Tag Archives: Hong Kong

The Way We Are

While Song of the Exile is probably Ann Hui’s best known film, there is a growing consensus that her more recent work is her best. The Way We Are, made in 2008, is set in Hong Kong’s ‘City of Sorrow’, Tin Shui Wai, a public housing estate known for its high levels of unemployment and associated problems (see here for an SCMP report on the area’s high suicide rates as an example.) As we’d expect from someone who emerged from Hong Kong’s New Wave, Hui’s social conscience and concern for the dispossessed strongly inform her film; but her stories tend to eschew outright despair, and in this case we see a wholly charming evocation of the strength of a family’s love and unity despite less than ideal living circumstances. More, we see how that love extends out into a whole community. It’s a totally successful , satisfying film; when Huang Yaoshi, reviewing this film, calls Hui ‘the most gifted storyteller in Hong Kong’, it’s hard to disagree. Certainly, in her refusal to churn out genre pieces or to compromise the pace or subject matter she prefers, she’s one of the most independently-minded filmmakers currently working in Hong Kong.

The story centres around Mrs Cheung and her teenage son, On, who live together in a tiny, and very typically Hong Kong, apartment. Mrs Cheung cuts and packs durian at the local supermarket; On is spending the summer lounging at home while he waits for the results of his school exams to see whether he will be continuing with his education or not. The opening shots put us inside this apartment, looking out at Tin Shui Wai. The image is polysemic; the buildings look grim, partly because of the apparent lack of deliberate composition. However, the light and colour (typically of Hui) is beautiful. This ambiguity continues throughout the film and, eventually, becomes the point of the film. While we may pity these people for their poverty and their apparently tedious lives, they are not feeling sorry for themselves; they are just living their lives. To them, Tin Shui Wai is not ‘the city of sorrow’, but simply the place where they live.

city

The film is basically in the realist tradition. Perhaps inspired by the Italian neo-realists – certainly, the subject matter and the ideologies are similar – we have real sets, little in the way of artificial light or sound and what looks and sounds like ad-libbed acting. Likewise, the narrative echoes real life in that there is no strong sense of narrative causation. As movie-goers, we’re used to the feeling of watching a story being set up and constructed; we know that nothing happens in a movie’s narrative unless it advances the main plot in some way. When that causation is removed (as it is in life,where stuff happens all the time for no particular reason) it can leave the story feeling unplanned and directionless. The Way We Are needs to be approached in this light, as something that is seeking to shine a light on an aspect of life rather than to entertain an audience with a clever narrative. Yaoshi explains this, showing it as both a strength and a possible weakness, saying, ‘the films of Ann Hui are those who directly go to the core of what Hong Kong is about – but this core is as most of our lives perhaps unspectacular, mundane, and banal.’

The most obvious result of this is that nothing happens as we expect it, because our previous movie-watching experience comes between us and the film. For example, when On finally ventures out of the flat to go and see some ‘friends’, we expect him to be up to no good, especially when we see the long-haired young men he’s going to see.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 6.46.14 pm

And yet all they do is play mahjong (echoing a scene in which the elder characters did the same – the sense of community and continuity between the generations is very strong in this film.) They have a conversation about religion. Mostly, they ignore each other, as teenage boys do. The point is, of course, that the viewer’s expectations of this ‘type’ of person and of film itself, is wrong.

Likewise, we look for the ‘bad guys’ in the story because it feels wrongly weighted without them. Someone must be to blame for the tedium of these people’s lives! When we realise it’s not going to be On or any of his friends, attention turns to Big Uncle, Mrs Cheung’s brother. On’s cousins, returned to visit from America, bring a little colour and glamour into the film.

colourful rich cousins

We immediately start constructing oppositions in our minds; they are rich and On is poor, so they are bad and On is good. Particularly when we find out about how Mrs Cheung worked to put her brothers through University, we seem to have our bad guys. But of course, it doesn’t work out like that. There are no bad guys in this world; everyone is nice, in an undemonstrative everyday sort of way.

