2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
The Hong Kong local on film:
re-imagining the global
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 transnationalized. 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.  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).
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:
"The difficulty with the local, therefore, is in locating it, and this is particularly tricky in a place like Hong Kong with its significant proportion of refugees, migrants, and transients, all of whom could claim local status" (Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, 12).
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:
"The other is always incorporated as an essential part of the local. Never is the local a single, unified given; rather, it is a multiplication of various cultures and different times" ("Transnationalization of the Local," 265).
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.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story:
local weather and global renegotiations
At one point in Comrades: Almost a Love Story we see Leon Lai’s character, Xiaojun, standing forlornly with his umbrella in the rain waiting for his lover, Liqiao (played by Maggie Cheung), to return. She was to break the news to her triad boss husband, Brother Pao, that she was leaving him but seeing him in a crisis, her loyalty to her husband is renewed and she leaves Hong Kong with him, abandoning Xiaojun instead. Her decision is never explicitly shown but on seeing the rain pour down relentlessly on Xiaojun, we know that he has been jilted. The rain here functions to emphasize his emotional despair and hopelessness, a convention so familiar that is almost a cliché.
The same could be said for most representations of weather in films. Bad weather, be it rain, typhoon, flood or blizzard, signals emotional or social turmoil; good weather indicates optimism and pleasure. The conventions are so firmly in place that filmic weather has become completely banal and unworthy of notice. As the audience we often fail to perceive weather in film consciously and if we do, it is for a brief moment before its conventional representations enable us to forget it again. Yet representations of weather are worthy of further notice. Weather is an important signifying (though undoubtedly conventional) system that immediately fixes and telegraphs identities of places — Russia for example is unfailingly imagined as wintry, India and Hong Kong hot and tropical. Visual representations of weather suggest a habit, a frame of thinking about the world and its locations, that smoothes over innumerable realities on the ground. What happens when closer attention is paid to the subtleties of local weather in representations of places? Do we find new ways of imagining a place’s relation to other places and the world, ways that re-write the conventional?
In this section, I wish to explore what happens when Hong Kong weather on film turns cold. The dominant tradition has been to represent Hong Kong on film as a hot, tropical city despite the reality of Hong Kong’s varied sub-tropical climate that encompasses heat and humidity as well as short but sharp cold spells. Hollywood films from the 60s such as Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong portray Hong Kong as almost perennially sunny and idyllic, hot yet never hot enough to cause excessive perspiration! Even most Hong Kong film directors tend to subscribe to this dominant imaginary of a hot Hong Kong. For example, Wong Kar Wai’s films from Days of Being Wild to Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love usually evoke a sultry, steamy heat to match his tales of romantic longing and loss. Fruit Chan in his social realist Durian Durian chooses to represent dense, urban Hong Kong in the height of summer, a marked contrast to the depictions and the narrative flow when the film turns to the northern, wintry spaces of Mudanjiang on the mainland. Often these portrayals of hot weather, as in Durian Durian, position Hong Kong as part of a binary pair, revealing the varied ways Hong Kong is imagined.
For the old Hollywood romances, Hong Kong’s warm weather fixes it as an exotic locale in contrast to temperate, mainstream United States. Hong Kong thus functions as a space of escapism, a land of the Other which will reinforce the construction of the American self. In Fruit Chan’s films, however, Hong Kong is placed in opposition to the mainland, with Hong Kong’s hot weather marking out its distinct identity as a Southern Chinese locale and also its ambiguous place within the People’s Republic of China. Transforming Hong Kong from hot to cold is thus a feat of re-imagination that has repercussions on how viewers may perceive Hong Kong’s positioning with regards to the West and also to the mainland. Comrades, released in 1996 at a critical juncture in Hong Kong’s history, is a cold-weather Hong Kong film that negotiates with both East and West. Its presentation of a predominantly cold Hong Kong re-writes Hollywood and colonial romance narratives, refusing Hong Kong’s designation as a place of romantic plenitude, while also re-thinking Hong Kong’s relation to the mainland particularly in the face of 1997.
The William Holden connection:
rewriting Western narratives of Hong Kong
Watching The World of Suzie Wong and Comrades back-to-back, I was struck by the similarities of their opening sequences. Both films begin with a man new to Hong Kong arriving in modes of transport appropriate to his times — Robert Lomax by ship, Xiaojun by train — and finding lodgings unwittingly in a brothel. Both films also take pleasure in showing the two protagonists exploring everyday Hong Kong. As Robert Lomax walks to Wanchai through the colorful street markets, The World of Suzie Wong presents the environment to us from his point of view, the images offering a travelogue of Hong Kong street-life from exotic-looking food to the ordinariness of activities on the street such as men playing cards and a mother bathing her child. Similarly in Comrades we see Xiaojun exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds of Hong Kong. However, here it is the modern and cosmopolitan curiosities of urban life that capture his attention: video game arcades, a hare krishna sect dancing in the streets, the density of human and vehicular traffic and the glamour of McDonald's.
