Narrating the Chinese Diaspora
Clara Law is one of the most talented directors to emerge from the remarkable success of the ‘Second Wave’ Hong Kong cinema. The Second Wave came of age in the mid-1980s and is still the mainstay of Hong Kong’s art cinema. Members of the Second Wave such as Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan have caught the world by surprise with their novel aesthetics and bold experimentation in cinematic language. Thematically, the Second Wave directors are linked together by their socially engaging attitude, their commitment to history, and their interest in the identity of Hong Kong as a place and a people – all issues of increasing currency during the years preceding and following the 1997 handover of the city-state to China. In contrast to Wong’s lyrical depiction of urban alienation and loneliness and Kwan’s meditative monologue on sexuality and identity, Clara Law’s films are a poetry of the Chinese Diaspora. Through meaning-laden images and provocative framing, Law leads us to the inner world of those who travel and migrate and in whom we vicariously experience the trauma of cultural clashes and the bliss of self-emancipation. Diaspora, for Law, is the ultimate paradox of modern life, a metaphor for all our ambiguities and contradictions in viewing the Self through the prism of the Other, in which pain and pleasure, rebirth by loss, and redemption through fall are writ large in the singularity of living in different cultures. Law’s brilliance as a filmmaker lies in her ability to capture this paradox on the screen truthfully, credibly and memorably.
Clara Law’s own life is one on the move. She was born in Macau but moved to Hong Kong at the age of 10, at a time when Hong Kong was about to enter its most turbulent period, socially and politically. Young Clara was a lonely but precocious child. Her elder brother’s untimely death gave her a first taste of mortality and life’s transience, which became a resource for her adolescent literary endeavours in poetry and prose. In her senior year of high school Law displayed her directorial talent in a play based on an adaptation of the Joan of Arc story, which swept all of the awards in the school-wide competition. Law then went on to study at the University of Hong Kong and graduated with a degree in English literature. In 1978 she began to work at Radio Television Hong Kong, a valuable career move that would prepare her well for the filmmaking business. Hong Kong’s television industry was then embarking on an ambitious project of self-transformation. With financial assistance from the government and direct involvement of the film studios, it sought to vastly improve its programming, especially its drama programs, by aggressively recruiting young talents. The New Wave directors (such as Ann Hui, Yim Ho and Patrick Tam) were invited to cement the linkage between television and filmmaking and, more importantly, to provide artistic guidance. Under their tutelage, many Second Wave directors honed their trade skills with great success. For several years, Law would try her hand at all aspects of the television business, from production to scriptwriting to direction. When she was done with Radio Television Hong Kong, she had a total of twelve drama programs to her credit, many of which met with critical acclaim.
From 1982 to 1985, Law studied film direction and writing at the National Film and Television School in England. She returned to Hong Kong in 1985 and started to develop her first long feature film The Other Half and the Other Half, which was released in 1988. The following years were Law’s most prolific, during which she produced films at the rate of one per year. Then between 1994 and 1995, when Hong Kong filmmakers – John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan and Sammo Huang among them – migrated to Hollywood en masse for new opportunities, Law and her longtime collaborator and partner Eddie Fong immigrated to Australia. The reasons for her move were varied. Her personal fear of the handover was a factor, but perhaps more importantly Law had found herself at increasing odds with the demands of the Hong Kong film industry for generic repetition and quick profit. Law has since made two Australia-based films Floating Life (1995) and The Goddess of 1967 (2000), both to international acclaim. A third one entitled The Mechanical Bird is near completion.
Law’s intercultural filmic journey began with her graduate film They Say the Moon is Fuller Here (1985), which tells the story of a Chinese woman living in a foreign culture. The Other Half and the Other Half is a light comedy about the plight of two couples separated by emigration. The social background of the film is the so-called “astronaut syndrome”, a media term that reflected the massive exodus of professionals in the late 1980s. The Chinese title of Law’s film literally means “I love astronauts”. Despite its obvious flaws – too much conventional slapstick and formulaic situations typical of Hong Kong nonsensical comedies – the film raises poignant questions about the cost of immigration at social and individual levels. Sam (Kam Kok Leung), whose wife is in Canada to fulfill residency requirements, just lost his job and has to move in with June (Tien Niu), whose husband has also emigrated. Loneliness and frustration slowly drive the two together from friendship to love, but then their spouses show up by surprise, and they each have to choose between obligation and emotion. Needless to say, love triumphs in the end, but it is interesting to note that Law builds the impetus of the romance between Sam and June on the incompetence of their respective spouses, who are almost caricatures of materialism acquired from their adopted countries. Immigration breeds unexpected changes and this time they doom two sets of relationships.
