It was the end-of-an-era on 26 May 2008 when Melbourne’s Chinatown cinema closed its doors for the final time. For nigh on thirty years, the Chinatown cinema had regularly screened Cantonese language films in central Melbourne. And for just over nineteen of those years, I had been watching and enjoying Hong Kong movies on the big screen.
Sometimes the end of an era is celebrated and sent out on a high, but in the Chinatown’s case the last film was screened, the doors were closed and the lights were dimmed. It was a perfunctory end to what had been a wonderful time for many Chinese people and film enthusiasts in Melbourne.
In the months following the close of the Chinatown cinema, I was asked numerous times to write something about the theatre and its background. I declined these offers because a few hundred words on such a subject would be completely inadequate. But in the past year I have been slowly putting this piece together for Heroic-Cinema. It’s still only the tip of an iceberg, but hopefully my enthusiasm for, and flavour of, the Cantonese cinema will come through. It’s also an amateurish attempt at a potted history of Melbourne’s Chinese theatres in the last twenty years. Plus some thoughts on the future of Chinese cinema in Australia.
It didn’t take me long to realise Hong Kong cinema of the late 1980s was a truly popular one. It was a unique experience: so many quality films and so many people watching them.
Within six months, I had also realised I was witnessing what was a golden age of Cantonese cinema. An era which seemed to have no end in sight.
Also, during those early days it was my total lack of Chinese language skills which enabled me (with English subtitles) to see films on their own merits. Back then, Chinese pictures either stood or fell on what they delivered during their running time. I had no critical data to fall back on when justifying a position on a Canto movie. I either liked it or disliked it! Film-going hadn’t been so simple or enjoyable for years.
In the Beginning…
As a teenager of the 1970s, I was spoilt rotten by the great Hollywood films of that period. From the late 1960s to mid-70s was a golden age of American cinema. In 1973 at Melbourne’s Metro theatre I first saw Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — it was to be a cinematic epiphany. I had never seen a more violent or beautiful looking movie. It turned the western genre on its head: a sheriff is paid by politicians to hunt down and kill his best friend. The use of slow motion in the action sequences was mesmerising.
I had up until then liked movies but usually on a superficial level mainly as disposable entertainment, a bit like playing pin ball machines and Kelly pool of which I used to do a lot during my formative years.
But Peckinpah’s film changed all that, all of a sudden I saw the cinema as being capable of producing great, challenging art. And like a drug — as I explored it more — the more I wanted of it!
Films from directors Robert Altman (Nashville, The Long Goodbye), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man), Hal Ashby (Shampoo, Being There), and later Europe’s Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties, Swept Away) and the Taviani brothers (Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars) created a panorama of unforgettable cinema.
By the mid-1980s, Sam Peckinpah was dead and Altman and co were reduced to making low budget independent pics. The visionaries of the past decade replaced by suburban technocrats (Spielberg, Zemeckis, Lucas) weaned on 1950s television.
A World of Chinese Boxes…
I’m unsure of the exact date but it was early 1989 on a very hot night that I first stepped inside Melbourne’s Chinatown cinema in Lonsdale Street. In hindsight, it was perfect timing because the movie I saw was The Big Heat, a Tsui Hark production co-directed by Johnnie To. As the end credits rolled, my immediate reaction to this ultra-violent, ultra-stylish, ultra-cynical crime movie was: no-one makes films like this!!
Hark’s uber-grim view of Hong Kong revolved around a team of not-really-by-the-book detectives tackling the city’s Mr Big, an untouchable business mogul who specialises in murder and extortion. The action sequences were electric with a gun-battle in a hospital leaving me gobsmacked. The Big Heat was raw, visceral cinema at its absolute best. And it looked like a multi-million dollar film with that slick genre sheen usually associated with Hollywood studio pics. And what was this sub-plot about 1997?
