Crouching Tiger's roar alerts West to world of Asian film

John Beifuss
Pop Culture

Critics and moviegoers have embraced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon like no other martial arts-themed or Chinese-language movie before it.

Taiwanese director Ang Lee's epic of action and romance - filmed mostly in mainland China, with dialog in Mandarin - has become the most successful foreign-language film of all time in the United States, earning more than $70 million at the box office to date.

More significantly, perhaps, the film received the stamp of Hollywood approval recently when it was nominated for Academy Awards in 10 categories, including Best Picture.

Crouching Tiger also is making many moviegoers aware - perhaps for the first time - that the world of Asian cinema is diverse, fascinating, rewarding and even accessible, to fans of escapist entertainment as well as to devotees of "art" films.

Writer John Charles has devoted much of his life to exploring that strange, beautiful world. His new book is titled The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997: A Complete Reference to 1,100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios.

The volume - published by McFarland & Co. Inc. of Jefferson, N.C., specialists in reference works - lists precisely 1,102 Hong Kong films (plus a few ringers from Taiwan and mainland China). Entries range from masterpieces of arty experimentation such as Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) to pre-Crouching Tiger historical-fantasy martial arts epics such as Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), to the self-explanatory likes of Centipede Horror (1985) and My Neighbours Are Phantoms! (1978).

The book - a yearslong "labor of love," according to Charles - functions as a critical review as well as a near-definitive reference. Charles rates each film on a scale of 1 to 10, and provides casts and credits, brief synopses and insightful analyses.

In other words, longtime aficionados of Chinese cinema as well as neophytes who were enchanted by Crouching Tiger will find - to their delight and frustration - hundreds of titles worth investigating in the 357 pages of The Hong Kong Filmography. Many of the works employed Tiger stars Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh and Tiger action director Yuen Wo-Ping.

Of course, many of these classic Hong Kong films also showcased the talents of action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, directors John Woo and Ronny Yu, and others who have had success in Hollywood since leaving Hong Kong after the British ceded the former crown colony to China in 1997.

As Tim Lucas, editor of the indispensable monthly magazine, Video Watchdog, writes in his foreword to the book: "At a time when most international film markets were either depressed, defunct, or coasting . . . and when Hollywood films seemed inseparable from their merchandising and amusement ride potential, Hong Kong commanded the world's attention as a hotbed of ideas and invention - a celebration of the grand diversity and pageantry of moviemaking."

Charles, 36, discovered Hong Kong films the same way most North American fans did: on TV. It happened when a Buffalo station he could pick up in his native Canada began broadcasting old kung fu movies on a program called Black Belt Theater. (In Memphis, a similar syndicated package of martial arts films was titled Kung Fu Theater.)

Charles was hooked. Soon, he began exploring markets and video stores in the Chinatown section of Toronto, where he found video and later laser disk copies of movies that were otherwise unavailable.

His first two acquisitions were bootlegs of John Woo's The Killer (1989), a "heroic bloodshed" epic of contemporary gangsterism that starred Chow Yun Fat, and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), an action-packed supernatural romance.

"The first time I saw The Killer, I rewound the tape and watched it again, which is something I never do," said Charles, in a recent interview from his home in Guelph, Ontario.

"One of the things that really impressed me was that in a way it was reminiscent of the old Warner Bros. gangster movies, but the emotion was much more vivid, the action choreography was more spectacular. I was just overwhelmed, I was genuinely dazzled by it."

Charles describes his interest in these films as not just a passion but a "mania." Just trying to keep up with all the new titles and reissues is a full-time job in itself.

Charles began writing about Hong Kong films for a Hawaii-based fanzine called Skam (later, Cineraider), which was "the only publication I knew of at the time that took these films seriously." His writing gigs grew along with his expertise. Now, he earns a living as a freelance writer, reviewing Asian releases on a regular basis for Video Watchdog.

The hardcover, oversized Hong Kong Filmography was released in November and already is in its second printing, even though its steep $75 price pretty much ensures that it is being purchased mostly by libraries and dedicated aficionados.

Like most McFarland books, The Hong Kong Filmography is saddled with a poorly designed and unattractive cover. That shouldn't discourage readers, however. The book truly represents an amazing effort, due not only to its scope but also to the difficulties Charles faced in researching Chinese-language materials and translating Chinese into English.

For example, names of actors, directors, writers and others are often spelled different ways in the English-language credits of different films, as various translators attempt to phonetically reproduce the sound of the Chinese or just make up English-sounding names to increase the appeal of the movies in the West. Charles's challenge was to come up with a definitive English version for each name and stick to it throughout the book so readers could recognize actors and others as they appear in different films.

Also, although the film's subtitle bills the book as a "complete" listing, Charles acknowledges that there's no telling how many unknown Hong Kong films may be locked away in some vault, forgotten or deteriorated beyond repair. Until recently, film preservation efforts were virtually nonexistent in Hong Kong, so it's possible that some films are lost forever, like many classics of the American silent era.

Although Hong Kong film production has declined in recent years, and the movies being made have lost some of their unique appeal as filmmakers try to tap into the expanding Western audience, Charles remains optimistic about Chinese cinema and the movies he loves.

Unlike some cognoscenti, Charles is glad that Crouching Tiger has brought mainstream attention to the cultish world of Chinese cinema. "It's going to be quite beneficial for getting these films more exposure."

He also believes Tiger's blend of Hong Kong action and Western storytelling is not a dilution but a welcome expansion of the potential of Chinese film. "I don't think the genre is so holy that we can't try something new."

To order The Hong Kong Filmography or for more information, call (800) 253-2187 or visit the publisher's Web site (

Contact John Beifuss at 529-2394 or E-mail to


Copyright © John Charles 2000, 2001. All Rights Reserved.
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