Farewell China (1990) continues to explore the dark side of immigration. It follows a young couple’s arduous journey from mainland China to their tragic ending in the United States. Hong (Maggie Cheung) is so determined to go to the USA that she gave birth to a child in order to appear “less pretty” in front of the visa officers. When she abruptly ends communication with her husband Nansheng (Tony Leung) from New York, he retraces the Chinese illegal immigrant route via Mexico only to find Hong living in a state of madness. The first night they have a passionate reunion but the next morning Hong does not recognise Nansheng and calls him a “chink” in English. When Nansheng confronts Hong while she is in the midst of preying upon old people in Chinatown, Hong stabs him. Law seems to suggest that Hong’s split personality has resulted from her inability to negotiate between Chinese and American cultures and her loss of memory is fatal to her well-being as an immigrant. This either/or logic, which may reflect a partial reality of Chinese immigrants in America, however, does not explain the age-old Chinese obsession with emigration that the film tries to reconstruct. A folk song about early immigrants’ journeys to America opens and closes the film, placing Hong and Nansheng in a historical continuum, but their individual tragedies have the effect of disrupting that very continuum. That is why one feels that Hong and Nansheng’s psychodrama rings a bit hollow, having only marginal bearing upon the experiences of Chinese Americans. It is apparent that only when she gives up this either/or logic will Law be able to speak realistically and credibly about the Chinese Diaspora.
And this is exactly what happens in her breakthrough film Autumn Moon (1992). In dealing with differences between cultures and traditions, Law uses the logic of “both” and “all” in that the Self and the Other are mutually constitutive and one’s ethnic identity is always in the process of becoming. The narrative of the film centers on an unlikely friendship between a teenage Hong Kong girl and a male Japanese tourist. Li Pui-Wai (Li Pui-Wai) is left behind by her Canada-bound family. Her life is now based around waiting out her grandmother (who is an inconvenience to the family’s goal of emigration) so that she can join her parents in Canada. Tokio (Masatoshi Nagase) comes to Hong Kong looking for food, bargains and sex. Although neither is a migrant in a conventional sense, migration dominates their lives. When their paths intersect, they quickly form an awkward relationship. In staggering English, they understand each other through frustration and misunderstanding. More importantly, their friendship becomes an anchor for both in their search for self-identity in an alienating transnational world inundated with cliches and indifference. As their stories draw to a close, they commemorate their coming-together and impending departure with a creative rendition of Chinese and Japanese traditional rituals involving lanterns, miniature boats and fireworks.
As with many films by Second Wave directors, Autumn Moon foregrounds the changeover of Hong Kong in its narrative structure and displays a familiar anxiety regarding the identity of Hong Kong. In narrating Hong Kong in displacement and transition, Law, however, does not offer even a fleeting sense of a return, psychologically or culturally, to a place before the disruption of a political process that Hong Kong can uniquely claim as its own national space. For Law, transition is already a permanent happening, and migration is the fabric of Hong Kong’s transnational life. The power of the film lies not in a skin-deep nostalgia for what has been lost but rather in a ruthless interrogation of the many established values that shelter one’s sense of the nation and nationalism, values such as the native and the foreign, the familiar and the exotic, authentic tradition and adaptive modernity. By dismantling these dichotomous categories Law offers an imaginative version of a transnational Chinese subject who functions between memory and forgetting and who is always in the process of remaking herself. Autumn Moon encompasses so much of Law’s artistic world that its thematic matter, narrative structure, characterisation and visual imagery will return to many of her ensuing films.
Wonton Soup (1994), for example, challenges the notion of a fixed Chinese identity. Adrian (Tim Lounibos) is a Chinese Australian visiting his Hong Kong girlfriend Ann (Hayly Man). The relationship is already in deep trouble because both are suffering from an identity crisis. As his uncle (who, interestingly, speaks French to his French wife in the background) tells it, Adrian is “yellow on the outside but white in the middle.” The solution is a crash course for Adrian by his uncle on lovemaking techniques using a thousand-year-old Chinese sex manual. Naturally, Adrian’s newly acquired skills do not work with Ann and the relationship meets its doom. The problem, as it turns out, is not that Adrian is “not Chinese enough” but that, according to Ann, he does not know “wonton soup does not exist in Hong Kong.” Meanwhile, Ann is experiencing her own feelings of self-doubt. She feels completely out of place during her business trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong itself has become as strange a city to her as it is to Adrian. In one of Law’s most poignant images, Ann introduces Hong Kong and her childhood memories to Adrian while sitting in a car drenched by pouring rain. This is rendered both verbally and visually by her recounting stories of her childhood in voice-over while shots of Hong Kong slowly unfold on the screen. The landmarks and passing pedestrians appear on the screen either disfigured by fog or simply rendered moving blots of color, indicating both physical and cultural estrangement. The young couple’s real problem, Law seems to suggest, is that they live in an eclectic and transnational cultural environment yet they are not aware of its implication for their mosaic identities. Wonton Soup is Law’s contribution to the omnibus film Erotique, a collaborative effort by four women directors from four continents that bills itself as “women’s erotica”. Law’s short film hardly fits the billing, however, because it not only does not present “women’s erotica” but also satirises “men’s erotica” as an “authentic” representation of Chinese tradition.
