Focus on Hong Kong film fad

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 1998, 12:00am

Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider's Guide to the Hollywood of the East by Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Faber, $195 Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, Titan, $220 Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender Edited by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, University of Hawaii Press, $280 Discounting its current slump, the Hong Kong film industry has always provoked a kind of bewildered fascination in its worldwide counterparts. After all, it is the same industry that - supported by a relatively small Cantonese-speaking market - used to churn out about 150 features annually. It has also spawned directors such as John Woo, now among the top 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, according to a poll by Entertainment Weekly.

Last year was a fruitful one for most Hollywood-bound Hong Kong talent, especially those related to Hong Kong action films. Woo finally hit the A-list proper with Face/ Off, while Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time In China ), Ringo Lam (City On Fire ) and Stanley Tong (Supercop ) made their debuts.

Heart-throb Chow Yun-fat and action stars Jackie Chan and Hong Kong-based Malaysian Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng also saw their first Hollywood projects. Others followed, including non-action directors such as Peter Chan Ho-sun (Comrades, Almost A Love Story ).

Hong Kong action cinema has always had a cult following overseas, as have films by mainland directors such as Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine ) and Zhang Yimou (Judou ). So it is not surprising that books on Chinese, and particularly Hong Kong, cinema have been making their way to the bookstores to take advantage of the spotlight currently falling on Chinese films.

Of the books recently published, Fredric Dannen and Barry Long's Hong Kong Babylon ranks as one of the best and most interesting. The rich detail it provides on the industry - including its triad troubles - shows the painstaking research that went into producing it.

Interviews or accounts of meetings with some of the top players featured, such as Chow, Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-wai and Josephine Siao Fong-fong, add a deeper perspective.

There is also a reference section with plot summaries with both the films' English and Chinese names, which is extremely useful since the translated name for a film is sometimes too different from the original for people to make a connection.

Less interesting, perhaps, is the extremely long section on recommendations by too many Western critics.

Sex and Zen & A Bullet In The Head by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins just beat Babylon to the shelves. The book by Hammond and Wilkins is essentially a guide to Hong Kong directors and their films, with introductions to the directors and blow-by-blow accounts of the films, ranging from A Better Tomorrow and Jackie Chan's films to more obscure ones such as Deadful Melody. Although action films form the main thrust here, the authors stray occasionally to other genres like the supernatural and comedy.

What makes Sex and Zen an interesting read are the snippets it offers on bad (and funny) subtitles. It also offers a list of places in Britain and Australia where one can find Hong Kong movies. The exclusion of the United States is a little odd, considering the interest in Hong Kong film talent there.

The two books are good companions to form a glossary on Hong Kong cinema, with Babylon's focus on the film-makers and actors while Sex and Zen concentrates on the films' content.

At the other end of the scale, there is the extremely academic Transnational Chinese Cinemas which is a collection of specialist papers. The films dissected here according to themes of nationality, gender, and identity are from Hong Kong, the mainland, and Taiwan and include the works of Chen, Zhang, Ang Lee, Woo, Jackie Chan and Hou Hsiao-hsien. It is an effort to wade through the dry facts and superfluous, often supercilious, chunks of quotes to arrive at the crux of the matter, which is a pity because some of the essays examine interesting concepts, such as the US marketing of Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx.

However, the book is a bit outdated, covering little of what has happened in the past year. It also tends to overemphasise the work of Chen and Zhang - both Western favourites - with more than one essay on both Farewell My Concubine and Judou.

These are interesting dissections of and reference works on Hong Kong films, but one weakness is that they lack historical depth - even a star of the stature of kung fu legend Bruce Lee fails to earn a mention. And, frankly, there are only so many times one can sit through a full post-mortem of the selected films. Fans might do better to watch the movies again instead.