David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'National cinemas: Hong Kong' Category

Homage to Hong Kong

Yellowing (2014).

DB here:

Since forever, or so it seems, reports in the US media have been dominated by the struggles against the domestic fascism incarnated in the Republican Party and its leader Donald Trump. Every day, we’ve been subject to fusillades of stories about our collapsing economy, the pervasive corruption of the federal government and the judiciary, Trump’s frenzied efforts to whip up his racist supporters, and his failure to contain the coronavirus. In this churn, one world-altering event has gotten little attention: Mainland China’s swift and brutal takeover of the civil society of Hong Kong.

This spring, a new law–one that makes a mockery of lawfulness–was shoved through. Drafted in secret, its provisions were not made public to Hong Kong citizens or representatives before the central authorities in Beijing ratified it. It went into effect on 30 June. A good overview of timeline is on the BBC site.

While claiming to be within the One-Country/Two-Systems provision of the 1997 handover, the bill actually violates that, placing ultimate power in Beijing. The law devotes considerable attention to the purposes of

safeguarding national security;  preventing, suppressing and imposing punishment for the offences of secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security in relation to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. . . .

The law goes on to indicate what counts as subversion:

(3) seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the body of central power of the People’s Republic of China or the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; or (4) attacking or damaging the premises and facilities used by the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to perform its duties and functions, rendering it incapable of performing its normal duties and functions.

Obviously street demonstrations could “interfere in” or “disrupt” the activities of the territory’s “body of power”–as it resides in the bureaucracy, the police, and other realms of society. The penalties are severe:

A person who is a principal offender or a person who commits an offence of a grave nature shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than ten years; a person who actively participates in the offence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than ten years; and other participants shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, short-term detention or restriction.

The Economist explains:

The bill could result in far more serious charges being laid against protesters should they engage in activities that were common during the recent upheaval. Vandalising public transport could now be treated as terrorism. Breaking into the legislature or throwing eggs at the central government’s liaison office, as demonstrators did last year, could be considered subversive. Calling for Hong Kong’s independence, as some protesters have, could invoke a charge of secession. Encouraging foreign countries to impose sanctions on China could result in prosecution for collusion. The maximum sentence for all four of these categories of crime is life in prison.

How tightly will these provisions be enforced? The answer comes in a story in today’s New York Times. The day after the bill was enacted, a man was arrested for flying the Hong Kong flag during a demonstration. Police also arrested a 15-year-old girl for “inciting subversion” and a young man who carried in his bag a banner urging Hong Kong independence.

Other provisions lay out punishment for “terrorist activities” and, not least, “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Possible offenders include international companies or non-governmental agencies that

provoke by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.

A firm that participated in sanctions against China, or an NGO objecting to human-rights treatment could be charged with “fostering hatred.” The boundary between “lawful” and “unlawful” provocations will be left up to administrators such as the Secretary of Justice.

Hong Kongers saw clearly what might come. Such films as Yellowing and Ten Years foresaw just these strictures on free speech and free thought. Thanks partly to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and the recent effort to pass a “Fugitive Offenders” bill, Hong Kongers’ support for an open society has been peaking. That surge was expressed last fall not only in more rounds of street activism but in the election of democratic representatives to 90 per cent of district seats.

Like Trumpists, Hong Kong’s business interests treat the behavior of the stock market as an index of prosperity. And it’s true that the market has bumped up at the prospect of “stability” under the new law. Yet, as in the US, this has proven a weak indicator. In 2013, the markets crashed and China had to inject money and conceal the sources of the failure.

During my first visit in 1995, a Dutch businessman who was already planning to take his gains and depart told me that in twenty years Hong Kong would be “just another city on the China coast.” He foresaw the mainland’s plan to build up Shanghai, to shrink Hong Kong as a business center, and to gut its quasi-democracy.

In the runup to 1997, Britain could have offered passports to all its former subjects, if only as a gesture to restrain Beijing’s hand. But of course that would have meant Margaret Thatcher acknowledging that there was something called “society,” which she explicitly denied. (That is, we owe no collective obligations to one another.) Now, in an encouraging sign some three million “overseas nationals” (i.e. Hong Kongers born before 1997) may be allowed to emigrate to the UK and seek citizenship there. As for the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Congress have proposed measures to retaliate against Chinese officials. Given Trump’s fear of offending Xi, I would not bank on his supporting the effort.

