Great Escapism

With the approach of 1997 -- the year that control of Hong Kong will turn over to China -- and with the success of John Woo's films, including his American-made Hard Target, U.S. interest in Hong Kong filmmaking is perhaps at an all-time high.

And with good reason. With their spectacular combinations of near delirium and tight control, these films are often alive in a way that other mass cinemas simply aren't. It's a popular cinema, playing at all times to the peanut gallery, but because of the pressure cooker of history in which they're produced, these films have a self-consciousness and an intellectual inventiveness you don't find in their Indian or Mexican counterparts (to name only two popular national cinemas).

So it's good news that the MFA is mounting another Hong Kong film series. Like the inaugural 1992 series, this one is guest-curated by local treasure/resource Sam Ho, a journalist and film critic who served on the staff of the 1993 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

According to Ho, moviegoing remains a popular activity in Hong Kong because domestic life is so uncomfortable. "Apartments are so small, it's not comfortable to sit home and watch a video," Ho says. He adds that the frantic energy found in Hong Kong's films reflects the city's work ethic and that the humiliations the heroes endure before they triumph parallel the humiliations Hong Kongers live every day. Ho even finds there "a mean-spirited pleasure in watching people suffer on screen."

Perhaps that taste for pain accounts for the legendary stunts found in these films, stunts in which actors routinely risk their lives. "Jackie Chan [for example] has to put his life on the line," Ho says while discussing a stunt Chan performed in the 1992 Project A (the series' opening film). Project A isn't the strongest of Hong Kong films, but it does have a handful of dazzling set pieces, including a Keystone Cops-style bicycle chase through a series of winding back alleys. The chase culminates in Chan's escape into a bell tower. During a fight there, he is knocked through the face of a big clock and, in a clear reference to Harold Lloyd's most famous stunt, he dangles from the clock's hour hand. The camera is positioned to show that Chan is actually hanging on for his life some 50 feet above the ground.

According to Ho, Hong Kong audiences combine an almost voluptuous sense of escapism with an insistence on their heroes' literally risking death. For Chan to become a true star, he had to drop from the clock, his fall broken only by two canvas awnings. This stunt set a rigorous standard for subsequent movies. The actor now has a hole in his head -- literally -- from a stunt that nearly killed him.

These films combine sophistication with an almost primitive level of thrill-seeking because their makers are forced to work on a metaphoric level. "Almost all villains represent China in some way," Ho says. An evil eunuch often turns up as the heavy, and everyone understands that he represents the mainland.

The MFA begins its series with Project A and will present other Jackie Chan films, as well as Tsui Hark's work and a movie that sounds particularly intriguing -- Painted Faces. With its Dickensian depiction of the Chinese Opera's school for boys, it seems a predecessor to Farewell My Concubine.


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