Emory Report

Feb. 8, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 19

Action-filled Hong Kong cinema has long history

What do swordplay, gunplay, melodrama and ghosts have in common? "Hong Kong cinema," according to Film Studies Professor David Cook. Fighting with swords and guns, exaggerated drama and a bent for the supernatural--ghosts, vampires and the spirits of dead ancestors--are four basic ingredients in the last 20 years of films from Hong Kong.

This spring Cook is teaching the course, "Hong Kong Cinema," to 40 graduate and undergraduate students. Besides screening more than a dozen films, the course involves reading and discussing books on Hong Kong cinema, the economic history of the three Chinas and the social history of Hong Kong. "We're exploring the market system and the culture that created this national cinema," explained Cook.

Hong Kong's film industry has existed since the beginning of the century. Early on, the city-state stood in the shadow of Shang'hai, a more sophisticated metropolis. But during the years of the mainland's civil war (1946-1949), the movie business took off. Hong Kong became the home for free market film in the region. After World War II, Hong Kong experienced tremendous growth and quadrupled in size, becoming one of the world's leading cities.

The mid-1960s brought a boom in martial arts films, a genre that became the mainstay of Hong Kong cinema. Cook said the practice of martial arts is central to Chinese culture. "Martial arts embrace Zen Buddhism and began as a form of exercise (Tai Chi) practiced by Shaolin monks in the fourth century A.D. to control and harness their physical energies," he explained. "From the beginning, the domestic and Southeast Asian market for these films was tremendous, helping to make Hong Kong the eighth largest exporter of films in the world."

Martial arts were discovered by U.S. audiences in the early '70s, mostly through the films of Bruce Lee. American interest provided a tremendous boost to the industry, Cook said. Distributors took advantage of the films' cost-effective production, and hundreds were imported into the United States between 1972 and 1975, and the industry began to thrive. In the wake of the '70s, Hong Kong filmmakers produced many gangster (gun-play) and magical swordplay films, modeled after the Japanese samurai movies.

Two of the best-known Hong Kong directors are John Woo and Tsui Hark. Woo, known for "heroic bloodshed" gunplay, now makes films in Hollywood. He's directed recent big budget action movies like "Hard Target" and "Face Off." Woo focuses on bonds of loyalty and honor among men, both law enforcers and thieves. A screening of his Hong Kong film "A Bullet in the Head" is planned for March 2.

Hark is both a director and producer. His "Peking Opera Blues," a classic of the melodrama genre, is scheduled to screen Feb. 9. Hark's best-known supernatural production, "Chinese Ghost Story," is on the calendar for Feb. 23, and his historical epic, "Once Upon a Time in China," will be shown March 23.

"What's remarkable about these martial arts films is that they're an exploitation genre--they're cheaply made and exploit a single aspect of human experience above all others--that actually enabled the expansion of the entire industry," Cook said. "The 'bread and butter' for the Hong Kong film industry still comes from exploitation."

The founding director of Emory's film studies program, Cook received his PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia and came here in 1973. In the past few years he has taught numerous international film courses, including Eastern European cinema, cinema of the Post-Soviet Republics and Transcaucasian and Central Asian cinema. He's the author of a widely used text, A History of Narrative Film (1996), now in its third edition. This year will see the publication of his book, Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Age of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-79, volume 9 in Scribner's History of American Cinema series.

Cook believes that the story of Hong Kong cinema is one of the richest and most fascinating in film history. He has a couple of shelves full of movies from Hong Kong, most of them on DVD (digital video disc). Hong Kong was among the first film industries to produce videos in this state-of-the-art format.

All "Hong Kong Cinema" film screenings are open to the Emory community. Films are scheduled on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. in 101 White Hall. For a full listing of films, call 404-727-0589.

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