The connection between the two films is further strengthened when we learn in Comrades of Xiaojun’s aunt Rosie’s obsession with the Hollywood actor William Holden, associated with Hong Kong through his playing of Robert Lomax and also the protagonist Mark Elliot in the other key Hollywood film set in Hong Kong, Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Aunt Rosie has his photograph on her wall and treasures a jacket that she claims was given to her by William Holden. Xiaojun’s aunt, here an ex-prostitute fixated on Holden, lends to Comrades a strange echo of Suzie Wong. Like Suzie in the film, Rosie in her youth met Holden during his shoot in Hong Kong and was brought by him to the Peninsula Hotel for a meal, a moment she treasures greatly and has commemorated with stolen items from the Peninsula restaurant. Comrades as a film thus very knowingly invokes Hong Kong’s past as a filmic city of romance in Hollywood narratives and works to subvert this tradition.
Apart from the obvious period and racial differences of the heroes of Comrades and The World of Suzie Wong, what distinguishes the two films here is also the difference, curiously enough, in the way they depict Hong Kong’s weather. The opening of The World of Suzie Wong establishes Hong Kong as warm and sunny with brilliant blue skies. Despite Robert’s trench coat and the occasional glimpse of a warmly clad body amidst the crowd during location shots, The World of Suzie Wong presents Hong Kong’s weather as suitably mild, neither too cold nor oppressively hot. A later snippet of dinner-table conversation where Robert learns that he will not need a heavy coat and that Hong Kong’s winter climate is mild enough for swimming reinforces this impression of an idyllic and comfortable environment. In contrast, the Hong Kong of Comrades is coded as a cool place. The cool black and white tones of the opening arrival scene help establish this as well as the costuming which consistently dresses Xiaojun in a sweater and a Chinese-style cotton padded jacket (Fig. 3). If the warmth of Hong Kong weather signaled that it was a place conducive to romance in The World of Suzie Wong, the coolness of Hong Kong weather in Comrades suggests that this myth of a romantic Hong Kong will be rewritten in favor of a more localized myth: Hong Kong as commercial and anti-romantic.
Romance is not absent in Comrades for the script plainly depicts the central relationship between Xiaojun and Liqiao but it also consistently sidelines that romance in favor of the Hong Kong grand narrative of material and economic progress. This local narrative focuses on the Hong Kong story of
"overnight success, overnight downfall, economic opportunities for all, flexibility in crisis management" ("Film and Enigmatization," 241).
The rituals of Xiaojun’s and Liaqiao’s friendship revolve round money — the visits to the ATM to check bank balances, walking past the Opportunity Furniture store, and being paid to queue on behalf of someone else to purchase a flat. Romance is not privileged in this city; and when it does emerge, it does so only in an environment of financial failure, underscored by mood-dampening, hardly romantic cold rain. When Liqiao and Xiaojun do finally sleep together, it is after a dispiriting and cold night at the Chinese New Year Eve market where Liqiao’s Teresa Teng tapes fail to sell. Is this romance blossoming or an opportunistic grab for comfort and consolation on a cold and windy night, as Liqiao explains it, a mere accident of the weather? Romance is refused primacy of place, sublimated into a pursuit of wealth and able to emerge only when the latter falters momentarily.
Hong Kong is thus presented as a place inimical to romance. The interracial romance between Jeremy, the English teacher, and Cabbage, the Thai prostitute, appears at first an unproblematic re-working of the central relationship in Suzie Wong, but by the end of the film, the shadow of AIDS hangs over the couple. Aunt Rosie, the real-life Suzie Wong who had no Robert Lomax to rescue her, dies alone in her dingy flat with a dog as her only companion. Even at the height of summer, the heat is not a balmy one suitable for lovers but intense and debilitating, provoking an irritable mainland couple waiting in the same buying queue for a flat as Liqiao and Xiaojun to an open quarrel. For emphasis, the film even cuts away from Liqiao and Xiaojun to record the acrimonious pair, an image that undercuts our protagonists' chemistry and acts as a reminder that though they may banter and act like a couple, they are not. Liqiao has her financial ambitions and Xiaojun his sweetheart in the mainland. This is a Hong Kong self-defined as a down-to-earth locale for material accumulation and, not as in the Hollywood films, a fantasy location for romance.
