A visionary, an innovator and a trendsetter, the late director Li Han-hsiang was one of the most important figures in Hong Kong cinema. He exacted great influence on the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China, excelling in a wide variety of genres including historical epics, sumptuous "huangmei diao" (regional opera) films, delightful tales about cheating, witty light comedies and evocative erotica.
A versatile filmmaker, Li was also a painter, a writer, an antique aficionado and a devotee of Qing Dynasty and early Republic history. He was notorious for his fetishistic attention to detail and his ability to work with actors, bringing stardom to actresses Hu Chin, Ivy Ling Po, actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and others.
As a contribution to the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) has organised the retrospective "Li Han-hsiang, Storyteller" to pay tribute to this monumental figure of Hong Kong film.
35 titles of different genres will be shown in 28 screenings during the HKIFF from March 30 to April 11 and 27 screenings from April 15 to May 25. All films will be screened at the Cinema of the HKFA.
The list includes most of Li's best films and cherished titles, such as the historical epics "The Empress Dowager", "The Last Emperor", "The Burning of the Imperial Palace", "Reign Behind the Curtain" and "Empress Wu Tse-tien"; the "huangmei diao" movies "The Kingdom and the Beauty" and "The Love Eterne"; the erotic film "Golden Lotus"; the hilarious comedy "The Warlord" and the Taiwan masterpieces "The Winter" and "At Dawn".
To complement the screenings, there will be a two-month exhibition from March 30 to June 3 at the Exhibition Hall of the HKFA, presenting reconstructed film sets, costumes, photos, artefacts and oral-history interviews of Li's friends and colleagues. Admission is free.
A new publication "Li Han-hsiang, Storyteller" with essays re-evaluating Li's rich, versatile career and interviews with Li and his collaborators will be published in separate Chinese and English editions.
Two seminars will be held at the Cinema of HKFA. Actress Hu Chin, Li's daughter Margaret Li and actor Ti Lung will share their experiences in "Li Han-hsiang and his Actors" at 4.30pm on March 31. Critics Yau Ching and Po Fung, will join HKFA Programmer Sam Ho on "The Genre Films of Li Han-hsiang" at 5pm on April 7. Both seminars are conducted in Cantonese.
Li joined the Hong Kong film industry in 1948, showing his talent in his official directorial debut "Blood in Snow" in 1956, and establishing himself as a major director with his historical epics and "huangmei diao" films at Shaw Brothers.
In 1963, he went to Taiwan to establish Grand Motion Picture Company, which transformed the film industry of Taiwan in a brief tenure of five years. He concentrated on the business end during that period, leaving directing duties to a cadre of recruited talent. Yet he managed to turn out "The Winter", a delicate and touching work that is now considered one of the best Chinese language films of the 1960s.
Grand Motion Picture ran into financial trouble and Li returned to Hong Kong, rejoining Shaw Brothers in 1972 and directing a string of profitable comedies and erotic tales. After re-establishing his reputation, he showed his skill in filming historical dramas "The Empress Dowager" and "The Last Tempest".
In 1982, he reached agreement with the Chinese government to shoot "The Burning of the Imperial Palace" and "Reign Behind a Curtain" at the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The films went on to become big hits and critical favourites, further consolidating Li's place as a key figure in Chinese cinema. In 1996, he suffered a heart attack and died during production of the TV series "Burning of Efang Palace", leaving behind a legacy of remarkable creativity.
Lavishing a considerable budget on the fabricated palace set, "The Empress Dowager" (1975) and its companion piece "The Last Tempest" (1976) with its palatial grandeur captured the fatal mood of the palace's residents and signalled the impending end of the Qing Dynasty.
"The Burning of the Imperial Palace" (1983) and its companion piece "Reign Behind a Curtain" (1983), both starring Tong Leung Kai-fai and Liu Xiaoqing, represented an important landmark of Hong Kong cinema in joint production with Mainland China. The films not only showed fascinating palatial images, a dramatic presentation of power but also earned Tony Leung Kai-Fai the Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
His "huangmei diao" opera films were passionately loved. The casting of the Amoy opera actress Ivy Ling Po as the male lead in "The Love Eterne" (1963) had created a craze and mesmerised generations of loyal fans. The other classic "The Kingdom and the Beauty" (1959) integrated Li's fondness for palatial grandeur with colorful folk life. In "The Dream of the Red Chamber" (1977), Li cast Brigitte Lin as the male lead, adding a memorable performance to her colourful career.
Not to be missed is the historical epic on the legendary "Empress Wu Tse-tien" (1963), an early masterpiece drawing different opinions from critics. The film, an intense drama of Shakespearean proportions, is being included as the Best 200 Chinese Classics in 2002. "Hsi Shih: Beauty of Beauties" (1965) which broke the Grand Motion Pictures bank and caused Li to end his Taiwan tenure is a powerful film with remarkable performance from the leads Jiang Qing and Chao Lei.
Of the films on romance produced in Taiwan, "At Dawn" (1968), a frontal assault on the corrupt legal system, was crowned a masterpiece of Chinese cinema. The film is also a testimony to Li's importance as a producer and studio boss, giving promising young directors like Song Cunshou chances to embark on ventures with little commercial appeal. "The Winter" (1969), another masterpiece in Taiwan cinema, is a warm and touching tale.
His earlier films "Lady in Distress" (1957) starring Linda Lin Dai is a delightful work captured Chinese folk life and his official debut "Blood in Snow" (1956) fully displays Li's filmmaking craft.
In addition to grandeur of settings, the wit of storytelling is another of Li's cherished qualities. Featuring Michael Hui and Tina Li, "The Warlord" (1972) is a farcical comedy, told in Li's signature episodic structure, stringing together hilarious sketches. With the same formula of amusing anecdotes set in a historical background, he produced the light-hearted "The Legends of Cheating" (1971) and the erotic film "Legends of Lust" (1972).
Actress Hu Chin owed her stardom to Li when she brought to life the character of the sexually aggressive woman Pan Jinlin in the "Golden Lotus" (1974). The film kicked off a trend of stylish "fengyue" films - softcore sex films set in historical times. Also adapted from the erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, "Tiger Killer" (1982) added kung-fu action with Ti Lung playing the diminutive husband.
Tickets for all screenings are priced at $30. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients.
Ticket arrangements for films screened during the HKIFF will follow those of the festival with postal booking from now until March 2. Internet bookings can now be made at www.urbtix.hk. Counter bookings at URBTIX outlets and phone reservations at 2734 9009 are available from March 8.
Detailed information and various discounts during the HKIFF can be obtained in the 31st HKIFF programme and booking folder or the "Profolio 36" distributed at all performing venues of the LCSD. For programme enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900 or browse the websites: www.filmarchive.gov.hk or www.lcsd.gov.hk/fp.
Ends/Monday, February 26, 2007
Issued at HKT 18:34