|John Charles' new Hong Kong Filmography (HKF) is out, and it's a fine and essential addition to a serious Hong Kong film book library.
|The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997: a complete reference to 1,100 films produced by British Hong Kong studios, by John Charles
Jefferson, NC. & London: McFarland, c2000.
ISBN 0-7864-0842-1 hardcover 387 pp.
The book covers a selection of 1,100 Hong Kong films released between 1977 and 1999. The coverage, therefore, doesn't aim to be comprehensive (unlike, for example, Don Marion's The Chinese Filmography, which does aim to cover every film released in China between 1949 and 1995). But the films are very well chosen: as the preface notes, "[o]ne of my goals [...] was to reveal the many 'hidden' pleasures available to adventurous film fans, while also providing more seasoned viewers with information on other productions that might appeal to them. Consequently, this book embraces all of Hong Kong's output: romance, comedies, thrillers, mysteries, fantasies, sex films, dramas, children's features, horror, and science fiction, as well as the expected action and kung fu extravaganzas." For what it's worth, I've so far found every film title that I've looked up.
Bibliographic commentary first: there is a superbly detailed index, for one thing. All names in the filmographies are referenced in the index: not only directors and major stars, but minor character actors, action directors, cinematographers, art directors, producers, composers and screenplay writers! If I were being picky, I would have wanted even more: editors (given that Hong Kong movies taken as a whole are probably the best-edited films in the world). The book seems aimed primarily at Western readers who want access to the films: each filmography lists VHS, LD, VCD and DVD distributors (VHS availability in North America, where available), and notes the format's idiosyncrasies (missing English subtitles, for example).
A possibly more serious omission is a title cross-reference index with Chinese characters to pinyin to English, since within the text itself, films are listed and ordered by official English title. Although the HKF takes care in the individual film entries to list pinyin, Cantonese, and literal translations of the title, an index, especially with characters, would make access to individual titles even easier. And the literal title translations are very well done, replacing the now inaccessible titles that Joe Fierro and his helpers provided at the old Hong Kong Cinema Database. The index also lists film companies, so if you need a list of films by the former leftist film company Sil-Metropole (10 films) or Cinema City (about 80 entries), this is where to find them.
The book's cast lists are a gift from heaven. Profusely detailed, and actors are matched with character names! For those of you like me who can become a bit obsessed with tracking down just one more elusive character actor, they're here, lined up, painstakingly identified (Yuen King-tan, for example, has over 60 entries).
John's generously long reviews are a joy to read (see some examples, from his new website Hong Kong Digital). Each film receives an elegantly written plot synopsis and a paragraph or two of critical evaluation. The writing is professional, accurate, and fun to read: poised nicely between the gung-ho zap-dazzle prose of some HK fan books and the sober, jargon-laden exegeses of some more academic studies (ok, so I'm guilty of some of that). Even when (though not too frequently), I didn't respond to a film with the same enthusiasm as John (maybe I'm going to have to watch Christ of Nanjing a third time, just to see why everyone else adores it!?!?), they made me think. Some films that John particularly admires get extended treatments: look up the small essay-reviews for Phantom Lover, Ashes of Time, Green Snake, and To Liv(e).
The HKF's evaluations, accompanied by a handy ten point rating scale, seem largely fair and balanced as to genre. Some tendencies I've noticed: the book is not as impressed in general with some of the later, still-underrated Stephen Chiau masterpieces that I treasure (God of Cookery, The Chinese Odyssey), seems singularly underwhelmed by Hong Kong's premiere postmodern "auteur" Jeff Lau Chun-wai, and can be quite tough on UFO's (United Film Organisation) ambitiously crafted HK-yuppie style modern dramas and satires.
I am particularly impressed with the way the HKF puts films in context, against a background of other relevant titles, the way it situates them in genre/historical context. This is one of a film writer's most challenging tasks, and typically takes the kind of wisdom that I usually (if ever) only see in local critics, in Stephen Teo's book, for example.
Typos and errors seem very rare: I haven't found any yet, after several days pouring through the book, checking on my favourites and learning about new titles that I've missed.
Congratulations to John on a splendid achievement. I'll be using The Hong Kong Filmography constantly, along with Teo's Hong Kong Cinema and Zhang Yingjin and Xiao Zhiwei's Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, with which the HKF is very comfortable sharing prime reference book shelf space.
(the above review is an extended and corrected version of a post originally submitted to the Asian Film Discussion Board at mhvf.net)
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