This article is modified from a paper delivered at the Second International Conference on Chinese Cinema in Hong Kong Baptist University, April 19, 2000.

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In tracing the historical evolution of Hong Kong cinema, I am struck by its relative obscurity vis-à-vis the developments of the national Chinese cinema in Shanghai as well as other national cinemas in the region (Japan or India, for instance). Certainly in the field of world cinema, Hong Kong did not figure for a very long time and it wasn’t until the ’70s that Hong Kong cinema was “discovered” by the West, and in less than comprehensive fashion as the discovery percolated through only one genre — the kung fu movie. So identified was Hong Kong cinema with the kung fu genre that for a long time in the public mind, Hong Kong appeared to produce nothing else. And its history pre-discovery was as dark as the darkest of ages. This has remained true as a general principle in spite of the recent critical writings of Hong Kong cinema that have appeared in the West, and while Hong Kong cinema has won cult admiration from its legions of “fanboys”, its character and identity remains something of an enigma.

I. C. Jarvie, the first western academic to write a book on Hong Kong cinema (Window on Hong Kong: A Sociological Study of the Hong Kong Film Industry and its Audience, published by Hong Kong University, 1977), was genuinely baffled by the nature of Hong Kong cinema when he first approached it. For example, in an earlier book of his, Towards a Sociology of Cinema (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), he wrote:

It is revelatory to enter the world of modern dress Chinese films out of Hong Kong. This is a world where either: everything takes place in an indeterminate interwar period, and the characters wear pyjamas and cheong-sam, old men have beards, fat husbands are figures of fun . and where most problems are intra-and inter-family ones; or: the time is now and the characters dress in western-style, are similarly motivated, go around in fast cars and aeroplanes, flavour their speech with English words, and in the end, behave with as much propriety as in the other type. To outsiders like myself, even the most basic question as to what relation these conventions have either to the so-called real world or the myths of their subcultures is unanswerable.

Judging by the tone of this passage, Jarvie was honestly flummoxed by the identity of this strange creature, Hong Kong cinema. He was more than a bit disconcerted by encountering characters dressed either in pyjamas and cheong-sam existing in “an indeterminate, inter-war period”, or in western dress, living in modern times and flavouring “their speech with English words”. There is also an inability to distinguish period, costumes, genres, even to make out what is what and who is who. Granted that at the time Jarvie wrote the passage, Hong Kong cinema was just on the threshold of discovery, and, in this respect, Jarvie exhibits common traits with most of us who approach a cinema cold, so to speak, particularly the early part of a national cinema’s history — the “Pre-Discovery History” of which I speak of. Jarvie, of course, then went on to teach in Hong Kong where he did more research on its film industry and wrote Window on Hong Kong — the first published book on Hong Kong cinema at the time (now out of print).

I think from our discussion of Jarvie’s passage quoted above, we may establish one principle about Hong Kong in general, and this is the principle of Hong Kong as a meeting point of East and West.

Following this principle, Hong Kong was a city that absorbed influences from the West and went on to localise and indigenise foreign cultures. Yet on the other hand, Hong Kong is a Chinese community that had strong links with the mother culture, and in many aspects had also developed its own Hong Kong culture. This is probably the source of Jarvie’s apparent confusion at the time about the conventions written in Hong Kong cinema that define Hong Kong’s east-west identity. If I were to choose one word to characterise Hong Kong cinema, I would choose Identity. To my mind, Hong Kong cinema is obsessed with the notion of identity. It is a cinema that constantly asks of Hong Kong people, Who Am I? One of Jackie Chan’s best pictures in the last two years is actually titled Who Am I? — one of the more incongruous titles ever conceived for a kung fu action picture. From Jackie Chan to Wong Kar-wai to Clara Law to Sammo Hung — from action pictures to art pictures — it is possible to see Hong Kong pictures as sharing one perennial theme, that of identity: the quest of, the assertion of, the affirmation of, identity.

In our present context of multiculturalism, the east-west fusion of Hong Kong cinema is probably not a big deal to most of us. Yet, I think it’s not as simple as it seems, particularly when we put ourselves to the task of defining or constructing the identity of Hong Kong cinema. There are quite a number of factors involved, not least the question of pitting Hong Kong cinema as a national or ethnic cinema against the one dominant cinema of the world, namely Hollywood. This is particularly pertinent, or perhaps even ironic, when we consider how Hong Kong cinema has so successfully emulated Hollywood to the extent that it has now been integrated by Hollywood. In our modern age when Hollywood is the great monolith of world cinema and every other national cinema’s great competitor (or great nightmare, as the case may be), it is important to consider just where Hong Kong cinema stands in relation to Hollywood. In this regard, I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Edward Buscombe, “Film History and the Idea of a National Cinema”, (published in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, issue 9/10, 1980). The article mentions an interview with the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard in which Godard told of meeting the American director Michael Cimino. Buscombe writes:

Godard remarked that though he is fifty and Cimino is thirty-seven, he felt much younger than the American, that he always felt younger than American filmmakers because his relationship to American cinema was that of a son to his father. .Clearly in using his metaphor he had in mind the relation between father and son as Freud describes it: that contradictory impulse, on the one hand to emulate the father, to follow in his footsteps; on the other, to break free, to supplant, indeed to murder. Godard was surely right in implying that any filmmaker who reflects on his or her situation will be caught between the desire to imitate Hollywood and the need to tear oneself free from the intolerable imposition by authority to conform to a model. Such is the domination that Hollywood had imposed over world cinema that at times Hollywood appears to be . no longer a national cinema but the cinema, just as at a certain stage of development for the son the father is not a man among others but manhood itself.

The world today is essentially a bifocal world. Filmmakers everywhere are concerned with their own national cinema, and then with Hollywood. The world today is divided into Hollywood (focal plane number one) and a series of national cinemas (focal plane number two). There is the theme of globalization associated with the dominant cinema that is Hollywood, or the dominant world culture (namely, American culture). I would like to apply these themes to Hong Kong cinema — to consider the Hong Kong cinema as a national cinema, on the one hand, and as a transnational cinema, on the other. If we view Hong Kong cinema as a “national cinema”, we may necessarily be as flummoxed about its nationality as Jarvie was about its identity. It is perhaps too glib to call Hong Kong cinema a “national cinema”. For much of its history, Hong Kong was a Crown Colony of Britain, yet it had created a distinct cinema that had nothing or little to do with Britain. Now, of course, it is a Special Autonomous Region of China, and its cinema is still quite distinct from that of Mainland China’s. The term “national cinema” is probably a misnomer when applied to Hong Kong. It may be more correct to view Hong Kong as an ‘ethnic cinema’. It is correct to the extent that Hong Kong cinema has long geared itself to servicing the overseas Chinese community — the Chinese diaspora. Clearly, when we consider or construct the identity of Hong Kong cinema, we must consider the identity of the overseas Chinese. There has never been a more transnationalist group of peoples than the overseas Chinese, and the market for Hong Kong movies encompassed the regions where Chinese communities had settled, on the whole in Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam) but also in western countries and other parts of the world albeit in lesser numbers.

Hollywood is equated with the notion of global culture, but we would do well to remember that Hong Kong cinema has its own transnational paradigm — one that is near global enough if it isn’t entirely global. The market for Hong Kong pictures today includes China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the traditional Southeast Asian market, and many other parts of the world (such as Africa, the Middle East) that we tend to overlook. The diversity of these markets somehow confirm the resourcefulness of the Hong Kong film industry and it’s true that Hong Kong filmmakers often make films to suit the tastes and demands of each market. The attraction of Hong Kong cinema today is made up of a combination of resources and elements from both the art cinema and the cult cinema. We might call this the postmodern global model of Hong Kong cinema.

