Kung Fu Hustle

March 22–April 6, 2005

The Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), finishing its 29th installment this past April, has long been a sophisticated locus not only for Hong Kong film culture and cinephilia, but as an event patronised by international filmmakers, critics and scholars. 2005 marked the first time the festival has been privately organised, with the incorporation of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, relying more than ever on private sponsorship, and also now programming film screenings year round. First sponsored by the colonial government body The Urban Council, then, after 1997, by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the festival has seen its public funding drastically reduced this year, with even more reductions in allotments for next year’s festival. A certain sense of disappointment, and perhaps even anger, characterised the brief catalogue foreword written by Artistic Director Li Cheuk-to. Warning of a decline of an arthouse or festival-going audience in Hong Kong, with allusions to the increasing prominence of other East Asian film markets and cultures, he writes of a complacency in the Hong Kong film community, in which “we suddenly realise that we are left with fewer and fewer advantages over our competitors.” He does not mince words when he writes:

Compared to the generally unfriendly social climate to arts and culture here, our efforts are destined to be regarded as trivial and ineffectual. But do we really have a choice? Perhaps wait for the West Kowloon Cultural District to materialise seven years later? If we take this option, I believe that other cities in the region will leave us so far behind that it would be impossible to even catch up. We have no choice but to get to work…now (1).

The arts has been a significant site of contention over recent public policy from the Special Administrative Region government, with the most representative example being debates over the censorship clause in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Hong Kong cinema has had in the past few years two big Others cited as threatening factors – the Hollywood culture industry and the seat of power in Beijing. One can regularly find pessimistic references to a decline in the Hong Kong film industry, and just as perhaps the cinephile festival-goer seeks out new blood in world cinema like a vampire (or necrophile?), this bloodlust extends to premature obituaries, racing to be the first to sign the death certificate on Hong Kong cinema. The particular dynamic for Hong Kong’s status in world cinema is the encroachment of mainland China as both subject matter and market, and the increased numbers of co-productions after the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA, effective January 1, 2004). This issue is raised in Tong Ching-Siu’s introduction to the Hong Kong Panorama, a particularly popular program among international visitors to survey the current year’s productions. In reference to Beijing’s dismissal of general elections for the Chief Executive and unfulfilled expectations of CEPA of reinvigorating Hong Kong cinema, he writes “the paralyzing sense of helplessness that had captivated our society in 2004 was indeed fully captured in the films of that year.” (2) I share Tong’s disappointment with Leaving Me, Loving You (Wilson Chan, 2004; not in the festival program), starring Faye Wong and Leon Lai in a Technicolor dream-world Shanghai, looking more like a Disneyland all of whose residents seem to have money to burn. The film, Tong writes, “erased all surface lineage to Hong Kong film roots, indicating that the road to CEPA really leads to nowhere. That’s because they represent the accelerated loss of identity in Hong Kong films while failing to appeal to the Mainland audience.” (3) Another Hong Kong-Mainland co-production of an artificial Shanghai is of course found in one of the biggest successes of the year, and the best film I saw at the festival, Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004). Tong questions the identity politics of Chow’s transformation to global sensation, partly involving his toning down the vulgar humour of his previous films, and writes “his work is no longer a part of the local film industry – indeed, he had not been making Hong Kong films but Western films instead!” (4) The artificiality of the world of Kung Fu Hustle is made quite clear and is predicated on the pure entertainment, action and movement in the film – with incredible special effects – and numerous references to Hong Kong film history. One most prominent reference is the landlady character, throwing open the shutters of her tenement with a cigarette hanging on the edge of her mouth, that invokes a very particular Hong Kong and Canton sentiment with Seventy-Two Tenants (Wang Weiyi, 1963), a film adapted from a Shanghai stage play and which, appropriately, played in the Hong Kong Film Archive program Pearl River Delta: Movie, Culture, Life this year. Regular readers may note also in Kung Fu Hustle the important presence of the kung fu training manual, as Bérénice Reynaud described in a previous issue of Senses of Cinema the significance of the book in the martial arts film (5). And, as in one film Reynaud mentions – the classic The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967) – a reading of the book enables the martial artist to inscribe, rendered in leaving a hand print. In The One-Armed Swordsman, the title character throws a punch at a stone in rage; in Kung Fu Hustle, Chow first leaves numerous indentations in a Shanghai street lamp in his unconscious fit of regeneration, then leaves a crater in the shape of his hand after utilising the “Buddhist Palm Falling from the Heavens” technique.

