A Pair of Blood-Spattering Essays on Hong Kong Action Movies
Steven Rubio and Jillian Sandell
Issue #13, April 1994
The Meaning of Chow (It's In His Mouth)
Ultimately, it comes down to his mouth.
Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest movie actor in the world today, and the only way I can explain this is to talk about his mouth. He does cool things with his mouth. Smoking cigarettes is no longer an emblem of cool in the USA, but Chow does wonders with cigarette smoke in Prison On Fire. Director Ringo Lam understands this; like most of the great Hong Kong directors, he loves using slow motion and freeze frames to pinpoint important moments in his movies, and he saves a few of the most elegant slow-motion sequences for Chow blowing smoke and looking cool.
In John Woo's over-the-top classic, Hard Boiled (the rough literal translation of the Chinese title is Spicy-Handed Gun God), Chow plays with a toothpick. There are few movie moments more violently cool than the shot of Chow, a gun in each hand, sliding down a stair banister blasting a dozen bad guys while letting his toothpick hang just so from the side of his mouth. In God of Gamblers, Chow plays a gambler who gets a bump on his head that turns him into some quasi-autistic prodigy, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Chow retains his intuitive skill at playing cards, but now he must be pacified by constant pieces of chocolate that he scarfs greedily, goofy smile on his face. Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.
Everything I have said so far describes a subjective reaction to watching Chow Yun-Fat on the screen. Fill in the name of your favorite actor or actress, change the specific references, and this could be your essay. We don't learn anything new from such subjective meanderings; we only identify taste preferences. I'm proud to be a Chow fan, but then, I am proud to be a fan in general. With other favorites of mine, though, I am able to get at least a little bit beyond subjectivity. Be it Murphy Brown or X-Ray Spex, Bruce Springsteen or NYPD Blue, at some point I can analyze my relationship to the cultural artifact in question, place it in some cultural context, and come to some hopefully useful conclusions about both the particular text and our interaction with that text. Chow Yun-Fat, however, seems to defy my attempts at analysis; ultimately, it all comes down to his mouth and nothing more.
Try describing Chow Yun-Fat to someone who has never seen him on the screen. Comparisons sometimes help, so how about this: Chow Yun-Fat is the Asian Cary Grant. He makes everything look easy; there are always other actors chewing the scenery in Chow's movies, but he rarely goes for the obvious and the overdone, preferring the smile and the toothpick. He looks good in a tuxedo; he looks good in an expensive silk suit; he looks good with nothing on at all. And it all seems so effortless.
Cary Grant, but there is more: in one scene from Prison on Fire, Chow is Cary Grant taking a dump. He's gotta go pretty badly, he's shitting and farting and talking to a fellow inmate, all at the same time, he's waving away the smell and sending looks of displeasure to his stomach, finally he's asking his friend to leave the room, because Chow can't 'do it' if someone is watching. And yes, through it all, Chow is cool. Cary Grant taking a dump.
Cary Grant taking a dump, but there is more: in film after film, Chow is the object of desire for men. In Ringo Lam movies, this is often overt; in Full Contact the main villain is a gay mobster with a hard-on for Chow, and somehow his gayness is a positive aspect of his character, unlike so many American action films where gay means psychopathic or neurotic or evil. His gayness is positive because he obsesses over Chow Yun-Fat; it is hard to find fault with anyone who merely recognizes what Chow fans know in their own subjective worlds, that Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest. At the end of Full Contact, with the villain about to die, he tells Chow that he only hopes that they will meet in the afterworld where they can finally consummate their repressed affair. Chow kills the bad guy, telling him in the wonderfully bizarre phrasing so common to HK English subtitles, 'Masturbate in Hell!,' condemning the villain to death, to hell, but also to an eternity of fantasizing about Chow Yun-Fat.
And still I haven't gotten beyond my own subjective fantasies. Readers who have never seen Chow Yun-Fat might have a better picture in their minds of what he is like, but we still don't really have an inkling of What Chow Means. We're still at the level of establishing taste preferences. And I am still puzzling over why I find it so hard to get beyond the surface of Chow Yun-Fat.
Maybe the answer is in the subtitles. English subtitles in HK movies are often unintentionally hilarious, an odd and charming combination of fractured grammar and almost-right cliches (in Once a Thief Chow tells Leslie Cheung, 'it takes turn to tango'). When reading those subtitles, an American viewer realizes that there are differences between HK and US culture that language can't precisely express. Similarly, when someone speaks English in an HK film, the English subtitles are frequently different than the spoken words, never more comically than in Woo's Heroes Shed No Tears, where an American soldier screams 'Motherfucker!' and the subtitles read 'Son of a bitch.' It is as if the soldier's English is first translated into Mandarin or Cantonese, then retranslated into English subtitles; something is indeed lost in the translation.
Even such an excellent reading of these movies as Jillian Sandell's piece elsewhere in this issue 'loses something in the translation.' (Her clearly-stated analysis of Woo/Chow collaborations is just the kind of examination I claim here is close to impossible; I would have said completely impossible, but Jillian has proven me wrong.) In her discussion of The Killer (rough literal translation of the Chinese title: A Pair of Blood-Splattering Heroes), she mentions the nicknames 'Dumbo' and 'Mickey Mouse' which the subtitles have given to the two primary heroes, and makes an interesting connection to the image of Disney these nicknames suggest. Her comments are well-taken for American audiences of The Killer, but in the original, the nicknames for the two characters have no connection whatever to Disney characters. Dumbo and Mickey Mouse were chosen by the translator as effective names to convey the 'real meaning' of the Chinese nicknames; I have no idea whether or not the translator was successful. We can only examine The Killer as it is presented to us, which in the case of non-Chinese speaking Americans means the characters are indeed Dumbo and Mickey Mouse. This does not in any way 'invalidate' an American audience's response to The Killer, but it would seem to indicate how different the text is, depending on how it is seen and what the audience brings to the movie. This is always true, of course, but I suspect it is truest when the cultural differences between the text and the audience are as great as they are here.
And it is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.
In an earlier issue of Bad Subjects, I related my discomfort at using a person dressed in a bird costume as fodder for my Bad Essay, noting that while this poor drone was only trying to earn a living in tough times, I was deriding his efforts and then writing about them for Bad Subjects. At the time, I called this 'cultural imperialism.' My discomfort was perhaps well- deserved; I was indeed using this bird-person for my own enlightenment. My mea culpas began because I felt funny writing about something I didn't like to begin with. It was one thing to take apart Murphy Brown, I suggested, because I was trying to understand a text I enjoyed. It was another to take apart the favored texts of others, without properly appreciating the value of those texts to their recipients.
I can't deny that I love Hong Kong movies, and I most certainly love Chow Yun-Fat. Yet that love is related to my experiences with the bird-person: I am, as we called ourselves in that earlier issue, a 'Bad Tourist,' stopping by, taking what I want, leaving the rest, ultimately un-illuminated as to the essence of Hong Kong culture, but nevertheless enriched by the experience. I don't want to belittle that enrichment. The beginning of this essay is testament to how much I love my relationship to Chow Yun-Fat. But I began writing because I couldn't get beyond my attraction to Chow's coolness, and the longer I write, the more I come to believe that I will never understand Chow as well as I understand myself. Because the point of my consumption of Chow Yun-Fat, the point of the dilettante's love of the exotic, is not really to understand what I consume. The point is to understand me.
This is often how people of one culture appreciate the cultures of others; as anthropology it most likely sucks, but for enrichment, it can't be beat. It goes both ways, of course; no one should assume that only Americans are dilettantes. Jackie Chan has seen Buster Keaton. The resulting movies are 'pure' Jackie Chan, but the Keaton influence is apparent, which doesn't necessarily mean that Jackie Chan understands the Meaning of Keaton any more than I understand the Meaning of Chow. Jackie Chan loves Buster Keaton, he makes Buster Keaton his own, and then he produces Jackie Chan movies. When an American watches a Jackie Chan movie, one of the pleasurable aspects is making the connection to Buster Keaton. Jackie Chan helps us understand Keaton better than we would if we didn't have Chan to help illuminate Keaton. We use Jackie Chan to understand our own culture.
