DVD brings home the Hong Kong hits

Cheaper to produce than videotape and capable of storing more data, digital video discs allow you to see and hear top action films you probably won't find in the United States.

February 07, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Mistaken for a wanted man and unaware that he has blundered into the Imperial Magistrate's house, Jackie Chan ducks under tables, leaps over chairs and juggles a valuable clay pipe as he tries to avoid the sword thrusts of the outraged magistrate.

Even though he's unarmed, Chan manages to get the better of his opponent -- until the magistrate's daughter wanders in and thrashes the hapless hero.

The scene is from "The Young Master," and it's a classic bit of kung fu comedy, deftly blending dazzling gymnastics with first-rate clowning. But don't expect to find it among the action tapes at your local video shop. Even though "The Young Master" is considered classic Chan, the 1980 film is hard to find outside of shops specializing in Hong Kong movies.

Unless you want it on DVD, that is.

Along with the expected assortment of mainstream blockbusters and art-house hits, a growing number of Hong Kong movies are turning up on DVD. Even better, these DVDs are available at major chains like Suncoast Video and Tower Records.

We're not talking about the hits that crossed over to mainstream theaters after being dubbed into English, like Chan's "Supercop" and "Rumble in the Bronx." Recently-released DVD titles include such Hong Kong classics as "The Bride With White Hair," John Woo's "A Bullet in the Head," Jet Li's "Fong Sai Yuk," and such multi-part epics as "A Chinese Ghost Story" and "Once Upon a Time in China."

These are great movies -- titles that helped elevate Hong Kong cinema from cultish obscurity to its current state of fashionable influence. These films have been acclaimed by everyone from directors Quentin Tarentino and Oliver Stone to critics like Dave Kehr and Roger Ebert.

They've also had a direct commercial impact on the American film industry. Were it not for films like "A Bullet in the Head" and "Hard Boiled," director John Woo would never have been hired to make Hollywood features like "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow." Likewise, if Jet Li hadn't built such a fervent following through "Fong Sai Yuk" and "Once Upon a Time in China," it's doubtful he would have been cast as the villain in "Lethal Weapon 4."

But why DVD? Because the digital video discs make more sense, economically, for the film companies.

"The Hong Kong industry has not stopped making video tape. But the industry all over the world -- whether it's Hong Kong, Japan or the United States -- would really like to see DVD take a grip, because it's infinitely cheaper for them to create a DVD than it is for them to create a prerecorded videotape," says Thomas Weisser, editor of the magazine Asian Cult Cinema and the author of numerous books on Chinese and Japanese films.

Part of the problem with dubbing movies onto tape, says Weisser, is that it has to be done in real time; a two-hour movie takes two hours to copy. Even if a duplicating plant has thousands of recorders slaved to a master tape, it's still a long and costly process.

By contrast, he says, pressing a DVD "can be done in a few seconds. It's just like pressing a record." Being faster means that the manufacturer saves on power and labor costs.

There's another advantage. Hong Kong's film industry is the world's third largest (behind Hollywood and Bombay). At its peak, in 1995, Hong Kong studios produced some 200 titles, and theaters there raked in $175 million. Moreover, Hong Kong movies are popular throughout Asia, providing the industry with lucrative secondary markets in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Reaching such a diverse audience requires some adjustments, however. Most Hong Kong films are shot in Cantonese (the dialect spoken in Hong Kong), then dubbed into Mandarin (standard Chinese). Subtitles are then added for various foreign markets.

Often, Hong Kong videotapes have double-decker subtitles, with a line or two of English below a similar amount of Chinese. This makes it easier for those who speak Mandarin or English to buy the same tape as the average Hong Kong native, but it also leaves the viewer with a very cluttered screen.

DVD solves both the language and subtitle problems. Because the CD-sized discs can store an enormous amount of digital data, DVDs can not only deliver a full-length movie, but can offer multiple audio tracks, several layers of subtitles and other extras. This means viewers can choose between Cantonese and Mandarin for the dialogue, and subtitles in a variety of languages. "The Young Master," for instance, has nine sets of subtitles, including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and English.

That's a tremendous advantage for the manufacturers. Where once they had to make multiple versions of a tape, now they can reach a number of markets with one DVD.

"It's a better deal for the com-pany all the way around," says Weisser. "Whether it's a better thing for the consumer or not remains to be seen."

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