Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung’s Swordsman III—the East Is Red is a kinetic kung fu fantasy that provides the cover image for Yau’s book.

Action films, such as those of John Woo, move according to Hong Kong’s accelerated social pace.

John Woo’s action films have international cult status, which raises issues about audience response.

In the French film, Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung is a blank screen reflecting fantasies about Asian women, Hong Kong film, and problems with Western cinema.

As Jackie Chan’s screen personae circulate throughout the world, his fans admire the “real-life” figure, especially as stuntman and director. His acting pays tribute to classic performances, such as those of Bruce Lee, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

As Chan moves into big-production Hollywood features, the shifts in his career raise questions about artists’ independence and identity in this era of globalism.

Director Tsui Hark is a Vietnam-born Chinese who explores different notions of “Chineseness” in his films.

Best known for his A Better Tomorrow and Wong Fei-hung action series, Tsui Hark studied at SMU in Texas, worked with Third World Newsreel on the documentary From Spikes to Spindles, and returned to Hong Kong in the late 70s to work in television.

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China plays on orientalist myths and icons.

Made in Hong Kong by Fruit Chan is a stylish low-budget feature about urban youth gangs.

When Fruit Chan produced this low budget feature with a crew of five, Hong Kong film critics praised the return of locally made film.

Stanley Kwan (left) is one of Hong Kong’s innovative “Second Wave” directors and became the first major director there to come out as gay in his Yang + Ying: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996).

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.

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