copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

The class imaginary in Fruit Chan's films

by Wimal Dissanayake

"The discrepancy between the rich and poor has always been an issue in Hong Kong, but the problem was swept under the carpet during the economic boom. After the financial crisis, the bubble burst for the middle-class. All of a sudden, people notice that Hong Kong is crawling with poor people." — Fruit Chan 

Despite the fact some of the early Hong Kong films dealt with social injustice, inequities, and the gap between rich and poor, Hong Kong cinema has rarely taken as its theme the concept of class. Only with the work of Fruit Chan do we begin to see the persuasive articulation of class in cinematic terms. The objective of this short essay is to focus on the class imaginary inscribed in Fruit Chan's cinema. The films of Fruit Chan compel our attention because they force us to recognize the class predicament of the urban proletariat in interesting ways.

Class as a concept is central to Marxist thought and social analysis. Despite the fact that Marx did not develop this concept with the comprehensiveness that one would have wished for, it pervades his theorizations about social transformation and social movements. According to him, classes were the primary groups through which social conflicts developed, and Marx and Engels made clear the weight should they attached to the concept of class in the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto:

"The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles."[1]
[open notes in new window]

Similarly, in the Manifesto  Marx and Engles wrote,

"Society as a whole is more and more splitting into two great classes directly facing each other, bourgeois and proletariat."[2]

They also went on to assert that the ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas of society.

According to Marx, divisions of class do not operate in all societies. For example, tribal societies do not have classes, since in such societies surplus of production and private property are absent. Divisions of class emerge when surplus is created, resulting in the emergence of a class of non-producers who live off a class of producers. The class consequences of the production of surplus value also explain much about contemporary society. However, in recent years, Marxist conceptualizations of class have been challenged by scholars who feel that modern societies have disproved Marx's predictions and that the structures and internal dynamics of the twentieth and twenty-first century societies are far more complex than he had imagined. As a consequence, there has been a rethinking of the role of class in modern society and social development. While this is indeed a move that needs to be welcomed, rather than discard the concept of class, we need to re-examine its heuristic validity in the light of contemporary social changes and social theory. What is interesting about Fruit Chan’s work is that it allows us to focus on class as an important concept in understanding the filmic representations of social experience.

Fruit Chan was born in Guanzhou in 1959 and was raised in Hong Kong. In the 1980s, he entered the film industry and worked initially as an assistant director in the commercial cinema, working even with Jackie Chan. In 1991, he made his first feature film titled Finale in Blood and in the same year he directed another film called Five Lonely Hearts. Clearly, both of these films worked within the narrative discourse, regimes of visuality, representational codes and conventions associated with Hong Kong popular cinema. In 1997, Fruit Chan directed Made in Hong Kong, which was both a critical and popular success, and led to his emergence as a bold and imaginative filmmaker, one who chose to abandon the imperatives of commercial cinema. He was recognized as an independent filmmaker who had created a personal space in which to explore and reconfigure his main preoccupations, which focused especially on the nature, constitution, and the future growth of the urban proletariat in Hong Kong.

The genesis of Fruit Chan's films is as interesting as the films themselves. To read his films is also to probe into the conditions in which they were made, since they are intimately related to the historical moments of their production. Made in Hong Kong, for example, is a low-budget film that cost only a fraction of the capital needed to make an average film in Hong Kong. It was shot using twenty four hundred meters of leftover unprocessed film. A five-member crew assisted him in the making of the film and all of them worked for free. The post-production costs were also minimal by normally accepted standards. Andy Lau, the well-known singer and actor, provided Fruit Chan with a production office and other material requirements. The well-known director and distributor and critic, Shu Kei, helped him in the post-production.

Made in Hong Kong focuses on the privations and predicaments of the alienated proletarian youth in Hong Kong just before the handover of Hong Kong to China. The film centers on the character of a young man, Autumn Moon, existing precariously and compelled to live at the edges of society; he is invariably sucked into the underworld of violence and gangsterism. The film's entire story is narrated through Autumn Moon's eyes and sensibility, especially through a voiceover that frequently communicates his thoughts and observations. We feel a measure of sympathy for him as an affable young man who could have done better in life, had he been permitted to live under better social circumstances. The female protagonist of the film, Ping, in whom Autumn Moon is interested, is dying of a life-threatening illness. Through Autumn Moon's calculated actions, Fruit Chan explores the registers of consciousness and the symbolic world of urban proletarian youth, and thus the film confers visibility on the invisible. While Made in Hong Kong seems to eschew the formulas of the commercial cinema, Fruit Chan nonetheless draws on two of Hong Kong's popular genres, gangster films and melodramas, with provocative imagination. In a sense, then, Made in Hong Kong draws on commercial cinema to challenge its presuppositions in its home ground.

The Longest Summer, made in 1999, is Fruit Chan's second film as an independent film director. The production of this film was also generously supported by Andy Lau. This film focuses on a group of locals who were rendered jobless after the British Army left Hong Kong in 1997. While Hong Kong celebrates its liberation from British rule, the locals in the disbanded British army face a future of uncertainty. Go Yin, one of these disaffected young men, decides to join his brother Go Suen in illegal activities associated with the underworld. They rob a bank and the film charts the robbery's consequences. Once again, Fruit Chan displays his penchant for using both narrative and visual registers to probe into the problem-riddled lives of Hong Kong's socially disadvantaged and marginalized people. This film, too, works within the narrative discursivities and representational codes of gangster films, but Fruit Chan is careful to use these codes critically. His aim is not to infuse his filmic text with a sense of heroism but to offer a commentary on the difficult task of survival for the beleaguered urban proletariat. The violence that informs the film is a comment on the uncertain lives of the proletariat, the uneasy tensions and strains and stresses of youth, and the social ontology of the urban working class.

The next film by Fruit Chan is Little Cheung, made in 1999. This film deploys gangsterism less prominently, although gangsters are there unmistakably in the background — a perpetual and troubling reminder of the forces that shape the life of the urban proletariat and lumpenproletariat. As the story is seen through the eyes of children, the confrontation between the innocence of children and the brutality of adult society serves to underline the harshness of proletarian life. The relationship between Little Cheung and Ah Fan, for example, stands as a counterpoint to those existing among adults. In an interview, Fruit Chan once wistfully remarked that life is inescapably complicated and how nice it would be if we did not have to grow up. In this film, in both the narrative and visual registers, Fruit Chan employs the topos of childhood innocence as a way of drawing attention to the corrupting influence of adulthood amidst the life-denying conditions of the urban working class

Fruit Chan's next film was Durian, Durian, made in 2000, which won great critical acclaim. The complicated relation between China and Hong Kong constitutes the background of the story of Durian, Durian, which focuses on Yan, a Chinese prostitute working in Hong Kong. Prostitutes are victims of both the capitalist and patriarchal regimes, and to discuss prostitution entails a discussion of class. Often, the trope of prostitution is used in fiction to stand as a commentary on class exploitation. In Marxist terms, since prostitutes do not create objects for sale but are themselves up for sale, prostitution signifies the degradation of both the human body and human dignity through being subject to the instrumentalities of commodification. Fruit Chan is well aware of the implications of this in Durian, Durian, where once again, the predicament of the proletariat forms the essence of the film, in this case commenting on the increasingly common phenomenon of Chinese immigrants working as prostitutes in Hong Kong. The film consists of two parts: the first part focuses on the life of the proletariat in Hong Kong with all its harshness, routinization, and hustle and bustle while the second part deals with life in China after Yan has returned to her homeland. Here the tranquility and peace of North Eastern China is contrasted with the frantic life in Hong Kong, with Yan's homeland presented as "felicitous space" (in the way Gaston Bachelard has employed this term).

