Wednesday, March 21, 2007

David Bordwell and the cinema of Hong Kong

The 1st Asian Film Awards were held last night in Hong Kong. When going through the list of winners, the reader will see the name of David Bordwell nestled there among the likes of The Host (Best Film), Jia Zhangke (Best Director; for Still Life), Song Kang-ho (Best Actor; for The Host) and Josephine Siao Fong-Fong (winner of the "outstanding contribution to Asian cinema" award).

David Bordwell, for those who don't yet know this, is a highly respected film scholar whose books include the very readable as well as enlightening Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Harvard University Press, 2000).

An American academic who is an Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he endeared himself to me and many other Hong Kong film fans with such accounts as the following which detail how he came to write that book which is one of my major bibliographic references with regards to Hong Kong cinema:-

In fall 1973 I had started teaching at the University of Wisconsin, and one night soon afterward I went to see Five Fingers of Death paired with The Chinese Connection in the dilapidated Majestic Theatre. Soon afterward I saw Enter the Dragon. These movies shook me up. A few years later in Richmond, Virginia I saw Bruce Lee's Game of Death, a film of such surpassing oddness that I screened it for my film theory class. At the same time, during trips to Europe, I caught up with King Hu's exhilarating masterworks.

During the 1980s, while writing about Hollywood cinema and film theory and the films of Yasujiro Ozu, I checked in on Hong Kong cinema occasionally. I caught a Jackie Chan here, a Tsui Hark there, and cable TV yielded up oddities like Shaolin Kung-Fu Mystagogue. The films appealed to me as "pure cinema," popular fare which, like American Westerns and gangster movies of the 1930s, seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the kinetics of movies...

In the early 1990s I dived in, not least because these movies aroused my students' passion in a way that I had not seen for a long time. I began booking Hong Kong films for my courses, subscribing to the fanzines, picking up videotapes and laserdiscs. [Additionally]…video access to Hong Kong film, as well as massive retrospectives undertaken in New York and Chicago, had convinced me that this was a popular cinema of great vigor. When I gained a semester leave in spring of 1995, I decided that it was time to visit the Festival.

..[T]he trip began to change my life. Through the Festival I met Li Cheuk-to, Athena Tsui, Stephen Teo, Shu Kei, Michael Campi, and many others who have become firm friends. I also saw a selection of recent films, a retrospective of postwar movies, and a sample of what was playing at the moment. At the first Hong Kong Critics Society award ceremony I met Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai, and other filmmakers. I managed to slip into the Hong Kong Film Awards…At the show I snapped photos and got autographs of stars and directors I admired. During my three weeks' stay I lived in a fan's paradise. I even ate at Chungking Mansions.

I don't know if I wrote this book because I kept going back, or if I wrote this book because it would justify going back…[P]erhaps out of stubborn naivete, I thought that I had something original to say about the movies produced in this tiny corner of Asia. I thought that I could explore this cinema not as an expression of local society, nor as part of the history of Chinese culture, but as an example of how popular cinema can produce movies that are beautiful.

(From pages x and xi of Planet Hong Kong (but also to be found online over here); with parts that I chose to emphasize in bold.)

On a personal note: Two years ago, I attended the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) for the first time myself. After a screening of Tang Shu Shuen's China Behind at the Hong Kong Film Archive, I had the privilege of being introduced to Professor Bordwell.

Astonishingly, it turned out that David -- as I've come to feel able to call him during subsequent meetings -- actually knew of me (from reading my posts at the Mobius Home Video Forum's Asian Cinema discussion board). Even more amusingly, as we walked together to the Sai Wan Ho MTR station, he started making some points to me about the seminal film we had just viewed, only to stop when I laughingly informed him that, actually, I had effectively heard them before by way of my having read them in my copy of Planet Hong Kong! ;D

Returning to the present: David Bordwell's not only currently back in Hong Kong but since this past Monday, he's also been blogging about his experiences there! Asian film fans should make a beeline for his blog. However due warning is hereby given that his enthusiastic posts will make you wish that you were there doing such as attending HKIFF screenings right now too! ;)


duriandave said...

Well, YTSL, I ignored your warning and checked out David Bordwell's blog--and now I am very envious that I am not at the HKIFF this year.

Let me just add that besides being an insightful and straight-talking scholar (no academic gobbledy-gook from this guy), David is a really nice guy. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a HK Cinema conference in Madison, Wisconsin, several years ago. He was very friendly to me, and affected none of the Ivory Tower loftier-than-thou attitude that afflicts many film professors. He is a down-to-earth fellow who unapologetically loves popular cinema and has a lot interesting things to say about it. Congratulations to him on his award! He truly deserves it!

BTW, what films are you most exited about seeing during your upcoming trip to the festival?

YTSL said...

Hi duriandave --

High praise indeed for David Bordwell -- praise which I agree that he deserves. It sure is very nice and reassuring isn't it, to meet someone like him and find out that he's actually a nice as well as brilliant guy? :)

"BTW, what films are you most exited about seeing during your upcoming trip to the festival?"

Re the films: I'd have to say LOVE MASSACRE and THE GO MASTER.

As for my upcoming trip: Uh oh, the cat has been let out of the bag! So here's just adding here that I do plan a post on the subject, only I'll just put it up the day before I head out. :b

But while we're on the subject of the HKIFF: Anyone going from among the readers of this blog (or, at least, these comments)??

sbk said...

I too ignored your advice and checked out David Bordwell's blog. Nice award for a very distinguished Hong Kong film fan! I too regret I won't be there this year but it was fun seeing pictures Jia Jiang-ke whose STILL LIFE I thought was so good and Jane Dyer whose book art I admire.

YTSL are you considering doing a lengthy review of LOVE MASSACRE with screen captures for those of us not attending..

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Actually, I advised people to check out David Bordwell's blog -- only with a warning that it'll make them wish that they were in Hong Kong right now too! ;b

As for a review of LOVE MASSACRE with screen captures: Actually, you could go over to to see one now... :b

duriandave said...

YTSL, you saw the same "not quite good but better than nothing" VHS that I saw. It sure will be nice to see the restored print of Love Massacre on the big screen! If you don't mind, I will vicariously partake of your excitement.

YTSL said...

Hi again duriandave --

"It sure will be nice to see the restored print of Love Massacre on the big screen!"

That's what I'm hoping. *And*, I'm also majorly hoping, with English subs -- or those electronic thingamajiggies (under-titles?) that the HKFA sometimes generates at their film screenings! :)

Also, yes, you're most welcome to vicariously partake away with regards to my excitement. ;D

eliza bennet said...

Thank you for the link to his blog. Having read what the wrote, the only two times I wanted to be there was when he said he sat one seat away from Song Kang-Ho and the other one was when he took a picture with him at a bar (and I like the way he calls him charming)

Also it is great to know that Tony's fans also made lots of noise so it is not just Bi and Andy :)

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

Me, OTOH...among other times, let's just say that I really would have liked to have been at the EYE IN THE SKY premiere.

And have you seen David's latest blog entry? The Twins, Hello Kitty, Grady Hendrix, etc. -- all in a single post!!! Even I haven't been that least not in a single post! ;D

eliza bennet said...

Yeah! I saw it when I clicked on the link :) Hello Kitty's as usual reminded me of you!

Since I have been to one HK Gala night I'm content with that.

Did you know that Ross too was in the awards ceremony? He has a funny recap at forum.

YTSL said...

Hi again "eliza bennet" --

Oh my re Hello Kitty making you think of me "as usual"! ;D

And no, I didn't know that Ross was at -- in? -- the awards ceremony. I should go over soon to read his recap... :)