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OCTOBER 30, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 17

Tsui Hark's New Spark
With his orgasmic action film Time and Tide, the 'Hong Kong Spielberg' proves he's still the master

Columbia Pictures.
Director Tsui Hark chats with Hong Kong heartthrob Nicholas Tse on the set of 'Time and Tide'.

God said, let there be light. In Tsui Hark's universe, that means fancy cigarette lighters igniting big cigars and bigger scams in Hong Kong's neon night. "Then God createdwater," the narrator tells us, and a dishy guy (Nicholas Tse) looks soulfully around the night club where he tends bar. "God created animals —survival of the fittest": a woman kicks a man in the street, to the subtle underscoring of elephant trumpets and wild bird cries. "God created man ... and woman": and a woman caresses another woman's hair. On the seventh day, we are told, God thought He would rest. But then He looked at what He'd created, and realized He'd have to start all over again. "And the whole world had to do it with him."

This vision of social evolution—with the world as a giant rock and mankind as poor Sisyphus—occupies the first two minutes of Time and Tide, Tsui Hark's first Hong Kong movie in almost five years. Breathlessly virtuosic, using slo-mo and rapid cutting and neck-swiveling pans to impart enough visual information for a half-dozen Hollywood features, the opening cues you to the film's theme (the strong survive only if they learn how to be human) and introduces the main character (barman-turned-hitman Tyler, played by teen pop idol Tse). In its frenetic images of ambition and predation, of cynicism and romance, the opening of Time and Tide also manages to encapsulate the technique and world view of Tsui Hark—the man who, more than any other, defined two glorious decades of Hong Kong moviemaking.

Like God in Genesis—and a bit like the Devil—Tsui plays with his creations. He tempts and tortures them, stretches them until they reveal their heroic or demonic essence. Time and Tide, a drugs-'n'-guns saga in which Tyler and a hitman (ultracool Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai) join forces to defeat some South American cartel cuties, may have no other meaning beyond its own kinetic rush, but who cares? With its speeding-bullet point-of-view shots and a climactic birthin'-baby shootout, this is more than an exercise in style; it's a 113-min. Solo-flex workout. If it doesn't win a Best Film prize, this spectacle of perpetual motion is surely the movie-est movie of the year. Like graffiti written in blood, it spells out Tsui's message to the industry he left in 1996: I'm back, lean and mean, guns blazing.

In other words, nothing has changed since the days when Tsui—born in China, raised in Vietnam and Hong Kong, and educated in Texas and New York City—came back to the territory with Hitchcock and Kurosawa movies dancing in his head, and promptly set local films racing to his own fevered pulse. The result: pop masterpieces like the kung-fu fantasy Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and the all-girl action comedy Peking Opera Blues. "His mind is like a video game," says Sylvia Chang, who starred in Tsui's delicious romantic comedy Shanghai Blues. "Everything happens so fast. He's like a big child, wandering around in his own cartoon world. He has a vision that others can't always understand. He was a revolutionary when I first met him, and he still is today. But Hollywood is not the right place for him. He should stay here and take the lead in Hong Kong film."

Tsui, who turns 50 next Feb. 15, certainly has a great rEsumE. As director or producer, Tsui created about half of Hong Kong's best films in its Golden Age; he was often called the colony's Spielberg, though he said, "That's unfair to him, I think. It's unfair to me too—he's so rich." Tsui's Film Workshop, founded in 1984, quickly became the colony's preeminent small studio—the Amblin of Hong Kong. Now the hyperactive genius was moving at warp speed. "He has 10,000 ideas all at the same time," says See Nan-sun, Tsui's wife, co-producer and closest adviser. "He has been wrong, but he's always interestingly wrong. When he's right, it's a huge trend."

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Film Workshop was responsible for four films that, in sequels, became terrific franchises: A Better Tomorrow (the Heroic Bloodshed epic that made Chow Yun-fat a superstar and John Woo a world-class auteur), A Chinese Ghost Story (the magical romance directed by Ching Siu-tung), Swordsman (whose two sequels displayed Brigitte Lin in all her pansexual charisma) and Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui's glamorous, fiercely nationalistic retelling of the Wong Fei-hung saga, which brought stardom to Jet Li and ignited a two-year slate of high-flying martial-arts epics).

Almost any Tsui Hark movie is made with such verve and craft that your head practically explodes with the concentration it requires, the pleasure it brings. But to see the low-budget, high-gloss Shanghai Blues, say, in the context of other mid-'80s Hong Kong films is to realize that Tsui was working on a level much higher than everyone else—until he raised that level by producing the movies he didn't direct. They didn't need to be series; there were some fabulous one-offs, like the effervescent gangster-splatter drama The Big Heat (body count: infinite) and Yuen Wo-ping's irresistible Iron Monkey (Wong Fei-hung as a boy). For a decade, Film Workshop gave audiences a rare treat: they could come to the movies with the expectation of enthrallment.

"People talk of the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema," Tsui says, "but I was never aware of it. People just shot anything, and some of that is called the Golden Age." O.K., but he shot it better, handsomer, and got more resonance out of it. Even his quickies, like the all-star charity movies he co-directed (The Banquet and the Jackie Chan Twin Dragons) were spiffy delights.

His specialty was turning traditionally male genres into showcases for womanly wiles and beguiling actresses. "From very early on," he says, "I wanted to do movies without any guys." Peking Opera Blues let three young women settle the 1911 Revolution; Green Snake sent two reptilian temptresses, Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung, slithering into weak men's hearts; The Lovers had pretty Charlie Yeung camouflaged in male drag as a Chinese Yentl. These films are romantic but oddly reticent —like Tsui. "He's sensitive to women," says his wife, "but frightened of expressing emotion. In his films, it seems he's going all the way and then he doesn't press the button. In real life, he never tells anyone he loves them, never cuddles or kisses them."

Tsui is almost never satisfied by his or anyone else's work. "I did one scene on Aces Go Places 3 that required 56 takes," Chang recalls. "And on Shanghai Blues we never knew when he was going to let us out. It was like being locked in a dungeon." Wu Bai describes the Time and Tide shoot as "three months of getting up at 4 a.m., then getting home 24 hours later." And in an industry where films can go from pitch to first preview in a month, Tsui remains famously finicky—Time and Tide began production more than a year ago. As Tse notes: "You'll light a cigarette and he'll say, 'That's wrong, do it this way.' He doesn't compromise, doesn't give a damn. Some directors think two takes are enough, but his attitude is, 'Screw you, let's do another 10.'"

You can do that when you're the boss. And at Film Workshop, he stayed the boss—often at the price of old friendships. A Better Tomorrow made Woo a star director; suddenly he chafed when Tsui reshaped his "final cut." Woo finally walked in a dispute over The Killer. "My idea of help was not his idea of help," Tsui says. "Settings, budgets, we disagreed on everything." At Film Workshop, two strong egos were one too many. So he let the legendary King Hu quit his comeback film Swordsman (three other directors finished it); he fired Andrew Kam off The Big Heat (Johnny To took over) and Yim Ho off King of Chess (Tsui completed the film years later). You have to wonder: What would the producer Tsui Hark have done with any man as stubborn as the director Tsui Hark?

"The creative process needs dictators," he insists. Then he makes an surprising admission: "I was not a good producer. I think the ideal roles of producer and director should be like coach and fighter: the coach has to tell the boxer he's strong on the left or the right, that his eye's weakening, that it's time to call it quits. Back then, I got frustrated. I think I never learned the difference between producing and directing."

Tsui had other problems when, like Woo, Ringo Lam and other top Hong Kong talent, he went to Hollywood. Alas, Hollywood did not go for Tsui; he made only two B movies, both with the Belgian lug Jean Claude Van Damme. "People skills aren't his forte," says his wife. "He manages a crew well, period. Besides, in the U.S., too much was totally inflexible. If he wanted to change a line in a script from 'Shall we go to dinner?' to 'Can we go to dinner?' there'd be a series of board meetings."

So Tsui—a wanderer, perhaps a displaced person, all his life—returned home for a rest and a good think. "I had been working nonstop for too long," he says. "I think you have to get away from what you do for a while and get a fresh perspective."

What Tsui saw of the Hong Kong film industry—the business and the art—could not have pleased him. "When he came back," says See, "he found Hong Kong movies had spiraled to a terrible state. The infrastructure had collapsed. Everything had to be rebuilt." The answer for Tsui, as See sees it, was not to mass-produce films but to make each one an "event," starting with Time and Tide. The film is a calling card from an old friend with new vitality—a series of dynamite set pieces like a chase under a banquet hall and the climactic scene where Wu Bai's pregnant wife (irrepressible Candy Lo) gives birth, attended by Tse, while she blasts a killer to Hell; Tsui giveth life, and Tsui taketh away. But our favorite moment is pure directorial impudence. Tse, with only a toy gun to defend himself, corners a bad guy. "That gun's a fake," the killer says derisively. Tse replies, "Look closer," and pokes it savagely into the bad guy's forehead. TouchE, Tsui!

Look closer, and expect more "events": a remake of Zu with a hot young cast (Ekin Cheng, Cecilia Cheung, Zhang Ziyi); a sequel to the Jet Li actioner Black Mask; an erotic drama that See calls "a Chinese equivalent of the Kama Sutra." She says, "These films come from hibernating for a year. They'll be special. Let's set a technical quality comparable to international standard. Let's win the audience back. He can do it. He's an icon. He sets the standard."

To know that sweeping assertion is true, you don't have to be married to Tsui Hark. You just have to see the films of this movie god, who will never rest on the seventh day.

Reported by Stephen Short/Hong Kong

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