In all, the Dutchman’s prediction was off only in its timing. China has squeezed Hong Kong ever since the takeover, but its citizens–long and mistakenly thought of as indifferent to politics–have fought back with shining commitment. They are as much a vessel of strategic, patient political energy as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements.

My heart goes out to my friends in Hong Kong, and all their fellow citizens. They have been, and I expect will continue to be, a model of tenacity and resilience for the rest of us. We are all Hong Kong now. We face new authoritarian policies emerging, it seems, in every news cycle.

P. S. 6 July 2020: Yvonne Teh’s Webs of Significance blogsite offers a wealth of commentary on the changing culture and politics of Hong Kong. See especially her thoughts about Evans Chan’s latest film We Have Boots.

P.P.S. 6 July 2020: I should have included this photo (from Lam Yik Fei of the Times) as a sign of tenacity and resilience.  HK demonstrators hold up blank signs. When will the PRC declare a blank piece of cardboard to bear “an intent such as secession or subversion”?

A banner carried by Hong Kong police facing demonstrators “conducting themselves with an intent such as secession or subversion.”

Little stabs at happiness 3: You know, for kids

Iron Monkey (1993).

DB here:

Another entry (apologies to Ken Jacobs) of little things that cheer up lockdown. Previous entries are here and here. This one, unlike a couple to come, is suitable for all ages.

Why do I get a thrill from watching an apparently frail little boy beat the bejeezus out of unkempt bullies? More to the point, why weren’t there movies like Iron Monkey (1993) when I was a tad?

It’s a wing of the Tsui Hark Wong Fei-hung reboot saga that began with Once Upon a Time in China (1991), putting Jet Li on the world map. This installment is directed by Yuen Wo Ping, master choreographer of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix and no mean director himself. It’s a prequel, showing us the young Fei-hung learning his craft from his apothecary father and the mysterious robinhoodish Iron Monkey.

Before the main course, here’s a snack.

This one minute of graceful movement is one minute more than you find in most of our movies today. Do something short, smart, and crisp, and the camera loves it.

To see Young Wong finding his groove, here’s the scene in which he practices some fancy evasion and defense against heavily armed but fatally dumb thugs.

The subtitles provide a whole other level of diversion.

The whole film, featuring Donnie Yen and other Hong Kong stalwarts, is good dirty fun. Versions are available on streaming, but you should avoid the sanitized Miramax release. There’s also a 1977 kung-fu film bearing this English-language title, but its plot is quite different.

Note: The boy Wong is played by a girl martial artist, Angie Tsang Sze-man, who went on to become a wushu champion.

For an update on the situation in Hong Kong, here is a story in the Washington Post.

I write about the art and craft of Hong Kong martial arts movies in Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. It explains, among other things, why the subtitles are so weird (p. 78).

P.S. 15 June 2020: Thanks to Radomir Kokes (Douglas) for correcting my misattribution of The Transporter to Yuen Wo Ping. It was of course directed by the great Corey Yuen Kwai.

Little stabs at happiness 2: Short and sweet, in a city on fire

Shanghai Blues (1984).

While US streets pulse with protests against racism and police violence and a fascistic presidential regime, it’s worth remembering that we aren’t alone. Hong Kong has been through this many times, and there the people’s struggle is growing ever more acute. The idea of “burning together” (laam chau) is starting to seem the only option when civil remedies are met by oppression. Hong Kong identity, a palpable force of history, is at stake. As one of my HK correspondents writes: “When it comes it comes. I am sure we won’t just stand here . . . . We will keep fighting for our rights.”

It’s hard to find consolation in these times, but again, with apologies to Ken Jacobs for swiping his title, I offer you a pause to let film art take over. It’s especially poignant in that film, one of Hong Kong’s great contributions to world culture, can seize and hold moments of rapture. All the more ironic that this film, Shanghai Blues, is about ordinary people fleeing the mainland for the British colony to the south.

It’s as goofy a comedy as Tsui Hark ever made, but as usual with Tsui in his prime, it brims with energy. At the end of World War II, Doremi (Kenny Bee), an aspiring composer, is searching for the woman (Shu-shu, Sylvia Chang Ai-chia) he met and lost in a 1937 bombardment. But he’s living unwittingly in the same building she’s in. Meanwhile, a naive young woman (Sally Yeh Chia-wen) arrives from the country trying to make her way in the city. Over all hover two contests: a Calendar Queen prize, and a song competition.