In 2001 Fruit Chan made Hollywood Hong Kong, which continues his interest in the plight of the marginalized and oppressed. A mixture of social critique and black humor, this film also deals with prostitutes, but is different from Durian, Durian in that in the latter film the viewpoint of the prostitute comes across cogently while in Hollywood Hong Kong it is less certain. There is a certain measure of vagueness about the main character. She comes into a squatter area earmarked to be demolished and at the end leaves for Hollywood to pursue her cherished desires. Tong Tong dreams of Hollywood while living in a shantytown and this contrastive topos provides the backbone of Chan's analysis. Durian, Durian and Hollywood Hong Kong textualize similar experiences, but from divergent stylistic and representational vantage points. In the latter film, the juxtaposition of highrise buildings and shantytowns serves to portray a Hong Kong of sharp contrasts. Interestingly, the film works not so much at the level of realism as that of fantasy. Stylization is an important part of the meaning of the film. The sense of absurdity that pervades the film is vitally connected with the social critique that Fruit Chan offers us. He seems to indicate that one need not be restricted to a narrow understanding of realism in order to delve into social inequities.

In 2002, Fruit Chan made Public Toilet, which in many ways is his weakest film. Dong Dong was born in a public toilet and he is referred to as the god of toilets. As the film recounts the quest for a miracle cure, the urinal becomes the central trope and brings together diverse narrative strands of a rambling story that moves from Hong Kong to Korea to China to India and to the United States. The proletarian consciousness is not absent in the film; but Public Toilet's narrative has a certain aimlessness which vitiates its meaning.  Although the film has both the element of human compassion and the element of fantasy that one finds in many of Chan's earlier works as well, its narrative energy seems unnecessarily dissipated.

In 2004 Fruit Chan made Dumplings. A shorter version was included in Three Extremes (2002), which had works by two other distinguished filmmakers as well. Dumplings examines the predicament of an aging actress who yearns to recapture her earlier vivacity. She approaches Aunty Mei, whose dumplings have the strange ability of bringing about rejuvenation. It so happens that Aunty Mei makes use of human fetuses in making her strange dumplings. The film explores issues of youth, aging, and bioethics. Some in the audience would, no doubt, find this mixture of the horror and black comedy genres distasteful. Here, too, Fruit Chan's penchant for portraying proletariat consciousness is present, although perhaps not in the focused way that characterized his earlier work. The film develops a contrast between the Chinese immigrant working class and the anglicized Hong Kong middle class — especially in terms of their respective life styles, modes of thinking and worldviews. With abortion a dominant trope in Dumplings, the two settings for abortions characterizing the working class and the middle class serve to underline the disparities among the two classes. What is most remarkable about the film is the innovative camerawork of Christopher Doyle who brings an interesting visuality to this somewhat strange story.

It is evident that Fruit Chan is a filmmaker who is deeply concerned with the proletariat's hardships and predicaments. His films transform harsh lived realities, with all their inherent contradictions and ambiguities, into forceful images. He presents the other Hong Kong, not the famous international film center, the glamorously commodified society, or the seductively irresponsible lives of middle class youth, but the inhospitable world of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He avoids the extremes of moral sentimentalism or revolutionary ferocity. His intention is to present the lives of the proletariat as they struggle to survive in a harsh environment. Fruit Chan's films are melodramatic fantasies in the best sense of the term. He seeks to reimagine proletarian life in Hong Kong, to give it greater imaginative definition, by mobilizing the resources of cinema. Chan's films are important not because they provide us with documentary-like information but rather because they urge us to delve into the inner recesses of marginalized people who encounter large, challenging questions that elude their comprehension. It is their very effort to reimagine the oppressions and functioning of the social order that involve them in efforts at self-definition. Proletarian consciousness, as depicted in Fruit Chan's cinema, is a mixture of social truth, personal knowledge, and wishful thinking—all enframed by cinematic desire.

