World wakes up to Chinese films

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am

Chinese-language films today are being increasingly recognised internationally for a number of unique qualities ? including exotic locations, charismatic actors, unique plots and subtle dialogue.

Last month in the United States, for example, the award-winning Hong Kong film Perhaps Love launched the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival.

For the first time in the festival?s 49 years, a Hong Kong film was selected as the opening-night feature.

The Hong Kong crime film Internal Affairs has attracted considerable attention in the US, where film director Martin Scorsese is in post-production of its American version. Temporarily named The Departed it will star Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon.

In March, Taiwanese director Ang Lee won best director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. It was the second time he won the prestigious award. In 2001 his Chinese language Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon won an Oscar for best foreign film and was popular with audiences around the world.

Other Chinese-language films from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also wining awards and nominations at international film festivals including the Cannes International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival and the Chicago International Documentary Festival. Recent examples include director Zhang Yimou?s To Live, Ju Dou and director Lu Chuan?s Ke Ke Xi Li.
The unique quality of mainland films are also attracting the attention of international film experts.

Chris Berry, a professor of film and television studies at London?s Goldsmiths College, says mainland films can no longer be ignored ? adding ?how incredibly important China has become?.

British Film Institute chairman Anthony Minghella, who directed the English Patient, says he regards China as the source of ?the most fascinating cinema?.
Minghella says he regularly cites filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, 1992) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) as among the world?s best film makers.

The All Movie Guide describes Chen as ?one of China?s most prominent and influential directors, and perhaps the central figure in China?s Fifth Generation of film-makers?.

Chen?s Farewell My Concubine (1994, starring glamorous mainland actress Gong Li, who is now Hong Kong-based) dealt with the impact of the cultural revolution on China. It was a landmark film because unlike movies like The Last Emperor, by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, this was a Chinese-born director examining a painful period in mainland history.

Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, said: ?Farewell My Concubine holds the viewer in thrall from start to finish; as such, it is thoroughly deserving of its many international film awards and nominations.?

In London during the Chinese New Year, cinema-goers responded enthusiastically to a number of Chinese films shown as part of the Shanghai on Screen festival. They included Hong Kong director Wilson Yip Wai-shun?s Leaving Me, Loving You (2004), a romantic drama in Putonghua. It starred singers and actors Leon Lai Ming Three: Going Home, (2002) and Faye Wong Chungking Express (1994).
Other films shown in London included Shanghai Story (2004) and Shanghai Women (1992), both directed by Peng Xiaolian, and Wu Yonggang?s The Goddess (1934), which stars Ruan Lingyu.

Shanghai was the birth-place of Chinese films. But when the communists took control of China in 1949, many of the city?s film directors re-established themselves in Hong Kong. Today, Hong Kong remains a vital film-making hub for the Chinese-speaking world and East Asia.
The territory has achieved international acclaim with films such as 1994?s Chungking Express and 2001?s In the Mood For Love by director Wong Kar-wai.

Chungking Express was ranked eighth in 2002 when a British Film Institute magazine Sight and Sound asked 50 leading British film critics to choose best films from the past 25 years and it is the best among all the Asian films.

The film, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Faye Wong, tells two stories, about relationships and alienation in a modern city. Its Chinese name Ch?ngq?ng S?nl?n means the metaphoric concrete jungle of the city. It has won acclaim for its originality, beauty and highly innovative camera work.

Wong shot to international acclaim in 1991 with Days of Being Wild. It was the first time he had co-operated with the innovative cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The pair have now worked together on nine films. Days of Being Wild is a compelling story of human emotion set in Hong Kong and the Philippines in the early 1960s.

Wong Kar-wai?s most recent film was 2046. The long-awaited movie featured many of Asia?s most well-known Chinese stars: Faye Wong, mainland actress Dong Jie, and Taiwanese actor Zhang Zhen, and Hong Kong?s Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Carina Lau Ka-ling. It attracted considerable international attention after it was released in 2004. The film is a sophisticated, surreal story. Wong explained at the time of its release that its title was a reference to Hong Kong.

?The reason I named the movie 2046 instead of any other number, is because back in 1997, people were all concerned about the promise of there being ?no change for 50 years?,? Wong said. ?I was also thinking about what was unchangeable in this world, and 50 years after 1997 will be 2046.

?So it is very interesting to tell a love story entitled with the number, since when people are in love, the thing they care most about is whether they or their partner will change one day.?

It took Wong nearly a decade to make 2046.
Also memorable was the Putonghua film The Soong Sisters. This is a historical film starring Vivian Wu Kwan-mui, Michelle Yeoh Chi-king and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. It was directed by Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting in 1997.

The Soong sisters were famously labelled as: ?One loved money, one loved power but only one loved China? since Soong Ching-ling married the great Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen; Soong May-ling married Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Ai-ling married the richest man at the time, Kung Hsiang-hsi.

The film was a reminder that China?s turbulent history during the 20th century continues to fascinate movie goers.

It was directed by Hong Kong-born Mabel Cheung, who overcame great odds to produce the film.

?That film was a challenge. I spent five years, including two years to raise the $50 million budget,? she recalled in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

Cheung said the Soong sisters were a fascinating subject. ?The sisters intertwined with recent Chinese history, not only because of who they married but because of their own contribution as well,? she explained.

She said the film was well-received in Japan ? which for much of the sisters? lives had been an enemy of China.

A more recent film success is Perhaps Love, a love story told through a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and the plot of a film-within-a-film. It was directed by the Peter Chan Ho-sun.

