Drug War (2013)
Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012)

With a goal to look “closely into the many shades and faces that make up the usual and unusual suspects of neo-noir,” and “to illuminate and enrich an expanding range of global noirs” (2), Eshter C.M. Yau with co-editor – and Film International Contributing Editor – Tony Williams present their edited collection Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), the first of its kind to assess a national tradition in tandem with one growing worldwide. Yau and Williams talked with Film International about the project.

How did the project begin? Tony, were you involved from the beginning?

Esther Yau (EY):  The project idea started back in 2009. I moved from teaching at Occidental College in Los Angeles to the University of Hong Kong and then began thinking of a particular noirish feel with Hong Kong’s cityscape and Johnnie To’s Election, on which I presented a conference paper. When I was writing an essay on Ringo Lam’s Victim, I referenced the original version of Tony’s book Hearths of Darkness: the Family in the American Horror Film (1996; updated version: University Press of Mississippi, 2015). Knowing that he has also completed a study of John Woo and an essay on Johnie To, I invited Tony to co-edit the volume with me.  The contributors to the volume have shared similar scholarly and critical interest in Hong Kong film noir, and their proposals confirmed that this is a viable project.

Tony Williams (TW): After Esther generously invited me to be co-editor, I was really honored because I’ve read Esther’s work and I first met her at a conference years ago before this project started. I also admired her edited collection of essays At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World (University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Half my books have been collaborative and I find this process really stimulating in terms of sharing ideas from different perspectives.

Since this is a groundbreaking text, did you have generalist readers in mind, or specialists in Asian cinema/noir?

EY: The volume intends to appeal to readers who have some knowledge of noir films. The potential readers may, or may not, know a lot about Asian or Hong Kong cinema.  Cinephiles and college students in most parts of the world would have seen a few Hong Kong films or Asian films today.

TW: I would say that this book appeals to both levels of readership. Currently, there is a huge interest in the issue of noir, both literary and cinematic in the classical and neo-noir senses. It is definitely an international genre and a general readership exists not confined to the specialist field. In any case, the best type of book or collection of essays appeals to all audience levels interested in this field.

When did your interest in international noir begin? Tony, which was the first national cinema, outside of Europe and the US, to gain your attention?

Hong Kong Neo-NoirEY: Noir began to interest me when I saw Body Heat (1981) at a U.S. campus one year after it was released. The international noir idea grew as I read more on the subject while writing the introduction. I began to find strong confirmation that there’s a growing tendency to situate noir in an international context, with remakes, citations, re-inventions, and so on. This trend has rapidly expanded the frame of noir beyond the US. There are now studies of European noir before the 1940s: David Desser has put forth “global noir” as a working concept, and so on. Our volume is dealing with a 20th-21st century phenomenon that has crossed borders, and scholarship is now more ready to address and rethink this phenomenon.

TW: Like many people, I grew up on American film noir both in theatres and television screenings. Back in 1975, I actually attended a BFI Screen conference on film noir that also ran Poetic Realist influential films such as Pepe le Moko, Quai des Brumes, and Le Jour se Leve to show the international perspective that early writers on this field referred to. It was an enjoyable conference and probably explains why Screen returned to hard core Althusser and Lacan the following year! As you well know, Laura Mulvey’s 1975 diktat opposed any form of pleasure in narrative cinema.

As for the second part of the question, I would say that Hong Kong was definitely the first national cinema outside of Europe to attract my attention. The boom period of the 80s revealed not only the rise of John Woo but also gangster noirs by Kirk Wong and others that had their own distinctive take on the tradition. Expert neo-noir cinematography featured in many of these films and, as you know, Johnnie To developed his own version of “Kowloon Noir.” Last, but not least, Hong Kong had its gallery of familiar faces such as Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Shing Fui-ong, Simon Yam, and Roy Cheung (subject of my Asian Cult Cinema article “My Favorite Triad”) that matched American noir counterparts such as Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Lloyd Nolan, Elisha Cook Jr, and Peter Lorre, all great actors.

