During the 1990s and 2000s there was a preoccupation with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in English language academic writing on Hong Kong cinema. Almost every analysis, from the modes of production to the aesthetic decisions made by directors, needed to be refracted through the prism of 1997. The frantic visuals and homoerotic melodrama that characterised the work of John Woo and his many imitators came to embody the notion of the Hong Kong industry being a cinema “in crisis” – reflecting the uncertainty of Hong Kong society in the years leading up to the handover. The prolific output of studios and directors and the frenetic production schedules on films were also attributed to this sense of “crisis” and economic uncertainty and seen as reflective of a pan-class desire to make as much money as possible before the handover. I honestly don’t know how legitimate these arguments were and how significant 1997 was to the industry as a whole as I have never been to Hong Kong nor do I have any particular knowledge of or interest in its recent socioeconomic history. I would imagine that there is probably quite a bit of truth to them and, in any case, making broad connections between art and social and economic history is usually quite fun and easy and generally makes for pretty interesting reading. Unfortunately, for much of the past decade there was a continued focus in many quarters on 1997. Again, I am not arguing that such positions were without legitimacy, but simply that they were boring and unoriginal. In a 2009 article on the Young and Dangerous series, the academic, David Desser, suggested that the allegorical reading of commercial Hong Kong cinema was overplayed by western academics and critics. He felt that reading everything as an allegory meant that such films’ representations of life in Hong Kong, which could be incredibly accurate and insightful, were often overlooked. In other words, literal analysis was abandoned in favour of searching for tenuous connections to 1997 that might allow for allegorical readings.
Since then the focus appears to have changed significantly. Academia has moved on from the question of 1997 to the simultaneously more practical and existential question of whether “Hong Kong Cinema”, as we understand it, still actually exists. A lot has been made of the autonomy of the cinematic output of Hong Kong from that of the PRC. Given the growth of the Chinese economy in recent years, it is understandable that the Hong Kong film industry should be focusing its efforts on reaching a mainland audience. The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between the mainland and Hong Kong and Macau was signed in 2003 with the aim of, broadly speaking, promoting trade between the PRC and its special administrative regions via measures such as removing trade tarrifs, quotas etc. on trade between the regions. A consequence of this agreement was that certain Hong Kong films could be considered exempt from the foreign film quota on the mainland and Chinese-Hong Kong co-productions were treated as domestic products in China.
Unfortunately, the notorious PRC censors remain a hurdle for Hong Kong productions aiming for a release in Chinese cinemas. The obvious workaround for Hong Kong filmmakers intent on making more risqué material that might not conform to the sensibilities of the PRC administration’s tastes is put out two versions of the film – a Hong Kong/overseas edit and a Chinese edit. This is certainly not a new concept. There is a tradition in Hong Kong studios of exporting diluted edits of films to less liberal Chinese markets (eg. Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore). On Tartan’s Region 2 DVD release of Infernal Affairs they have included an alternate ending amongst the special features which was shot specifically to appease the censorship board in Malaysia. And this phenomenon is not confined to Asian cinema. Sergio Corbucci shot an absolutely hilarious alternative “happy ending” for his 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence. Apparently this more optimistic version (which, by the way, completely undermines the entire premise of the film) was shot at the behest of the studio who felt that the film would not find an audience in America in its original, unadulterated form.
There is a very interesting article (available here) entitled ‘One Movie, Two Versions: Post-1997 Hong Kong Cinema in Mainland China’ by Hilary Hongjin on this very subject. She makes the eminently logical argument that the idea of releasing alternate, censor appeasing edits of films underestimates the intelligence of mainland Chinese audiences, particularly in the modern, information era. Audiences would obviously rather watch an original edit of a film, which can be accessed via internet piracy, rather than pay to go and see a bastardised, truncated version of the same film at the cinema. Consequently, releasing films in their unedited original form becomes a selling point with the phrase “Not Even One Cut!” frequently appearing on posters. In order to be able to do this Hong Kong directors need to self-censor at the point of production.
Unsurprisingly, self-censorship has led to a certain dilution of the excess for which Hong Kong cinema garnered renown during the ’80s and ’90s. There are some interesting exceptions. The surprisingly affecting and bleak ending of Derek Yee’s 2009 thriller Overheard has been attributed to such self-censorship as Yee had to make the point that crime does not pay. On the other hand, as Hilary Hongjin notes, certain filmmakers have challenged the restrictions of censorship by burying esoteric, ideologically subversive content within their work. One of the examples that she gives is actually Johnnie To’s Exiled, an interesting Heroic Bloodshed pastiche that made the subtextual concerns of the films of John Woo more textually explicit. Indeed the film is set in Macau on the eve of the handover of the colony from Portugal back to China. But unfortunately, for the most part, this does not happen and the vast majority of Hong Kong’s output has become incredibly bland and safe, often just retreading stuff that Hollywood does much better as inoffensively as possible.