There are aspects of Jackie Chan, of course, that cross cultural barriers. His exuberant acrobatics dazzle an audience whether or not we know the Chinese cultural context for his stunts. But the Meaning of Jackie Chan escapes me, at least, if not all American viewers. And now we are back to Chow Yun-Fat, who is cool. His coolness crosses barriers. When he performs a romantic dance from a wheelchair in Once a Thief, the combination of elegance and comedic grace is lovely beyond words. When, in Hard Boiled, he demolishes a zillion bad guys with one hand and carries a tiny baby in the other, cooing and shooting, he is the ultimate big brother. This coolness crosses barriers. But beyond that, we are victims of our subjective experience; we don't understand the Hong Kong culture that produces these movies, and so we fall back on cool. It all comes down to his mouth.
The clearest example of this is the homo-erotic charge that permeates HK action movies. In one sense, this is no different from similar relationships in American action movies ... Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series come to mind, along with countless other buddy films. But what is beneath the surface in American movies is out front in HK films. It doesn't take much digging to find the homo-erotic undercurrents in Lethal Weapon, but it does require digging. HK films, with their endless discussions between men about love and honor and friendship, seem to bring those undercurrents to the surface, however, in a manner that is not exactly innocent but is accepting of the bonds between men and willing to allow men to discuss those bonds. Chow Yun-Fat is not the strong silent type. When the inmates of Prison on Fire are happy, they celebrate with a dance party unlike, say, the scene in Jailhouse Rock where Elvis is fetishized as the focus of homo-eroticism (and we are 'the cutest little jailbirds he ever did see'). In Prison on Fire, the inmates are happy, and so they dance, and their partners are their fellow inmates with whom they share their happiness. It's not only sexual, though sex is part of it. It's about friendship, and loyalty, and love, and bonding.
At least, I think so. Again I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre. We watch, we react, but when we later try to analyze, all we know for certain is that it all comes down to his mouth.
And so I am no closer to the Meaning of Chow than I was at the beginning of this essay. I've enjoyed Chow, I've used Chow, I've done what I could with Chow, but I fear I haven't explained him. I've only explained myself as a 'Bad Tourist.' Go watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie for yourself, and if you figure out What Chow Means, let me know. In any event, I'll bet you think he's cool.
Steven Rubio is an obsessive-compulsive hebephrenic and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached at the following Internet address: email@example.com.
A Better Tomorrow?
American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films
Hong Kong gangster movies dont work for everyone, and if you think the idea of 'beautiful violence' seems like an oxymoron then they probably arent for you. But if youve ever wished for a Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Seagal kind of action movie with the style and elegance of an MGM musical then Hong Kong cinema is the place to look. Imagine the scene: a slow motion shot of man sauntering through a nightclub wearing a white suit, dark glasses, and smoking a cigarette; a woman looking sultry by the piano singing the kind of sentimental song usually associated with schmaltzy romantic dramas, lots of corny shots of couples in love, and the whole scene shot in soft reds and yellows. Suddenly, the slo-mo stops, the muzak stops and our hero pulls out his guns and shoots, spicy handed (two hands), a dozen people dead in five seconds, all without taking off his dark glasses or losing his unbelievably cool demeanor. Bullets are flying everywhere, blood leaps out of bodies but the killer emerges unscathed.... Well, what can I say? It works for me, and, clearly, I'm not the only one. Hong Kong action films, which specialize in precisely this kind of juxtaposition of corny romantic melodrama with stylized and hyperbolic violence, have one of the biggest cult followings for films made outside of the American mainstream. The local UC Theater here in Berkeley is always packed on Thursday nights which has been, for about a year, Hong Kong night, and videos (where available) do an extremely brisk trade.
