For a few decades, Hong Kong was the world’s busiest movie-movie ant farm, scurrying in a state of organized chaos and slapping together breakneck cinema as if the world might end with the handover from the Brits to the Chinese in 1997. It didn’t, but the breathless anxiety of HK cinemania became a style anyway, beloved around the globe and still an addiction to feed today. Which is why the new Metrograph is hosting the Old School Kung Fu Fest all this weekend, why a new Shaw Brothers retrospective traveled the country as lately as 2013-14, and why Warner Archive‘s made-to-order DVD library—otherwise packed with Marion Davies comedies and early John Wayne westerns—overflows with classics from Golden Harvest, the Shaws’ primary competitor and the spotlight studio at the Old School Kung Fu Fest.
The latest of these releases is the cartwheel fairy-tale A Terra-Cotta Warrior (1989), directed by hyperactive action-choreographer Ching Siu-tung (A Chinese Ghost Story I, II and III), and rarely seen in this country (except in unheralded runs in various Chinatowns). Covering the waterfront between DeMille-sized historical epic to absurdly chintzy short-cut, the film is famous for starring Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou—made right between Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990), and therefore something of a bastard freak in the nascent history of China’s Fifth Generation film wave. The story couldn’t be more full of hilariously earnest horsefeathers: during the Quin Dynasty (200ish B.C.), a crazed emperor kills off scores of young ‘uns in search for an immortality elixir, a situation (amidst a war or two) complicated by his favorite general (Zhang, looking a little dumbfounded and duty-bound) falling in love with a maiden (Gong) slated for death.
Swoony melodramatics ensue, until they’re both executed—Zhang’s Romeo being encased in clay as a forever guard for the emperor’s mausoleum. Cut to the 1930s, when the reincarnation of Gong’s Juliet turns out to be a vain, bubbleheaded movie actress looking to sleep her way to a lead role, on a film shoot corrupted by gangsters. On location, they happen onto the secret catacombs, and accidentally (via a scuttled biplane—don’t ask) revive the general, who despite being a stranger to modernity knows a “re-becoming” when he sees one and pursues the actress, while battling the bad guys.
The film’s explosive flavor is classic Ching—a feverish tangle of evocative montage, looming miniatures, 80s blue light, and flying weaponry. Like all HK fantasy, there’s no limit to its flea-market inventiveness, and ostensibly no ceiling on our credulity. As the old swordfighter is baffled by airplanes and restaurant menus, you wonder, who persuaded Zhang to do this, *after* Red Sorghum won at the Berlin Film Festival? (It may well have been Gong; they were a couple until 1995.) Whatever—it’s pure Hong Kong skylarking, with a Raiders rip-off climax and a moony denouement that meets at the intersection of matinee hokum and pure movie beauty. Aficionados of the genre and the era (where else were the 80s a peak of dynamic movie craziness?) will plotz.