At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World
Esther C. M. Yau, editor
Reviewed by Daniel Burton Rose
Wednesday, September 11 2002, 05:59 PM
Speed. Fire. Guns and swords. Melodramatic male-bonding amid ultraviolence. As Hong Kong cinema flashed around the world in the '90s, this is what it became known for. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 caused the U.S. movie industry to search for more thinking person's action. They re-released Tsui Hark's jianghu Robin Hood Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China I, II and III, the tales of healer-martial artist Wong Fei-hung's ordering of a cracked-open world.
At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World celebrates the full range of Hong Kong cinema: drama, comedy, and of course martial arts and shoot 'em ups. In it, Los Angeles film prof Esther C. M. Yau draws together a collection of critics as transnational and postmodern as the influences and influence of the island's movies themselves. Many intellectuals initially deemed HK's productions too popular to be worth studying, while the frantic fanzine output displays an irritating back-handedness, as if the underworld and gongfu flicks wouldn't be pleasurable without their loose-fitting dubs and attendant ridiculous dialogue.
Speed is a corrective. Cross-cultural cinephiles focus on the Hong Kong New Wave, a cohort of directors who emerged from the cultural upheavals of the '60s and '70s. They found a place in the industry in the '80s. By the '90s, a number had gone Hollywood: directors Hark, Sammo Hung and John Woo, actors Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat, and the never-New Wave director-actor Jackie Chan primary among them. (Indeed, these players were enveloped so quickly into the dominant fold that one critic angrily retracted the label "New Wave," contending that the directors were never anything new.) Particular attention is paid to female directors (especially Ann Hui) and queer productions (Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together).
Speed is light on plot digests, and leaves verdant places unexplored. It ignores the effects of capitalism on culture, concentrating instead on the countdown to communist rule. (The classic City On Fire is an important companion. To pick a quote: "What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo's martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads?") Speed makes no mention of the provocative plays of woman-on-woman romance, as in Dragon Gate Inn, Wing Chun and Wong Fei-hung, or the more sisterly slithering of A Chinese Ghost Story and Green Snake.
But where else would we learn that the castration of Asia the Invincible, the hero of the mythical Swordsman trilogy, reveals anxiety about the separation and (then-) impending reunification of Hong Kong with mainland China? That ghosts stand in for the region's neglected past, displaced by cascading waves of modernity and consumerism?
Much of the language in Speed is, unfortunately, aimed at Ph.Ds. But the text is permeable and the ideas it contains are worth the effort. The articles are contemplative, offering insight but no indignation. In discussing the career of Chan, there's no mention of one-dimensionality, and Chan's consistently ingratiating assimilationism. Or the racist ranking that permits the creators of Hong Kong chic - producer-directors Hark and Woo - to get B-goods like Jean-Claude van Damme and Dennis Rodman in their first US productions (Double Impact; Double Team).
What are we to make, for example, of Hollywood's hiring of master physical conflict choreographer Yuen Wo-ping? His work reaped great gains in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger and has already fallen from the heavens to immitation in cell phone commercials. Is Hong Kong style just another flavor to be digested by the U.S. culture industry or will it make continuing contributions? How much control are directors retaining over their product, and what do U.S.-China co-productions indicate about the cultural chemistry of market expansion? (Of Mainland output, Taiwanese director Edward Yang remarked recently: "A lot of foreign money is pouring into China now, and it's almost like the producer hands someone over there a fashion magazine, points to a page and says 'Make me one of those!'")
Not of least concern, how has the Hollywood shuffle affected domestic industry on the island? These questions remain unanswered for the English-speaking audience.
At Full Speed is available from University of Minnesota Press
Daniel Burton Rose is co-editor of The Battle of Seattle (Soft Skull) and the Celling of America (Common Courage Press.)