“I don’t think I’ve changed in years,” admits Tsui Hark, Hong Kong movie mogul and director of Time and Tide (opening May 11). “Actually, I don’t think a filmmaker can change their character; they just keep the same way all the time. Maybe different sides of this guy will occasionally come out. But it’s really just the same stuff that’s been inside him all along.”
I, he, they—who? Personal pronouns aren’t the only thing this 50-year-old director/producer/epoch-shaper has trouble keeping in place. Born in Vietnam and educated in Texas, Tsui has been reinventing himself—and the Hong Kong film industry—for the last 20 years, with megahits like A Better Tomorrow, Chinese Ghost Story, and Once Upon a Time in China (Part I plays through Thursday, Part II opens for a one-week run on Friday at Film Forum). “My earliest desire was to become a documentary filmmaker,” he says, but financial exigencies pushed him into making Cantonese costume dramas for television by the time he was 26. The desire for social relevance remained with him, and his first features were panicky political allegories—never mind the zombie makeup and gross-out sight gags. But the agitator soon gave way to the entertainer. With his fourth film, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, he hit upon a formula for rigging ancient Chinese fables with newfangled special effects that would teach an entire generation of young Hong Kong filmmakers a new way to fly.
Of course, the epiphenomenal rise and fall of Tsui Hark is simply academic these days, syllabus-enshrined by texts like superscholar David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong. But Tsui claims he keeps making movies mainly for his own amusement. “Somebody told me they thought that was a very sad statement for me to make,” he says. “But it’s true: Filmmaking is my entertainment. Sure, it can be very physically demanding: You have to jump around and take control, and sometimes people may suffer from your commands. But the most important thing I’ve learned from our previous generation of directors is that when we get together socially, all they talk about is wishing they had the physical strength to be making them now. I’ve decided I’ll keep making movies till the very end.”
In 1989, producer Tsui hired the illustrious King Hu to direct what might have been the elderly giant’s comeback, Swordsman, but the two clashed so relentlessly that Tsui fired his former idol and directed much of the movie himself. As to the impact of that more recent King Hu remake, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tsui says, “My first reaction was shock: shock that it could get 10 Oscar nominations. It’s a good movie, but it really made the whole Hong Kong film industry stop and think, ‘Is there something wrong with our movies? Or is something wrong with Oscar?’ ”
These days, after a two-film stint in Van Damme-nation (Double Team and Knock Off), Tsui’s back to doing what he’s always done: gussying up something old with something new. Time and Tide may be cast with pretty young pop singers and staged in the hipster barrooms and surveillance-mirrored 7-Elevens familiar to followers of Wong Kar-wai, but it’s titled for the sort of evanescence only middle-agers truly know. As for Wong’s influence on the ruminative and chrome-coated Time and Tide, Tsui’s quick to assert his seniority. “I’m the older guy!” he laughs. “Are people thinking there’s this similarity because I start this movie with voice-over narration? Have you seen my first film, The Butterfly Murders? It starts the same way. Besides, Wong Kar-wai isn’t even sure he wants to be Wong Kar-wai anymore. His last movie didn’t use narration at all.”
Oblivious to the current recirculation of Once Upon a Time in China, Tsui’s now busy remaking himself another way: with a CGI-intensive rethink of Zu. “We’re into the very heavy load of postproduction now. The thing about this version is that everything in it takes place in the clouds, in the sky, and in the imagination. It’s not in a very normal form—it’s like looking at a Salvador Dalí painting, or a Magritte. Not realistic at all, more like a dream.” Clouds and dreams are one thing, but Tsui Hark is one living legend with his feet still very much on the ground.
J. Hoberman’s review of Once Upon a Time in China, Parts I and II.