Tony, did any of your various writings on noir specifically inform this collection?

TW: I don’t particularly think so because I’ve generally focused on other authorship and genre issues but one contributor did cite one article of mine on Dr. Lam. As co-editor, I was more interested in the different and diverse type of approaches all the contributors could add.

I see that you place noir as beginning is the UK. How does this shape your overall understanding of the genre in general?

TW: As I wrote on “British Film Noir” in Film Noir Reader 2 (that the editors should have proof-read much better), the noir visual effect appears much earlier than the USA, in The Green Cockatoo (1937), directed by the American William Cameron Menzies from a story and scenario by Graham Greene, and photographed by German Jewish refugee Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene). You can see several noir touches such as a street scene that looks like it derives from G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925). The film also has music by Miklos Rosza who later scored several well known American noirs in the 40s. The late William K. Everson wrote an early two-part article in Films In Review noting other examples. So the movement really began in the UK at the same time that French cinema was still merging Poetic Realism with film noir. As a result, I see film noir as an international style that benefits from cross-fertilization on the part of many talents from different cultures.

Esther, how have your earlier works informed this one?

EY: I edited At Full Speed, on Hong Kong cinema, by making cultural globalization its conceptual frame. People have told me that this approach was ground-breaking for Hong Kong cinema, as it departed from the frame of “national cinema” (i.e. Hong Kong as either a sub-unit in “(PRC) Chinese cinema”) or Hong Kong films as “ethnic / cult” cinema (as with the Bruce Lee or martial arts movies). The call for abstracts has asked contributors to attend to urban modernity and its specific manifestations in Hong Kong. That entails looking into how global noir idioms got transformed in the Hong Kong cityscape, and its vibrant gangster film conventions and the noir films in turn expand the study of noir.

Lisa Odham Stokes’ chapter on Wong Tin-lam’s The Wild, Wild Rose seems essential. Was this piece commissioned?

The Wild Wild Rose (1960)
The Wild Wild Rose (Wong Tin-lam, 1960)

EY: Lisa Odham Stokes’ co-wrote City on Fire (Verso, 1999) and has continued to write on Hong Kong cinema. She decided to write on The Wild, Wild Rose when I invited her to contribute an essay to the volume.

TW: Lisa Odham Stokes is a very good friend and respected colleague. Her text that Esther mentioned, co-written with Michael Hoover (note the role of collaboration here!), is one of the best studies of Hong Kong Cinema that has been written. We first met at a Trent Polytechnic Conference on Kong Kong Cinema many years ago and contributed to the now sadly defunct fanzine Asian Cult Cinema, edited by Tom Weisser in Miami.

Law Kar’s chapter provides some essential historical context. I assume this piece was an important addition.

EY: Law Kar has co-written a study of Hong Kong cinema with Frank Bren. He has written a short Chinese essay for the Hong Kong International Film Festival talking about Shanghai noir and the early noir titles that are no longer around. There were some limitations since the China Film Archive has not made available whether most film titles of commercial Shanghai cinema, aside from the few that Law Kar has discussed, still exist in the archive’s underground vaults. The directors who left Shanghai and started making films with noirish elements in Hong Kong provided valuable context to the discussion. I curated the essay and copy-edited some parts.

TW: Law Kar is a superb film archivist. I met him years ago at a conference organized by David Desser at the university of Illinois at Urbana-Champagn. He instantly recognized me as the author of a recent article that appeared in Asian Cult Cinema. The fact that Law Kar had read this when at least one other snotty academic trashed the publication made me respect him all the more.

Now, Esther in her reply raises an issue that has always been on my mind. It is highly possibly that the pre-1949 Shanghai commercial cinema had their own version of noir. It was influenced by Hollywood as we know from the melodramas that survived, but until we know for certain nobody can be sure. I hope they will release these films eventually.

