Kung fu fading

The golden era of Hong Kong films is over. Today, the city that spawned the kung-fu genre is taking on a more down-to-earth identity.

The Plaza Theatre in Hong Kong is playing all American films today—Shrek 2, Troy and Van Helsing—and the billboards might as well be read as a story of Hollywood invasion.

Indeed, the theaters offer little in the way of sword-toting heroes flying on rooftops, gangster girls using guns and knives to take over each other’s casinos, or beautiful ghosts in fabulous kimonos falling in love with handsome travelers.

As visualized through its filmmakers, Hong Kong always has offered a reliable assessment of the sensibilities of the modern East, an uninhibited wildness on the silver screen that, with its many twists and turns, is a refreshing alternative to Hollywood’s cynical and formulaic happily-ever-afters.

Alas, these days, you have to scour the newspapers to find a Hong Kong film, and the two playing on this day—a cheesy romance and a rehash of a gangster movie—were of poor quality compared with those produced less than a decade ago, in the golden age of Hong Kong movies.

What happened?

Many here blame the Hong Kong handover to China and the attendant feelings of uncertainty—which caused a massive exodus, including the film industry’s top creative talents.

“People no longer see things long-term anymore. People are afraid to express themselves because they don’t know what China could do to them, and the ones who are expressive are gone,” said Francis Ng, a 20-something musician.

Ng said the beginning of the end of the movie industry was the departure of director John Woo, who now makes blockbuster Hollywood movies like Paycheck and Mission Impossible II. His departure soon was followed by those of stars like Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat—and even Jackie Chan.

“When will they come back?” Ng asked rhetorically. “Probably never. I think people like Woo find Hong Kong no longer suited to their creative talents.” On the other hand, he added, showing the famous Hong Kong pragmatism, “Hollywood pays well. I would go, too, if I were invited.”

Others, however, blame rampant piracy for the downturn in the local film industry. Indeed, the night market sells DVD videos, music CDs and software at bargain-basement prices. The government seems helpless—raids and arrests do little to deter the longtime Hong Kong habit of copying everything, legally or illegally, and selling it dirt-cheap. So, potential producers, seeing no chance for a profit, have withdrawn in droves.

Yet, only a decade ago, Hong Kong films kept Hollywood movies at bay.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hong Kong movies reminded David Overby, writing in Film Comment magazine, of Hollywood in its heyday, “before the great split between commerce and art.” In 1994, for instance, Hong Kong produced 160 movies, a magnificent number for a territory of 6.4 million people.

The decisive breakthrough in action movies came in the early 1990s with Once Upon a Time in China, directed by Tsui Hark, who also produced the amazing Swordsman II, in which the characters no longer are burdened by tradition—in fact, they are not bound by gravity. Dueling fighters float like birds, wearing fanciful costumes while following a story line even more fantastic than their clothing: Eccentrics absorb chi power from lesser fighters and shrink them to nothing, energy bolts come through swords to split a horse in two, and a fighter achieves inhuman power but in the process turns into a beautiful woman.

These movies seem to reflect a sense of uninhibited wildness, and their characters—powerful and colorful eccentrics—are outside social norms, taking only what’s good for themselves and discarding the rest.

The choreography is so stunning that it has left an indelible mark on Western movies—witness the megahit Matrix trilogy, in which all Hong Kong techniques were applied to allow the half-Asian, half-white Keanu Reeves, the movie’s hero, to fly and float. Or, watch Uma Thurman, as she wields her sword like an old pro in the Kill Bill movies.

American stars and directors, in fact, seem to be the direct inheritors of Hong Kong’s legacy.

Indeed, Hong Kong began to find itself in the mid-1990s, and it was Hollywood’s turn to copy. Directors Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the martial-arts genre, and Tarantino has admitted to being “inspired” by John Woo’s City on Fire when making his breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs. In Tarantino’s latest films, Kill Bill I and II, he exploited the Hong Kong martial-arts genre’s classic revenge plot with glee.

Action star Leslie Cheung, star of The Bride with White Hair and the American art-house favorite Farewell My Concubine, was more daring than other performers and more moody on the screen; he thrived on the genre’s originality. But it is a legacy that’s fading in Hong Kong itself. And the best of Hong Kong these days are more likely to find themselves working in Hollywood.

It may be that every art form reaches a zenith—and then must go down. For Hong Kong films, beyond geopolitics and economic woes lies a core problem of vision. Hong Kong, after all, is not a stable place. Wave after wave of immigrants means that change is the constant.

Not long ago, Hong Kong moviegoers delighted in seeing globe- trotting heroes and heroines fighting the bad guys and sipping wines in distant places.

Today, just about the most glamorous filmmaker who remains behind is Wong Kar Wai—and he makes art-house movies that please critics but otherwise make little money. One could say that Wong, a darling at this year’s Cannes film festival, is brave to resist Hollywood’s temptation. On the other hand, his movie genre—experimental and philosophical—is not exactly what Hollywood wants. The Chinese film industry seems to have moved inland, and the newest U.S. release, Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s most famous director, had taken China by storm and in the same breath replaced Hong Kong with Beijing as the martial-arts film center. It doesn’t help that House of Flying Daggers, Yimou’s follow-up film in the martial-arts genre, also received rave reviews at the last Cannes film festival.

These days, that Hong Kong cosmopolitan gleam seems to have given way to a more realistic self-assessment. It’s a gleam that began its slow fade when China took over in 1997, and the death blow delivered with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit the city last year, followed by the suicide of one of Hong Kong’s remaining stars, Cheung, who jumped to his death.

A new, more down-to-earth identity is being invented in Hong Kong. Even commercials show this. Not long ago, beautiful women floating through surrealistic landscapes would appear in ads for perfumes or luxury goods. Now, that pretty woman is a housewife tallying her expenses and wailing, “Why does entertainment cost so much?” The solution is to stay home and watch the advertiser’s cable TV.

“There is a return to basic values here,” said Yuen Ying Chan, who teaches journalism at Hong Kong University. “Sure, there’s still a lot of money, but the style is subdued due to the recession.”

Daniel Ge, editor of Tofu, a trilingual pop-art glossy magazine, sees Hong Kong splitting between East and West, growing schizophrenic as it tries to understand its own place in cultural history. “A typical Chinese would now watch an American movie at the theater, then go home and watch Chinese opera,” he said.

“Opera is now experiencing a revival, even among the young,” he added. “But kung-fu films are on their way out.”