Hong Kong Cinema The Reconstruction of Identity

Hong Kong Cinema—The Reconstruction of Identity

Hong Kong’s historical situation can be understood in terms of Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities. He defines a nation as “a social constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.” Only a year after Anderson’s book was published, in 1984, that the PRC and UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It declared that the UK would hand over the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the PRC on July 1st 1997, and set agreements on the “One country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong has never been a nation with its own sovereignty, it has been “imagined” by different groups of people that have perceived themselves as part of the same nation. The imagination began with British people, who imagined Hong Kong as their territory of the other continent. Since then, Hong Kong has become an “uncanny” place with a blurred identity, where local people live in their home yet it is not their “home.” Examples from Hong Kong cinema that depict this uncanniness is the Happy Together (2007). At the beginning of the movie, Lai Yu-Fai shows his BNO (British National Overseas) passport to a customs officer. This document becomes proof of his identity as a resident of Hong Kong. The passport becomes a container for the imagination of nationhood, allowing both British and Hong Kong citizens to read themselves in relation to each other. British passports are issued with a special type P, indicating that Hong Kong is a territory of the UK and a special one. However, Hong Kong citizens are not granted British identity as normal British people who were born in England. This situation reveals how discourses of Orientalism and the binary between self and the other still exist in issues of nationhood. Hong Kong remains an imagined place, where people perceive themselves as part of the UK community while living life as Chinese.

These problems of identity in Hong Kong reveal the perception of self and other in general. It seems like people believe in the authenticity of the blood/nature within the life (human life and the life of cinema) in order to understand, give meaning and categorize it to make it eligible. One of the reasons why Hong Kong cinema is still interesting is because it does not fit into national categories. I would like to start from this point, to understand how Hong Kong cinema becomes “the other” and how the younger generation of film directors are becoming more willing to blend the binary between Hong Kong and other places. More recently, the younger generation of Hong Kong cinema seems to be continuing the trend toward realism. The protagonists in Pang Ho-Cheung’s films, are normal people that we can find on the street, who are presented as neither good nor bad. If regarding this shift as an identity issue, it allows people to look back on us instead of questioning others. It is more rhetorical, but still effective in questioning the moralizing gaze and weakening the invisible walls between individuals. Also, as Mainland China has more open policies on importing Hong Kong films, they do have the restrictions on the content and the theme of the film. In order to get films distributed in the mainland market, a film can have two or more versions, which is the case for almost every film by the Pang that have been legally distributed in Mainland China. Sometimes there are differences in editing between the versions, and at times Pang can change the whole story of the film. The directors try to adjust to the difference set by the mainland government by moving to the mainland China to make their films but they are not making films for one group of national viewers but for two and therefore the problem of making two versions remain. The main advantage that is accrued with directors moving to the main land, is the diminishing in binary of different national identities and their blending.

Born in the 1973, Pang experiences several historical times for Hong Kong and witnesses the conflicts caused by these shifts. He started his career as a screenwriter for a TV channel in Hong Kong. From there he developed his love in writing. Now he is a novelist and a director. Most of his films are written by himself or rewritten from his novels. His earlier films are more melodramatic with bizarre stories and unexpected endings while his later films move to a more “serious” way. His most famous film from his earlier career stage is “You Shoot, I Shoot (2001).” The film ingeniously uses the same meanings of the shoot (shoot a film and shoot at a person) to build a low budget film with black humors and vulgar jokes. The professional killer is being hired by several people to shoot during the killing scenes.Unfortunately, the killer forgets to shoot when he is on a mission. He has to be a director and stage the whole scene in order to “re-make” the killing scene he supposed to do. The seriousness of the killer when he stages the filmmakers, pushes the films challenges of the traditional perceptions of both killers and filmmakers. It makes viewers wonder about the reality of this film since it is full of absurd elements. In comparison, his later films take different production values in which the pictures are more well designed and shot. The stories are developed in a more traditional cinematic language—the logic of film merging the logics of his daily life. The common thing about all of his films is the way emotions are expressed internally towards self rather than externally towards others. The way he achieves this is by presenting the normal daily life stories through the absurd narratives. In this research paper, I would like to do a close reading of Pang-Ho-Cheung’s film Exodus (2007) with the consideration of identity issue in Hong Kong. I argue that the film attempt to recover the identity problem of Hong Kong and its people through the presentation of binaries. The expositions are between police and villain, men and women, the logic and the absurd, familiar narrative and strange city among other things. It ultimately reveals the binary between good and evil that Hong Kong had. Generally, the film refuses the construction of binary between self and other engaging the possibility of otherness into the totality of the same through the changing of time.

