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Li Han-hsiang - director with the golden touch

Tony Leung Ka-fai, from nobody to Best Actor... the gorgeous Brigitte Lin, playing the male lead in a“huangmei diao”film... Ivy Ling Po, from Amoy flicks starlet to Mandarin film diva... Hu Chin, from obscurity in Beijing opera to notorious fame as a sexy star... Li Han-hsiang was a director with the golden touch.

A starmaker renowned for an eye for hidden talent, Li was also a visionary, an innovator and a trendsetter. He was, in fact, one of the most important figures in the history of Hong Kong cinema. A retrospective that entails the many different phases of this versatile filmmaker will be screened at the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) from March 30 to May 25.

Counter bookings of HKFA's new programme“Li Han-hsiang, Storyteller”start today (March 8) at all URBTIX outlets.

Li was active in the film industry for almost 50 years and exerted great influence on the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. Famous for his sumptuous style and notorious for his fetishistic attention to detail, he excelled in a wide variety of genres including historical epics,“huangmei diao”(regional opera) films, witty light comedies and evocative erotica.

As a contribution to the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), the retrospective is to pay tribute to this monumental figure of Hong Kong film.

Thirty-five 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”, etc.

Li joined the Hong Kong film industry in 1948, proofing 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.

When Grand Motion Picture later ran into financial trouble, Li rejoined Shaw Brothers in 1972 and directed a string of profitable comedies and erotic tales. After re-establishing his reputation, he earned the privilege to make the historical dramas“The Empress Dowager”(1975) and“The Last Tempest”(1976). Lavishing a considerable budget on the fabricated palace set, he evocatively captured the fatal mood that shrouds the imperial quarters, which signalled the impending end of the Qing Dynasty.

In 1982, Li reached agreement with the Chinese government to shoot “The Burning of the Imperial Palace” (1983) and “Reign Behind a Curtain” (1983) at the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Starring Tong Leung Kai-fai and Liu Xiaoqing, the films went on to become big hits and critical favorites. With fascinating images of the palace serving as backdrop, Li's dramatic presentations of imperial power play and exceptional abilities to work with actors allowed the rookie Tony Leung Kai-fai to showcase his extraordinary talents, which earned him the Best Actor title at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The two films further consolidated Li’s place as a key figure in Chinese cinema. In 1996, Li suffered a heart attack and died during the production of the TV series “Burning of Efang Palace”, leaving behind a legacy of remarkable creativity.

Li's other historical epics include films on the legendary “Empress Wu Tse-tien” (1963), an early masterpiece which interestingly drew divergent opinions from critics. The film, an intense drama of Shakespearean proportions, is considered one the best films of Chinese cinema. Li's “Shih: Beauty of Beauties” (1965), a grand production with an exorbitant budget which broke the Grand Motion Pictures bank and subsequently led to the end of Li's Taiwan tenure, is a powerful film with remarkable performance from the leads Jiang Qing and Chao Lei.

Many of Li's“huangmei diao”opera films have become cult classics. The casting of the Amoy opera actress Ivy Ling Po as the male lead in “The Love Eterne” (1963) was an inspired casting move that created an immediate craze, which turned into a lasting cult with generations of loyal fans. Along the same line, Li spotted the special quality of Brigitte Lin and cast her as the male lead in “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (1977), long before Tsui Hark made her an international sensation with the same touch in “Swordsman II” (1992). Another classic epic is “The Kingdom and the Beauty” (1959) integrated Li's fondness for palatial grandeur with colorful folk life.

Li had also made a lasting impact on Taiwan cinema. “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 the chance to embark on ventures with little commercial appeal. Li himself directed “The Winter” (1969), a delicate and touching work widely recognised as one of the best Chinese language films of the 1960s.

In Taiwan, Li was also among the first to adapt the hugely popular romance novels of Chiung Yao, such as “Many Enchanting Nights” (1966), considered by many critics as the best Chiung Yao adaption.

His early films are in fact remarkably accomplished films that had unfortunately been overshadowed by the later, more high-profile epics. His directorial debut “Blood in Snow” (1956), for example, already puts his talents on full displays. “Lady in Distress” (1957), starring Linda Lin Dai, is a delightful work that features keenly observed Chinese folk life.

In addition to grandeur of settings, Li's storytelling wit is his another cherished qualities. Featuring Michael Hui and Tina Li, “The Warlord” (1972) is a farcical comedy, told in Li's signature episodic structure, stringing hilarious sketches. With the same formula of amusing anecdotes, he produced the light-hearted “The Legends of Cheating” (1971) and the erotic film “Legends of Lust” (1972).

Actress Hu Chin, who owed her stardom to Li, brought to life the character of the sexually aggressive seductress Pan Jinlin in the “Golden Lotus” (1974). Another work adapted from the same erotic novel “Jin Ping Mei” is “Tiger Killer” (1982), which added kung-fu action to the mix, with Ti Lung in the title role.

Other films include “Rear Entrance” (1960), “Many Enchanting Nights, Part II” (1966), “Lady in the Tower” (1967), “Flower Drums of Fung Yang” (1967), “Storm Over the Yangtse River” (1969), “Four Moods” (1970), “Black Bull and White Snake” (1970), “The Story of Ti Ying” (1971), “Scandal” (1973), “Sinful Confession” (1974), “Illicit Desire” (1975), “Passing Flickers” (1982) and “The Last Emperor” (1986).

To complement the screenings, a two-month exhibition will be held from March 31 to June 3 at the Exhibition Hall of the HKFA, presenting reconstructed film sets, costumes, photos, artifacts and oral-history interviews of Li's friends and colleagues. Admission is free. A new publication “Li Han-hsiang, Storyteller” 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 also be held at the Cinema of HKFA:“Li Han-hsiang and his Actors” at 4.30pm on March 31 and “The Genre Films of Li Han-hsiang” at 5pm on April 7. Both seminars are conducted in Cantonese. HKFA also invites some film stars to meet the audience. Sylvia Chang and Hu Chin will greet the audience before the March 30 screening of “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, Hu Chin will appear on March 31 before “Golden Lotus” and Kuk Fung on April 6 after “Tiger Killer”.

Tickets priced at $30 for the screenings are available from today (March 8) onwards at all URBTIX outlets. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Securcolourfulity Assistance recipients. Reservations can be made by phone on 2734 9009, credit card booking on 2111 5999 or on the internet at .

Detailed programme information and various discounts can be obtained in the “Profolio 36” distributed at all performing venues of the LCSD. For enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900 or browse the websites: or .

Ends/Thursday, March 8, 2007

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