The following weeks and months only added to my surprise and enjoyment: crime features like the tough and gritty Long Arm of the Law series; a brilliant screw-ball comedy Diary of a Big Man; and the finely crafted ghostly romance of Rouge — to name but a few! It was also the best cinema value in town, eight dollars for a double-feature: a new release plus a recent hit brought back for a second short season. And I mean short! Most movies only had a one week run with a second week being exceptional.
I soon understood that Hong Kong cinema was genre-based and often took ideas and story-lines from Hollywood films. But mostly Hong Kong movies had a bedrock of Sino myths and legends to fall back on. When I first watched A Chinese Ghost Story it confused me completely but was a total delight to experience. The third in this trilogy eclipsing nearly any fantasy film I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t unusual for genres to be mixed together. Cantonese directors seemed to relish an opportunity to add martial arts to a sci-fi flick involving triad gangsters and all taking place in the Forbidden City. One would think a recipe for disaster – but no, more than not, the movies worked extremely well. The Stephen Chow picture All for the Winner is a classic example of genre busting and a not-so-subtle piss-take on superstar Chow Yun-Fat, a point not missed by cheering Chinese audiences.
The films were shown with Chinese and English subtitles (Chinese characters above English sentences) which made the movies accessible to non-Chinese speaking audiences. I’ve actually watched groups of Asian students reading the English subtitles due to the Cantonese dialogue not being their native language.
In those early days, to visit the Chinatown theatre was like discovering an ancient archaeological site. Strange hieroglyphics on anything you could see, weird sounding and smelling food but very colorful, eye-catching film posters and weekly flyers. The staff was mostly middle-aged and couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. Occasionally, a young student serving behind the candy counter would help me out with programme info.
At that time, the manager of the cinema was a tall, thin funereal character who always wore a brilliantine black suit, no matter what the weather. His look and manner was more of mortician than manager. And he made it known to every patron of the theatre that he was the person in charge. On weekends, he would stand in the doorway of the actual theatre and look directly back at the audience. Whatever sordid activity was occurring on-screen, he certainly wasn’t going to tolerate such behaviour happening in his theatre. He gave everyone the evil eye and, to his credit, even the Vietnamese street gangs who regularly filled rows of seats — behaved impeccably.
Again during those early months, whilst watching an array of Hong Kong genre films and beginning to recognise some of the actors, it wasn’t the acrobatic Jackie Chan or the beautiful Cherie Chung who I found to be the most appealing — it was the mouse-like Yuen Wah. He nearly always played bad guys! Looking like a constipated accountant he was, in fact, a pocket rocket psycho with a chilling effeminate snigger. His time travelling / serial killer feature The Iceman Cometh was a blast! A top-shelf mix of martial arts action and spot-on satire. His next big film was Bury Me High, an insane blend of Indiana Jones / Italian exploitation jungle flick, which had Mr Wah as a stone age dictator with a heavy dose of 20th century megalomania.
For such a well known Cantonese actor it’s a real shame most Australian film-goers will only know of him from Baz Luhrmann’s execrable Australia as Sing Song, the Chinese servant to Madam Kidman.
With now regular trips to the Chinatown, I started noticing something I hadn’t seen for a very long time — capacity theatre audiences. Plus crowds of people waiting in lines that spilled out of the theatre and along the street. Apart from an occasional Melbourne International Film Festival screening, I doubt I’d been in a full house for nearly a decade, the advent of video cassettes seriously reducing cinema-going during the 1980s.
At times, I’d be the only non-Asian in the audience — it was an odd feeling. Often, whilst waiting in line people would talk to me and I’d usually find out the latest HK movie gossip and general news about Canto films. Initially, I was frequently asked did I practise kung-fu, because nearly all non-Asians at the Chinatown were there watching and studying the martial arts films.
Seeing Cantonese movies at the Chinatown offered up a cultural perspective I hadn’t originally expected. I was watching films made for Chinese audiences and there was a lot to see which was very interesting and at times downright exotic. It was Buddhism which wound its way through a great deal of Hong Kong cinema. From myths and fairytales to contemporary gangster movies there was much involvement with many and varied gods. It slowly dawned on me how much of my life’s cinema-going was being filtered through Christian eyes — something Hollywood had subtly but convincingly achieved over the decades.
