On…. Why I Love Hong Kong Cinema

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About a month ago, I set out some new ideas for the blog, which was going to include some less specific film-based posts.  This is the first of three to kick this idea off, which will just share some thoughts on why these darn films affect me so much.  The likelihood is that these posts may well become works in progress, but we will see.  It is going to be personal, and probably stream of consciousness stuff so I apologise in advance for how it reads.  Hopefully my regular readers will be used to my non-academic style by now.  I will spice things up visually with a few pictures of some of my favourites from the last couple of years.

So, Hong Kong cinema.  The funny thing is, when I first started writing about Asian Cinema, Hong Kong was a distant third.  My real exposure had been Japanese Cinema, via J-Horror in the main, and I was playing with Korean film through a couple of Directors.  Most of this however was down to prejudice and ignorance.  You see, from the chilly viewpoint of a young man in England, Hong Kong cinema was pretty much a plethora of Kung-fu flicks.  I really was not interested, partly because of the genre, but also because of the stars I did know had all been making on the whole pretty awful Hollywood fare.  Sure, there were exceptions like “Shaolin Soccer”, but I was pretty ignorant.  And don’t get me started on the badly dubbed and strangely cut versions of the films I might get to see on late night cult tv shows.

Yet as time has gone buy, especially these last two years, lots of the weaknesses have become strengths.

I’m never going to be an expert of fighting styles, nor get the thrill out of seeing a well executed and choreographed fight scene that many people do.  I read other forums and blogs, and I am constantly amazed at how people are able to pick the bones out of  the styles and merits of various actors and actresses.  But what I can see, is what I would personally call “cool”.  I am able to appreciate the stunt-work now, and be amazed at how everything is put together.  I don’t want to see close-up blurry action that seems to be the vogue these days, I want to see everything unfold on the screen.  Sure I get the fantasy aspect, I am not too bothered about wire-work, but to see a big fight, or to watch two pros go at each other is something I can really understand now.

Of course, I now know that Hong Kong cinema is far more than Kung Fu.  I feel equally at home in the fantasy setting of Wuxia as I do with the Triad Crime dramas, as I do with the gentle romantic comedies, as I do with the nutty star-filled Lunar New Year comedies. 

I guess a lot of it is to do with how I have changed.  The young me was much more blown away by some clever camera-work, or a brilliant plot twist than seeing through to the more personal side.  Could the me of 20 years ago really appreciate the subtle and heart-wrenching nature of “The Bride With The White Hair”, in the same way it totally affects me now?  Not at all.  If I opened my mind a little, sure I would have enjoyed it as a good film, but now I see it as a great film.

The language is always going to be a problem for me.  I have no affinity for foreign languages at all, I struggled with French and German all through school, so the very chance of me getting the tonal languages like Mandarin and Cantonese is just never going to happen.  I actually found it rather harsh to my ears(and of course many of those films I now love were actually dubbed into Mandarin, which was awfully off-putting).  But now, I am slowly beginning to understand the feeling behind the words, if not the direct translation.  I feel much less an alien now.  The prevalence of modern Cantonese helps, with the occasional English word and phrase seamlessly dropped into the language, and I am also convinced that the newer actors and actresses are using a more modern and probably sloppy version of the language that makes it easier on my ear. Listening to Chinese pop music is also helping,  but compared to Japanese and Korean, I still find it tough.

Hong Kong is a small island with an interesting history.  The fact it has a strong film industry at all I still find surprising.  There is something about the small nature of the acting and directing talent pool that I adore.  I love it that I can see pretty much any Hong King film from the past 30 years and find a familiar face.  I’m not talking about the super-stars, but the character actors.  I love it that most of the stars don’t just act, but they Direct and Produce.  They have musical careers.  And that it isn’t just tied down do the females either – all genders seem to be multi-talented.  Not only do I find familiar faces, but on the whole they all work across genres – I am as likely to see Eric Tsang in a period drama as I am to see him in a dark crime film.  I love how I can see “little” Tony Leung in a playful Wuxia-comedy as well as a more art-house drama.

This leads onto another feeling that I get from Hong Kong cinema, and maybe it is something to do with the culture.  But there is a real sense of family in these films.  It is not just that western familial terms such as Auntie, Uncle, Brother and Sister have far more wide-ranging meanings in Chinese.  But I watch films like “Once Upon A Time In China” or “Detective Dee” and I get a sense of kinship and family I really don’t get from other nation’s cinema.  It is certainly a huge about face from the sense of loneliness and disconnection I get from so many Japanese films.

More oddly, I do find the running times help.  I have a short attention span, and this modern predilection for films that run over 150 minutes is totally against how long I can spend immersed in a film.  Sure I can do it on occasion, but that film has to be special (and watch me have a totally different opinion when I talk about  Korean Cinema!).  Most Hong Kong films seem to be a much more brief 90-100 minutes long, which is just perfect for me.  I still find the opening segments of lots of the films tough, when the viewer is pummelled with a lot of set-up information, but I usually work through it, and then enjoy it even more upon the second watch.

I’ve just spent a little while going down my posts that are labelled “Hong Kong”, and I am pretty pleased with the variety I have been able to cover.  There are two glaring omissions that I resolve to cover in the coming weeks, but I think the range of genres, and the sheer number pretty much back up what I have been saying. 

Thank you for putting up with my rambling.

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