Here’s the sequence that always makes me grin. Doremi comes out at night to play his composition. I really admire how Tsui synchronizes the rhythm of the visuals (especially Sally’s pop-up frame entrance) with the music.


Unfortunately, the film isn’t easily available. There’s a goodish French DVD, but no streaming source I know of. (My clips come from the laserdisc.) If you want more, and at the risk of a supreme spoiler, I offer you the climax, a  reprise of the balcony moment that yields a happy ending and a bittersweet time loop.


This virtuoso scene is another example of Tsui’s skillful use of music, cutting, and composition. The movie may be set in Shanghai, but its shameless vivacity is pure Hong Kong.

Here are some resources if you want to help the people of Hong Kong. Thanks to Yvonne Teh for this link. Yvonne blogs, captivatingly, at Webs of Significance.

I write about Tsui, and Shanghai Blues, in Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment.

Shanghai Blues (1984).

Sometimes a swordfight . . .

The Valiant Ones (Zhonglie tu, 1975).

DB here:

. . . makes you sit up. And notice a simple but ingenious cinematic technique.

One of the refrains of this blog is: We want to know filmmakers’ secrets, even the secrets they don’t know they know.

Over my years of studying Hong Kong film, I kept coming back to the work of King Hu (Hu Jingquan), one of the great directors of Chinese cinema. Most famous for A Touch of Zen (1971), Hu made several other striking martial arts films: Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Inn (aka Dragon Gate Inn, 1967), The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), and Raining in the Mountain (1979).

Kristin and I have a special fondness for The Valiant Ones (1975), which consists largely of virtuoso combat sequences. Here we find some of Hu’s most spectacular experiments in staging, framing, and cutting action scenes. The story isn’t complicated, but the result lives up to his motto: “If the plots are simple, the stylistic delivery will be even richer.” Unhappily, for reasons of rights, The Valiant Ones is harder to see than his other masterworks.

When I was studying Hu’s work at a European archive, I told the archivist that watching The Valiant Ones I had started to understand his secrets. She smiled and said, “All right, but don’t tell anyone.” Ha! Fat chance. I broke the news in an article and then in Planet Hong Kong. I use our current lockdown to share it more widely.

Suppose you have a character called the Whirlwind Swordsman. He circles his adversary so quickly, ducking and bobbing, shifting front and back, that the target is bewildered. How would you render this quicker-than-the eye tactic on film? Today’s directors think automatically of digital effects. But that wasn’t on the menu in 1975.

Wu Jiayun and his wife are pretending to be interested in joining a pirate gang. In a series of audition bouts, the chief pirate sends his minions to spar with them. Here we see first Wu’s wife take up a monk’s archery challenge. (I include that as bonus material.) It’s a fair sample of the rhythm Hu gets through a combination of editing and figure movement. The audition continues with Wu showing a stout pirate his Whirlwind technique.

Did you see what King Hu did? He used a double for Wu, dressed him in white, and had him rocket into and out of the foreground while the primary Wu dodged in and out of frame in the background.  Sometimes Wu leaves one spot and reappears elsewhere only one frame later!




Significantly, Hu set up this cleverly confined framing by means of a simple axial match-on-action. The larger view oriented us to the area clearly.


Giving up his fondness for discontinuous cuts, Hu used this cut to prime us to expect continuity of space as the shot unfolds. The double is in effect inserted in the splice.

Is it merely a trick? All’s fair in cinema. The gliding, percussive force of the frame entrances and exits shows us a preternaturally gifted fighter whose moves are too fast for the naked eye. We have no time to reflect on how it was done.

Interestingly, Wu seems to have taught Mrs. Wu his technique. At the climax she gets a chance to practice surrounding a hapless fighter. See my stills up top and at the bottom.

Secrets? You bet. We appreciate them all the more when we work to discover them.

For more on King Hu, see Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition (Edinburgh University Press, 2009). I discuss Hu’s style in more detail in “Richness through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse” in Poetics of Cinema, and in “Three Martial Masters” in Planet Hong Kong, 2d. ed.

A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn are available in fine restorations in the Criterion Collection and on the Criterion Channel. Also on the Channel is Hubert Niogret’s superb biographical film about King Hu.

Some recent entries (here and here) review the ideas of axial cutting and matches on action.

This is the second time I’ve used King Hu in this series; he’s a rich source of startling cinema. For other “Sometimes…” entries, go here.

The Valiant Ones (1975).

David Bordwell
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