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Movie Renter's Guide
Intro to Hong Kong Cinema - November, 1996


By Stacey L. Spears

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Introduction

I can remember the good-old days while growing up, I would spend my Saturday afternoons watching "Kung Fu Theater." You remember, those badly dubbed, totally unbelievable martial arts flicks in which there was always a young student avenging his master's death. Hong Kong movies are taking America by storm; not only are these films becoming big import items, but famous Hong Kong actors and directors are now doing Hollywood films. Everyone knows the name Bruce Lee, but there are many others, such as Director John Woo and Actors Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat to name just a few.

When I set out to write an article on Hong Kong Cinema, I could never have imagined how much information there is to cover. It is like trying to write a single article about American Cinema. What I have decided to do is to make this just an introduction to wet your appetite. I want to talk a little about some of the more popular actors and directors and then discuss a couple of companies who are helping to "Educate America" on the subject. The companies I will take a look at will be Tai Seng Video and Criterion. I will then follow up with reviews of some available laserdiscs from both companies.

Who?

 John Woo
(Ng Yu-Sum)

John Woo was born 1948 in Canton, and his directorial debut came in 1973 with "Young Dragons". His name will probably be the most familiar to you as he has done two films and one TV Pilot in the US. His first film here was "Hard Target", which starred Jean-Claude Van Damm. The movie did not do so well here at the box office. His next film, which fared much better, was "Broken Arrow". This film had a bigger cast, including John Travolta and Christian Slater who battled over stolen nuclear weapons. However, "Broken Arrow" was still not equal to his HK films. His next and latest venture is the TV pilot of "Once a Thief". This is a remake of his 1991 Hong Kong hit. Although his American films are getting better, they still pale in comparison to his Hong Kong work. "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled" can be found on laserdisc from Criterion. Two more titles are available from Tai Seng on laserdisc, "Bullet in the Head" and "Once a Thief". Both of the these are of much lower quality than the Criterion because they were imported and not re-mastered. These four films are all great to see. In my opinion, "Bullet in the Head" is his best film to date.



Chow Yun-Fat
(Jau Yun Faat)

Born 1955 on Lama Island, this actor started his career on TV. Shanghai Town was the most successful of his shows. His film debut came in, "The Story of Wu-Viet.", and he became the Clint Eastwood of Hong Kong. He can be found in a large number of recent John Woo Films, including "A Better Tomorrow 1 and 2" , "The Killer", "Hard Boiled", and "Once a Thief". He is also in many other films such as "Peace Hotel", "God of Gamblers", "Code of Honor", and "Full Contact". He has played almost every type of role, including cop, hit man, and thief. This is a man with charisma, and he possess an incredible on-screen prowess that many American actors can’t approach.



 Jacki Chan
(Sing Lung)

Jacki Chan was born in 1955 in Hong Kong, and he began his stage education at age 10 at the Chinese Academy of Performing Arts. His studies included singing, acting and various martial arts. Chan is the most famous actor in HK, bar none. He is well known for comical martial art style and doing his own stunts. He tried to break into American cinema several years ago with "The Big Brawl" and "The Protector", but the American audiences were not impressed. Recently, he starrred in "Rumble in the Bronx." His previous films are being imported with dubbed soundtracks and edited (cut) scenes. Along with "Rumble" he has starred in "Supercop" a.k.a. "Police Story 3 ‘Supercop’", "Drunken Master II." He does an excellent job of merging action and comedy. He also includes bloopers with some films showing the injuries he incurred during shooting.



Jet Li
(Lian-Jie)

Li was born 1963 in Beijing. He started acting in 1982, and his first film was, "Shaolin Temple." After starting to learn martial arts (Wu Shu) at age 8, he became a member of the first Wu Shu team to tour the West and performed for president Nixon at the White House. He was the Chinese National Martial Arts Champion from 1974 to 1979 (five consecutive years). Jet is a "TRUE" super martial artist. His films include "Fist of Legend", "Bride with White Hair 2","Once upon a time in China", and "Tai Chi Master", among others.



Types of Film

Contrary to popular belief, Martial Art Films are not the only type of movies that are created in HK. Just like the US, they have Comedy, Action, Drama, and even Adult material. The quality of the films is not of the production finesse that we might expect from Hollywood. Money is not everything. On the other hand, directors like John Woo have more freedom with their material in Hong Kong. The MPAA would have a fit trying to apply a rating to one of his films, where there is a body count hitting the triple digits. Then there are the old Kung Fu martial arts films, still being produced. Again in Hollywood they are stuck trying to create bigger and bigger explosions, losing the finer detail. The choreography is seamless, not to mention the flying and flipping around. These films are pure fun to watch, IMHO.