On another semi-related level, it was comforting to recognise how the “Journey of the Hero” followed virtually the same route and signposts in the East as it did in the West. Whether it be on a Golden Harvest back-lot or a Hollywood sound-stage, similar universal stories were still being told.
The Magicians and the Magic…
When it came to Hong Kong actors, even I knew who Jackie Chan was before I’d entered the Cantonese film world. To see Chan on the big screen and how an audience reacts to him was something special. Jackie Chan is a phenomenon! His movies, albeit of variable quality, were a license to print money. Everyone wanted to see the new Jackie Chan film! I’ve watched extended Chinese families of up to ten people queue to buy tickets to a Chan pic.
Even in the early 90s, he was a drawcard for non-Asian audiences. These punters couldn’t give a toss about Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui… they were there to see wacky Jackie do the impossible — and he never let them down!
Personally, my favourite Jackie Chan films are Mr Canton and Lady Rose (aka. Miracles), a near perfect big budget comedy-drama with Chan as lead and director, and Crime Story, based on a real-life kidnapping, which has Chan in a Dirty Harry-type cop role, a great film from helmer Kirk Wong and award-winning performance by Jackie Chan.
If Jackie Chan is the face of the Hong Kong movie industry then producer / director Tsui Hark could be described as the brain behind Cantonese cinema of the 1980s and 90s. Whenever the logo for his production company Film Workshop appeared on-screen, it was a guarantee of a quality and polished product. Trained in film-making in America during the early 1970s, he returned to Hong Kong later that decade and within ten years was being openly called “Hong Kong’s Steven Spielberg”. He knew what audiences wanted and he was a risk taker, a combination which produced some of the best films from Asia in the past twenty years.
He was also a svengali figure to actors and directors alike: Jet Li, Sally Yeh, Zhao Wen, John Woo, Johnnie To, Kirk Wong. He was often praised and admonished in the same breath.
In 1991, Hark released the martial arts pic Once Upon a Time in China. I liked the film and saw it as a good ongoing vehicle for the talents of mainland star Jet Li. The sequel Once Upon a Time in China 2 just blew me away! From the terrific opening with a young girl wearing cupped shoes and introducing the fanatical White Lotus Cult, thru Jet Li’s rope snapping pole fight with Donnie Yen to the movie’s closing moments with the unfurling of a tattered nationalist flag in the hands of Dr Sun Yat-Sen… it was magnificent cinema from a film-maker at the peak of his craft and perfectly in tune with his audience.
For years I’ve owned a lobby card from the Cantonese fantasy flick Green Snake. It has Taiwanese beauty Joey Wang in a flowing white robe with a sword in each hand and on the verge of sending someone to the hereafter. This is a crisp, stunning image which totally captures the viewer’s attention. But as you look closer at this picture you see the wisp of a wry smile beginning to cross her face. There’s something else going on here…!
For me, this photograph holds the essence of Hong Kong cinema: bold, vivid images that give way to a very subtle but often powerful intimacy.
In cinema, this visceral visual sense can produce images that cut to the core of a narrative and be emotionally devastating. Good film-making relies on this but it is difficult to get right. Early on, I started noticing just how well and how frequently Canto film-makers achieved this perfect balance of the right shot at the right moment.
To me, these newly discovered Hong Kong directors were also proving to be past masters at beginnings and endings. The final shot from John Woo’s The Killer is a mournful scene with Chow Yun-Fat playing a harmonica and looking across to a nearby church. It evokes the spirit of Sergio Leone, but more importantly it expresses beautifully, and with great economy, the ravaged conscience of a supposed amoral assassin. And Benny Chan’s 1990 triad drama A Moment of Romance, with the closing long shot of a barefoot Wu Chien-Lien in a wedding dress stumbling along a deserted Hong Kong freeway, just before daybreak. The audience knows her groom is dead but she is yet to find out. I seriously doubt that this powerful, emotion charged image will ever leave my mind. Peter Chan’s marvellous opening and closing sections of his award-winning romantic drama Comrades, Almost a Love Story which are played out at the same locale, Hong Kong’s Kowloon railway station — and what better a metaphor for life’s journeys?
