March 2018, arsenal cinema

Splendid Isolation: Hong Kong Cinema 1949–1997

DA ZUI XIA, 1966

An exceptional cinematic movement of unrivaled creative force and imagination developed in post-war Hong Kong, which at the time was still a Crown colony. At the beginning, the industry latched onto Hollywood genre models but also to the pre-war cinema of Shanghai, producing adaptations of classical operas, modernist melodramas and popular martial arts films. These were the cornerstones of a unique and differentiated genre and star system that engendered screen legends from Linda Lin Dai to Chow Yun Fat. “Splendid Isolation” traces a line from the little-known early era of Hong Kong cinema, via the popular genre films and auteur works of the 1970s and ’80s that garnered great acclaim at international festivals, to the offshoots of the 1990s, which became part of the broader Chinese film production after the colony’s handover in 1997. Though the cinema of the city state was associated through personal and institutional continuities with Chinese filmmaking of the pre-war era, until the 1970s it was as cut off from the Chinese mainland as it was from cinema markets outside of Asia. This gradually began to change with the international success of martial arts films and the first films of the New Wave at the end of the 1970s. Despite the efforts of certain distributors in Germany, the visually impressive films of the late 1980s and 90s could often only be seen at festivals and still await a comprehensive rediscovery. This program gives a unique insight into Hong Kong’s multi-faceted cinema, presenting the films from archives all over the world in their original 35-mm format. It includes classics as well as largely forgotten gems. We are particularly pleased to welcome Hong Kong star director Ann Hui. This programme is curated by The Canine Condition (Lukas Foerster, Nikolaus Perneczky, Fabian Tietke, Cecilia Valenti) in cooperation with Lorenzo Berardelli.

LIANG SHAN BO YU ZHU YING TAI (The Love Eterne, Li Han Hsiang, Hong Kong 1963, 1.3., Introduction: The Canine Condition & 6.3.) Two young students, who have both escaped the family nest, meet while studying and become blood brothers. Well, “brothers”… One is a young woman played by Betty Loh Ti, one of the most famous actresses of 60s Hong Kong cinema; the other is a man in the film but is also played by a woman, the legendary Ivy Ling Po, the queen of the Huangmei opera cinema. THE LOVE ETERNE is one of the great masterpieces of this visually impressive genre that is extremely important for Chinese cinema overall. It is a light-hearted, subtle, gender-fluid and erotic costume drama, whose initial comic tone in the finale turns into an earth-shattering excess of feeling that only Hong Kong cinema is capable of.

DA ZUI XIA (Come Drink With Me, King Hu, Hong Kong 1966, 2. & 12.3.)  A series of Mandarin productions made by the Shaw Brothers combined the classic plot of the knight-errants of ancient China with elements from westerns and Japanese samurai films. At the same time, these films insisted on the moment of fantasy in the wuxia tradition. COME DRINK WITH ME is a masterpiece from this golden age of Hong Kong cinema, which by contrast with later works by the formalist King Hu pays tribute not to Soviet montage cinema but to the Beijing opera tradition. The closed room of a hostel becomes a theater stage and the martial steps of the swords-woman Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei Pei) a graceful choreography.

JIN YAN ZI (Golden Swallow, Chang Cheh, Hong Kong 1968, 2. & 13.3.) Chang Cheh is often considered the antithesis of King Hu: on the one hand, there is the formal perfection of Hu’s sword-fighting choreographies, which often feature female fighters, and on the other, the exhibitionist excesses of violence in Chang Cheh’s commercial heroic epics, where the male body is placed in the center like a statue. Despite their differences, these forefathers of Chinese martial arts cinema share one thing in particular: They both revolutionized the genre. The theatrical and ecstatic staging of the death of the hero in Chang’s masterpiece GOLDEN SWALLOW was something completely new in Cantonese cinema, as was Eros and Thanatos’ fatal entanglement over the female protagonist, the golden swallow (Cheng Pei Pei), marvellous already in Hu’s COME DRINK WITH ME.

TIN JOEK JAU CHING (A Moment of Romance, Benny Chan, Hong Kong 1990, 3.3., Introduction: Fabian Tietke) The robbery of a jeweler’s shop goes wrong: Getaway driver Wah Dee (Andy Lau) becomes nervous when two police officers go to get a coffee. Instead of waiting, he draws the policemen’s attention and ends up in a wild chase, taking Jojo Huen (Jacklyn Woo) as his hostage. Benny Chan’s directorial debut under the auspices of co-producer Johnnie To was a box office hit. Its portrayal of a criminal sub-culture, the perfectly placed pop songs and the drift between urban settings and the wasteland on the outskirts of the city all struck a chord with audiences. The production company Paka Hill made more films with the duo Andy Lau and Jacklyn Wu, whose screen debut this was. This romantic action movie is a perfect symbiosis of the past and present of Hong Kong cinema: Singer Sandra Lang plays a small role in it, as did veteran director Ng Wui playing Wah Dee’s grandfather, while supporting actor Ng Man Tat is brilliant as Wah Dee’s friend Rambo.

