Around Town: A hot lineup of Hong Kong films at LACMA
Hong Kong action films hold a special and specific place in the hearts of many movie lovers, and are indicative of the ways in which cinematic technique and style can cross national, cultural and linguistic barriers. With the series “Hard Boiled Hong Kong”opening Friday and running weekends through Nov. 27 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, local audiences have a chance to survey again or become acquainted with a set of films that changed the grammar of action filmmaking around the world.
Focusing on four filmmakers who all made a splash internationally, the series includes John Woo’s “The Killer,” “Hard Boiled” and “Red Cliff,” Wong Kar-wai’s “As Tears Go By” and “Fallen Angels,” Johnnie To’s “The Mission” and “Exiled,” and Tsui Hark’s “Time and Tide” and “Once Upon a Time in China.”
Often referred to as “heroic bloodshed” pictures, these films started to emerge from Hong Kong in the late 1980s (such as with Woo’s 1986 “A Better Tomorrow,” produced by Tsui), as they took the kineticism of the martial arts film and applied it to the urban gangster picture. Bold, muscular camera moves matched with a frenetic choreography of movement within the frame often created what felt like a whole new way of shooting action. An emphasis on honor and loyalty, as well as an interest in the emotional interplay between men often on opposing sides of the law, gave the films a thematic heft.
According to Bernardo Rondeau, coordinator of film programs at LACMA, the idea for the series began as one focusing on John Woo, but soon expanded.
“It broadened out into a series that could look at Hong Kong filmmaking from its kind of peak period around 1992 through to more or less contemporaneous Hong Kong filmmaking through the lens of these four filmmakers,” said Rondeau. “They all share certain attributes, they all have different approaches, but they’ve all made these types of films.”
“I am quite surprised by the longevity and influence of my Hong Kong films,” Woo said in an e-mail.
Woo and Tsui would both leave Hong Kong to make action films in America (both eventually returning to Hong Kong as well). The moodiness and emphasis on atmosphere in Wong’s films would only grow as he went on to become a darling of the international festival circuit and shot his more recent “My Blueberry Nights” in the United States as well. To, master of a plainspoken efficiency that often masks his thematic complexity, remains staggeringly prolific.
The Hong Kong action films featured in the LACMA series have influenced the work of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowski brothers and Edgar Wright. Just as American big-budget spectacle filmmaking can be exported throughout the world to non-English speaking audiences, American audiences who might otherwise shun foreign-language filmmaking can still thrill to the wild, violent action of these Hong Kong films.
The Hong Kong directors share many influences with current American filmmakers. Woo is an acknowledged fan of Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Pierre Melville, and in some ways the cycle of influence continued to turn when Scorsese remade a 2002 Hong Kong film, “Infernal Affairs,” into his own Oscar-winning “The Departed.”
The series will finish with a screening of Woo’s two-part epic “Red Cliff” –- released theatrically in the U.S. only as a drastically pared-down single film –- his grand return to Hong Kong filmmaking and a lavish historical epic that broke box office records throughout Asia.
“The nice thing about ‘Red Cliff,’ ” said Rondeau, “is it’s both kind of a postscript to the series and a nice way of looping everything back together.”
Over the last 20 years, the Hong Kong action film has gone from being an esoteric oddity to an essential part of any film lover’s background knowledge.
“They are, for a lack of a better term, very cinematic,” said Rondeau of these movies’ lasting appeal. “They are real screen-filing pictures where action is linked to emotion.”
Indeed, while the style of the Hong Kong action films may be their most salient and influential characteristic, the works of Woo, Wong, Tsui and To also prove that just because a movie has guns and chases and cops and criminals doesn’t mean it can’t also have deep and complicated emotional storytelling.
“I do feel that there are many good films made that have action,” Woo said in regard to how his genre of choice often isn’t taken completely seriously. “Some people tend to believe that all action films are commercial fluffs without a message. But there are action sequences that exist that let the audience actually feel and think. That is how it should be.”
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Zhang Fengyi in the midst of battle in John Woo's "Red Cliff." Credit: Magnet Releasing
Photo: Quentin Tarantino, left, with Wong Kar-Wai, in 1996. Credit: Eika Aoshima/For The Times