Two men whose names are practically synonymous with the success of Hong Kong gangster films are the director/actor team of John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, who have been making films together for nearly 10 years. Both Woo and Chow had made other films before their first collaboration in the mid 1980s; Woo started making films in the 1970s but mostly comedies, musicals and love stories. Similarly, Chow had been a romantic lead in lots of B-grade movies but never an action hero; but when Woo made A Better Tomorrow (1986) and cast Chow Yun-Fat as the gunman he launched not only the contemporary Hong Kong gangster film but also a new and extraordinarily successful phase in their respective careers. It was also the start of a very close friendship between the two men, the kind of friendship Woo valorizes in his films, with Chow becoming Woo's alter ego, enacting his anger at the loss of traditional values in Hong Kong society.
Typically, Woo's films deal with the tensions between freedom and duty, loyalty and authority, and between the individual and the group. Indeed most of his films explore the kinds of social relationships available to individuals in difficult times, and the ways in which ostensibly different people can attain common goals by forging alliances with each other. Certainly, there is a sense in which the moral framework of Woo's films can be rather simplistic: heroes ultimately succeed or fail depending on the place they occupy within the larger social framework, specifically, if the loner-hero is a gangster he will die and if he is a cop he will live. However, despite this, Woo's heroes on both sides of the law are clearly offered up to spectators for identification and so it is interesting to explore what qualities it is that these men (for they almost always are men) embody that might be so appealing for Chinese and western audiences alike.
A Better Tomorrow, a still unequaled commercial success in Hong Kong cinema, represented a new approach to action films. It combined machine-gun violence with intense moments of male bonding and an almost campy humor, and interweaving through it all are religious themes of redemption and morality. This combination of homoerotic male bonding with choreographed violence is extraordinarily compelling. However, it seems crucial to interrogate why it might be that Woo would repeatedly link homoeroticism with violence, especially since he does so in a way that is coded as liberating and positive, albeit in a qualified way. Also, what strikes me as interesting is the way in which Woo locates the fear, uncertainty and moral confusion about Hong Kongs future within the lonely fighter heroes who perform this violence, and especially in the characters played by Chow Yun-Fat. However, Woo does not celebrate this violence, but rather he uses it to represent a nostalgia for a lost code of honor and chivalry that he sees as necessary for human survival. In other words, the type of heroes found in Woo's action films seem to represent the kind of responses available within the Hong Kong imagination to the colony's reunification with China in 1997, a situation clearly represented and understood as being a 'difficult time'. Specifically, this is enacted at the intersection between the hero's relationship to organizations, both legal (the police) and illegal (the triads) and the codes of honor he adheres to, a code that transcends both the system of capital and the system of law circulating in Hong Kong. By tracing the development of some of the Chow Yun-Fat characters over the years in John Woo films it is possible to get insight into how this one Hong Kong film director perceives the future of the colony and its relationship to the rest of the Pacific Rim.
While I would not necessarily want to make a kind of 'auteurist' argument for Woo (if for no other reason that the simple and obvious fact that films are always a collaborative projects and so any ideology in the film will be the product of the entire production staff not the director alone) there is a sense in which the way Hong Kong films are received in the United States beg such a reading. If you go to the UC Theater on any Thursday night when a Woo/Chow film is playing the audience applaud madly when Woo and Chow's credits appear. In other words, films made by John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat are distinctive, recognizable and deliberately sought out. In addition, their films are the product of a Hong Kong film industry that is modeled on the studio system of Hollywood in earlier decades and which promotes individual stars and directors. Golden Princess, a subsidiary of Golden Harvest , which has financed many of Woo's films, favors single superstars such as Chow Yun-Fat (and for martial arts films, Jackie Chan) and this relates to the kinds of films Woo makes. Both Golden Princess and John Woo favor glamorous individuals rather than anonymous groups, and just as a film studio places a certain kind of responsibility on the shoulders of the stars to carry the success of the film, so too Woo portrays his heroes, and especially Chow Yun-Fat, as embodying the kind of freedom and individuality that is necessary for the success and survival of Hong Kong.