Questions will undoubtedly be asked as to whether or not Hong Kong cinema possesses a global identity, just as there will be discussions on its national identity. To complicate matters slightly, I would like also to bring up another rubric — that of ‘local identity’. Before everything else, we must first recognize the ‘local identity’ of Hong Kong cinema. Local identity is how Hong Kong looks at itself and reflects itself in cinema. One of the manifestations of local identity is language and Hong Kong cinema, since the beginning of sound, was closely identified as a Cantonese dialect cinema. If we see language as a construct of identity, then clearly the Cantonese dialect is a clear sign of the local identity of Hong Kong cinema. That’s easy enough. But Cantonese is only one language in Hong Kong cinema. After the Second World War, beginning from 1946, the Hong Kong film industry became a base for the Mandarin cinema. At first, Hong Kong was an inadvertent base for the production of Mandarin features, but after 1949 following the Communist victory (or Liberation), Hong Kong virtually replaced Shanghai as the center of Mandarin-feature film production. As a result, Hong Kong gained de facto status as a national cinema, even though Mandarin cinema developed as a parallel cinema to the Cantonese feature industry. The fact that the Hong Kong film industry produced films spoken in the national language is the source of Hong Kong cinema’s ‘national identity’ but to my mind, what made Hong Kong cinema a unique and distinctive cinema was its ability to produce and market dialect features at the same time. The Hong Kong film industry is one of the few film industries in the world to make dialect films on a commercial basis and sustain such an industry by exporting dialect features successfully to a transnational market. If you compare Hong Kong with the Taiwan film industry which also makes dialect features (Taiwanese dialect), the success of Hong Kong in selling Cantonese dialect features (but also other dialect features, such as Chaozhou and Amoy) to the region is certainly much more evident. If for nothing else, the Hong Kong cinema should be remembered for this achievement.

Hong Kong cinema is a transnational cinema because of its success in exporting films to the region, This success has been maintained since the end of the Second World War. In the last decade, as the market for Hong Kong pictures has shrunk in the region, it has become increasingly apparent that Hong Kong cinema is pursuing more than just the Overseas Chinese audience. Going beyond the transnationalism of the Overseas Chinese community, Hong Kong cinema is pursuing a global market and is evolving a global identity in the process. It is perhaps still too early to say that Hong Kong cinema is truly a global cinema. Does it already have a global identity?

Obviously, Hong Kong cinema has a global identity in the sense that it does have a global market of its own. To sell its products overseas, Hong Kong cinema has adopted aspects of western culture (in the sense that the global market is fundamentally the western market). But it takes two to tango, as the common wisdom has it, and I would like to concentrate on one obvious model where globalization proceeds — from the double perspectives of the east and the west, in the form of the co-production. There are many examples in the arts of how the west has adopted aspects of eastern culture (we can point to the world of opera and a work like Puccini’s Madame Butterfly), and from these examples we see a lot of ambiguity and soul-searching of character. In the ’70s, following the boom in the kung fu action picture, many western companies were interested in doing co-productions with the Hong Kong film industry and a series of east-west co-productions was launched. One of the first co-productions, from 1974, was that between Shaw Brothers and the UK’s Hammer Company, famed for its horror pictures. The film is Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, aka Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires aka Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. It was shot entirely in Hong Kong at the Shaw Brothers’ lot. In this period, the Mandarin cinema was on the ascendancy, in large part due to the popularity of the kung fu genre. Shaw Brothers wanted to exploit the kung fu boom that came about due to Bruce Lee, while Hammer Pictures saw an opportunity to expand its influence and its market share in Asia.

In the blend of east and west, on Hammer’s part, the company obviously wanted to show Dracula. But how do you incorporate such an icon of western culture into the Chinese milieu? On the part of Shaw Brothers, they obviously wanted to highlight kung fu but also to dig into China’s own tradition of Horror, for example the tradition of the hopping cadavers, as an eastern substitute for the western tradition of vampirism (the living dead). The British director, Roy Ward Baker, managed to balance both sides. Some would even say that there is more of Shaw Brothers in it than of Hammer. However, the results are quite ambiguous.

In the opening scenes, we see Dracula absorbing the image of a Chinese high priest. “I will take on your image, your mantle,” Dracula says. The debate about globalization has centered on the question of western hegemony, US cultural imperialism, and this scene could be seen as an indicator of how globalization proceeds from the idea of dominance and repression. Is Hong Kong cinema the bearer of the Western image? Are we really Draculas in disguise? If you scratch us, do we reveal our true selves — that of Hollywood culture in the present instance? Such is the polemic of this scene, which is otherwise quite cumbersome: too much dialogue, to begin with — the Chinese high priest explaining his origins and his mission in coming to Transylvania, and so on and so forth. Special effects are somewhat lightweight — just a lot of smoke and a lap dissolve to show Dracula having transformed into the Chinese high priest. Still, it is a sequence that does engender interest — because of the tensions between two cultures.

