Hollywood Hong Kong (cont'd)

The butchers' bodies resemble the material they work with.

They slaughter, smoke, and sell pork in a little carry-out stand.

Even the pig Mama dines on pork and beer.

As Tong Tong waves a red flag high from her Hollywood Plaza window....

...Boss Chu waves one below in response.

A "doctor" from the mainland, Dr. Liu, wants to impregnate Chu's big sow with a human fetus as a scientific experiment.

Tong Tong and her pimp Peter have in play an elaborate extortion scheme. They send letters to the Chu father and son and Keung documenting that she is "underage" and threaten to go to the police.

Later, Tong Tong sends her pal Tiny a postcard showing her in Los Angeles, with the word Hollywood in the background.


Durian Durian

Yan works in Hong Kong on a short term visa. She takes about twenty to thirty tricks a day and....

....showers with each one, so that her skin is permamently chafed.

She lives in a tiny room with another woman, where the carry out food boxes accumulate.



Ah Fan, the little girl from Little Cheung reappears, here seen with her family on her birthday, for which her father has a special treat, a durian. Later, she sends a durian to Yan in northeastern China.

Yan becomes good friends with Ah Fan and joins them washing dishes in the alley.


Hours before she is supposed to leave Hong Kong, Yan takes one more trick. The day before, her supposedly last day of work, she'd taken forty.



On Yan's return home, everyone ignores how she has earned her money and her parents want to throw a big banquet celebrating her return with fine food and wine. She just gets up from the table and says she's going to shower.



Then we see her in the public shower, with the ritual of bathing as a motif uniting both halves of the film.

Yan's bankbook showing the large balance and the recent withdrawal to pay for the banquet. At that event, when presented with the bill, the parents said the daughter would pay for it.

When back with her family and friends, Yan remains isolated.

Yan's "home" city is shown as a cold and unhospitable place.

Yan's young cousin says she wants to go south too.

Yan gets many calls to return back to Hong Kong to work.



In discussing Fruit Chan’s approach to class and proletarian life, it is useful to examine how he narrativizes the human body as a cultural construct and political object. Understanding the nuances of embodied existence, the body's situatedness, is central to understanding working-class life. Chan's class imaginary finds visual expression in the way the human body is subject to social power. For him, the human body is both a thing and more than a thing. It cannot be understood as a purely biological object and is neither ahistorical nor pre-cultural. It is a social product that bears the inscription of social, political, economic, cultural and legal pressures. Films such as Made in Hong Kong, Hollywood Hong Kong and Dumplings focus on this fact. Chan’s understanding and visual representation of the body is interlinked with and constitutive of, chains of social meaning that bear directly on his class imaginary. Chan's films suggest that the human body should be appreciated as a locus of economic, social, political, cultural, and legal inscriptions and representations. Thus, the bodies that Chan depicts and narrativizes in his films are presented as an index of class affiliation.

Michel Foucault talked about two types of bodies – the intelligible body and the useful body.[5] [open notes in new window] The former refers to the aesthetic and cultural representations and image-making associated with the body, while the latter signifies the body that is subject to day-to-day rules and regulations. These two bodies are, of course, interconnected. Fruit Chan’s films interrogate the imperatives of the intelligible body so as to propose alternative perspectives. For example, as Durian, Durian and Hollywood Hong Kong deal with Chinese prostitutes working in the region, Chan does not present the characters' bodies as loci of sexuality, spaces of visual pleasure, but rather as sites of daily economic life. As a consequence of the films' narratives, the women's intelligible body, in the Foucauldian sense, gains a newer and heuristically useful inflection.

Tong Tong meets Tiny Chu when she stops at the pork stand. They become friends. One day she swings in a swing in the Chu yard. After she sleeps with Boss Chu, he also swings high in joy.
Tiny laughs to see Tong Tong swinging in the yard. She also seduces a reticent Ming, Chu's older son: "You're fat like your father."

Social theorists like David Harvey have rightly sought to underline the importance of the body in understanding the operation of class and capital. [6] Fruit Chan is one of the few Asian filmmakers who have recognized the importance of this line of thinking. Harvey says,

"Capital circulates, as it were, through the body of the laborer as a variable of capital and thereby turns labor into a mere appendage of the circulation of capital itself."

Fruit Chan's films like Durian, Durian or Dumplings offer a phenomenological view of how class distinctions are imprinted on the body. One has to recognize how capital seeks to inflect human bodies, directly and obliquely, in order to meet its own needs, logics and imperatives. In a vivid example of this, Hollywood Hong Kong shows in detail the lives and labor process of a family of sausage makers who butcher and prepare pork. The men all "resemble" the pigs they work with; their bodies are depicted as closely related to the material strata through which they live. Fruit Chan's films serve to dramatize how bodies get constituted, how they are transformed into signifiers of meaning and carriers of tension endemic to the capitalist system. Thus in a film like Dumplings, where class analyses is less distinct, one can see how human bodies interact with other bodies and this relationality is a condition of their ontology, how bodies become constitutive of variable, social and cultural life.

