Video-store fetish, Hollywood's shot in the arm, exotic staple of rep houses — Hong Kong action movies became synonymous in the 1990s with vigor and crackerjack invention, praised, as critic Grady Hendrix once put it, with “critical enthusiasm that managed to be refreshing and patronizing at the same time.” Their “influence” on action filmmaking and filmmakers — through their techniques, their attitude, the migrations of John Woo and Tsui Hark — has become axiomatic. But it takes a return visit to the movies themselves to see why they're still energizing, in the wash of multiplex shoot-'em-ups that ignore the most basic lessons of vivid physicality.
LACMA's three-weekend series Hard Boiled Hong Kong is by no means an excavation of lost titles or an official chronology, but the relentless showmanship of series opener The Killer (Nov. 12) makes it hard to care about that. After paving the way with A Better Tomorrow and relaunching Chow Yun Fat, Woo and foundational producer Hark put a hit man with a conscience (Chow) through serial trials by gunfire and my-heart-is-bursting tests of loyalty. In a world of magical ballistics, there's always another foot soldier around the corner, and Chow's two-fisted fusillades are rapid-reflex sword-fighting by other means.
At their best, Woo's orchestrations reckon with the physical limitations of their settings — a crowded tram car, a sniper's-length beach, a claustrophobic apartment — but the controlled chaos also stops for logic-defying conversations between hit man and inspector soulmate that might as well be going on in their heads: Time and gunfire are effectively ignored so cop and killer can have a heart-to-heart. Add to this the framing melodrama of a blinded nightclub singer — and Chow's beneficent Rock Hudson handsomeness (“He doesn't look like a killer!”) — and the film's guilty torment suggests Magnificent Obsession, plus 900 bullets, with room for a scene of blind-man's-bluff comedy.
But that mixed-genre energy helps remind that the HK action revolution was not a ground zero of originality, drawing as it did on — take your pick — French gangster chic, Japanese yakuza films, Hong Kong's own far-reaching film history. The 1992 Woo-tacular that lends the LACMA series its name suggests an echo chamber of East-West influence well under way.
After the opening teahouse rave-up's sharp choreography, Woo's strategy of pouring gunmen into a box and turning on the machine-gun hoses mirrors shapeless “Hollywood excesses.” What was the climax of The Killer — the sense of total war, battlefield still smoking — is the baseline for Hard Boiled. But that's perhaps appropriate to its tabloid-headline Triad inspiration (and the home territory's fraught future), even though the “theme” of slaughtering innocents is iffy. The blitzkrieg on a hospital (whose metallic inner chambers and multistory exteriors recall T2's Cyberdyne building assault) concedes the heroic absurdity when a peeing baby saves Chow's crusading cop.
Of course, febrile extremes are not a bug in HK, they're a feature, and the LACMA series also serves to plot such distances between two points within careers.
In addition to the Los Angeles premiere of Woo's epic war story Red Cliff — his this-is-how-it's-done mainland return in all its uncut glory — the lineup includes Wong Kar Wai, and Tsui the director in days when he was more beloved. Shifting from the fantasy of hurtling action to ecstatic torment, Wong decorates the Mean Streets riffs of As Tears Go By (1988) with impossible romance, licks of hot color, ciggie-focused camera work, symbolic stray dogs and a song in a supporting role (a Cantonese cover of “Take My Breath Away”).
By 1995's Chris Doyle–shot Fallen Angels, we are watching something that, as with Wong's French New Wave idols, is partly about the audience giddily enjoying itself enjoying cinema, and Wong would achieve critical apotheosis by perfecting his own HK mythology.
The whimsical voiceover opening Tsui's Time and Tide (2000) might even make an audience think of Wong first, but the series recognizes the Film Workshop founder's massive role with Once Upon a Time in China — the 1991 action drama that reconstituted 19th-century martial-arts patriot Wong Fei-hung in the nobly ass-kicking, gravity-defying body of Jet Li.
If the reverberations of HK cinema should continue to be felt, my wish for a new epicenter would be another producer-director, Milkyway Image maestro Johnnie To. The crack team of bodyguards led by Anthony Wong in The Mission (1999, a year that saw a To career retrospective at the Hong Kong International Festival) play out a tight 80-minute succession of showdowns and sightlines, edited with gem-cut precision. “The aim of this gunplay sequence,” To said of the just-short-of-ostentatious poise of its shopping-mall face-off, “is not to display gaudy action but a kind of numb excitement, an atmosphere of risking everything in one stroke.”
Raising the stakes of the filmmaking and distilling technique to new levels of purity — it's a rewarding goal, in Hong Kong or anywhere.
HARD BOILED HONG KONG | Weekends, Nov. 12-27 | LACMA | lacma.org