Introduction- Hong Kong Cinema
The 80s and 90s Hong Kong cinema is probably the best generation it ever had, and perhaps will ever have. At the time Hong Kong was undergoing an unprecedented process of decolonization. Generally there was widespread feelings of fear and anxiety about Hong Kong’s impending return to China, hence justifying Hong Kong cinema’s obsession with the notion of identity. It is possible to see Hong Kong pictures as sharing one perpetual theme, that of identity: the quest of, the assertion of, the affirmation of, identity (Teo, 2000).
The task of defining or constructing the identity of Hong Kong cinema is not an easy one, the strong influences from foreign cultures, Hollywood in particular, makes it a global one. Yet on the other hand, Hong Kong has strong connections with its Chinese mother culture, and in many aspects had developed its own Hong Kong culture. As such, questions will undoubtedly be asked to whether or not Hong Kong cinema possesses a global identity, just as there will discussions on its national identity. To complicate matters slightly, there is another rubric to consider- that of ‘local identity’ (Teo, 2000).
In the following essay, I will discuss and analyze two award winning classics- A Better Tomorrow and Comrades: Almost a Love Story, directed by John Woo and Peter Chan respectively, focusing on the way they perceived and portrayed the concept of identity in their films.
A Better Tomorrow
A Better Tomorrow, made in 1986, is a classic or rather the originator of the Heroic Bloodshed genre. This film demonstrated John Woo’s trademark style, focusing on the codes of honor and loyalty between men, frill with stylized and hyperbolic machine-gun violence. Woo piles on the intrigue by adding a homoerotic male bonding. As you have might have guessed, A Better Tomorrow became a hit; winning multiple-awards,smashing box-office ratings. If I might say, it single-handedly changed Hong Kong cinema forever and how the world looked at Hong Kong cinema. It represented a new approach to action films, influencing a great number of action movies following (perhaps most notably, The Matrix) (Volk, 2013). This film launched a new and extraordinarily successful phase in John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat’s respective careers, and also a nearly decade long collaboration of this inspired duo (McMillin, n.d.).
The plot of this film centers around three male protagonists, Sung Tse-Ho (Lung Ti), Sung Tse-Kit (Leslie Cheung) and Mark (Chow Yun Fat), who have fallen onto different sides of the law. Ho and Mark- a gangster duo running a massive counterfeiting ring, while Kit, on the other hand, is a police academy with something to prove. Despite his criminal ties, Ho is resolves to come clean for his brother sake, but is double-crossed on the proverbial “final job” and sent to prison. In perhaps the most influential scene in Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s, Mark avenges his imprisoned comrade by staging a dinner table assassination. Mark tries to shoot his way out of the restaurant, pulling a series of hidden pistols from potted plants, perforating the hall in a hail of slow-motion and bullets. However, the deed comes at a price: Mark gets terribly wounded, and eventually ends up crippled.
Adding insult to the injury, tension between the two brothers comes to a head after the murder of their father. To make matter worse, Kit is denied of a promotion due to his brother’s checkered past. Meanwhile, Ho is released from prison and determined to go straight and work a legal job. But as is often in films of this genre, the “going straight” part turns out to be a notion mined with obstacles. One of the obstacles comes from the Triad blackmailing him back in, seeing Kit as an opportunity to get an “inside man” on the force. Eventually, Ho reunites with Mark, to take out his previous underling- Shing and to protect his beloved brother Kit.
Anxieties over Hong Kong’s Identity
This film was made in 1986, as mentioned, a few years before Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997, and therefore replete with the Handover anxieties and uncertainties over Hong Kong’s identity. Hong Kong was taken by feelings of fear of returning to an old-fashioned world under the Communist rule- a society based on Chinese traditions and values that suppress individuality and freedom- principals Hong Kong holds. The gangster genre, hence, began to develop in such a climate, with the gangster presented as a hero figure with hope for redemption, and the cop illustrated as the villain (Vesia, 2002). These heroes from the lawless days show that people can survive and even succeed in a bad situation.
This is most evident through Woo’s characterization of Mark as a humble hero representing the ancient Chinese codes of yi (or loyalty in English) and the myth of brotherhood among Triad society in a modern era (Vesia, 2002). Also, Woo embodied his heroes, and especially Mark with the kind of freedom, individuality and morality- principles he deemed necessary for the success and survival of Hong Kong. Consequently, as Stephen Teo (2000) noted, “gangster movies have constantly pushed Hong Kong cinema over the edge, they are tough, raw and jagged- often frighteningly so.” The blurred boundary between justice and crime is a representation of a decaying society, losing its sanity. With the spectre of 1997 hanging over Hong Kong, the films’ themes seem especially resonant.
