Most U.S. filmgoers probably regard Hong Kong cinema as what Variety used to call “chop sockey"—low-budget kung-fu fare. Martial arts do very often play a strong part in Hong Kong films, but that eastern industry has been turning out broad entertainments with a dash and zing all their own. You can see many of these films at the cinemas that dot America’s Chinatowns, discover gems amid the more disreputable action racks at local video stores, or find laser discs at Chinese-language video outlets (check for subtitling).
The most remarkable Hong Kong filmmaker is Jackie Chan, an action comedian whom admirers have justly compared to Buster Keaton. Chan’s athletic virtuosity is all but indescribable: several times he has staged fights completely above ground, swinging from rafters, and in his commercial blockbuster Police Force (also known as Jackie Chan ‘s Police Force or Police Story) he chases a hijacked speeding bus on foot and clambers aboard it while fighting the gangsters on board—no doubles, no tricks. All the while, his face sketches a comic wonder at his own agility. Chan, along with sometime collaborator Samo Hung, were among the last graduates of one of the Peking Opera schools in which boys from poor families were taught fantastic acrobatic skills in return for room and board. When the schools were closed, the students gravitated to Hong Kong, a story dramatized in the poignant Painted Faces.
Hong Kong’s latest wunderkind is Tsui Hark, a producer-director whose eye-popping masterpiece is Peking Opera Blues. Set in 1913, the film relates the adventures of three women embroiled in revolutionary politics in Shanghai. The action involves some of the most stupendously choreographed, furiously edited, and colorful scenes ever committed to film.
As you read this, director John Woo should be putting the finishing touches on Hard Target (to be released this summer). The feature stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and is a potential bridgehead for the exodus of Hong Kong movie talent, anticipated in 1997. Until then, search and enjoy.