Who is bringing us the movies?

Criterion is well known for the special care taken on presenting a film on laserdisc. They currently have two John Woo films, "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled."

The Criterion Collection
578 Broadway, Suite 406
New York, NY 10012
WWW: http://www.voyagerco.com/criterion/



Tai Seng has been importing a large number of films and also re-mastering others. They are producing both video cassettes and laserdiscs. Before Tai Seng arrived, the only way to view HK films was to purchase a bootleg copy on tape or to pay EXTREMELY high prices for imported laserdiscs and tapes.

TAI SENG
Video Marketing Inc.
(888)668-8338
WWW: http://www.taiseng.com/


All of these films can be found at your local Tower Records or Virgin Mega Store, as well as the major laserdisc retailers such as Ken Cranes.

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Hong Kong Cinema Guide - Part 1 - 1989-1996
By Stacey L. Spears
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Ratings:    
  Extraordinary
  Good
  Acceptable
  Mediocre
  Poor

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Bride With White Hair
  Bride With White Hair

Tai Seng Video; 45226; CLV/CAV: 2 Disc $69.95; Year: 1993; Director: Ronny Yu; Cast: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Leslie Cheung, Letterboxed; English Subtitles / English dubbed; 1 Hr 51 Min;  Lian (Leslie Cheung), a member of the Wu Tang Clan, falls in love with wolf-girl (Brigette Lin), a witch from the evil cult Clan. This love is forbidden, and they must leave their clans to be together, but their clans have no intention of letting them leave. The entire film takes place at night, with a sort of blue lighting effect. I am impressed at how good the transfer is, because with night scenes come noise, but this disc is virtually free of video noise. This is also the only Hong Kong film I currently have that takes advantage of Dolby Surround. The surround adds to the film, providing nice ambient effects, though not on par with today’s action flicks, but still very good. The film is a little on the violent side, with some sequences reminding me of the fatality scenes in the Mortal Kombat video game. The disc contains several trailers as well as a "making of" featurette. The gate fold jacket has a high gloss beautiful cover. The film is off center to allow for the subtitles on the bottom; these titles are very large and easy to read. There is an English soundtrack on the analog channels, though it is kind of distracting when you hear one thing and read something else since the subtitles are not exactly the same as what is spoken.

Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Brutal fighting scenes, body dismemberment
Sex: Mild love scene
Language: No



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Bullet in the Head
  Bullet in the Head

Tai Seng Video; A126; CLV: 1 Disc $69.95; Year: 1990; Director: John Woo; Cast: Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Jackie Cheung, Waise Lee, Simon Yam; Letterboxed; English Subtitles; 2 Hr 0 Min; This is the story of three friends (Tony Leung, Jackie Cheung, Waise Lee) who go to Vietnam to get rich (Exit . . . stage left!) Upon arriving they are caught in the middle of an assassination and lose all their belongings. They hookup with an Euroasian and get involved in smuggling. The true colors of each friend are shown as they are split because of greed. This film is quite graphic and a very disturbing depiction of Vietnam. John Woo has done a terrific job with this film, and it is my personal favorite among his movies. The transfer is another story. The disc is of poor quality, the contrast is constantly changing, fleshtones are never the same, and the film has had about 20 minutes cut from it, but this is the only version currently available on laserdisc. The disc contains a bilingual soundtrack, neither of which are in English. You must select either the Left or Right channel; otherwise you will get this annoying echo effect and hear two languages at once. One channel is louder than the other, and I often heard static coming from it. The subtitles are difficult to read, because they blend in with the picture. This is a great film and deserves a good transfer. I can only hope that Criterion or Tai Seng do a re-master in the future.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Brutalities of war, and very graphic
Sex: No
Language: No



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Drunken Master II
  Drunken Master II

