JUMP CUT 45, Fall 2002
copyright 2002, Jump Cut:
A Review of Contemporary Media

Specters of capital: Hong Kong cinema in a border/less world

by Kin-Yan Szeto

Book Review: Esther C.M. Yau, ed. At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

In the 1990s, Hollywood saw an inflow of Hong Kong film stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh; filmmakers including John Woo, Tsui Hark, Stanley Tong, Ronnie Yu, and Kirk Wong; and martial arts choreographers including Yeun Woo-Ping and Corey Yeun. In the international art-house film scene, the reputation of Hong Kong filmmakers makes viewers familiar with names like Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, Ann Hui and Fruit Chan. At the same time Hong Kong itself is undergoing an unprecedented process of decolonization and forming a perhaps more unified national identity. However, the very term “national identity” is contested since Hong Kong is being legally and culturally absorbed into the PRC while many of its people have strong lingering feelings that Hong Kong is and should continue to be a very separate society, distinct linguistically, culturally and—for many—politically from the mainland.

Thus Hong Kong cinema becomes an interesting way to examine the disjunctures that Hong Kong represents culturally and politically, especially in light of the end of British colonial rule. Film in general is a crucial industry for revealing the mechanisms of contemporary transnational production and global circulation of commodities. The transnational film industry offers a speculative ground for global capital investment, and it reveals patterns of international commodification, including international capital’s various contending factors or levels of functioning within national and local communities. In this light, film scholars ask these kinds of questions: Is Hong Kong cinema becoming more national or transnational? How do the film talents in this industry and the works that derive from it react to challenges of (post)colonialism and nationalism? In very diverse ways and to differing degrees, political concerns underpin and inform essays in At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World.

The cover image of this anthology “Asia the Invincible” comes from Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung’s Swordsman III—the East is Red; together with the volume’s title, the image suggests an analogous embodiment of Hong Kong cinema as the “Hollywood of the East” that “registers the industry’s pursuit of the global market, a pursuit that mirrors Hollywood’s, whose ‘authentic’ productions consolidate its screen hegemony”(8). Thus Hong Kong cinema seems to be playing “Hollywood” in the age of global capitalism, only on a smaller scale. “Borderless” in the title represents the authors’ attempt to suggest a theoretical paradigm that would eliminate any confining intellectual essentialism. The book’s critical goal is to allow a more flexible cultural identity of Hong Kong to be articulated and imagined than could be done using a more traditional “national cinema” approach. Yau proposes a notion of “borderless” to express the flexibility of Hong Kong cinema in this era of global capitalism without imposing a critic’s totalizing perspective on the area’s diverse and alternative modernities. The book exposes globlism’s imposition of power differentials. Complexly the articles suggest both a de-territorialization and a re-territorializing of borders that lie in “the shadow of capital,”[1] of places shaped by specters of nation-states and earlier regional economies.

In thirteen equally fascinating contributions, this volume addresses contemporary issues in Hong Kong cinema. The authors take innovative steps to confront new issues on every front, developing new zones of research and new vocabularies to analyze transnational cultural communication. Offering an historical overview, in Part One, “Hong Kong’s New Wave Cinema,” Law Kar traces the rise of the Hong Kong New Wave in the late 1970s; this movement includes directors such as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Alex Cheung, Peter Yung, Yim Ho, Patrick Tam, Allen Fong. Looking at the movement historically, Law Kar outlines the background of the social activism in the 1960s and the rise of television in the 1970s that laid the ground for the Hong Kong New Wave Cinema.

Describing intellectual history, Hector Rodriguez examines the development of the Hong Kong New Wave as a cultural field, which he sees functioning as an institutional, ethical and aesthetic system during the 1960s and 1970s. He also emphasizes the importance of the film movement itself in that it constituted a community and developed a cosmopolitan outlook among filmmakers and critics that also became an important way for the movement to define itself. Through their historical examination of the rise of the Hong Kong New Wave cinema, both Law Kar and Hector Rodriguez also attempt to rediscover an historical and cultural identity for Hong Kong. The essays reaffirm two mutual concerns: Hong Kong has a local identity that is in transformation and also facilitates a cosmopolitan stance. These concerns pave ways for discussions of the cinema’s success as discussed in the following two sections of the anthology. Part One offers a comprehensive historical account of and research on Hong Kong’s New Wave as a “golden age.” The directors of that movement are united their understanding of film form, their being influenced by world cinema , and their commitment to articulating specific concerns related to Hong Kong’s local identity.

Politically, two very different and often contradictory identificatory strategies circulate in Hong Kong, and perhaps also in China itself, to define the uniqueness of Hong Kong’s culture and identity. On the one hand, many intellectuals and politicians insist that southern Cantonese Hong Kong has little to do with “official” Mandarin mainland culture because the former colony’s local culture cannot be adequately translated. On the other hand, Hong Kong’s colonial legacy makes it an “international” city that keeps it culturally distinct from what many consider to be a more provincial mainland society. So ironically Hong Kong is regarded both as too “local” and too “global” to be assimilated into the PRC. For this reason, the study of contemporary Hong Kong cinema has a larger usefulness for scholars. It may contribute to understanding how modernist/cosmopolitan identity discourses, with identity rooted in colonialism, have been and are currently constructed. In particular, scholars studying this group of films and mediamakers must take into consideration of local and transnational political and socio-economic forces operating in Hong Kong. Most of the essays in this volume deal with transnational identity formations and the cultural implications of film production in an age of global capitalism. Using an economic analysis, critics also need to trace the flow of capital through the Hong Kong film industry and analyze relations between investment and film distribution to further explore this case study of the transnational capital.

In Part Two, in his essay “In Action: Entertainment, Aesthetics, and Reinventions,” David Bordwell gives an inclusive strategy for formalist analysis. Looking closely at the style and shot-by-shot mechanics of Hong Kong action cinema, Bordwell compares the action sequences of Hong Kong action movies to Hollywood’s, suggesting specific ways Hong Kong artists have perfected their craft in pursuit of emotional effect. In particular, Bordwell shows how Hong Kong filmmakers have mixed elements of Chinese cultural heritage with cinematic editing techniques reaching back to Eisenstein that strengthen the emotional undertones of action by playing with speed of motion.

In another essay “The Killer: Cult Film and Transcultural (Mis)reading,” Jinsoo An tackles the issues of transcultural readings of Hong Kong cinema more directly, focusing on Korean audiences’ consumption of John Woo’s The Killer as a form of cult cinema. An says the film occupies a fluid cultural space for Korean male viewers, reiterating “traditional masculine values and melodramatic pathos”(107) that provide reaffirmation of masculine ideals with which much of the Korean male audience feel a deep affinity and identification. An attempts to engage with what he sees as the text’s problematics by offering a genealogy and critical evaluation of “cult cinema” especially in relation to Korea. In such a way, An’s examination expands the notion of “borderless” by demonstrating a flexibility in interpretation and in reading viewer response across different ethnic groups. Importantly, An takes into account a variety of ideological positions for heterogeneous audiences, positions shaped by viewers’ different historical, social and political backgrounds. Hong Kong cinema seems to enable a wide variety of (il)legitimate (mis)readings. This kind of creative reception is constituted by discursive constructs and theoretical paradigms such as genre (cult cinema) or ethnic and regional configurations. As An puts it, Hong Kong cinema allows “an alternative imaginary landscape to the hegemonic Hollywood model” (109).

In “Life Imitates Entertainment: Home and Dislocation,” Steve Fore suggests similarities between developments in the martial arts genre since the 1970s and the social ideologies conceptualizing Hong Kong as a world city. He examines this parallel by considering the shifts and transformations of Jackie Chan’s screen personae. Fore also examines Jackie Chan’s films within the marital arts film genre in Hong Kong to analyze Chan’s transformations from earlier movies like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master, Project A to later works such as Drunken Master II, Rumble in the Bronx, Mr. Nice Guy, Who am I and Rush Hour. Looking critically at the changes in Jackie Chan’s screen personae, Fore demonstrates how the “local” in Hong Kong film production has been permeated by a framework of the “transnational,” as seen in the way Chan’s screen personae are known throughout the world. The way the media rely on star images and the way the entertainment industry uses the media to create star images raises interesting discussions about agency, identity and subjectivity in this era of globalism, especially as related to “minor” film industries beyond Hollywood. Also dealing with the martial arts genre but from a different perspective in “Hong Kong Hysteria: Martial Arts Tales from a Mutating World,” Bhaskar Sarkar describes marital arts movies of the 1990s as displaying anxiety over emerging new economic realities and political positions. The films’ themes reflect the impossibility of using unruly allegories of “nation” to grasp this accelerated social/political reality. Sarkar uses the term of “hysteria” to describe the cultural logic of extensive spatial transformations and temporal dislocations for people who find their lived experiences ungraspable; for them, to a certain extent the category of “history” and the allegory of “nation” no longer apply.

Also dealing with ambiguities of Hong Kong’s identity, Stephen Teo explores in “Tsui Hark: National Style and Polemic” how Tsui’s films contain ambivalent and volatile mixes of identity politics and orientalist myths and icons. Teo examines the films’ construction and deconstruction of orientalist myths and argues that from a technical and stylist point of view that Tsui Hark’s “notion of speed overrides the consistent theme of nationalism” (147) and even overrides narrative emotional intensity. He considers Tsui Hark as an important pioneer of Hong Kong’s postmodern cinema in that that Tsui’s films construct a multicultural Chinese world (146). Teo suggests that the filmmaker is motivated by a sense of Chinese “otherness” as a Chinese born in Vietnam. He also examines how Tsui acknowledges different notions of “Chineseness” in his films in order to problematize identity formation since a Hong Kong “identity” might not even be a determinable category.

In “Women on the Edges of Hong Kong Modernity: The Films of Ann Hui,” Elaine Ho explores the multiple and shifting deployments of the figure of woman and also Hong Kong’s crisis of modernity through a critical study of the trajectory of women characters in Ann Hui’s work. In these films, Ho find a new possibility for agency lying within Hong Kong’s intense rupture of modernity that is remaking the city’s identities. Ho does not propose a universal figure of woman nor see Hui’s women characters as a site of unambivalent resistance. Rather, Ho’s critical analysis considers the shifting use of the figure of woman in Hong Kong to consolidate both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses. A larger question that Gina Marchetti covers in her treatment of women in “Transnational Exchanges, Questions of Culture, and Global Cinema: Defining the Dynamics of Changing Relationships” is how diaspora and transnationalism affect women’s subjectivities. Marchetti uses a critical analysis of To Liv(e) and Crossings to illustrate ways that women experience the personal dimension of political concerns. In the films, the women characters undergo displacement, exile and immigration differently, and the films show the range of how these large political forces can shape identity. Looking at the films in terms of contemporary viewership, Marchetti illustrates how displaced female figures experience and negotiate the personal dimension of 1997’s political concerns.

In Part Three, “A Culture of Disappearance: Nostalgia, Nonsense and Dislocation,” Rey Chow centers on Stanley Kwan’s film Rouge to examine “a cultural politics of self-nativizing that is as complex and as deserving of attention as critiques of colonialism and Orientalism themselves” (210). Chow looks at nostalgia as a form of idealization that Hong Kong popular culture directs towards its own past. Chow names this “alternative way of conjuring a ‘community’ amid the ruthless fragmentations of postcoloniality” (226) as “self nativizing.” It is a strategy that tries to avoid celebrating Hong Kong’s pluralism by exploring the conflicting aspects of cultural identity. Also taking up nostalgia, in “Film and Enigmatization: Nostalgia, Nonsense, and Remembering,” Linda Lai sees nostalgia mingled with a sense of local community and faith in modern progress. Collective memories of history and everyday experiences become intertwined with the history of popular culture in a process Lai calls “enigmatization.” “Enigmatization” in this sense means reorganizing existing pop culture images to select the local audience as a distinct, privileged interpretative community. Understanding this imagery distinguishes those within from those “outside” by marking as special those viewers who share a similar pop culture history. Lai uses “enigmatization” as a theoretical trope to examine the phenomenon of how Hong Kong cinema deals with identity. He draws on two films as examples—C'est La Vie, Mon Cherie and He Ain't Heavy, He’s My Father—and also on the work of Clifton Ko and Stephen Chiau. In preserving a textual domain where local expressions, memories and contentions find articulation, Hong Kong cinema takes up those themes conjured up by enigmatization at a time when regional identities are undergoing tremendous reconfiguation. Also examining the theme of identity and here using specific films as case studies in “Transnationalization of the Local in Hong Kong Cinema of the 1990s,” Kwai-Cheung Lo reassesses a notion of localism which cultural producers and intellectuals often want to attribute to local cultural productions as they react against globalized film and television, especially Hollywood film. Lo illustrates his argument through analysis of Back to Roots, First Option, He’s a Woman She’s a Man and Comrades, Almost a Love Story. Lo especially challenges critical paradigms that can easily once again set forth parameters to describe and thus reinscribe a stable Hong Kong identity. He argues that different temporalities and spatialities have often co-existed as people and films articulate and constitute multiple aspects of Hong Kong’s identity; he names what he sees as a common phenomenon, “trans-subjectivity” (265). Lo uses the notion of “trans-subjectivity” to study the social and cultural conditions of 90s Hong Kong cinema and to rethink the concept of “local” identity within a new global context.

Marc Siegel in “The Intimate Spaces of Wong Kar-Wai” analyzes Hong Kong cinema’s politics of representation from a gendered context; his essay deals with the interconnections of global, gay/queer and sexualized identities in the context of the film Happy Together, which garnered Wong Kar-Wai the Cannes 1997 Best Director Award. In light of Guy Hocquenghem’s invocation of the importance of the ghetto to the urban gay male traveler, Siegel argues that Happy Together’s narrative assumes the existence of practices of non-familial sexualities across national boundaries; the film, which depicts its Chinese gay couple on a trip in Argentina, refuses the more affirmative rhetoric found in scripts based on a nationalist politics of intimacy. Using the notion of the “translocal gay ghetto,” Siegel argues that what is portrayed in Happy Together is a queer world in which intimacies between its travelers, journeying in Argentina on the eve of Hong Kong’s political transition to China in 1997, bear no necessary relation to the logic of family and the hetero-normative narration of nation. Siegel explores the invocation of homosexuality in Wong Kar-Wai’s movie as transforming concepts of citizenship so as to lead viewers to think about new ways to conceptualize nationality and culture. The essay leads to a reconsideration of concepts of public and private, noting that the film takes up these themes and presents the geographical displacement of the couple in Happy Together not only to imagine diaspora in conventional terms related to ethnic dispersion but to imagine it queerly, that is, to challenge the normativity of the social and political forces contingent on people’s lives.

To conclude with a discussion of the book’s overview, in her introduction to At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in the Borderless World, Esther Yau critically examines Hong Kong cinema in the age of globalization. She takes into consideration the notion of “speed” that Paul Virilio calls “the instantaneity of ubiquity”(4). Virilio objects to the eradication of distance, which diminishes freedom and subjectivity as it leads to the dis-appearance of reality. Yau evaluates “speed” in regard to production relations, now ever more flexible and subject to the kind of “space-time” compression that Marxist critics associate with global capitalism. Yau applies this concept of time-space compression to Hong Kong cinema and adds the concept of borders/ “borderless,” notions commonly used to analyze disasporic cultures. Here she uses the term “borderless” to legitimize analyses of an evolving Hong Kong cinema that do not use the conventional critical constructs of national cinema. Her introduction makes readers aware of how recent political and economic developments have reshaped and challenged the old intellectual paradigms of “national cinema” which previously dominated cinema studies.

While we acknowledge the strength of global capitalism, we should also recognize the transformation and not decline of “borders,” regions, and nation-states. In The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy, Kenichi Ohmae celebrates the coming of a “borderless world” with an attitude that is not only affirmative but in some ways utopian about the disintegration of borders in a global economy.[2] In contrast, in “A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State,” Masao Miyoshi suggests that colonialism becomes more dynamic in a global economy by functioning through transnational corporations. Miyoshi argues that nation-states will gradually give way to transnational corporations in a “borderless world.”[3] As a critical term, “borderless” occupies a contradictory position. Pheng Cheah summarizes the sides of the contradiction:

The postcolonial nation must be seen as a specter of global capital (double genitive—both objective and subjective genitive); it always runs the risk of being an epiphenomenon or reflection of global capital to the extent that it is originally infected by prosthesis of the bourgeois state qua terminal of capital. But it is also a specter that haunts global capital, for it is the undecidable neuralgic point within the global capitalist system that refuses to be exorcised.[4]

In this “borderless” world, what is not so visible but still dominant among the sparkles of dis-appearance is capital. Capital is spreading and flowing so fast in the instantaneous moments of time/space that it is beyond perception. Transnational capitalism may be borderless, but exactly because of its borderlessness, it produces other kinds of borders that mask new geopolitical formations and inequalities between and across regions, nations and localities. Of particular importance to understanding Hong Kong cinema, major centers of capital accumulations in East Asia have grown just as non-European capitalist societies are making their own contributions to this narrative about filmmaking. Ironically, the larger flow and dispersal of capital across Asia also means that the dominant culture industries, such the Hollywood industry writ large, have ever more influence over the production and distribution of entertainment within the circuits of global capital, including local film production in Asia.

At Full Speed is a provocative, stimulating volume. Positioned at the crossroads of an altered global terrain, this anthology analyzes the evolving issues of the social and cultural context of 90s Hong Kong cinema, reconsiders the concept of “local” identity in a new global framework, and examines the dynamics between the intercultural movement of images. Images travel so far and so fast that the extent of their diffusion makes the history of their production ungraspable. Cinema marks a phase in the development of capitalism and gives evidence of capital’s utter modification of social, material and perceptual conditions. Essays in the anthology negotiate the local and the global as they look at how local constituencies, which traditionally have secured identity and belonging, now are manipulated by and must react to a new global network created by the transnational production and global circulation of films.


1. Lowe, Lisa and David Lloyd, eds. The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

2. Ohmae, Kenichi. The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy. London: Harper Collins, 1990.

3. Miyoshi, Masao. “A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State.” Critical Inquiry 19 (1993), 726-751.

4. Cheah, Pheng. “Spectral Nationality: The Living On [sur-vie] of the Postcolonial Nation in Neocolonial Globalization.” boundary 2, 26:3 (1999), 251.