Howard Hampton, Once upon a time in Hong Kong
Film Comment; New York; Jul/Aug 1997.
Copyright Film Society of Lincoln Center Jul/Aug 1997
[...] GIVEN THE WAY Tsui's films refract upon each other, it's somehow inevitable he would have his own double or alter-ego: the innovative, audacious, and very nearly uncategorizable Ching Siutung. As action director on many of Tsui's productions (including A Better Tomorrow II and The Killer - Woo's "trademark" shootouts owe a lot to Ching's eloquent choreography and spatial instinct), he helped as much as anyone to shape the look and feel of recent Hong Kong cinema. And Peking Opera Blues and A Better Tomorrow III would scarcely be the same ilms without the poetic sensibility Ching brought to them - the floating, mythological air that gives violence a dreamlike sheen. He and Tsui seemed to bring out the best in each other: Ching's most famous for the popular Chinese Ghost Story films (87/90/91) but Tsui is still often erroneously cited as their principal auteur: while producer Tsui may have applied structure to Ching's dazzling flights of fancy, the serenely lunatic vision is entirely Ching's. From 1990 to 1993 he would direct or co-direct the lion's share of the Film Workshop's finest productions, including The Terracotta Warrior (90, costarring Gong Li and none other than a marvelously stone-faced, dashing Zhang Yimou), Swordsman (90), The Raid (91), Dragon Inn (92, King Hu redone as a cross-dressing Rio Bravo), his masterpiece Swordsman II (92), and its uneven but still more astonishing continuation The East Is Red (93).
One of the ironies of their work, together and apart, is that Ching has the more distinctive, immediately recognizable style of the two. It would take a welltrained eye indeed to identify Tsui's insultingly coy, fraudulent The Lovers (94) as the work of the same person who directed The Blade less than a year later (the only conceivable link between the two is that The Blade is an act of atonement for the previous film). But glance at even such a minor film as I Love Maria (88) and Ching's touch as action director is instantly apparent. Quite apart from the scatterbrained hash of buddy comedy, Japanese sci-fi, and Metropolis (did I mention producer Tsui also costars as one of the buddies?), there are extraordinary fleeting images (Ching fuses slow motion with quick, almost subliminal cuts): blue light streaming through bullet holes, Sally Yeh's titular robot climbing a building, bodies hurtling through fog, a belltower taking off like a rocket, a water tower exploding like a pornographic pinata. Ching has a gift for ejaculatory excess, a love for translating sexual metaphors (trains crashing through walls, dreamers flying through the night) into intoxicating action sequences. They seem to erupt out of an inner world of childlike perversity and adult obsessiveness, and are held together by Ching's longing for each moment to register as indelible: making the viewer experience these images like flashbacks to some great, unaccountable epiphany or trauma. (Perhaps like seeing Vertigo when very young and having pieces of it come back later in life entangled with one's childhood fears, sexual awakening, and superhero fantasies.) [...]
To; then there is the ravening, demon'seye-view camera Ching lifted from The Evil Dead for A Chinese Ghost Story. (Since Raimi borrowed heavily from earlier HK horror films, the influence flew both ways.) But he takes it much further, into the romance of unreason and profane beauty: a surrealist impulse that devours the boundaries of the possible like a tapeworm inside a magician. There's no telling where Ching's quest for exquisite incongruities may lead. It can be something as airy and charming as the toyland battle scene in his actioncomics adventure The Raid, which trumps Indiana Jones by suspending full-size biplane replicas inside the soundstage and having them strafe the heroes while soldiers leap from the slowmoving wings and join in hand-to-hand combat. It's one thing to set a giant boulder after Harrison Ford (who wouldn't root for the boulder?), but another to assemble planes, locomotives, and whole bewitched forests inside the studio and turn it all into a vast nocturnal playground. Thus A Chinese Ghost Story departs from Raimi in terms of both ancient and movie folklore, soaring off into the uncharted terrain of Busby Berkeley's verv posthumous Evil Dead: The Musical - a good old boy-meetsdead-girl romance, complete with a singing ghostbuster, a she-male demon with a hundred-foot tongue, and a descent into hell b la Orpheus.
The extravagance is shaded, nuanced: wonder and the sinister go hand-in-hand, or hand-on-throat. Olivier Assayas is only stating the irresistibly obvious when he juxtaposes The Heroic Trio with Feuillade. I would also contrast it with Caro and Jeunet's The City of Lost Children, a lesser - and less enchanted - film: the archaic future and anarchic past collide in a fable pitting phallic mothers against demon fathers, with the dread of reunification hanging over the film like a curse. (The heroines must also exterminate those children who have been inducted into the army of darkness.) There is a throwaway scene in the spellbinding sequel to Heroic Trio, Executioners (released 94, but shot simultaneously), that is quintessential Ching Siu-tung. It's Christmas Eve in the near post-97 future, martial law is in effect, and weary military policemen are resting in a crowded corridor. Suddenly an anonymous, griefstricken woman - who materializes for this scene alone - bursts in, dragging a body past them. They order her to halt and she whirls, firing an automatic rifle, killing them all; she kicks in the door to the captain's office and hurls the body at the officers feet. Sobbing that they're responsible for the death of her husband on a suicide mission, she kneels beside the body and swiftly turns the rifle on herself. The sequence is one sweeping, panoramic gesture that serves no purpose but to instill itself in the viewer, a desperate cry that echoes through the movie like an aria.
In Swordsman, there is an instant when a wizened fighter comes out of an opponent's body the way a bird darts out of a tree - there is something so unreasonable and thrilling in that image, defying physics and common sense with such matter-of-fact aplomb. Ching is a true primitive who grew up on movie sets (his father was a director of kung-fu films) and knows no other world, yet his images are expansive and complex, so full of the wish to go beyond themselves. He first came to prominence as martial arts director on Patrick Tam's fine drama The Sword (80), wherein his flying duellists took off from King Hu country and began the trek that would culminate in his directing debut, Duel to the Death (83) quite terrific, formalist, at once detached and grandly unhinged. Though he'd worked with Tsui on Dangerous Encounter, it was on 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain that the collaboration took hold, in the process paving the way for the entire modern HK fantasy genre. (It should be noted, however, that the film was the first indication of the baleful influence of Star Wars on Tsui's thinking.) The contrast between their most popular movies, Ching's Chinese Ghost Story series and Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China franchise, is telling in that, while both succumb to the lure of formula and ritualized familiarity, Ching's tone is much surer throughout. Tsui offers up phonyendearing characters like the wellnamed "Clubfoot" and many crassly genteel bits of business, but Ching goes for flow almost in spite of characterization - his particularity there is in the dream and not the insipid dreamers.