In its heyday, the Hong Kong film industry turned out over two hundred feature films a year, comedies, romances, musicals, and dramas as well as martial arts pictures. Last year, that number dropped below fifty. Former linchpins –stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Maggie Cheung, as well as writers and directors like Wong Kar-wai and John Woo–have either moved to other countries for work or retired outright. The industry has been in a free-fall since the handover in 1997, in part due to doubts about mainland China’s demands. But even before the handover, triads infiltrated production companies, siphoning off profits while releasing inferior movies that infuriated audiences. Piracy was simply the last straw. Movies are routinely available for download or on bootleg DVDs before they open. Even the pornographic film market has suffered.
There have been bright spots, like the recent Infernal Affairs trilogy that was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed. Leading men Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai are still committed to challenging movie roles. But a case might be made that serious Hong Kong filmmaking has been reduced to a single person, Johnnie To.
The fifty-two-year old To has been producing and directing movies for over twenty years. He is represented by four titles in The New Decade: Hong Kong Film, a ten-day series starting August 16 at the BAMcinématek. Touted by some critics as the world’s premiere action director, To at his best transcends genre limitations, offering a more complex world view than titles like Executioners and Fulltime Killer suggest. A practicing Buddhist, he has infused comedies and romances like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts with deep strains of melancholy. “There is always a balance, a struggle, between destiny and your free will, and I think that is what I try to explore in my movies,” he said in an interview in New York.
The centerpiece of the BAM series is Election and its sequel, Triad Election. Together they form one of the most compelling examinations of the gangster world to appear in recent years. The films document the turmoil surrounding a campaign to choose a new leader of a triad, and To’s canvas stretches from street thugs to crooked mainland cops to politicians and real estate developers. His serious, even stately approach is miles away from the giddy, impetuous Hong Kong genre films of a decade ago.
To’s follow-up, Exiled, zeroes in on five hitmen on a dead-end mission in Macao immediately before the 1999 handover. In some ways this is To’s version of The Wild Bunch, with some of Hong Kong’s best character actors given the chance to stretch out and enjoy themselves in a story steeped in remorse and regret. The film’s gunfights are photographed and edited with a precision that matches anything you will see from Hollywood. Breaking News is marred by some heavy-handed political moralizing, but it also starts with an intricately choreographed, seven-minute shot of a police stake-out that erupts into a full-fledged melee occupying an entire city block. Like almost all of To’s films, it has an unexpected and seductive visual and narrative drive.
Although To worried that the market for serious Asian films had disappeared, Exiled and the Election movies won numerous Hong Kong awards. (Magnolia Pictures will be releasing Exiled to theaters later this month.) To has since moved on, producing a heist film set in Paris and putting together an English-language remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge. But even the non-To films in the series show his influence. Law Wing-Cheong, the assistant director on the four To films screened here, offers 2 Become 1, a romantic comedy that turns into a disquieting examination of mortality. Patrick Tam, an editor on Exiled, helms After This Our Exile, his first film in almost twenty years.
Peter Chan, who directed The Love Letter here in 1999, tries to resurrect the musical with Perhaps Love. And in case you are nostalgic for the goofy, adrenalized kung-fu comedies that used to make up a large percentage of the Hong Kong film market, there’s House of Fury, a Spy Kids rip-off starring Cantopop singing sensations The Twins. Against all odds, it is a funny, charming romp with sensational stunts that were choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping. For a brief moment in 2005, it suggested the start of an industry renaissance. Michelle Yeoh, who once worked with Jackie Chan and Johnnie To, and who is currently appearing in Danny Boyle’s sci-fi thriller Sunshine, insists that the Hong Kong film industry has always been cyclical, and will soon be back on its feet. Fans can only hope she is right.