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CINEMA: ASIAN INVASION

10 minute read
Richard Corliss

On location in a handsome old villa in Wujiang City, 10 miles from Suzhou in eastern China, Chen Kaige is shooting Temptress Moon. The film crew, a tight team of 20 or so artisans, is being entertained by the Chinese actress Gong Li and Hong Kong heartthrob Leslie Cheung, both of whom starred in Chen’s 1993 hit, Farewell My Concubine. Gong Li picks up a TV remote and pretends it’s a telephone (“Wei? Wei?”–“Hello?”), then playfully runs it under a prop man’s arm as if she were a beautician with an electric shaver.

Cheung swaps airy gossip with visitors but promptly falls into his silky, sulky character when Chen calls him to shoot. Even the finicky director agrees it is perfect the first time. “One-take Leslie!” the crew exclaims, as Cheung bows.

In Lewistown, Montana, John Woo is shooting a spectacular explosion scene–his directorial calling card in many apocalyptic action movies (The Killer, Bullet in the Head, Hard Boiled) before he emigrated from Hong Kong to Hollywood in 1992. During a break in filming Broken Arrow, which stars John Travolta and Christian Slater and is to be 20th Century Fox’s Christmas release, Woo casts his eye over the hundreds of technicians and ponders the contrasts in moviemaking between Asia and America. “The crew is four or five times as big here,” he says. “There are many more special-effects experts. The shooting takes much longer. And the catering! In Hong Kong we have only a lunch box for meal breaks. Here we have turkey, seafood, steaks–everything.”

Chen and Woo are separated by 10 time zones and vast differences in manpower and cuisine. Chen is making an art film he hopes will be popular, Woo a popular film he hopes will be artful. Both are spearheading the most adventurous, fascinating movie movement of the ’90s: Chinese films from the People’s Republic, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the real world, these three entities are making one another nervous. Maoist China, threatened by Taiwan’s robust economy and the blooming of individual liberty, is punishing any country that even considers a two-China policy. Hong Kong looks edgily toward June 30, 1997, when the British government will hand its crown colony over to the People’s Republic, and back to June 4, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping crushed the Tiananmen Square revolt. Officially, China and Taiwan are enemies, and China and Hong Kong are siblings about to be reunited. Practically speaking, everyone does business with everyone else–especially movie business. Hong Kong films use mainland locations; Taiwanese companies co-produce P.R.C. films; Chinese and Hong Kong actors shuttle from one venue to the other. It’s a relatively free form of cultural exchange.

In the reel world, Western cinephiles have a three-China policy. They embrace mainland dramas by artists like Chen and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern). They are beguiled by the Taiwanese domestic comedies of Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) and impressed by the daunting meditations of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Good Men Good Women). And they get their giddy thrills from the wild Hong Kong action films featuring Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat, who are two of the world’s top movie stars. Chinese pictures cannily appeal to audiences of every brow–high, middle or no.

The trend has been percolating for about a decade. In 1985 Chen’s Yellow Earth, in a sensational debut at the Hong Kong Film Festival, heralded the emergence of a pristine, passionate intelligence in cinema from the People’s Republic. The following year, Woo’s A Better Tomorrow infused amazing camera dexterity into Hong Kong martial-arts movies; it also introduced Chow Yun Fat as the brooding, brutal antihero and Cheung as his sensitive counterpart. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan was cementing his international reputation for stunts of preternatural derring-do. Last year Drunken Master II was his first film to be widely released in mainland China. It was the year’s biggest hit there, outgrossing the Hollywood smash The Fugitive.

Now the three-China trend has become something of a Hollywood mania. Who is directing Sense and Sensibility, the Jane Austen story that will bring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant to theaters this Christmas? Why, Taiwan’s Ang Lee. Who was this year’s winner of the mtv Lifetime Achievement movie award? Jackie Chan, who recently signed a three-picture deal with New Line Cinema. And who presented the prize? Quentin Tarantino, Mr. Hot Hollywood.

Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs was in part inspired by the Hong Kong thriller City on Fire, will distribute Wang Kar-wei’s delicious romance, Chungking Express, in the U.S. under the banner of Miramax Films. Ringo Lam, director of City on Fire, is one of several Hong Kong directors who have taken career-enhancement meetings with Hollywood studio bosses. Woo hopes to find a suitable U.S. project for his friend Chow. “A few years ago, the attitude here was that Hong Kong–and Asia in general–made nothing but ‘chopsocky’ films,” says Christopher Godsick, Chow’s co-manager, who, as a William Morris agent, helped bring Hong Kong to Hollywood. “It took a bit of education to shift that around. As John Woo became more accepted, it opened up opportunities for others.”

The Asian invasion continues on the art-house front. No serious festival is complete without several pictures from the three Chinas–five features, for example, out of the 20 screened at the 1995 New Directors/New Films showcase in New York City. Zhang’s Shanghai Triad will open the New York Film Festival next month. The recent Asian American International Film Festival in New York City was top-heavy with films from Cannes. For eight years the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has programmed well-attended Hong Kong seasons, some of which have traveled to New York and Atlanta.