Though it is titled “Exodus,” the film has nothing to do with the original Exodus story of the Israelites departure from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. However, the film implicitly talks about the similar story in a different setting about Hong Kong. The story happens right before 1997. Police officer Tsim looks into a case of a man recording inside the women’s restroom. The man says that he believes women discuss how to kill men in there, and there is a group called “women kill all men.” Kwan is there to collect evidence. Tsim finds it is very absurd, but he still believes him and record testimony. However the testimony disappears after it’s been taken to the evidence room, and the man changes his confession as he is a voyeur when Tsim re-record the testimony for him. Tsim has no idea of what happens, so he tries to look into the case although his wife persuades him not to do that. Kwan was released soon after the new confession he made. Not longer after the release, Kwan disappears and dies in a couple days. Tsim runs into Kwan’s wife and tries to investigate what really happens. There seem to have disintegrated clues, Tism wants to connects everything together and find real evidence about the women killers group. During the investigation, Tsim develops a secret relationship with Kwan’s wife. Only nearly the end of the film, audiences are introduced to the background of Tsim’s wife and a policewoman Fang, who works in the same police station as Tsim. Both of the women belong to the women killer group. Usually, one film may have several versions due to different countries’ screening policy. The film may be categorized into different classifications, and cuts away any nudity, visual violence parts. With the slightest change of visual styles; the narrative of the multiple versions of the film remains the same. Audiences who watched different versions can still talk film on the same base since the basic narratives remain the same. Interestingly, the Exodus has two different endings, which leads the film to two different directions. The Hong Kong release version is Tsim goes to his promotion test but he keeps hiccuping when he introduces himself. The film ends with the sound of his burping. The other version is Tsim’s wife’s confession of her poisoning Tsim. Both of the versions are Pang’s choice. The original version is being screened and distributed in Hong Kong and overseas while the version with the different ending were being released in DVD form in Mainland China.

A film of absurdity— “the evil other”

The film is explicitly about the relationship between man and women. The film starts with the wonder and fear that comes from men: “what do women do in the restroom besides to the toilet.” Not knowing the answer, the film places women as the imagined evil other through the male’s perspective. Through this imaginative, it provides a “male gaze” view point as in other films. The only different is that the gaze here is more direct—Kwan says he uses a video recorder to watch the women in the ladys’ room in order to find what is going on. Unlike what Laura Mulvey suggests in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness…… But in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that they look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. (Mulvey, 11)

According to this, on one hand women are sexy object to be looked at. On the other hand, the lack of penis reminds men of castration psychologically. Women become the signifies of castration, which are threatening to evoke anxiety. Both of Mulvey’s ideas are being shown in Exodus, and are being combined together. The female characters in the film are not only sexy but also dangerous. They are beautiful wives or policewoman to be looked at, but the same time they are killers who kill men. In popular/mainstream Hong Kong films, there is always a wife/housewife image appears in the ultra masculinity film to balance and supplements the narrative, and give the film a hint of romance. However, the traditional female images that are obedient housewives no longer, exists in this film. Without the powerful enemies from the same sexuality as males, women here are being treated as the enemies of the men. This makes women much more scary than usual since the original fear of women comes from the unknown to women. The set up of this film creates a process as follows: women are different, we (men) don’t know them, they are mysterious, they are different, they are the other. Because they are not like us (men), we are good, so that they must be evil. However, everything is from the men’s imagination. Through Kwan’s confession to police officer Tsim we know that women are the “evil others,” but we never see women kill men until the very last part of the film. According to his confession, Kwan uses a video recorder to “watch/gaze” women in the restroom. The way he looks at women through camera reveals the “male gaze” that Mulvey talks. Nearly the end of the film it reveals Tsim’s wife’s reason of joining the women killer group—her father always beats she and her mother, which makes her hates him. Knowing that, the film victimizes both men and women. The men are the victims of women, and women are the victims of other men who harmed them before, no matter it is the villain Kwan, or the police Tsim, or even the women characters in the film. The gaze is not only applied to Kwan and Tsim, the male characters in the film, of their perspectives of women; the gaze is also applied on women characters since they are also being attracted by the men but afraid them at the same time. Because of that, viewers cannot simply take the position of one character over the other. The differences between two sexuality transfer to the morality problem. By arranging the differences to the dynamics everyone experiences and encounters in daily lives, the film pushes the absurdity to its limitation. It criticizes how easily people transfer simple differences questions to complex morality ones, and creates binaries in actualities. These binaries include different identities, nationalities, races, or any kinds of differences in general. The hypothesis here foreshadows the critic of Hong Kong’s identity and films’ position later in the film.