The urge of the Hong Kong film industry to expand into the international market, to find a market beyond the traditional Chinese-speaking market, leads to the possibility of a construction of global identity. As the example of The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires shows, there are instances when this attempt to find a niche in the global market may yield awkward results, albeit interesting to watch, because of the obvious attempts to incorporate popular elements from both eastern and western cultures. Shaw Brothers did two or three more co-productions with Hammer Films (not all of them Horror pictures). Then there was Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon which was a Warner Bros. – Golden Harvest co-production, and Warner Brothers extended its franchise on the Cleopatra Jones series (a popular part of the African-American kung fu phenomenon) into Hong Kong when it did a co-production with Shaw Brothers called Cleopatra Jones Meets the Dragon Lady aka Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. Shaw Brothers did a series with Italian filmmakers: Supermen Against the Orient plus two sequels. Golden Harvest signed Robert Mitchum in 1976 to make The Amsterdam Kill. The previous year, the company dispatched Jimmy Wang Yu to Australia to make The Man from Hong Kong. In the ’80s, Jackie Chan made his first attempt to penetrate the US market with two films Battle Creek Brawl and The Protector. Chan was to be disappointed with these first attempts, and, in the case of The Protector, he re-shot and re-cut the action sequences for its Hong Kong release and this was a considerable advance on the American version — just by looking at the action sequences alone. Even in the ’80s, there was a perception that American audiences could not relate to kung fu and this frustrated Jackie Chan’s first attempt to penetrate the American mainstream — but Chan already had a big cult following (perpetrated through the video and fanzine markets) which paved the way for his eventual success in the US in the ’90s.

The co-production model which tries to blend and balance cultural elements from both sides appears invariably flawed due to the need to juggle both sides, but it also appears to be the most viable model by which to construct the global identity of Hong Kong cinema so far. The other model is the Hong Kong production shot in foreign locations, such as Sammo Hung’s Wheels on Meals (1984) or John Woo’s Once a Thief (1991). For all intents and purposes, these are Hong Kong pictures, displaying more often than not a blithe ignorance about foreign cultures — all the more so when adhering to stereotypes about foreigners. Hollywood films featuring Hong Kong or Chinese stars are of course not Hong Kong films as such — they conform to Hollywood’s global identity. Judging by the comments that I’ve heard about the latest international blockbusters of Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat — Mr. Nice Guy, Replacement Killers, and so on — it does seem that the pattern of cultural tensions between the two identities can’t really be resolved within the framework of the commercial mainstream cinema. This is not for lack of trying on the part of the stars. I think they really try as much as possible to accommodate their images to suit western audiences without compromising their integrity. However, in some cases, I think the results are a bit amorphous, to say the least. As Jackie Chan increasingly trains his eyes on the international market, his personality becomes more pliable, more rubbery. This makes Chan’s characters in his international films less distinctively Chinese, or even distinctively Hong Kong, and quite intentionally so. His identity is amorphous at best, ambiguous at worst. Notice the way he tends always to play an international agent of some sort or other — in First Strike, for example, he’s a kind of James Bond character but without the sense of what makes James Bond ‘James Bond’ (Bond’s Englishness, stiff upper lip and all that). In other films, Chan is a supercop who moves about in an international context (Australia, Russia, South Africa, Europe, Asia, etc., in film after film, in fact even within a single film, the settings change) but because of that he becomes all the more dislocated. Perhaps it’s no accident that in one of his better recent films, he plays a character that comes to be called Who Am I? For all his efforts in creating a universal character, Chan simply lacks the kind of freshness and warmth, the ingenuous naivete of his Hong Kong characters as portrayed in his mature ’80s films made in Hong Kong, such as the two editions of Project A and the first two editions of Police Story.

