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Hong Kong Film Fest at SWFC

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  It happens every fall like clockwork, and the people flock from all around to witness its beauty and majesty. No, I'm not talking about the damn Balloon Fiesta. I'm speaking, of course, about the Hong Kong Film Fest at UNM's Southwest Film Center--a yearly ritual in which sane-minded students and scholars gather to take in the mind-numbing coolness of four explosive action flicks packed with kung fu, high-caliber weapons and the occasional hopping ghost.

Although Hong Kong is now part of China and the future of its film industry is in serious question, the fine folks at SWFC have rescued a quartet of great pre-reunification films. First out of the gate is Snake in Eagle's Shadow, a traditional chopsockey flick with an interesting history. This 1978 flick was Jackie Chan's last shot at stardom. None of the actor's previous films had been a hit in Asia, and his reputation as "the next Bruce Lee" was fading fast. Director Yuen Woo-Ping (Tai Chi Master) took a gamble and let Jackie inject some of his crazy personality into the film. The result is Jackie's first kung fu comedy. The rest is history. This one isn't as good as Drunken Master (although the plot is pretty much identical), but it is packed with 15 incredible fight scenes! You can't go wrong watching Jackie kick bad-guy ass with chairs, pots, sawhorses and anything else he can get his zippy little hands on.

Next up is John Woo's Bullet in the Head. This searing Vietnam War story is unlike anything the American market ever produced. Woo takes his typical gangster saga and sets it against the backdrop of late-'60s Hong Kong. Loyalties are tested to the breaking point when three friends (Waise Lee, Jackie Cheung and Tony Leung) are forced to flee the country and end up in war-torn Vietnam. This is far and away Woo's most dramatic HK film. Amazingly, he sacrifices almost none of his trademark fireworks. The blistering final showdown is classic Woo. This is a must for Woo aficionados and an imperative for those who got to know Woo for the first time with this summer's Face/Off.

God Of Cookery, meanwhile, is a parody in the richest sense of the word. Replacing the martial arts action of typical kung fu flicks with the timeless art of cooking, the creators of this film have fashioned a funny, sophisticated comedy. When the head of a popular cooking school in Hong Kong is exposed as a fraud by a former student, the talentless chef flees the country in disgrace. Heading to mainland China, he discovers a shaolin monastery where he is trained in the secret art of cookery. The climactic culinary showdown with his archrival is funnier than watching Julia Child club Martha Stewart with a turkey leg.

The highlight of this year's fest may be Once Upon a Time in China and America. This sixth installment in the wildly popular Once Upon a Time in China series takes a slightly different tack. Folk hero Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) comes to America in the late 1800s to help out a cousin who is being harassed by corrupt lawmen. Along the way, Wong is attacked by Indians and loses his memory. When he awakens, he finds himself adopted by a friendly tribe of Native Americans (!). Will Wong recover his memory in time to rescue his relatives from the hangman's noose? I'm tellin' ya, you haven't lived until you've seen kung-fu-fighting Indians. While I've never been a fan of Jet Li's high-flying wire-work, the film's unique setting and the inclusion of many American actors make this high camp entertainment. It looks gorgeous, and I'm guessing it's the most expensive HK flick ever produced (it was actually shot on location in Texas).

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