The shift of identities

The binary between man and women brings out the absurdity aspect of life and challenges the differences between one and the other. The change of identities in the film between policeman Tism and villiam Kwan brings up the identity issues of Hong Kong in general.

The film starts with the wonder: “what do women do in the restroom besides to the toilet.” This question first makes Kuan wonder, so he goes to the women’s room to record. Believing Kuan’s change of testimony and his death has something to do with the women’s killer’s group. Officer Tsim keeps looking into the case after Kuan’s death, and insists to find evidence proving the existence of the group. Later, Tsim meets Kuan’s mainland wife, and develops a secret relationship with her during the investigation. Tsim, who is a justice police and a husband cares about his family, gradually becomes a policeman who sympathy for the criminal, has a relationship with the criminal’s wife, and a man who cheated on his own wife. He comes to act as Kuan intuitively, such as using a digital tape recorder to record findings, generally suspects any women who are involved in a crime scene when the victim is a man, naturally considered himself as a husband to Kwan’s wife and takes care of her. Ironically, officer Tsim also disappears as the film ends with both versions. In the original version, he disappears with his burping sounds when he is on the promotion exam. The screen turns black to show his disappearances. In the other version, Tsim even didn’t appear in the final scene. He disappears before the film ends. Instead, the final scene is about his wife’s confession. In the first version, he disappears in a way that Kwan told him before during the first interrogation— The women killers group has a secret poison; it has neither color nor taste. However once take it, the person will be dead after a hundred burping. In the second version, the women are going to poison Tsim with this burping pill, they fail to do that since they were being caught by the police.

The shift of identity between two sides, the police Tsim and the criminal Kwan, violates the traditional logic of melodrama that Linda Williams suggest in “Melodrama Revised.” In the essay, Williams brings out five points to characterize traditional melodrama. The first one is “Melodrama begins, and wants to end, in a space of innocence” (Williams 65). The innocence of beginning and ending allows films gradually develop into climax and fall back down. It creates the traditional ups and downs of a classical narrative, three-act story structure. The film Exodus fails to commit this tradition of melodrama. The film starts with innocence but doesn’t return back to it in the original version of the film. The film begins with the daily routine of police officer Tsim at the police station with him changing the cloth to get ready for work. He says hi to her workmates and has a small dialogue with them. After that, he goes to the firearms room to check and load his guns. The use of long takes in this series of scenes prolonged the everyday routine of Tsim’s life. The long takes allow viewers to share the same of time with Tism. Viewers might find boring, since there is no anticipation of what will be happening. However it is also what Pang wants like viewers to feel—a sense of everydayness that arises from daily life but not of the cinematic excitement. It refuses the popular cinematic realism that every popular film and returns to the pure form of cinema to re. During the time when looking into Kwan’s case and trying to figure out what is going on, the film gradually develops into climax but never reaches the climax—Tsim never finds out about the women killer group, nor does he take revenge on them. Viewers never know what happens to Tsim, maybe he dead or maybe he is not dead, but lives the life as he used to be.

The second feature is that “Melodramas focus on victim-heroes and the eventual recognition of their virtue” (Williams 66). This focuses on the victim. Williams says there are two ways melodrama can go. One is the victim-hero gets empathy, which equals to moral virtue, through a suffering; the other is the victim-hero turns his virtuous suffering into action—revenge. Williams also argues, “the key function of victimization is to orchestrate the moral legibility crucial to the mode… Virtue can be recognized in a variety of ways: through suffering alone or through suffering followed by deeds” (Williams 66). In the film, no one is the central character, and every character is the victim-hero. Kwan spots the women killers group. He struggles between whether to report the truth to the police or not, he disappears without taking revenge on the group. The lack of causality makes viewers hard to empathy for him. For Tsim, he suffers from the pressure comes from his mother-in-law for not being able to get promoted; he also suffers from not able to figure out the case. Later in the film, his secret relationship with Kwan’s wife makes him an irresponsible husband and losses viewers’ empathy. Shims wife, who we first know as a yoga-teacher and a nice wife who takes care of everything on the family, turns out used to be a member of the women’s killers’ group. She was a victim of her father and also a victim of her husband who cheated on her. Although both she and her friend (also belongs to the killer group) knows that Tsim investigates the case, but viewers never know if Tism’s on-going burping is caused by the poison from these two characters.