Which is not to say there is no narrative. An older lady meets Mrs Cheung but seems determined to refuse any offers of kindness or friendship. The story’s interest comes in part from the way she changes and opens up to others, as well as revealing something about her own past. But really, it’s an observational piece about the absolutely normal lives of these very normal people, and it’s a quietly celebratory film about family and community, as well as a film which subtly changes audience attitudes. While we watch them proceed with their lives, we make judgements about their surroundings or lives; but they are free of self pity and just continue with life. We’re at fault, not them.high angle lady oblivious to her own poverty. Perry Lam wrote that it’s ‘a great film in a small way and, in its tribute to the resilience of life, serves as an apt, shining metaphor for the filmmaking career of Hui herself.’ It is perhaps Ann Hui’s best film, which is saying a lot.

Hong Kong #3: Song of the Exile

The advent of the French New Wave directors in the late 1950s marked the beginning of a huge shift in global cinema. They shook the traditions of French cinema to their foundations; either by re-imagining and revising existing genres (the gangster film reborn in Godard’s Breathless, for example) or by ignoring the established rules of editing and composition (again, see the opening of Breathless to see just about every narrative, compositional and editing convention blown to bits.) As filmmakers in other countries saw how film could be as flexible as any other art form, how it could be recreated by and for a new generation, other ‘New Waves’ erupted over the globe; British Naturalism, German New Wave, New Hollywood are among the best known. Asia was affected too; it took longer, but Hong Kong’s new wave kicked off in the late 70s with a determination to change existing genres to address contemporary problems and to use more realist techniques.

One director strongly associated with the New Wave is Ann Hui. Her most famous early film is probably Boat People (1982), a study of the plight of refugees from Vietnam in Hong Kong. More recently she has been making films about poverty and disenfranchisement in the TIn Shui Wai area of Hong Kong(commonly called the ‘City of Sadness.’ Obviously, Hui has a consistent desire to explore Hong Kong’s social issues; in this regard, she has remained true to the political ethos of the New Wave (crudely put, a broadly socialist commitment to social equality.)

There are other elements to New Wave, though. The original crop of French directors, particularly Francois Truffaut, were strongly associated with auteur theory (Truffaut was the first to articulate it, in his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’) and as such they only recognised ‘real’ artists as those who treated film as an opportunity to explore and express individuality. Their films were often very personal and idiosyncratic as they sought to develop a personal style and subject matter.

Hui’s 1990 film, Song of the Exile, certainly manages this in one way since it is, at least in part, autobiographical. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of Hueyin, studying (and having fun) in London when her mother calls her back to Hong Kong for her sister’s wedding.  Arguments ensue as her mother, Aiko,  takes control of her hair and dress and refuses to allow her any independence. The relationship looks irrevocably broken as we see where all this tension came from; Hueyin was raised in Macau, primarily by her grandparents and has always felt resentment towards her apparently distant mother for taking her away from her beloved grandfather to live in Hong Kong. We find out that Aiko is originally Japanese and the relationship between mother and daughter takes on new dimensions when they travel together to Japan and unearth some aspects of Aiko’s past. We come to realise that the ‘exile’ of the title is not primarily Hueyin, but Aiko.

song-of-the-exile

The primary focus of the film is on the family; it is a very recognisable tale of a younger generation seeking to escape the influence of their parents (a theme which could stand as a metaphor for the entire New Wave.) Most obviously, the familial tensions are between Hueyin and Aiko.  Aiko desperately wants her daughter to be ‘good’; we can see this in the way she dresses her for the wedding as a ‘good’ Hong Kong daughter, in a red dress and a perm, exactly the same as her own. She is trying to fit her daughter into a tradition, perhaps, to allow her a sense of belonging, the opposite of ‘exile’ , which she herself was denied. The wedding itself is shown to be noisy and familial; people are packed into the frame and there is a lot of movement, but Hueyin is pictured alone, off by herself; a product, perhaps, of Western individualism.

Wedding

So, the first part of the film shows Aiko destroying what remains of her relationship with her daughter. However, as we learn Aiko’s story through flashback, we see that she had the same sort of dysfunctional experience. She lived with her husband’s parents, and it becomes clear that they habitually dismissed her authority and demeaned her in front of her daughter. She is shot in chiaroscuro in these sections, semiotically indicating her despair, a despair which she seems destined to had on to her daughter (we see her beating her child.) Even the grandfather mentions that he wanted to study Western medicine but was forced to focus on Chinese medicine by his father. The theme is clear, and depressing; familial dysfunction is hereditary.

