Hong Kong cinema is a lot more than martial arts films starring Jackie Chan, as the Charles will demonstrate over the next few weeks.
Beginning tonight and continuing through the month, Thursdays will be devoted to films from the former British protectorate, now a part of China. And viewers may be in for a surprise.
Though martial arts and subtitles in pidgin English abound, Hong Kong cinema boasts hefty doses of fantasy and comedy, carefully choreographed mayhem (director John Woo does for shootouts what Busby Berkeley did for dancing girls) and actors who do a lot more than jump around.
What you won't see is much subtlety; Hong Kong films tend to wear their hearts (and plots) on their sleeves.
Hong Kong moviegoers are legendary for being the most rabid on the planet. For years, no people spent more time in the movie houses (things have reportedly changed somewhat since 1997's reunification with China). To meet the demand, the movie industry turns movies out fast and turns them out cheap.
So you find a lot of plots borrowed from Hollywood films, lots of movies that are no more than star vehicles for the big-name actors (including Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Sammo Hung and Chow Yun-fat, who have all achieved a measure of Hollywood fame in the past five years).
What you also find is a pervasive joy, a restlessness perhaps fitting for one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and a series of formulas that have been fine-tuned to near perfection by years of practice.
Tonight's opening double-feature (all films begin at 7: 40 p.m. and 9: 25 p.m.) doesn't include the best of Hong Kong film, but it does offer a representative sample. "Tiger On the Beat" (1988) features the charismatic Chow Yun-fat teamed with kick boxer Conan Lee as cops out to shut down one of those menacing crime lords who says little, but carries a very big stick -- and surrounds himself with some English-speaking thugs (tough to tell if they're American or British) to do his very dirty work.
It's played as broad comedy -- both stars lose their pants while chasing the bad guys, and Chow hams it up royally. But when these guys get down to business, sparks fly. Sometimes erally, as in a nail-biting chain-saw duel between Lee and one of the henchmen.
"Green Snake" (1993) is a fantasy from director Tsui Hark, with Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong as two serpents who assume human form to better experience what pleasure is -- and are pursued by an evil monk bent on keeping humans and non-humans separate. Based on a Chinese fable, the film features women with tails and serpentine tongues, men trapped in bowls and characters who fly and otherwise defy natural laws. It is a frenetic mess -- not necessarily a bad mess, but a mess nonetheless -- that was a notorious flop in Hong Kong, but has developed a cult following here in the states.
The other scheduled films are:
Dec. 16: "Pedicab Driver" (1989), with Sammo Hung (TV's "Martial Law") as the leader of a group of men looking for romance in postwar Macao. When one of them falls for a prostitute, he tries to buy her freedom, but is killed (along with his intended bride) by the brothel owner, leaving Hung to seek vengeance. "The Blade" (1995), also from director Tsui, stars Zhao Wen-zhou as a one-armed swordsman out to avenge his father's death.
Dec. 23: "Butterfly and Sword" (1993), with Michelle Yeoh (the Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies") and Leslie Cheung as martial-arts warriors taking on a rival clan. "Saviour of the Soul" (1992), with Anita Mui as twin sisters, one a hit-woman, the other an inventor of hi-tech weapons.
Dec. 30: "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), directed by John Woo, stars Chow (soon to be seen as the second half of "Anna and the King") in a crime melodrama about brothers, one a cop, the other a gangster, who become bitter enemies after their father is killed. Chow, as the gangster-brother's partner, steals the show in the film that made Woo's reputation. "A Better Tomorrow II" (1987), in which the three principals from "Tomorrow I" team up (although Chow, whose character was killed in the first film, returns as his twin brother) to bring down the syndicate. Partially shot in Brooklyn.