Critics and Category III Films

In late 2011, while still eagerly awaiting the Region 2 DVD release of Hong Kong studio 852 Films’ second feature, Wong Ching Po’s Revenge: A Love Story, I came across the following review of the film by Catherine Shoard of the Guardian.  Having thoroughly enjoyed 852’s first production, Dream Home (dir. Pang Ho Cheung), I was disappointed, albeit not surprised, at the Guardian’s dismissive, 100 word, one star review.  Of course, films such as Dream Home and Revenge…, which flaunt their presentation of extreme violence as a badge of honour, do tend to engender, and court, an oppositional cult following and it would be churlish to suggest that a national newspaper should devote more space to such output or that their critics’ interests and tastes should correspond directly with those of Hong Kong Category III enthusiasts such as myself.  It is perhaps understandable that Shoard found the film’s presentation of a sentimental, mawkish romance alongside sequences of extreme violence both perplexing and unappealing.  Nor is it surprising that she might be unimpressed by its carrying on of Hong Kong cinema’s proud tradition of grammatically and semantically dubious English subtitling.  That said, what ultimately prompted me to write this post, and indeed to begin this blog, were the following glaring, avoidable inaccuracies contained within the review.

Firstly, as the only comment that the review received points out, surely in this great age of information it is not unreasonable to expect critics to correctly identify the directors of the films that they review.  Shoard compares Revenge… unfavourably with Dream Home, pointing out that “at least Wong’s last film, Dream Home, about one homicidal lady’s eagerness to get on the housing ladder, could be presented as social satire”.  This remark does have some validity as Dream Home did have an explicit sociopoliticial message and, surprisingly for a review of an unheralded Hong Kong genre film, this provides some context for the reviewer’s misgivings.  Unfortunately however (and at the risk of sounding like this guy) Wong did not direct Dream Home which was, of course, directed by Pang Ho Cheung.  Both films were produced by the same production company and it is conceivable that this was the source of her error.  Nevertheless the fact that such an error has remained uncorrected on the Guardian’s website for several months betrays the regard in which Revenge… and its ilk are held by critics in the mainstream media.

The second major error became apparent when I eventually got to see the film.  Returning to Shoard’s review after a couple of months I noticed that her synopsis did not actually correspond with what happened onscreen.  “This one features a DIY midwife who likes slicing out foetuses before term, disposing of their corpses, then letting the mother haemorrhage to death. Dodgy cops don’t prove much use, but a hot young bun-steamer (not a euphemism) decides action is required.”  Just a quick note, at no point is there any suggestion that the “bun steamer” serves as an identifiable vigilante hero in the manner implied by Shoard.  Again, it is difficult to review and synopsise a film when constricted to less than 100 words yet, having seen the film, it is difficult to shake the suspicion that either Shoard’s ambivalence towards the film has prompted her to present the (truthfully already preposterous) premise as even more preposterous than it actually is or she wasn’t really paying attention because nobody cares anyway.  Who knows?  Not me.

My reaction to this small, throwaway review reminded me of a conversation that I had with a friend following the release of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.  I recall being quite irritated after having read a derisory review of the album in some lads’ mag (either FHM or Loaded) where the author had dismissed “All Hail the Thief” in comparison with the band’s previous output.  Yet, as my wise old chum pointed out at the time, merits of the work aside, if they can’t even get the name of the album right then how can the reader treat the review with anything but disdain?  One might legitimately ask why my friends and I were looking to magazines that published columns such as “Travels with my Penis” for music recommendations.  The answer to that question is simply that we were idiots.  However, the point that I am trying to make is essentially that if we didn’t already know that we weren’t going find what we were looking for in this magazine then this mistake was a belated realisation that we were looking for guidance in all the wrong places*.

Conversely, while there are plenty of dedicated Hong Kong review sites available online, many betray a fan sensibility that avoids any serious critical engagement with the films that they review.  I used to occasionally pick up the excellent, but sadly now defunct, Asian Cult Cinema magazine and I recall one particular article on the subject of the softcore Japanese pulp film Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers (Issue #59).  The author of the piece began by displaying a strange and contrived, albeit slightly humorous, outrage at the notion of critics possibly finding subtextual allegories in genre films.  Citing a review of Night of the Living Dead the author, Edward Lee, was furious at the very idea that this particular critic had made inferences regarding the film’s broader meanings and ethnographic significance.  Lee himself gives the authoritative final word on Romero’s work – “It was about zombies staggering around the woods, munchy-wunching human innards” (Roland Barthes must be spinning in his grave).  He then extols the virtues of Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers nice and succinctly “Chopped off toes thrown into the toilet, a geometry-class protractor reinvented as a throwing knife, chainsaw evisceration, lesbian spit-ropes, forced push-ups in bondage gear, a naked hottie practicing her butterfly knife in the shower, butt-eating, girls with their hands stuffed down each other’s pants, more blood than the elevator scene in The Shining, and last but not least: the good ole Vaginal-Insert-Laser”.  While certainly amusing, this is less criticism than an, admittedly enthusiastic, listing of events.  That is not to say that there is not serious English language criticism of Asian cult and genre cinema available, such as Kevin Ma’s excellent review of Revenge…, currently available on LoveHKFilm, or the frequent updates on David Bordwell’s blog, however much of this online content caters to an already converted audience.

One of my personal favourite misogynists once remarked, with typical eloquence, that there’s more than one way to shave a cat.  And there are, just as there are also a number of ways to watch a film.  Not everything has to conform to the middlebrow sensibilities of broadsheet critics (an unfair generalisation I’ll admit) but nor does everyone revel in onscreen nudity and high body counts.  Hopefully this blog can provide some alternative perspectives on films that are overlooked by the mainstream media but remain under-appreciated by the fanboys.

*I am aware of the irony in admonishing others for their relaxed attitude to fact checking while I have not even bothered to check which magazine the review came from.  In my defence, I am pretty sure that the review was in Loaded however the “Travels with my Penis” column is definitely from FHM and I needed an excuse to mention it.

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