July 19th, 2011
Welcome to the third and final installment of Michael Wells’ coverage of the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival here on Damn You, Kozo. Michael writes for the Everybody Likes Movies blog, and it’s a place for, well, everybody who likes movies. This time out, Michael talks about director Tsui Hark, plus some guy named Tsui Hark and maybe a little something about Hark (first name) Tsui (last name). They’re all fascinating people. He also talks about two other films he saw at the NYAFF. After this entry, Michael will ride the Information Superhighway back to his regular haunt on Everybody Likes Movies. We thank him for his time and his copious way with words. His cheap per-word rates are helpful too.
By Michael Wells
Grady Hendrix, co-founder, co-programmer and official publicity whore for the New York Asian Film Festival, took the words right out of my mouth when he stood up before the screening of DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME and gushed, misty-eyed, about how Tsui Hark had changed his life and that of the other members of the Subway Cinema group (Daniel Craft, Goran Topalavic and Marc Walkow, as well as retired founding members Brian Naas, Paul Kazee and Nat Olson). I, too, can credit or blame this single individual, more than any other, for an addiction to Hong Kong film that would lead me to orally pleasure strangers in back alleys, like some desperate crackhead at rock bottom, if that was what it took to get my eyeballs on these movies.
Tsui Hark showed us motion, space, color and especially the human body doing things onscreen we never knew before that it could. Tsui Hark entertained us more than we ever knew possible. No doubt many if not most of the readers at this site feel similarly. So I need hardly tell you that it was a coup when Subway brought Tsui to the fest to chat with the audience, not once but four times, about his career. The three classics (ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, DRAGON INN, and THE BLADE) and one new hit (DETECTIVE DEE) that they screened don’t really need any more reviews, so I’ll just do an organized dump from my notes on the Q&As with the Goateed One, in which he held forth at length with calm enthusiasm and articulate thoughtfulness.
“Get it right, you people! My last name is Tsui, not Hark!”
image credit: Wall Street Journal
The notoriously obsessive perfectionist is generally pretty harsh in his assessments of his own work, so it wasn’t really a surprise when Grady introduced the 28-year-old ZU by noting that Tsui didn’t understand why anyone would show it now, or why anyone would pay to see it. Still, the director was entirely gracious afterwards when he sat down to reflect on its making and reception. Much of the discussion centered around the groundbreaking visual effects - the idea first came to Tsui when someone looked at his painstaking work with swarms of real butterflies for his 1979 debut THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS and asked, “Why don’t you just use special effects?”
The answer, of course, was that there was virtually no such thing in Hong Kong at the time. So when Golden Harvest head Raymond Chow lured him with offers of carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, Tsui recruited veterans of STAR WARS and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE to build an FX outfit from the ground up for a movie that would visualize images from the classic martial arts fantasies of novelist Huanzhu Louzhou that had never been put onscreen before. Easier said than done - over the six months of overbudget, way-past-schedule production, Tsui said, he “felt lost every moment,” and expected every day that “this is the last day.” Paradoxically, he also described ZU as “a curse - you will never escape it until you die.” In the event, it was actually a box office disappointment (just too strange for its moment, perhaps?), but apparently Chow still could glimpse the filmmaker’s big future, as Tsui recalls the mogul being quite pissed when his new recruit returned to the Cinema City studio afterwards.
From there, discussion ranged to Tsui’s later FX and fantasy work - Tsui described A CHINESE GHOST STORY as an attempt “to regenerate the kind of energy I had when I was a kid” by lavishly revisiting a childhood favorite, Li Hanxiang’s 1959 classic THE ENCHANTING SHADOW. He noted, with some apparent ambivalence, that “realism” is more and more the expectation in even genre and fantastic cinema, especially with advances in digital effects. Other topics included Tsui’s boredom with the notion of “100th anniversary of X” movies that see filmmakers creating a glut of rote films on one topic, rather than addressing subjects when the spirit moves them (I’d like to think that was a subtle dig at the anniversary-themed, all-star propaganda epics pouring out of the PRC). On the other hand, he does want to make a film, perhaps a documentary, on the Asian-American experience, an ambition since his early days in the ‘70s working on docs, cable TV and other media in NYC’s Chinatown. (Later, Tsui would comment on the “migrating curse” shared by many Chinese in the tumultuous 20th century, using his own childhood in Vietnam as an example, and the “immigrant mentality” he tried to capture in SHANGHAI BLUES.)
A screening of a brand-new, beautiful print of the ‘92 DRAGON INN, struck and shipped over especially for the NYAFF, was followed by Tsui telling one of the stranger-than-fiction tales that abound in HK film history: Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh had also been planning a remake of King Hu’s 1967 classic at the same time, but it was abandoned when the Triad-connected main investor was permanently retired by four gunmen. From there, the conversational mood got relatively lighter, with Tsui and his people sweating bullets rather than stopping them, as they struggled with a tight production schedule. As many have always suspected, despite the director credit for Raymond Lee, producer Tsui directed much of the movie himself, heading up the studio unit in HK while Lee took another unit to the desert in mainland China for outdoor scenes. There, during a nighttime action shoot, Brigitte Lin took an arrow in the eye and had to be flown home for emergency surgery while a double finished her climactic scene.