The shift of identity is shown in the scene where officer Tsim questions Kuan in an interrogation room. The narrative and the style of montage imply the binaries of good and evil, policeman and criminal. It foreshadows the setting up of self and other throughout the film. The whole scene was shot through the glass window from the room next to the interrogation room. The camera gradually zooms in from a long shot to a medium shot at the beginning of the scene. The scene starts from the dark room where camera placed. The rectangular window is being placed at the top part of the image while the rest remains dark. Through the window we can see everything in the interrogation room. In the middle of it, Officer Tsim and Kuan sit opposite to each other. With the contrast of the dark shadows surrounded, it creates a frame within the actual film frame. The rectangle shape window almost likes a film screen, which creates a perspective within the film. It invites viewers into the story while making viewers aware that they are watching a film. With the slightly zoom-in onto the rectangle shape of the window, the perspective that created in the film space combines with spectators’ perspective; it gives spectators an unbiased point of view, since it is not narrative from one’s point of view. As the camera zooms in, both characters begin to talk. Tsim says, “This is sergeant 4332 Tsim Kin-Yip… what’s your name?” The man who sits on the other side of the table replies, “Kwan Ping-Man… there is a ‘fire’ side-character in Kwan.” Their identities are presented through the change of personal information.

The identities are presented through police identification numbers and names as if these two persons can read/known through these numbers and signifiers. It’s easy to find that the dialogue is equally split in two parts by two protagonists. Tsim asks questions and Kwan answers, as if they are negotiating. The spectator can neither identified with either side of the character nor can they identify themselves through this viewing experience. In traditional melodramas, audiences are always “identified” with one or more characters. There is no choice for audiences but to accept and follow the narrative of the films. In Hong Kong, there are two sides of it to choose, but in fact, there is no choice. What Hong Kong can do is just follow and accepts its identity given by others. This scene transits the cinematic experiences to the historical issue. And also uncovers the problem of traditional melodramas that there must be a hero/villain in the film as discussed in the article “Melodrama Revised” by Linda Williams as talked before. In the later part of this scene, the camera gradually zooms out, returns back into the dark room where the scene starts.

The situation presented in this scene reminds this particular setting with the camera’s centered position rejects audiences going into neither of the characters nor identifying with them. The similar dynamic happened between Hong Kong, P.R.C, and Britain. It implicitly places spectators at Hong Kong’s position—sit back in the dark and watch the other two sides (characters) negotiating. Viewers can never do anything about this, but simply waiting there to get the final sentence. In another word, viewers are emotionally affected by what happens on screen, on the different sides, but can never subjectively put their emotions into the film. It shows that the scene is not about the characters on screen, but about viewers.

Same as the binary between man and woman, this scene brings out the issue of different identities again. It critics the idea of “self” and “other” as if they are permanent ideas. The binary between good and evil was first critics by Nietzsche in his book Genealogy of Morality, plays out as a bad object in traditional melodramas, and discusses again by Edward Said in his book “Orientalism.” What Pang does in the film rejects the binary of different identities, and claims the mobility of the shift of identity. He questions the idea that to have a solitary identity/nationality of every Hong Kong people. Instead, he suggests the existence of multiple identities at the same time.

Not only Hong Kong, but everyone else faces in their lives since nationalism is the most identity everyone faces, as in Benedict Anderson talked in his book that nationalism is the most social attributes everyone has. The struggles are more direct from Hong Kong and its people, but it doesn’t mean it is ostensibly to Hong Kong. What we can learn/do is to reflect the problems back on us through thinking these questions. Pang Ho-Cheung and his films gives a proposal and direct our attention back on ourselves rather than simply on films.

One Film, Two Versions

It is quite popular for Hong Kong films have multiple versions considering its small market but huge film industry. For some country, the censorship is very stricted such as Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan before 1987. As mainstream filmmakers or the ones who has fewer budgets, they make only one version of the film and get it to fits in all possible markets. It is low risk and high gain. For other filmmakers it is the same important to keep their artistic choices and the market at the same time. By making films into different versions, normally two versions, the filmmakers reach make their own artistic choices the same time promote themselves and Hong Kong films for other places. One thing needs to make clear is that the multiple version tradition is not made in Mainland China in the first place. It was made to reach viewers in Taiwan, Malaysia, and other East Asian countries. Hong Kong cinema’s relationship with Mainland is a new one. The mainland film market’s policy remains unclear, there is no exact polices and rules on which film, what types of genres can be shown. The basic idea is to keep every film that will be distributed in Mainland China under control of The State Administration of Film and Television (SAFT). Because the SAFT is a government institution, every film has to follow the Communities Party’s core idea and the administration route.

