Just for a second or two, no longer than it takes to pull out a machine gun and mow down five or six people, School of the Art Institute Film Center director Barbara Scharres sounded like Monica Lewinsky. It happened while Scharres was attempting to explain her attraction to Hong Kong cinema, which, she says, has a certain irresistible energy. “It’s like falling in love,” Scharres said. “You can’t predict who or why, you just know it when you see it.”

Scharres was smitten the first time she laid eyes on a Hong Kong movie, at a foreign film festival in the early 1980s. After this initial encounter, “I started seeking out more,” she says. “I started going to Chinese video stores in Chicago and programming Hong Kong films here at the Film Center. At the same time, I began making business contacts in Hong Kong. I got to know a lot of people and was able, through the Film Center, to give them a showcase.”

Her timing was astute. Scharres hooked up with the Hong Kong film industry at the beginning of what would turn out to be its golden decade–a period blessed with “remarkably talented people turning out one piece of really strong work after another.” While few Westerners were paying attention (for most Americans, Asian cinema began and ended with Bruce Lee), the booming Hong Kong movie business grew to be the third largest in the world, surpassed only by those in India and the United States. In the 1980s it was functioning like the Hollywood of the 1930s, with major studios and a star system.

Hong Kong filmmakers were borrowing Hollywood genres but making movies for a hometown audience. They filtered the formulas through a Hong Kong sensibility, which often resulted in combinations of realism and mythology or extravagant action and melodrama, Scharres says. For many American moviegoers, the whole package was like looking at a familiar face in a fun-house mirror. Presented with the sentimentality of old-fashioned “women’s movies” in the midst of violent action films (as if Stella Dallas merged with Die Hard), Americans are prone to laugh. “There was a time when American audiences relished melodrama and would weep unashamedly,” Scharres says. “Now they don’t know how to appreciate it.” Still, in the 90s American audiences for these films grew. “There was a rising awareness of Hong Kong cinema and, particularly in Hollywood, a recognition that it had a unique energy and style,” Scharres says. Then things began to change.

“You ever thought about leaving Hong Kong?” is the question on everyone’s lips in director John Woo’s 1992 cops-and-gangsters film, Hard-Boiled. The reply, “I was born in this place and I’ll die here,” is a prophecy that comes true for anyone who doesn’t flee in the film’s over-the-top hospital-shoot-out conclusion. In fact, this was the last film Woo made before joining the brain drain that afflicted Hong Kong as the 1997 takeover by China drew near. Now former Hong Kong luminaries like Woo and actor Jackie Chan are working in Hollywood. While they’ve become household names in America, the Hong Kong film industry that nurtured them “has suffered a major decline,” Scharres says. You can’t attribute it to any one factor–in addition to the Chinese takeover and major emigration, the Asian economy caved. “I don’t mean to say there aren’t still some very talented people working in Hong Kong films,” she adds, “but it’s not the kind of critical mass that it was in the 80s.” Not to be melodramatic about it, but–at least for now–the Hong Kong cinema’s glory days are over.

The 11th Annual Hong Kong Film Festival at the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago continues this weekend with two films made in 1998. Her Name Is Cat, a fantasy-based action film directed by Clarence Fok, will be shown at 4 PM Saturday and 6 PM Sunday. Portland Street Blues, an edgier film, directed by Raymond Yip and staring Sandra Ng as a bisexual gang boss, will be shown at 6 PM Saturday and 3:45 PM Sunday. Tickets are $7. The Film Center is located in the school, Columbus Drive and Jackson. Call 312-443-3737 for more information.

–Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): poster “her Name is Cat”; Barbara Scharres photo by Eugene Zakusilo; “Hard-Boiled” film still.