JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A long night in Mongkok

The dense, transnational masses of Mongkok

Mainlanders shopping for fake rolexes in a Mongkok market

Consumerist pleasures – Laifu tries on contact lenses for the first time.

Laifu is puzzled by his salad.

Laifu takes up his role as paid assassin.

Walter abuses Dandan for refusing to service him.

A traumatized Dandan is forced to service Walter at the film’s end.

A desperate and confused Laifu shoots the rookie cop, Ben.

A bloodied Laifu is back on the run from the police.

Ben has no qualms in shooting the bad guys.

Despite his reservations about killing, Milo guns down Laifu.

Milo reaches out to Laifu a touch too late.

Friendships nonetheless exist in this harsh environment – Milo and Brandon.

Brandon advises the young rookie, Ben.

Laifu and Dandan take a photo together to mark their friendship.

Dandan is initially more enamoured of Laifu’s cash.

Dandan is held up at the border for overstaying in Hong Kong.

Connection through romantic destiny? Liqiao and Xiaojun arrive on the same train.

Disconnection within the transnationalized local

 

One Nite in Mongkok:
inflexible transnationality

In discussions of globalization, the idea of globalization bringing about increasing homogeneity has almost become a truism. Yet, as Hall has pointed out, this homogenization is of a "peculiar form":

"It is a homogenizing form of cultural representation, enormously absorptive of things, as it were, but the homogenization is never absolutely complete, and it does not work for completeness. It is not attempting to produce little mini-versions of Englishness everywhere, or little versions of Americanness" ("The Local and the Global," 28).
[open bibliography in new window]

This form of homogenization still has conceptual room for difference, though it is a managed, tamed difference that is imagined. As Hall argues, global capital

"is trying to constitute a world in which things are different. And that is the pleasure of it but the differences do not matter" (33).

This form of difference carries no threat; it is of no political consequence. One Nite in Mongkok is a film that through the depiction of a very local environment explores the cost of maintaining this kind of safe, managed difference for the sake of consumerist pleasures.

Ostensibly about police attempts, led by Milo and his team, to contain escalating triad warfare within the span of one long night and the two mainlanders, Laifu and Dandan, caught between triads and police, One Nite in Mongkok can also be read as a film about the necessity and rigidity of difference in the global marketplace.[8] [open notes in new window] Set in winter, the film shows contemporary post-Handover Hong Kong still marked by difference from the mainland. Hong Kong may be part of the mainland and her inhabitants may now speak Mandarin (in addition to their native Cantonese) in deference to the numerous mainland tourists, but the lure of Hong Kong nonetheless still consists of it remaining exotic to mainlanders, eye-opening as Dandan describes it. Difference here teases and pleases, providing new kinds of experiences — from the celebration of the Western festival of Christmas to the oddness of Western cuisine with its raw vegetable salads and its concept of courses. The film thus presents Mongkok (functioning as a synecdoche for Hong Kong in general) as a gateway to the West and the rest of the wider world, giving particularly mainlanders of a poorer economic status their first transnational experience.

A location with the highest density of people in the world, as a caption at the end of the film informs us, Mongkok is an intensely local site that nonetheless remains highly open to transnational flows. Mongkok is home to locals, mainlanders, and Southeast Asians. It functions as a site of unbridled consumerism with goods in transit and for sale from Japan, the West and Southeast Asia (in the form of drugs). For mainlanders, this introduction to transnationality is particularly shaped by consumerism. The opening of the film shows two mainlanders shopping and bargaining with opposing triad hawkers for fake rolexes in a Mongkok street market, and for most of the film, Dandan is on a shopping spree. With only 24 hours left before her visa expires, Dandan is busy buying gifts for her family as well as items for re-sale in her village. She even becomes Laifu’s guide to Hong Kong’s consumer society, encouraging him to try out contact lenses and introducing him to salad and steak. For Dandan, even though the air smells bad from pollution, the no-longer fragrant port of Hong Kong still seems a paradise because of the opportunities to consume exotic objects and hence widen one’s horizons. Hong Kong in its transnationality is an exciting place of difference that fuels consumption.

To be able to participate in this frenzy of consumption, Dandan and Laifu first have to become objects up for sale themselves. Their status as poor and desperate mainlanders makes them ideal candidates for the specific roles of prostitute and hired assassin. Assuming these positions gives them an opportunity to earn money and hence play a role in the global economy as both object of consumption and potential consumer. But what Dandan and Laifu learn in the course of the film is that once these roles have been taken up, laying them down again is another matter. Once differentiated and labeled as mainlander, prostitute, assassin within the transnational economy that circulates within Mongkok, your position is fixed. Evading this naming proves difficult since the structures of the transnational space and economy conspire to keep you in your deigned place. Both Laifu and Dandan face this dilemma.

Dandan on her last day refuses to service a Hong Kong client, Walter, on account that she is leaving Hong Kong soon and needs time to manage her affairs. Walter nonetheless pressures her for sex and in contemptuous anger declares that she will have to service him even when dead, implying that she will always be defined as a prostitute. In this early instance, the script spares Dandan from servicing Walter so that it can then present her as a mainland consumer, rather than mere prostitute, shopping for gold chains and video games. However, at its end the script violently forces her back to her initial role. Walter, angry at being rebuffed by Dandan, takes his revenge by raping her, forcibly returning her to the role of prostitute she had earlier relinquished since she'd come to the end of her stay in Hong Kong.

