Mistaken for a wanted man and unaware that he has blundered into the Imperial Magistrate's house, Jackie Chan ducks under tables, leaps over chairs and juggles a valuable clay pipe as he tries to avoid the sword thrusts of the outraged magistrate.
Even though he's unarmed, Chan manages to get the better of his opponent -- until the magistrate's daughter wanders in and thrashes the hapless hero.
The scene is from "The Young Master," and it's a classic bit of kung fu comedy, deftly blending dazzling gymnastics with first-rate clowning. But don't expect to find it among the action tapes at your local video shop. Even though "The Young Master" is considered classic Chan, the 1980 film is hard to find outside of shops specializing in Hong Kong movies.
Unless you want it on DVD, that is.
Along with the expected assortment of mainstream blockbusters and art-house hits, a growing number of Hong Kong movies are turning up on DVD. Even better, these DVDs are available at major chains like Suncoast Video and Tower Records.
We're not talking about the hits that crossed over to mainstream theaters after being dubbed into English, like Chan's "Supercop" and "Rumble in the Bronx." Recently-released DVD titles include such Hong Kong classics as "The Bride With White Hair," John Woo's "A Bullet in the Head," Jet Li's "Fong Sai Yuk," and such multi-part epics as "A Chinese Ghost Story" and "Once Upon a Time in China."
These are great movies -- titles that helped elevate Hong Kong cinema from cultish obscurity to its current state of fashionable influence. These films have been acclaimed by everyone from directors Quentin Tarentino and Oliver Stone to critics like Dave Kehr and Roger Ebert.
They've also had a direct commercial impact on the American film industry. Were it not for films like "A Bullet in the Head" and "Hard Boiled," director John Woo would never have been hired to make Hollywood features like "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow." Likewise, if Jet Li hadn't built such a fervent following through "Fong Sai Yuk" and "Once Upon a Time in China," it's doubtful he would have been cast as the villain in "Lethal Weapon 4."
But why DVD? Because the digital video discs make more sense, economically, for the film companies.
"The Hong Kong industry has not stopped making video tape. But the industry all over the world -- whether it's Hong Kong, Japan or the United States -- would really like to see DVD take a grip, because it's infinitely cheaper for them to create a DVD than it is for them to create a prerecorded videotape," says Thomas Weisser, editor of the magazine Asian Cult Cinema and the author of numerous books on Chinese and Japanese films.
Part of the problem with dubbing movies onto tape, says Weisser, is that it has to be done in real time; a two-hour movie takes two hours to copy. Even if a duplicating plant has thousands of recorders slaved to a master tape, it's still a long and costly process.
By contrast, he says, pressing a DVD "can be done in a few seconds. It's just like pressing a record." Being faster means that the manufacturer saves on power and labor costs.
There's another advantage. Hong Kong's film industry is the world's third largest (behind Hollywood and Bombay). At its peak, in 1995, Hong Kong studios produced some 200 titles, and theaters there raked in $175 million. Moreover, Hong Kong movies are popular throughout Asia, providing the industry with lucrative secondary markets in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Reaching such a diverse audience requires some adjustments, however. Most Hong Kong films are shot in Cantonese (the dialect spoken in Hong Kong), then dubbed into Mandarin (standard Chinese). Subtitles are then added for various foreign markets.
Often, Hong Kong videotapes have double-decker subtitles, with a line or two of English below a similar amount of Chinese. This makes it easier for those who speak Mandarin or English to buy the same tape as the average Hong Kong native, but it also leaves the viewer with a very cluttered screen.
DVD solves both the language and subtitle problems. Because the CD-sized discs can store an enormous amount of digital data, DVDs can not only deliver a full-length movie, but can offer multiple audio tracks, several layers of subtitles and other extras. This means viewers can choose between Cantonese and Mandarin for the dialogue, and subtitles in a variety of languages. "The Young Master," for instance, has nine sets of subtitles, including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and English.
That's a tremendous advantage for the manufacturers. Where once they had to make multiple versions of a tape, now they can reach a number of markets with one DVD.
"It's a better deal for the com-pany all the way around," says Weisser. "Whether it's a better thing for the consumer or not remains to be seen."
Unlike some cineastes, Weisser isn't particularly impressed by the fact that these Hong Kong DVDs offer wide-screen presentations and a choice of sub- titles. "I watch a movie because I want to see the movie," he says. "I want to know what the plot is."
That's not to say Weisser thinks that putting Hong Kong movies on DVD is a wasted effort. For one thing, he's happy that the new for- mat has made these titles more readily available.
"If I can get things I couldn't get on videotape before, then DVD is an extremely great thing," he says. "Right now, it's still limited. There's very little on DVD that you can't get on tape, or haven't already had on tape."
Then there's the issue of price. Many Hong Kong DVDs, including such celebrated titles as "A Chinese Ghost Story" and "A Bullet in the Head," are priced at $49.95 -- double the cost of an average American film on DVD. There are some movies, including "The Bride with White Hair" and "The Heroic Trio," available for just $29.95, but so far those are in the minority.
(Some of Jackie Chan's early films, including "Half a Loaf of Kung Fu," "Snake and Crane" and "The Fearless Hyena," are available as budget DVDs, going for as little as $9.95. But they're not wide-screen editions and offer no sub- titles, only the original Cantonese or dubbed English.)
Still, Weisser does have a wish-list of sorts for Hong Kong DVDs. "If suddenly we have access to all the early films by [director] Tsui Hark and stuff like the 'Mr. Vampire' series," he says, "then this is a wonderful, wonderful thing."
On the DVD marquee
Here are some of the Hong Kong movies available on DVD:
"The Bride With White Hair" (1993) **** -- Directed by Ronny Yu. Starring Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin. Beautiful and otherworldly, "The Bride" is equal parts tragic romance and action-packed kung fu movie. Cheung plays the putative heir to the Wu Tang clan, and Lin the "wolf girl" he falls in love with while fighting an evil black-magic clan. Visually stunning and erotically charged.
"A Bullet in the Head" (1990) *** 1/2 -- Directed by John Woo. Starring Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee. A sprawling saga of friendship and betrayal set against the chaos of the Vietnam war, the film is an intoxicating cocktail of noble sentimentality and bloody gunfights. Great performances by Leung and Lee.
"A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987) **** -- Directed by Ching Sui-Tung. Starring Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wu Ma. Cheung plays a bumbling scholar in ancient China whose good heart and utter innocence not only rescue him from killer ghosts, but also help him save the soul of a beautiful dead girl (Wang). Cheesy special effects, but a beautiful story.
"Fong Sai Yuk" (1993) *** 1/2 -- Directed by Corey Yuen. Starring Jet Li, Sibelle Hu, Siu Fong Fong, Josephine Siao. Jet Li, the villain in "Lethal Weapon 4," plays hero Fong Sai Yuk in this eye-popping kung fu comedy. As expected, Li's acrobatic combat is stunning, but the movie really belongs to Siao, who shines as Li's kung fu fightin' mama.
"Once a Thief" (1991) *** 1/2 -- Directed by John Woo. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung. A caper comedy that's closer to Woo's early Hong Kong work than shoot-'em-ups like "The Killer," this tells the tale of three Hong Kong thieves trying to make their last big score on the French Riviera. Yun-Fat is typically winning.
"Once Upon a Time in China" (1991) **** -- Directed by Tsui Hark. Starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan. A stunning historical epic set in turn-of-the-century China, it balances first-rate martial arts choreography with an intricate tale of political intrigue. Li is particularly good as Wong Fey Hung, who tries to keep the peace and preserve Chinese tradition.
"The Young Master" (1980) *** -- Directed by Jackie Chan. Starring Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Shek Kin. Chan establishes his signature blend of kung fu and comedy in this period piece, which finds him playing a young man who gets mistaken for a criminal while trying to clear his brother's name. Silly plot, but great action.