Fruit Chan's films are works of fantasy, not fantasies of escape but fantasies of confrontation. They confront the harsh realities of the other Hong Kong. They are melodramatic in that they subscribe to a rhetoric of excess. The excess within the narrative structure and the visual style has a direct bearing on the characters' incomprehension as well as their determination to overcome hardships. This excess, which is connected to the performative dynamics of the narrative, points to the fact that the enacted human dramas generate an uncontainable surplus of meaning. Unlike in the normal film, which obliterates what characters transcend to focus on the main trajectory or resolution of the plot, Chan's films underline the very oppositions the characters seek to transcend. Using a modality of melodramatic fantasy, which Fruit Chan projects into the personal dramas of his characters, his films rely on narratives that need and utilize strategies of excess. Unlike many other filmmakers, Fruit Chan does not displace social issues onto personal acts of criminality in order to occlude social causalities; rather his is an attempt to explore social formations' illusive and protean nature. Chan's use of fantasy and the absurd as modes of exploring social reality is very significant in terms of Marxist aesthetics, because this is exactly the opposite of what formidable Marxist aestheticians like Georg Lukács advocated—the need to stick to realism.

As I stated earlier, the relation between the proletariat and the changing Hong Kong social environment is an important thematic component in Fruit Chan's work. All his characters are shaped by the developments in Hong Kong society, which are of course linked to its economic growth. Hong Kong's evolution from a fishing village to a bustling industrial city and then to a center for service industries and international finance points to the velocity of change in Hong Kong. One consequence of this rapid change has been the inability of low skilled workers to adapt to changing circumstances and seize new opportunities. Part of their tragedy grows out of this inability. Autumn Moon, in Made in Hong Kong, remarks, "The world is moving too fast. Just when you want to adapt to it, it's another brand new world." He seems to be echoing the sentiments of a whole generation of young people in Hong Kong who are caught in the mechanisms of multinational capitalistic intrusions.

Since the 1960s, with Hong Kong rapidly developing under the sign of capitalist modernity, the proletariat as a class has seemed less and less important. The accelerated social development and increased commodification of society, with a premium being on sign value, left the proletariat in an uncomfortable position. Fruit Chan, as a gifted and socially conscious filmmaker is concerned with the issue of how the members of the proletariat can sustain their lives. For example, in The Longest Summer, a group of locals rendered jobless as a result of the disbanding of the British army, choose to rob a bank. Yan, in Durian, Durian and Tong Tong in Hollywood Hong Kong, work as prostitutes to survive. Even the idle gangsters in Made in Hong Kong are busy collecting "protection fees" for their boss. Surviving in an inhospitable society makes all these characters insensitive to human values and human relationships, survival being their primary goal. 

In Fruit Chan’s films, we sense that human relationships robbed of sympathy and understanding become reduced to crass self-interest. For example, Yan and Tong Tong appear as good conversationalists only to further the pseudo-relationships of commercial exchange. Little Cheung’s observations also index these deficiencies:

"I already understood a lot when I was nine. My father owns a restaurant. Our Filipina maid is here to make money. My mother plays mahjong in the mahjong parlor for money. Of course, I am no exception. I have known from an early age that money is a dream. It is fantasy. And it is also a future. You can see why everyone in this street is enterprising."

The only sincere relationships are those between Tong Tong and Ah Little, Little Cheung and Ah Fan. Fruit Chan seems to imply that it is a matter of time before these relationships based on trust and innocence will also yield to the calculative and manipulative impulses of adults. In this regard, it is useful to remind ourselves how Karl Marx echoed these sentiments"

"The bourgeois has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, the callous cash payment."[3] 

One of Chan’s strengths as a filmmaker commenting on the social landscape of Hong Kong is his ability to point out the ways in which bourgeois consciousness thus inflects proletarian consciousness.

The year 1997 marked an important watershed in the development of Hong Kong; everyone was concerned with the anxieties generated by this event. Fruit Chan chooses to focus on this impact of this event, as for example in The Longest Summer by combining these anxieties with the predicament of the proletariat as a class. Responding to some critics who saw these character' behavior as meaningless, Fruit Chan observed,

"In 1998 I chanced to meet a group of Hong Kong British army people who were very angry as portrayed in my film. They were so agitated because they had become so unemployable so suddenly in their golden age, and had been abandoned by the British government and the Hong Kong new regime after 1997. How could they find other jobs? Thus, I linked up what I saw and heard and what they felt in making the film." 