Throw Down

One Nite in Mongkok (Derek Yee, 2004) was one of the most disappointing films I saw in the Hong Kong Panorama program, while it managed to beat Johnnie To and Wong Kar-wai for Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, also held the week of the festival. Tong situates this film in the “Mainland Mercenary” category with other recent films like Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004) and Love Battlefield (Cheang Pou-Soi, 2004), in the tradition of Long Arm of the Law (Johnny Mak, 1984). One Nite in Mongkok definitely does portray a pessimistic view of Hong Kong, as a country-bumpkin from China, escaping poverty by becoming a hitman, is astounded at the corruption and desire of everyday life in Hong Kong. But despite the pessimism expressed by some critics, there is still a number of great films coming from both the commercial and independent Hong Kong film industry. Aside from the aforementioned Kung Fu Hustle, the festival programmed Johnnie To’s Throw Down (2004), Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s stunning 2046 (2004), which touches on a number of concerns throughout the director’s career (for an excellent appraisal of the film, I refer you to Stephen Teo’s article in the last issue of Senses of Cinema, as well as his recent book on the filmmaker) (6).

Tang Tang

This year’s festival also commemorated the centennial celebration of Chinese cinema. While the Archive programmed a series devoted to master Shanghai filmmaker of the 1930s, Sun Yu, festival organisers took the direction of emphasising the contemporary Chinese cinema. Although Before the Flood (Yan Yu and Li Yifan, 2005) won the festival’s Humanitarian Award for Documentaries, I found it failed to compare with the intimacy captured in the fictional film Rainclouds over Wushan (aka In Expectation) (Zhang Ming, 1995), also set in Fengjie, the “town of poetry” flooded with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Two fantastic films from China that border on the documentary form not in the competition (one admittedly part-documentary, part-fiction, the other not actually claiming to be a documentary), Tang Tang (Zhang Hanzi, 2004) and Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2005), reverberated with what I tried to describe as the “performative impulse” in recent Chinese documentary in an earlier article for Senses of Cinema (7). Both of these filmmakers are able to move the camera throughout space to suddenly capture close-ups at what seems the most perfect moment of epiphany for a particular subject. Even when an excessively long take is used – as in Oxhide, a document of a simply family home seen only from a child’s height so figures’ heads are often cut off – touching, provocative images appear. (The director’s notes to the film indicate that “The actors who acted as parents and their child are my parents and I in real life… The story continues in real life”) (8). In Tang Tang (2004) a shared creative project between subject and documentarian is most obviously evident. Most of the film chronicles the life of Tang Tang, a drag queen performer, whose life perhaps offers a perfect example of what Judith Butler describes as the performative dimension of gender (9). But the film begins not, as in most documentaries, with the chronological starting point of the story, but with the end. We see Tang Tang, depressed with his life flashing past his eyes, seek solace in the director, Zhang Hanzi, behind the camera: “This is my last performance.” The film begs the question whether it is really a documentary or not, while, like with Oxhide, we are witnesses to an act happening before our eyes, emphasising aspects of performance, yet often more “real” than one could imagine even the documentary camera could capture.

The worst film I saw at the festival was the ridiculous SARS War (Taweewat Wanta, 2004), the premise of which sounded very promising: a zombie movie within the context of SARS. However, there is nothing about SARS in the film, and the zombies are instead miscellaneous annoying punks attacking the sexually-immature martial-arts hero. The director, in attendance, announced his next project would depict a giant sperm wreaking havoc in Bangkok. While I hesitate to dismiss such trash film projects, the excessive tongue-in-cheek attitude of SARS War, with characters constantly making generic remarks to the camera, was a bit too much.