Many decades ago, Karl Marx recognized this fact:

"To say that man is corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective, being full of natural vigor is to say that he has real, sensuous, objects as the object of his being or his life, or that he can only express his life in real sensuous objects."[7] 

Keung of course cannot pay, so a gang cuts off his hand, but not before they first cut off someone else's hand by mistake. Tiny finds a hand thrown into their courtyard and Dr. Liu sews it back on Keung.
--- ---
But it's the wrong person's hand. He now has two left hands, and the other "Keung" has... ... two right hands. Butchery and body are repeated as a motif, here about Keung and his class position.

The corporeal dynamism of the proletarian life that Fruit Chan stages is illustrative of this statement and is important to consider for two other reasons. First, the social constitution of the body is an important topic that does not receive adequate attention in film studies. And second, Fruit Chan is among the few filmmakers who enable us to explore this topic productively.

Also related to the social "physicality" of the film is the imaginative way in which space can be displayed and utilized, drawing on all the cinematic resources available. Cinematic imagination and spatial imagination are closely interrelated, one feeding the other, as for example, one can see in the work of Wong Kar-wai.[8] In Fruit Chan's cinematic representations of proletarian life and proletarian spaces, the director pays great attention to the selection and enframing of his topographical landscapes as well as questions of camera placement, movement and angles. He realizes full well that in late capitalistic societies urban space is traversed by transformations, disjunctures, and he seeks to capture this through his cinematic images. Dumplings provides us with memorable illustrations of this. How the urban working-class in Hong Kong lives in and conceptualizes space is of great concern to Fruit Chan, as his films trace out how urban space is linked to issues of social marginalization, geographies of economic production, and the structures of commodified society.

Let us, for example, consider a film like Little Cheung. Here, Chan focuses on the restricted and damaged lives of the dispossessed living in such unglamorous districts as Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po. The topography he delineates is vitally connected to the banalities of everyday life, and animated  by gossip, petty jealousies and moral transgressions. There is a widespread belief that globalization and increasing commodification of social life will inevitably pave the way toward a new homogenization of the working classes. But Fruit Chan tells us, through his constructed narratives and chosen images, that the situation is indeed far more complex and many sided. The denizens of these proletarian spaces are not only local Hong Kongers but also by migrant workers from the Philippines and mainland China. At a time when capitalist modernity increasingly extends its tentacles and fast-food franchises invade the landscape, Fruit Chan directs attention to old tea houses in back alleys in Mong Kok. Through these visual tropes, Chan seeks to capture the sense of community that is formed and un-formed among the marginalized under-classes. The space that is reconfigured in a film like Little Cheung, which is tinged with nostalgia, offers an interesting vantage pint from which to map the daily life and imagination of the working-class in Hong Kong.

Social theorists discussing modern society very often treat space as neutral and apolitical. Chan's films, in contrast, vigorously de-naturalize space and bring out its political sedimentations and resonances. As shown by Fruit Chan, understanding the spatial practices that emerge from such spaces and the way they inflect human relations are crucial to a proper understanding of urban proletarian life. For Chan, questions of space are always already inscribed in questions of class. That is why spatial hierarchies play such a dominant role in his films, as for example in Dumplings. Michel Foucault has observed, "Contemporary space is perhaps still not entirely desanctified," [9] alluding to the apparent divisions "between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between space of leisure and that of work."[10] In Fruit Chan’s reconfiguration of space such divisions, such sanctifications are dismantled and urban spaces emerge as conflictual and hybrid spaces. To take up the question of space in examining the nature of capital and working-class life is important because the accumulation of capital has to be understood in terms of geographical expansions and spatial reconfigurations. As scholars like David Harvey have emphasized,

"Class struggle unfolds differently across this highly variegated terrain and that the drive for socialism must take geographical realities and geopolitical possibilities into account."[11]

The police threaten Yan and her pimp and tell Yan to leave as soon as her permit expires. Ah Fan huddles in fear lest she be discovered. Shortly before she leaves Yan stands in the alley where she and Ah Fan live, and she realizes she has never really seen the city.
--- ---
A rapid montage of Hong Kong's busy Portland Street covers a plot ellipsis omitting scenes of Yan's travel back to the mainland. The visual track cuts to a plastic-covered taxi carrying her and her husband after she's arrived at her snowy northeastern city home.

It is the merit of film directors such as Chan that we are in a position to put a human face and voice to these political and analytic assertions.

Fruit Chan’s cinematic depiction of proletarian life is inseparable from his depiction of the pervasive influence of human violence. In most of his films, gangsterism is present either directly or indirectly, shaping the chain of events in the unfolding story. Violence in his films is not emotionally cathartic, nor does it contain heroic theatricalisms  nor acts of redemption. He regards violence as endemic to the situation of the socially marginalized, and he sees it as a constitutive force in their everydayness and social relations. Fruit Chan’s point in films like Durian, Durian and Made in Hong Kong is that one cannot and should not try to explain violence in moral terms and categories before one has had time to examine the historical, social, economic contexts within which violence erupts. It is Fruit Chan’s intention to demonstrate the fact that gangsterism is not  a behavioral pattern marking the socially dispossessed but that it is a function of social dispossession. In other words, Chan is pointing to the pervasive impact of structural violence that inexorably impinges on the life of working-class people. To him, to trace out the class imaginary and its complicated representations cannot be divorced from showing how class is related to violence.

