Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reviews and Love

We met Stefan in Tokyo -- he was the guy with the biggest collection of videotapes I'd ever seen. He was leaving town and was looking for someone to take his collection away. Me, I volunteered. Numerous large shopping bags full of VHS cassettes were lugged across Shinkoiwa and deposited in our loft. Stefan mentioned a few key ones that were not to be missed and then he was gone and we never saw him again.

We watched a lot of those movies, and they had an immense impact on us. Swordsman II. Bullet In The Head. The Bride With White Hair. Chungking Express.

Classics now, but at the time they were piled up willy-nilly with less memorable titles like Wonder Seven or An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty (you gotta admit, it SOUNDS promising enough). It was hard to push our way through the towering collection without a guide of any sort. A great deal of time was wasted watching absolute crap.

But then a book appeared. A book that laid out Hong Kong cinema of the 80's and 90's, gave solid reviews of many films and placed them in a context so that we could make sense of what we were watching.

That book was Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head. Written by none other than Stefan himself.

That's correct. We inherited the video collection of the author of the definitive book on Hong Kong New Wave cinema. And the impact goes deeper than you know.

First of all, Stefan and his co-writer Mike Wilkins articulate so well in this book the joys of these films:

In describing Hong Kong cinema — its excitement, vitality, electricity — film-school polemics fail. There is no pointy-headed, white-wine-and-baked-brie philosophy that adequately describes its "scalding propulsion," the force that blasts you out of your seat and rearranges your popcorn.


But it's in the reviews themselves that this book really shines.

"There is a fine line between horror and humour, and Mr. Vampire does everything but jump rope with it."

"Naked Killer arches its back and spits at you for ninety minutes."

We're still in Chapter One, here. This book is full of gems like that.

"Transfer cracked-shell, evil-egghead brains into killer androids, and stuff like this is bound to happen."

Besides providing us with a guide to what have now become a solid set of our favourite films ever, S&Z&aBitH also provided me at least with a form of writing that I don't think I've ever quite shaken -- the smug, knowing summation of dire events that is nonetheless delivered with heartfelt emotion and some spectacular turns of phrase. Take this comment from their review of the rather crappy Wicked City:

"Tragic potential energy becomes tragic kinetic energy, and almost everyone dies."

Come on. That's a pretty sweet little sparkle, right there.

For some reason I've picked this book up recently and am awed all over again by the energy and obvious love it brings to its subject. The Hong Kong New Wave petered out a number of years ago, and we'll never see films like Full Contact or Drunken Master II again, but this book takes me back to what it was like to first discover this whole world of cinema I'd never even heard of.