First things first: it's pronounced Choy Hock. As in Tsui Hark, the man who for two decades has been Hong Kong cinema's pre-eminent creative force. His best movies are made with such verve and craft that the viewer's head practically explodes with the concentration they require, the pleasure they bring. And at 50, Tsui hasn't slowed up. Just the first two minutes of his new Time and Tide-the first Hong Kong film he has directed in five years-are breathlessly virtuosic, using slo-mo and rapid cuts and neck-swiveling pans to impart enough visual information for half a dozen Hollywood features.
For Western audiences, it's a smart introduction to Hong Kong's top auteur-entrepreneur. Recently New Yorkers received a banquet of Tsui, with a retrospective at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, and Time and Tide has hit the festival circuit Down Under. Having played in Sydney last month, the film travels to the New Zealand Film Festival next week, then Melbourne.
Time and Tide, a drugs-'n'-guns saga in which two young gangsters (Nicholas Tse and Wu Bai) join forces to defeat some South American cartel cuties, may have no meaning other than its own kinetic rush, but who cares? This is more than an exercise in style; it's a 113-minute Soloflex workout-the movie-est movie of the year. It has dynamite set pieces, like a gun chase in the corridors under a banquet hall and the climactic scene where a young woman (Candy Lo) gives birth at the precise moment that she also blasts a killer to hell. Tsui giveth life, and Tsui taketh it away.
It was 1977 when Tsui-born in China, raised in Vietnam and Hong Kong and educated in Texas and New York City-went back to Hong Kong to set local films racing to his own fevered pulse. The result was pop masterpieces like the kung fu fantasy Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and the all-girl action comedy Peking Opera Blues. "His mind is like a video game," says actor-director Sylvia Chang, who starred in Tsui's delicious romantic comedy, the 1984 Shanghai Blues. "He was a revolutionary when I first met him, and he still is today."
As director or producer, Tsui created perhaps half of Hong Kong's best films in its golden age from the mid-'80s to mid-'90s; he was often called the colony's Steven Spielberg, though Tsui said, "That's unfair to him, I think. It's unfair to me too-he's so rich." Film Workshop, which he founded in 1984, quickly became the Amblin of Hong Kong. Four of its films became terrific franchises: A Better Tomorrow (the action epic that made Chow Yun-fat a superstar and John Woo a world-class auteur), A Chinese Ghost Story (a magical romance with Leslie Cheung), Swordsman (whose two sequels displayed Brigitte Lin in all her pansexual glory) and Once Upon a Time in China (which brought Hong Kong stardom to Jet Li).
Tsui's specialty is turning traditionally male genres into showcases for beguiling actresses. "From very early on," he says, "I wanted to do movies without any guys." Films like Peking Opera Blues, Green Snake and The Lovers are romantic but oddly reticent-like Tsui. "He's sensitive to women but frightened of expressing emotion," says his wife and producing partner, Shi Nan-sun. "In his films, it seems he's going all the way, and then he doesn't press the button. In real life, he never tells anyone he loves them, never cuddles or kisses them."
At Film Workshop, Tsui didn't cuddle or coddle his directors. He fired esteemed auteurs King Hu (A Touch of Zen) and Yim Ho (Homecoming) off their projects; Woo walked out after Tsui re-edited three of his films, including The Killer. "I was not a good producer," Tsui admits. "The roles of producer and director should be like coach and fighter: the coach has to tell the boxer he's strong on the left or the right, that his eye's weakening, that it's time to call it quits. Back then, I got frustrated. I never learned the difference between producing and directing."
After an abortive mid-'90s stint in Hollywood helming two Jean-Claude Van Damme actioners, Tsui returned home for a rest and a good think. "I had been working nonstop for too long," he says. "You have to get away and get a fresh perspective." Now he's back, frenetic as ever. He has done a remake of Zu with a hot young cast (including Crouching Tiger star Zhang Ziyi). He also produced Hong Kong's big Easter hit, the live-action-plus-animation Master Q 2001.
Our advice to filmgoers: catch Time and Tide at the festivals and visit your specialized video store. It's time to rock to Tsui Hark.
-With reporting by Stephen Short/Hong Kong