Those wild Hong Kong films finally get the academic textbook treatment in David Bordwell’s “Planet Hong Kong.” This history and analysis of the Hong Kong film industry, focusing on the sword-and-gunplay films of the past 30 years that have achieved cult status around the world, is the most sober and thorough book yet on the topic, and it’s particularly timely, what with Jackie Chan and Jet Li achieving real U.S. stardom, director John Woo surviving “Mission: Impossible 2,” and “The Matrix” owing much of its style to kung fu choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (director of many Hong Kong classics such as the Chan-starring “Drunken Master”).
The most engaging (and most original) section of Bordwell’s book is his long chapter on the style and shot-by-shot mechanics of the action film, “Motion Emotion: The Art of the Action Movie.” Bordwell shows how Hong Kong filmmakers have mixed the extreme acrobatics of their Chinese cultural heritage with the editing techniques of theorists reaching back to Eisenstein. Hong Kong artists, he argues, have obsessively refined their craft in pursuit of maximum emotional effect while recent American action movies have abandoned intelligible action and aim only at sensory overload (are you listening, Michael Bay?).
Bordwell, a professor at the U of Wisconsin and author of many other film books, tries to maintain his reserve, but it’s clear where his sympathies lie in passages like this: “Watch Harrison Ford, the current master of reluctant, logy combat, in ‘The Fugitive’ as he wearily grapples with the murderer of his wife, and wonder why Hollywood heroes don’t study a little acrobatic kung-fu. Why not learn to dodge blows, to hit the ground rolling, to leap over your adversary? Instead of a telegraphed uppercut, why not use a back flip to kick your opponent in the jaw?” Why not, indeed?
The narrative is interspersed with profiles of famous figures Bruce Lee, Tsui Hark, Wong Jing, and King Hu, as well as Chan and Woo. Toward the end of the book, he swerves from the action genre and devotes nearly two chapters to a worthy analysis of the great Wong Kar-Wai, asserting that the director’s cotton-candy art films “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels” are very much of a piece with the sentimental and irony-free Hong Kong commercial product. Wong, he points out, is more sweet Truffaut than the acerbic Godard to whom he is usually compared.
Bordwell means to be reflective, and his narrative detours for the usual academic Marxist-derived analysis of the “mode of production” (read: how the industry works), but he’ll have you running to the video store just the same.