The Chinese connection:
the Mainland in Hong Kong
While the reframing of Hong Kong as cold rewrites Hong Kong in relation to Hollywood perceptions of it, the cold is also a means to rethink Hong Kong’s relation to the mainland. The cold thus also functions as a mark of the mainland within Hong Kong. Bundled with other everyday signifiers such as Xiaojun’s bicycle, dumplings and Teresa Teng, the cold weather establishes Hong Kong’s connection with the mainland through the continuity of everyday life and weather. Take for example the iconic but anachronistic bicycle scene in Comrades. The bicycle is prominently established as retrograde, a remnant of mainland China. As Liqiao points out to Xiaojun, when people in Hong Kong say they can give you a lift, they mean a car and not as they do in the mainland, a bicycle. As Xiaojun, with Liqiao as passenger, cycles through Tsim Sha Tsui, they both begin to sing Tian Mimi, a song by Teresa Teng, a songstress who acts as marker of mainland identity. Knowledge of her song thus betrays both Xiaojun’s and Liqiao’s mainland roots.
The scene is a throwback to a different kind of life, a mainland one, and interestingly, it is presented as occurring in cold weather. Both characters are warmly clad with high-necked sweaters and jackets, in marked contrast to the passers-by on the street. The disjuncture in the costuming of the actors and the clothes of the passers-by reveal that a deliberate choice was made to present this bicycle scene as taking place in a cooler setting, in keeping with the reminders of mainland life contained within the scene. The mainland is thus imagined as cold, and by bringing cold weather into Hong Kong, the film works to acknowledge its shared space with the mainland. Xiaojun’s letters to Xiaoting, his sweetheart in the mainland, mention cold Hong Kong winters and in a phone call to her during Chinese New Year he also thanks her for her gift of a sweater, claiming to be wearing it as he speaks. These small details continually reinforce a sense of sameness climate-wise between Hong Kong and the mainland.
A sense of sameness is also achieved through the complicated romance between Xiaojun and Liqiao with cold weather playing an essential role in bringing them together. As representatives of Northern and Southern China respectively, the film recognizes the linguistic and cultural fissures within the mainland as well as between Hong Kong and the mainland through the characterizations of Xiaojun and Liqiao. Liqiao as a Southern Chinese, Guangzhou native speaks Cantonese instead of Mandarin, watches Hong Kong television and drinks Vitasoy, a soy milk produced in Hong Kong. She is shrewd and quick to catch on in a capitalist economy unlike the more innocent, Mandarin-speaking Xiaojun, who hails from Northern China. Liqiao as an aspiring Hong Konger also represents the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of the mainland. Despite her refusal to see herself as similar to Xiaojun, the film undermines her insistence on difference and underscores this similarity with the presence of cold weather. On a cold and rainy Chinese New Year’s Eve Liqiao finally makes her confession that she too is from the mainland, and on the same night Xiaojun and Liqiao become lovers. In fact, the cold is the catalyst for their romance. As Liqiao prepares to leave and Xiaojun insists on a second jacket on account of the cold weather, even helping her to button it on, his tenderness prompts them to fall in each other’s arms. If the cold is a reminder of the mainland in Hong Kong, it has also helped to bridge the fissures within the mainland.
As a pre-1997 film, Comrades is surprisingly un-paranoid about the mainland. It reveals mainlanders deeply embedded in Hong Kong and shows how mainland everyday rituals can easily transfer across the border. Even the cold weather portrayed in the film marks Hong Kong as a continuous space with the mainland. Yet even as Comrades attempts to imagine the mainland as already within Hong Kong, the film cannot sustain this vision. As the film progresses, Hong Kong’s difference from the mainland, specifically in terms of class and its position as a springboard to the world, begins to reassert itself. Also, at this point the weather in the film gradually breaks its associations with the mainland and becomes a means to imagine a distinctly middle-class and dislocated Hong Kong.
Becoming middle-class for a mainland national is a specifically Hong Kong experience. With opportunities for wealth accumulation and social mobility limited in 80s China, middle-classness becomes a status achievable only in the freedom of Hong Kong. As Xiaojun and Liqiao become more and more middle-class, they lose the markers that identify them as mainland immigrants. This is a result of how middle-class status transforms their everyday life. Xiaojun now has his own beeper, and with greater earning power as a cook, he has moved out of his small makeshift room at his aunt’s to a small apartment, which offers both he and Xiaoting much valued and much appreciated privacy. Liqiao’s life is even more dramatically transformed. She owns a car and several businesses and lives in a large, comfortable flat. The characters' middle-classness also alters their relationship to the weather and the outside environment.
