by John Charles
For American fans of action cinema, Hong Kong has produced a wealth of films. But the sheer volume of titles has been daunting. Some guides have attempted to map this terrain, such as Asian Trash Cinema: The Book by Thomas Weisser and Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins. Asian Trash Cinema once served a valuable role in initiating the curious to the wonders of Hong Kong cinema; however, Weisser all too frequently (and eagerly) fixated on sex and gore at the expense of providing critical insights. Sex and Zen is still a valuable book with its excellent overviews of genres and filmmakers, but it only scratches the surface.
A new book by John Charles -- The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997 -- helps flesh out our understanding of the breadth and diversity of Hong Kong cinema. While you'll find reviews of the requisite action thrillers, such as The Armour of God, Hard Boiled, and Naked Killer, author Charles also finds room to survey films from a variety of other genres, including comedies, children's features, mysteries, and romantic drama.
Arranged in strict alphabetical order (i.e., there are no chapters or sections), The Hong Kong Filmography provides us with listings on 1,100 films. Each movie listing includes extensive credits and a one- or two-paragraph description/evaluation. It's in these commentary paragraphs that Charles proves his mettle as a reviewer. Many readers will already be familiar with his work from Video Watchdog, where he has been a regular contributor for several years. He's an insightful commentator with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema. He's not afraid to point out weaknesses in highly-regarded movies. For example, he argues that Tsui Hark's famous Once Upon a Time in China series peaked rather early -- at Part 2 -- and subsequently began to suffer from "slackpacing," "uninspired" storylines, and an over-reliance upon "lion dance competitions."
Charles assigns a rating to each movie on a scale of 1 to 10. Whereas some guides are filled with movies bunched at the top end of the scale, Charles places most movies in the middle. Very few get his highest rating of 10/10 (e.g., John Woo's The Killer and Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair). Charles definitely doesn't dilute the meaning of his highest rating by handing it out indiscriminately. You can bet that any movie rated 8/10 or higher will knock your socks off.
I wish Charles had appended some introductory material to help the uninitiated get a better sense of the history of Hong Kong cinema. As a result, the book can't really stand by itself. You'll still need another book to give you background info, such as Miles Wood's Cine East or Frederic Dannen and Barry Long's Hong Kong Babylon. But to be fair, the book isn't designed to stand by itself. It's meant as a comprehensive filmography of (as the book's cover tells us) 1,100 films released from 1977 to 1997, and surveying all those films was a daunting task in its own right.
If it didn't carry such an impressive price tag -- $75 -- The Hong Kong Filmography would be a required purchase for all Hong Kong cinema fans. But many fans will no doubt find that price hard to justify, particularly for a text-only book (i.e., the book contains no photos). If you can spare that much cash, however, you won't regret buying this book. This is the best book of its kind to ever be released in America.
The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997 by John Charles is now available from McFarland & Company. Illustrated case binding. Suggested list price: $75. For more information, please check out the McFarland Web site: www.mcfarlandpub.com.