One of Hong Kong’s major pop-cultural figures received a special tribute program at this year’s festival: Andy Lau. An extended interview with Lau by Thomas Shin, Athena Tsui and Bryan Chang published in an additional special catalogue complements his public idol persona with detailed accounts of his acting craft and his negotiations and interpretations of the changing Hong Kong film industry throughout his career (10). Given the astounding number of films and television episodes in his filmography, a comprehensive program would be largely impossible, and this series screened just 12 films. Surveying Lau’s work through these 12 films one notices how he often plays a tormented character, suffering from tortuous beatings or life-threatening diseases, and in his younger days as well as in more recent films, a regular gesture for him, if it could be called that, is the nose bleed, a sign of pain that he can casually, sometimes smugly, dismiss. With many other Hong Kong films at the festival depicting tortured and bleeding bodies (Throw Down, Color Blossoms [Yon Fan, 2004]), Lau, and this gesture, provide a linchpin for appreciating recent Hong Kong cinema, not just as an action cinema with explosion and gunfire, but with hints of a transforming sensory economy on the surface of bodies transforming (Three Extremes…Dumplings) or people looking for passage to another moment (2046).

There are other major film festivals in East Asia, with the Pusan International Film Festival in particular recently gaining in prominence, but the Hong Kong International Film Festival remains a major cultural event with an enthusiastic, informed audience. Surely, things have changed in Hong Kong, as well as in the Hong Kong film industry, but as the sheer quantity of commercial productions decrease, there are also continually emerging independent films and videos, being showcased at the festival and at other venues like the Hong Kong Art Center, the Hong Kong Independent Film and Video Awards, videotage, and the Hong Kong Film Archive, to name just a few. During the festival, the Hong Kong Filmart was also held (some have been critical of both the festival and convention being held under the same funding banner of the Hong Kong “Entertainment Expo”). The history of Hong Kong cinema continues to generate revenue and reinvest in itself, if the new multimillion dollar Shaw Brothers studio, promoted at the market, is any indication – an ambitious site promising to be one of the most accommodating studios in the world. Visiting the new studio in the developing industrial park in the Tseung Kwan O area, I was guided on a tour of massive amounts of empty space with bare concrete walls, each new room described as what is to come. Among visiting filmmakers and executives – potential customers of the studio space – many were bewildered when treated to an elaborate reception in what is essentially a construction site. But this is just a minor anecdote from the numerous goings-on in Hong Kong film culture. I don’t mean to suggest a strange cocktail party as an allegory for a Hong Kong cinema in a period of transformation – though it surely is restructuring itself, for example, in the case of a few studios, with capital from re-released classics for home video and cable consumption. Returning from my tour to the rush of people moving about from screening to screening at the festival’s rich program, I – like many local and international attendees – hope I can make a habit of returning to it again.

Endnotes

  1. Li Cheuk-to, “Foreword”, 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalogue, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, Hong Kong, 2005.
  2. Tong Ching-Siu, “Living for the Moment – Hong Kong Films Frozen in the Present,” 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalogue, p. 96.
  3. Tong, p. 96.
  4. Tong, p. 99
  5. Bérénice Reynaud, “The Book, the Goddess and the Hero: Sexual Politics in the Chinese Martial Arts Film”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 26, May–June 2003.
  6. Stephen Teo, “2046: A Matter of Time, A Labour of Love”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 36, April–June 2005; Teo, Wong Kar-wai, British Film Institute, London, 2005.
  7. Performing the Documentary, or Making it to the Other Bank”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 27, July–August 2003.
  8. Tony Rayns describes the film as “documentary-framed-as-fiction” in his coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival, where Oxhide won a FIPRESCI award. Tony Rayns, “Berlin Blues”, CinemaScope, Issue 22, 2005.
  9. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, New York, 1990.
  10. Thomas Shin, Athena Tsui, and Bryan Chang, “Interviewing Andy Lau” in Li Cheuk-to and Athena Tsui (eds), Andy Lau: Actor in Focus, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, Hong Kong, 2005.

About The Author

Charles Leary is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University.