Tsui Hark is the mad genius of Hong Kong cinema. The problem comes with assigning proportions. 10 % mad, 90% genius? 50-50? 99 % mad, 1 % genius?
Across a career that’s lasted more than thirty years, Tsui has had more ups and downs than the local economy. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Film Workshop, the company he founded, the Hong Kong International Film Festival mounted a tribute. That provides an occasion to examine what he did and didn’t accomplish.
25 years old, but who’s counting?
Nansun Shi and Tsui Hark.
At this year’s Asian Film Awards, Film Workshop was given a special prize for outstanding achievement. On another evening there was a party gathering many Workshop alumi, from which the above photo comes. You can see more pictures from that party here . At the agnes b. gallery, a small show featured posters, a looped video documentary, a photocopy of the Better Tomorrow script, and some memorable props.
Nat Olsen has other pictures at his lively Hong Kong Hustle  site.
The catalogue, A Tribute to Romantic Visions: 25th Anniversary of Film Workshop ,  is a must for all aficionados of Hong Kong film. Consisting largely of interviews, it offers many glimpses of creative choices and business strategies governing the company. Nansun Shi, Tsui’s partner and business manager, recalls how they placed films in overseas markets and won critical acclaim in Europe. She also explains matter-of-factly how frantic the midnight-show system was. In those days, Hong Kong filmmakers test-screened a movie to a midnight audience, and then reedited the film based on perceived reaction. Shi explains:
Cinemas often wondered what could be done to a film in the eight hours between the midnight show and the day-time show the next day. I ran some calculation with the technicians: what is the least amount of time for them to do this and that, and then sent them to the cinemas to do the work. If worse comes to worst, they could do the re-editing when the show was running (80).
There isn’t much sugar-coating in the interviews. Collaborators often found Tsui a harsh taskmaster. At peak pressure, he seldom halted shooting for sleep and instead took cat naps on the set. Those who couldn’t keep up his pace, or adjust to his demands, left the company. There are also some comments on production practices. Herman Yau , for instance, notes: “Directors, in general, use most of the shots to tell the story. Tsui prefers images that look good on their own” (121).
Overall, the catalogue confirms that what started as a “workshop” designed to enable directors to realize individual creative visions became a company built around Tsui’s restless ideas about cinema. This was more or less the premise of the panel on Friday afternoon. Two critics, Keeto Lam and Longtin, discussed the Film Workshop enterprise largely as an extension of Tsui’s interests. Keeto had been a screenwriter at the company and shared information about the making of A Chinese Ghost Story 2, while Longtin speculated on Tsui’s interest in transcending polarities, particularly those between human and demon and male and female. Another scriptwriter was in the audience and contributed information as well.
One of Keeto’s points set me thinking. Having characterized Leslie Cheung as the “Golden Boy” of Film Workshop, he asked who the Golden Girl was, and he and audience members discussed candidates for the honor. (My vote, obviously, would go to Brigitte Lin.) But I began to speculate that one of Film Workshop’s main contributions was in star-making. Tsui has mentioned that his early films with gorgeous women tried to create a “comedy of pretty faces” opposed to the “comedy of ugly faces” that ruled in the 1970s and early 1980s. (Think of Michael and Ricky Hui, Karl Maka, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung.) By coaxing Brigitte Lin to Hong Kong and by giving Sally Yeh, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-fat, and other younger players big roles, Film Workshop created a new generation of glamorous stars.
A better yesterday
This celebration comes at a parlous period in Tsui’s career. Over the last dozen years Tsui directed some weak, even awful movies. Granted, even a bad Tsui movie is bad in a unique way, but that doesn’t make Tri-Star (1996), the Van Damme outings (Double Team, 1997; Knock Off, 1998), and The Legend of Zu (2001) any better. Some films he has produced, like Era of Vampires (2002) and Xanda (2003), are best forgotten. Today, after the only moderate success of Seven Swords (2008) and the disappointments Missing (2008) and All About Women (2008), many local film professionals consider him a spent force.
I’d argue that Tsui and Jackie Chan were the two most ambitious young filmmakers of 1980s Hong Kong. Tsui was the more daring and mercurial; he seemed to be trying a dozen things at once. He made some bad films, but others changed the face of local film: Shanghai Blues (1984), Peking Opera Blues (1986), A Better Tomorrow III (1989), Once Upon a Time in China I and II (1991, 1992), The East Is Red (1993), and The Chinese Feast and The Blade (both 1995). He also produced, and often co-directed, A Chinese Ghost Story and A Better Tomorrow (both 1986), The Big Heat and Gun Men (1988), The Killer (1989), the demented Wicked City (1992), and Iron Monkey (1993). These films had enormous impact locally, and they made Hong Kong film a major force in world cinema.
The problem is the mad-genius thing. Tsui is uneven, not only from film to film but within each one. Tsui can create a fairly unified tone, as The Blade and Seven Swords show. But more likely a Tsui film will contain something brilliant, something banal, something silly, and something just weird. Labored facetiousness is a virus plaguing Hong Kong film generally, but Tsui seems entirely too fond of bursts of dumb comedy. He replies: “Sometimes it’s fun to be stupid.”
Yet the thrown-together quality of many of his movies also means that even a troublesome one is likely to have a passable sequence. More important, his best films use the lurches in tone to create a grotesque, sweeping verve. Things happen so fast you can’t protest; either go with it or walk out.
Tsui’s strategy is based upon a breathless rhythm. He chops off scenes without warning, and he bustles his actors around the set maniacally; the poor things seldom rest long. Almost never do characters simply sit down and talk to one another, as in those bland American indie films. The beginning of Triangle (2007) shows how nervous, even opaque, Tsui’s style becomes when characters have to sit still.
For Tsui, story action is a matter of physical movement, and the film frame becomes a force-field, with actors popping in and out with abandon. He carries the staccato choreography of martial-arts film down to the most straightforward dramatic scene. He’s not alone in this; you can find it in the 1980s martial-arts films too, but Tsui gives it a special force with his pitched angles, his wide-angle lenses, and his love of comic-book-rococo compositions. Try, for instance, this shot of a woman getting an injection in Missing.
Such images can seem merely cheap flash, but what saves the best ones from preciosity is their constant but disciplined rhythm. In Once Upon a Time in China, Wong Fei-hung is about to be arrested after a clash with local thugs. The shot starts with the police official pointing his pistol to Wong’s head.
Another cop comes in to tell the official that the invaders left something. Any other director would have shown the cop’s face, but why? He’s important only to get the official out of the frame, so he becomes just a red hat poking in from the lower right corner.
The official dodges out, moving rightward across the frame.
There’s a pause, then Wong, now isolated in the shot, snaps his head around to follow what’s happening.
Tsui isn’t usually considered an economical director, but it’s hard to imagine a more crisp way to handle this routine bit of action. The shot takes less than eight seconds.
The same restless energy rules Tsui’s cutting, which has a punch and recoil derived, I think, partly from New Hollywood (Spielberg especially; see the Jaws example here ) and partly from the local martial arts tradition. (Some proto-Tsui cutting is on display in Lau Kar-leung’s Legendary Weapons of China, 1982.) Watching Once Upon a Time in China at the retrospective, I was reminded that Tsui not only cooks up sequences that you can’t forget (three words: fight on ladders), but he risks audacious cuts on movement that few contemporary directors could bring off. When he wants to emphasize a moment, he channels Eisenstein. During the final combat of Wong and Iron Robe Yim, the iron weight sliding down the platform gets the Potemkin treatment. Four shots stretch out the instant through overlapping movement.
As we might expect, Tsui goes beyond Eisenstein by accentuating major points of impact with swift camera movements forward.
Tsui thinks visually. True, some sound is important—he is a master at merging music and image—but words are a last resort. He has been known to change dialogue in post-production so radically that the dubbing doesn’t match the actors’ lip movements. Shooting without sound gives Tsui, like other Hong Kong directors, a freedom of camera placement that recalls the silent cinema. And like a silent director, he thinks that every story point needs to be pictured. Kenny Bee is looking for the girl he met years ago (Shanghai Blues)? So let’s have an image that dramatizes the problem.
The inclusion of Kenny’s graduation picture might seem superfluous, but it makes the frame an anticipatory wedding picture, and it gives us a sense of his pure, if naïve, romantic impulses.
Motion plus or minus emotion
If you disapprove of what Spielberg and Lucas did to the American cinema, you will hate Tsui’s love of remakes, sequels, and spinoffs, his frequent confusion of SPFX with imagination, and his efforts to milk franchises to a point that can be considered cynical. Yet historically, he pushed Hong Kong cinema forward.
