by Augusta Palmer
The title of Fredric Dannen and Barry Long’s new book, “Hong Kong Babylon: An Insiders Guide To The Hollywood Of The East“, may evoke the scintillating smut of Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” books, but the book itself is a serious investigation of Hong Kong cinema which begins to fill the void in English-language accounts of that dynamic cinema. It contains over 300 plot summaries by Barry Long, a plethora of interviews, bios and filmographies with major players on the Hong Kong cinema scene by Dannen, recommended viewing lists from twelve critics, and an overview of the industry also written by Dannen.
As Dannen said in a recent interview: “This book was really a labor of love. I did it because it was the book that I was looking for when I first got interested in Hong Kong films and it didn’t exist… All the books on the market are these sort of fanzine-styled books written by geeks for geeks.”
Dannen is an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and the author of “Hit Men” (an account of mafia influence on American popular music). Long is a film programmer and a former manager of Kim’s Video, where his back-of-the-box synopses helped many a New Yorker wade through the delightful deluge of Hong Kong cinema available on video.
Given Dannen’s background in reporting on organized crime, it’s not surprising that “Hong Kong Babylon”‘s major contribution to the history of Hong Kong cinema is its focus on the influence of organized crime on the film industry. As director Wong Kar Wai has reportedly remarked, it’s easier to work with a godfather than with an accountant.
Dannen noted that: “The movie industry in Hong Kong is a mafia enterprise from bow to stern… There’s been a lot of naive stuff written about the triads because you saw Jackie Chan and all these other performing artists marching supposedly against the triads. That was a farce; they were all in business with them. They were protesting against people like Chan Chi-ming [a notorious Hong Kong triad and sometime film producer], who they saw as violent interlopers.”
Dannen’s book further details the distinction between “good triads”, who certainly are involved with illegal activities but allow film directors and stars considerable artistic freedom, and “bad triads”, who extort, threaten and even kill the denizens of the Hong Kong film world.
Dannen’s willingness to interview Hong Kong organized crime figures impressed the seemingly indomitable Michelle Yeoh (star of a host of Hong Kong action films and now the new Bond girl, if one can use the word girl to describe a talent as formidable as Yeoh): “Michelle asked me [about an interview with triad Chan Chi-ming], ‘Where did you get the nerve to do that?’ And I looked at her and asked, ‘Michelle, where do you get the nerve to get on a motorbike and drive off the top of a hill onto a moving train [in “Supercop“]?’ and I asked that in all sincerity because I get nauseous on a small ferris wheel.”
Dannen’s book grew out of an article he was assigned at the New Yorker, which was cut from 15,000 words down to 8,000 and transformed from a history of the industry into a piece on Jackie Chan. Hong Kong film fans, expecting stodginess from the New Yorker, were pleasantly surprised by the piece’s enthusiasm for Chan’s work. And, when Dannen mentioned to a member of Jackie Chan’s fan club that the piece had been cut in half, the news spread like wild fire.
Dannen was bowled over by the ardor of Hong Kong film fans and besieged by requests to publish the uncut manuscript. Even after he signed a contract with Miramax to write the book, the project continued to grow. Dannen asked co-author Long to come up with 100-200 synopses and Long presented him with over three hundred. The critics who wrote the twelve suggested viewing lists, who were asked, without remuneration, to pick just a few favorites and send them in, mailed in rafts of material. And lest you think the critical panel was composed of mere Hong Kong film geeks, their number includes Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Tony Rayns, programmer of the Vancouver film festival, a frequent contributor to Sight & Sound and the veritable dean of Asian film criticism.
Although Hong Kong cinema has long been lionized by film buffs and tapeheads like Quentin Tarantino, a book consisting of more than pin-ups and flattering puff-pieces has been long awaited. Information in English on Hong Kong cinema has been largely limited to publications like Asian Trash Cinema, which while they may provide amusing reading, fail to take in the full breadth of Hong Kong film, which extends from the Category III sexploitation films of Amy Yip to the intellectual art films of Evans Chan and covers a wealth of areas and genres in between them. As Dannen himself asserted, there’s room for much more investigation and this book will hopefully open up space on the shelves for more books which explore the gamut of Hong Kong film.
Finally, not only is Dannen able to tackle interviews with notorious gangsters, he’s also not averse to taking on the giants of the American film industry in the person of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. In a story that should prove inspirational to indie film directors, Dannen told me: “What happened was that Harvey Weinstein wanted to call the book “The Fist And The Fury” and I was having nightmares about this because no way was this book going to be called “The Fist And The Fury”. On the other hand, Harvey Weinstein is the original irresistible force. I’d never spoken to him at that point, but I got the word to him through intermediaries that I couldn’t really work with that title but he was adamant that that was going to be the title of the book.
“So I got on the phone with him and I said, ‘Mr. Weinstein, everyone knows that you’re a genius when it comes to marketing, and I’m not denying that that’s a very marketable title. But, this book really is as much about the art films as the action films and, therefore, the title isn’t really appropriate.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s the fury part of the title.’
“So, that approach wasn’t working. Then he said, ‘Well, I could live with “Hong Kong Babylon”… And that was my opening, so I said, ‘Well, thank you. You have no idea how grateful I am.’ And he said, ‘Come in; I want to meet you.’
“So I came in the next day and Harvey Weinstein, who’s like a force of nature, has already agreed to call the book “Hong Kong Babylon”; but thirty minutes into the meeting out of nowhere he says, ‘I still think “The Fist And The Fury” is a better title.’ And there was this horrible pause. And then he said, ‘But we’re past that now. Let’s move on.’ And that’s the last I heard of “The Fist And The Fury”.
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who is also working toward a doctorate in Cinema Studies at NYU. Her thesis will examine film produced in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.]