Tai Seng Video; GD 006; CLV: 1 Disc $89.95; Year: 1994; Director: Lau Kar Leung; Cast: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung; Letterboxed; English Subtitles; 1 Hr 42 Min; This is the follow up to the 1978 film, Drunken Master I, also starring Jackie Chan. It is Jackie Chan at his best, as he plays Wong Fei-Hong, who is constantly in trouble with his father. Aside from proving that a Kung Fu Master is powerful - drunk or sober - he must stop the British from illegally exporting Chinese treasures. The movie is full of beautiful stunt work performed by Jacki Chan with lots of off-the-wall humor. This is a GOLD laserdisc. When the disc first started, I was amazed at how good the transfer looked. The train in the beginning was a beautiful deep, sharp red, then the credits came on in a rather soft smeared red. The disc got worse from there. The subtitles are almost impossible to read, as they whiz right by and blend into the background. This is a great movie, flawed by the subtitles and HIGH price.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Mucho fight scenes, naturally
Sex: No
Language: No



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Fist of Legend
  Fist of Legend

Tai Seng Video; GD 021; CLV: 1 Disc $89.85; Year: 1994; Director: Chan Ka Sheung; Cast: Jet Li, Choi Siu Fan, Chin Siu Ho; Letterboxed; English Subtitles; 1 Hr 42 Min; China, 1921. Chen (Jet Li) is away at school when he is informed that his Kung Fu master is dead. Upon returning to his home he is told that his master was beaten by a Japanese master. Chen goes for revenge, and, after easily beating the Japanese, he discovers that his master was poisoned. This is a tribute to Bruce Lee's "Chinese Connection (aka Fists of Fury)" It is a love story/revenge epic all rolled into one. The fight scenes are well choreographed, and it closely resembles the Kung Fu movies of the 70’s. The subtitles are white and often blend in with the background, making them difficult to read. Some titles go by fast while others do not. I wish they had put the subtitles beneath the letterbox image. The laserdisc is GOLD, but I don’t believe it justifies the high price tag.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Plenty of fighting
Sex: No
Language: No



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Hard Boiled
  Hard Boiled

Voyager Company (Criterion Collection); 245; CAV: 3 discs w/ Extras $124.95; CLV: 2 discs $59.95; Year: 1992; Director: John Woo; Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Mo Shun Kwen; Letterboxed; English Subtitles / English Dubbed; 2 Hr 6 Min; Take one supercop named Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat), throw in undercover cop Jackie Cheung (Tony Leung) and mix with arms dealers, hospitals, and babies, and you have a formula for high energy explosive nonstop action. This movie has some of the best action sequences I have ever seen, and really shows off John Woo’s directorial abilities. There is an English soundtrack on one analog track and Commentary on the other. Again, Criterion pulled out all the stops on this disc.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Very high body count, and major use of firearms
Sex: No
Language: the "S" word



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The Killer
  The Killer

Voyager Company (Criterion Collection); 211; CAV: 3 discs w/ Extras $124.95; CLV: 1 disc $49.95; Year: 1989; Director: John Woo; Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh; Letterboxed; English Subtitles; 1 Hr 50 Min; A super hitman, who after wounding an innocent woman by mistake, decides to care for her. He is informed by her doctor that unless she has surgery right away, she will never see again, so he decides to pull off another hit in order to pay for her operation. The gangsters who originally hired him, now want him killed. The cop who was investigating the hit becomes his friend, and they take on the Bad Guys together. This was Criterion’s first HK film, and the result is nothing short of extraordinary. The video quality is less than perfect, but this is not the fault of Criterion, but rather HK’s lack of proper archival storage. They found the best available print and did what they could to restore it. The subtitles are very easy to read. The CAV edition is packed with loads of extras, 11 trailers, 5 deleted scenes, interviews, and running commentary. A must have disc for the HK film collector.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Lots of body bags and more than enough ammo expended
Sex: No
Language: the "S" word



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Once a Thief
  Once a Thief

Tai Seng Video; A130; CLV: 1 Disc $69.95; Year: 1991; Director: John Woo; Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung; Letterboxed; English Subtitles; 1 Hr 47 Min; Three young people (Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung) are raised by their stepfather, who is a leader of a burglary ring. The three grow up to become thieves themselves (nice family!) During an art heist, they are betrayed by the man who hired them to steal a painting, and Chow Yun-Fat is believed to be killed saving Leslie Cheung’s life. Chow returns later, in a wheelchair, to get even with the man who put him there. While this sounds like a sad film, it is actually a comedy. This film is bilingual, and you must listen to either the Left or Right channel; otherwise you will get both languages at once. The subtitles are difficult to read, because they are white and often blend in with the background. The work was nominated Best Film at the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards. A US remake was recently aired on FOX.
Entertainment:
Video Quality:
Audio:
Photography:
Violence: Explosions, gun fights, maybe even a few sticks and stones that break some bones, etc.
Sex: No
Language: No

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Stacey Spears


Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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