Saturday 7 August 2021

The Dextrols Touch - A Memoir in which Barrie Pattison remembers the glory days of random alternates in Sydney cinema going. (Part Three ) - Turkey, Hong Kong, China

 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part of a memoir by Sydney cinephile Barrie Pattison in which he recalls the days of discovering world cinema in places far beyond the mainstream screenings of the day. The previous two parts dealt with Greek cinema and with Italian cinema Click on the links to read the previous pieces.

Another ethnic group with a sporadic cinema circuit was the Turkish community. Turkish movies offered belly dancer melodramas and historical biographies like Remzi Jöntürk’s 1973 Pir Sultan Abdal but at this time star actor “The Ugly king” Yilmaz Güney had turned to directing. This extraordinary talent, imprisoned repeatedly for his leftist sympathies - or for shooting a local judge depending on which story you buy - was not discovered in Europe till long after many of his remarkable films were screening here regularly - Endise, Zavillilar, Suru and Yol, made to his specifications from jail, which carried off festival prizes. The London NFT claimed imense difficulty in putting together a retrospective of his work. I put it to doomed AFI Exhibition that Frith had made them a gift and they could stage a Güney season from the local copies. That spot however got  filled with Burning an Illusion, a more politically correct piece sent by the B.F.I. 

There was even a circulating Macedonian event. Made cheaply in Sofia, their 1971 Zedj / Thirst,  directed by Dimitre Osmanli, was low on sophistication with the lustful official having his way with local matrons where the preacher is ineffectual even in getting the district school ma’am to dance to the transistor radio music. It’s companion piece Kiril Cenevski’s Crno seme / Black Seed also 1971 treated the aftermath of the Greek Civil War. The scene of the hero thrown, bound head and foot, into the river in a sack with the ship’s cat and emerging barely scratched, holding the sodden animal dead in his mouth, was sufficiently striking for Chuck Norris to do it over in one of M.I.A. films.

Showing their elements of Greek and Russian productions, films like these whatever their limitations, helped fill in our world movie map.
In the early seventies there was a clear passing of the baton. Pariscope magazine recorded the first week that the number of kung fu films they listed passed that of  Italian westerns showing in the French capital. In Australia, ageing Europeans lost interest in their former favourites and their children thought of these as the oldies’ movies. In Perth’s Leederville, the theatre running Italian films changed hands to Chinese management. The Asian films began like the old ethnic chains playing nostalgia material to an audience who wanted to see films in their own language,  post Vietnam war immigration filling the venues with families who brought box lunches and sat there all day. Programming so many outlets created a demand for anything that moved, fed by operas filmed on stage, pink copies of  old Chinese culture enthusiast  Li han-hsiang independents or pre-celebrity Jackie Chan.

Even so Australia’s Chinese film experience had only superficial roots in it’s history. The intriguing thirties Shanghai cinema of Ruan Lingyu and the US co-productions of Esther Eng or the ninety nine monochrome Wong fe-hung features never surfaced. When one of Lin Dai’s weepies turned up, the operator knocked the ‘scope lens off on the assumption that it must be pre-wide screen - because it was in black and white. 

Tears of the Yang-Tse - Yang BaiYunzhu Shangguan
Exceptionally they did air Mainland leftists Cai Cusheng and Zheng Junli’s tedious, mammoth two part 1947 Yi jiang chun shui xiang dong liu / The Spring River Flows East /Tears of the Yang-Tse, representing it as the Chinese Gone with the Wind. This rambling soaper followed hapless village wife Yang Bai left to raise the children during the Japanese invasion while her shallow husband re-marries rich in the city. It’s one memorable scene has him arriving at the appointed time for his first day at his new job to find the clerks still sleeping on the benches where they had spent the night and only getting down to business a couple of hours later.

The Cultural Revolution’s dismantling of mainland film making had handed Chinese- speaking film to Hong Kong and, while the last products of the colony’s Cathay Production Company occasionally surfaced, the operation homed in on The Shaw Brothers who had wiped out the competition by their shift from Cantonese to Mandarin and from small screen to colour and “Shawscope”.

