Monday, January 30, 2012

The great magician

There is hope for HK cinema yet. Watch the above latest Derek Yee film and you see Lau Ching Wan channelling Michael Hui via his classic role as The Warlord. This year's best film about the magic of illusion. So it is about cinema and make believe much like The Artist.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese soft power

Chinese President Hu Jintao has upped the ante for Chinese soft power earlier this month. (The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2012) He said, “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence are not commensurate with China’s international status. The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.” He warned of hostile powers “westernizing” China – the process must be halted and thus the need to boost its cultural influence abroad. (somewhat similar to Singapore’s own anti-yellow, anti-hippie culture movement in the 1960s and 1970s)

Beijing has earmarked 45 billion yuan to fund the expansion of state-owned media groups like CCTV, state news agency Xinhua and China Radio International. The first shots are already fired. CCTV is opening a studio in Washington DC and will launch 2 channels.

The verdict is still out on this latest bid by China. Joseph Nye, who wrote the book on soft power, said that China would still be weak on soft power. (Today, 19 Jan 2012) He argued that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities. He wrote: “The development of soft power need not be a zero sum game. All countries can gain from finding attraction in one another’s cultures. But for China to succeed, it will need to unleash talents of its civil society. Unfortunately, that does not seem about to happen soon.” He cited the examples of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei and quoted Han Han as saying, “the restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud.”

Recent years have seen a boost in the Chinese animation and comics industries as encouraged by the Chinese government. Chinese rock music is too unpredictable to control and promote overseas. But ever since the return of Hong Kong to the mainland in 1997, the HK film industry has become a source of Chinese soft power. When former critical mainland directors like Zhang Yimou make apologies for authoritarianism in films like Hero (2002) and went on to stage the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it is no surprise for HK directors to pander to the Chinese market in making rom-coms and Beijing-friendly blockbusters filled with 3D special effects. See recent output by Tsui Hark and Johnnie To.

Which leads to me this final point: the consequences of Chinese soft power and the death of HK cinema. Perry Lam has argued in his book, Once A Hero: The Vanishing Hong Kong Cinema, that HK cinema as we know it, is dead. To quote Lam here at length:

“HK movies used to display a wise knowingness about what makes the city tick; what local viewers got from these movies was the unrivalled, unmitigated pleasure of recognition. The Mo lei tou type of humor in Stephen Chow’s movies is designed to elicit knowing laughter from viewers. To say that Mo lei tou is just silly talk is to miss altogether the fierce cultural pride of HK people, which this unique brand of humor both hinges on and plays upon.

“Seen in this light, Infernal Affairs (2002), featuring two undercover agents as opposing heroes – and one of the top-grossing post-handover HK movies made primarily with the HK people in mind – shone with the blinding brightness of a setting sun.

“The remarkable success of HK, which transformed itself from a fishing village into a world-class financial center under British colonial rule, was the product of collusive colonialism. Its people, known for their pragmatism and resourcefulness, prospered by actively cooperating with, and learning from, their colonial masters. This is at once the dark secret and the original sin of Hong Kongers, who, as the old Chinese saying goes, “treated the thief as the father”.

“There is a thin line between collective guilt and mass fantasy. Local filmmakers, whose job is to make viewers feel good about themselves, came up with a distinctly HK species of movie hero, one that HK people could relate to, even identify with. As a tragic hero, the undercover agent has no choice but to “treat the thief as the father” and go deep into the enemy’s operation. He risks his own identity, sanity and life in the process, yet he remains misunderstood, misrecognized and misrepresented to the bitter end.

“This undercover complex, if you will, of HK cinema represents one of its major strengths – HK filmmakers know better than almost anyone else how to get under the skin of an undercover agent… jumping to the other side of the barricade always amount to a sort of betrayal, regardless of whether it’s the right or wrong side that you have chosen. A movie with a spy or undercover agent at its center shouldn’t be just a morality play about good versus evil, but also needs to be psychodrama about guilt and conflict.

“Infernal Affairs comes across as highly sexual affair, conveying a genuine sense of pleasure in trespassing and violation - a movie, like its heroes played by Tong Leung and Andy Lau, immersed in despair and guilt and, paradoxically, self-indulgence and redemption.

“But this distinctiveness has somehow vanished from mainstream HK cinema. Taken as a whole, HK cinema after Infernal Affairs is at a loss without its heroes…”

One only has to remember movies like Alex Cheung’s Man on the Brink (1981), Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) and John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) to realize how important the undercover agent is to HK cinema and our imagining of the city. You can visualize Eddie Chan, Chow Yun Fatt and Tony Leung (again) as the tragic heroes. Add Stool Pigeon (2010) and Nicholas Tse to that list.

So one of the more immediate consequences of Chinese soft power (or rather its economic power to get HK filmmakers to kowtow to it) is the death of HK cinema that we in Southeast Asia grew up watching.