At the 2002 Hong Kong International Film Festival, some of the most challenging titles appeared in section titled Age of Independents: New Asian Film and Video, created in 1999 and curated in collaboration with the Hong Kong Art Center. One of the discoveries was Let’s Love Hong Kong, the first digital feature by Yau Ching, whose short, incisive videos have long been staple of the independent scene both in Hong Kong and in Asian American circles. As the director says: It is the first movie ever made in Hong Kong by a woman with women in love with each other as the theme, and could therefore be seen as the first lesbian movie in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
Let’s love Hong Kong, indeed – but what is there to love? Is love about what you see, what you want to see, or, as Freud suggested, about hallucinating the presence of some lost illusion? Shot guerilla-style, in DV, and over a period of two years, Let’s Love Hong Kong manages to capture realistic images of one of the most photographed cities in the world, process them through the (subverted) tropes of genre flick (here the erotic sci-fi fantasy) and cast a doubt about what we’re about to see – a rare feat once performed by some of the early films of the Hong Kong New Wave. The emotion is born out of the intimate gaze director Yau Ching casts over the city of her birth – she’s obviously familiar with these working-class buildings, these cramped apartments where emotional intimacy has to fight the lack of privacy, these crowded streets in which wannabee businessmen rub shoulders with plain whores from the mainland, these endless stretches of small shops that only close late at night, the ever-present interaction of the next-door neighbors, the urban decay/permanent renewal that keeps hovering between nostalgia and a desperate quest for modernity – a moving example of what Ackbar Abbas calls the déja-disparu (1). Wonderment, doubt, sometimes even a twinge of anxiety, spring from the ever-subtle (and often humorous) shifts Yau forces on reality: a sex worker sports the US flag on her mini-bra, supermarkets sell nothing but Coca-Cola, Disneyland Hong Kong is open and offers a mystery ride named after Nixon, earthquakes are only felt by people standing still, and, most subversive of all, life is entirely structured around the whims, vagaries and fantasies of lesbian desire (hence its utopian charm). The only male character worth mentioning, an obnoxious real estate agent, regrets not being born a woman.
The central trope/metaphor of the film is the virtual reality computer program Let’s Love, which offers bewitched customers erotic images of attractive young people in a variety of costumes, postures and positions, ready to lustfully interact with them at the command of the joystick. The ambiguity lies in the desire of the customers – do they want to imagine that behind the virtual image is a real person, or do they ultimately want an electronic inflatable doll? Chan (Wong Chung Ching) is one of these sex workers/performers. At home, she lives in a working-class dwelling with Mom (Maria Cordero) from whom she has to hide the way she makes a living. Saving money to buy a house, she nonetheless diverts some of her cash to pay a lustful mainland prostitute (Wella Cheung) to have sex with her on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Nicole (Colette Koo) swoons over images of Chan on her computer screen, and cute tomboy Zero, who sells anything to make a buck – from seedy real estate to love potions to made-in-China cellular phones – falls hard for the real Chan and starts stalking her. Being a computer doll starts taking its toll on Chan, who becomes increasingly remote, silent and still (she’s the only person who feels the earthquake!), spends time visiting improbable apartments that she’ll never buy, and, apart from her time in bed with her paid-for lover, is unable to connect, unable to respond to Zero’s puppy-love courtship.
Commuting between the US, London and Hong Kong in the 1990s and now based in Hong Kong, Yau Ching is a published writer and poet (her last two writing ventures are a book of poems about the notion of home and a scholarly analysis of the work of pioneer female filmmaker Tang Shu Shuen). Since 1989, she has also directed a number of video works and multi-media installations dealing with the issues of post-colonialism and queer identity. Playing with the multiple strands of her inspiration and with her wide cinematic culture, she has, in her first feature-length project, (re)created a Hong Kong haunted by familiar and post-modern ghosts, where everything and every belief is for sale, but ends up eluding you. Feng shui is used as a pick-up strategy. Shadows of urban misfits in American and Asian cinema roam about (from Cassavetes’s Shadows to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Ann Hui’s The Secret, Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill or Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole); the proximity of Shenzhen and mainland China, with their inexhaustible reservoir of cheap sex, cheap labor, cheap artifacts but also potentially repressive politics, is a constant off-screen reference; and post-colonial melancholia about being handed over simultaneously to the PRC and to global capitalism strangely echoes the characters’ manic but futile activity to make money.
Within the context of Chinese culture, Chan is a post-modern ghost, not returning from the past, but born out of the not-so-distant future, a living human being whose soul was stolen by cyberspace. Her often-silent presence, inhabiting the once-familiar topography of Hong Kong, is what gives this eery strangeness to everything around her. And, like the monster in Ma-Xu Weibang’s classic film Song at Midnight (2), the one who loves her does not recognize her. In a chance meeting in a street at night, Nicole casually asks Chan for a light, and then walks off, as Chan, one more time, pushes Zero away.
- Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong – Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997
- Directed in 1937 in Shanghai, it is the story (partially inspired by The Phantom of the Opera) of an opera singer disfigured by henchmen hired by the rich landlord opposed to his romance with his daughter, and who dares not facing the woman he loves.