From a distance, Hong Kong cinema can seem thin. But up close there's a depth to it and a dizzying, kaleidoscopic aestheticby Mark Cousins / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
I’m in a refugee camp, transit lounge and capitalist catch-all in which pencil-thin skyscrapers soar above old ladies selling abalone and asparagus stacked in beautiful pyramids in street markets. It’s called Hong Kong. I’m on my pilgrim’s progress, interviewing Asia’s great movie-makers.
Hong Kong’s cinematic reputation is for low cost, commercially savvy production. The cinema of the migrant, perhaps. Movies made by people who understand what quickens the pulse in other countries, and who want to make money fast.
The island’s only recent must-see films for thinking moviegoers have been the swoony, contemplative films of Wong Kar-wai, such as In the Mood for Love. But beyond such art cinema, what about the kung fu demi-monde of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, the sort of movies that action nerds and Quentin Tarantino talk about? Is such cinema of any interest outside its coterie today?
Actually, yes. Let’s start with a subject close to home at the moment: the relationship between economic downturn and culture. In Hong Kong in the 1950s and early 1960s, when money was tight, the prevailing movie genres were musicals and melodramas. Acclaimed director Stanley Kwan tells me that these heightened, escapist worlds are appealing at times of hardship. But when the economy started to strengthen, these “feminine” works were replaced by harder, more masculine films—hence the worldwide success of the dragon of Asian cinema, Hong Kong-American Bruce Lee. Lee’s films were narcissistic and nationalistic. His “look at me/don’t mess with me” shtick had something of the newly swaggering Hong Kong about it.
Anybody who has watched HK movies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s will recognise the shield logo of the Shaw Brothers, the largest private film studio in the world. At one point it employed 1,400 staff in 25 departments, using 12 sound stages.
I went there to find the studio still standing, haunted yet lovely. A staff member told me there was a new studio, and took me there. It’s a vast complex, an architectural statement like its predecessor, apparently partly funded by one of the original Shaw brothers, Run Run, who is over 100 years old. This behemoth is built on rubber to give it extra soundproofing. In the downturn, this astonishing dream factory is almost empty.
I’ve long believed that there’s something of the kaleidoscope about the aesthetics of the HK…