At the Hong Kong Movies
 By Paul Fonoroff
$27.50 - Softcover
639 Pages

Fonoroff moved to HK in the 1980’s and soon began writing HK film reviews for the South China Morning Post.  After perusing a fair sampling of the 600 reviews included in this book (presented in chronological order), the question in my mind is - why?

Fonoroff displays such a tremendous disdain for contemporary HK films that it is difficult to imagine why he would choose a career in reviewing them. And his enmity covers all the different genres - from fantasy to action to romance to comedies. It is a rarity to find him writing any kind words about a film and even then you can sense his reluctance. I almost started feeling sorry for this fellow who spends so much of his life torturing himself in the dark by watching all of these sub-par films.

In his very first review, his sentiment is made plain. He is reviewing Operation Pink Squad (admittedly not a great film by any stretch of the imagination), but Fonoroff goes on to write “Average by HK standards, that is. By international standards it would rate somewhere in the bottom quarter”. What does that statement say about his general opinion towards HK films?

He approaches HK films from a classic film school mindset. If a film doesn’t fit into his definition of what a film should be like, he tends to dismiss it out of hand. He constantly focuses on very basic points – jumps of logic, lack of realism, holes in the plot, the image of HK, socially irresponsible actions, design errors etc. These are important no doubt, but they are not everything. The man sees the mundane and misses the magic of HK films. He seems to see only their weaknesses and none of their wonder.

Here are a few examples regarding a few classic films:

The Killer – “But as much as The Killer tries to whitewash it’s protagonists, it still cannot totally disguise the fact that Chow and Lee are no heroes, just pasteboard hitmen hiding behind a twisted sense of justice”

God of Gamblers - “a piece of dross”

Swordsman II  - “I found the movie left an impression as blurry and fleeting as the play of light bouncing off the blade of a sword”

Girls without Tomorrow – “an hour and a half of unintentional humor”

Naked Killer - “piece of dreck”

Heroic Trio - “are as muddled a threesome as one could ever hope to encounter”

Blade of Fury  - “dreary martial arts epic”

Bride with White Hair - “isn’t all that engrossing”

Chungking Express  - “once you take off the wrapping, there isn’t too much of substance inside”

He is a Woman, She is a Man – “far-fetched and emotionally phony”

Ashes of Time - “emotionally hollow”

Now I believe that everyone’s opinion of a film is valid  – as long as it comes from the heart – but I wonder if his do. Instead it seems as if he prefers to mock than to marvel and I find that a bit odd. I should mention that Fonoroff loves pre-1970 HK films and has published a book called Silver Light that is a collection - with blurbs - of many lovely posters and lobby cards from HK films stretching back from 1920 up until 1970. It's a beautiful book that makes clear his love for the films and the actors from that time period and it is a shame that he doesn't bring 1/10th the enthusiasm to the period for which he is reviewing these films.

In truth, the main value here is really as a reference. He reviews 600 films – many of them have had very little or no coverage. His reviews generally are a page in length and give some plot points and some cast information. For this reason the book is worth having – but if you like the films from this period I warn you that you will need to watch your blood pressure are you read!