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Future Tense

Hong Kong films face off being Red

By David Templeton


David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This week, he takes author/culture maven Mike Wilkins to John Woo's potent action thriller Face/Off.

MIKE WILKINS stares blankly into space, his open, friendly face suddenly contorted into a grimace of sheer mental effort. "Sheeesh, what is the name of that movie? I should never try to remember things this late in the day," he murmurs, shaking his head as if to wake up his brain.

We are hanging out in a big shopping mall, just after seeing the nifty new John Travolta/Nicolas Cage film, Face/Off, directed by legendary Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo. By a happy coincidence, it is June 30, the day Hong Kong passes from Britain to China. Wilkins has been passionately describing a scene from one of his favorite of Woo's Hong Kong films--a scene in which an outrageous 30-minute indoor gun battle is interrupted by a long, calm, eventless elevator ride that delivers the protagonists from one level of lead-pumping action to another--but the name of the movie just refuses to come to mind.

Fortunately, I've come prepared with my copy of Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-Bending Films (Fireside, 1996). Wilkins' tortured expression melts into one of happy recognition. It's his own book, co-written with fellow film fan Stefan Hammond. Within seconds, he's located the chapter on John Woo and announced the name of the film: Hard-boiled, starring Danny Lee and Chow Yun Fat.

"The elevator ride was a funny, refreshing pause in the middle of all the bloody mayhem," he says. "It's a classic John Woo moment."

Wilkins, perhaps best known as the author of The New Roadside America, a brilliant homage to the singular weirdness of Americans' penchant for creating and patronizing roadside attractions, has been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since his teenage days. In Face/Off--Woo's third film since relocating to the States--Wilkins counted a whole spate of cinematic touches that are linked with the filmmaker's style.

"People sliding across the floor, firing with two-fisted guns," he lists. "The doves. The extended Mexican standoff, with guns pointed in every direction. And, of course, the jacket."

The long black coat, shown flapping in the wind, in slow motion: here worn by Nicolas Cage's psychotic terrorist and later by Travolta's conflicted FBI man, who has surgically swapped faces with his rival for undercover purposes, the coat has been a staple of Hong Kong movies since 1986's A Better World.

"In fact," Wilkins explains, "it caused a rage in Hong Kong. Chow Yun Fat wore the coat; his character's name was Mark. So that summer in Hong Kong--a very warm place in the summer--'Mark coats' were the big fashion thing. All these teenagers who wanted to be cool wore these very long black coats. It was a real phenomenon."

"We should probably discuss the significance of today," I suggest. "The big 'handing over' event in Hong Kong."

"Right," he nods brightly. "My co-author, Stefan, is there. He lives there now." With feigned alarm, Wilkins' volume begins to escalate. "He's so far undercover he doesn't know he's not Chinese. His loyalty is twisted! He's actually living a John Woo movie!"

"How might the change affect the movie business in Hong Kong?" I wonder. "Well, it's already affected it," he replies. "You may have noticed that the stuff in our book all ends in 1995. There was a drop-off in quality, with lots of rumors of Triads [Chinese crime families] becoming more actively involved in filmmaking.

"Unfortunately," he goes on, "they're criminals, not moviemakers. So the product became very slapdash, very uninspired. Suddenly, too, there was a brain drain: Woo left Hong Kong, and a whole exodus of talent followed."

He pauses to flip through the book, allowing the falling pages to create a small wind, blowing our abandoned sugar wrappers across the table and over the edge. I am about to point this out as a curiously apt--if overly poetic--metaphor, when he glances up.

"You know, though," he says, "the takeover has been anticipated for years, decades. In many ways, the fear of the unknown, dread of the future, has been infusing the Hong Kong action films with a neat stylistic darkness, for years. Woo's own films reflected that.

"Let's bring Jung into it, with the whole collective unconscious thing: fear of 1997. The threat of this coming--of today coming--was an incredibly creative impetus for many of these movies."

"And now?" I ask.

"I think people will be very timid at first," he answers. "Filmmakers might go over the line a little bit, just to see what happens, and if they don't get thrown in jail, the next film might go a little further. There will be some testing.

"Stefan says there have been some good things released in the last few months," he shrugs. "Some promising directors are stepping up. So the Hong Kong movie industry--Hong Kong itself--could go either way. The future, as always," Wilkins laughs, "is wonderfully uncertain."

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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