Lush green hills – is this Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong skyline – a more familiar take on Hong Kong
Orientalist images of Hong Kong – the Big Buddha
Orientalist Hong Kong – the junk in the harbor
Orientalist Hong Kong – Chinese signs and crowds
The everyday becomes an action sequence.
In Rush Hour 2 Kenny and Lee bond through kungfu.
From Hong Kong to Las Vegas: crime and crime-fighting is transnationalized.
The U.S. minting plates at the core of the film
Lee wins U.S. approval and it’s sealed with a kiss.
by Wendy Gan
Rush Hour 2 opens with an aerial view of an ascending bank of lush greenery. As the camera travels up and over its tip, the dense, jagged skyline of urban Hong Kong is dramatically revealed. The contrast is startling, in part because this initial image of greenness counters Hong Kong’s more familiar and conventional representations as aggressively urban or quaintly Oriental. As a Hollywood commercial film with almost half its action set in Hong Kong, Rush Hour 2 has a unique opportunity to engage with Hong Kong’s alterity and reshape Hollywood representations of the city but despite its promising beginning, the film very soon lapses into old ways. As the credits roll, the usual gamut of shots establish our location and act as a shorthand for Hong Kong — a Buddha, junks and ferries, urbanscapes of dense signage and crowds, a tram. We are back in the land of the conventional. This opening sequence marks the way the film deals with local difference throughout. Localness gets momentarily highlighted before being subsumed to either convention or plot. As a result, the everyday local becomes utilitarian in Rush Hour 2. A building encased in bamboo scaffolding becomes a site for an extended action sequence. A live chicken stall in a street market becomes an opportunity for Chris Tucker’s character, James Carter, to engage in a comic cross-cultural encounter. The film professes an interest in the local cultures of Hong Kong that is ultimately superficial. What is of greater concern in the film is a transnationality that has the United States as its center.
In Los Angeles, Jackie Chan’s character, Lee, fights Carter’s African American, Chinatown source — Kenny. They both quickly come to recognize the common roots of their kungfu. Kenny learned his from Freddy Ching in Crenshaw, brother to the Master Ching in Beijing that Lee knows of. The moment acknowledges the transnationality of the Chinese diaspora and of kungfu itself, capable of bringing together the African American and the Hong Konger in a brotherhood consolidated through martial arts and language. The character Lee, as part of these transnational communities, is already at home in the U.S., his difference transformed to sameness.
Criminal activity in Rush Hour 2 is similarly trans-nationalized. The criminal reach of Ricky Tan, the Hong Kong villain, stretches from Red Dragon, his Hong Kong yacht, to Red Dragon, the latest casino on the Vegas strip. Similarly his U.S. criminal counterpart, the property magnate Steve Reign, pops up in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The global world that Rush Hour 2 thus imagines is one where we are all part of the same global space of transnational activity, whether criminal or diasporic. Even the weather in this global space is the same. From Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the film shows very little differentiation in weather, with Lee and Carter always dressed in suits, signaling a continuity in temperature despite the geographical differences between Hong Kong and the West coast of the United States.
Yet while the criminals may be transnationalized, the object of the criminal act and its final resolution are both firmly U.S.-centric. The stolen object is a U.S. hundred-dollar minting plate. The criminal operation mounted to catch the thieves is based in the U.S., and the criminals are finally apprehended in Las Vegas, not Hong Kong. Hong Kong may be the starting point but the crime is ultimately solved in the metropolis.  [open notes in new window] The film has an emphasis on sameness throughout the globe, but its underlining of the importance of a U.S. particularity turns Hong Kong into an exotic outpost of the United States. While Hong Kong may lay claim to unique differences, differences that the film appropriates for its own purposes and thus mutes, the crucial matter is Hong Kong’s increasing orientation to the United States.
This shift in Hong Kong's filmic representation is best illustrated in Lee’s increasing Americanization through the film. Where in the first Rush Hour, Lee was a fish out of water, in this film Lee has become an honorary American, more at home with Kenny than Tucker. Lee wins the approval of the "white father," the head of the Secret Service, and the love of the Hispanic love interest, Isabella, and he now expresses a desire to see the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. To a certain degree, the sequel respects Hong Kong local culture, but what matters more is how the film represents American local culture as dominant, as a "dominant particular" that attempts to pass itself off as global ("Old and New Identities," 67). [open bibliography in new window]
Hong Kong, despite its presence in Rush Hour 2, thus tends to become marginalized in the film’s imagining of global relations as U.S.-centric. Since the film is a product of Hollywood, this should not surprise anyone. But it does beg the question of alternative imaginings of the global, especially from the vantage point of Hong Kong cinema. As both a national cinema of a kind and a transnational one, Hong Kong cinema is well placed to construct other visions of transnationality. Do we find alternative renderings of transnationality in Hong Kong cinema and of what kind? My argument here is that we do and the examination of the Hong Kong films, Comrades: Almost a Love Story and One Nite in Mongkok, reveals a complicated world order where there is more than one center of power and where the tensions of difference are played out in ways that reveal globalization’s deployment and maintenance, not erasure, of difference.
Running through this paper is a belief in the importance of the local for critically understanding the workings of hegemonic global forces on the ground and hence for conceptualizing forms of resistance to processes of homogenization and globalization. The local in an era of globalization however is no simple category. The local as a site of resistance is no longer the "traditional" local, preserving "received forms of local society" especially a much vaunted sense of community and stable identities ("The Global in the Local," 23). The local today is, as Stuart Hall has described it, "that tricky version of ‘the local’ which operates within, and has been thoroughly reshaped by ‘the global' and operates largely within its logic" ("Culture, Community, Nation," 354). The local is paradoxically already transnationalized, which makes the local particularly slippery to grasp. Discussing the Hong Kong local, Ackbar Abbas writes:
Abbas argues that the local is "already a translation" (italics original, 12) and Kwai-Cheung Lo agrees, reveling in how the local as represented in Hong Kong films of the 90s is hybridized:
Both Abbas and Lo resist the notion of the local as a static and stable source of identity and rightly so. Yet in their rush to stress the local as mutable and multicultural, the "transnational itself," the potential politics of the local disappears ("Transnationalization of the Local," 263). How can the discovery that the local is already "inseparable from the transnational modes of living and imagining" enable us to construct a politics of resistance (275)? One way is to take advantage of the new local’s openness, as Arif Dirlik suggests, by keeping the boundaries of the local porous and allowing for translocal connections to be built up as a means of resistance ("The Global in the Local," 42). Alternatively this porous local can become the object of study — to examine how "globalizing forces are working, or not working, in culture" (italics original, "Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema," 181). There is a need to examine the effects of globalization in the local beyond the recognition that the local has been worked through by it. The local in all its openness is a means to ground globalization and its processes in specific contexts, revealing manipulations as well as shifts and appropriations. By representing globalization on the ground instead of in the abstract, the local has a chance to speak of difference, of globalization as seen from below. In the sections to follow studying two Hong Kong films, Comrades: Almost a Love Story and One Nite in Mongkok , I hope to examine how some of these stories of local difference emerge and reshape the dominant narratives of globalization.