Made in Hong Kong

July 6-Aug. 13 at the Freer Gallery of Art

Back in the golden moments of the Quentin Tarantino backlash, guerrilla documentarian Mike White’s Who Do You Think You’re Fooling? angrily charted the similarities between Reservoir Dogs and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. These days, however, Hollywood pays hard cash for its infusions of Canto-flick elan. City on Fire star Chow Yun-Fat waltzes with Jodie Foster, action master John Woo directs Tom Cruise and John Travolta, kung fu dervish Jet Li battles Mel Gibson, and fight choreographer Yeun Wo Ping juices The Matrix’s cyber-silliness with HK-style wire fighting. Of recent U.S. action hits, only Gladiator borrowed heavily from Hong Kong without a Hong Kong heavy on the payroll.

Of course, HK movie moguls have always considered turnabout to be fair play; there’s no national film industry that’s as loyal to Hollywood verities as Hong Kong’s. Low budgets and breakneck schedules give HK films an edgy inventiveness that stateside movies generally lack, but Hong Kong filmmakers treasure Hollywood’s explosive set pieces, macho swagger, and overly intricate plots—and actually exceed the American weakness for half-baked sequels. (Lam went on to make Prison on Fire, School on Fire, and Prison on Fire II.) Indeed, HK scripters have borrowed more from their American counterparts than Tarantino and Jean-Claude Van Damme could ever take back.

The proof of this is hard for Americans to behold, because few Hong Kong films have been commercially released here since the 1997 handover impelled some of the former colony’s most prominent cinematic figures to cross over to the U.S. market. Fortunately for Washington filmgoers, the Freer Gallery of Art provides an annual roundup, “Made in Hong Kong,” that exhibits the industry’s latest developments and continuing vigor. This year’s program doesn’t include Wong Kar-Wai’s Cannes double-prizewinner In the Mood for Love, but it does feature several films that owe their vibe to Wong’s neon-dappled cinematic raptures.

Much of Hong Kong cinema’s current sizzle comes from director Johnnie To and the production company he runs with Wai Ka-Fai, Milky Way Image. The Freer’s lineup showcases three films by To, who’s best known in the West for co-directing (with Ching Siu-Tung) the hyperstylized 1992 supernatural/action flick The Heroic Trio. (That’s the HK movie excerpted in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, in which Heroic Trio co-star Maggie Cheung plays herself.) To’s recent movies draw on the spirit of Woo’s soulful gangster epics, but with an emphasis on melancholy over gunplay. His work has an after-the-ball pensiveness that suits the political ambiguities and economic uncertainties of post-1997 Hong Kong.

The prolific To has already released three films in 2000, but the Freer has only just caught up with two of the ones he made last year, along with an oldie from 1989. Both Running Out of Time (July 7 & 13 at 7 p.m.) and The Mission (Aug. 4 at 7 p.m.) are stark, moody, and often blue-tinted explorations of matters of honor in the Hong Kong underworld. In the cool but event-packed Running Out of Time, a mysterious man with terminal cancer decides to draw a hotheaded cop into a flamboyant scheme to avenge his father. The script emphasizes the gamesmanship that’s common in such capers: If the plotter succeeds, he’ll end up with $20 million and a rare blue diamond—both useless to a dying man—and the respect of the cop who’s always one step behind him. To doesn’t shortchange the elaborate scenario, but he’s just as interested in atmosphere. Wong Kar-Wai’s influence can be seen both in the impressionistic visuals and the subplot about the dying man’s serendipitous relationship with a woman he meets on a bus.

The romantic fatalism is less playful—and thus more distinctive—in To’s The Mission, in which an assassination attempt leads a gang boss to hire five diverse freelancers as bodyguards. For most of its running time, the film is a terse, almost minimalist procedural: It’s simply about how gun-toting pros get a modern-day mobster—his office is in a gleaming new shopping mall—to and from work every day without being shot. Then, when the story seems to have ended, an unexpected twist shifts the emphasis to the relationship between the five new colleagues, who must choose between duty and friendship. If it captured half this movie’s dark, fated ambience, a Tarantino remake would surely renew his reputation as the prince of gangster cool.

The oldest film in the series is 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story (July 14 at 7 p.m.; July 16 at 2 p.m.), credited to director Ching Siu-Tung but showing the strong influence of producer Tsui Hark’s hyperactive, genre-gobbling style. A penniless (and clueless) traveler beds down for the night at a deserted temple, where he meets a beautiful young woman. The woman, alas, is a ghost— and in thrall to a demon with a tongue the size of the Forbidden City. This much-imitated thriller-comedy-musical was one of the first supernaturally themed HK films with the Hollywood-style special-effects technique to do justice to its fanciful tale.

A less ornate (if hardly minimal) evocation of the traditional Chinese ghost story, Lam’s The Victim (Aug. 11 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 13 at 2 p.m.) mixes the unearthly with hard-boiled cops ‘n’ gangsters material. A computer-graphics expert who’s in debt to mobsters is kidnapped, only to turn up in a hotel that’s been abandoned since a grisly murder. When the victim starts behaving strangely, the police-detective hero must decide if the guy is psychologically traumatized, possessed by a ghost, staging a diversion for a crime he intends to commit—or simply still in shock from the 1997-1998 meltdown of the Hong Kong stock market. Lam, who wrote the screenplay, has a penchant for overplotted scenarios that work against his vibrant, streamlined style, as was demonstrated by Full Alert (shown at the Freer in 1998), a film whose delirious drive was slowed by a complicated caper script. Still, Lam’s films are too kinetic and stylish not to be great fun to watch.

Riley Yip’s Half-Smoked (July 20 & 21 at 7 p.m.) reveals the more sentimental side of the HK gangster genre. Returning from a long exile in Brazil, middle-aged former tough guy Mountain Leopard (so named for his tattoo) befriends a fatherless youth and enlists his help with a sacred mission: avenging himself on the former rival who stole his girlfriend. Mountain Leopard still has the half-smoked cigarette he took from the woman he can’t forget on the fateful night, but perhaps the way he tells the story of his clash with Nine Dragons (another tattoo nickname) is not strictly accurate. Set mostly in and around the bustling Temple Street night market, the film has a lot of entertaining local color, although its depiction of serious disease—like Running Out of Time’s—probably wouldn’t survive medical scrutiny.

Three of the films were not available for preview. Fly Me to Polaris (July 6 at 7 p.m.; July 9 at 2 p.m.) is a reportedly mawkish tale of a man, just killed in a car crash, who persuades an angel to send him back to earth so he can win the woman he loves. Derek Yee, whose Viva Erotica showed at the Freer in ’98, directed The Truth About Jane and Sam (July 27 at 7 p.m.), in which a newspaper reporter falls for a teenage junkie he’s supposed to be profiling. After Running Out of Time and The Mission, I’m particularly interested in seeing To’s All About Ah-Long, in which Chow Yun-Fat plays an ex-gangster trying to redeem himself by taking good care of his son. This 1989 film may not have the flair of the director’s recent work, but at this point, any To effort is like any Woo movie a decade ago: a subject well worth further investigation. CP