Fruit Chan sees the new political landscape created by the union of Hong Kong and China in somewhat negative terms. For the proletariat, Chan seems to be saying, the new linkages between Hong Kong and the mother country have not visibly improved their quality of living, but only precipitated greater conflict. The Chinese immigrants who come to Hong Kong to work as prostitutes exemplify this problem, and they also reveal that the transnationalization of labor is a result of globalization. In Hong Kong, Filipina and Indonesian maids, Chinese prostitutes, Indian and Pakistani workers, Nepali women form an essential part of the labor scene. Fruit Chan seeks to capture facets of this phenomenon and its manifold consequences in his films. These migrant workers are looked down upon by the rest of the proletariat class in Hong Kong thereby opening up fissures and tensions within the labor force itself. However, in his films Chan portrays migrant workers, both legal and illegal, with a measure of sympathy, focusing on their unrealized dreams and desires. Thus Yan in Durian Durian hopes to open a boutique and Tong Tong yearns to go to Hollywood.  In an interview, Chan discussed his interest in such women's lives:

"I have interviewed and listened to their views, future, and life and work. I have tried to capture something of the struggle of life in the face of unemployment and adverse social and economic changes occurring on the mainland. Nowadays some earn several hundred dollars per month. It is not possible on the mainland. For them, the only way open is to become a prostitute."

Seemingly the family constitutes a contrasting theme to prostitution, but Chan sees the relation between the two. The family constitutes a central institution in Hong Kong films, as indeed in Hong Kong culture in general. In his films, Fruit Chan recognizes the importance of the family and makes use of it as a way of pointing out the sense of alienation that mark human relations as a consequence of the intrusion of crass materialism into the lives of the marginalized. For example, because of the increasing prosperity of the bourgeois, it is common for richer men have mistresses on the mainland, placing undue strains on the family. The plight of children growing up in broken families is also a concern of Chan. His film Made in Hong Kong alludes to the fact that Autumn Moon comes from a broken family and at one point is so angry and agitated that he contemplates killing his father. Fruit Chan uses as a theme the decline of the institution of the family to trace out the stresses brought to bear on human relations caused by the intrusiveness of capitalist modernity.

As he traces the influences of capitalist modernity, Chan also dramatizes the complex ways in which moral corruption has entered into the dispossessed 's and the beleaguered working-class people's struggle for survival, how moral corruption inflects their lives. In The Longest Summer, the family in question is itself engulfed in moral decay. The parents are not proud of Ga Yin but praise their younger son, who has become a gangster, and encourage Ga Yin to follow suit. At one point the father says that no one who tries to live honestly will succeed in life. This skepticism grows out of the economic and social conditions. Fruit Chan, in an interview made the comment,

"A lot of parents only care about whether their children can bring money home and maintain a home for them. They do not care about what they do."

Chan is deeply concerned about how the Chinese family, which was once the central repository of moral values, has now succumbed to powers of moral corruption. 

Unlike many Hong Kong film directors, Fruit Chan wishes to examine Hong Kong society from below, opening up new and important angles of vision. In this effort, he has demonstrated, as few other Hong Kong film directors have, the complex ways in which social power is inscribed on human bodies. Chan’s approach highlights the need to understand the workings of classes, how the socially marginalized in the streets connect and disconnect with each other, and how their daily activities relate to the larger world. The grammar of his cinematic imagination is structured to express this felt understanding of the lives of those on the margins. In many of his films, the conflicted life of the proletariat shapes both narrative discourses as well as representational strategies, thereby making such conflict a significant part of his filmic meaning. This is, of course, not to suggest that Chan is a documentary or ethnographic maker of films dealing with the other Hong Kong. His visual style and cinematic imagination represent the exact opposite. Fruit Chan is a creative filmmaker who seeks to illuminate facets of Hong Kong life by converting the lived lives and felt emotions of the disenfranchised into impactful cinematic images that unsettle and destabilize conventional understandings of Hong Kong society. His efforts may not always be successful, or on target, but his ambitions are clear. His films aim to reconfigure proletarian life through innovations in cinematic practices and representational discursivities and intertextualities. His consistent interest in exploring and forging representations of class invest his portraitures with a characteristic vibrancy.

