Four of the most exciting movie stars in the world are currently appearing in two of the least interesting new movies, taking a back seat to less interesting stars. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are master martial artists, Chan with a comedian's touch and Li with an appealing stoic quality. They team up for the first time in The Forbidden Kingdom (105 screens), a movie about a white kid and his attempt to beat up some bullies. Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh team up for the second time in The Children of Huang Shi (43 screens), about a British journalist (not played by Chow) and an Australian nurse (not played by Yeoh) saving some orphans.
Chow had a suave, cool quality that could have turned him into the next James Bond or Cary Grant, and Yeoh is a beautiful martial artist who could have become a groundbreaking feminist action star. It's a sad state of affairs, but I guess these films are the final proof of the cold, dead corpse of the Hong Kong New Wave.
Hong Kong cinema has been vibrant and fascinating for years, at least as far back as the 1960s, with films by King Hu, Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung, and films produced by the Shaw Brothers. But the New Wave more or less started in 1986, when Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues and John Woo's A Better Tomorrow carried the scent of something new and fresh. Jackie Chan had been making films for years, but he suddenly found his footing and made some of his best-loved comic masterworks. Woo changed gears from his previous films and found a specialized action niche.
Filmmakers like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung re-energized the swordsman genre. Jet Li came to embody the folk hero Wong Fei-hung. And Wong Kar-wai -- whose My Blueberry Nights (15 screens) is still playing -- quietly came to prominence with his unique romantic, missed-connection dramas. At least a dozen all-time classics were produced during this time, but things came to an end when 1997 loomed and Hong Kong reverted from British control back to the Communist Chinese. Many filmmakers fled for Hollywood where they made pale imitations of their best work. Others feared for their freedom and so tampered their creative impulses. (Today only Johnnie To keeps the torch going.)
Many countries eventually come to enjoy a New Wave. The latest seems to be taking place in Romania, as shown by the release of three excellent films: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Argentina also appears to be in the middle of something good with amazing films like Lucrecia Martel's La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, the late Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens and The Aura, Adrián Caetano's Bolivia and Diego Lerman's Suddenly.
But these movements seem to burn out as soon as someone notices what's going on; the creative energy gets spread too thin as more and more people try to tap into it. Other times, politics enter into the equation. Iran was recently the source of one of the most exciting New Waves in years. In 1997, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh opened in American theaters, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 1999 Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. But just a few years later, Iran wound up on the "Axis of Evil" list, distribution faltered and filmmakers found it difficult to travel.
Still, the New Wavers usually continue in some form or another, even if they don't often reach their previous heights. A member of the Taiwanese New Wave, Hou Hsiao-hsien is still around today with the delightful and beautifully observed Flight of the Red Balloon (9 screens), although many claim that Hou did his best work back in the 1980s. Hou's compatriot Edward Yang passed away last year, and Tsai Ming-liang is getting increasingly obtuse, alienating fans with odd films like The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Jacques Rivette, currently out with The Duchess of Langeais (8 screens), was a member of the most famous of all New Waves, the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s, though Rivette himself did not really blossom until the 1970s. All of Rivette's colleagues are still going strong today (except Francois Truffaut, who passed away in 1984).
Werner Herzog was a figurehead of the German New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, alongside Wim Wenders and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Herzog has found new success making astonishing, ultra-personal English language documentaries like his hit Grizzly Man and his new Encounters at the End of the World (1 screen); some might argue that he's at his best.
Finally, we have the king of the American New Wave, which stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Martin Scorsese, whose Shine a Light (62 screens) is currently playing. Scorsese is still making thrilling movies, but he's living proof that a New Wave isn't all it's cracked up to be. A great number of movies from his era have not aged well, several were never very good to begin with, and a great many others still have yet to be noticed. So, do New Waves even exist? What about all the good films that get made that are not part of a New Wave? Probably the most important thing is that, every once in a while, somebody gets excited about movies once more.