THE titles of movies made in Hong Kong don't always sound very impressive. There's one called ``Wonder Women,'' and another called ``Mr. Vampire.'' There's also ``Gangs'' and ``A Chinese Ghost Story,'' and a comedy called ``Project A - Part 2.'' Behind those unimpressive titles, though, audiences are finding some very lively movies. They're very popular, too. In Hong Kong itself, audiences like them much more than big-budget imported films from Hollywood.
They're also seen throughout Asia and in Chinese communities in Europe and North America. The only limitation on their visibility is in their own part of the world: If a Hong Kong movie is shown in mainland China, then it won't be distributed in Taiwan. So film companies must decide which of these markets is best for the movies they have to sell.
Once these films are distributed, all Chinese audiences can understand them, because - although they're spoken in the Cantonese dialect - they're subtitled in written Chinese, which is shared by speakers of all dialects. They're also subtitled in English, which extends their audience to another large part of the moviegoing world.
And the world has been taking notice of them. Important film festivals in Europe and the United States have featured them, in addition to their regular showings in Chinese-community theaters on at least three continents. Contributing more to their visibility, the Asia Society here is presenting the first major American festival composed entirely of Hong Kong films. It consists of eight movies and runs through Oct. 8 in New York, then travels to Miami for that city's first Asiafest, to be held Nov. 14-20.
Filmmakers trained elsewhere
Movies have been made in Hong Kong since the 1920s. What's behind the new interest in Hong Kong cinema is a new wave of moviemakers who have emerged in the past few years. Many of them have gotten their film training in the West - usually in the United States - and they often borrow their story ideas and techniques from American films. They've been encouraged by an increase in movie financing by investors and by an upsurge in TV production that has helped many new directors get their start.
What's does a typical Hong Kong movie look and sound like? It's hard to generalize, since the films are as varied as the people who make them. For the most part, though, you can expect an extraordinary amount of sheer action: chases, fights, and camera tricks that practically explode into the theater. Even the most dazzling or complicated shot is rarely held on the screen for more than a few seconds, because the filmmaker can't wait to jump ahead with the story and give more dazzling, complicated shots. The acting, dialogue, and music all jump to the same frantic pace.
The stories of Hong Kong films are usually less striking than their filmmaking techniques. Directors tend to choose screenplays that give the biggest opportunity for visual adventures - a practice that leads to many ghost stories, silly comedies, and action pictures about policemen or other heroes. There's little serious commentary about social or political matters, even though Hong Kong is on the verge of major social and political change as it ceases to be a British colony in 1997.
The reluctance of filmmakers to treat important public issues is apparently caused by worry that movies will be censored if they say the wrong things. In one recent film, ``Gangs,'' the official censors reportedly called for more than 20 cuts, largely because of the inflammatory language used by gang members in the story.
Relevant message in `Gangs'
Still, some Hong Kong movies do make sly comments on important subjects. ``Peking Opera Blues,'' directed by Tsui Hark, is one example. Although it's an action-packed adventure about spies, villains, and disguises in the early years of republican China, it has revealing things to say about the problems of democracy and the traditional role of women in Chinese culture. ``Gangs,'' directed by Lawrence Ah Mon, also has a message that's relevant to Hong Kong's society today - and a realistic style that's very different from the wild fantasy of pictures like ``Mr. Vampire'' and ``A Chinese Ghost Story.''
If experts aren't predicting that Hong Kong movies will soon become a factor of key importance in world film, it's probably because most Hong Kong production is still geared to frivolous mass-audience entertainment. Some observers have lavishly praised aspects of certain pictures - such as the visual pyrotechnics of ``A Chinese Ghost Story,'' directed by Ching Siu-tung, and the sophisticated use of space in movies by Jackie Chan, who has been compared to Buster Keaton and similar masters of physical comedy. But others, including this critic, find even these superior works to be undermined by two things: a profound lack of serious undertones, and a frenetic need to keep tossing out razzle-dazzle effects when inspiration and ideas have long since run dry. Such films are charged with technical skill, but their virtuosity tends to be sadly empty.
There may be hope for Hong Kong's cinema future, though, since the tone of movie production there appears to be turning in a more serious direction.
True, audiences still love pictures like ``Project A - Part 2,'' a kung fu comedy featuring Jackie Chan - the most popular movie star in Asia and one of the world's leading experts on impossible-looking stunts, chases, and escapes. But a movie like ``Gangs,'' made earlier this year, indicates that Hong Kong filmgoers are ready for more serious looks at the nature of social conflict and violence.
Another movie with a different kind of perspective is ``Just Like Weather,'' directed by Allen Fong, a thoughtful and unusually structured drama about a young couple whose marriage is in trouble.
Dazzling, colorful adventures won't soon lose their popularity. But in serious movies like ``Gangs'' and ``Just Like Weather,'' the new wave of Hong Kong filmmaking may be reaching a new and exciting crest.