Up until recently Johnnie To’s boutique production house, Milkyway Image, appeared to be the standard bearer for “quality” Hong Kong cinema. Over the past ten years the self-styled auteur has made a name for himself on the festival circuit as the director and producer of a series of incredibly stylish and self-aware crime thrillers, the most recent of which was Vengeance, an action/thriller starring Belgian pop star, Johnny Hallyday. However, certain critics, most notably the Asian film expert Tony Rayns, have found the self-consciousness in To’s work to be little more than an explicit attempt at pandering to an arthouse audience. One does find a sense of resentment in some writing on Hong Kong cinema of the fact that To is presented and marketed by the local industry as the festival friendly face of Hong Kong cinema but that his festival fare such as The Mission, Mad Detective, Exiled or A Hero Never Dies are little more than highly stylised, if ultimately empty, pastiches of crime films. In other words all fur coat and no knickers. Indeed, writing about To’s career in 2008, Andrew Grossman, himself a critic predisposed towards To’s work, closes his piece by lamenting his recent overt attempts at striving for arthouse legitimacy.
This brings me to 852 Films, the production house responsible for the 2009 slasher film Dream Home and the 2011 quasi rape-revenge thriller, Revenge: A Love Story. Helmed by Conroy Chan and his wife, Josie Ho (also the star of Dream Home), the company’s two releases to date are remarkable insofar as they appear aimed at neither a mainland nor an arthouse audience. The films’ flagrant displays of graphic violence and explicit female nudity prevent the former while the low prestige generic milieu of the pictures undermines their “arthouse” appeal. This is not to say that these films are mindless exploitation fare, for they are not. Indeed Dream Home is a particularly thought provoking piece. I mean simply to point out that the company appears unique in its eschewal of the typical practices of contemporary commercial Hong Kong cinema – to appeal to either a mainland Chinese audience (and meet the demands of the PRC’s censors) or a global festival audience.
Dream Home is directed by Pang Ho-Cheung and tells the story of a woman (Ho) driven to brutal murder in her pursuit of her dream – to own her own property. Like most of Pang’s work, Dream Home is certainly aesthetically pleasing. However, unlike the equally visually pleasing Isabella, it is also incredibly original and not simply an attempt to ape Wong Kar-Wai. The film is set against the backdrop of the recent property crash and offers a pretty compelling backstory for its vicious protagonist while also managing to pass comment on the tribulations of Hong Kong’s working class pre-Handover (Sorry! But it does. I promise). It is one of those films that successfully manages to maintain realistic, believable, three dimensional characters within the context of a genre. This is a rare achievement, rarer still within the slasher genre. The murder scenes have excess and a dark humour that one would expect in a conventional slasher but which fit surprisingly well with the poignancy of the film’s quieter dramatic moments. It’s a testament to Josie Ho’s portrayal of this put-upon, working class murderer that she can retain my empathy while cutting off a hipster’s genitals mid-coitus.
Revenge: A Love Story is perhaps the lesser of the two films. It’s a revenge horror thriller that is clearly inspired by the Korean vengeance films of the past ten years such as Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance trilogy and Kim Ji-Woon’s A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil. Like Dream Home it contains graphic sex and violence and a murderous protagonist but unlike Pang’s film one could level the charge that it, perhaps, has ideas slightly above its station. This is not to say that it isn’t a good movie. It is. It’s directed by Wong Ching-Po who previously directed Jiang Hu (a gangster film worth checking out, if only for its nifty manipulation of time in its narrative structure). I am reluctant to give away too much of the plot but, simply put, Revenge centres on the brutal interrogation by police of the chief suspect in the murder of several pregnant women. Unlike 852’s previous release, Revenge‘s characters are not rooted in reality. But there is an otherworldliness to the film that is reminiscent of Park Chan-Wook’s best work. I found its combination of crass sentimentality and shocking brutality strangely appealing, unlike Catherine Shoard, and a throwback to the early ’90s Category III films of the likes of Herman Yau.
There is something refreshing about these films’ disregard for the increasingly hegemonic Chinese market. I was recently rereading Comolli and Narboni’s essay, Cinema/Ideology/Criticism, and I remain at a loss as to how to classify these movies according to the seven categories outlined in the piece. I do find their graphic content matter and, in the case of Dream Home, subject matter, potentially ideologically subversive. But then I remember that Josie Ho is the daughter of a billionaire tycoon and this information just seems to undercut the apparent courageousness of the projects. This is not meant as a slight against either the films or the actress, I love both, but simply my attempt to avoid looking stupid by gushing too much over these films “importance”. That said, I hope that 852 continues to make these nasty, contrary genre pictures and doesn’t descend into bland festival fare like Milkyway Image. Even if I don’t really know what the hell they’re up to.