Chow Yun-Fat is probably most famous for his roles in Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard-boiled (1991), all of which deal explicitly with the theme of the individual fighting for loyalty and honor within corrupt institutions. However, whereas the premise in each film is the same, the solution is somewhat different and these films demonstrate the changing understanding of the role of the free-agent individual in Hong Kong society. In fact these three films act as a kind of allegory of male anxiety over Hong Kong's future and, taken together, offer a coherent explanation as to why the cost that loner individuals extort from society is always too high. Simply put, there is no place for the free-agent individual in Hong Kong, except insofar as this individuality is completely integrated within, and put to the service of, the organization. However, while this individuality is always framed within the context of larger institutions it's real potential is revealed through the alliances forged between individual men. In other words, male bonding is crucial to the way in which Hong Kong's future relationship with China is being imagined. Specifically, these films seem to represent the fantasy of a relationship between equals (which is analogous to a relationship between men) rather than between unequals (i.e. between men and women) and it is a fear of China and all it represents (returning to a differently organized and 'less developed' kind of economy, and a mode of social relations that has strong ties to its feudal past) that makes the homoerotic element such a compelling fantasy.
However, this homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons. Indeed, the one film in which John Woo represented violence as being brutal and ugly (A Bullet in the Head) was one of the least popular among both his Hong Kong and American fans. Set in Vietnam, A Bullet in the Head is characteristically violent but it features a kind of violence that spectators find hard to experience as pleasurable. While on one level it makes perfect sense to say that violence is not enjoyable, the fact that both Chinese and American fans resisted this move made by Woo suggests that aestheticized violence can be, paradoxically, compelling and pleasurable. Indeed, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard-Boiled all feature Chow Yun-Fat performing violence in such an aesthetically pleasing way that these films have become among the most popular within the Hong Kong gangster tradition.
A Better Tomorrow revolves around the lives of three men: Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) a gangster, Ho, his partner in crime who wants to go straight, and Kit, an idealist cop and Ho's younger brother. They are all loner heroes, marginalized from their respective organizations. Kit cannot rise through the ranks of the police force because of the taint of his family name and the battle between good and evil becomes, for him, a personal vendetta between himself and his brother. Mark and Ho, who at the beginning are shown surveying the millions of forged American dollars that they are about the trade with the Taiwanese underworld, are betrayed by their gangland bosses, putting them on a downward trajectory that further marginalizes them. Ho goes to prison for three years, and when he gets out joins a legitimate ex-con taxi company, a co- operative enclave. His attempt to live outside the institutions available within Hong Kong capitalism ultimately fails and the taxi-collective is destroyed by some of the Big brothers.
But it is Mark, crippled in the shoot-out following the betrayal, who is completely humiliated and reduced to living in a parking lot, wearing rags and cleaning the cars of his former co-gangsters. Coded at the beginning as the glamorous free-agent individual, wearing his long white coat over a smart suit and the ubiquitous dark glasses, this is clearly the nightmare of living outside of the institution, and after he is betrayed Mark loses not only his work and home but, also most importantly, his self-respect. The incredibly touching reunion of Mark and Ho when Ho gets out of prison is like a reunion of lovers, 'I waited for you for so long' says Mark, 'three years' says Ho, and this intensely homoerotic moment indicates the importance of male friendship within the code of honor in which they believe. Alone, neither man can survive, either as an individual or as part of a group, but they are able to come together and forge an alliance between equals that is emotionally and materially fulfilling.
Mark, Ho and Kit are shown to be three different versions of the same thing, namely individual men embracing a code of honor and chivalry no longer found in Hong Kong. They all have a strong sense of personal morality and justice that transcends the organizations with which they are (albeit often tenuously) affiliated. While their personal codes of honor are in opposition to the ethos of the organization, for example Kit's superior says 'there is no hero in the police', the resolution is not to give up on the honor but to integrate it into the larger institution: individual heroics merely for the good of the individual will always lead to the downfall of not only the individual but also the larger group, but individual heroics when deployed for the good of the institution can be truly liberating and productive.
The violent finale, where Mark, Ho and Kit come together to fight the gangland bosses is a utopic moment of three men forgetting their differences and instead joining forces to fight their common enemy. As many commentators have noted A Better Tomorrow provides young people with the message of forging alliances with each other and together fighting against the take over of Hong Kong in 1997. The alliance between the men is based on honor (Kit's honor as a heroic cop out to get the bad guys, Mark and Ho's honor to avenge the same bad guys who betrayed them), but honor alone is not enough. The orgy of destruction in the final shoot out succeeds in destroying the bad guys and reconciling the brothers, but at what cost? Kit and Ho survive but only to immediately re-integrate themselves back into their respective organizations. Ho handcuffs himself to his brother allowing Kit to be an honorable policeman (i.e. he gets to arrest a bad guy even if it is his brother), and Ho also gets to also be honorable, by going back to jail to pay for his crimes. Honor here seems to be a kind of shorthand for individualism and thus, as mentioned earlier, individual heroics are only rewarded when put to the service of a larger organization. This ideological move seems to valorize a certain kind of capitalism, such as found in the United States, that embraces the idea of free-agents while at the same time accommodating them within the larger mode of economic relations. A Better Tomorrow thus looks to the West, rather than to China, for a role model for future kinds of social and economic relations.
Mark, however, the supreme loner who rejects organizations (both legal and illegal) ultimately has no place in the world. He joins with the brothers to fight the common enemy, but the particular kind of honor he represents (free-agent loner hero with no affiliations) cannot be accommodated within the economy of the film and so he must die. But he dies not so much from his wounds, afterall he has withstood the impact of hundreds of bullets throughout the film, but rather of exhaustion. This kind of hero is tired and old, a residue from the Chinese past, and has no place in contemporary Hong Kong. It is not until Hard-boiled that such a hero can be successfully accommodated within the world of the Hong Kong gangster film, and Chow-as-hero is finally able to re-enter the fold of law, order and justice.
The redemption of the hero is anticipated, though not fully realized, in The Killer (1989), a film in which the eroticization of the gangster body reaches a whole new level and where male bonding is explicitly tied to a rejection of femininity and, by implication, of China. The Killer once again features Chow as the world weary loner assassin being pursued by the loner cop but this time it is Chow himself (not his partner as in A Better Tomorrow) who is trying to go straight and the film opens with him agreeing to do one final job before giving it up. When he accidentally blinds a female singer in the cross-fire of the assassination he vows to do just one more job to raise the money to pay for her to have cornea transplants. However, once again he is betrayed by his gangland bosses and so is pursued by both them and the police leading to an amazingly beautiful final shoot-out in a church with Jeff and the cop joining forces against the 'real' bad guys. However they do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.
The doubling of Jeff with the cop, who remains nameless for most of the film, is made explicit right from the start and once again this is coded as intensely homoerotic. One scene has the policeman in his office, surrounded by dozens of pictures of Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat), musing on how Jeff's eyes are 'filled with passion' and arguing that 'he is no ordinary assassin'. This idea is repeated many times throughout the film; that Jeff is no ordinary assassin and the cop is no ordinary policeman, driving home the point that what they share is a code of morality and justice that remains outside of, and unrecognized, by both of their worlds.
The intimate moments they share in the final scenes, in between shooting what seems like hundreds of men, are among the most perfect expressions of love, friendship and honor to be found in a Woo film, and this almost seems to be fulfillment enough, until we realize the cost of such moments. Aside from the obvious cost of violence, The Killer, more than any other film, makes clear that individual male heroics are always at the expense of and in repudiation of femininity and the family. Women and families not only are the cause of problems in Woo's films but they represent everything that these men reject and fear: the fear of a world where there is no place for individualism. Indeed, as Wayne Wang, a noted Chinese-American filmmaker, has commented, 'Hong Kong gangster movies show how much Chinese men are obsessed with castration'. The explicit enemies in Woo's films are always families of gangsters (such as the triads) but implicitly, in the way in which they are aligned with eastern religion and values, they represent the very real threat that China may present in 1997. Thus the China-as-enemy scenario becomes coded as a fear of feminization and a return for Hong Kong to a world of tradition and old- fashioned social relations based upon family run organizations that cannot accommodate any kind of individualism.
Indeed, the final shots of The Killer show Chow, himself now also blinded from the shoot-out, and Jennie the blind singer, groping for each other on the ground in front of the church. Of course they miss by a mile, and, despite being milked for ironic humor, it nevertheless represents the exemplary moment of heterosexuality within the world of Hong Kong action films, i.e. relationships between unequals (men and women) will always lack the kind of vision and potential that the relationships between the men (as equals) can attain. Compared to the transcendent moments Chow and the cop share (who call each other 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Dumbo'), relationships between men and women are fraught with problems. The relationship between the two male loner heroes is romantic, equal and fulfilling; however, it is also a relationship that remains within the realm of the fantastic and unobtainable, specifically, within the realm of US Disney characters and therefore the West. The film also codes such relationships as being outside the reach of women, for Jennie can neither see, nor comprehend, the bonding that is going on between the men. Thus, the utopia of the romantic exchange between the men, amid all the beautiful violence, is displaced into a realm that is coded as both childish and Western, and a realm that ultimately remains inaccessible. Thus, neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality are available to the characters in any meaningful way and instead bodily desires are satisfied through the eroticization of violence, an ultimately unsatisfactory solution that I will return to later. Finally, Chow dies, leaving only the cop, also a loner individual but, crucially, on the right side of the law alive.
If The Killer explicitly eroticizes male violence at the expense of heterosexuality and family, Hard-boiled does so implicitly while being more overtly concerned with the assimilation of the loner hero back into the side of law and order. In a sense then the repudiation of femininity is a pre-requisite for the recuperation of the individualistic male. There is still plenty of homoerotic bonding and aestheticized violence, but as Woo's last picture before leaving Hong Kong for the United States Hard-boiled marks the final resolution of the problem of the free-agent individual. Indeed, not one but two individuals are taken back into the fold, but significantly this time they are both on the right side of the law — both Chow Yun-Fat and Tong Leung play loner-cops who take the law into their own hands — and this is precisely why they are able to be assimilated.
Predictably, Tequila (Chow) and Tony (Leung) have, what we can by now call, a 'romance'. Tony, an undercover cop posing as a triad hit-man, teams up with Tequila and together they nail a brutal arms dealer and his men. In a legendary sequence of film lasting 45 minutes, the final shoot-out, packed full of excessive and stylized ultra-violence, takes place in a hospital where the strict code of honor forms the backdrop to the senseless violence. Tony, shattered at the realization that he has accidentally killed a fellow policeman, then has to force himself to kill his former gangland boss, whom he actually respects. Later Tony and a hit man refuse to fire at each other while surrounded by hospital patients, and Tequila, the indestructible cop, mows down villain after villain all while holding a newborn child in his arms. Indeed, the evacuation of the maternity ward, although played as a comic moment, acts as a real-life example of the honor these men espouse. They may want to rip each other's guts out but they will put their differences aside to save innocent bystanders, especially the weak or helpless.
But as should be quite obvious by now, despite the same code of honor being held by individuals on both sides of the law, it is only those who legally avenge crimes who are allowed such a luxury, and so all the bad guys must die. Indeed even Tony, who had been undercover so long that his identity as a cop lacks the necessary coherence and conviction, dies in the end, with his parting words being 'I'm a cop'. He thus reclaims his identity but not his life. Chow-as-Tequila, however, has earned his identity and, after saving the maternity ward, and by implication the future of Hong Kong, he has also earned his life. The free-agent individual assimilates back into the police force having slain the enemy and with the (fantasized) fate of Hong Kong decided.