Among the circuit’s oldest off shore offerings was Li han hsiang’s 1963 cross dressing girl student opera Liang Shan Ba yu Zhu Ying Tai/ Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-t'aiThe Love Eterne placing Ivy Lin-po, it’s fierce girl in drag heroine, against the effeminate male scholars. This film may have established the foundation for the Shaw’s “look” which would dominate the studio production and much of what was done around it. The great King Hu had a hand in that and Jackie Chan sang in the chorus. On a good day he will still burst into a few bars from its numbers.

Taiwanese weepies were a staple.  Richard Yao-Chi Chen’s 1977 Wo shi yi sha ou / Come Fly with Me, with Charlie Chin / Hsiang Lin Chin and the durable Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, is about as watchable as they got. They also played the island’s more serious films, like Chang Yi’s 1985 Kuei-Mei, a Woman. 

There were new dynamics at play. Instead of worn out re-issues, impeccable recent releases began to dominate. With rare exceptions, even on their first showing in Hong Kong, these copies were sub-titled in Chinese to make Mandarin dialogue intelligible to Cantonese speakers and visa versa. It was simple to add a second line in English - with a character all of its own using “sinuses” for “synapses” and intransitive verbs with objects. They got better down the years till the two titled copy of Ronny Yu’s splendid 1993 Bai fa mo nu zhuan/ The Bride with White Hair was more literate than the single language one prepared for the English market.  
The Bride With White Hair - Brgitte Lin. 

These even came backed by English language literature, everything from office duplicator fanzines through the enthusiast Hong Kong Film Review to glossy news stand publications like Fighting Stars. The Bruce Lee phenomenon created a wide audience for Asian cinema and Anglo faces showed up in the audience here. These were the gym crowd. You could smell the liniment on the nights they showed the big martial arts movies.

Until the seventies we had heard the complaint that films were likely to be untranslated - something which had never stopped European Cinémathèque users. Even with the old excuse gone, Australians were intimidated by their notion of “the other.”  The “Alternative Cinema” demanded by activists was right under their noses. Academics and Journalists occasionally ventured in for a one off.  I  pointed out to the editor of Film News that the only way the Chinese films playing ten minutes walk away from the office appeared in their pages was when one of their writers saw them in a festival on the other side of the planet. Note that Ann Hui’ 1982 Tau ban no hoi / The Boat People, played here five months before it’s politics confused the heck out of audiences at Cannes. 

              Ann Hui's Boat People 
Exceptionally, inspired by the model of Time Magazine, Cinema Papers did do a Chinese movie issue and Melbourne’s Fatal Visions saw the Chinatown cinemas as part of their beat.  John Hinde brought out his “Other People’s Pictures” book.

While in this period, Hong Kong continued to make operas, crime movies and mother-love melos, their production was dominated by the Kung Fu / Gung Fu film (the phrase actually means skill and was also applied to gambling or even skin flicks) which carries with it the image of shirtless Bruce Lee thrashing extras in shoddy Golden Harvest actioners.

  Feng Hsu, Feng Tien & Roy Chao in King Hu's Ying chun ge zhi Fengbo.   
The Chinatown circuit opened out a whole new world, as with King Hu’s superior pioneering 1966 Long men ke zhen/Dragon Inn/ Dragon Gate Inn  where Hsu Feng and young Shankuan Lin- feng battle the heavies. Watching this (and it’s running mates), in a sharp prints drawn from the original negative, was a major corrective to seeing the dupey, re-voiced copies that were accepted as Chinese cinema of the day. King Hu’s work continued through the life of the circuit setting a standard that few of his competitors could match.
          36th Chamber -  Liu Chia Hui
Shaws did develop other wu hsia pian (sword fighting) film directors. The prolific, blood thirsty and uneven Chang Che (the She diao ying xiong chuan / Brave Archer trilogy with Fu Sheng, Hong Kong’s doomed James Dean ) along with Liu Chia-liang - include 1978’s Shao Lin san shi liu fang / The 36th Chamber of Shaolin with his brother - and particularly Chu Yuen, the one prominent survivor of the old Hong Kong Cantonese cinema, whose elegant  Chivalry cycle, derived from serial writer Ku Lung, included 1978’s Xiu hua da dao /Clan of Amazons with chameleon Yue Hwa and the 1977 Duo qing jian ke wu qing jian / Sentimental Swordsman with Ti Lung from scripts among the hundreds written by Ni Kwan. We could add Pau Hsue-li’s flamboyant 1977 Tian long ba bu / The Battle Wizard or Sun Chung’s 1977 Jue sha ling / Judgement of an Assassin among so many more.
Chu Yuen's San shao ye de jian   
With their impossible athletics, which Western critics loved to deride, and action set in studio fields demarcated with flowers, water wheels and the golden spotlight sun suspended in the sky, Shaw’s chivalry films are one of the most distinctive cycles ever filmed. It is a movie tragedy that they were confined to the Chinatown cinemas.

Their dominance promoted a reaction, a “Hong Kong New Wave” ushered in by the films of Ann Hui and the 1976 Tiaouhui/ Jumping Ash from Po-Chih Leong & Josephine Siao, to be followed by Tsui Hark (Ying hung boon sik / A Better Tomorrow 1986 ), John Woo (Dip huet gaai tau/ Bullet in the Head 1990),  Ronnie Yu (Ye ban ge sheng/ The Phantom Lover 1995),  Wong Kar-wai (Dung che sai du / Ashes of Time 1994) Ringo Lam (Xia dao Gao Fei / Full Contact 1992) and Clara Law (Ai zai bie xiang de ji jie / Farewell China 1990).

This cycle conferred an extraordinary stardom on Chow yun-fat working at an crushing rate (ten films in 1987, you can watch the strain age him on film) and dominating his industry to the point that the only information on his 1995 He ping fan dian / Peace Hotel poster was his frame filling face.
               City on Fire - Chow yun-fat
His rival for prominence in the Hong Kong films was of course the great Jackie Chan, who progressed from being another kung fu juvenile to replacing the late Bruce Lee as Golden Harvest’s market dominating comic action star, taking over direction of his films, even when he’d hired in people like Liu Chia-liang or Curt Wong to hold the reigns. Always impressive, the progress from Jackie’s  Xiao quan guai zhao / The Fearless Hyena (1979) to his fabulous English speaking Ngo si seoi / Who Am I? (1998) is fascinating, as the star was supported by a public daily waiting to hear that one of his authentic stunts had killed him.
                                              Sammo Hung & Jackie Chan in their 1983 A gai waak

Possibly even more impressive was his old class mate chubby Sammo Hung (Dung fong tuk ying /Eastern Condors 1987) who co-starred with Jackie in a number of their films and also directed and produced for his own Bojon company, proving to be a remarkable dramatic actor in non martial arts roles. Mabel Cheung’s 1989 Ba liang jin /  Eight Taels of Gold with Sylvia Chang is particularly poignant. It was agreeable to find that Sammo also valued this one. He had a good attitude. When I pointed out that a piece of business from his 1990 Zhi fen shuang xiong / Pantyhose Hero turned up in a Stephen Seagal movie he observed “They steal from us. We steal from them”. If he’d looked as good without a shirt as Jackie Chan, he might have been an even bigger star.

            Maggie Cheung.
With production dominated by action movies, they had to borrow leading ladies from comedies and weepies but glamorous Cherie Chung or the winning Maggie Cheung registered. To the cycle which began with petite Chen Pei pei as a female 
star action  we can add Angela Mao and, in a twist like India’s Fearless Nadia, blonde kick boxer Cynthia Rothrock became a Hong Kong action lead in her own right, as did Michelle Khan / Michelle Yeoh. Producers did try to continue female lead action movies like putting Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui in  Johnnie To’s 1993 strip cartoon adventure Dong fang san xia / The Heroic Trio
                                               Angela Mao & Cynthia Rothrock (below, barefoot)         

In with these we got the comedians, another enjoyable cycle - the three Hui Brothers’ Mo deng bao biao / Security Unlimited / Private Eyes / Mr. Boo 1981 (the profusion of English titles is a problem with Hong Kong Film), Karl Mak (Zui jia pai dang / Aces Go Places series 1981 on), Dean Shek (John Woo’s Hua ji shi dai / Laughing Times 1981).

