The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity

Poshek Fu and David Desser (ed),
The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity
Cambridge University Press, 2000.
ISBN 0 521 77235 4 (hb) 0 521 77602 3 (pb)
$Au59.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Cambridge University Press)

This is the second anthology on Hong Kong cinema to appear recently, alongside Esther Yau’s At Full Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2001). It is perhaps ironic that the academic celebration of Hong Kong arrives as we read daily of the crisis in the HK film industry. As with genres such as the western, and the embrace of Hollywood directors as auteurs, it seems that the acceptance of a body of films within the academic canon often comes at the moment when it has lost its industrial vitality.

While we might fear for the on-going productiveness of the HK cinema, it has undeniably figured as a major industry over the past thirty years. We are all used to fan-boy celebrations of Asian “trash” cinema, but beyond that, the most valuable published sources of information have been the catalogues which have accompanied retrospectives at various Hong Kong International Film Festivals. More historically grounded critical attention by western presses has been long overdue, given the popularity of courses dealing with HK cinema in universities and its increasing availability on DVD. Perhaps critical attention has been hindered by the oft-disreputable energy of the industry’s genres, and perhaps dictated by the grip in which symptomatic criticism has held western cinema studies. A critical orthodoxy which is implicitly critical of popular cinematic forms finds easier meat in Hollywood, and the unabashedly commercial cinema of Hong Kong has never fit comfortably within postcolonial identity frameworks or thematic celebrations of art cinema auteurs (although this anthology contains several efforts to recuperate HK film in line with both of these strategies.)

This collection has a three part structure, with sections dealing with historical periodization, aesthetic analysis and, inevitably, identity politics. If we respond to the anthology, first, as the sum of its parts, there is a good deal to praise here. Section One on the history of Cantonese filmmaking and its relation to other Chinese cinemas is the strength of the anthology. The highlights are Law Kar’s essay on the way 1930s Cantonese cinema mixes local cultural elements and American influence (all those years before we started to label this as postmodern hybridity) and Stephen Teo’s detailed explanation of the movement back from Mandarin to Cantonese-language filmmaking in the 1970s. Both essays give a sense of the difficulties of ascribing boundaries to the Hong Kong cinema which can always be looked at in terms of intranational distinctions as well as international ones. Poshek Fu also takes up this theme in the third section of the book with his analysis of the tensions between the Shanghainese and the Cantonese in wartime cinema. These essays are all valuable in speaking to the specificity of historical moments, styles and influences in Hong Kong cinema, a cinema which most of us only know in its incarnations of the past twenty-five years.

The Arts section is led off by David Bordwell’s piece on visual style in the films of King Hu. This essay (which will be familiar to many from the 1998 Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue [1] ) reminds us that Hong Kong films also represent something more specific than simply reflections of larger cultural moments. While King Hu’s films are steeped in the history of Chinese cultural forms, they also signify attempts by a working filmmaker to find innovative solutions to narrative, generic and technical problems. Read together with his stylistic analysis of martial arts films in the Yau anthology, Bordwell offers us a good example of the fruits of posing tangible, small-scale questions, such as: how exactly are action films staged, shot and cut? Those of us who teach young people who want to be filmmakers will have a sense of the relevance of these questions.

The third section of the book deals with our old friend, Identity. While this section contains interesting essays by Poshek Fu and Sheldon Lu, it is the thinnest section of the anthology. One problem that I have with much of the identity politics studies both here and in the numerous other essays is that the payoff is getting rather dull. Inevitably our authors bring us to the conclusion that Identity is – Hybrid. If I had five cents for every time I’ve read this recently… The path to this conclusion seems to be the assumption of a unity which no one other than right wing politicians and film theorists have ever posited, and then the undermining of this unity by the discovery that films are different from each other and/or that there are ambiguities within them. Has anyone ever really doubted this?

The other methodological problem with many of these approaches grounded in identity politics is their insistence on reading for allegory. This is particularly the case for those writers in this collection who seek to attach Hong Kong cinema to large catch-all categories such as postmodernism. Another factor which dates this collection for me is that the major theorist of the postmodern on display here is Fredric Jameson. Jameson’s is a critique which criticises contemporary popular culture for flattening out history into a series of images (when hasn’t this been the case?) but employs allegory as its preferred means of interpretation. The question of circularity is inevitable here: interpretations are produced which privilege those elements which can be linked to the pre-determined meaning. Chungking Express (Hong Kong 1994) as allegory of the handover? Well, Gina Marchetti tells us that it features dates and deadlines. John Woo as allegorisor of the handover? Tony Williams has it that “1997 represents an apocalyptic ‘end of the world’ for most Hong Kong residents.” Formulations such as these provide few insights into the detail of the films nor the complexity of cultural and historical moments.

These examples stress the rather dated prioritisation of the 1997 handover to be found here. The book was first published in hardcover in 2000, and Cambridge University Press’s paperback edition has only appeared in the past year. A few of the essays have appeared previously or been reworked from conference papers delivered earlier in the 1990s. While 1997 was undeniably an event of crucial importance for Hong Kong, the insistence on reading all kinds of films from a national or regional cinema as allegories of a single social event is not new, nor does it escape the charges of historical reductionism. A lot more has gone on in Hong Kong since 1984 than the cultural confusions engendered by the Joint Declaration. Even now, we’ve had five years of the Special Administrative Region, and the critic who begins from the position that films reflect social events, would want a more nuanced analysis of the interactions between global economics and local and national political decision-making. Sheldon Lu’s essay in the Identity section of the collection begins to address the ways in which there might be other more pressing questions for Hong Kong-ers than those stemming from the politics of the nation-state. For example, the Hong Kong Panorama book from last year’s HKIFF relentlessly prioritises the Asian financial crisis and the drop in property values, while having very little to say on issues of nation or nationalism.

Overall, Fu and Desser’s anthology provides a valuable addition to the growing range of widely available materials to aid teaching about this most popular of popular cinemas. Let’s hope that the increasing appearance of books on this subject represents the opening up of publishing in this area. We need books now on contemporary filmmakers such as Johnnie To and Stephen Chiau as well as studies which will consolidate academic awareness of the richness of other recent Chinese cinemas coming from the mainland and Taiwan.

Mike Walsh
University of Adelaide, Australia.

[1] Jacob Wong, ed., 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong Panorama 2001-2002 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, 2002).

Created on: Friday, 27 June 2003 | Last Updated: Friday, 27 June 2003

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →