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  • Hong Kong Cinema: 20 Years

    By Daryl Chin

     

    By the end of the 1960s, Hong Kong’s film industry was booming. It had become world renowned for the brashness of its action pictures, created with such exuberance and crafted precision. The stunts in those movies have become legendary. In addition, there was a true proliferation of films of all sorts, including comedies and romances and dramas. Starting in the 1980s, the Hong Kong cinema helped to reestablish many genres, such as gangster films, crime dramas, and kung fu comedies, which would have an impact worldwide. Yet the freedom which Hong Kong cinema experienced was constrained by the contours of unrestricted commercialism.

     
    In the summer of 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was set to undergo a change, when the island and the New Territories would go from being part of the British empire to being claimed as a region of the People’s Republic of China. The ramifications of the changeover were, at the time, incalculable; it was not known what effects on the economic, political, and social life of Hong Kong this changeover of government would have, since the changeover seemed to represent a total break with traditions of over a century. Hong Kong’s position as one of the remnants of British colonialism in Asia now would be adjudicated as an annexation of Chinese rule.

     

    Thinking back to that period, there was a sense of panic, as many Hong Kong residents tried to find a place to move within the British Commonwealth. There were quotas set up, as many Commonwealth countries feared a mass exodus to their shores; in particular, Australia and Canada were countries that seemed to be very wary of the presumed influx of Hong Kong residents. This political panic exposed a lot of the inherent prejudices of the British Commonwealth, prejudices which continue to roil the politics of Great Britain to this day.

     

    But the film industry in Hong Kong was in a state of suspension. Many talents had come to Hollywood, starting with John Woo in 1986. Chow Yun-Fat, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, was negotiating to do films in the US; “Peace Hotel” in 1995 would be his last Hong Kong production for several years, as he negotiated to make films outside Hong Kong. However, no one had any idea exactly what changes would occur, and that unease caused a great deal of anxiety.

     

    The producer and director Johnnie To has been an astute analyst of the situation of the Hong Kong film industry. As he has noted, Hong Kong itself never was a democracy. It was a colony, and the government was controlled by people who had been appointed by Great Britain. Because of the lack of direct contact, that governmental control was never too rigid, with the illusion of great freedom which was more the result of benign indifference rather than political intention. But would Chinese rule bring about fundamental changes to Hong Kong? The Chinese government had been notorious for its autocratic control over all aspects of Chinese culture, and the fear was that this control would diminish the creative impulses of the film industry. That would not be the case.
    For one thing, the People’s Republic of China was undergoing its own changes, as rapid industrialization was causing societal upheavals. The desire on the part of the Chinese government to encourage economic growth meant that the commercial success of the Hong Kong film industry was something to emulate rather than something to curtail. And so the Hong Kong film industry found itself continuing in its productivity, though faced with difficulties caused by the rapid technological changes in which the model of theatrical distribution has been challenged, a challenge faced by motion picture industries around the world.

     

    For all that, to try to extrapolate political meanings behind much of the Hong Kong cinema after 1997 is rather tricky, because the meanings behind so much of Hong Kong cinema prior to 1997 were never explicitly political; to read into these films with the the imposition of a political agenda can lead the viewer to a diminished sense of the qualities of these films, which rely on skillful craftsmanship to provide kinesthetic entertainment.

     

    A case in point might be “Infernal Affairs” (2002), certainly one of the most famous of Hong Kong thrillers, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. The intricate machinations of the plot involved the slow revelation of conspiratorial impostors; as the opposing teams representing law enforcement and the criminal underworld are shown to have agency in terms of undercover representatives, the sense of a nocturnal society layered in corruption becomes inescapable.

     

    Immediately upon its release, it was obvious that “Infernal Affairs” was exceptionally well executed, with a relentless pace which allowed the most outlandish revelations to seem inevitable. The fame of “Infernal Affairs” was only enhanced when Martin Scorsese decided to craft an American remake, “The Departed” (2006), which would become one of his most celebrated movies. But the differences of the two movies are instructive. Scorsese’s version tries to ground the plot in a carefully constructed social setting, taking care to develop a realistic picture of Boston’s ethnic enclaves. By contrast, “Infernal Affairs” seems to take place in a fantastical city of gleaming surfaces, and the actual workings of the police and the triads are abstracted, so that the similarities of the operations become obvious, and the question of moral equivalence is emphasized. But from “Infernal Affairs”, what can be made in terms of the question of the political position of Hong Kong society? On the most basic level, there is the inference that all political systems are similarly tainted, open to corruption and conspiracy.

     

    Fruit Chan’s “Made In Hong Kong” (1997) was a film made at the time of the changeover in Hong Kong; the depiction of low-level triads attempting to carry out various small scale activities could be seen as a portrait of the ways in which so many business ventures tried to continue under the radar of governmental oversight which was expected to overtake Hong Kong. Yet the escalating explosions of violence provide the kind of visceral excitement which was a hallmark of Hong Kong cinema. Were we to make a symbolic connection to the suppressed emotions waiting to explode?

     

    That is the problem with trying to discern symbolic meanings behind commercial entertainments. This becomes clear when contrasted with an overt piece of agitprop, Ann Hui’s “Ordinary Heroes” (1999), which attempts to give a panoramic view of political protests in Hong Kong, dating from the 1970s. Weaving together documentary footage with reenactments, this passionate assemblage is an eclectic mix, with wildly disparate segments, so that there is no sense of an even flow, but there are hectic moments of sharp insight. Ann Hui, of course, has been noted for her blunt style, which was featured prominently in her early films, such as “God of Killers” (1981) and “Love in a Fallen City” (1984); perhaps the most famous example of her political style was found in “Boat People” (1982), which at the time seemed an almost hysterical cataloguing of the many injustices that surrounded Vietnam at the end of the war with America. There is always a fervor to her concerns, and this was particularly the case with “Ordinary Heroes”. The reason it’s important to point out the overt political message of the film is that to suggest that the only way for filmmakers to try to get out a political message is through symbolic intervention within genre formulae does a disservice to the possibilities within the Hong Kong film industry. An artist like Ann Hui, who continues to work with political content, has continued to work in Hong Kong. A recent film, “A Simple Life” (2011), is a touching comedy-drama that addresses issues of aging and class in Hong Kong life. Her attempt at a very broad overview of political protests in Hong Kong in “Ordinary Heroes” remains a commendable achievement, and it should not be minimized because of the uneven quality of the film.

     

    Johnnie To has been working in the Hong Kong film industry since 1978; he has been a director and a producer. In 1996, he created Milky Way Productions in association with Wai Ka-Fai; it has become one of the premier motion picture companies in the period since the changeover. “The Mission” (1999) was one of his first films made in the period immediately following the political changes in Hong Kong, and it remains one of his most accomplished films. As usual with a lot of the plots in these films, there is a great deal of improbability, but the rapid pace makes it almost impossible to apply logic when there is so much action. The story seems simple: a triad boss hires five killers as bodyguards. But there are many twists to the plot, as it becomes increasingly clear that the relationships of these men are not what they seem.

     

    But it’s hard to say exactly what political message can be gauged from “The Mission”; of course, it’s a depiction of loyalty, but in the case of Johnnie To, his later trilogy, “Election” (2005), “Triad Election” (2006) and “Exiled” (2006), has a more directly political statement. Though set within the precincts of the triads, these films use the idea of governance as the germinal plot, with the question of who controls the organization and how the organization is to be run making not-so-veiled allusions to the then-current situation of Hong Kong.

     

    As one of the most prominent figures in Hong Kong’s film industry, Johnnie To has given many interviews, and he has expressed his skepticism about the need that many critics have to politicize what is happening in Hong Kong. Of course, films cannot help but reflect the society from which they came. Johnnie To is an example, in that his “Election” trilogy made many explicit connections to the actual political situation in Hong Kong during 2005 and 2006; for those of us who are not Hong Kong residents, some of the references may seem obscure, but the films do succeed as thrillers irrespective of the overt political content.

     

    Stanley Kwan was one of the first Hong Kong directors to gain “art house” renown in the West with his film “Rouge” in 1987. By that point, the Chinatown circuit was in the throes of collapse, which created a very different commercial situation for films from Hong Kong. (Quite simply: since the end of the 1940s, there were movie theaters in the Chinatown areas in the major cities of the US, Canada, and the UK, and all films produced commercially in Hong Kong would circulate in those theaters; this was a contractual condition, and it precluded any Hong Kong film from getting distribution in any other way.)

    One of the highlights of Kwan’s work has been his sensitivity to performers, in particular, to his actresses, and this can be seen in “Center Stage” (1989) with a performance by Maggie Cheung as the silent film star Ruan Ling-Yu which remains a career peak.

     

    “Hold You Tight” (1998) was Kwan’s first movie after the changeover, and it remains one of his most provocative movies. It is also quite problematic, because the narrative is fractured into flashbacks, and there are times when narrative coherence is lacking. It also complicates matters that the actress Chingmy Yau is playing two parts, in different time periods (the fact that one character looks like the other character is the point: a man becomes obsessed with a woman who looks like his dead wife), but there are times when it is hard to differentiate the times. “Hold You Tight” is perhaps best remembered for the opening: a scene of sexual encounters in a gay spa. The shock of the opening then becomes a series of complicated storylines in which people become romantically entangled, both in the past and the present. One aspect of the film which proved highly amusing was the emphasis on travel: it seemed as if the major characters were always waiting to fly off to another place, and this seemed to suggest that Hong Kong was filled with a nomadic population. Yet Hong Kong, as home, seemed to be a city of constant flux, and the complications of the plot seemed to mirror that fact.

     

    Of course, testing the limits of sexual representation was one way of seeing if there had been changes to the problem of censorship; the Hong Kong film industry had a system of ratings, and there were always subjects which were considered quite incendiary. Though to us, the many films about triads and the hostilities between rival organizations seem as stylized as the workings of the typical gangster film, but in Hong Kong, these films receive a great deal of scrutiny, because the corruption which is revealed is considered detrimental to the image of Hong Kong. For that reason, a great many of those films wind up with very restrictive ratings, so that the audiences for those films are only for adult audiences. It is feared that these films about the triads would prove to glamorize criminal activity, so children must be kept from seeing them.

     

    In 1993, the Hong Kong film industry packaged a number of films, which played at festivals and museums around the world. Representatives from the film industry accompanied the films; when this touring program played in New York City, the opening night film was Johnnie To’s “The Heroic Trio” (1993), starring Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and the late Anita Mui. Introducing the film, there were constant references to the “high octane” energy and the “kinetic” style as characteristic of Hong Kong cinema. And there was a definite sense that the qualities that ere to be emphasized were the energy and the style, rather than any sense of political meaning.

     

    That energy and style would prove to be captivating to many filmmakers around the world. It is widely known that Quentin Tarantino has been enamored of Hong Kong cinema, and Martin Scorsese has been a vocal advocate for Hong Kong cinema, certainly starting with the films of John Woo. (When “The Killer” was shown in the US, it came with the announcement that it was “presented” by Martin Scorsese.) But the meanings behind so many of the films have not been explored, as the assumption of the films as simply belonging to the genre of action cinema has been so prevalent.

     

    For that reason, many filmmakers have been overlooked in most discussions of Hong Kong cinema. For example: Mabel Cheung. She has never really worked in what many regard as the typical Hong Kong genres of action films or thrillers; instead, she has crafted a series of dramas and comedies featuring women as central figures. Perhaps her most ambitious film was made right at the time of the Hong Kong changeover, the historical epic “The Soong Sisters” (1997). Though heavily fictionalized, it did provide a look at one of the central families in 20th Century Chinese history. The next year, Cheng directed “City of Glass”, with a plot derived from the Billy Wilder film “Avanti!” (1972): two people meet in a foreign country, where they have come to bury their parents. To their surprise, they discover that their respective parents (her mother, his father) had been having an affair which lasted decades, always claiming the same business meeting during the summer. In “City of Glass”, the locale has been moved to London, and there is a nostalgia for the British way of life, which had been a dominant factor in Hong Kong culture throughout the 20th Century.

     

    Yonfan is a director from Singapore, who has worked in China and in Hong Kong; he is notable for being an outspoken and “out” gay director. “Bugis Street” (1995) was a look at the denizens of the infamous street in Singapore noted for its transvestite prostitutes. “Bishonen” (1998) was set in Hong Kong, and told a romantic tale of a gay hustler who falls in love with the new policeman on the beat. As with Stanley Kwan’s “Hold You Tight”, the decidedly upfront depiction of homosexuality was part of the Hong Kong cinema’s defiance in terms of maintaining the relaxed censorship which had been central to the film industry.

     

    During the 1980s, the critical attitude towards Hong Kong cinema from the West emphasized the immense commercial resources at play: it was looked on as another Dream Machine, as potent as the cinema of old Hollywood. In many ways, this view of Hong Kong cinema played on a nostalgia for a unified popular culture, at a time when Hollywood had diminished in terms of its popular culture reach. When independent cinema came to the fore, with its lack of strict narrative and structural cohesion, there was a deep-rooted need to assert the conditions of a popular culture phenomenon which remained connected to a mass audience. In short, it was becoming difficult to talk about movies in simple terms of mass appeal. And Hong Kong cinema seemed to fill a void.

     

    But it would be naive for us to simply align ourselves to the view of Hong Kong entertainment as a panacea for popular culture’s revival. It would also be rather patronizing to try to impose meanings which might not be inherent in the films themselves, as if the films were not the result of very careful craftsmanship and conscious artistry.

     

    Since there are directors such as Mabel Cheng and Ann Hui who have been quite explicit in their political views, to try to align every director with a political agenda would be disingenuous. When I started to research this essay, as I tried to remember some of the films which I had seen, and began researching some of the directors, I was struck by the differing responses which came over time. Recent critics have tried to look at the Hong Kong film industry since 1997 in terms which are much more political than the critics who deigned to regard Hong Kong as the New Hollywood in the 1980s. But is that response valid, or is it wish fulfillment on the part of those who want to find a political statement on the very conflicted values found in Hong Kong’s position as the capitalist avatar of the New China?

     

    Right now, Hong Kong cinema remains an industrial complex which continues to make entertainments of many genres. Perhaps the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema has passed, but in all likelihood the changes in Hong Kong cinema’s efficacy have much to do with the changes in technology as much as with anything else. But the films themselves, both the ones featured and the many more which have been produced, do tell, not a single story of political attitudes, but a multifarious story of many differing cultural and social impulses, which have combined to continue the vitality of this most anomalous entity, the commercial cinema of Hong Kong as it faces its future.

     

     

     

     

     

     

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