                                                Aces Go Places - Karl Mak & Silvia Chan

The Chinatown cinemas were dominated by Hong Kong. but they also found space for the odd Thai and Philippino movie. A few mainland films got an airing, including Ziniu Wu’s 1989  Wan zhong/ Evening Bell or the persistent Jin Xie’s 1985 Gao shan xia de hua huan / Garlands at the Foot of the Mountain 
        Garlands at the Foot
        of the Mountain

The mainland knew that the Kung Fu film appealed to their audiences more than their own productions and sent a delegation to observe the then colony industry, returning scornful of the wire work and trampolines used in stunts. Hong Kong directors Li Han-hsiang and Liu Chia Liang went on to make films there, bringing greater sophistication than the local film makers and using the mobs of extras and authentic setting available. The mainlanders proudly announced their own Shaolin Temple movie, Hsin-Yen Chang’s 1982  Shao Lin si  with a sixteen year old gymnast named Jet Li heading up singing monks. Tianamen Square put an end to all that. Jet Li became Tsui Hark’s leading man.
                    Jet Li in Cory Yuen's Fong Sei Yu
After the seventies the Euro audience had melted away from the Chinese cinemas. If I saw another westerner in there, we would get into conversation about this departure from standard behaviour.  The audience for Chinese films became a replica of that of conventional cinemas, dominated by young people for whom the movies were their poplar culture - only with Asian faces. Soon we found second generation immigrants, often unable to understand the languages the cast were speaking. They wanted to see people like themselves presented glamorously. It was this audience which kept the doors open after the European chains drowned in alphabet soup - VHS, SBS, DVD. 

Jackie Chan in Stanley Tong’s 1995 Rumble in the Bronx stayed the most successful film in the U.S. for three weeks and ripples spread out from there, the Anglos came back again. Now it was trendy young couples but their interest was not enough to save the structure. The colony was ceded to the mainland in 1997 and a mechanism, which had provided an unbroken thirty year line of vibrant, accomplished, popular Asian cinema, disintegrated world wide, to the dismay of  it’s participants and surviving viewers, taking the ethnic cinema business with it. Auditoria emptied of an audience uninvolved by the
last catch penny productions. Just as there had been a definite beginning in the fifties the new century ruled off the activity.

Jackie Chan - Sammo's 
Qi mou miao ji: Wu fu xing
The Hong Kong films had not been an insignificant body of work, becoming the world’s number two source of movies, passing the Indians. Jackie Chan, without his ever appearing in a film festival, was by then the most famous actor in human history. 
The big Hong Kong stars and directors fled to Hollywood, where only John Woo thrived, though Sammo Hung landed a TV series and Chow Yun-fat had his greatest success in Ang Lee’s 2000 Wo hu cang long / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon his first kung fu role. Clara Law tried Australia and Michelle Yeoh became a Bond girl. Johnnie To, Wong Ka-wai and comedian-director Stephen Chow remain major film makers, with Ann Hui and Tsui Hark still in production. 

                                    Ann Hui
Of course it did not stop overnight. The business shifted into ethnic VHS stores often using the old theatrical prints as originals, with their sub-titles now become tiny. This too would fade with the shift to DVD. I found the sheriff sealing one store I dealt with.

These National screenings had been  particularly notable for their audience  participation, something that viewing productions on any kind of home screen will never match. There was the mumble of recognition which greeted the shot of the three black wearing women spinning thread in the town square in the Macedonian film or the container jails in The Boat People. Hostile audiences shifted and muttered at the shots of the Marxist demonstrations in Güney’s Izin and the local Chinese  cheered when the rocket attacks repulsed the Vietnamese “the Cubans of the East” in the mainland documentary Counter Attacks in Self Defence. I remember glancing at the audience in the screening of the Argentinean movie where the family, resettled in the US, talked about their old home with the smell of the dish cloths drying after being washed, while they now threw them away. This one really connected with the expats. Everyone in the row was crying.
         Stanley Kwan's Rouge - Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui. 
Cherry picking the ethnic shows wasted the opportunity they represent. In particular the Hong Kong films were a unique two decades chance to familiarise yourself with  an entire national film production in ideal conditions. Australia became the best place in the

world to see Asian film. Sydney-Melbourne was better than Hong Kong or Tokyo, or London or New

 York. Double feature programming bringing back earlier successes meant that it became likely to catch the best work repeatedly. 

By the time it was finished, I was working on my second thousand viewings, making these more familiar to me than anything since the Hollywood films I grew up with.  

Even with the old sub-title old excuse gone, Australians had been intimidated by their notion of  alien. The odd art film lovers may have made their way to Redfern Lawson to see the local premiere of Michael Cacoyannis’ 1958 To teleftaio psema / A Matter of Dignity or caught up with the inherited copies De Sica double feature of Ladri di biciclette / Bicycle Thieves and Miricalo in Milan but their numbers were negligible. Few spotted beautiful titled copies longer than the art house versions of Franco Rossi’s Smog and Zurlini’s 1961 La ragazza con la valigia / Girl with a Suitcase. People who spoke the name of  Nic Ray or Pedro Almodivar with reverence thought Sergio Corbucci or Chu Yuen must be Polo Players and they were scornful of any suggestion that they were missing out. 

Chow Yun Fat, Full Contact

When it was all over what remained? The buildings were re-purposed, and more significant, the libraries went to the tip. These could have given Canberra a giant bargaining chip, offering viewing copies for overseas Cinémathèques. Canberra solved that problem by wiping out our own Cinémathquès.

In the post-Rumble in the Bronx era, SBS’s Movie show belatedly found the Chinese theatres. Without press books, the presenters spent time discussing the inferiority of the sub-titles against the station’s own, while ignoring Teddy Robin, Roy Chow and the other major Character actors on screen in Chi Leung 'Jacob' Cheung’s  impressive Cageman.
I did run a couple of one off screenings and a small season here but I’d be surprised to meet anyone who remembered them.  These, a few academic essays and the memories of the now middle aged fans who sought the  material out are a miserable legacy to such a huge, unique opportunity. 

The effect of all forms of censorship had contributed.  One Australian distributor closed down because the classification fee became more than the likely returns on a film. Ethnic importers appeared to be feeling official disapproval more than main stream competitors, their films frequently banned. Argento’s ground breaking Suspiria was held up for years when in the hands of an ethnic distributor and opened with a minor deletion weeks after it passed to Fox. Distributor Joe Siu, to his eternal credit, appealed these decisions
retrieving items like Michael Mak’s slick 1988 hostess club drama  Sun Moon & Stars /Yue liang, xing xing, tai yang

                                    Massage Girls.
The Greeks had had quite good returns on soft core but gave it up under community pressure. This didn’t inhibit the Chinese distributors, who featured the Category Three “Hong Kong Torture Porn” that Bart refers to in the Simpsons episode written by Judd Apatow. Some of the Chinese skin flicks, like veteran Fan Ho’s 19819 Ye ji qing / Erotic Nights, had a good standard of production, which is more can be said for the grungey Philippino girlie movies the theatres found a place for.

The traffic went the other way too. Films forbidden in their original markets showed to curious audiences here. Hector Olivera’s 1974 La Patagonia rebelde / Rebellion in Patagonia was banned in it’s native Argentina, considered subversive showing the 1921 strike against the English cattle barons settled by the military. Hector Alterio gives an impressive performance in that one. Mainland  protests led to the disappearance of  a cycle of films critical of the Cultural Revolution which did air here,  the 1981 Chia-ju wo shih chen-te /If I Were for Real, an adaptation of  “The Inspector General”, Shang Hai she hui dang an / On the Society File of Shanghai also 1981 and more impressively Huang tian hou tu / The Coldest Winter in Peking  fusing a Doctor Zhivago rip off with a large scale depiction of faction fighting in Mao’s China - Red Guards chanting “Down with panty hose wearing Imperialists” as they wave their little red books in the air.

Since the US segregation laws in the 1940s put the Black cinemas out of business, no one has made films specifically for ethnic circuits, though Greek film distributor Chris Louis did examine the possibilities of making a feature to show in his theatres here. The films that made up ethnic programs were made for other audiences, tailored to more significant markets, but they do have a community which marks them off from films in most other forms of distribution. 

The experience of the Ethnic Cinema chains highlight some major divisions. There is one between “commercial” film, which often has as little relationship with profit as it’s rival, “art” film often has with artistry. The ethnic houses dealt in popular film. Theo Angelopolis or Federico Fellini were not at home here. Francesco Rosi’s 1959 I magliari / The Swindlers showed up more for the Alberto Sordi connection than as a late bloomer neo realist item. Anything cerebral got little sympathy. Gian Maria Volonté and Anouk Aime in Gianfranco De Bosio's  Terrorista languished at the back of a Perth projection box for months while the theatre ran Franco and Ciccio movies. The cut version of King Hu’s magisterial 1979 Shan zhong zhuan qi / Legend of the Mountain did get a brief run because it was a prestige piece of Chinese culture but Tony Au’s  Nan Jing de ji du / Christ of nanjing (1995) never saw the light of a projector despite being trailered for months. Even after Boat People,  probably the greatest success in the Asian cinemas, Ann Hui’s 1990 Ketu qiuhen/ Song of the Exile  (her best film) did one week of a two week’s season and was never seen again.

  Sien lui yau wan III: Joey Wang 

This barrier is porous however. Seeing them run in the ‘States, Valhalla ran a three on a day of Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story cycle. When Celestial put them out on DVD, the Shaw Brothers wu hsia pian were printed up and did the festival circuit which had ignored them during the decades of their production. When in the cycle’s decline, Jackie Chan’s New Police Story did finally play Sydney Film Festival, the audience whooped with delight and people asked me where this great athlete comedian had sprung from - this years after he’d made two films here. Corbucci’s Franco Nero “Zapata Spaghetti Westerns” Compaños and Il mercenario made it into multiplex distribution and for a while there your neighbourhood Odeon was likely to run a Kung Fu double or a Terence Hill cowboy movie. Note a significant connection with another movie popular movie phenomenon which blossomed in  the same period. Many of the ethnic circuit titles turned up dubbed in the Drive-Ins - spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies and Italian comedy. The week I showed up in Perth, Jose Mariano’s dubbed copy of the Paul Naschy Fear Rises from the Tomb was playing. I thought things weren’t going to be so bad after all. Bad guess! The only sub-titled film to get mainstream distribution while I was there was Annie Giradot as Docteur Françoise Gaillard and that because the distributor sent the wrong copy. I became very grateful for the ethnic shows.

This was pre-Internet. The films had arrived with no documentation beyond some often battered lobby cards (Chinese front of house material was  particularly excellent) and  maybe an inaccurate synopsis. Even though copies may be sub-titled, the credits were frequently not transliterated. I saw the early work of Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wei without connecting them to form a picture of their makers. I was dependent on the staff for information but I didn’t encounter “The Other.” People who had no contact with one another were (with the exception of one snotty Korean video store that didn’t last) uniformly pleasant to deal with, helping me identify participants and giving me details on the holdings and prospective attractions. I felt that they were amused but rather pleased that someone was taking an interest in their activities. I recognised an agreeable, familiar sensation - being a tourist.

That was it for movie multi culturalism in action. A few subsidy dollars, a bit of  enterprising journalism and we could have had a whole lot more. Myself, I miss the days when at One O’clock in the morning I’d be sitting with Asian waiters and trainee weight lifters watching young Chen Chen as The Girl With the Dextrols Touch.

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