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TitlePlanet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Second edition)
PublisherHarvard University Press
ISBN 139780983244004
CategoryArts - Film
File Size11.0 MB
Total Pages300
Table of Contents
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Hong Kong
Popular Cinema and the
Art of Entertainment

David Bordwell

second edition

Page 2

Planet Hong Kong
Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment

David Bordwell

Second edition

Irvington Way Institute Press
Madison, Wisconsin


Page 150

a blow is as important as delivering one; each kick
or punch is an explosive release of energy, syn-
chronized with the release of a single deep
breath. Moreover, kung-fu students learn that
every technique consists of patterns, each one a
specific configuration of arms, legs, and torso.
During training the student learns to combine
dozens of these patterns into “sets,” sequences
that have proved effective in combat. Each set is a
series of rapid movements broken by poses.24

Many kung-fu credit sequences feature the main

actors performing sets, not only announcing to
connoisseurs what styles will be showcased in the
story but also laying down the pause/burst/pause
scheme that will be seen throughout the film.

Another source of the scheme is Peking Opera,
which is at bottom a rhythmic theater. The
orchestra is led by the percussion, songs are
molded to the metrics of accented syllables, the
ensemble leader beats out a rhythm on clappers
and drums, and gongs and cymbals mark a song’s
climax, a passage of combat, or a fixed posture.25

Battle scenes are a blend of martial arts and acro-
batics, with actors leaping and tumbling. They
punctuate their movements with moments of
pure stasis, the technique of liang hsiang (“dis-
playing”; literally, “bright appearance”), often
underlined by a cymbal crash.

On film the confluence of these rich traditions
brings us extraordinary combat. In a Hollywood
fistfight, people punch for a while, usually rather
slowly and seldom with the geometrical efficiency

of kung-fu. The fighters seldom stop moving, even
when they pause for breath, and they never freeze
as abruptly as do Hong Kong performers. In Die
Hard John McClane fights the towering blond
thief Karl in the skyscraper’s boiler room. Karl
kicks McClane back against a flight of concrete
stairs (Fig. 8.43). As Karl bends forward, McClane
seizes his neck in a hammerlock and drags him up
the steps, punching and cursing him (Fig. 8.44).
The two men grapple against the railing. McClane
twists a hanging chain around Karl’s neck (Fig.
8.45) and shoves him off, leaving Karl hanging
from the rigging. McClane then slides down the
rail (Fig. 8.46), pulling the rigging across the room
and slamming Karl into the opposite wall (Fig.
8.47). Throughout, the actors’ movements are ill-
defined, and some get concealed by parts of the
set; there are no pauses to bracket phases of the
fight. The movements lack efficiency, let alone
clean-limbed attack and counter. This is a tussle.

Motion Emotion: The Art of the Action Movie | 141Planet Hong Kong | Chapter 8

8.36 The Way of the Dragon.

8.37 The Way of the Dragon.

8.38 The Way of the Dragon.

8.39 The Way of the Dragon.

8.40 The Way of the Dragon.

8.41 The Way of the Dragon.

8.42 The Way of the Dragon.

Page 151

Compare another scene in which a hero dis-
patches an adversary at close range. In the gun
battle that opens Hard Boiled (1992), Tequila has
raced into a kitchen in pursuit of a gangster who
has shot his partner. The gunman lies on his back
on the floor, firing (Fig. 8.48). Tequila dives onto a
tabletop, rolls across it through a cloud of flour,
and leaps off. Four shots map his rightward and
downward trajectory (Figs. 8.49–8.52). In the last
of these, he glides across the frame to come to a
sudden halt, the pistol to the gunman’s head (Fig.
8.53). There follow three close-ups in which the
killer and Tequila stare at each other, motionless
and silent (Figs. 8.54–8.56).

Tequila’s dive consumes a second and a half; the
unmoving exchange of looks lasts nearly as long.
This comparatively long pause accentuates the
next two movements, executed in quick succes-
sion: Tequila contemptuously spits out his tooth-
pick (Fig. 8.57) and pulls the trigger, spattering

blood across his own bleached face (Fig. 8.58).
This is the lengthiest shot in the sequence, taking
nearly three seconds.

