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Kick in the Head 

Old-school Hong Kong

Wednesday, Jan 17 2001
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The Nuart has been on the side of the Asian angels almost from the beginning, having mounted the first of its successful Festival Hong Kong programs way back in December of 1992. In the meantime, however, the circumstances of Asian-movie exhibition have shifted pretty drastically, and the Nuart just isn‘t keeping up. The shift has been acknowledged in one sense: The theater is using the startling success of Ang Lee’s wu xia swordplay picture Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the main promotional hook for the current Festival Hong Kong, which kicks off today with a string of double features spotlighting the star personas of Crouching Tiger‘s Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, along with the martial-arts idol Jet Li. (The Yeoh vehicle Wing Chun has an additional CTHD connection: It was directed by Yuen Wo-Ping, the martial-arts choreographer of Lee’s glidingly romantic ”knight errant“ swordplay picture.) The irony is that the audience enraptured by Lee‘s graceful wu xia fantasy doesn’t seem to overlap very much with the hardcore Hong Kong action crowd. They could actually be turned off, and turned back, by the standard H.K. headbangers on display.

Crouching Tiger‘s noblest warrior, Li Mu-Bai, a.k.a. Chow Yun-Fat, turns up in Ringo Lam’s Full Contact (1992) as an amoral avenger with a spiky crew cut and a hair-trigger .45. This picture is even more hard-boiled than Hard-Boiled (1992), the John Woo perennial it‘s paired with. We can easily imagine one of Chow’s recent converts storming out of the theater to demand his or her (probably her) money back -- perhaps during the big gunfight sequence in a disco, when Lam throws in a ”bullet cam“ shot of a slug ripping into a guy‘s chest. Full Contact is admittedly an extreme case, even by Hong Kong standards. But it is nevertheless worth noting that none of these attractions transforms airborne martial-arts encounters into passionate dance routines or gives voice to what Crouching Tiger screenwriter James Schamus has called ”female subjectivity.“

On the contrary, a director like Ching Siu-Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story), who is represented here by two pictures, Dr. Wai and ”The Scripture With No Words“ (1996) and Wonder Seven (1994), is a single-minded manufacturer of entertainment products -- exactly the sort of results-oriented artisan that film critic and theorist David Bordwell anatomizes so persuasively in his recent study Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Ching can be stunningly inventive, especially when he’s designing images that look like deep-focus comic-book panels come to life. He is often blithely opportunistic in his stance toward his own characters, too, perfectly willing to rethink them on the run, and logic be damned if the immediate effect he‘s after seems to call for it.

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In Ching’s Wonder Seven, Yeoh is the stylish moll of a sneeringly handsome international diamond smuggler -- until she ditches him for a ”special forces“ cop who heads the eponymous anti-triad strike force. (The cop is played by Li Ning, a boyish all-China gymnastics champion with a dorky overbite.) There isn‘t a shred of psychological plausibility in this shift, at least not in the Western sense of a seamless progression from one state of feeling to another, carefully accounted for at every stage in terms of personal motivation. For a filmmaker like Ching, however, the logic of cool, heroic iconography trumps psychological plausibility every time. By establishing Yeoh’s character as an outlaw femme fatale, Ching invests her with a glamorous whiff of danger. Even more than her fighting abilities, this edginess is Yeoh‘s signal contribution to the Wonder Seven force, which prior to her character’s recruitment looks fresh-scrubbed and hopelessly square, like a troop of motorcycle-riding Boy Scouts. As a manipulation of an iconic star persona, this is a fairly deft maneuver, but it certainly isn‘t good drama in the Ang Lee sense; it deploys a female character as an object with certain fixed implications, certainly not as a subject.

Lee’s stroke of genius in Crouching Tiger is precisely that he supplies the subjectivity that many American art-house patrons would regard as the missing element in ritualized generic martial-arts pictures. He creates heroic archetypes that are also rounded human beings, with inner lives and often-contradictory emotions. (The key here, I think, isn‘t the resigned, mature relationship between Chow’s Li Mu-Bei and Yeoh‘s Shu-Lien, but Li’s subtly depicted agitation in the presence of co-star Zhang Ziyi‘s Jen. The upright wu xia master is also a man, and while Jen is certainly a worthy potential disciple, she is also an attractive woman who reminds Li of Shu-Lien in her younger days.) For Ang Lee it is the additional layers of conflict in the characters, their confusion, their mixed motives, that legitimize the characters as paragons of virtue, which make their lofty demeanor palatable.

Lee’s strategy has been sensationally successful. The audience that has been drawn to Crouching Tiger may amount to a new moviegoing coalition, incorporating segments of the mainstream and art-house crowds that have never embraced a martial-arts picture before. Old-school Hong Kong fans, like the ones who sound off on the alt.asian-movies usenet group, tend to be more skeptical. They know that a lot of what Lee is doing in the martial-arts sequences isn‘t really as unprecedented as it appears to the uninitiated. Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair (1993) and the films of the wu xia movie master of the 1970s, King Hu (A Touch of Zen), are often cited as pictures that did the Crouching Tiger thing earlier and better. For these kung-fu movie adepts, Lee‘s psychological footnotes are either a distraction or an annoyance.

In programming old-school H.K. movies in the wake of CTHD, the Nuart seems to be striving to keep the faith with the old-school H.K. audience it helped develop, but in a larger sense it is missing the boat. The highbrow kung fu converts represent a golden opportunity to carry repertory programming of Asian films into uncharted territory -- back into the past, especially, to repossess the classics of King Hu and Chang Cheh, the pictures that CTHD refers to and takes off from. It is perhaps understandable that the programmers would be tempted to cash in at this point, by reselling a six-pack of proven crowd pleasers to a fresh audience. Understandable but, we suspect, misjudged. And drastically shortsighted.

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