Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-bending Films

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9780684803418: Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-bending Films

Far from the orbit of Planet Hollywood, the new cinema of Hong Kong beckons.
Gone are the flying pigtails and contrived fist-thuds of your father's favorite chopsockies. These are punch-straight entertainers, movies juddering with the excitement that put the "motion" in motion pictures. Dodge a thousand bullets as you contemplate the heroic gangster-knights of Master Director John Woo. Watch international superstar Jackie Chan perform action-comedy on the edge of peril. Wrap your imagination in the fantasy of director Tsui Hark, who proffers comely ghosts floating on silk, otherworldly romance, and no-joke witches and demons. And there's much more! Fighting femme flicks featuring fatales hiking up their designer dresses and bouncing spike heels off the bad guy's forehead. Stylish tragedies rivaling the best of Hollywood noir. Brain-boiling monster weirdies to delight the grindhouse faithful. Subtitles that mangle the English language into fabulous new mutations.

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About the Author:

Authors Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins (co-author of The New Roadside America) met in the front row of San Francisco's now-shuttered Pagoda Palace Theater in 1987, where both had gone to watch The Ghost Snatchers. Now they share the results of their long devotion to the form. They give you their picks for which movies to rent, where to rent them in North America, what to look for once you do, and even film titles in Chinese characters. Zealously written and incredibly entertaining, Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head is the perfect companion to the over-the-edge mayhem of Hong Kong film.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Ten That Rip

We start things off with ten Hong Kong films that rip. The movies in this chapter are all extremely entertaining, well-made, accessible, and like nothing you've ever seen anywhere else. They should also demonstrate once and for all mat anyone Still thinking in terms of the old chopsocky stereotypes is just plain wrong.

This is not a "Ten Best" list. Picking the ten best is a never-ending flame war best played out over coffee or on the Internet's "alt.asian-movies" newsgroup. Instead, what we have tried to do is pick a great representative movie from some of the categories that we explore in more detail later in this book. As a result, we've included only one film each from auteurs John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Jackie Chan, even though a Ten Best list might contain multiple entries from any or all of them.

Not only are these "Ten That Rip" the films that we recommend finding first, they are also among the ones that are easiest to find. Some, like A Chinese Ghost Story and Naked Killer, are staples of the growing college and art house theater circuit. Most are available on both videotape and laser disc. And all can be found subtitled.

The Bride With White Hair


Starring Brigitte Lin Chin-hsia, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Elaine Lui Siu-ling, Francis Ng Chun-yu, Nam Kit Ying

Directed by Ronny Yu

Psychosexual drama loaded with rich visual textures and fast, furious action. Leslie Cheung plays Yi-hang, a martial arts master condemned to self-exile atop a snowy mountaintop. In flashback, his tale reveals a childhood spent learning sword technique. Young adulthood brings with it a moshpit coif and a bright future as the heir to the Chung Yuan organization -- a powerful alliance of eight clans.

But Yi-hang is not fond of the martial life, and longs for freedom from swords plunging through flesh. Into his life swirls a fierce, beautiful warrior (Brigitte Lin), who can rip people apart with her whip. They fall into thunderbolt love, consummating their obsession in a crystalline pool surrounded by stalactites -- their deadly careers forgotten in giggling, washed-innocent abandon. Yi-hang finds that his new girlfriend has no name and christens her Lien Ni-chang.

Ni-chang didn't have a name because she was raised by wolves (really) and is now sponsored in her lethal activities by a cult leader named Chi Wu-shuang. Chi is a back-to-back brother/sister Siamese twin, a creature burning with malevolent intent. The male half blisters with unrequited passion for the beautiful Ni-chang, while the female half mocks her brother as an unlovely abomination.

Ni-chang wants out of the cult so she can start a new life with Yi-hang, and offers herself to the male half of the monster in exchange for her release. But she can't even pretend to get excited by his slathering advances (yeesh), and the female twin on his back shrieks with derision as she realizes that Ni-chang will never be her brother's lover in any way, misshape, or form.