Aestheticizing of Violence
Also, what strikes me as interesting is the way in which Woo locates the fear, uncertainty and anxieties about Hong Kong’s future within the heroes who perform this violence, especially in Mark. However, Woo does not celebrate this violence, but rather uses it to represent a nostalgia for a lost code of honor and chivalry that he sees necessary for human survival (Sandell, 2001). Woo’s action films seem to represent his opinions towards the impending colony’s reunification with China in 1997. In his words, “I wanted to make a movie that would show what we had lost, what we had to bring back” (Hanke, 1999). Take for instance, the final violent battle sequence, where Mark, Ho and Kit put asides their differences and come together to fight their common enemy, the gangland bosses. The film gives young people the message of forging alliances with each other and together fight against the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. The violence acts as a visual metaphor- a vivid painting of Woo’s anger and aggression towards the changes afoot in Hong Kong.
As many commentators have noted, Woo have this tendency to combine hyperbolic violence with intense moments of male bonding (though it might not be his intention). The homoeroticism provides a twist on masculine roles, in the abandonment of physical heterosexual relationships (Stringer, 1997). Take for instance, the incredibly touching reunion of Mark and Ho when Ho gets out of prison is like a reunion of lovers. “I waited for you for so long” says Mark. “Three years,” says Ho. This intensely homoerotic moment indicates the importance of male friendship within the code of honor in which they believe. However, this homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable (Sandell, 2001). Also, the very filmic techniques used- soft focus, slow motion and subtle colors- characterize the violence as romantic.
While on one level it makes perfect sense to say that violence is not enjoyable, the fact that both Chinese and American fans are crazy over Woo’s directing style suggest that this combination of homoerotic male bonding with aestheticized violence is extraordinarily compelling.
Commercial success of the film on a global scale
A Better Tomorrow, was Woo’s first blockbuster and one of the most commercially successful films in Hong Kong cinema. It was the beginning of the revolution of the action genre, which laid the template of sorts and inspired countless Hong Kong and Hollywood action films that followed, the most well-known one perhaps being “The Matrix”. The film not only made Woo, it also made Chow Yun Fat an international star, after years of TV dramas and movie flops. Although he was a supporting actor, Chow’s performance is superb, rife with compassion, coolness, and vulnerability. His outstanding performance has successful overshined the main lead. The lead was actually Ti Lung, a long- time veteran of the Hong Kong industry, having made his name in the 70s with Kung Fu films (NIX, 2001). His bland and lackluster acting skills might be why no one remembers him as the original star of the movie.
Chow Yun Fat’s Mark was such a hit that the image of him wearing his coat and biting his toothpick became the epitome of cool at the time. There was even a fashion trend that followed, kids in Hong Kong started wearing long coats, known as “dusters” to copy his style in the movie (which is cameoed in “A Better Tomorrow 2”). The distinctive Ray-Ban sunglasses were sold out in less than a week after the movie premiered. They even had to figure out a way to bring him back in the series. In “A Better Tomorrow 2”, Chow plays Mark’s twin brother, and the third travels back in time to tell us the origin of Mark (Volk, 2013).
Comrades: Nearly a love story
Comrades: nearly a love story is a beautifully played romantic dramedy about the émigré Chinese experience and mainlanders’ alienation in Hong Kong. Peter Chan’s “Comrades” tells the story of a love that is predestined between Li Xiao Jun (Leon Lai) and Li Qiao (Maggie Cheung), spanning over a decade starting March 1 1986. He has come looking to earn money to marry his hometown sweetheart, Xiao ting (Kristy Yeung); she has come in search for a better life. Their fate starts with a brief encounter in McDonalds, one of Qiao’s many jobs. Their similar predicament makes them each other’s only friend in the foreign land. In a frisson-filled sequence where friendship crosses the line to physical passion, they become casual lovers. But it all ends with the October 87 stock market crash, which wipes out Qiao’s life saving and forces her to give Xiao Jun a reality check: “You’re are not what brought me to Hong Kong, and I’m not what brought you.” Eventually the two part. Xiao Jun brings his fiancée, Xiao ting to Hong Kong, and Qiao eventually takes up with local triad boss Pao (Eric Tsang). However, despite their best efforts, their fates cross again and the two find themselves questioning their earlier choices.
