For sheer excitement, Hong Kong action movies cannot be matched. A Hong Kong action movie never pauses to dwell on the improbability of an event, the ludicrous danger of a stunt, or the coincidence of an encounter. Except for the inevitable cantopop video clip in the middle of the film (usually to reinforce the binding love between hero and heroine before one or both meet a tragic end), these movies go go go. Standard production turnaround for a Hong Kong film is two to six months, and this speed and energy directly transfers to the screen. Put simply, stuff happens, usually at a rate far faster than your sedate little Western brain can deal with. In the best ones, your jaw is dropped so often that after a while you give up trying to pick it up and just leave it lying there on the floor.
It’s film making at full bore, the kind that Spielberg used to do before Hollywood got so damn paranoid about whether the dollars would come home to roost at the box office. Whereas in a Western film you get the sense that every scene and every character is carefully placed to fit a demographic or to sell a new kind of burger, in a Hong Kong film it feels more like they’re making it up as they go along, with concern only that the next development will be the funniest thing possible, or the most exciting, or the most heart wrenching.
Hong Kong leading men mix toughness with grace, nobility with cheekiness, and carry their honour before them like a burning brand. They are not muscle-bound morons, but ordinary men in heroic circumstances. And Hong Kong heroines take no crap from them. If the boy is out of line, he’ll be told in no uncertain terms, possibly punctuated with a triple kick to the head. Women in Hong Kong films are capable, self-assured, and pro-active, particularly in the martial arts and fantasy genres. A Hong Kong hero most likely as not learned his kung fu from his mum.
There is no guarantee that any of these characters will survive the film. We know that a Hollywood film will turn out for the best, that the good guys will prevail, and that everything will be happy ever after. Hollywood simply can’t afford to risk any other kind of outcome. A Hong Kong film will also probably turn out for the best, but the good guy and/or girl may have to pay for it with his or her life. Even children and puppy dogs are not safe in Hong Kong films. This all spells genuine tension, because you never can predict how things are going to turn out.
Hong Kong Movies are the best movies. Check ’em out. You owe it to your adrenaline gland.
This article originally appeared in the Melbourne street paper Beat (Issue 608, June 17th 1998).