Notice that after their acquaintance is renewed at Xiaojun’s wedding dinner, most scenes involving Xiaojun and Liqiao are now indoor ones, in contrast to the numerous outdoor scenes that marked their first years in Hong Kong and helped cement their relationship. Any outdoor scenes taking place at this point in time take place within Liqiao’s car, insulating its occupants from the weather outside. With their newfound middle-class status, Xiaojun and Liqiao are now better protected from the elements but also dislocated from the everyday ordinariness of their past. Cut off from old mainland lifestyles — the bicycle, eating dumplings, and exposure to the vagaries of the weather, Xiaojun and Liqiao are insular, less engaged with their past and with their environment. It is only through a chance sighting of Teresa Teng on the streets of Hong Kong that they are recalled to their past and their romance is rekindled, marked by a return to their old motel room, largely unchanged despite a make-over, and exposure to the elements once more — they walk to Liqiao’s apartment in windy, cool conditions instead of driving there.
Liqiao’s failure to break with her husband destroys that momentary re-identification with the past. Her flight from Hong Kong, as well as Xiaojun’s mentor’s migration to New York, reveals another way the everyday is transformed. Faced with the 1997 deadline, Hong Kong’s transience as a transit stop to some other "better" place dislocates how everyday life is lived. As Xiaojun’s lover and then friends leave Hong Kong one by one, life in Hong Kong grows empty for him. With his marriage over and his aunt dead, there is little to keep Xiaojun in Hong Kong. The cool grey tones of Hong Kong thus no longer signify a connection climate-wise with the mainland. Instead the depiction of the weather articulates a disconnectedness intrinsic to becoming a middle-class Hong Konger and a diasporic one at that, as Hong Kong becomes a mere stepping stone to the next location and economic adventure.
Not surprisingly for a film dealing with multiple forms of diaspora and exile, the world in Comrades is thus imagined as possessing different centers with complicated relations between the local and its several others. The film's representation of transnational flows of people and culture reveals identities created in flux. While signifiers such as Teresa Teng or Xiaojun’s bicycle or the weather act as occasional anchors to hold steady a sense of Chineseness in diasporic existence, the film nonetheless depicts a "state of perpetual diaspora and displacement" ("Filming Diaspora and Identity," 278). The world of Comrades is one of swirling transnational flows with no dominant center capable of remaining dominant for long. After Hong Kong, comes New York and after New York, China re-emerges as the new focus of capitalist potential — as the mainland tourists Liqiao shepherds in New York remind her. In contrast, while aware of the currents of the transnational running through the very local space of Mongkok, the film One Nite in Mongkok reveals not so much the transnational flows that loosen peoples and identities from fixed locations but the fixing and maintaining of differences and identities.
One Nite in Mongkok:
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).
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. 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 synedoche 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. 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.
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.
1. Rush Hour, the first film, shares this logic too. The film begins with Jackie Chan’s character, Lee, foiling the smuggling out of Hong Kong priceless Chinese antiques belonging to the villain Jun Tao. Needless to say, the villain is eventually apprehended in the States. There is a further irony in that the rescued antiques seen as the salvaging of China’s heritage from criminal plunderers ends up in America too. Like a magnet, America draws everything to itself.
2. This strategy echoes with a process that Arif Dirlik has articulated where the "features of the local" are recognized only to "incorporate localities into the imperatives of the global." ("Global in the Local," 34).
3. See Kwai-Cheung Lo’s "Double Negations: Hong Kong Cultural Identity in Hollywood’s Transnational Repesentations" for a detailed analysis of the politics of Jackie Chan’s representation in the first Rush Hour.
4. Hong Kong’s status as a national cinema is problematic as Hong Kong technically is not a nation. Yet its highly visible and dominant film industry has in the past addressed a Chinese community (diasporic or otherwise) and with the advent of 1997, Hong Kong cinema entered a phase of reflection on the possibilities of a Hong Kong identity.
6. Rain can sometimes work to heighten romance with lovers huddling under umbrellas and the awareness of gendered bodies through soaked clothes. In Comarades, however, the cold rain works to dampen the atmosphere instead.
8. The English names of characters in One Nite that I use here are names given in the English subtitles. Presumably they were chosen because they were the closest English-sounding approximation to their Chinese names used in the dialogue of the film.
9. Hands are a motif in the film, signifying solidarity. When Ben and Milo share a moment after Ben’s shooting of the drug dealer, Milo holds out his hand before a van tail lamp to indicate their common bond. In a counterpoint to Laifu and Milo’s lack of connection, Brandon holds Ben’s hand as the latter lies dying.
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Lo, Kwai-Cheung, "Transnationalization of the Local in Hong Kong Cinema of the 1990s." At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, edited by Esther C. M. Yau (Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press: 2001), 261-76.
______________. "Double Negotiations: Hong Kong Cultural Identity in Hollywood’s Transnational Representations." Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 3/4, 2001, 464-85.
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