I was going through my old files to find a piece I'd written for the New York Times (actually, I'd written it for the International Herald Tribune, and the Times had reprinted it) and discovered the manuscript (remember when we actually wrote on paper) for this story, which doesn't appear to have been published. Sadly, I didn't get enough time with Tsui Hark to write more; I literally didn't discover the Sunday morning interview until I arrived at the Friday late night showing of The Lovers; as I recall it was long on clips and short on discussion (Hark's English was surprisingly shaky for someone who'd gone to SMU; well, maybe not so surprisingly), and he was literally on his way out of town. I've been meaning for some time to write about some of Tsui's more recent films, namely Seven Swords (2005) and Detective Dee (2010). Maybe soon....oh, and the cinematographer who went with me to see Once Upon A Time In China was Phil Abraham, who went on to The Sopranos and Mad Men, and is now a director. Having just seen Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin in this year's London Film Festival, it seemed a good time to get this essay online.
THE MYSTERIOUS APPEARANCE OF TSUI HARK
His Guardian Interview wasn't mentioned in the programme, but if you were lucky enough to discover it was happening, the highlight of the 39th London Film Festival might have been listening to Vietnamese-born, American-trained Hong Kong director Tsui Hark give a Sunday morning lecture at the NFT. Or maybe it was seeing his latest film, The Lovers, in a late-night showing two days earlier.
Why Hark should have come and gone so anonymously is a puzzle. His first film, The Butterfly Murders, has been a cult favourite in Britain ever since it debuted at the LFF in 1979. Shanghai Blues (1984) was a 1930s Chinese screwball comedy set amidst the Japanese invasion, while Peking Opera Blues two years later, which also starred the wonderful Sally Yeh, was an action-packed musical about a woman disguising herself to actually sing in the Peking opera. It was a hit at London's Lesbian and Gay Festival, but to me it ranks as one of the best movies of the Eighties, period. And Once Upon A Time In China (1990) stands as a classic as well; I took an American cinematographer to see it in New York and he was blown away. And if that weren't enough, Hark also produced three excellent John Woo/Chow Yun Fat films, including A Better Tomorrow and the world-wide hit, The Killer.
Hark works like the great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, telling richly layered stories that often meld and combine genres, constantly looking for new ways to be visually inventive. Though themes of class and imperial politics, gender identity and reality versus fantasy recur, his signature is a breakneck pace of storytelling that always has time for humour.
The Lovers, a romantic melodrama set in 377 AD is atypical in its slower, more contemplative pace. It tells the story of Chuk Ying Toi (Charlie Yeung), the daughter of a high official and his ambitious wife. They disguise her as a boy and send her to college to prepare her for marriage into a better family. At college she meets Leung Shan Pak (Nicky Wu), a peasant boy who is seeking education so he can earn an official's position and make an upwardly mobile marriage.
Shan-Pak finds himself desperately confused by his feelings for his fellow student, until true identities are revealed. But at this point, the story heads for tragedy. Beautifully staged and shot, The Lovers puts our Austen and Dickens adaptations to shame. And the deliberate pacing, such a contrast if you know Hark's work, now squeezes the increasingly inevitable tragedy for all its worth. Hark can thus go somewhat over the top in his tragic ending, yet still reinforce themes and images he's shown you subtly and allowed to linger throughout the film.
Born in Saigon, and having studied film at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Hark brings a cross-cultural sensibility to Hong Kong cinema. 'In Hong Kong, things move so fast,' he says. 'You do something for the first time and six months later everyone's doing it. The audience is visually very literate, and they expect to be entertained on many levels."
And did I mention that in The Lovers, the college's headmistress invents both football and its Subbeto version, just in passing?