This week a month-long Festival Hong Kong begins in New York City, with 11 features on show. The martial arts are almost musical in Wong Jing’s The New Legend of Shaolin, a Jet Li vehicle with a very Hong Kong form of father-son bonding: Dad performs the dread No Shadow Kick, while the kid catches a housefly in his chopsticks and eats it. Butterfly Lovers, a Romeo-and-Juliet fable of love beyond death, has the hurtling story sense and virtuoso tracking shots that are the trademark of veteran Tsui Hark, director of the dazzling Peking Opera Blues and producer of Woo’s breakthrough films. Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man is a cute Tootsie retake, with Cheung as a put-upon songwriter, the voluptuous, volcanic Carina Lau as his pop-singer girlfriend, and star-is-born ingenue Anita Yuen as the perky fan who dresses as a boy and moves in with them.

Hong Kong films don’t carry chips on their shoulders,” says Peter Chow, who worked as Hark’s producer and currently runs Festival Hong Kong. “They know what they’re there for–entertainment. So they go out of their way to entertain the audience.” In its desire to please, its assured technique and its aversion to onscreen dawdling, Hong Kong cinema is very much like Hollywood’s in its olden Golden Age. It is what has made the island colony of just over 6 million people the world’s third largest producer of movies, after India and the U.S.

But even a prolific industry is not always flush. For 25 years, Hong Kong was the one free movie market whose local product consistently outgrossed the big Hollywood imports. In the past two years, that has started to change. Receipts for Hong Kong films have dropped 30% at Hong Kong theaters, with viewers lost to American movies, home video and that Asia-wide cultural virus known as karaoke.

One reason: many of the locally made movies are getting stale and slapdash. “Films are being made faster and less expensively than before,” says Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center in Chicago, “and there’s a big copycat trend. My friends in the Hong Kong film industry attribute this to anxiety over 1997. Everybody wants to make money as fast as possible, with an eye to getting out if they have to–or if they can.”

Will Hong Kong cinema follow the example of Australia, whose most prominent directors (Peter Weir, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce) found moviemaking homes in America? Or will the annexation of Hong Kong, as some experts think, make it the movie capital of the world’s most populous nation? “By 1997 some filmmakers will have been absorbed into Hollywood,” says Norman Wang, a New York-based film publicist and one of the Hong Kong industry’s sagest insiders. “The directors who remain will have a larger market, the China market.”

John Woo thinks the communists will not want to kill a cash cow like the Hong Kong movie business and that local moviemakers will adapt. “In the first few years there may be panic and chaos,” he says, “but the people will learn to fit into the new system very fast. They’ll figure out what the new government is going to be, and they’ll find a way to keep making their own movies.” Jackie Chan, who is loved in all three Chinas, doesn’t worry about his fate. “But if I were a young director,” he adds, “I wouldn’t make a movie called June 4th.”

What is odd about Hong Kong films is that no director has made a movie about the June 4 massacre or, with rare exceptions, any other touchy subject involving China’s internal carnage. There have been some cross-national romantic comedies: Mary from Beijing with Gong Li, The Bodyguard from Beijing with Jet Li. And in the futuristic action film Executioners–a kind of anti-Waterworld directed by Johnny To and Ching Siu Tung and slated for showing at Festival Hong Kong–a lack of water forces people to riot, and troops fire on the protesters. There is a Tiananmen metaphor for those who look. And after 1997, some Chinese censor probably will.

Most hot political issues, in fact, are left to filmmakers inside China. Farewell My Concubine, Zhang’s To Live, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Gu Rong’s Unwelcome Lady and Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun have boldly dramatized the fratricidal madness of the Cultural Revolution. The directors have paid for their bravery, finding their work censored or themselves unemployed. Gu submitted his film eight harrowing times before it was approved. Jiang tried distracting the on-the-set censor by casting him in Heat of the Sun. But he still had to fight for over a year before his film was approved, with cuts. It opens in China next week.

The Chinese censor knows these pictures are salable products elsewhere, so even if he bans them at home he allows them to be shown in festivals and commercially abroad. This is the new dictum in China: dissident citizens are exiled; dissident films are exported. Says Chen, whose Concubine was shown cut at home and whose 1991 Life on a String has yet to be released there: “I am a Chinese director who finds himself making films for the international market.”

Because Chen’s Temptress Moon, like Zhang’s Triad, is set in Shanghai before the 1949 revolution, both directors can expect their new films to be seen in China. But what can these profligately gifted filmmakers do next? Perhaps emigrate to America, where they can join John Woo and Ang Lee in showing Hollywood how to blend film technique with personal fire. But to do so would be to renounce the people, problems and landscape they have devoted their careers to putting eloquently on film. Maybe they should move down to Hong Kong in 1997, and hope for the best.

–Reported by Georgia Harbison/New York, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles and Mia Turner/Beijing

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