More than A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, what Hard-boiled makes explicit is the fact that the boundary between justice and crime is such a blurred one that it is often hard to know who one's enemy is. Thus, Hard-boiled leaves Hong Kong with a solution (free-agents are fine so long as they remain within, and work for, the organization) but now the problem itself remains unclear — who is the enemy for which this is the solution?
Clearly, for Woo, China really is the enemy. Woo may have resolved the dilemma within the world of the film, but he himself has taken another option, an option that both challenges and supports his filmic solution. Woo no longer lives in Hong Kong or makes Hong Kong films; he has moved to Hollywood and is now making films in the United States, thus self-consciously assimilating himself within the institution of mainstream American cinema. I've already talked about the cost of being outside the organization, but what of the cost of being inside it? Hard Target, Woo's first Hollywood film took seven attempts before it could clear the ratings board, he has no control over casting lead actors (Jean-Claude Van Damme was not Woo's choice, he was 'given' him for the film) and so he can no longer make films with Chow Yun-Fat, a sad and noticeable loss. Thus, while Woo has been accepted into the fold of the Hollywood film industry the irony is that the price he has to pay is his individuality, the very quality he promoted as being possible only within the organizations of the United States economy.
Ultimately, Woo's situation is analogous to the situation of spectators of his films. To watch, and enjoy, a Woo film involves a kind of masochism. By this I mean that the pleasure of participating, via identification, in a relationship between equals is always premised upon the pain of the violence. Thus the stylized 'beautiful violence' within the film, that I have already suggested codes and aligns romance and equality with violence, is dependent upon a similarly paradoxical 'pleasurable violence' at the ideological level. Moreover, this is exactly the kind of relationship available within the capitalist mode of relations that the films valorize, and thus it should be no surprise that Woo is not entirely satisfied with life in the United States. The desire to consciously participate in capitalism, an idea Woo/Chow films invariably promote, is to adopt a masochistic position whereby one willingly submits to oppression and violence, albeit with certain compensatory moments. Indeed, the fact that western audiences consume these films so avidly would seem to indicate that we find capitalism as seductive as the Hong Kong Chinese do. Although, as Woo makes clear, it is not just any kind of capitalism that is to be desired. In The Killer, Japanese organizations (which promote uniformity between individuals) are ridiculed and shown as being unable to wield the kind of potential that organizations which accommodate a degree of individuality can. Woo is now part of the kind of economy he valorizes in his films and the reward (or pleasure) of being seduced into this kind of relationship is the monetary compensation he has achieved, but the price he pays is a certain lack of creative control, the very quality for which he was courted.
The kinds of alliances made between the men in A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard-Boiled, while momentarily utopic, are nevertheless always facilitated by violence, rather than co-operation and sharing, and is it questionable to what extent a community founded on violence can ever be worthwhile. The characters portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat are explicitly offered up for identification but to identify with him is to identify with a character whose sense of individuality is always premised upon subjecting his body to excessive pain and violence; in other words, identifying with a masochist. Indeed, individuals reaching out to connect with each other are always forced into a kind of sado-masochist position because alliances within Western capitalism are always located within the framework of competition rather than co-operation. Such is the nature of capitalism, whereby relationships are always dependent on either receiving or administering a kind of social or economic violence. The fantasy of individuals working together — as equals — for the good of society is an extremely worthwhile fantasy to have. Ultimately, however, what John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Hong Kong and the rest of us all need to remember is that such a fantasy will always be impossible within capitalism. Just as neither masochism nor feminization are viable alternatives within the realm of the film, similarly capitalism does not offer a solution to Hong Kong's situation but rather just a new form of oppression.
Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. She is currently employed as a reader in the film studies program at UC-Berkeley. She will be joining the English Graduate Program this Fall, and can be reached at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org