Last year?s All About Love was another Hong Kong film which impressed the critics. It starred singer and actor Andy Lau Tak-wah. The melodrama is the latest work of film director Daniel Yu Wai-kwok and was screened last month during the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival.

Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Los Angeles director Doris Cheung said the screening recognised the outstanding work of directors Chan and Yu. It was also an honour for the Hong Kong film industry, she added.

?Hong Kong has a long history of film-making. With our historical background which makes Hong Kong the meeting point for Eastern and Western culture, and our emphasis on free flow of information and talents, Hong Kong has been the place for creativity and movie production,? she said.

She added that film was a flagship of Hong Kong?s creative industry and the government was dedicated to building a favourable environment for the industry to flourish.

For decades Hong Kong had the third-largest motion picture industry in the world after Hollywood and India?s Bollywood, and was the second-largest exporter.

But 35 years ago many Chinese films were still being ignored in Europe and the United States.

The modern film industry in Hong Kong took off when immigrants from Shanghai brought in technology, capital and expertise. They included the brothers Sir Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw, who founded Shaw Brothers ? a forerunner and the largest production company of Hong Kong films ? as well as Lee Tsu-yung and Chang Tsun-kuen.

Sir Run Run recalled that he used real Chinese robes and authentic historical sets in the 1950s.

?Everything was real in those days,? he said, ?Everything was possible.? He said in an interview with Newsweek in the 1990s.

Along with Malaysia-born Loke Wan Tho, Lee Tsu-yung, Chang Tsun-kuen and the Shaw brothers were dominant figures in the development of Hong Kong?s film industry. In the early days, they mainly produced Putonghua films in Hong Kong and sold them to the mainland or Malaysia and Singapore.

Shaw Brothers movies included The Thunderbolt Fist, The Empress Dowager, Empress Wu Zetian and the One-Armed Swordsman.

Local demand for Cantonese-language films increased gradually. More Cantonese films were being made and these producers gave Cantonese actors an opportunity to launch their careers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Cantonese-language films subsequently developed quite a following elsewhere in Asia.

In the early 1970s, film producer Raymond Chow and his company Golden Harvest brought the Hong Kong film industry international acclaim. He directed many of Bruce Lee?s films including Fist of Fury, The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. These made Lee Asia?s greatest-ever film star and achieved box office hits in both the East and the West.

In an interview with The Guardian 30 years after the actor?s death, Chow recalled his first meeting with the charismatic Lee.
?I first saw Bruce doing a television interview here in Hong Kong in 1970,? said Chow. ?He was demonstrating his skills, breaking wooden boards in the studio, but what impressed me was his sheer presence. It just came through the screen. I tried to find him the next day but he?d already returned to San Francisco. Eventually, though, I managed to get in touch with him and he finally agreed to come back and make pictures with us.?

Lee?s friend and Hong Kong resident Jon Benn said Bruce Lee?s impact on Chinese films was profound. ?I think he changed Chinese people?s perception of themselves.? Benn appeared with Bruce Lee in the 1972 film The Way of the Dragon.

Chow and Lee both understood the growing popularity of martial arts internationally. In the 1970s, Americans and Europeans started to become interested in martial arts and a martial arts craze began. Raymond Chow went on to produce other well-known films including Shaolin Temple (1982) and Police Story (1985).
After Bruce Lee?s death in 1973, martial arts films continued with Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Jackie Chan is one of the most internationally recognised Chinese and Asian action movie stars. He is well known for his Kung Fu skills and comedies.

Director Stanley Tong Kwai-Lai ? who directed the 1992 Police Story 3: Super Cop and 2005 The Myth, both featuring Chan ? said in an interview with SCMP last year: ?[Jackie Chan?s] nature is more like an actor. Once you build him a stage and put all the pieces in place, he can showcase his talents.?

In the 1980s and 1990s, new directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Stanley Kwan Kam-pang and Andrew Lau Wai-keung launched a number of acclaimed films and art-house productions. They included Centre Stage and Rouge with popular stars such as Faye Wong, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Anita Mui Yim-fong, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

Today, Paris-based Maggie Cheung is a multi award-winning actress. She is best known for portraying Shanghai actress Ruan Linyu in Centre Stage and Su Lizhen in In the Mood for Love. Both films featured a tailor-made qipao of the highest quality ? which renewed interest in the traditional Chinese dress.

Cheung won a best actress award for Centre Stage at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992 and best actress for Clean in the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai is one of Hong Kong?s most acclaimed contemporary actors. Leung works closely with director Wong Kar-wai and has appeared in many of his films.

He won best actor award for In the Mood to Love at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. He also won the best actor award twice at the Golden Horse Film Festival with Internal Affairs and Chungking Express.

However, in recent years, the Hong Kong film industry has had to compete with films from talented mainland and Taiwanese directors such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Hong Kong?s industry has also been coping with other problems including copyright infringements and a lack of investment funds.

2003 was not a good year for Hong Kong film industry. That year it suffered the premature deaths of two of its most popular stars: Anita Mui Yim-fong and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing.

Both were also successful singers but had troubled private lives. Mui, only 39, had a public battle with cervical cancer ? which had also killed her sister.

Cheung, a giant of the golden era of Hong Kong?s entertainment industry, died more tragically ? jumping to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

He once told film critic David Martinez that he had offers from Hollywood but he turned them down because he was not interested.

?I can be a top star in Hong Kong. Why should I be one of the guys in Hollywood and be crushed by Hollywood??

Jonathan Crow noted in the All Movie Guide that when Cheung died ?the international film community suffered a devastating blow and legions of fans had a difficult time grasping how an actor of such talent could end his life with one fateful leap while still in the prime of his career?.