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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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Chinese New Year: Celebrating the Year of the Pig

5 Feb

The Chinese New Year begins on February 5, marking the start of the Year of the Pig. I decided to look at some of my favorite pig characters from popular culture, most notably Porky Pig of Looney Tunes fame and the trickster pig character, Pigsy, from the classic Chinese text “Journey to the West.” In that story, Pigsy, a pig demon who lusts after human women, starts out as an antagonist of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, but is defeated by him and agrees to join Wukong and the Tang monk on their journey to India to acquire sacred Buddhist texts to bring back to China.

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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Kung Fu on 42nd Street

28 Sep

I recently came across files of ads for kung fu movies that played New York theaters back in the 1970s, material I’d accumulated while researching a proposed book in the early 2000s on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and its movie culture. I had planned to include a chapter on kung fu movies and even questioned several friends who’d regularly attended these movies on 42nd street. Add these files to a couple of original newspaper ads I’d saved myself from 1973 and I see that 42nd Street theaters are listed in 95% of them. In fact, all eleven theaters on both sides of the legendary Deuce (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) are represented in the ads. What struck me as I researched the titles listed was how many I was unfamiliar with. No matter how much I think I know about kung fu movies of the 1970s and ’80s, there are always more to discover. And I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of these movies that played in Deuce theaters in those years.

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Aliens, Gunslingers, Samurai and One-Armed Swordsmen: The Genre Films of 1967

15 Nov

The 50th anniversaries of various landmark films from 1967 have been celebrated widely, including in a couple of previous entries here, but this time I want to look back at the unprecedented variety of genre films that came out that year, particularly from other countries, all part of the global cinematic landscape that only gradually came into view to a budding film buff in his formative years and still expanding the more I discover.

I’ve seen more films from 1967 than from any other individual year, 162 at last count, with 71 from the U.S. and 91 from other countries, chiefly Japan, Hong Kong, England and Italy, but also from France, Germany, Mexico and the Soviet Union. My 14th birthday was in 1967 and I saw a total of twenty 1967 releases in theaters in 1967 and early 1968 when lots of 1967 releases finally turned up in the Bronx, nearly all of them Hollywood releases. I saw others in theaters in the following years, including some of my favorites of 1967–EL DORADO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy–and then quite a few more on TV broadcasts and in revival theaters in the 1970s. I would add more favorites from that year in the home video era as I discovered previously unseen titles on video and DVD, particularly from Japan and Hong Kong. For instance, it wasn’t until 1997 that I finally saw the Jimmy Wang Yu Shaw Bros. classic, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.

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From Hong Kong and Japan: THE MERMAID (1965) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975)

23 Feb

Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.

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The Lion Dance in Film

4 Feb

The Lunar New Year has begun and it’s the Year of the Rooster, but since I don’t know many films featuring roosters (other than Warner Bros. cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn), I took my inspiration from a New York Times piece on a Lion Dance troupe preparing for this weekend’s New Year Parade in Chinatown and decided to look at films featuring Lion Dance sequences. There have been quite a few over the decades, but I decided to focus on kung fu films that are easily accessible in my collection. Lion dances are usually performed by two people in a lion costume, one to operate the head and the lion’s forelegs, the other to carry the rear and be the lion’s hind legs. The head has moveable parts, including a mouth and eyes. It’s a form of puppetry with humans inside the puppets. In kung fu films, the Lion Dance sequence is often used to act out an ongoing rivalry between martial arts schools without resorting to bone-crunching blows, although they can be just as challenging as a kung fu battle. Some of these sequences are more elaborate than others; some are shot on location, some on studio soundstages or backlots.

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