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Screening Communities: Negotiating Narratives of Empire, Nation, and the Cold War in Hong Kong Cinema by Jing Jing Chang

In The Face of Demolition (1953)

In the Face of Demolition (1953)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Hong Kong cinema studies has received detailed coverage over the decades in works written about specific periods and studios such as Shaw Bros and Cathay in addition to focus on various directors and stars. Since the beginning of the Hong Kong Film Festival (1976- ), accompanying catalogues provided information on topics such as Cantonese Opera, Melodrama, Mandarin language productions in addition to studies of the martial arts and swordsman films and the work of luminaries such as King Hu and Eileen Chang. Yet, one of the most sparsely covered periods so far in terms of books has been the immediate post-war era that saw the heyday of a particular form of Cantonese cinema, before its virtual eclipse by Mandarin productions until the re-emergence of revived Cantonese films in new forms (leading to Hong Kong’s own version of a “New Wave” before the handover year of 1997).

Jing Jing Chang’s study Screening Communities (Hong Kong University Press, 2019) provides a well-documented and illuminating survey of a relatively little-known era for scholars who live outside Hong Kong and lack access to archives. Containing six concise chapters divided into three parts with introduction, coda, glossary, notes, filmography, bibliography, and index, the book contributes a valuable study on this key aspect of Hong Kong film history that needed further focus. Grounded in important archival and historical research, the book’s aptly chosen title reflects the author’s understanding of a complex time in a postwar community that was “constructed at the intersection of a triangulated relationship among colonial politics, culture, and film audiences – actual and presumed, real and implied…as much defined by lived experiences as by a cinematic construction, forged through negotiations between narratives of empire, nation, and the Cold War in and beyond Hong Kong” (3). This was a complex process, neither exclusively top-down or bottom-up, one involving active processes of “screening” by all involved, “through which cinema contributed to the building of Hong Kong’s postwar community – a milieu that served as an ideological battleground for Communists and Nationalists, colonizer and colonized – and diverse conceptions of empire, nation, and identity politics” (3). It was a world of negotiating spectatorship very similar to the process in American silent cinema documented in the influential work of Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon (1991), that examines the construction of the public sphere and spectatorship in that particular era and Judith Mayne’s examination of audience reaction. Agency and participation are key concepts here, ones that see Hong Kong’s current global status as being rooted in the very different world of the pre-1950s (18).

1713The first part examines a movement towards colonial modernity from the imperial legacy to politics in the pre-1997 era. Political censorship certainly existed in the early 50s, with the banning of On the Waterfront (1954) due to a fear of the developing labor unrest. But the film was eventually shown publicly two years later when tensions had eased (24). Cold War and communist factions, such as the Shanghai founded (by Cai Chuseng and others) Southern Film Corporation, all flourished in addition to the Studio One Film Theater where John Woo gained his cinematic education into Western cinema. At this time censorship affected both pro-military Taiwan films and Maoist epics, such as the 1950 version of White Haired Girl (eventually screened in 1972) by a Colony attempting to exert a precarious balancing act between Cold War forces at the time. Such issues involving tensions between idealism and pragmatism in Hong Kong’s official film culture form the subject matter of chapter two. Though linked to an “international imperial network of production, distribution, and exhibition” (56), at the time changes were happening which revealed that “the evolution of film aesthetics, narrative economy, and casting choices, as well as the exhibition contexts of Hong Kong official film, were indicative of a localized colonial strategy” (56-57). Several significant films appeared, such as Report to the Gods (1967), a work promoting colonial modernity that deals with the rapid construction of public housing, in which an actor plays both legendary kitchen god Tso Kwan and a spectator watching the building process (60-62). Naturally, with the 1967 Hong Kong riots, the government would use the recently begun monthly news magazine Hong Kong Today in English and Cantonese versions to promote its own view of the turmoil in The Year of the Ram (1967).

Part Two covers the movement towards a leftist vernacular modernism from the national to the familiar in terms of the legacies left by the 1924 Chinese May the Fourth movement and the activities of left wing cinema in Cold War Hong Kong concentrating on the Union Film production company’s Torrents Trilogy by Ba Jin (Family, Spring, and Autumn).  Many involved in this movement wished to use cinema as a form of education and had been actively involved in voluntary charity work for those affected by tragedies such as the 1953 Shek Kip Mei slum fire. (83) The key emphasis of this chapter is on the Torrents Trilogy that revealed the creative adaptation of wenyi (often equated with western forms of melodrama) to national progress and modernity according to its more hybrid aspects that encompassed both family and social issues. While the Mainland version of Family emphasized communist and anti-Confucian values, the Hong Kong version operated in a more complex and subtle manner attempting to create” a new national culture based on the notion of vernacular modernism and native place identity in and through the use of the Cantonese language” (90) thus ensuring the continuation of the May the Fourth ideology of progress in a new form adapted to the needs of the local community.