In his chapter, Adam Bingham has some wonderful insights about noir in general, which are helpful to his specific focus. Though he seems at odds with other writers – how do you feel about the polymorphic nature of some of these chapters together? This is true, especially since the following chapter, by Gina Marchetti, seems to come from a different direction.

TW: The question evokes my memory of Robin Wood’s fascination with “polymorphous perversity.” Please excuse this irreverence. It is my version of Howard Hawks “having fun” telling a “good story” though in my case in an interview. Seriously, though, the more diverse and “polymorphous” certain approaches are, the better our knowledge will become so I always encourage such directions.

Anything written by Gina Marchetti is first class. She and many Hong Kong scholars have my admiration for the superb work they are doing in this field. The days are gone when we used to engage in rigid definitions of noir as either a genre or style. This reminds me of overhearing somebody agonizing in London’s National Film Theatre Book Store years ago as to whether a film fitted into being either “paradigmatic” or “syntagmatic” in those glorious scientific days of Christian Metz before The Imaginary Signifier. Since the Thames was nearby I hope he did not move towards a watery solution?

[Laughs] Tony, your chapter on Shinjuku Incident seems to stem from your earlier work in genre criticism. Can you comment?

Shinjuku Incident (2009)
Shinjuku Incident (Tung-Shing Yee, 2009)

TW: Thank you. Actually, it was an extension of a shorter 1,500 word article that appeared in the last issue of Asian Cult Cinema in 2000. However, when re-working and extending it, Esther suggested that I look at Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003) that really complement the themes of Shinjuku Incident. That was the benefit of having an expert co-editor as well as a first-class colleague and scholar.

What films did you discover during the project? Are there any left on your two-view list?

EY: Both Law Kar’s essay and from Kristof Van dan Troost’s essay have given interesting leads to broaden the corpus. An interesting discovery was the noirish martial arts films by director Kuei Chi Hung. The director’s films include The Lady Professional (1971), The Teahouse, Big Brother Cheng, and Killer Constable (1980), the last one is discussed in Van dan Troost’s chapter. The Hong Kong Film Archive had a retrospective of Kuei’s films in 2011 and they published a bilingual monograph of Kuei as well.

TW: I’m sure other films will turn up in due course. The field is so immense and there is always something new to discover.

Did viewing and reading about all the films in the collection urge you to reread the classics, or US neo-noirs, in any way?

TW: I teach a class on Robert Aldrich every summer that includes his important film noir work, and I’m always looking at various examples of noirs, especially French film noirs of the Occupation period that I’ve recently finished a first draft article on.

Have you thought of other national neo-noirs to tackle next?

EY: I brought up a few recent PRC neo-noir titles in the introduction. We will wait and see.

TW: The national neo-noir angle looks interesting since I’ve just completed Woody Haut’s book Neon Noir (Serpent’s Tail, 1999), where he lists both literary and cinematic examples. However, in my different classes on Noir Literature and Film I’m trying to go beyond the canon and include later diverse examples such as Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky. The problem here is that not many good film version of their work have appeared, though Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995) is an exception. Flicker Alley intend to release a 1946 Argentinian film noir on DVD in a few months, and I’m planning to read the Cuban detective novels of Leonardo Padura Fuetes during the summer, so there may be some new paths to follow there.

Anything else you’d like to say about the project?

EY: The contributors have made this volume possible. Edinburgh University Press will publish the paperback version in February, 2018.

TW: Yes, a paperback version at a reasonable price is essential since it should reach a much wider readership than the hardback version. They should have released both from the very beginning.

Esther C. M. Yau teaches cinema studies in the School of Humanities at The University of Hong Kong.

Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor of Film International and Professor and Area Head of Film Studies, English Department, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

5 thoughts on “Esther C.M. Yau and Tony Williams on Hong Kong Neo-Noir

  1. A most helpful overview, especially for those of us who came of age somewhat restricted by American cinema.

  2. Wow! Reminds me of Dewey Martin’s oft-repeated line in Hawks’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – “I think you’re right, sir” Appreciated from the decks of SIUC Titanic.

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