XIA DAO GAO FEI (Full Contact, Ringo Lam, Hong Kong 1992, 3. & 17.3.) The friends Ko Lei (Chow Yun Fat) and Sam Sei (Anthony Wong) are forced to flee Bangkok to get away from a moneylender bent on revenge, but they need money. They try to solve their problem with a robbery together with Sam’s cousin Judge (Simon Yam). Unbeknownst to them, the moneylender has paid Judge to kill the two during the robbery. Working with genre professional Nam Yin as scriptwriter, Ringo Lam was again making a straightforward action thriller after a series of films with political overtones. The alternation between nightclubs, exterior scenes and a preference for under-lit night shots make the film a pearl of lighting design. It marked a new beginning for Lam: “I wanted to wash my hands and start with a clean slate.” 

DO MA DAAN (Peking Opera Blues, Tsui Hark, Hong Kong 1986, 4. & 23.3.) China, early 20th century: A box of jewelry, stolen in the confusion of a warlord’s escape, launches the plot of Tsui Hark’s PEKING OPERA BLUES, bringing musician Sheung Hung (Cherie Cheung) together with the rebel and general’s daughter Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin) and actress Bai Niu (Sally Yeh). Cross-dressing is a central theme, as is clear from the original title, which alludes to a female figure traditionally played by men in Beijing opera: Tsao Wan wears men’s clothing and Bai Niu wants to perform as a woman in the theater like the male actors. Three of the biggest Hong Kong stars met in this film by Tsui Hark, one of the greatest filmmakers of the late 20th century.

SIEN NUI YAU WAN (A Chinese Ghost Story, Ching Siu Tung, Hong Kong 1983, 4. & 23.3.) The control register is soaked with rainwater, the entries are blurred. In a village in a remote part of the Chinese empire, the newly arrived and clumsy state official Ning (Leslie Cheung) has already lost all authority. His delicate traits and dreamy eyes betray the fact that he doesn’t feel at home in the world of bureaucrats. He seems more at ease in a different world, in the nearby abandoned temple where at night female ghosts roam and seduce. Produced by Tsui Hark, a master of spectacle, this is a legendary fantasy film of the Hong Kong New Wave that brings the tragic temporality of melodrama to bear on the impossible love between people and ghosts.

YONG ZHE WU JU (Dreadnaught, Yuen Woo Ping, Hong Kong 1981, 5.3.) follows in the tradition of popular and carnivalesque martial arts cinema, which aims right below the belt, where crude humor and raw physicality converge. Wong Fei Hung, a Cantonese national hero and the protagonist of countless films, is a side character here. At the center is the sheepish Mousy (played by babyface Yuen Biao), who is drawn, almost by accident, into a world of spectacular violence. The film freely picks and chooses from the treasure trove of Hong Kong genre cinema. It is comedy, martial arts conspiracy and murder mystery all rolled into one, bordering on parody but capable of turning into bloody mess or sublime choreography at a moment’s notice. Yuen Woo Ping is rightly considered one of the most influential martial arts choreographers of all time.

BAI GA JAI (The Prodigal Son, Sammo Hung, Hong Kong 1981, 5. & 10.3.) When he was nine years old, Sammo Hung studied acrobatics and martial arts, singing and dance at the Peking Opera School – “I was never good at school and was always fighting in the streets“, he told The New York Times, “so they sent me to learn to fight”. He barely left the arena afterwards: He was director, choreographer and actor and a significant force behind the new wuxia of the 1970s, as of the Hong Kong New Wave and of the globalized kung fu cinema of the present. In THE PRODIGAL SON, he begins behind the camera – until his magnificent appearance as the awkward father and master of the southern Chinese kung fu style of Wing Chun, who wants to teach the spoilt and untalented prodigal son of the title the rhythmic physical language of close combat.