Similarly Laifu, who enters Hong Kong as a hired killer, is unable to rid himself of this label and role. Persuaded by Dandan to not follow through with his scheduled killing and to start afresh, Laifu goes to the extent of throwing away his gun, rejecting the role he had been paid to assume. The return of a rampaging Walter however pushes Laifu back to his role as a killer. Brutally beaten up by Walter and his cronies, Laifu in his anger and thirst for vengeance retrieves the gun he tossed away and assaults Walter, injuring Walter and inadvertently killing a rookie cop, Ben. Although he had evaded the police throughout the duration of his stay in Hong Kong and so nearly put this chapter as a hired killer behind him, Laifu finds himself returning to where he began — as a paid assassin on the run from the police. Despite their desires to move away from the positions they each have taken up in transnational Hong Kong and thus redefine themselves more positively, both Dandan and Laifu are pressured through violent means to stay immobile, permanently fixed in socially reprehensible roles. Their participation in the global economy, instead of loosening ties to fixed identities and smoothening out differences, hardens boundaries between mainlander and local Hong Konger, criminal and police. As differences that are easy to understand and manage, the roles are forcibly sustained. Once a prostitute, always a prostitute; once an assassin, always an assassin. Neither Dandan nor Laifu can transcend their respective categories and attempts to do so meet with recriminations.

This predicament is not restricted to mainlanders alone. It is shared by Milo, the Hong Kong police officer in charge of the team pursuing Laifu. As a police officer, Milo’s position is overdetermined: standing on the right side of the law, his job to catch criminals places him in eternal opposition to them. That the film also presents Laifu as a mainlander introduces another binary into the picture: Hong Kong police officer versus mainland criminal. A rookie cop like Ben finds such binaries clear-cut and unproblematic. He has no qualms shooting down his quarry for in his schema bad people deserve to be shot. Milo finds such simplicity elusive. Having killed a criminal previously, Milo is still haunted by his actions. Milo’s awareness of the common humanity that links both criminal and police officer nonetheless does not stop him from playing his role to the finish. It is Milo who pulls the trigger on Laifu, killing him. As he watches Laifu in his death throes reach out his hand towards him, his initial revulsion turns to sympathy and he makes a move to hold Laifu’s hand.[9] Such a gesture attempts to undo the binaries of difference that hold Laifu and Milo in their respective places in Hong Kong, an expression of solidarity between social opposites. The gesture also never materializes for as Milo reaches his hand out, Laifu breathes his last. The two remain at odds and separate despite a desire to connect.

Mongkok as a synecdoche of Hong Kong is thus experienced as a place of profound disconnect. Bonds of friendship do exist in this space between Milo and Brandon, Milo’s right-hand man, between Brandon and Ben, and most importantly, between Laifu and Dandan. Laifu and Dandan’s friendship testifies to the possibilities of moving beyond overdetermined mercantile relations. Though what initially holds them together is money — she has her eyes on his bundles of money and he later overcomes her fear of him and his gun by paying her to be his guide in Mongkok — they are able to connect in the end, not as predator and prey or client and service provider, but as fellow-travelers from the same area in the mainland who manage to convince each other to give up their degraded and criminal occupations. However, though they can transcend their initial mercantile connections to form a more humane one, the film does not show such a process repeated elsewhere in other relations. Crucially the film shows no friendships that cut across the Hong Kong-mainland nor the criminal-police officer divide. Indeed, as we have already seen, such divides remain firmly in place and are sometimes enforced with violence.

The film ends with a reminder of the persistence of borders. Dandan, on her way back to the mainland, is held up at border control for exceeding her stay in Hong Kong. By emphasizing her status as an alien in Hong Kong, this plot turn magnifies her difference. Though Hong Kong is technically part of the People’s Republic of China, important markers of difference still remain, as do the imbalances of power that these differences bring into play. Dandan, as both object and subject, is part of the Hong Kong swirl of differences that turns it into a consumer paradise. But she comes to realize that her difference in this heterogeneous world ultimately earns her no respect apart from labeling her as an object to be consumed and, disillusioned, she retreats from Hong Kong.

Conclusion

Focusing on the local allows the affective experience of globalization to be articulated and with it other visions of transnationality. One Nite has a particularly bleak vision, but it draws important attention to the inequalities potentially embedded in a transnational appropriation of difference, commonly understood as merely difference for the pleasure of the consumer. Less pliant, more complicated forms of difference — as represented by Dandan and Laifu — are ruthlessly and violently returned to stereotypes. The film suggests that, though transnationalized, Hong Kong is yet unable to cope with real difference, especially the influx of difference from across its northern border. As Dandan repeats the question of why call the city Hong Kong (literally Fragrant Harbor) when it is hardly fragrant, her question is a reminder of the rot that has set in the transnationalized heart of Asia’s World City.

Comrades’ vision of the global world is different from One Nite’s. Sensitive to Hong Kong’s transnational connections with the West and the mainland, and melancholically documenting a particular era of transnational migrations from the mainland and Hong Kong, Comrades nonetheless imagines a globalized and dispersed world that can hold onto connections. Cold weather brings the mainland into Hong Kong, making the disparate spaces continuous. And even when its characters are more widely dispersed, there is always the thread of everyday popular culture to hold Xiaojun and Liqiao together. Despite the film’s anti-romance stance, refusing the image of an exotically warm Hong Kong of William Holden’s Hollywood films and its teasing English subtitle of "Almost a Love Story," Comrades cannot help but succumb to a fantasy of romantic connection. Its closing coda of a flashback to the start of the film — to Xiaojun’s arrival in Hong Kong — the ending reveals Xiaojun sitting back-to-back with Liqiao on the train, both unaware of each other’s presence. With this the film announces its belief in a romantic destiny that cuts across the centrifugal forces of class mobility and migration: Liqiao and Xiaojun are destined to connect. In a world of rapid transnational people flows and the resulting fractures of human connection, this fantasy is a comforting one. Both films, though of different genres and of different affect, in the end articulate a profound sense of disconnection within the transnationalized local.

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