Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.
Unfortunately, the realities of professional life often clash with my NYAFF aspirations, and this year I was unable to see The Blade due to work schedule, despite that being the one I really wanted to see since it’s so persistently difficult to find. I don’t know what conspiracy keeps that thing so doggedly in the MIA on DVD pile. I also didn’t get to see Hark’s new film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, because going to buy tickets eleven days in advance of the premiere of the film (with Tsui Hark in attendance and doing a Q&A session) is not soon enough.
Ah well. I consoled myself with Zu, which is pretty satisfying consolation indeed. Like many people who got into Hong Kong film in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Zu was one of the first films I saw — first in random clips, and then finally in its entirety on VHS. It was a staggering, dizzying experience, the kind that leaves you slack jawed and only able to communicate via insane howls and arm flailing for days after. I had never seen anything like it, and thirty years after it was made — around two decades after I first saw it — the movie has lost none of its power to astound. The sheer madness, breakneck pace, and audacity of the film is still almost more than I can process. I sat through the packed NYAFF screening with a permanent, giddy grin on my face. Every time I watch the movie, it’s like I’m discovering it for the first time, and I’m a giggling schoolboy during the whole experience.
Zu has a doubly special place in my heart, though. I moved to New York in 1998, around the same time the storied Chinatown movie theater Music Palace was beginning its painful decline. My first trip to the theater was in 1994, when a friend and I made the trip up to New York City from Gainesville, Florida. I had a girl in Massachusetts at the time, and New York City was a good place to meet — not in the middle, but in the middle between Gainesville and Northampton is, I think, South of the Border, and you can only take a girl to Pedro’s Motel so many times. We had no idea we were showing up in New York the same week as Drunken Master II was premiering at the Music Palace, but once we happened by and saw the poster, we knew what the hell we were going to be doing that night. The movie was an absolute madhouse, as shows at the Music Palace usually were.
For those who were never able to see a movie there, it was a classic single-screen theater, complete with a balcony and a dingy concession stand selling dried cuttlefish. The crowd for Drunken Master II was massive. It was a new Jackie Chan film, after all, when such a thing still got people excited, and it was Lunar New Year to boot. The crowd was an eclectic mix of rowdy young kids and phlegmy oldsters — having a phlegmy, coughing old man sitting behind you being a requirement of seeing movies at the Music Palace. Predominantly Chinese in make-up, this was no staid and quiet crowd. People cheered, hollered, hooted, and a couple teens were so excited by the movie that they were running wild in the aisles, throwing down with mock kungfu moves. the Music Palace was never very big on crowd control.
By the time I was a New York resident, the Hong Kong film industry had pretty much collapsed, and new movies garnered very little excitement. As a result, the Music Palace started struggling. The other theater, a block down Bowery, had already succumb to the downturn, transforming itself to a strictly Cat III softcore porn theater and then, finally, into its current incarnation: A Buddhist temple. In order to spackel the cracks that were beginning to show, The Music Palace augmented new film releases with double features of older movies, mostly from the 80s and 90s. Although it was sad to see the theater struggling, I was overjoyed for the chance to spend Saturday afternoons at a $6 double feature of films like Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, and Swordsman — all these amazing films I’d watched on shitty Tai Seng VHS tapes but could now witness is glorious, massive 35mm projection.
The front row of the balcony became my home for four hours just about every Saturday. The Music Palace really didn’t give a crap about much, so if you wanted to bring in a whole meal and sit there all day, you could — and many people did, mostly families and homeless old dudes who either loved the old movies or wanted a place to sleep and cough a lot. every now and then, a group of Triad dudes young or old would show up to watch a double feature, because I guess there was no one to shake down during those hours. In time, I got myself a New York girlfriend and enlisted her as a partner (she was already well-versed in Chinatown culture and all the expectorating it entails). One of the first movies we saw together (the actual first was The Big Hit in Manhattan’s late lamented $4 budget theater, and we didn’t even get to sit together), and the last movies I ever saw at the Music Palace, was a double feature of two of my all-time favorite movies: Zu and Dragons Forever.
The Music Palace itself went derelict shortly after that double feature and sat, empty and crumbling, for years. It took monumental effort on my part to not break in and see what leftovers might still be in the lace. OK, confession. I actually did try to break in. I’m just not very good at it. Eventually, the theater building was demolished, and fans of Hong Kong cinema gathered to lament the loss of one of our last, great landmarks in the United States. For a while, that block also hosted the best DVD stores in Chinatown, but even that is gone now, and all that remains are a few stores that peddle almost nothing but bootlegs, though you can go around the corner to a street stall and get awesome little yellow cakes filled with custard.
Watching Zu at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this year as part of the NYAFF was a different, less greasy experience — though I saw it with the same girl, and for The Music Palace’s sake, we snuck in some roast pork buns (we’d also just that day come off a three day cleansing program and were starving). But nicer setting not withstanding, watching that giant projection of a truly giant film brought an incredible flood of memories and emotion. Movies like Zu, places like the Music Palace, events like the New York Asian Film Festival — these are why Teleport City exists. It was a night long ago spent watching bad VHS bootlegs of Once Upon a Time in China, Project A, Chinese Ghost Story, and Zu that made me start writing about film. My first weeks and months in New York, I didn’t really know many people, but the weird old men, homeless dudes, gangsters, and fellow awkward film nerds who turned up for The Music Palace’s double features were a strange but comforting sort of family.
It was heartening to be in a crowd that cheered wildly for the Golden Harvest logo, for the first appearance of Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, for the first appearance of Brigitte Lin. Sadly, Moon Lee, Meng Hoi and Adam Cheng got less reaction, but what can you do? And Brigitte Lin… my God, Brigitte Lin. She’s so beautiful, so graceful, so perfectly posed and filmed, so elegant in this film that it’s physically painful to behold. I would say my love for Brigitte Lin is rekindled every time I watch this movie, but seriously — who the hell ever loses their love for Brigitte Lin? The NYAFF screening of Zu also had the added bonus of featuring Tsui Hark — these days sans his once trademark mop of curly hair — in a post-screening Q&A session. he was a bit uncomfortable with the movie — what director isn’t squeamish around their old work? — but seem to appreciate how much people appreciated the film.
Although there’s nothing at this year’s festival that will match seeing Zu on the big screen again, it’s been a pretty great year. We kicked off with Karate Robo-Zaborgar, which was quite a bit of fun, then followed up with the more somber kungfu epic Shaolin, which had its faults but was still entertaining. There was also The Man from Nowhere, which friends got to see while I was at work. I have that queued up on Netflix for this weekend, though. Then came the double feature of Zu and Reign of Assassins — with director Su Chao-Pin present (he actually sat in and watched Zu and remarked how awesome he still thought the movie was). Not quite as powerful as Zu and Dragons Forever at the Music Palace, but still a fantastic few hours at the movies.
You can’t really complain about a film festival that has so much awesome stuff showing that you miss a lot — next year, I’ll know to just schedule my vacation around NYAFF. the films I’m missing that I wanted to see — Man from Nowhere, Troubleshooter, The Blade, and Yellow Sea, I’m queuing up on DVD, so I’ll be there at least in spirit, if not physically or at the same time. As for the New York Asian Film Festival, as I did last year, I heartily recommend it. If you’re not in New York, it’s worth the trip. My only complaint — every year, they come out with awesome NYAFF artwork t-shirts and run out of of small and medium within the first couple days. Come on, NYAFF! Not all of us are Sammo Hung! You gotta take care of the Yuen Biaos out there!