Hong Kong’s global identity
The film posits Hong Kong’s identity as being global and upwardly mobile more so than a national one. Hong Kong stands as a land of opportunities for migrants who want to make to make it big, just like the “American Dream” (Comrades: Almost a Love Story, 2013). As Li Qiao mentioned, “Why not? This is Hong Kong. If you work at it, anything is possible here”. That applies not only for mainland immigrants, but also for foreign immigrants like the Thai prostitute and Sir Jeremy who moved to Hong Kong, pursuing wealth. However, a global identity simultaneously meant a deterioration of the Hong Kong local identity. For mainland immigrants, Hong Kong merely serves as a stopover, a springboard to the West; for native Hong Kongers, there is a presence of fear for the impending doom of Hong Kong.
Peter Chan skilfully portrayed the anxieties around Hong Kong’s imminent post- coloniality and return to China in 1997 in his movie. He underscores Hong Kong’s return to China as a crisis moment where panicked Hong Kongers fled to North America to escape the impending Chinese Communists rule and crash of the stock markets. Succinctly, “Hong Kong is a mainlander’s dream. Hong Kongers look elsewhere”, just as a Hong Konger says in the movie.
As things seem, there isn’t a local identity or culture that binds or represents both migrants and natives. From the start of the film, the differences between mainlanders and Hong Kongers are emphasized through the main leads. Though both are mainlanders, he is from Northern China, unable to understand Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong; she is from Guangzhou (Southern China), speaks fluent Cantonese and deciphers the subtle nuances of Hong Kong culture that escape him and of which she wants to be. The big gap between the different dialects (Cantonese and Mandarin) and the people is the basis of the distance in the community.
Teresa Teng- Tian Mi Mi
The cleverest of these- and one with huge resonances for Chinese viewers- is the duo’s shared affection for Teresa Teng, a legendary and powerfully emotionally Taiwanese singer. Teng’s tender melodies entranced a whole generation of mainland and overseas Chinese during the 70s and 80s (Elley, 1997). The passion of her music, much like the content of the movie, almost told love stories and, simultaneously, infinitely more. (The movie’s Chinese title- Tian Mi Mi, which literally means “Honey Sweet”, is one of her best-known songs.)
Other than a romance triggering factor, Tian Mi Mi is also used as a marker of cultural difference (locally) and sameness (globally). Li Qiao’s attempt to target the massive population of mainlanders (~20% of the total population) in Hong Kong by selling Teresa’s album, turns out to be a failure. This is later explained by Xiao Jun, “Aunt said if you are a fan of Teresa Teng, everyone will think you are a mainlander.” The general attempt to assimilate to Hong Kong among the mainlanders can be seen as a representation of detachment of Hong Kong people from traditional Chinese, how Hong Kongers are Chinese by ethnicity by not by nationality.
Tian Mi Mi also played a significant role in mediating sense of togetherness among diasporic people- the feelings the main characters felt despite coming from different background. In fact, Teng herself was a very significant figure among Pan- Chinese due to the nostalgic tones in her music. Teng and her music represents a transnational popular culture which resonates with the Chinese diaspora and the duality of diaspora- dispersal and gathering, that Chan wanted to demonstrate in the film. In view of a disappearing Hong Kong, and people disperse around world, they unite around the in different places and share nostalgia experiences. This is what supplies the affective ties that form the basis of a larger Hong Kong diaspora.
Peter Chan, Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai.
Though there’s nothing particularly new in either the central love story or the theme of mainlanders’ alienation in Hong Kong, Chan’s character-driven direction and the multilayered script by Ivy Ho elevate the material way beyond its simple components. Peter Chan has this kind of “soft” power that guides audience to enter into the story, he walks the tightrope between comedy and melodrama (Elley, 1997). The script is more than just a love story, seamlessly weaving in factors of history, economics and personal circumstances which resonates among Hong Kongers.
Great job of direction by Peter Chan and a wonderful script, but the success of the film has to be attributed to the performance of the main leads and the supporting casts. Returning to the screen after a break of over a year, Maggie Cheung is simple wonderful in this movie, exactly catching her southern mainlander’s combination of innocence and ambition. Leon Lai too gave his best shot, evincing real screen charisma. Always one of Hong Kong’s strongest actors, Eric Tsang performance is not disappointing in any manner- he makes good use of his limited screen time.
