In one resounding ker-splat, Hong Kong shitstorm Tsui Hark has finally made a crater above Canal Street, thanks to a blistering new film (Time and Tide), two restored epics that show the lie of Crouching Tiger‘s tranquilized dazzle, and now a mini-retro from Subway Cinema—let the mayhem reign. Generally speaking, Tsui’s style is late-century ADD, his films comprised of chintzy spectacle, shameless visual shortcuts, gasping editing vaults, and narrative bushwah; in terms of sheer galvanic élan, he has no peer. But quintessential Tsui standbys Peking Opera Blues, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, and the Once Upon a Time in China films aren’t the entire package. Neither is Tsui’s filmography restricted to his directorial credits—for many, he’s reckoned as the auteur of the Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman movies (on which he’s only credited as a producer), not the otherwise lackluster genre journeyman Ching Siu-tung. Having directed or produced (or both) more than 50 movies between his 1979 debut, The Butterfly Murders, and his Canadian-Van Damme hiatus, Tsui tried everything twice, and epitomized the two most distinctive decades of the world’s most anarchic film industry.
At Anthology, the requisite catapultings include the incomparably joyous and hokey Peking Opera Blues (1986) and both Swordsman movies (1990, 1992). A period spy-thriller LP set on 78 rpm, Blues might be the most influential Hong Kong film ever—at least in Hong Kong, where Tsui’s use of architecture, non-martial superheroics, and feminist force (this was most Westerners’ first experience of Brigitte Lin) became de rigueur. Ching/Tsui’s first Swordsman film was merely a fete of psychotic combat compared to its sequel, which involves Jet Li facing off against Lin’s eunuch/demigod/hermaphrodite Asia the Invincible in a cyclone of scattered limbs, tentacle chiffon, and howling wind. Which sets you up for the lunacies of Green Snake (1993), a pasquinade of sexual absurdity centering on the unlikely romantic triangle between an aw-shucks monk and two millennium-old snake-demon sisters in human form—one of them played by a vampy, gilded-lily Maggie Cheung. As usual, it moves so fast that the zippers, strings, and editing mismatches become part of the visual stream, which is itself one-upped by A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), playing like an Orpheus myth jacked to a particle accelerator and littered with floating zombies.
This is paradigmatic Tsui-land: an irrational, dusty, gravitationally handicapped deathworld that’s as unbelievable as it is undeniable, fraught with omens, curses, ghosts, demons, cults, and papier-mâché monsters. Never before or since have films been so plastically committed to their own mythos and outlaw energies. (To contemplate the movies’ kinetic escalation of their simple folktale origins is to understand the torrential capacity of cinema.) But there are other, more recent Tsuis on view here, including the brooding masculinist behind The Blade (1995), a surprisingly earthbound redo of 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman that is as close to a Clint Eastwood revenge western as Tsui ever got.
Even odder, The Chinese Feast (1995) is an unexpectedly lavish contemporary food debauch, using a hoary let’s-pull-the-gunslinger-out-of-retirement-and-save-the-orphanage flowchart to support restaurant slapstick on a Homeric scale, amid helpings of yogurt-marinated panda paw, underwater tofu sculpture, and three-minute-fresh monkey brains. Already the most effective actor in HK, Leslie Cheung becomes his own comic legend. In the last few years, Tsui’s imagery has become more concrete and meticulously lit, and both The Blade and The Chinese Feast forfeit the fluorescent-blue lighting and high-wires for shadowy naturalism and a chilly sense of suffering.
Still, the retro’s Cracker Jack prize has to be Tsui’s second film, 1980’s gracelessly titled We’re Going to Eat You. Never before seen stateside (not, we’re told, even in the Chinatowns), this penny-ante exploitation quickie can best be catalogued as a chop-socky lampoon version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “If you don’t eat people, they’ll eat you!” sums up the moral code of Tsui’s ludicrous stumblebum, which has cannibalistic villagers going after a secret agent and his cohorts in some semitropical hellhole. Fake blood flows like hose water, and gutbuckets of socioeconomic metaphors are wasted along the way. Speed was a condition of the industry even then, but while Eat You is Tsui-style breakneck, the man was still learning to fly.