen, 1997) producer, actor
Sam Ho and Wai-leng Ho, The Swordsman and his Jiang Hu: Tsui Hark and Hong Kong Film, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002
Lisa Morton, The Cinema of Tsui Hark, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 2001
Articles in Senses of Cinema