As punishment, a barefoot Ni-chang is forced to walk a gauntlet over jagged shards while her rabid fellow cult members club her. She survives, but the scorned Chi Wu-shuang resorts to scorched-earth subterfuge -- slaughtering the leaders of the Chung Yuan organization. This bloodletting brings him face-to-face with Yi-hang, with the issue of Trust (the highest virtue these less-than-savory characters can aspire to) at stake. Few things hath greater fury than Brigitte Lin seeking vengeance.

While The Bride With White Hair shares elements with other "legend films," like A Chinese Ghost Story, it is darker and more erotic than most. The film contains quite a bit of graphic violence, and fans of stage-blood-jetting-out-backlit won't be disappointed. Star Brigitte Lin's ferocious performance drives the film, and seldom have her features (especially her expressive eyes) been photographed to such effect. Unscrolled on the big screen (where it belongs), this epic poem will go a long way toward converting an HK film skeptic.

A Chinese Ghost Story


Starring Joey Wong Jo-yin, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Ng Ma, David Lam Wai

Directed by Ching Siu-tung

A Chinese Ghost Story breathes flesh and nerve as it spins a love story from a cyclone of fantastic action. An ancient Chinese legend married to Western pacing, this cinefable from producer Tsui Hark (see chapter 4) is at once earthy and unearthly, elegant and chaotic, and remains one of Hong Kong's breakthrough films.

Good-natured scholar Ning Tsai-shen (Leslie Cheung) is the most unpopular man in any village: a traveling tax collector making the rounds. Opting for a night at a deserted temple, he steps into the middle of a sharp and angry staredown between the loner misfit, Swordsman Yen (Ng Ma), and itinerant blade-for-hire, Hsiao-hou (David Lam). Ning keeps the swordsmen from carving each other up but receives a chilly welcome. The misanthropic Yen warns him there are things still skulking about "more scareful than a tiger."

We soon see what he means when Hsiao-hou meets a flirtatious, nubile ghostress bathing in a nearby stream and leaps lustfully upon her. After a shake of her belled ankle bracelet, something unseen slithers upon him, rams itself straight down his throat, and sucks out his essence, turning him into a desiccated corpse!

In the temple, Ning pricks his finger, and the basement, which houses a gaggle of these blood-sniffing corpses, stirs to life. Hollow bones crackle as they move in unison toward an oblivious Ning, who wanders off, attracted by the evocative sound of a lute and voice drifting through the window. He finds a pavilion on a serene lake, occupied by the same beautiful nymph who lured Hsiao-hou to his doom: the gorgeous Nieh Hsiao-tsing (Joey Wong). She immediately attempts to seduce him, but finds that he's different from the churls she's previously set up for drainage. Despite her beauty, he tenderly and politely turns her down.

Good move. A ghost and concubine to hell, Hsiao-tsing's job is targeting men for "yang element" absorption by her spirit-world pimp, an awful, dual-gender matron. But Hsiao-tsing gets no fulfillment from her work. Murdered a year earlier, she is now held in bondage by the creepy she-warlock, who has a witching symbiosis with the forest and sports a fifty-foot tongue that she wraps around her enemies like a python's coils. Even worse, Hsiao-tsing is betrothed to her pimp's boss, Lord Black. Given the circumstances, falling in love with the human Ning would be sheer folly. But, as Woody Allen once wrote, "The heart wants what it wants." They go for it.

Ning convinces the cantankerous-but-lovable Swordsman Yen that his new, pale sweetheart deserves a decent reincarnation. So the trio set off to recover the jar of her remains they'll need to accomplish the job.

The pissed-off matron assaults the trio with walls of tongue and other slimy effects. When these fail, she opens the portal to hell itself and drags Hsiao-tsing down. "Scholar! It seems we have to storm hell!" shouts Swordsman Yen, as the pair descend to scrap with Lord Black and his minions. Victory is hard-won, and enormously entertaining, but Ning and Hsiao-tsing's ill-fated man-ghost love doesn't survive the dawn.