Before the star-making efforts I’ve already mentioned, indeed before Film Workshop was created, Tsui’s Dangerous Encounters: First Kind (1980) offered a blistering attack on class disparity in Hong Kong. He updated Cantonese fantasy swordplay in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and he tried his hand at a local version of low-budget exploitation in We’re Going to Eat You (1980). Keeto’s catalogue essay argues that Film Workshop pioneered six new genres in Hong Kong film, from comic-book adaptations to science-fiction and animation. And there’s more variety than we might expect. Film Workshop directors might have sometimes mimicked his style, but John Woo’s Workshop projects managed to do something quite different. Despite Tsui’s hands-on involvement, the lyrical Iron Monkey and the more hard-edged Gun Men and The Big Heat avoid the eccentricities of his signed work while maintaining his love of flamboyant set-pieces and visual creativity.
Tsui’s scripts often seem like patchwork, granted, but I tried to show in Planet Hong Kong that the episodic, additive plotline is a convention of Hong Kong cinema. Tsui—like Wong Kar-wai, though in a different key—took advantage of this formula to explore the power of the arresting image and an infectious rhythm. (You might say that Wong’s rhythm is that of cool jazz, while Tsui’s is closer to the percussiveness of Chinese opera.) Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues, two of Tsui’s most ingratiating movies, jump smartly from one thrusting scene to the next, shifting emotional registers with dazzling speed. These movies can turn on a dime.
Part of what pulls us along is characters we care about—especially strong women. In the old days, we Hong Kong fans used to love the idea that John Woo, carrying on the Chang Cheh tradition, specialized in the sorrows of masculine obligation, while Tsui was much more interested in women. He gave us the comedy of pretty faces, the wide-eyed innocence of Joey Wong, and the severe beauty of Brigitte Lin who, in the final installment of the Swordsman series, becomes a sheer force of nature. (Her bi-gendered role in Ashes of Time stems from Tsui’s creation of her as such in Swordsman II and The East Is Red.) When Tsui took over the Better Tomorrow franchise, his prequel showed that Woo’s ideal hero Mark (Chow Yun-fat) learned his combat crafts from, of all people, a woman. Even the non-stop testosterone fervor of The Blade, all sweaty torsos and clanking weaponry, may be the hallucination of a madwoman.
These were rousing yarns. Yet at some point, I think, Tsui lost interest in telling a story. This tendency can be detected already in the Van Damme projects; the opening of Knock Off revels in visual effects (microscopic close-ups of the ripping fibers inside running shoes) but doesn’t dwell on what we need to know. Tsui’s task in the collaborative film Triangle  was to simply to set up the premises of the action, but dialogue-driven exposition seems to bore him, and the opening scene is a frenzy of eccentric angles and barely registered plot points. His SPFX extravaganza The Legend of Zu has a fairly incomprehensible story to begin with, but by swamping it in explosions and magical transformations, Tsui makes a movie that is, like Spinal Tap’s amplifier knob, permanently set at 11.
With the lack of interest in economical storytelling comes a resistance to emotional engagement. Time and Tide has some virtuoso passages—the tenement sniping, the finale in Kowloon Station (with a woman giving birth during a gun battle)—but the film’s jittery momentum and lack of a coherent point of view sacrifice everything to momentary visceral impact. The death of a little boy caught in the crossfire is not a stab of pathos but the pretext for the visual shock of a ricocheting skateboard.
Tsui’s first films often shied away from sustained romantic scenes, a point made by Sylvia Chang in a catalogue interview. Still, he sometimes translated the awkwardness of love into gesture and motion, from the race to the train at the end of Shanghai Blues to the tender exchange of morsels of food between reconciled husband and wife in The Chinese Feast. Even Once Upon a Time in China can pause for a moment to let Aunt Yee reveal her growing affection for Wong Fei-Hong by having her shadow stroke his.
In the early FW films, emotion was translated into movements large or small. Losing her love makes a woman turn abruptly and snap out her cape, underneath a billboard advertising her lover’s song. But more recently Tsui seems to suffocate emotion in a welter of one-off effects. The lustrous HD shots of Missing make it visually striking, but the lacquered technique doesn’t seem to me to serve the story’s core drama of loss.
We can’t write Tsui off. He’s not yet sixty, and his new project, the Tang era mystery Detective Dee, sounds promising. Whatever happens next, his many admirers thank him and the FW team for some of the most radiant moments in modern cinema. Everyone who has seen Shanghai Blues needs only the stills at the top and bottom of this entry to conjure up the scene: Kenny plays his violin on the rooftop, we hear the soaring tune “Shanghai Nights,” and as we see Sally listening on another balcony, a chill goes up your spine. A little mad, but mostly genius.
Thanks to Alvin Tse for the illustration from the Film Workshop party.