Hong Kong Cinema

Hong Kong Cinema – Review

Tony Williams

Hong Kong Cinema

The Extra Dimensions

By Stephen Teo. London: BFI Publishing, 1997. $60.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Stephen Teo’s long-awaited work on Hong Kong cinema provides the reader with a broad survey of this exciting national cinema l`rom the beginning to its present uncertain status, concentrating on the post-World War II period. Since reliable information has usually been confined to the indispensable Hong Kong Film Festival catalogs, a book for a mainstream publisher by one of the major festival critics has been sorely needed.

Teo’s work comprises 16 chapters divided into four parts: “Northerners and Southerners,” “Martial Artists,” “Path Breakers,” and “Characters on the Edge.” The chapters supply vital information on the influential world of Shanghai cinema; directors such as, among many others, King Hu, Zhang Che, Michael Hui, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Ann Hui, and Ching Siu-tung; Mandarin and Cantonese influences; the China factor; supernatural films; fictional and docudramatic gangster films; and supposed postmodernist tendencies in contemporary Hong Kong cinema. Stressing important links to the golden age of 30s Shanghai cinema, Teo emphasizes his project as involving “a proper critical and historical perspective on Hong Kong cinema” (x). He also takes issue with certain Western postmodernist tendencies defining a dynamically rich cinema as “anti-intellectual, non-historical, non-political, and without discourse of whatever shade” (xi). His project is to set the record straight.

Teo regards an understanding of the crucial role of prewar Mainland Chinese cinema, especially Shanghai, as indispensable for understanding later Hong Kong productions. The past has influenced the present in dynamically culturally discursive ways. From 1946 on, many Shanghai directors took over Hong Kong’s Mandarin cinema, seeing in it “at least, in aesthetic terms, a carbon copy of Shanghai” (14). As well as noting the presence of Shanghai directors such as Cai Chusheng in this period and the conflict between left and right tendencies, Teo emphasizes the role of Shanghai “Orphan Island” talent such as director Yue Feng and actress Li Lihua (known to Western audiences for her role in King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan). Yue’s actresses anticipated later Hong Kong screen heroines in “exuding strength of character underneath a veneer of feminine charm” and embarking “on a quest for social understanding and, above all, equal relationships with men” (21). Teo sets the record straight by showing that early postwar Hong Kong cinema also borrowed from Hollywood, especially the melodramas of Frank Borzage and Douglas Sirk. The Western borrowings most critics confine to modern productions were key historical components of this national cinema. But like later developments, these borrowings were designed to “modernise” Chinese cinema by weaving them into a distinctively cultural cinematic context.

The second chapter examines the role of actresses such as Li Lihua, Li Mei, and Lily Ho and their relationship to the “sing-song” girl of musicals and comedies noted by ex-Shanghai resident, novelist, and future Hong Kong scenarist Eileen Chang. Eclectic Mandarin melodramatic and musical genres not only influenced Tsui Hark’s Cantonese Shanghai Blues (1984) and Peking Opera Blues (1986) but also the performance of Anita Mui in Rouge (1989).

Teo’s following chapters on martial arts directors and actors are no less compelling. He applauds and criticizes the work of director King Hu, but cautions that earlier Western tendencies hailing him as a unique genius resulted from lack of information concerning the crucial period of 50s and 60s Hong Kong Mandarin cinema influencing his films. The work of Zhang Che in developing the wuxia (martial arts) hero during a period of developing Chinese superpower status receives sympathetic consideration. Teo astutely regards Golden Swallow (1968) as Che’s masterpiece–“a baroque-poetic advance on Hu’s achievement” (100) in Come Drink with Me (1966)–in its non-romantic treatment of “the nature of heroism and the obligations of heroes.” But if Che’s work deserves rediscovery, attention should also be paid to important cultural elements in the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. While Western critics often dismiss these artists as purveyors of mindless camp, Teo asserts the crucial presence of Chinese nationalism in their films. He takes issue with Tony Rayns’ Western definition of narcissism in Lee’s films by pointing out the neglected component of cultural tianxia (Chinese nationalism) motivating Lee’s work. Teo applauds Chan’s 80s films as being “practically alone in preserving Bruce Lee’s tradition of kung fu as an instinctive but disciplined art linked to a cultural and national identity” (122), albeit in a different manner. “Chan’s personal style and his attempts at dramatic characterizations are mitigating factors distinguishing a genre all too often consigned to the trash bin of cinematic criticism” (133).

Succeeding chapters deal with the various New Waves of Hong Kong cinema. As well as welcoming the artistry of directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, Clara Law, Michael Hui, Allen Fong, and others (especially the unjustly forgotten Tung Shuxuan), Teo also sees the importance of the relationship between the present and a past not generally available to Western critics. Teo notes the debt John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow owes to Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967) as well as the important moral dimension in the director’s films (a dimension absent in the work of Mr. Tarantino and countless other imitators). Teo also pertinently cites the Film Threat exposure of the relationship between Ringo Lam’s City on Fire and Reservoir Dogs (241, n.2), and notes the problematic and inaccurate anti-Communist features tarnishing Ann Hui’s 1982 The Boat People (217-18). Furthermore, Teo states that gender-bender features so beloved by Western gay and postmodernist critics are actually traditional in nature.

Hong Kong Cinema is a rich and informative work in many ways. It argues for the crucial importance of understanding what may appear novel in relation to key components of past culture. Hong Kong’s cinematic relationship to the Mainland has always existed in one form or another and should not be limited to apocalyptic 1997 definitions. For example, Stanley Kwan’s Actress (aka Center Stage, 1991) not only celebrates the role of the great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, but is also an intertextual examination of several layers of Chinese cinema.

Finally, as Hong Kong cinema enters an era of uncertainty challenged by American blockbusters and low box-office returns for local product, Teo attempts to define the “role of what may look like postmodernism and the context from which it developed” (243). Focussing on the diverse figures of Tsui Hark and comedian Stephen Chiau Sing-chi, Teo argues that Hong Kong cinema contains its own form of postmodernism but one which may not parallel or conform to Western precepts. It is one showing “Hong Kong society reacting against cultural uniformity, a postmodernism that is also profoundly anti-postmodernist (or post-modern)” (245). The concept involves a cinematic leap into a postmodern phase without ever having been fully modern, “a natural outcome of the maturation of the new wave and its absorption of commercial precepts” (246). For Teo, “Chiau is the archetypal postmodern (con)man, his screen persona conveying that a society has successfully side-stepped or leapt over stages of orthodox development and a new generation has come of age faster and smarter” (246).

The general reader and specialist of Hong Kong cinema will find much valuable information in this book. It will, hopefully, lead not only to the appearance of specialist works developing the themes of Teo’s individual chapters but also a call for the reissue of many of the films discussed in the book. (Teo points out that recent Hong Kong moves toward film preservation are crucial in revealing the whole story.) These will not just involve fresh letterboxed reissues of the films of Zhang Che, King Hu, and other well-known names but also key Mandarin and Cantonese works of the 50s and 60s which influenced the films of a later generation.

Tony Williams is Associate Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

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