Full Contact


Starring Chow Yun Fat, Simon Yam Tat-wah, Bonnie Fu Yuk-ching, Ann Bridgewater, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Frankie Chin

Directed by Ringo Lam

Drenched in feedback and octane, Full Contact revels in outrageous villains, antiheroes, and the hollow rattle of brass casings hitting the pavement. The film's multiethnic soundtrack sparks with crime glamour: psychedelic blues guitar threading together Cantorock, Yankeerock, and Thai Pop. Ace director Ringo Lam cranks up all the knobs to ten in this crime-action fuel-burner.

Full Contact opens with the robbery of an antique shop in Bangkok, Thailand. The robbers are a surreal bunch, led by Judge, an openly gay fashion plate and amateur magician whose colorful pocket-scarves conceal deadly weapons. Judge's accomplices are the gum-chomping harlot Virgin (Bonnie Fu) and her muscleheaded pro-rassler-like beau, Deano (Frankie Chin). This over-the-top trio has barely finished terrorizing the staff, shooting up the local cops, and roaring off with the swag (in a twitch-perfect 64 Fairlane), before the opening credits roll over a funk-removing interpretative striptease by Mona (Ann Bridgewater).

Meanwhile, Mona's squeeze and fellow dance club employee, Jeff (played by Hong Kong's leading leading man, Chow Yun Fat), sets off to rescue their friend Sam (Anthony Wong) from the clutches of a local loan shark and his henchmen. Steel rings as Jeff thumps the thugs, then zooms off with Sam on his Honda-Davidson motorbike.

Discharging the sharks does not discharge the debt, however, so Sam arranges a joint heist with Jeff's troops and those of his cousin, Judge. But when the Jeff gang meets the Judge mob, a squabble brings out the Freudian rods. Jeff's hog-leg 45 dwarfs Judge's nickel-plated automatic, and a tense standoff ends when Judge unabashedly tells him: "Your eyes are so charming and attractive."

Judge's frustrated sexual energy must be sublimated by evildoing when he's contracted by the humiliated loan shark to double-cross Jeff during the robbery. The job -- hijacking an arms-laden truck on a crowded Bangkok bridge -- starts with Virgin furiously masturbating in Jeff's speeding car and concludes with a half-hearted betrayal, when Sam shoots Jeff through the chest after Judge traps him in a house whose occupants he has just shot and burned. Escaping with fewer friends and fingers, Jeff is slowly nursed back to health by monks at a Thai temple, who are also tending a weird, bug-eyed puppy.

Meanwhile, Sam is busy rising through the criminal ranks in Hong Kong, running guns for Judge and seducing Mona (both believe Jeff was killed in the robbery). When Jeff finally returns to HK and contacts them, this tangled trio struggle with their loyalties, alternately frail and tough.

Caught in the trap of gangster pride, Sam must bite off his leg and help Jeff gain his revenge. They steal Judge's arms cache and hold it for ransom. Negotiations disintegrate, and a "bulletcam" nightclub gunfight ensues -- individual shots are followed through plate glass, hands, and necks. In the finale, Jeff puts an end to Judge's incessant flirting, climbs on his iron horse, and thunders off into the distance.



Starring Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Teresa Mo Shun-kwan, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Philip Chan, Kuo Chui, Bowie Lam, Bobby Ah Yuen

Directed by John Woo

Hong Kong cinema is a deck full of action aces, but John Woo's Hard-Boiled is the trump. This tale of gunrunners, double agents, and innocents caught in between showcases several action sequences that suck your jaw to the floor. Hard-Boiled is Woo's most spectacular film and an absolute must-see; it will convert anybody to the HK cause.

Hard-Boiled (like another Woo masterpiece, The Killer -- see chapter 2) revolves around an intense platonic relationship between two men in a violent world. Loyalty is all, superseding both law enforcement and criminal careers. Either way, you pack a gun and use it when necessary.