Peter Chan has successfully crafted a commercial romance filled with rich details and wonderful sentiment, and one that is uniquely Hong Kong as well. Comrades, Almost a Love Story is certainly one of the best romantic drama out of the 90s Hong Kong cinema. A unique one- “A love story not so much about people falling in love, but rather of two young hearts trying their best not to fall in love with each other” (Brorsson, n.d.).
We have seen how both films, using a totally different lens, deals with the notion of identity. John Woo suggests that Hong Kong is a nation unto itself with a local identity- people joining forces against the common enemy, China. Meanwhile, Chan posits the Hong Kong identity to be a global one more so than a national one. In view of the disappearing Hong Kong, the only affective ties left of the larger Hong Kong diaspora is one based on nostalgia experiences.
The notion of “trans-subjectivity” can be used in this context to study the social and cultural of 80s and 90s Hong Kong cinema and to rethink the concept of “local” identity within a new global context (Szeto, 2001). Obviously, Hong Kong cinema has a global cinema in the sense that it does have a global market of its own. Yet, we must also recognize the “local identity” of Hong Kong cinema, manifested by the concept of multiculturalism and a unique and distinctive language- Cantonese (Teo, 2000). Due to unique construction of Hong Kong’ s identity and culture manifested by the concept of multiculturalism (shaped by its political and economic developments), the concept of borders/ “borderless” can also be added to justified analyses of an evolving Hong Kong cinema that do not use the traditional paradigms of national cinema.
To sum things up, the Hong Kong cinema is one filled with an array of colors, presented and viewed in different lenses, by people of a variety of background.
A Better Tomorrow (2010). Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/better_tomorrow/
A Better Tomorrow (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.timeout.com/us/film/a-better-tomorrow
Brorsson, K. (n.d.). Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996). Retrieved from http://www.sogoodreviews.com/reviews/comradesalmostalovestory.htm.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story. (2013, November 12). Retrieved from https://prezi.com/5dadyv7daeoo/comrades-almost-a-love-story/
Elley, D. (1997, March 8). Review: “Comrades, Almost a Love Story.” Retrieved from http://variety.com/1997/film/reviews/comrades-almost-a-love-story-1117432545/
Gelder, L.V. (1998, February 20). Film In Review. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9901E5D6103FF933A15751C0A96E958260?
Hanke, R. (1999). John Woo’s Cinema of Hyperkinetic Violence: From A Better Tomorrow to Face/Off. Film Criticism, 24(1), 39.
Kozo. (n.d.). Comrades, Almost a Love Story. Retrieved from http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews/comrades_almost.htm
Lee, A. (n.d.) The circulation of Hong Kong television: imaginary landscapes, transnational Chinese publics and global Chinatown. Retrieved from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc52.2010/leeChinatownTV/index.html
McMillin, C. (n.d.). A Better Tomorrow. Retrieved from http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews_2/better_tomorrow.htm
NIX. (2001, November 8). A Better Tomorrow (1986) Movie Review. Retrieved from http://www.beyondhollywood.com/a-better-tomorrow-1986-movie-review/
Rogers, K. (2015, December 14). A Better Tomorrow 1986. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/krogers/film/a-better-tomorrow/
Sandell, J. (2001, January 1). A Better Tomorrow? American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films. Retrieved from http://brightlightsfilm.com/better-tomorrow-american-masochism-hong-kong-action-films/#.WBNrhZN940o
Stringer, J. (1997). ‘Your tender smiles give me strength’: paradigms of masculinity in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. Screen, 38(1), 25-41.
Szeto, K.Y. (2001). Specters of capital: Hong Kong cinema in a border/less world. Retrieved from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive//jc45.2002/szeto/index.html
Taylor, R. (2012, July 24). A Better Tomorrow. Retrieved from http://www.notcoming.com/reviews/abettertomorrow
Teo, S. (2000, June). Local and Global Identity: Whither Hong Kong Cinema? Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/asian-cinema/hongkong/
Totaro, D. (2000, July). Hong Kong Meets Hollywood. Retrieved from http://offscreen.com/view/hong_kong
Vesia, M. (2002, August). The Gangster as Hero in Hong Kong Cinema. Retrieved from http://offscreen.com/view/hk_gangster
Volk, P. (2013, June 6). TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema Review: A Better Tomorrow (1986). Retrieved from http://nextprojection.com/2013/06/06/tiffs-a-century-of-chinese-cinema-review-a-better-tomorrow-1986/