XUE ER (Cherie, Patrick Tam, Hong Kong 1984, 6. & 19.3.) Cherie Chung was the greatest female star of 1980s Hong Kong cinema. Her arguably ultimate performance was in this dark slapstick comedy that was made for her, as is clear from the title. Cherie is a fitness trainer, around whom two men buzz throughout the film. One is a middle-aged, slimy businessman (played by Shaw Brothers directing legend Chor Yuen), who almost rapes her at the beginning, and the other is a young photographer (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who fetishizes her more than he desires her. Patrick Tam transferred the boisterous energy of his early New Wave films to the genre of the romantic comedy, which is conventional only in appearance. This is a film that never comes to a still, in which seemingly simple premises unfurl into ever new facets. Cherie remains an enigma that no man can fathom.

BAI SHE ZHUAN (Madam White Snake, Griffin Yueh Feng, Hong Kong 1962, 7.3.) The Chinese legend of the white snake is a favourite narrative of Hong Kong cinema. This version produced by the Shaw Brothers (1962) is one of the best. Linda Lin Dai plays the eponymous snake spirit Bai Suzhen who visits earth in the body of a woman and falls in love with the chemist Xu Xian. The two marry but their happiness is short-lived: influenced by village gossip and malicious priests, Xu Xian threatens to leave Bai Suzhen. MADAM WHITE SNAKE is a highly emotional Huangmei opera with fantasy elements (and wonderfully naive special effects). Like the best Hollywood musicals, the film, staged with stylistic assurance and flair by Yueh Feng, distills an essence of pure affect from the artifice of the studio.

LONG YA JIAN (The Deaf and Mute Heroine, Wu Ma, Hong Kong 1971, 7.3.) If a woman plays the main part in a Hollywood action film it causes a sensation even today. In Hong Kong martial arts cinema, female fighters have been central for decades. In THE DEAF AND MUTE HEROINE, a forgotten wuxia masterpiece, Helen Ma is brilliant as the deaf and mute swords-woman who has to protect her loot of pearls from a whole collection of pushy bad guys and a crooked casino owner. Wu Ma’s directing lends the film a feverish, almost psychedelic energy. Since the original version of this film (never released on DVD) cannot be found, we will be showing a historical print of the dubbed English-language version.

BAN JIN BA LIANG (The Private Eyes, Michael Hui, Hong Kong 1976, 8.3., Introduction: Lukas Foerster & 15.3.) Michael Hui’s comedies are so close to social reality, so unadorned that one wonders how Hui - director and main actor at once - was able to become a superstar of Hong Kong cinema. His figures are typically characterized by a pathetic sense of entitlement as well as a certain meanness. Yet they never turn into caricatures, not least because of how precisely they are located in the living and working environments from which Hui painstakingly derives his comic situations. THE PRIVATE EYES was the film that brought Hui auteurist fame among a wider public. He plays the mean and unsuccessful manager of a detective office opposite his brother Sam as an exploited trainee detective. Sam also sings the irresistible title song, a pop ode to the employees of this world, who for their toils get nothing but “chicken feed”.

SIK SAN (The God of Cookery, Stephen Chow, Hong Kong 1996, 8. & 26.3.) is mo lei tau (“makes no sense“) at its best: A nonsensical comedy from a master of this very special Cantonese genre. This time, it’s all about the art of cooking, whether street food at local markets or in the media-hyped world of professional cooking competitions. Stephen Chow (his character’s name, too) is the god of cookery. Alas, he loses his title when his assistant exposes him as a fraud in front of the cameras. But Stephen Chow is determined to get back to the top! It’s a long and arduous path, but if he succeeds he will not only get spicy, orgasmic meatballs as a reward but also a kiss. THE GOD OF COOKERY parodies the cookery TV shows that were booming in Hong Kong at the time and also pays tribute to the Hui Brothers’ slapstick comedies of the 1970s.

DONG FU REN (The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen, Hong Kong 1970, 9. & 16.3.) Tang Shu Shuen made four singular works in the 1970s and then fell silent as a filmmaker. THE ARCH, based on a popular legend, was her debut, an elegiac melodrama with a historical backdrop, filmed by Satyajit Ray’s cameraman Subrata Mitra and edited by US documentary filmmaker Les Blank (among others). The unhappy Madam Tung (Lisa Lu) has to put a lid on her desire for Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) because of her children and the social mores of the time. Female desire, everywhere contained by archaic norms, seeps into the environment – a desperately beautiful film.  

BOON BIN YEN (Ah Ying, Allen Fong, Hong Kong 1983, 9.3.) Hui So Ying plays a young woman whose life takes place in two worlds: On the one hand, she lives with her family in poor conditions and works in her parents’ fish business; on the other, she wants to be an actress. She manages to get into a film school, where Cheung Chung Pak (Peter Wang) teaches - he is an ambitious filmmaker, whose career risks leading into a dead end. The mutual fascination that binds the two never develops into a classic and unambiguous love story. Allen Fong’s second directorial work is one of the greatest films of the New Wave: It is a realistic (the social and spatial narrowness of Ah Ying’s parental home is viscerally felt) everyday drama that also upholds the idea of cinema as a utopian space transcending all barriers.

LAN TOU HE (Dirty Ho, Lau Kar Leung, Hong Kong 1979, 10.3., Introduction: Nikolaus Perneczky) Lau Kar Leung is a central wuxia auteur with roots in the traditional studio system (he studied with Chang Cheh). In his later work, his gift for comedy is particularly noticeable, stripping the heroic knights of their sacred seriousness. Like all of his films, DIRTY HO is utterly infused with martial arts, even the most everyday acts are imbued with a sublime mobility bordering on the supernatural. What differentiates this film from the director’s other works is the absurd premise whereby the mysterious master (Lau Ka Fai), instead of directly intervening in the fight, mobilises his reluctant student (Wong Yue) as well as other people and things within range by strategically poking and pinching them: fighting as mise-en-scène.

JIANG SHAN MEI REN (The Kingdom and the Beauty, Li Han Hsiang, Hong Kong 1959, 11. & 14.3.) Li Han Hsiang was born in the northeast of China and came to Hong Kong in 1948. Within little time he had turned into one of the busiest and most varied directors, whose career - first with the Shaw Brothers and then with his own independent production company, Guolian - ran parallel to the rise and fall of the Hong Kong studio system. THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY laid the foundation for the Huangmai opera genre and established Li as an eminent stylist. There is a hint of Letter From an Unknown Woman in this enchanting palace intrigue: The child emperor (Chao Lei) swears his eternal love to a beautiful girl of the people (Shaw superstar Linda Lin Dai) only to immediately forget all about her, unknowingly abandoning her with his child. Will they ever see each other again?

BU LIAO QING (Love Without End, Doe Ching, Hong Kong 1961, 11.3.) Linda Lin Dai was the biggest Chinese film star of her time. She died in tragic circumstances in 1964 at the age of 29. LOVE WITHOUT END is one her most famous films. It became a classic not least because the actor’s fate seemed to be reflected in the story of nightclub singer Qingqing who sacrifices her life to an all-consuming love affair with a weak-willed businessman. Shaw Brothers director Doe Ching stages it as no-holds-barred melodrama: Every scene, every line of dialogue, every camera movement drives the plot mercilessly to its tragic end. The fact that the film never seems cynical can be attributed to Linda Lin Dai’s nuanced and psychologically sensitive performance.

SAANG GONG KEI BING (Long Arm of the Law, Johnny Mak, Hong Kong 1984, 12. & 19.3.) A mainland gang goes to Hong Kong on a robbing spree. Johnny Mak’s fantastic heist film begins in a realist mode, with shots of an illegal border crossing, but it soon turns into an intensive gangster drama fuelled by blood and adrenaline that anticipates the heroic bloodshed that would come to mark Hong Kong action cinema in subsequent years without ever losing its feet. Even in the fervor of the frenetic showdown - in the Kowloon Walled City, which fell victim to gentrification at the beginning of the 1990s - Mak keeps his eyes on realistic detail. A robber’s life, like a robber’s death, is filthy business.

BA LIANG JIN (Eight Taels of Gold, Mabel Cheung, Hong Kong 1989, 13. & 28.3.) was one of a series of melodramas about migration that Mabel Cheung made in the 1980s - each more charming and unpredictable than the next. Eight taels of gold, that is how much a man needs, according to “Slim” Cheng (Sammo Hung), to be considered made. EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD tells the story of a return. Slim, a taxi driver in New York, returns to visit his family in rural China after years without contact. The film begins as a road movie: On his way through the heartland, Slim picks up his unruly cousin whose nickname is Odds and Ends (Sylvia Chang). Gradually, a rural romance submerged in a golden light unfolds between the two very different protagonists. But Cheung never lets herself be pinned down; her films glide light-footedly across the genre repertoire: There’s but a fine line between slapstick and heart-wrenching melodrama.