In-between making films on the theme of Diaspora, Law also made a few interesting films of various themes and genres while in Hong Kong. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (1989) describes the haunting influence of tradition that configures individual choices as it limits them. This is a very ambitious “theme driven” project, showing strains of postmodernist impulse of intertextuality, Buddhist themes of karma and transmigration, and feminist reinterpretation of male texts. However, instead of illuminating each other they seem to have collapsed under the weight of their collective opacity. In Temptation of a Monk (1993) Law ventures into the unfamiliar territory of epic films yet she manages to turn, in the second part of the film, the conventional theme of loyalty and betrayal into an unending battle of temptation and resistance within the troubled mind of the protagonist, a battle that is constructed very much like a Chan Buddhist parable. Fruit Punch (1991) tells the story of five young men who dream of “making it big” following the examples of several local self-made billionaires. When all of their business ventures fail, they collectively decide to go to Australia to “start over”, maybe a subliminal signal to Law herself as a filmmaker.
In Australia, Law returns to her favorite subject of the Chinese Diaspora and Floating Life is her most comprehensive treatment of Chinese immigration to date. It has rich intertextual references to her earlier films, yet the narrative is more versatile and accomplished, the study of the psychology of migration more nuanced and complex, and the presentation of cultural clashes more subtle and balanced, which result in a reservedly optimistic outlook for the future of the Chinese Diaspora. With vignettes from Hong Kong, Germany and Australia, Law offers a glimpse of a fractured traditional Chinese family struggling to find “home” in a transnational context. The Chan family members’ various responses to their “floating” identities constitute a mosaic picture of Chinese immigrants, much of which reflect Law’s paradoxical thinking about the benefits and the costs of immigration. The eldest son Gar Ming’s (Anthony Wong) indecisiveness about immigration suggests the unity of the family is already in jeopardy before its geographical displacement; the eldest daughter Yen’s (Annette Shun-Wah) discomfort in her comfortable German home and her insistence on her daughter learning Chinese means that “assimilation” no longer operates with the either/or logic. Operating through this either/or logic is exactly what gets Bing (Annie Yip), the second daughter and the self-appointed family matriarch, into the path of a nervous breakdown. The way she welcomes the arrival of her extended family is to demand that her younger brothers speak only English and her parents give up fatty, spiced food. “You’re here as migrants,” Bing says, “not to enjoy life.” Since she lives in white suburbia, she must act “white” to fit in. It appears, for a moment, as if the fate of Hong in Farewell China will befall Bing. Fortunately, Bing has Mother (Cecelia Fong Sing Lee) on her side and it is Mother’s prayer to the Chinese gods that rescues Bing from psychological ruination. As the film draws to a close, Mother saves Bing again from a ferocious Australian dog in the neighborhood: while Bing’s first instinct is to run, Mother calmly approaches the dog and tames it speaking Chinese. This symbolic gesture spells the end of the assimilation model and beckons the beginning of an emerging Chinese Australian identity defined by the inclusion of both and not by the exclusion of either.
