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It’s Dangerous Out There

June 19th, 2009

redcliffposterjpgThe release of John ‘two guns’ Woo’s, Red Cliff, which at $80m is China’s most expensive film ever,  brings our attention once again to the occasional, yet remarkable glimpse we get of the Hong Kong film industry.  It made me wonder, what goes on, in Hong Kong?  I found out, it’s dangerous!

John Woo on Red CliffJohn Woo, along with Wong Kar-Wei are probably the best known exports of Hong Kong cinema, with Woo’s mega-action fare contrasting with Wong Kar-Wei’s mega-beautiful, movies of romance and poetry, enhanced by the photography of DOP Chris Doyle.  Although the majority of Hong Kong movies don’t get seen in the west, beyond the Asian cinema shelves in DVD stores,  the influence of Hong Kong movies is huge.

Movie making in Hong Kong peaked in the ‘90’s and it has become the third largest movie maker in the world after India and Hollywood.  Films had to be made incredibly fast as average budgets were around $5m.  Then came Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan who’s movie budgets rocketed to $20m and who gained worldwide cult following for their stunt-filled, kung fu, kick boxing movies, which took the attention of one Quentin Tarrantino.

the-departedjpgTarrantino’s, Reservoir Dogs is said to be heavily influenced by City On Fire, with Kill Bill a more obvious nod, while Scorsese’s, The Departed, is well known to be a remake of the Infernal Affairs trilogy.  John Woo meanwhile was making, Hong Kong gangster movies, Hard Boiled and Hard Target with rising star, Chow Yun-Fat.

I was talking to John Woo’s 1st AD who gave me the inside track on Woo’s influential balletic, slow motion, action style, which brought him to Hollywood to make films including Face Off and Mission Impossible II.  The famous shoot-outs happened on the set just as you see them on screen.  Many cameras, shooting many stuntmen, shooting among many explosions.  No health and safety here, there was no time, it really was mayhem and authorities turned a blind eye to the whole thing.  It was as dangerous as it looked and people did get hurt.

Stunts on Hard BoiledIndeed Chinese film crews believe danger lurks on every set, in two forms, ghosts and gangsters.  Before a shooting a stunt sequence, stuntmen burn incense and bow their heads in a Buddhist ritual, worshipping the ghosts and praying that they should protect them rather than possess them.  It is not uncommon for an actor to believe they’re possessed by spirits when their acting isn’t going well, while producers encourage their crews to worship the ghosts as a means of team building and creating unity.  The other malevolent force on the film set, is the Triads.

The Triads offer that other sort of protection, and have controlled film sets and locations for many years.  When cameras mysteriously break-down or people are robbed, it’s put down to one ghost or the other.  Indeed the AD I met in Hong Kong told me most of the locations were Triad controlled, and if they shot there without paying, he would personally suffer!!  I didn’t believe him of course, I thought he was having an inscrutable joke with this westerner, but the look on his face told me otherwise.  It’s also said the Triads have involvement in financing and controlling labour on productions, coercing actors and production and construction crews to work on their films, ensuring a smooth production if they do so,  Scary!

How much the tradition of gangster involvement in film making was seen on the set of John Woo’s, Red Cliff I don’t know.  This was Woo’s first film in Mandarin since leaving Red Cliff the moviethe US, and the ghosts seemed to be ever present.  During the filming of a major battle scene, six crew were injured and a stunt man killed in a fire. Some say the production was cursed.   Beset by problems, including many cast changes as star Tony Leung left on the first day of shooting, soon to be followed by Woo’s long time friend and actor collaborator, Chow Yun-Fat, who he’d worked with since Hard Boiled and whose departure was a mystery.  This along with a major set being washed away by torrential rain, made director Woo wonder who was really controlling his massive project.

Like I said, it’s dangerous out there.

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