Mum chiaroscuro in Macau

There is also a more general theme about the effect of political and historical processes and events on individuals. Hueyin’s grandparents are in Macau because they are fleeing from the Cultural revolution. Aiko is living in Manchukuo when it is reclaimed by China after japan’s fall, and there she meets Hueyin’s father; that is how she ends up an ‘exile’, first in Macau, then in Hong Kong. Even Hueyin is strongly associated with liberal and progressive ideas in the opening section of the film, and she is shown to be as much a product of her environment as any of the other characters. Chinese history is told through the lens of this one family’s story, and thus large social processes are made personal and relatable. Given that the film was made one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, it is hardly surprising that Hui’s attention is on politics, at least in part. The end of the film is more generally optimistic than the audience might expect, but it is typical of realist modes of storytelling in that it is open-ended; we do not know what decisions Hueyin might make as the film ends with her crying in close-up.

Crying at end

The film, typically of Hui, is beautiful; generally quite dark, there are lovely blue and green-tinted scenes throughout. Generally, there is a powerful sense of melancholy and nostalgia which reflects the theme of missed opportunities and broken relationships.

Loely blue

Hong Kong #1: Once Upon a Time in China

Like any national cinema, Hong Kong’s is complex and deep. Certain genres tend to dominate, though, and one of the more obvious ones is wuxia. This is a sort of Chinese historical drama, often (but not always) based on real characters or events, centring around the use of martial arts. The hero is generally the martial arts expert, fighting for what is right and good. As wikipedia points out, these heroes ‘can be compared to martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai‘s bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America’s Westerns.’ Film can reflect the history of a nation; if the western, for example, is America’s conversation with itself about how their country came to be what it is, then wuxia  serves a similar function in China; it is (sometimes) a working out of historical events and processes which came to form China and Hong Kong.

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China is one of the classics of the genre, and a good introduction in that it is both very conventional and extremely well-done. The hero, played by Jet Li, is Wong Fei-hung – a fictionalised version of a real person and the subject of an awful lot of wuxia movies. In this version, Wong is the leader of a local militia (essentially a martial arts club – the ‘jianghu’ which features in so much wuxia.) He is very much framed as part of this group – he is hardly ever seen alone – thus reflecting and reinforcing the veneration of the collective which is such an important part of Confucian and Communist thinking. The film opens and closes with beautiful shots of him training his men, their movements perfectly coordinated. As is common,  we see him struggle against local gangsters and another martial arts master (‘Iron Vest Yim’) to defend his community. There is a love story too, between Wong and ’13th Aunt’, a relationship which is the embodiment of the courtly and restrained love considered ideal in the genre. Already, we see how Wong represents tradition, decency, collective responsibility; we can see why this is such a popular and traditional genre in China.

UNITY

Most interestingly, though, the film deals with China’s recent history with foreign countries. At the beginning, we hear how China is being divided up amongst foreigners (‘Hong Kong went to the British… Macau to the Portuguese…’) and the primary villains in the film, apart form the local gangsters, are the British and American military leaders. The binary opposition between China and ‘elsewhere’ is established earlier; we see foreign soldiers firing guns at a dragon festival (Wong heroically interjects himself to save the dragon, quickly being established as the embodiment of Chinese tradition), we hear Christian hymns competing with Chinese traditional music as Jesuit priests attempt to establish Christianity in China , wee see Wong refuse to wear a Western suit. (‘Chinese are Chinese,’ he says. ‘Westerners are western.’) These representations and oppositions are established powerfully when Wong goes to meet the Western leaders in order, supposedly to iron out conflicts which have been disturbing the peace. Located in a huge, white “colonial” hotel, littered with all the iconography of Western rule, the meeting soon becomes the first big fight of the film and the audience realises that Western arrogance will never co-exist peacefully with Chinese tradition. Against his will, Wong is drawn into the fight; he is represented throughout as a natural peacekeeper, though obviously when he does fight, he kicks ass all over the place. (He is Jet Li, after all.)

