Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Postmodern or just cheap?

In a recent review of Mimi, Private Eye YTSL wrote "But as Hong Kong movies have shown time and time again, a lower budget work is not necessarily a lower quality nor less enjoyable effort." In his book Planet Hong Kong David Bordwell quotes Ringo Lam's philosophy of filmmaking: "No money, no time, just do it."

Time is a luxury in the movie business that can only be purchased--if a director doesn't have a big budget he must be able to set up, shoot and move on to the next shot quickly. He needs to get things right the first (or second) time. Everyone involved in the production must have the same sense of urgency; professionalism must be the rule. The gag reels of actors blowing their lines that run under the closing credits of many Jackie Chan films are funny (at least at first) but clearly that isn't the norm on most Hong Kong sets.

Among the advantages that Hong Kong didn't seem to have that its counterparts in Hollywood, Paris and London enjoyed was a co-operative municipal administration which would close streets and deploy police officers for crowd control when shooting on location. This led to an occasional unintentional postmodernist look in backgrounds of chases and shoot-outs in many crime and police dramas. Since they weren't able to control a location many directors simply dropped their scene into the middle of it although one assumes they had some clearance or premission to do so. As in many postmodernist narrative works the audience could see the artifice of the invention, the nuts and bolts of the process.

A great example of this (I will post some screen shots when I dig out the DVD) is from Fulltime Killer by Johhny To and Wa Ka-Fai. In one scene Andy Lau is running down a busy street, chasing his target and firing a handgun. In the background one doesn't see extras but citizens who happened to be on that street at that particular time, looking surprised that a movie has broken out in the middle of their lunchtime stroll. Fun stuff.

Contrast this with the opening scene of "La nuit américaine" (Day for Night), my favorite movie about movies, in which Francois Truffaut, playing a French film director, directs every movement of the actors, extras, animals and vehicles that will appear in the shot. I don't know if Truffaut actually worked this way when shooting but one thinks it is not that unusual a way of doing things.

Back for a moment to "Webs of Significance", YTSL responded to the clamor of her fans and will begin doing movie reviews again. Since she see a lot of movies this is good news indeed.


  1. Hi ewaffle --

    Thanks for an interesting post and am sincerely flattered that some comments I made helped prompt it.

    "Since they weren't able to control a location many directors simply dropped their scene into the middle of it although one assumes they had some clearance or permission to do so."

    More than once now, I've come across a film (and, in a few cases, TV show) crew filming as I walked by or went by on public transportation (e.g., bus). The first couple of times, I paused and stared. Now, I just walk by...

    And yes, all this helps reinforce my sense that Hong Kong is not only movie Mecca but also, often times, a giant movie set. :D

  2. One of the "nuts and bolts" that I've come to appreciate when watching Cantonese movies from the 60s is the occasional whirring sound of the camera, proof of the synch sound practice that the smaller-budget Cantonese industry still retained while Shaw Brothers had moved on to post-production dubbing. There's an immediacy about synch sound that just can't be duplicated by even the best dubbing.