Volume 17 • Issue 31 | Dec. 24 - 30, 2004

Kung fu fans give thumbs-up to Chinatown’s Ebert

David Lau’s Asian film show is filmed in Chinatown and airs on a public access cable channel. Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

By Rania Richardson

Like a Roger Ebert for Asian cinema, David Lau is a movie connoisseur and TV host specializing in Chinese, Japanese and Korean film. His show, “HK Action,” is a mix of reviews, news and film clips, and is seen on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, public-access television carried on Time Warner and RCN.

In contrast to slickly produced entertainment shows from Hollywood, such as “Entertainment Tonight” and even “Ebert & Roeper,” “HK Action” features Lau as the quintessential fan, unscripted and sometimes awkward, speaking before a single fixed camera in a “studio” set up in a Chinatown apartment. Like a fan Web site, the show is sharply focused on his personal tastes, covering festival films, international hits and films of yore — not market-driven content determined by the entertainment industry’s timeline of what’s currently available in theaters or on DVDs.

“Growing up in Chinatown gave me an alternative to bland Hollywood films, in the form of Hong Kong cinema shown at local theaters,” Lau said over noodles at an old-style Chinese coffee shop. “It also instilled a lot of pride and allowed me to see a Chinese or Asian person as the hero. I would have never gotten that from Hollywood films.”

Citing John Woo’s “The Killer” as one of his all-time favorite films, he continues, “I can just imagine my counterparts who grew up in suburbia. They were probably watching John Hughes’ Molly Ringwald movies while I was watching the latest Jackie Chan film.”

His 8-year-old show originally featured Hong Kong action pictures exclusively. “I love kung fu films because they’re like poetry in motion. It’s like watching a deadly ballet,” he says. As his interest grew, he started to cover Japanese film. Then Korean film hit the big time in 2000.

International acclaim was bestowed on a number of Korean filmmakers, such as Hong Sang-Soo, whose “Woman Is the Future of Man” premiered at the recent New York Film Festival. And Korean War saga “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” has made over $1.1 million in box office grosses in the U.S. this year.

In addition to an elevated interest in Korean film, Lau notes another current trend — Hollywood’s remake of Asian films, such as “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” from Japan. “Hollywood is watching,” he said, referring to the hotbed of creativity coming from Asia now. Some of his favorite action directors — John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark have already been wooed by Hollywood.

Also, Chinese-language film is gaining fans in this country. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” paved the way for Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” which opened earlier this year, as well as his “House of Flying Daggers,” which opened this month.

“Seeing ‘Hero’ widely distributed blew my mind,” said Lau. “It opened in small towns — with subtitles, in its original language!” Racist comments on Internet chat rooms were cause for concern, though. “People can be culturally insensitive to foreign films,” he said. His recollection is that the slow expansion of “Crouching Tiger” into smaller markets helped it avoid prejudiced remarks on the Internet.

Lau graduated from New York University in 1995 with a degree in finance, and works as a bank examiner. His parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and speak only Cantonese. As a child, kung fu films were his “babysitter.” His mother would leave him at local theaters such as the Music Palace or Sung Sing (both have since closed) for a double feature. Watching subtitled films helped him learn English.

Now, Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art and the Walter Reade Theater are Lau’s favorite venues for seeing Asian film, usually in festivals or retrospective screenings. “I go whenever I can, and sometimes I see a triple feature,” he said. “For an initial viewing I have to see something on the big screen. I watch DVDs for a second viewing.” He notes that unfortunately, the Chinese community does not frequent movie theaters as much as whites, who also make up the bulk of his audience for “HK Action.” They are mostly young men in their 20s or a little older.

Recently, Lau has featured “more artsy” fare on his show, such as classic films by Kurosawa and Ozu, but his fans have noticed and make one demand: “More kung fu!”

“HK Action” can be seen every other Thursday at 10 p.m. on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. For more information, go to www.mnn.org.

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