Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #5, Fall 2000]

Planet Hong Kong
By David Bordwell
Harvard University Press, 2000

Reviewed by Noel Vera

Reading the introduction to David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong is like reading a friend's letter on a rarely seen but fondly remembered common acquaintance. I've landed in the old Hong Kong International Airport (not all that terrifying if you're fond of rollercoasters); I've walked down Nathan road with its flashing neons and rushing pedestrians and clacking traffic lights (for the benefit of blind pedestrians -- slow beat when red, rapid tattoo when green). I've seen the Cultural Centre, a graceful hulk of maroon bathroom tiles that always ends up as photo background for every just-married couple to walk out of the Civil Registry. And walking to the back of the Centre, I always pause and take in the view -- the one and only breathtaking panorama of Hong Kong harbor with its choppy gray waves, its toy ferryboats bobbing up and down, its steel-and-glass towers raking the bellies of clouds.

Oh and yes, I too have eaten in Chungking Mansion. Cheap food, and quite good -- I recommend the roast duck on rice with hot broth on the side.

I've seen Bordwell (funny how formal you feel you have to be when talking about someone in a published article) running about this memorably surreal landscape, briefcase in hand, shirt tightly buttoned, tie neatly knotted, looking for all the world like a professor on his way to a physics lecture instead of the Main Theater to watch the 1960 The Orphan, featuring an adolescent Bruce Lee. He's always early for the screenings he picks; he always sits in the center of the theater's front row; and as far as I can tell he listens attentively and takes down notes. (I, on the other hand, am usually late from a previous screening on the other side of Hong Kong, sit down wherever the usher can be bothered to put me inside the crowded auditorium, have been known to doze at especially dull movies, and can never read the notes I've scribbled down in the dark.) Bordwell is never less than kind even when he's hurrying to the next movie on his schedule (which is always); if you are lucky enough to catch him standing in a queue, he'll only be too glad to recommend little-known films you might be interested in -- which was how, for one, I was introduced to Johnny To's The Barefoot Kid, a spectacular yet moving martial-arts drama about footwear.

Bordwell's book Planet Hong Kong is as good an introduction as any to the many pleasures of Hong Kong cinema, the same time that it has a more serious intent -- to show you, through the rigorous analysis of many a vivid example, how a popular entertainment can be serious art. The book takes its cue from the proverbial group of "blind wise men" and approaches Hong Kong cinema from a number of directions -- historical (how it all began); commercial (how the films are funded and sold); foreign (the United States and its many Hong Kong film fans); and, of course, cinematic (how the films are written, shot, edited). Inserted between the chapters (you might say they were "spliced in") are profiles of important figures in the cinema's development: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Wong Jing, King Hu, Wong Kar-wai.

Bordwell readily admits that he's no expert on Hong Kong cinema -- he has, for one, seen only three hundred plus Hong Kong films (there are roughly twenty thousand to date). His knowledge of world cinema is intimidatingly broad however (he's written about Tarkovsky and Eisenstein), and he's known for his thorough and authoritative analyses of film structure and style -- a method that he brings to the subject at hand. He clarifies what makes Hong Kong films such unique and eloquent artworks, breaking down their many elements and holding them up for us to see (many Hong Kong action scenes "rely on a tactic called 'constructive editing'"; they "engage us through a 'pause-burst-pause'" rhythm; Hong Kong films often "carry an 'expressive charge'"). In short, he imposes order on the chaos that is Hong Kong cinema to allow us a close look.

At the same time, the mention of so many memorable examples -- taken from films like Legendary Weapons of China or Mad Monkey Kung Fu -- enlivens Bordwell's prose and gives him something exotic (not to mention silly, giddy fun) to ruminate about endlessly, lovingly. You can tell from the way he talks about Hong Kong movies that he's a fan -- but a well-informed fan, one who brings his own discipline literally into play during the discussion.

Ultimately, the image the group of blind wise men built up about the elephant was erroneous, because they were unable to integrate their separate impressions into a cogent whole. Bordwell traces the forces -- historical, cultural, and economic -- that shape Hong Kong film production and shows why their unique methods (not to mention unique audience) results in the films looking and being the way they are. He points out that Hong Kong filmmakers have always meant their films to travel outside the borders of the tiny colony -- to Chinese communities not only in Thailand or Taiwan (two of the biggest markets), but also Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (though Bordwell fails to mention this) the Philippines [* see note below].

He explains that to do this, Hong Kong filmmakers had to be conservative -- to make films that were quick to entertain and easy to read. They are mostly chock full of sex, action, or comedy (or a combination of the three, plus maybe science fiction or horror). They possess a precisely ordered story structure, told in nine or ten reels, and Bordwell explains how something interesting has to happen at the end of every other reel (not for Hong Kong films the severe aesthetics of Hou Hsiao Hsien or Theo Angelopolous, or the complex narrative games of Jean-Luc Godard or Alan Resnais). They are simple and coherent, yet at the same time have to show something new to a jaded, readily bored audience. Within the limits they have set for themselves -- limits as severe in a way as Hou's or Angelopolous' -- Hong Kong films have to innovate and be imaginative, and have to do all this quickly. Projects often went into production with barely an outline of the script (oddly familiar, if you happen to know Filipino film industry practices), their stunts or action sequences often created on the spot -- hence the wildly unpredictable plot twists and the actors' often spontaneous performances.

It also helps that the filmmakers often attended midnight previews of their films, and the audiences (who knew the director was around) were often unmerciful ("Who wrote this crap? Bring him over, now!"). For a period of ten or so years Hong Kong filmmakers held a lively dialogue with their audiences, and the energy and sheer exuberance of the films reflected this.

Bordwell at one point explains the difference between Hong Kong and Hollywood (which is where his weapon of choice -- film style analysis -- comes off best). By comparing similar scenes between films like John McTiernan's Die Hard and John Woo's Hard Boiled, he shows how two essentially similar action sequences can be handled in radically different manners. In Die Hard, Bordwell tells us, "the actors' movements are ill-defined... there are no pauses to bracket phases of the fight. The movements lack efficiency, let alone clean limbed attack and counter. This [he concludes] is a tussle." In Hard Boiled, however, Tequila (Chow Yun Fat) rolls across a table towards his adversary in a series of shots, the shots emphasizing the speed of his approach. Sudden pause -- Tequila's gun is pressed against the criminal's head, and Bordwell takes the time to note the toothpick poised in Tequila's mouth, and how flour covering his face turns him into a "ghostly avenger" -- then Tequila spits out the toothpick, and blows the man's brains out. The pause is not just a dramatic flourish, adds Bordwell: "Tequila's hesitation reminds us that by taking his revenge he will violate his duty as a policeman."

Bordwell tells us that Hollywood films with their bigger budgets tend to use long shots that favor the large, expensive sets the production crew spent months constructing. Their more sophisticated cameras and editing equipment lead to fancy editing tricks and elaborate camera moves that show off the director's talent rather than advance the story. By way of comparison the Hong Kong filmmaker, operating on a smaller scale and budget, puts the human figure firmly in the center of the camera frame -- firmly in the center of Hong Kong cinema. They never for a second forget the single most important element in their film, or who the film is being made for.

Oh, there are flaws -- or rather, areas of emphasis where I find I disagree with Bordwell. The overrated Wong Kar-wai gets an entire chapter in the book and a significant share of his praise ("In Chungking Express, entertainment fosters genuine experimental impulses"); and while he notes that Wong "takes seriously all of youth's conceits" and is "devoid of irony," he makes it sound as if this was a good thing. On the other hand the far superior King Hu gets one-third of a chapter -- paltry treatment for someone whom Bordwell considers "one of the finest directors working anywhere, and... the most boldly experimental filmmaker attached to the Hong Kong industry." Reverse that, or reduce Wong to a few mentions in the chapter on "Avant-Pop Cinema" (one of the thinnest chapters in the book), and I'd have nothing major to complain about.

By and large, it's a wonderful work -- and all the more moving when you realize that Hong Kong cinema has gone the way of the T-Rex -- film production is down, many of the best-known talents (John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan) have moved to Hollywood, and local audiences prefer Hollywood superproductions like Titanic. A golden age has passed, one that Bordwell records in loving detail the way a forensic scientist records an autopsy on a corpse.

Reading the book, you can't help but develop an image of Bordwell as some kind of intellectual warrior, sitting cross-legged and bare-chested on a tatami mat and meditating on the grotesque figures from Hong Kong's countless movies gathered around him. Suddenly he goes into action, shrieking (as tradition requires) "FILM STAAYLE ANALYSEEEEES!" with his many-bladed, multi-jointed weapon slicing opponents apart like so much sashimi. All too extravagant, too gratuitously wild perhaps-the same time you also admire the precision of his moves, the delicious pauses between attacks, the clean-limbed, coherent way his weapon of choice neatly dissects the monster that is Hong Kong cinema.


[ * ] Maybe because Bordwell is unfamiliar with the country, he fails to note that major Chinese communities thrive in Manila and Cebu, and that Chinese theaters in Escolta or Binondo (deep in downtown Manila) have actually shown the films of John Woo and King Hu before they became internationally known. And it's not as if Manila was a totally insignificant and uninfluential market to Hong Kong -- when Li Lian Ji's films first screened in Manila, Filipino-Chinese distributors thought they could sell more tickets if they gave him a stronger name; Hong Kong distributors were so impressed the name stuck. This was how Jet Li was born.

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Noel Vera writes about movies from his home in the Philippines. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Manila Chronicle, The Manila Times, and various Businessworld Publications. He has contributed articles to the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is the official Philippines correspondent for Cinemaya Magazine, an international film digest based in New Delhi. Noel's work on the screenplay for Tikoy Aguiluz's film, Rizal sa Dapitan (1997), resulted in his sharing a FAMAS Award for Best Story. Past and current film reviews and articles by Noel Vera can be found online at:

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