Fighting westerners

 

So, then, the fighting. Wuxia are martial arts films of a particular type; the fighting is generally highly stylised, with huge dependence on wire-work and impossible leaps. Martial arts are often under threat of banning in these films, and the discussion of martial arts itself is common. Obviously, kung fu is of enormous symbolic importance in wuxia; it represents Chinese tradition and all that is exceptional about China and her people. Here, Wong’s kung fu is pitted against the Westerners with their guns; his skill and power is opposed to their brutality and cowardice. No prizes for guessing who wins. The whole film is, thematically, an exploration of Chinese exceptionalism (just as the traditional Western is a reinforcemnt of white, Anglo-Saxon American exceptionalism.) When 13th Aunt tells Wong that the West has technological advantages (‘they invented the steam train and other things’) but that they don’t have the ‘people’ that China does, this is the point; Chinese people have more soul and spirit, more morality and decency and worthiness, than those from elsewhere. All of this Chinese spirit is symbolised by kung fu.

Martial arts need to be combined with a sense of decency, though, and it is in this regard that the hero of wuxia most closely represents the cowboy in American film or the samurai in Japanese film.  For all of these figures, fighting ability, toughness and courage are a means to an end; the end is the defence of a way of life regarded as the epitome of moral goodness. Wong is not defending himself or even, primarily, his jianghui: he is defending China’s past and battling to ensure that the future is as much like that past as possible. As such, wuxia is an ideologically very conservative genre, designed to construct and glorify a vision of Chinese tradition as the best possible way of life. Nationalism is common her and the representaions of foreigners are rarely sympathetic (this is common in martial arts movies generally; see, for example, the representation of Japanese people in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man.)

We see the effects of separating kung fu from its accompanying ideology of morality and decency (‘chivalry’ in Western terms or ‘Bushidō’ in Japan) in the character of the other martial arts master in the film, Yim. His kung fu is almost the match of Wong’s – in their first fight, he actually emerges (through an accident) as the winner.

Epic

 

He wants to establish his own school of martial arts in the school and must first defeat Wong (this is a very common plot device in the genre.) Wong treats him with respect and deference, which is not returned by Yim. Already we see that he lacks the important moral component of kung fu and this becomes much more obvious when he joins forces with the local gangsters and their paymasters, the thuggish American military. This is reinforced in the final fight between the to when we find that Yim has a secret blade hidden in his queue (his pigtail.)

There is much more in the movie, not all of it good. Comic relief is provided by Porky Wing the butcher and  Bucktooth So, the American-educated medic. There is the love story between Wong and 13th Aunt. Typically of the genre, there are many elements thrown together to maximise audience appeal; in this regard, it is very like the Indian masala movie. Some of the humour in particular is cringeworthy, but overall the film is a classic of its genre ad one of the clearest examples of the nationalistic and conservative impulses informing wuxia.

Ip Man

Wilson Yip’s Ip Man is a fictionalised biography of the eponymous hero, with (perhaps unfortunately) emphasis on the ‘fictionalised’ part. It tells the story of Ip Man’s transformation from wealthy, leisured gentleman to poverty-stricken labourer during the Second World War. The opning part of the film shows him as the most accomplished martial artist in the area, politely whupping local masters but never mentioning it in public. The cinematography at the start is often stunning – there are some beautifully shot interiors, for example, triumphs of form and balance which are reminiscent of films like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, and used for the same purpose; to establish order and equilibrium at the start of the film. The film looks beautiful throughout; this is its greatest strength.

Of course, Ip Man himself is China in microcosm; his prosperity, his equilibrium, is ruined by the arrival of the Japanese, and at about the midway point this film turns more obviously into an attack on Japanese brutality. The Japanese characters are little more than ciphers of sycophancy and brutality, and there is a slightly uncomfortable mix of history and fantasy in scenes where, for example, Ip Man calls for and beats ten Japanese soldiers single-handedly, and finally (of course) defeats the arrogant Japanese general himself in hand-to-hand combat in front of a baying crowd. The crowd, it is implied, are inspired to fight back against the invading army and thus, Ip Man is responsible for saving China. The most interesting character in the film is the local policeman, a Japanese collaborator who makes the most dramatic transition in the whole film.

It could be argued that such liberty with the truth (Ip Man was in Hong Kong for most of World War two) actually serves only to trivialise what happened in China during the war and, at worst, the film uses serious historical matter to deliver what is little more than a very hackneyed narrative dressed up as biography. The photography and fight scenes are fantastic, however- and arguably, that’s what these wuxia-indebted films do best.

Donnie Yen as Ip Man