As a film director, Fruit Chan focuses on the lived experiences, the aspirations, the inbuilt contradictions, of working-class life. His films lead us to recognize the importance of the experiential dimensions of class, the texture of this life, the voice of the un-voiced. A confusion of values, which marks the life of the dispossessed, constitutes the staple of his films. Chan shows us how people respond to events and seek to make sense of their responses in their desperate struggles for survival. Hong Kong, in his films, is a conflictual space of personal survival.

As scholars and activists examine the nature and significance of class in their social inquiry, they often have a pronounced tendency to think in universalist terms. Many refer to Marx as promoting such a viewpoint, although in fairness to Marx, it must be said that scattered in his writings are recognitions that class has also to be understood in culturally specific terms. Fruit Chan’s films serve to emphasize the fact that class consciousness can best be understood in the complex ways in which the dispossessed and the marginalized respond to their distinctive experiences culturally. It is this cultural enframing that gives films like Durian, Durian and Hollywood Hong Kong their distinctive feel. We need to remind ourselves that frames of intelligibility needed to trace out the meanings of Chan’s films are forged on the anvil of culture – in this case, Hong Kong culture. He seems to be implying that capitalist modernity is a battle waged in culturally specific spaces and that it brings together mutually reinforcing and subverting desires derivng from both globalism and localism. He is also directing our attention to the fact that these culturally specific spaces offer us an epistemological vantage point from which to assess the dynamics of class in the modern world. The meanings and self-inventions of working-class lives can be comprehended only in terms of the culturally inflected, experiential nuances of working class experience, in all its ambiguities and contradictions. Social historians like E. P. Thompson, in discussing class, have made the point that it is through experience that structure is transmuted into process, and the subject re-enters into history.[4]  What is interesting about Fruit Chan’s films is that he is aiming to dissect Hong Kong society within this kind of materialist and historical problematic.

Related to the way that Fruit Chan ties depictions of class to the specificity of experience is the way in which he combines issues of class and gender, giving greater density and definition to both in the process. This is clearly to be seen in such films as Durian, Durian and Hollywood Hong Kong. Chan's films make clear that men and women do not inhabit the public spaces available to them in identical ways, and that this fact is very pertinent in explorations into class. For example, when he depicts the experience of mainland Chinese prostitutes working in Hong Kong, Fruit Chan is alerting us to the larger fact that technologies of power operate in diverse ways in society in order to maintain class hegemony. In addition, he is showing how gender issues are not confined to relations between makes and females but are vital strands in the hegemonic discourses of modernity and globalism.

Another interesting feature of Fruit Chan’s films is that he does not seek to impose an ethic of individual heroism and triumph on the class structure. His characters, for the most part, do not display a desire to transcend their working-class confines in acts of upward mobility, thereby fortifying the valences and legitimations of the class system. Even when they dream and fantasize, it is through the optics and syntax of working-class life that dreams are accomplished. (By way of contrast, we can see how this impulse for class-transcendence characterizes Hollywood films, as in Pretty Woman.) What Fruit Chan depicts is the inevitability of the class system's structural inequities and the need to think of change not in terms of individual transcendence, but social-structural rearrangement.

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] 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.

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] 

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]

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.

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.

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.


Hsu King-chiu offered me invaluable assistance  in the task of gathering information and tracking down sources. I am deeply grateful to Chuck Kleinhans for his astute comments on an earlier version of this essay.

1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (New York; International Publishers, 1970)

2.  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progressive Publishers, 1954)

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto, p. 44

4. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966)

5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Allen Lane, 1977)

6. David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), p. 157

7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto, op. cit. p.44

8. Wimal Dissanayake, Ashes of Time (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003)

9. Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), p.22

10. Michel Focuault, ibid.

11. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000)

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