The worldwide success of Hong Kong films during the 1990s is really of no surprise to me because Cantonese movies have in their DNA a strong emotional appeal which reaches back to the well-spring of cinema. Hong Kong films will nearly always elicit strong reactions from viewers. In short, the best Hong Kong movies are memorable, visceral experiences.
Cantonese cinema can also be very sensual in its creation of place. Many Hong Kong movies are made on location, usually the result of budget restrictions. Whether it be a contemporary crime pic or comedy, to film a story where it actually takes place can let a talented director add atmosphere and familiarity to the tale. When Ringo Lam shot the schoolie / gangster flick School on Fire he didn’t spend a fortune on studio sets recreating the triad infested back-streets of Mongkok, instead he went to the triad infested back-streets of Mongkok to make his film.
Even with the dramas and comedies being so entertaining, it was the action movies which stood out. I had never seen such brutal or frenetic films. The low budget Angel series starring Moon Lee and the In the Line of Duty flicks headlining Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Khan were law and order revenge pics exploding on to the streets of Hong Kong. Virtually unknown these days, Cynthia Khan was once one of Hong Kong’s leading lethal ladies — her unbelievably vicious bout with Japan’s Michiko Nishiwaki in the finale of In the Line of Duty 3 is staggering and once seen never forgotten.
The economy and creativity of Canto action film-makers was a revelation to me. Jet Li’s use of the umbrella in the China movies or Pat Ha’s deadly head-nod from On the Run shows directors do not need mega-buck budgets to make memorable movies.
John Woo might be best known to Western audiences for his Hong Kong gangster / action films but, as I see it, the Canto action genre peaked in 1994 with Kirk Wong’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Cop, starring Anthony Wong as a rogue HK cop banished to the mainland in this across borders police procedural. Drenched in neon and blood and set in China’s sin city, Shenzhen, Wong’s hard-boiled tale of lost love and desperate criminals packs an emotional and physical punch the like of which I’ve never experienced in an action film before or since.
The genre peaked again (Yes! I know ……. only in Hong Kong cinema!) the next year with a movie that, in hindsight, closed what had been a golden age of Cantonese cinema for the past decade. Tsui Hark’s The Blade, a loose remake of Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman, was everything his Wong Fei-Hong films weren’t.
Following the trail of a tortured soul who seeks his father’s killer, Hark drags us through a scarred and threatening landscape, culminating in a martial arts sequence which is the most explicit and intense I’ve ever seen. The Blade might have bombed at the box-office but to cineastes worldwide Tsui Hark couldn’t have delivered a more fitting coda for this golden era of Hong Kong film.
The Colors of Money…
In the early 90s, there was a great deal of money flowing into Hong Kong film-making from various sources. The production stanadards were high and the quality look of the films belied their sometimes meagre budgets. It was the distinctive camera-work in many of these movies which was quite stunning…..and unexpected. It wasn’t a particular style it was many particular styles. At its best it was a sublime blend of deep primary colors and rustic Asian light. The visual styles of the great European cinematographers Storaro, Unsworth and Morris had been adapted and swirled into a sea of Asian color and emotion.
My favourite image from a Canto movie is in the action flick Beyond Hypothermia via the lens of the brilliant Arthur Wong (Once Upon a Time in China) with footage of a lightning storm breaking over the skyscape of Hong Kong island, with the harbour in the background. The framing and lighting of this passage is sublime. It takes your breath away.
As for stylish cinematography, it’s impossible to top Wong Wing Hang’s (John Woo’s HK lensman) near absurdist, upside-down, wrong way around, sinking-in-the-water camera-work from Too Many Ways To Be Number One, a 1997 Wai Ka-Fai / Johnnie To Milkyway release. But it works so well and is in perfect sync with the film’s on-screen oddness. It’s the type of picture Fellini would revel in making if let loose on a Hong Kong film.
One of the great Canto cameramen of this period is Chris Doyle, an ex-pat Australian who has gone on to become one of the region’s finest cinematographers. His training ground was the manic world of the Hong Kong film industry, a realm in which he thrived. He soon became the creative eyes of auteur Wong Kar-Wai and produced some of the most amazing images in films of that era, most notably Ashes of Time.
A very early example of Doyle’s non-Wong Kar-Wai work is the 1989 crime drama My Heart is that Eternal Rose — well worthwhile tracking down on DVD.
Vengeance is Fine…
Most film critics who had a problem with Hong Kong cinema being a popular one, nearly always had a bigger problem with Cantonese exploitation films, identified by the category III censorship rating. The latter is equivalent to Australia’s R-certificate and America’s NC-17 listing.
Category III “roughies” as they became known were a throwback to the Shaw Brothers studio of the 1970s, who produced a string of sleazy, low budget, “real-life” crime pics. Their The Criminals series was a template for the style and content of the notorious movies twenty years later.
Popular titles as The Untold Story, Dr Lamb and the Daughter of Darkness trilogy were seedy excursions into the darkest recesses of Hong Kong’s maddest criminal minds.
I did enjoy the pure black arts hokum of The Eternal Evil of Asia which finishes with an outrageous virtual reality sex and death sequence — which must be seen to be believed! It was from Chin Man-Kei one of Hong Kong’s top exploitation directors who, incidentally, changed his screen moniker to “Cash Chan” in the late 90s.
A handful of category III movies earned their stripes as above average dramas. In the cases of The Queen of Temple Street and Cageman — way above average! Both pics highlighting the marginalised and destitute in Hong Kong society. Powerful, earthy films from then young directors, Lawrence Ah-Mon and Jacob Cheung, who have become two of Hong Kong’s most respected film-makers.
The Best of Times…
In August 1990, a second Chinese cinema opened in Melbourne. The 600 seat Capitol theatre in Swanston Street began screening Cantonese films seven days a week. The proprietor, Raymond Yu, was a Sydney-based Chinese businessman, as was the Chinatown’s owner Joe Siu. Both also ran Chinese movie houses in Sydney. The competition between these two entrepreneurs was full blooded and at times could become a tad acrimonious. But the real winner was the paying customer who was getting to choose from the cream of almost 200 films being released annually in Hong Kong.
Raymond Yu had just sealed a lucrative contract which gave him exhibition rights to all the new Stephen Chow movies. At the same time, Joe Siu had become Jet Li’s agent and had sole rights to his films. A little yin-yang in business never hurt the bottom line.
By the mid-90s, the Capitol was doing very well and continued to draw large crowds of Chinese seeking the latest films from Hong Kong. In 1993, the Chinatown moved up to a three screen multiplex in Bourke Street, the old Hoyts Midcity complex which backed onto Melbourne’s Chinatown precinct.
It was out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new for the Chinatown theatre. Gone were the days of non-English speaking staff, and with a younger, broader audience in mind people like the “man in black” were anachronisms who didn’t make it to the new address. Long-time Chinatown cinema employee and Joe Siu’s right hand man, Winston Leung, took charge of what was the world’s largest Cantonese language cinema venue outside of Hong Kong.
During this time it was possible to watch up to twenty different Hong Kong films at four city theatres. Two – three new releases each week and ten – fifteen repertory titles showing in the Chinatown’s cinema 3. First run movies and recent hits to Huangmei operas of the 1960s made the Chinatown’s weekly programme a crowded bilingual read. It was also film buff heaven and bringing a sizeable non-Chinese audience through the doors. Even Melbourne’s tabloid Herald-Sun was running a fortnightly Chinese film review section staffed by Cantonese cinema specialists Frank Bren and Mark Savage.
In addition, Melbourne’s Chinese cinemas were playing an important role in the city’s cultural life. Chinese New Year saw colorful and noisy visits by Chinese lion dancers to each theatre, finishing up with fireworks in the foyers. Throughout the year Raymond’s wife, Lolita, would organise special screenings at the Capitol to help raise funds for local Buddhist temples.
On a personal note, I think the high-water mark for Cantonese films in Melbourne was reached in early March 1994 with the premiere of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 at the Capitol cinema. On its opening week Drunken Master 2 was the main feature on a double-bill with John Woo’s bullet-fest Hard-boiled. Full houses for all weekend sessions, and a foyer so crowded it seemed to me every Chinese person in Melbourne must have been at the Capitol.
It is Written…
Anyone interested in Asian cinema usually has a short-list of favourite Hong Kong movie subtitles. The often hilarious grammatical errors and odd Western names for Chinese people could be dismissed as simply lost in translation. But Hong Kong subtitles did what all subtitles should do: move the story along and detail important dialogue. Well, yes……most of the time.
But sometimes a subtitle works just a bit too well, which brings me to my all-time favourite HK sub. It’s from God of Gamblers 2 where Stephen Chow in a jealous fit of pique describes his lecherous Uncle (Ng Man-Tat) as: “He’s a born cunt struck!” In the crowded Capitol theatre I burst out laughing, the noise echoing through the cavernous cinema. At that moment, in the dark, I felt as if someone was shining a spotlight on me. Obviously, no-one else in the theatre had been reading the translation.
In the mid-90s at the Chinatown, I remember being at the wrong end of a neat spin on subtitling. I had made two trips from inside the theatre to the ticket-box to ask for the subs to be moved up onto the screen, something a good projectionist shouldn’t let happen in the first place. Twice back to my seat to only find Chinese subs on-screen. Finally, I angrily ask the Chinatown employee: “why are there no English subtitles?!” A dazed and confused Hong Kong student replied warily: “you want English writing……?”
Once you start watching Canto films, you soon become aware of similes and metaphors for a number of subtitles. Again, some of my favourites are: apple shiner: a suck, a person trying to ingratiate himself / herself with a teacher or boss; honey lips: a smooth talker; and, come for a midnight snack: an invitation for two people to share something more than a roast pork bun.
To Live in Interesting Times…
Post 1997, the Hong Kong film industry went into a sharp decline with stars and directors heading towards Hollywood. During 1998, Joe Siu stopped running films at the Chinatown, which left Raymond Yu the only Chinese film exhibitor in Melbourne. By then he had closed the Capitol and was leasing theatre space at the Bourke Street complex.
It should be understood that Joe Siu did try hard to keep the films going. In the eighteen months previous, he played all the early Johnnie To / Milkyway Image movies. Releases which included the brilliantly creepy Intruder, Patrick Yau’s razor sharp cop drama Expect the Unexpected and the Johnnie To triad buddy flick, A Hero Never Dies. They were all excellent movies in search of an audience.
In the late 90s to early 2000s, Raymond hung in there and did pretty well with Andy Lau titles and the now much less prolific Stephen Chow. One of his biggest box-office hits around this time was the Golden Harvest adventure / fantasy flick The Storm Riders.
But overall, audience numbers were dwindling at an increasing rate. Something that wouldn’t have happened in the Chinatown cinema five years before occurred during a weekday afternoon session of a Wong Jing movie I’m Your Birthday Cake, starring the delectable Chingmy Yau. A Chinese youth at the back of the theatre began loudly pleasuring himself whenever Ms Yau appeared on-screen. Where was the “man in black” when you needed him?!
In early 2003, Raymond Yu died as a result of a serious stroke he had suffered two years ago. Lolita continued running the business, but the rise of DVDs and the major Hong Kong-China movie companies now doing deals direct with Hollywood made Chinatown programming difficult and unprofitable. She offered up a diet of Canto RomComs and, when required, acted as an agent-exhibitor for the more mainstream American funded Chinese productions such as Kung-Fu Hustle, So Close and Double Vision.
Korean and Indian exhibitors were also showing films on an occasional basis at the Bourke Street theatre.
Wilson Yip’s street tough, blood spattered HK noir, Sha Po Lang and Johnnie To’s Macau-based crime thriller, spaghetti western homage, Exiled were two of the classier movies to recieve Chinatown screenings in recent years. Seeing both these films on the silver screen was final proof that the DVD format still has a long way to go to equal the texture and feel of celluloid.
The Dragon Stirs…
With the inexorable rise of China towards a world superpower, we are starting to see a push for a Chinese film industry as an international cultural force. For most of last century, Chinese mandarins have seen how potent Hollywood is in promoting American culture. China is now following suit with a vigorous a-political, entertainment-based film production. Recent hits The Message, a Shanghai-set wartime spy drama, Feng Xiaogang’s pitch perfect RomCom If You Are The One and Donnie Yen’s martial arts pic 14 Blades, show a confident, outward looking China ready to match movies with Hollywood. Tsui Hark’s historical who-done-it Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a near perfect example of the blending of Mandarin and Cantonese cinemas.
Unfortunately, Australia seems incapable of recognising the great strides made, or the promising future of, Chinese cinema. As a country, we seem only interested in selling rocks to the Chinese. Any cultural exchanges or approaches are either downplayed or discouraged by our state and federal governments. Two prime examples of the latter are the following (coming from the supposed arts capital of Australia):
When the taxpayer funded Australian Centre for the Moving Image opened in 2002, it was the best and most inclusive twin-cinema venue in Victoria, possibly Australia. Part of its early programming reflected the region and garnered healthy audience numbers. In late 2005, ACMI was converted into a large installation space for expensive, second-rate exhibitions touting Disney Corp. product. It’s in this rarefied atmosphere that Asian cinema in general, and Chinese film in particular, is all but ignored by the grey army at ACMI.
And the once Asia-friendly Melbourne International Film Festival has for the past four years paid lip-service to our region’s film cultures, peaking with 2009’s debacle with the Chinese government over an exceedingly average TV documentary, which certainly wasn’t of big screen calibre. Maybe with the tenure of new director, Michelle Carey, things might change for the better.
Whilst the arts bureaucrats tap around in the dark, the real business of Chinese film exhibition in Australia continues at a pace. For the last two years Mandarin and Cantonese language movies have regularly screened in Melbourne and Sydney via Hoyts multiplexes. Audiences have been treated to the best of contemporary Chinese cinema. The films being released simultaneously in Asia and locally, with titles such as Jackie Chan’s Shinjuku Incident, Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, the Ip Man films, Johnnie To’s Vengeance, Jeff Lau’s Just Another Pandora’s Box, Hark’s Detective Dee… the list goes on.
Furthermore, it continues to be a movable feast: in late December last year a new Chinese film exhibitor ran Feng Xiaogang’s much awaited RomCom sequel If You Are The One 2 at Village theatres in Melbourne and Sydney. It did very, very good box-office. A sign of things to come?
If the past is any indication to the future, the next twenty-plus years of Sino cinema will be something to look forward to. It’s an exciting time in which I’ll continue to cast a critical eye over Chinese films screening in Australian theatres.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with many areas surrounding Chinese cinema exhibition in this country. Friends and acquaintances have abound during this time. The following people and places are part of a core group which has helped make Chinese film viewing for me, and many others, such a memorable experience.
A big xiexie to Raymond and Lolita Yu, Maria Chan, Winston Leung, Joe Siu, Richard Laslet, Agnes Au, Ken, Frank Bren, Mark Savage, John Harrison, Michael Helms, Elsa Chan, Roy Ho, Sally, Man Ching, Alan, Henry and Teresa Wu, Mark and Elena, Mark and Penny, Justin Viiret, Deni Stoner, Team Heroic, Moviola Bookshop, China Books, The Eastlake Restaurant, Crystal Jade Restaurant, The Oriental Teahouse, May Hu, Amber, Bonnie, Paul, Brendan — and in loving memory of Betty and Lenna Snadden, two wise and wonderful women.