Hard-Boiled plainclothesman Tequila (Chow Yun Fat) moonlights as a clarinet player in a neon lounge. Tequila and his drummer, fellow cop Lionheart (Bowie Lam), go for an early morning dim sum in the Wyndham Teahouse, a Hong Kong landmark where customers bring along their own caged birds to sing table-side. In the large, crowded teahouse, gun-smuggling mobsters hide their gats in false-bottomed birdcages. Tequila blows their cover, and a trademark John Woo gun battle steeps the teeming teahouse in flying slugs and birds. As Lionheart bites it, Tequila chases crooks by sliding sidesaddle down a banister -- toothpick in mouth and automatics blazing. In the kitchen, he skids across a countertop and is powdered with flour; white-faced as a ghost, he terminates the villain with a squirting shot to the head.

As the web unfolds, we meet Tequila's apparent nemesis, Tony (played by Tony Leung, who is often called Tony "Hard Boiled" Leung because of his great performance). He's a flamboyant underworld killer working for the powerful Mr. Hoi. His trigger skills are coveted by Hoi's gunrunning rival, Johnny (Anthony Wong), who also covets Hoi's empire. Johnny's men assault Hoi's warehouse in a spectacular battle -- slick, violent, and beautiful -- with phalanxes of motorcycles, breathtaking tracking shots, and Johnny's top gunman Mad Dog (Kuo Chui) greasing row after row of Hoi's men. Loser Hoi dies stoically, just as lone cop Tequila rappels down from the warehouse ceiling.

More rounds are uncapped as Tequila disassembles what remains of the assembled armies. It ends with Tony and Tequila exploring their psychic bond by pointing guns at each other's heads, but the crucial chamber -- for once -- is empty.

As it turns out, Tony is also a cop, but he has gone so far undercover that routine hits don't mean anything to him anymore. As the two cops gradually realize they're on the same side, they uncover Johnny's arsenal, stashed in the basement of a hospital. It's in this hospital where Hard-Boiled resolves itself.

The entire third act is a half-hour action sequence that dwarfs the offerings of most action movies in their entirety. The battle against Johnny and his legion of "killable dogs" assumes epic proportions as patients are used as pawns and bullets fly like horizontal sleet. Tequila and Tony battle the entire length of a hospital corridor together, step forward as elevator doors close behind them, enjoy a few moments of calm and conference, then start over on a different floor.

And, just when you think the stakes can't get any higher, Tequila and policewoman Teresa (comedienne Teresa Mo in a Betty-and-Veronica flip wig) have to move a nursery full of babies to safety. As cops and crooks die right and left, Tequila cradles a sanguine tyke named Saliva Sammy in one arm while his free hand cradles a warm pistol. Sticking cotton balls in Sammy's ears, Tequila blasts away and prepares to escape, but accidentally catches on fire. Fortunately, the child pees and douses the fire. The underground arsenal explodes, and fireballs blow through the hospital, but the babies are saved, the bad guy croaks, and the audience settles back with a loud "Whew."

Hard-Boiled is easily available, both subtitled and dubbed, even in video chains like Blockbuster or on laser disc as part of Voyager's outstanding Criterion Collection.

It's Now or Never


Starring Sharla Cheung Man, Rain Lau Yuk-tsui, Ng Man-tat, Alfred Cheung Hin-ling, Cynthia Khan

Directed by Louis Chan Kwok-hei

It's Now or Never opens in a furious blur. Roving packs of early-sixties teddygirls with big hairdos are out looking for boys and trouble. Soon you realize you're watching a shrewd black comedy whose gags are nasty enough to draw blood. Hong Kong comedies don't usually translate well, but this one, influenced by the films of John Waters, is a crackpot exception.

At a local dance, Chewing Gum (Pauline Chan) puts the moves on the boyfriend of Little Bun (martial arts diva Cynthia Khan). As distorto surf guitar rumbles, Little Bun's best pal -- rose-tattooed Rose (Sharla Cheung) -- brings in her she-wolves to bust heads. The rhubarb ends when the toughettes are carted off to the cop shop, where Rose finds her sister, fellow delinquent ...

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Stefan Hammond; Mike Wilkins
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