Discussion transitioned from there to the generally frantic and strange process of filmmaking in the golden age of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Tsui described the punishing work routine at Cinema City, where all-day shoots would be followed by all-night conference sessions at studio co-head Karl Maka’s house, brainstorming scripts and troubleshooting current and future projects, followed by three or four hours of sleep at daybreak before heading back to the set. He recalled the legendary midnight preview tradition, whereby a barely-completed movie was screened a mere week before the official release for a rowdy and impatient witching-hour crowd that would often throw things at the screen and at the filmmakers, sometimes leading to last-minute reediting or even reshooting (he swears that editors might be driven around to theaters to recut each already-delivered print before the premiere). As an example of the frustrating lack of control that filmmakers have over their own final product, Tsui pointed out that the cut of DRAGON INN we’d just watched was a longer one that he considers inferior to a shorter version that has sometimes been shown (if I’m not mistaken, he’s previously said the same thing about the cut of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA now generally available on DVD).
Prodded delicately about the creatively and commercially difficult decade he’s just endured, Tsui admitted that THE LEGEND OF ZU was “for me, a disaster.” The only detail he offered was that he didn’t have enough money for the lavish digital post-production. No one quibbled aloud about whether the quality of the special effects was the real issue there, nor did they ask about BLACK MASK 2 or MISSING. That would have just been cruel.
Naturally, there were questions about FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE, his currently shooting 3D remake of DRAGON INN. Clearly eager, as always, to embrace one more technological tool, Tsui claimed that it was new to use 3D to show “something from our [Chinese] heritage,” (I suppose Yuen Woo-Ping’s TRUE LEGEND doesn’t count because it was post-converted rather than shot with 3D cameras). He echoed other filmmakers who’ve noted that a director can’t cut shots as fast in 3D because “you lose depth, space, air, volume,” and he spoke of using the format not just as a gimmick, with swords thrusting in the audience’s face, but to try to bring something new to the staging and shooting of martial arts choreography.
Arguably even more of an event was a rare screening of THE BLADE, which the NYAFF hyped as probably the last ever. To hear them tell it, it’s among the hundreds of HK films to which Warner Bros. somehow has the U.S. rights in perpetuity, but with no plans to do anything with them - apparently the programmers had to kidnap some WB executives’ children to get this print (a Mandarin dub, yet) from a warehouse in Kansas City.
With the audience’s heads still reeling from the movie’s onslaught, Tsui serenely took the stage again to discuss his feral, raw-throated wuxia. He poo-pooed the idea that it had any subtext related to the then-pending China handover, but agreed cheerfully with a viewer that it was about “depression, repression and hysteria,” mentioning that at the time he made it there was “too much human negative interaction” going on around him. Tsui noted that he had actually wanted to make more movies in its glass-snagging-flesh style (and cited Akira Kurosawa’s controlled-chaos style in the climax of SEVEN SAMURAI as an influence), but that plan was blocked by its box office failure, which he attributed partially to a lack of marquee stars.
Technical details included the claim that only two shots in the entire movie used wirework, and that at least one shot in the climax includes two stuntmen doubling lead actor Zhao Wen-Zhou, making him appear to move impossibly fast. More anecdotes followed from the seat-of-the-pants school of filmmaking, as the director revealed that he decided halfway through shooting to make supporting actress Song Lei’s role the main point-of-view character and narrator, rewriting on the fly to put her at the center. “We do it all the time - change our minds in the middle,” he said, chuckling at the audible amazement of the audience.
The climax following was the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award before the screening of what we’re all calling his comeback film, DETECTIVE DEE. Onhand to hand off the plaque was Tsui’s mentor Patrick Lung Kong, director of classics like STORY OF A DISCHARGED PRISONER, which Tsui and John Woo of course remade as A BETTER TOMORROW. Now retired and living in NYC, Lung gleefully told tales out of school, such as when he had to talk his friend, producer Ng See-Yuen, out of canning the young upstart director as the costs and schedule of BUTTERFLY MURDERS ballooned out of control. Tsui followed by recalling how he cast Lung in SHANGHAI BLUES just so he could hang with him, and it all turned into the big goopy lovefest I was describing at the beginning. But if anyone deserves such a helping of goop, it’s Tsui, who happily assured us that he has no intention of retiring in the foreeseeable future: “We’re always looking for something new in ourselves - when you finish a film, you realize there’s something in yourself missing that you still want to express.”
Compared to spending a weekend with Tsui Hark, everything else screening at around the same time felt a little anti-climactic. REIGN OF ASSASSINS (Taiwan/HK/China, 2010) and PUNISHED (HK, 2011) were recently covered at LoveHKFilm, so I’ll simply note that they’re pretty good, and that if there were a Best Actor award given out at the NYAFF, it would have to go to Anthony Wong for the latter. Is there anything that man can’t do?
Beyond that, I’ll leave you with recommendations for the two Korean thrillers that closed the fest for me. THE CHASER director Na Hong-jin’s big-budget hitman saga THE YELLOW SEA is punishingly downbeat and grisly, but gripping, and a remarkably convincing blend of harsh social realism and action spectacle. Finally, do not pass up any chance to see Ryoo Seung-wan’s THE UNJUST, a blackly cynical but wildly entertaining epic of political, corporate and police corruption that feels, in the best way, like a juicey 400-page novel jammed into two breathless hours. I would pair it with the radically different ABRAXAS for my favorite new movie of the festival, and then, with 21 movies under my belt in 13 days, I would collapse into bed to catch up on my sleep. Goodnight.