The Goddess of 1967 may be the most philosophical of all Law films. In terms of structure and characterisation, it bears a remarkable similarity to Autumn Moon: the chance encounter of a Japanese tourist with a local girl and their joint journey in search of self-discovery and self-salvation. These two films are probably the best examples of Law’s cinematic aesthetics: poetic films that emphasise tonality and atmospherics over cause–effect narratives. All rhetorical devices such as framing, colour, image, texture and composition serve to extend the film’s penetrating power to the inner world of its characters. Poetry, as the Russian Formalist aesthetics would put it, “defamiliarises the familiar” to produce sparks of the sublime. The visual world of The Goddess of 1967 – the characters, the landscape of the Australian outback and the steel and glass mammoths of Tokyo – is painted with corrupt colors on high contrast and thus becomes both strange and familiar. To a great extent, the actions of the blind girl “BG” (Rose Byrne) and the Japanese man “JM” (Rikiya Kurokawa) are driven by their desire to get reacquainted with the worlds from which they come. It is a sort of “dialogue with the landscape”, through which damaged souls can be repaired and rejuvenated. For BG, that is to confront her horrible memory of incest and powerlessness; for JM, that is to come to terms with his indulgence in materialism. Both suffer from a profound sense of loss – the loss of innocence and direction accentuated by the deaths of BG’s mother and JM’s friend. It is interesting to note how “the goddess of 1967” – the Citroën – brings these two suffering souls together. The Citroën, a French car that “has fallen from the sky” in Roland Barthes’ words, is a transnational object that has become a fetish for JM, and fetish, according to Laura U. Marks, has the potential to be an indexical witness to repressed histories and emerging new social relations (1). BG relies on “the goddess” and JM’s guidance to travel back in time and space to reconcile with the past while being transformed into “the goddess” herself, and in the process JM is able to transfer his fetish with the car to love for BG. That their redemption is contingent upon their supplementality and that it happens in the interstitial space of cultural exchange reflect Law’s vibrant version of transnationalism, a version that is consistent with Law’s interpretation of the Chinese Diaspora in most of her films. Law has this to say about her directorial intention for The Goddess of 1967: “Neither silent or moving. Neither perceivable nor imperceptible. Neither nothing or everything. A state of mystery, paradox, ambiguity. That is what I tried to capture in this film” (2). One can safely say that it is with the same aesthetic outlook that Law approaches all her films of diasporic themes.
They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here (1985) short
The Other Half and the Other Half (Wo ai daikong ren) (1988)
The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (Pan Jin Lian zhi qian shi jin sheng) (1989) also known as This Day, Previous Life
Farewell China (Ai zai biexiang de jijie) (1990)
Fruit Punch (Yes yi zu) (1991) also known as Fruit Bowl
Autumn Moon (Qiu yue) (1992)
Temptation of a Monk (You seng) (1993)
The Great Conqueror’s Concubine (1994) codirected with Stephen Shin; also known as King of Western Chu or Xi chu bawang
Wonton Soup (1994) segment 4 of Erotique
Floating Life (Fu sheng) (1995) cowritten with Eddie Fong
The Goddess of 1967 (2000) cowritten with Eddie Fong
Letters to Ali (2004)
Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Minneapolis & London, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2000.
Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies: 600 Reviews from 1988 Till the Handover, Hong Kong, Odyssey Publication Ltd., 1998.
Dian Li, “Between Memory and Forgetting: The Dialectic of Transnationalism in Clara Law’s Film Autumn Moon”, Asian Cinema, vol. 15, no. 1, 2004 (forthcoming).
Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2000.
Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Durham, NC & London, Duke University, 1999.
Esther C. M. Yau (ed.), At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Audrey Yue, “Pre-Post-1997: Postcolonial Hong Kong Cinema 1984–1997”, PhD thesis, LaTrobe University, Australia, 1999.
They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here
1985, the Silver Plaque Award, Chicago Film Festival
1991, Best Director Nominee, Hong Kong Film Awards; Special Jury Award, Torino Film Festival.
1992, Golden Leopard Winner, Locarno International Film Festival; Best Picture Award, European Art Theatres Association.
Temptation of a Monk
1994, Best Director Nominee, Hong Kong Film Awards; Grand Prix, Gréteil International Film Festival.
1996, Silver Leopard Winner, Locarno International Film Festival; Best Director Nominee, AFI Award, Australian Film Institute; Best Director and Grand Prix Asturias Winners, Gijón International Film Festival, Spain.
1997, Grand Prix Winner, Grétail International Women’s Film Festival, France.
The Goddess of 1967
2000, Silver Hugo Winner (Best Director), Chicago International Film Festival; Golden Lion Nominee, Venice Film Festival.
2001, Golden Key Winner (Best Direction), Art Film Festival, Slovak Republic; FIPRESCI Award Winner, TromsØ International Film Festival, Norway.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Temptation of a Monk by Stephen Teo
Floating Life: The Heaviness of Moving by Stephen Teo
Autumn Moon by Stephen Teo
Local and Global Identity: Whither Hong Kong Cinema? by Stephen Teo
Materialism and Spiritualism in The Goddess of 1967 by Fiona A. Villella
An Interview with Clara Law by Kathryn Millard
Clara Law: an impression of permanence
An interview by Elise McCredie
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Only a few online articles here.
Clara Law VCDs and DVDs can be found here.
A review by Shelly Kraicer.
An insightful exposition of the film.
The Goddess of 1967
An examination of Clara Law’s The Goddess of 1967 as a representation of Australian cultural identities.
The Goddess of 1967
Click here to search for Clara Law DVDs, videos and books at
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2000, p. 85.
- Clara Law’s comments are found in the “Stars Files” of the DVD Chinese version of The Goddess of 1967 released by Universal Laser & Video Co., Ltd., Hong Kong, 2002.