Naked Killer

(, Clarence Fok, Hong Kong, 1992)


It has been fascinating to observe, over the course of the 1990s, the gradual seeping of Hong Kong popular cinema into the general filmgoing consciousness of a country such as Australia. Even in the late 1980s, HK movies constituted a bizarre paradox in our local context. You could head down anytime to the Chinatown cinema of Melbourne and see maybe six different films, some of them straight out of the labs of HK – and many of them extraordinary, for one reason or another.


However, in the (English language) places where new movies are noticed and discussed, these films were virtually never mentioned. It was as if they never even existed – or rather, to be more exact, that they simply unspooled in an ethnic ghetto that had nothing to do with the given, dominant, mainstream culture.


Now in 1995, things are happily a bit different. There are occasional reviews of new HK films on TV’s The Movie Show (if that’s not mainstream acceptance, nothing is) and in some newspapers. There have been a few informative documentaries on SBS that helped popularise certain great names of HK cinema: John Woo, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark. And some of these names, including iconic movie star Chow Yun-fat, have struck out on American careers, and are working with Jean-Claude Van Damme and the like.


The sum result of all this is that you’re now less likely to encounter the old, ignorant attitude that Hong Kong cinema amounts to a few corny, weirdly dubbed Bruce Lee martial arts movies made in the ‘70s. In the more specialist pockets of local film culture, HK cinema has graduated to cult status, something that any self-respecting cinephile must taste, savour and explore, like Italian giallo horror movies or Japanese cop thrillers.


When I speak of popular HK movies, I’m referring to genres of fantasy and action, comedies, thrillers, musicals, erotic films – and often several or all of these formats mixed up in the same film. It’s a vast field of cinema that contains everything from Woo’s sublimely violent The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), via crazy romps like Sex and Zen (1991), to amazing costume fantasies such as the A Chinese Ghost Story series (1987-1991, remake 2011) and Tsui Hark’s marvellous Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983, remake 2001).


In discussions of Chinese cinema, these HK movies are often shoved off into their own little corner, while supposedly serious Chinese movies from the mainland, by the Fifth Generation directors for instance, are elevated into a loftier, arthouse position. That’s the same old, cultural snobbery I often berate, and I don’t mean to replace it by a simple, inverse snobbery – for Chinese arthouse successes like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) or Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993) are terrific films, too.


Even this frosty dualism of crassly popular Chinese movies and solemnly artistic ones has shifted somewhat in the ‘90s. Slowly but surely, some of the pop films have been legitimated, with critics at last finding in them hidden political messages (they like that “subtextual” stuff!), or a reflection of HK society hurtling towards the big break-up of 1997. And the whole heady brew of fantasy, entertainment and spectacle which these pop movies so relentlessly, energetically push is even starting to win respect on its own terms – fantasy as something which is not necessarily second best to realism, naturalism or “dramas of significance”. Here’s hoping!


These popular HK movies are show-off, performative, game-playing works akin to Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995). Woo’s films have that same drawn-out play on characters looking at each other intensely, throwing each other weapons or bullets, waiting anxiously on magnified little clicks and strikes, as in Raimi’s Western or Sergio Leone’s epics. Even more pertinently, Raimi’s The Evil Dead series was clearly a big influence on some HK filmmakers, particularly Tsui Hark (for the horror thrills and ludic special effects) and Wong Jing (for the crazy comedy). HK films use a similarly fast paced, kinetic, often cartoonish mode of attack – the editing is often the principal determinant of audiovisual style, and it’s geared to maximum visceral effect.


Across all the genres, whether depicting Chinese opera stunts, slapstick comedy gags or violent Sam Peckinpah-style shoot-outs, you find spectacular set-pieces where action is rendered as a incomprehensible swirl of leaps, kicks, explosions, shattering props, facial gesticulations, fingers pointed and guns aimed, bodies twisting in mid-air in slow motion. It resembles a Pop Art style, but this frieze is set into frantic motion. Paradoxically, it is the very incomprehensibility of these magnificent sequences that gives the happy viewer (myself) an overwhelming feeling of ecstasy. My heart is always in my mouth when I watch the best scenes of the best HK movies, just as it was when I was a kid in 1971 for my first viewing of Sergio Leone’s Giù la testa.


Some commentators seem to want to see only ancient traditions of Asian art in this contemporary national cinema. But popular HK movies are eclectically cosmopolitan and magpie-like in their influences and borrowings – which tends to be the rule for every film industry on the globe. Woo’s thrillers, for instance, draw on Martin Scorsese for certain violent effects, but also on the taut minimalism of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, and equally on the sweeping, operatic grandiosity of Leone. All this has by now come full circle: Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994), John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994): all these USA movies, in various ways, clearly return the homage to Woo or to HK cinema in general.


Some independent operators in Melbourne are trying to attract an audience to HK movies; the campaign is aimed at people who may have heard of this cult, but not yet dared seek it out in Chinatown cinemas or Chinese-language video shops. Hot on the heels of Sex and Zen’s success on this field comes Naked Killer, produced and scripted by a visionary and prolific entertainer-operator, Wong Jing.


Naked Killer is best described as a sex thriller. It’s certainly a good deal less repressed than many HK entertainments I’ve seen to date. It offers a cool, sleek, metropolitan portrait of a team of lesbian killers who do some memorable things to the hapless men they keep down in the basement, panting away. Like another HK movie I found on VHS, Kirk Wong’s Taking Manhattan (1992), the lovemaking scenes here are treated with the same visceral, kinetic energy as the action scenes proper. One particular sequence intercutting lesbian and straight couples going at it is especially wild.


I still worry, though, even given the growing taste for HK cinema among Western cinephiles, whether these films will ever fully find favour in the mainstream of our culture. I have more than once been dismayed by the superior, derisive laughter that has greeted a masterpiece like The Killer at cult-retro venues (such as, in Melbourne, the Valhalla) or the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals. Some of the best, most disarming qualities of HK movies – their shameless displays of sentimentality, completely childlike level of silly humour, sudden exhibitions of florid melodramatic emotion – leave many uncognisant viewers simply baffled.


Come to think of it, these same viewers are probably going to have exactly the same resistance to Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, since it juggles a similar high-ball mixture of corny camp humour, intense generic emotion and a severe, majestic sense of film form. I wonder: do you have to remain an 11 year-old cinephile all your life in order to truly appreciate these movies?

MORE Fok: Dating a Vampire

MORE Wong Jing: Kung Fu Mahjong 2

© Adrian Martin June 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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