AI NU (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Chor Yuen, Hong Kong 1972, 14.3., Introduction: Cecilia Valenti & 22.3.) Shot in the 1970s, as part of a wave of wuxia films with brave women in the main role, INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN was one of the scandalous highlights of Hong Kong cinema. Ai Nu (Lily Ho, sexy Shaw Brothers starlet) is kidnapped and sold to a brothel, whose madame Chur Yin (Betty Pei Ti), a martial arts expert and femme fatale, doesn’t like men. She promptly falls in love with the rebellious newcomer. Behind sumptuous organza veils, a passion blossoms and the mistress-student relationship soon moves from the boudoir to the arena. The film draws together anti-patriarchal revenge fantasy and detective thriller: an erotic wuxia film that would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

DOU SAN (God of Gamblers, Wong Jing, Hong Kong 1989, 15.3.) GOD OF GAMBLERS launched a cooperation between director Wong Jing and the star actor Chow Yun Fat that has continued into the present: The two are still exploiting the figure of the super confident and almost arrogant gambler Ko Chun in the FROM VEGAS TO MACAU films. The film starts with a classic duel at the table, with dice flying through the air. But then Ko Chun falls and loses his memory and a gambler fond of chocolate becomes a gambler who is still fond of chocolate but behaves like a teenager. This is the mother of all gambling films.

JI DONG QI XIA (The Iceman Cometh, Clarence Fok, Hong Kong 1989, 16.3.) China during the Ming dynasty: While fighting, the villain Feng San and the palace guard Fong Sau Ching fall into a ravine. Centuries later, a group of scientists from the People’s Republic find them in a block of ice. Sensing an opportunity to travel abroad, they bring the block of ice back to Hong Kong, where it melts by accident. The fight continues after a break of hundreds of years. The main actors in Clarence Fok’s farcical fantasy time travel comedy, Yuen Wah and Yuen Biao, were both graduates of the renowned Peking Opera School and had been in the same acting class as Sammo Hung. The film thrives just as much on their acrobatics as it does on Maggie Cheung playing Polly, who tries to teach Fong Sau Ching the intricacies of the present with stoic calm.

DAO (The Blade, Tsui Hark, Hong Kong 1995, 17.3., Introduction: Lorenzo Berardelli & 25.3.) As the master of a sword-smith’s workshop is on the point of naming his successor, his daughter Ling (Song Lei) cultivates the rivalry for her of two workers. While one, Iron Head (Moses Chan) falls out of favour with her father after a street fight, the other, Ding On (Vincent Zhao), loses his right arm in a fight - and acquires a new life. THE BLADE shows Tsui Hark at work on a first high point of his visual artistry: Alongside cameraman Venus Keung, he lets the camera dance around the plot.  

MO (The Boxer’s Omen, Kuei Chih Hung, Hong Kong 1983, 18.3.) There are eccentric films, there are crazy films and then there is THE BOXER’S OMEN. It begins rather harmlessly: A boxer from Hong Kong is so brutally knocked about by his Thai rival that he ends up in a wheelchair. His brother swears revenge and books a flight to Bangkok. Once the film succeeds in bringing its hero from halfway safe Hong Kong to Thailand and attracting him to a Buddhist temple there is no stopping it. Perhaps it can be described thus: Both the main character and the film get caught in a transcultural possession, from which neither recovers. From this moment on, nothing is sacred anymore - people, animals and gods are only material to be taken apart in grotesque and brightly colored stop-motion special effects, and then put back together again at whim.

DI SHI PAN GUAN (Taxi Hunter, Herman Yau, Hong Kong 1993, 18.3.) begins and ends with a fatal car chase through Hong Kong, one at night, one during the day. Nor is the time in between any safer, in this city tyrannized by sociopathic taxi drivers. A pregnant woman is brutally run over in front of her husband Kin’s (CAT III legend Anthony Wong) eyes - a subservient insurance agent and employee of the month. He swears revenge and becomes a vigilante who wants to “cleanse” the neon-lit city of taxi drivers. His plan is countered by a subplot around his best friend, the hardboiled policeman Kai Chung Yu (Rongguang Yu), who also gets embroiled in the case. Like many of Yau’s films, TAXI HUNTER offers casual insights into everyday life among the police.

SHU JIA EN CHOU LU (The Romance of Book and Sword, Ann Hui, Hong Kong/China 1987, 24.3. in the presence of Ann Hui) In this film set in 16th-century northeastern China after the overthrow of the Ming dynasty by the Manchu, a secret society called the Red Flower fights against the new Qing leaders. They take up arms alongside the Uighurs who have been robbed of a holy Quran by the Qing dynasty. Ann Hui and cameraman Bill Wong Chung Piu (cameraman for CHERIE and EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD) staged the two-part THE ROMANCE OF BOOK AND SWORD as an epic historical drama which playfully alternates between intimate moments, stupendous landscapes and spectacular battle scenes. (lf/np/ft/cv)

In cooperation with the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen. Supported by the Capital Cultural Fund and the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Berlin.

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