There would be more to say about this pas-
sage—the fact that the shots of Tequila in move-
ment are all about the same length (19 frames, 17
frames, 17 frames, and 20 frames), the way the flour
mask turns Tequila into a ghostly avenger out of
Chinese opera. What is relevant for us now is the
way that Tequila’s roll and dive form a virtually
abstract surge of rightward energy before braking
to an instant halt, hitting a pose of diagrammatic
clarity (Fig. 8.53): two men, one with the advan-
tage. The pose is prolonged in order to throw the
decisive acts—spat-out toothpick, bloody execu-
tion—into relief. John McClane has no time to
reflect on killing Karl and no remorse for doing
so, but Tequila’s hesitation reminds us that by tak-
ing his revenge he will violate his duty as a

Hollywood filmmakers, once the world’s lead-
ers in portraying the dynamism of the human
body, today seldom achieve rhythmic vitality.
American action films substitute massive carnage
and incessant bustle for well-calibrated views of
precise, staccato movement. Hong Kong’s closest
affinity is with the Japanese jidai-geki movies,
which display the same pause/burst/pause struc-
ture. But there is an instructive difference. As the
Way of the Dragon example indicates, a Hong
Kong fight scene consists of many small bursts
and rests. The pause in the Hard Boiled passage,
though only a second and a half, serves as the
fraught conclusion of a shootout that lasts nearly
five minutes. Postwar Japanese action films shift
the balance. They tend to minimize the burst of
movement and dwell on the moments of stasis.
The typical Japanese fight scene is mostly buildup
and aftermath. A near-parodic extreme occurs in
the finale of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1964), which

Motion Emotion: The Art of the Action Movie | 142Planet Hong Kong | Chapter 8

8.43 Die Hard.

8.44 Die Hard.

8.45 Die Hard.

8.46 Die Hard.

8.47 Die Hard.

Page 299

RESEARCH FOR THIS BOOK was supported by the
Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund as adminis-
tered by the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Graduate School. The Uni versity’s Institute for
Research in the Humanities kindly granted me a
senior fel lowship, which allowed me release time
to travel and write. I am grateful for this support,
as well as for the funding of a film series and sym-
posium on Asian cin ema, “Light in the East,” held
during the 1996–97 academic year and sponsored
by the UW Anonymous Fund, the Humanistic
Foundation, the Consortium for the Arts, and the
International Institute.

No writing project has enriched my life more
than this one. In 1995 Li Cheuk-to kindly took me
out to lunch during the Hong Kong International
Film Festival, and that was just the beginning. He
encouraged me to write this book and offered me
precise suggestions. Through Cheuk-to I met oth -
ers. Stephen Teo proved another great source of
information, suggestions, and good fellowship.
Stephen also read the entire manuscript. Athena
Tsui has been my eyes and ears in Hong Kong. She
kept me up-to-date, ar ranged interviews, and gave
me access to a great deal of information. Shu Kei,
polymathic director-producer-distributor-critic-
professor, and one of the most vital players in
local film culture, patiently answered my ques-

tions for hours on end. Planet Hong Kong simply
would not exist were it not for Cheuk-to, Stephen,
Athena, and Shu Kei.

The energetic staff of the Hong Kong Interna-
tional Film Festival provided a cheerful atmos-
phere for my visits; I owe special thanks to Law
Kar and Jacob Wong. I am very grateful to Peter
Tsi, who met with me on several occasions and
gave me unique insights into the film industry;
and to the members of the Hong Kong Film Critics
Society, who shared their ideas at an all-night din-
ner. The fol lowing people kindly gave interviews:
Gordon Chan, Peter Chan, Jimmy Choi of the Hong
Kong Arts Centre, Wellington Fung of Media
Asia, Ann Hui, Michael Hui, Abe Kwong, Andrew
Lau, Albert Lee of Golden Harvest, Roger Lee of
Golden Harvest, Jerry Liu of Media Asia, Francis
Ng, Sandy Shaw, Winnie Tsang of Golden Har-
vest, Tsui Hark, Anthony Wong, Wong Jing,
Herman Yau, and Yuen Woo-ping.

Michael Campi has been immensely generous
in offering rare material and in suggesting things
to watch. Likewise Tony Rayns, Western doyen of
Eastern cin ema, has for years been keeping me
updated on Asian cinema, while also prodding me
to consider forgotten and unappreciated films. I
first met Bérénice Reynaud at the Festival, and
her energetic intelligence has steered me to

important films and ideas; she also provided many
detailed suggestions on this manuscript.