In Project A, Part II, Chan’s character is a police officer at the turn of the century colonial Hong Kong. He is a conscientious cop, who knows where his ultimate duties lie. “I am a policeman”, he says, “I can serve each and every common citizen so that each one may live and work in peace and contentment”. This line is as close as one can get in Chan’s pictures to a philosophical statement, justifying Chan’s persona as a man of action with no political attachment. In Project A, Part II, he is approached by republican revolutionaries to join their side in overthrowing the Qing Government. Chan refuses, replying that politics is not his line. But in showing his devotion to duty, Chan expresses his devotion to Hong Kong. Though he eventually saves the revolutionaries from falling into the hands of their enemies, the message that I read from the film is that the revolutionaries may go on to save China, but Hong Kong already has Jackie Chan. Now, of course, Jackie Chan is setting out to save the world, and Hong Kong has seemingly lost Jackie Chan. Watching his ‘global’ films — particularly those that are less distinguished (Mr. Nice Guy, Rumble in the Bronx, First Strike) — you feel that the characters are cyphers of a kind, lacking real identity. In other films, such as Rush Hour and Who Am I?, you feel that Chan’s characters are more in conflict, either with their screen partners or with themselves — there’s the interplay between Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, and Chan’s character in Who Am I? is suffering some kind of inner anguish. These are conflicts of identities. Hong Kong’s global identity is hence more or less a question of trying to resolve where it belongs one way or the other. Is it east or west? You might say it’s trying to balance these identities, but the balancing act tends to result in amorphousness, which isn’t necessarily good or bad — only expedient.

In more extreme cases, this sort of balancing act might actually lead to a split of personality, and Hong Kong cinema has treated this theme in the films of director Clara Law, a director who came into prominence with the rise of the Second Wave in the late 80s — that group of directors that include Wong Kar-wai, Stanley Kwan, Jacob Cheung, Eddie Fong, Ching Siu-tung, etc. Law made a series of films that dealt with the immigration of Chinese (both Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese) to the west. In Farewell China (1990), she depicts a character named Hung, a Mainland Chinese woman (played by Maggie Cheung) who is obsessed with getting out of China and migrating to the United States at whatever costs. This leads her to become pregnant so that the effects of childbirth would make her look less beautiful (the fact that she looked too pretty was one of the reasons why her previous applications to go to the United States had been rejected by consular officials). Hung finally succeeds and enters the United States, practically abandoning her child and her husband in China. The husband (played by Tony Leung Kar-fai) illegally enters the United States to look for Hung, and after a series of harrowing adventures, finds her quite by chance. After a tearful reunion, the couple make love. The next morning, the husband wakes up only to be greeted with abuse spoken in English. He finds his wife totally transformed into an Annabel Chong-like floozy. She fails to recognize her husband and continues to fling verbal abuse at the bewildered man — abuse spoken in English — and orders him out of the apartment.

The character of Hung in Farewell China is carried over to another Clara Law film called Floating Life (1996), which she made in Australia after emigrating to that country. Floating Life deals with a Hong Kong family that has settled Down Under. After an initial period of idyllic settling down, things begin to go wrong. The daughter, who has migrated first to Australia and paved the way for the family to join her, begins to fall apart. She slowly descends into paranoia and delusion, clearly exhibiting a kind of split personality. On the one hand, there is the Australian side of her personality, so to speak, fearful of being Asian, indeed even shamed by her Asian-ness, stopping her younger brothers from speaking Chinese and ordering them to speak English only. On the other hand, there is the Chinese side of her personality, fearful of foreigners and their perceived bad influences, exerting control over her younger brothers because she fears they might be susceptible to promiscuous sex, drug-taking, and become vagrants and louts. This character is a clear extension of the character played by Maggie Cheung in Farewell China. As in Farewell China, migration has brought about an unbalancing of the mind; young migrants become victims of dislocation, suffering paranoia and delusion, unable to juggle identities. There is no resolution in the sense that you have to stick to one identity.

Looked at another way, perhaps it’s not a question of resolution, but one of looking creatively at differences within the cultures (east and west), and to look at differences within one’s identity and one’s culture. To quote Trinh Minh-ha, the Vietnamese-American anthropologist-filmmaker: “Differences should also be understood within the same culture, just as multiculturalism as an explicit condition of our times exist within every self”. The quote is taken from Minh-ha’s book, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, (published by Routledge, 1991).

I would say a specific global identity in Hong Kong cinema would be manifested as a concept of multiculturalism within Hong Kong cinema itself, not so much an outcome of the co-production between east and west. Multiculturalism is a part of oneself, one’s own society, no matter how homogenized the society may be. In a sense, globalization is an outcome of how we have communicated with other cultures and other peoples, and within ourselves, we are the sum total of — to quote Trinh Minh-ha again — an “intercultural, intersubjective, interdisciplinary” process.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.