Why I like Chinese movies

I became an enthusiast for Chinese movies for a few years after attending the 1996 World Science Fiction convention.  In one suite, there was a continuous showing of Japanese animation films, and, in another, of Hong Kong action films.

The host for the Hong Kong action marathon was Ric Meyers, who wrote a column called Inside Kung Fu.  He was a fan of Hong Kong action videos at a time when they were not shown in the United States outside Chinatown neighborhoods, and the movie theater staff discouraged Westerners from attending.

Hong Kong action films were low-budget movies designed to appeal to laborers in Hong Kong.  Compared to Hollywood action films, they had more acrobatics, more surprising plot twists, more violence, a higher body count, broader comedy and more over-acting – every possible element that would lend universal appeal.

With old-time Hollywood Westerns, critics used to ask how the gunfighters could fire their six-shooters an indefinite number of times without reloading.  The Hong Kong action heroes avoid this dilemma by bringing enormous satchels full of assorted weapons to their showdowns.  When an action hero runs out of ammo fork, say, his AK-47, he throws it away and reaches into his satchel for an Uzi, or whatever.

Meyers said that a distinguishing mark of Chinese movies is that absence of a boundary between the tragic and the comic.  In the action film “The Killers,” the Chinese star Chow Yun Fatt plays a professional assassin who is doing one last job in order to retire.  In the process, he accidentally causes an innocent young girl to be blinded, and so takes on one more assignment to raise the money she needs for an operation.  He himself is blinded in the final showdown, and he and the girl crawl toward each other. Then they unknowlingly crawl past each other, because they are blind! It is funny, and awful, at the same time.

You have the same thing in the higher-end Chinese movies. In “To Live,” a young woman in childbirth is hemorrhaging and the Communists have sent the doctors to labor camps to punish them for thinking they are superior to nurses and other medical workers.  The woman’s husband, an idealistic Communist, has enough influence to pull a doctor out of the camp.  But the doctor is dazed and tottering on his feet, and the family realizes he is weak from hunger.  They quickly cook an emergency bowl of soup, and spoon it into his mouth, upon which he drops dead.  This is a horrible scene, but somehow funny; I could not keep from laughing, even though I was appalled.

Meyers said the plot of “Hamlet” would make a good Chinese action movie.  Hamlet’s motivation, to avenge the death of his father, is typical of a Chinese movie, as is the high body count and the death of the hero at the end.  In a Western action film, the hero wins the heroine or prepares to move on to his next adventure.  In a Hong Kong action film, the hero goes down impaled on a spear or riddled with bullets, knee-deep in the bodies of his enemies, having avenged the great wrong that has been done him.

The only difference, Meyers said, is that if “Hamlet” had been a Hong Kong action film, somebody in the last act would have been hit in the face with a custard pie.

I like higher-end Chinese movies as well – highbrow drama such as “Shanghai Triad” or “Farewell My Concubine” and lowbrow entertainment such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (which might be called Flying People, Hidden Wires).

I have enjoyed martial arts films for decades.  Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies are a wonderful demonstration of athletic ability and physical grace.  If there was a movie starring, say, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and the plot consisted of one saying to the other, “You insulted my Master. Prepare to die!”, followed My favorite is the action-comedy “Way of the Dragon,” in which his character defends his family’s Chinese restaurant in Rome against Mafia incursions by teaching martial arts to the restaurant staff.  The Mafia responds by hiring other martial arts masters, and there is a final showdown in which the Bruce Lee character fights a duel to the death in the Colosseum against America’s greatest kung fu champion, who is played by Chuck Norris.

Even the Chinese movies that are not-so-good are still pretty good.  “The House of Flying Daggers” was empty and heartless and “Hero” was empty, heartless and covert propaganda for dictatorship, but they were gorgeous to look at, and the plot twists kept me wondering what would happen next.

I am not as big a fan of Chinese movies as I once was. It is been a decade since I sent away for a Chinese movie video. But I would probably go to see any Chinese movie shown at The Little, Rochester’s art theater, or any action film directed by John Woo.

Later. Just to make myself clear – I like Chinese movies, but I don’t claim to be an expert on Chinese cinema.  I couldn’t intelligently discuss, for example, the differences between movies directed by Chen Kaige and by  Zhang Yimou.  I have a smattering of knowledge, and a source of pleasure I’d like to share.

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