During several of my stays in the territory,
Patricia Erens of Hong Kong Univer sity offered
me hospitality. I have learned a lot from her per-
spective on the city she lives in. For sharing infor-
mation I thank Sam Ho, Linda Lai, Ryan Law,
Cynthia Liu of the Hong Kong Film Archive, Ma
Ka-fai, Chen Mei, Hector Rodriguez, Thomas
Shin, David Stratton, Eliza Walsh-Lau Man Yee,
Norman Wang, and Es ther Yau, with particular
thanks to Till Brockman, Alberto Pezzotta, Peter
Rist, and Miles Wood. Access to film prints was
provided Mike Arnold of Rim Films, Pe ter Chow,
Vivian Chow of Asian CineVision, Rolanda Chu,
Ange Hwang of Asian Media Access, John Soo of
Tai Seng, John Vasco, and Coco Wong of Golden
Harvest Films. Special thanks go to Gabrielle
Claes of the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, who
invited me to attend a 1997 tribute to Hong Kong
cinema; and to Ludo Bettens, who arranged for
me to view several films held in the Archive’s col-

Thanks also to the Hong Kong Film Archive
and to Winnie Fu, who helped me obtain Figs. 1.6,
3.1, 8.2, 8.3, and 8.4 from the Archive’s collection.

At home, Hong Kong film has kept me in touch
with many friends. My col leagues at the Institute

Acknowledgments | 290Planet Hong Kong


Page 300

for Research in the Humanities, particularly
director Paul Boyer, were a continuing source of
ideas and information. My editor at Harvard,
Lindsay Waters, was exceptionally gracious in
launching and sustaining this pro ject, and Kim
Steere carefully engineered its intact arrival at the
Press. Thanks once again to Ann (Omit Needless
Words) Hawthorne. Marianne Perlak and David
Foss were keenly attentive in designing yet anoth-
er of my books. Barbara Scharres, programmer
extraordinaire at the Film Center of Chicago’s Art
Institute, has long supported Hong Kong cinema
in the Midwest. Thanks also to those other Mid -
west erners David Desser and Fu Poshek for enjoy-
able discussions. Here at Madison I have been
helped by Tino Balio, Sally Banes, Ben Brewster,
Chan Pu-kui, Lisa Dombrowski, Nelson Ferreira,
Maxine Fleckner-Ducey, Ed Friedman, Erik Gun-
neson, Kevin Heffernan, Jonathan Hertz berg,
Scott Higgins, Lea Jacobs, Vance Kepley, Jim Kreul,
Anita Mok, Jim Moy, J. J. Murphy, Paul Ramaeker,
Doug Riblet, Sally Ross, Paddy Rourke, Rafe Vela,
Mike Walsh, Sean Weitner, Juanita Zhou, and
Pauline Zveiniks, with particular thanks to Fujiki
Hideaki and Jim Udden. Warm appreciation goes
to the Guardians of the Shaolin Temple—Mark
Bendian, Joe Lindner, and Mike Pogorzelski—and
to Nat Olson, master of the digital domain and
full-time fan of Hong Kong cinema.

Noël Carroll and Kristin Thompson provided
initial encouragement and detailed comments on
early drafts. They know how much every project I
undertake owes to them.

For this second edition, many of the same peo-
ple proved helpful, particularly Li Cheuk-to, Shu
Kei, Athena Tsui, Tony Rayns, Michael Campi,
Peter Rist, Bérénice Reynaud, Nat Olson, and
Mike Walsh. All have enriched my visits to the
Fragrant Harbour for the ten years since the first

appearance of this book. While preparing Planet
Hong Kong for a Chinese translation, Ah-to pro-
vided me with a list of errata and points of infor-
mation that have made this edition more accurate
and nuanced.

In addition, for a great range of help, I must thank
Frederic Ambroisine, Jake Black, James Cortada,
Alan Franey, Jonathan Frome, Kristi Gehring,
Grady Hendrix, Nicole Huang, Mike King, King
Wei-chun, Shelly Kraicer, Jonathan Lang, Lau
Shing-hon, Ang Lee, Joanna Lee, Jason McGrath,
Shawn McKenna, James Schamus of Focus Films,
Brad Schauer, Jeff Smith, Ken Smith, Kat Spring,
Chuck Stephens, the late Rebecca Swender, and
Yvonne Teh. I am especially grateful to Mr. and
Mrs. Johnnie To Kei-fung, Ding Yuin Shan, To
Kei-chi, and Yau Nai-hoi for their kindness dur-
ing several visits to Milkyway Image. My stays in
Hong Kong were also enlivened by Mike Curtin,
Melissa Curtin, Mette Hjort, Paisley Livingston,
Emilie Yueh Yu-yeh, and Darrell Davis. Mike and
Darrell read new sections of the book and provided
excellent advice.

Back in Madison, Heather Heckman and Mark
Minett did a fine job scanning and preparing the
illustrations. Meg Hamel, my web tsarina, steered
me through this experiment in self-publishing.
She edited and designed the book and was atten-
tive to every detail. Resourceful and unflappable,
Meg made Planet Hong Kong 2.0 fun.

Acknowledgments | 291Planet Hong Kong

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