In discussing the cinematic representations of working-class life in Fruit Chan’s cinema, we must constantly bear in mind the fact that he is no documentary filmmaker bent on reflecting the life he sees, but rather a creative filmmaker who converts the lived realities of the working-class into images through his personal optic; thereby he makes an intervention into the current social and critical discourses of Hong Kong. Filmic representation points to the fact that cinematic images are not simply mirrors of the world but that they are representations, reconfigurations, and re-fabrications — transcoded in terms of the medium of cinema. Fruit Chan presents us with a textual object, say, the characters Autumn Moon or Little Cheung. This textual object becomes concretized as a result of the interplay of diverse discourses related to the lived life of the people in Hong Kong, their historical conditions of existence, the film director's imagination, the resources of cinema, and intertextuality — both cinematic and non-cinematic. Hence, rather than being a simple reflector of society, Fruit Chan's cinema constitutes a complex textuality that metonymically illuminates it. 

In order to understand the nature of textual object that Fruit Chan presents us, we need to focus not only on content but also on form. As I remarked earlier on in this essay, Fruit Chan’s films are best understood as fantasies in which the fantastic energy is channeled through the form of the film itself. He makes use of fantasy as a way of giving a sharper focus, a clearer profile, to the social realities that he is dealing with. In other words, he sees fantasy as a way of extending the discursive range of realism. Some of his films like Hollywood Hong Kong and Public Toilet are cast in terms of fantasy while others like Durian, Durian appear to be more realistic. However, even a film like Durian, Durian gains in definition through the incorporation of fantasy. There are different ways in which fantasy functions in cinema. For example, the first part of Durian, Durian dramatizes realistically the grim and harsh realities of proletarian life in Hong Kong. There is indeed a raw energy pulsating through the visualities of this part with speeded up action, quick cuts, and superimpositions. The second part that recounts the return of Yan to her homeland is more placid and infused with a sense of nostalgia. Both parts seem to be realistic in their own way. However, we need to keep in mind the fact that the, tranquility and pastoral contentment that inform the second part of the film are illusory. The narrative emphasizes how money is becoming increasingly important in the lives of the rural people, inflecting their relations in less than satisfying ways. Yan’s cousin goes to the south in search of work. It is just a matter of time before the north becomes like the south. Yan receives a gift from her friend in Hong Kong. It is a fruit – durian – not indigenous to Hong Kong, and it epitomizes the dialectic of desire and disavowal that characterizes the attitude of mainland Chinese to Hong Kong. The durian fruit is both deliciously sweet and unbearably foul-smelling. The tranquility seemingly presented via realism in the second part is illusory, a fragment of the fantastic. One has to examine the visual registers of the film to understand how the idea of fantasy informs content and form, and this is how the film's intersection of fantasy and realism opens up a more interesting and dynamic narrative economy.

Her husband also does not talk about how she made money while in Hong Kong and they are shown as estranged. They divorce. While they are at the magistrate's, her cell phone rings with someone from Hong Kong asking her to return to work.

In numerous interviews Fruit Chan has referred to this intermingling of the registers of realism and fantasy. He once observed that he is more conscious of the social situation in Hong Kong than other directors and that his intent is to show the harsh social realities of Hong Kong. He has also gone on to remark that his films are only partially realistic; he also wants to mobilize the resources of cinema to generate emotion, incorporating fantasy as well. Speaking of the bank robbery in The Last Summer, he commented that in depicting it he has attempted to go beyond the confines of realism to incorporate dynamic visualities, thereby widening the discursive boundaries and regimes of representation of realism. His narrative economy, a mutually animating juxtaposition of realism and fantasy, has particular importance for Marxist aesthetics, in view of the fact that distinguished Marxist theoreticians like Georg Lukács valorized realism as the only legitimate mode of representing social experience.

After a long snowy drive to another town, Yan trudges through the ice to a set of open air market stalls. She had thought to open up a "boutique" but here her friend.... ...tells her none of the sweaters are locally made but come from Shanghai, and that the profit from each sale is about ten yan. It is little to one who has 73,000 yen in her bank account.


What I have sought to do in this essay, then, is to point out that while questions of class, unfortunately, do not figure prominently in Hong Kong cinema, Fruit Chan’s work fills this lacuna in interesting ways. In the preceding discussion, I have sought to underline the importance of class in understanding both society and cinematized experience of society. Clearly, class is a complex and evolving concept. Some of Marx’s formulations have been overtaken by the events of last two centuries; but class as an analytical concept can still contribute significantly to the revitalization of debates about cinema and society. What is interesting about Fruit Chan’s films is his desire to show how subaltern subjects seek to write their identities within societies shaped by multinational capital, and how they seek to rise above their mandated oppressions to achieve greater social legibility and moral agency. Clearly, this is a desideratum that is close to fountains of Chan’s cinematic imagination.

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