By Colin Odell and Mitch le Blanc
First published in Vector 210 (in 2000)
Hong Kong is the third largest producer of films in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, but most people think that its films are concerned only with kung fu. This could not be further from the truth, in fact it offers an enormous diversity of product and includes a large number of fantasy and horror films amongst its many genres. The perception of the output as ‘just’ martial arts presumably comes from the Seventies kung fu marketing boom and the fact that video availability in this country has yet to break away from this traditionally high-selling genre. To the uninitiated the world of Hong Kong cinema can appear bizarre, confusing and strewn with pitfalls. There is the frenetic pace of action, occasionally impenetrable plots, obscure humour and a completely different language (often with cheesy dubbing or minuscule subbing) to contend with. So why bother? The answer is simple. Entertainment. Hong Kong films have a kinetic energy that renders the rest of the world geriatric by comparison. The relentless action, comedy, pathos and range of ideas, and the fact that you never know how the story is going to end, leaves the viewer gasping for breath. Hollywood have latched on to this and in recent years have tried to imitate the Hong Kong formula with limited success. Many HK directors now work in the USA – The Matrix (1999) was choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, and the pace of the action is derived completely from HK cinema. Hollywood has also begun to approach the task of duplicating several Hong Kong genres; the Heroic Bloodshed genre (guns, cops, gangsters, slo-mo shooting and heavy casualties) has translated reasonably, but lost the emotional depth and characterisation of its Eastern counterpart. Its main innovator John Woo, who directed the sci-fi bloodshed film Face/Off (1998), is now exerting his vision on the Hollywood system with considerable success. The Swordplay genre has fared less well as the efforts generally seem lacklustre, although The Mask of Zorro (1998) was well executed and similarly owes as much to Hong Kong as Errol Flynn. In return Hong Kong has no scruples about raiding film ideas from anywhere – it just does it faster and, normally, better.
Because the market for Hong Kong films is confined predominantly to Asia, its genres are tailored to that market. As a result, there are few pure science fiction films made in Hong Kong and they tend to aim for either the international market (Black Mask, 1997), for the Japanese market (City Hunter, 1993; Wicked City, 1992) or just turn out to be financially unsuccessful (The Heroic Trio, 1993). Generally science fiction elements occur as a peripheral to the main plot or are used as a McGuffin. Far more common is the fantasy film, of which there is an abundance of superior examples. For example: Name three decent Hollywood fantasy films made in the last decade. Okay, name one decent Hollywood fantasy film made in the last decade. Movies such as Moon Warriors (1992), Blade of Fury (1993) and Burning Paradise (1994) are so far in advance of any Hollywood fantasy film as to render English-speaking fare futile. Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Willow (1988) don’t come close and it is only really the Ray Harryhausen films that stand up to scrutiny. There are also abundant numbers of ghost stories and vampire films, which are completely different to their Western counterparts and all the more exciting and stimulating for it. It is impossible to cover all the films served up by HK, so here are a few pointers to hopefully whet your appetite for further Far Eastern dishes.Continue reading “From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema”