WHY TSUI HARK MATTERS

This piece was written for Subway Cinema's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HONG KONG: A TSUI HARK RETROSPECTIVE, held May 25-28, 2001 at the Anthology Film Archives

ltsui.jpg - 4320 BytesTsui Hark just may be the world's greatest living filmmaker. I'm not saying that with a sneer or a knowing wink. There are no fingers crossed behind my back, and I'm not prone to hyperbole. I'm completely straight-faced when I suggest that Tsui Hark deserves to be part of the same pantheon occupied by such movie gods as Kurosawa, Godard, Scorsese, Truffaut, and Lynch, or even contemporary Asians Wong Kar-Wai, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Edward Yang.

But, I hear you crying out, Tsui Hark is a popular filmmaker; the rest are film artists, auteurs. And that's why Tsui is better than the rest - he makes art films that also are vastly entertaining. In his splendid Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, David Bordwell argues for the study of entertainment as art, noting "that popular filmmakers have refined techniques of vivid visual storytelling." Surely there's no better living example of that than Tsui Hark, who has given us some of the great images of modern cinema, whether it's Brigitte Lin soaring across night-time rooftops in Peking Opera Blues or Jet Li training the local militia on a beach at dawn in Once Upon a Time in China. Some critics have argued that Tsui lacks the personal vision of the great filmmaker. Fine, I say; let's run a comparison test. Kurosawa is universally accepted as one of the key directors of the first century of cinema (and also happens to be Tsui's idol). Kurosawa created a range of movies, from the grand epic (The Seven Samurai, Ran) to the intimate drama (Do-Des-Ka-Den, Ikiru). In film after film he showed us the small man made great, and the great man brought down by human folly. His frequent use of leading man Toshiro Mifune is one of the greatest collaborations in movie history. He created undeniable classics (Throne of Blood, Rashomon, Yojimbo) that brought Japanese cinema worldwide recognition.

peking2.jpg - 7264 BytesNow: Tsui Hark has also created both grand epic (Once Upon a Time in China) and small intimate drama (Shanghai Blues); but where Kurosawa never gave us a great comedy or fantasy, Tsui has (The Chinese Feast, Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain). If his works aren't yet recognized as classics on a global scale, give it time - after all, Tsui's oldest feature film (1979's The Butterfly Murders) is barely 20 years old. His collaboration with leading lady (and occasionally leading man as well) Brigitte Lin is one of the most fascinating and unique in world history. And as for personal vision...

Very simply put, no one in history has made more interesting use of women on film. In movie after movie, from The Butterfly Murders to Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind to Peking Opera Blues to Green Snake to the Swordsman films, Tsui has explored feminine power. His women are never just girlfriends or wives or mothers or victims; they exist equally with their male counterparts, or (as in Swordsman 2 or A Better Tomorrow 3) plainly above them. Even in a film as seemingly masculine as Once Upon a Time in China, Tsui chooses his female lead, Auntie Yee, to represent half of the film's theme of Western progress clashing with Eastern tradition.

When most of the movie gods have dabbled with the "woman's film" (i.e., Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More), they have often tended to leave their visual flourishes and usual style at home - but not Tsui. I've already mentioned some of his famous images; simply put, the man is virtually incapable of making a dull-looking film. Even in a lesser film such as Working Class, Tsui finds sublime moments of sheer visual whimsy (a fight in a noodle factory). It's possible that, without Tsui, modern Hong Kong cinema would still feature vivid color schemes and rapid-fire editing - but somehow it seems unlikely.

onceuponatimeinchina&us2.jpg - 16663 BytesBut, finally, Tsui is not content to offer merely the roller-coaster ride for the eyes; he's also a thinking-man's filmmaker, with a clearly-expressed political agenda that tends to pervade his films. He parodied or pilloried British colonialism (Aces Go Places 3, Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind) and Western imperialism (Once Upon a Time in China), he skewered Communism (We're Going to Eat You, A Better Tomorrow 3), he was less than kind to the Japanese (The Raid) - but what shines through virtually every film is what author Stephen Teo (in his book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions) calls Tsui's "nationalism". Tsui's cinema is nearly bursting with pride in Chinese tradition; in Peking Opera Blues, for example, after all the political intrigue and adventures that the three heroines endure, it's the Peking Opera actor who has the last laugh. Over and over Tsui's films tell us that political institutions come and go, but his culture will last. So, I think, will his films.


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