Family issues received address in the Cantonese family/social ethics cinema of lunlipian (leftist family melodrama) that contained a focus on the family as a site of conflicts and struggles between good and evil that saw its finest examples in the realistic portrayal of the underprivileged in works such as Father and Son (1954), The Prodigal Son (1952), and The Orphan (1960), the last featuring the young Bruce Lee. Issues of industrial and institutional gentrification also occurred in many of these films that combined modes of lunlipian and wenyipian (letters and arts) that are often rigidly separated by critics but were actively cohesively employed in contemporary marketing strategies, to market to “potential audiences not only as consumers but also as active social agents in the construction of postwar Hong Kong’s moral universe” (112). This was especially the case with Union’s In the Face of Demolition (1953) that was described as a “social family lunli tragedy” and Xinlian’s Typhoon Signal No. 10 (1959), categorized as a “realist wenyipian” (112). Although censorship made it impossible to produce overtly political films, progressive Cantonese directors often “created apolitical films with `healthy’ content to promote their left-leaning politics” employing the familial address of lunli to express their own values (112). Whether we can regard them as “apolitical” is another matter, and we need to see the films to assess fully their implications to whether they are so or employing evasive strategies well known to Hollywood cinema. Chang needs to discuss these broader issues.

Genre blurring in films such as The House of Murders (1963) and A Mad Woman (1964) contain intriguing fusions of family issues, generic blurring, and gentrification worthy of future study.

The final part Toward a Gendered Industrialized City: From a Borderless to a Localized Place covers issues of Chinese identity and the cinematic masquerades of factory girls and teddy girls in constructing celebrity culture and fandom” (124). In the first, border-crossing and vertically integrated film enterprises seen in certain Shaw Brothers, Cathay, and Kong Ngee films receive detailed treatment. In many cases, it is a shame that key films, such as Lung Kong’s Teddy Girls (1969), are not easily accessible, while the Cathay Air Hostess (1959) is at least available on youtube with French subtitles. The 60s also saw the appearance of James Bond satires, such as Chor Yuen’s Black Rose (1965), and the short-lived popularity of “Jane Bond” films.

House of 72 Tenants

House of 72 Tenants (1973)

This study concludes with a coda moving towards a new global form of spectatorship but significantly notes the relationship of Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) to the Shaw Brothers 1973 color production of House of 72 Tenants, based on a Shanghainese burlesque stage play about life in pre-1949 Shanghai society and also a remake of the more politicized 1963 leftist film Those 72 Tenants. Chang points out that this new production was another example of the fusion that characterized post-war Hong Kong cinema since even in the 50s Cathay and the Shaws often breached Cold War politics by distributing films from Hong Kong leftist studios and, ironically, The House of 72 Tenants became one of the most popular 1970s Cantonese comedies spoken in a language that would again diminish its rival competitor Mandarin. “Despite being adapted from a once highly politicized 1960s film, it transcended Cold war politics and appealed to a post- Cold-War Society” (177). Similarly, Chang concludes that Hong Kong cinema will also constantly negotiate with powerful narratives from its past “in an ongoing quest and process to construct and screen its distinctive local community” (184).

Continuity of influences and traditions represent a key merit of this study. Although the author could not cover every film, one later film following ideas contained within Chor Yuen’s 1973 Shaw Bros tribute The House of 72 Tenants deserves mention. Although often dismissed as a rip-off of Back to the Future, Peter Chan’s co-directed He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993) compares the social values of 50s Cantonese cinema with contemporary Hong Kong materialism. Featuring the two Tony Leungs in a rare collaboration, materialistically minded son (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) returns to the past and understands and eventually respects the social values of his father (Tony Leung Ka-fai) whose old fashioned values he previously dismissed. (1)

Read the Introduction and Coda of the book here.

Reference

  1. Tony Williams, “Tony Leung Ka-Fai: The Other Tony Leung.” Asian Cinema 16.1 (2005): 258-259. Lisa Stokes and Michael Hoover (whose pathfinding study is inexplicably omitted from the bibliography) also sees this film in similar terms. See City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. London: Verso, 1999), 211-213. See also Williams, “The House of 72 Tenants”. Directory of World Cinema 12: China. Ed. Gary Bettinson. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012, 204-205.

Tony Williams is author of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), editor of Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan (Hong Kong university Press, 2015), and co-editor with Esther C.M. Yau of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). He was a frequent contributor to Asian Cinema as well as contributing to The Blackwell Companion to Hong Kong Cinema (2015).

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