A Watery Grave Narrowly Avoided

35mm prints of lost HK actioners unspool in the Alamo's asian Invasion series

A Watery Grave Narrowly Avoided
Photo by John Anderson

It looks like an ossuary in here, minus the bones. Instead, moldering cardboard boxes – chest high, a dozen deep, water damaged, and thoroughly dusted with the detritus of trans-Pacific travel – line the corrugated aluminum walls of an unnamed, unremarkable storage facility in North Austin.

This is in fact not a graveyard, as such, but more of a rebirth in process, the vast haul of a cinematic rescue mission undertaken by the Alamo Drafthouse and its affiliated American Genre Film Archive. Inside each of these boxes – hundreds of them – are six to 10 reels of 35mm motion-picture film, many unknown or unheard of outside the land of their origin, China. And if it hadn't been for the Alamo's collective collector's spirit, the entire lot would be sitting on the ocean floor somewhere off the coast of California.

"We heard about a film depot in San Francisco from our friends at the New York Asian Film Festival," explains Alamo programmer/AGFA adviser Lars Nilsen. "This specific depot was used by a number of now-defunct distributors who at one time used it to store all of their North American Chinese prints. But because there's no longer any market for commercial Hong Kong films on 35mm, the least expensive way to dispose of these films would have been to put them on a barge, take them out to the middle of the Pacific, and dump them overboard. They just don't have any value anymore, except to people like us."

For now, most of these sprockety treasures remain in their rat-gnawed boxes; it's going to take a lot of time, effort, and allergy meds to identify, examine, and catalog everything here. But in the meantime, the Alamo's monthly Asian Invasion series of new discoveries and rare finds culled from this extraordinary salvage expedition, continues to thrill HK cinema fans and newcomers alike. Next up is the rarely seen 1981 epic Dreadnaught from Fantastic Fest Lifetime Achievement Awardee Yuen Woo-ping. Yes, we know it's rare, but is it great?

"It's not just great," deadpans Nilsen. "It's a fucking masterpiece of world cinema. It really is. It's not like a Bergman film, OK, it doesn't have the high seriousness of that, but it's a film by people who lived and worked within a specific artistic tradition. Everyone in this film grew up in the Chinese Opera and learned, as children, how to do horrible acrobatic things that you should never force children to do and had their very minds molded into that very, very old tradition. They then carried that tradition on into filmmaking, and by the time Dreadnaught was made, Yuen Woo-ping was simply a master, any way you want to look at it. And it's just a masterful movie all the way around."

Dreadnaught screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Sunday, Jan. 22, 10:30pm. The Alamo will also host a 10-hour Hong Kong movie marathon on Feb. 25 to benefit the American Genre Film Archive. See www.drafthouse.com for details.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More American Genre Film Archive
How the American Genre Film Archive Is Saving Movies One Reel at a Time
How the American Genre Film Archive Is Saving Movies One Reel at a Time
Austin nonprofit preserves cinema’s underseen and underappreciated

Richard Whittaker, Sept. 16, 2016

Exposing <i>The Zodiac Killer</i>
Exposing The Zodiac Killer
The first film to be restored by the American Genre Film Archive

Richard Whittaker, Sept. 16, 2016

More Alamo Drafthouse
After the Pandemic at the Alamo Drafthouse
After the Pandemic at the Alamo Drafthouse
New management, new owners: Can the Austin movie chain retain what made it special?

Richard Whittaker, July 2, 2021

What the Drafthouse Has Been Up To, From A to Z
What the Drafthouse Has Been Up To, From A to Z
Tim League breaks down what’s happening with everything Drafthouse-related that’s not a cinema

Richard Whittaker, July 2, 2021

More Screens
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Matt Frank builds the perfect monster

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 28, 2020

SXSW Film Reviews: 'Lunarcy!'
Daily Reviews and Interviews

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 15, 2013

More by Marc Savlov
Marc Savlov’s Top 10 Films of 2021
Marc Savlov’s Top 10 Films of 2021

Dec. 17, 2021

Moving stoner drama finds the downside of going legit

Oct. 15, 2021


American Genre Film Archive, Alamo Drafthouse, Lars Nilsen, New York Asian Flim Festival, Yuen Woo-ping, Dreadnaught, HK cinema, AGFA

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle