Now, New Yorkers will have several opportunities to see some of Tsui's best work, which has been screened in the city before but never in such a concentrated fashion. The 1991 ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (shown uncut for the first time in the U.S., with newly translated subtitles) was such a hit in Hong Kong that it spawned five sequels and a prequel. Depicting the adventures of real-life doctor, martial-arts expert and anti-colonial activist Wong Fei-hong (Li) in mainland China under British rule, it's full of masterful action set-pieces. Tsui relies on Li's pure martial-arts skill, rather than sterile special effects, and uses fast cuts and odd angles to astonishingly graceful effect (in a climactic fight in a warehouse, Tsui had almost 300 different camera setups.)
Wong Fei-hong has been the subject of numerous Hong Kong films, including the Jackie Chan vehicle THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER, but Tsui's version stands apart from the rest by showing him as more of a historical character. "Other films just depict him as a great martial artist," he says. "They've used his name and didn't really explore the background of the period." In both CHINA I and II, Wong treads a middle ground between colonialism and extremist Chinese nationalism. Tsui uses these films as an allegory about mainland China in the '90s. "They've been trying to adapt to technology, but after a hundred years, this process is still going on," says the director. "Sometimes people use imported ways in a clumsy manner, like eating rice with a fork and knife instead of chopsticks. I look at it with humor."
Tsui's thematic thoughtfulness hasn't translated well to Hollywood, where he has been consigned to B-movies starring buffoonish performers such as Dennis Rodman, Rob Schneider and Jean-Claude Van Damme. But his touch still remains: 1998's KNOCK OFF, a Van Damme-Schneider vehicle centered around Asia's low-cost imitation-merchandise market, is memorably eccentric, with captivating action scenes and moments of bizarre visual excess which compensate for dull characters and anemic (and often incoherent) story. Marking Tsui's return to Hong Kong, TIME AND TIDE depicts the friendship between a young bodyguard trying to protect a gangster from South American mercenaries, and an older man who has returned home after a disenchanting experience with the same Latin killers. The film, which shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses with KNOCK OFF, has a frenetic pace that often suggests an attempt to catch up to John Woo's HARD BOILED eight years after the fact. (A few scenes even seem like Woo parodies.)
In its international settings and mix of Hong Kong and Taiwanese actors, TIME AND TIDE reflects Hong Kong cinema's growing pan-Asian tendencies. For Tsui, this is a reflection of Hong Kong's very nature, rather than a calculated attempt to appeal to cross-national audiences. "Hong Kong is a place where people speak so many different languages, you don't know which one is official," he says. "It's a city that people use a stepping stone, a way to go to other places."
Tsui has been to Hollywood and back, and for now he seems happy to stay in Asia. His next two films are sequels to a pair of his more popular movies: shot in English, the Thailand-set BLACK MASK 2 continues the series started by Jet Li and director Daniel Lee, but adds a sci-fi twist. And the just-completed LEGEND OF ZU revisits the mythology of the original ZU. "But the concept is quite different," explains Tsui, who in the sequel examines themes of eternal love in a world of fleeting pleasures and emotions. "If what we think is precious could go on for 1,000 years, then it becomes very basic and routine. The way we look at friends and enemies - the way we look at life, nature and love ends up quite different." At least Tsui can take comfort in the fact that his best films have, so far, stood the test of time.