Although the only differences between the two versions are the final scenes, the differences between these two are enough for changing the whole dynamic of the story. Before the final scene, there is a long shot of Tsim and Kwan’s wife singing in the Karaoke. The camera keeps at a low angle from the left. The characters are sitting on the sofa and facing at the TV screen and the camera. The viewers cannot see the screen but their bodies fully present to the audiences. As Andre Bazin argues that long takes are better than cinematic montages, long takes can give viewers a time be with the characters on screen together. It also gives viewers a voyeuristic perspective, which can reveal the real life that people don’t normally see. The stilled camera at long shot gives viewers It is similar to Kwan’s act in the film- watch women in the bathroom. Audiences are forced to look at the characters on screen. The feelings here are mixed. On one side, viewers watched Tism been finally released from his work and family. As he is always been controlled inside his family by his mother in law. He is more relaxed when he with Kwan’s wife. Viewers also see Kwan’s wife enjoys being with Tsim. However her purpose has remained unknown. On the other hand, the camera gives us Kwan’s perspective, viewers watching this Karaoke scene as if Kwan is watching women in the bathroom. Viewers are hidden in the dark and see every detail of them through the full presentation of the body. The extreme long shot forces viewers to look at these characters and also make them conscious about the question that if they are being looked at by others (the same as characters). The long take also enlarges the details of the scene. Through the details, the relationship between characters and what happens earlier in the film are being reviewed. This long take also prolonged the time for the climax to come and the endings. Viewers get the idea of no anticipation, but simply sitting in the dark and wait for the final resolution of the film.  However when the final scene arrives, viewers find there is no resolution. In the original version, the final scene is a long shot of Tsim in his promotion exam. It takes place in a large auditory room with a chair placed in the middle of the place.  The camera positioned stilled, faces in the center of the room. Tsim opens the door and enters the rooms. He walks in a formal way and says: “Good morning sir this is sergeant 4332 Tsim Kin Yip. I’m here for the promotional exam.” Without any movement of the camera, viewers know who Tsim faces. As he gets permission and sits down, he starts to talk. “I was born in … I was sent to … My performance…(burping) … My performance gets praised by commanders. The burping keeps interrupting him of speaking. The screen suddenly turns black but still remains Tsim’s burping sound. He disappears from both cinematic world and from the viewer’s world. It’s hard to say whether he dies or not. The burping reminds audiences of the secret poison from the women killers group.  Because everything reminds unclear, it’s hard to decide who poisons Tsim. Maybe it’s his wife, or it’s Kwan’s wife, or the policewoman.

The bizarre ending doesn’t give the film a resolution but makes everything more mysterious, at least, the same mystery at the beginning of the film. Nothing changes at the end of the film, the characters lives the same lives as they used to be. Kwan never takes revenge on the women, nor did Tsim. If Tsiam and Kwan were killed both by the women, the women do the same thing as the beginning of the film, as they always wishes—to kill a man. There is no resolution for them also. The film never makes this clear. The uncleared resolution, or the non-resolution, challenges the traditional realism cinema after 1997. Because of the Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, Hong Kong is no longer a “dream” place for its people. The change of political sites makes people worried about Hong Kong’s future. People like it used to be. People are afraid that Hong Kong will be changed into a highly concerted political district after P.R.C.’s take over. A lot of people, including filmmakers and actors left Hong Kong before 1997. The worries and anxiety of Hong Kong’s future reflect on its cinema. Hong Kong films become more realistic, and people are becoming more and more obsessed with the realism. Fruit Chan and Ann Hui are two of the Hong Kong directors who shift their film style towards realistic style. Fruit Chan’s “the Longest Summer” talks about the confusion of a group of friends after they retired from the British military. Because Hong Kong took over by Mainland China, there are no more militaries requires. These young men lose their jobs. (It is the same dynamic after the attack 911 in 2001, which drags ideology from idealism towards to realism.)

The obsession of realism makes films in a more realistic way. By realistic, I mean the ideal realism that the society/law wanted, but not the reality in actuality. On one hand, the cinematic realistic stories reflect the fear of people. They want everything to be justified in order to think they are safe. On the other hand, the more clear cut films show the necessity of finding the bad guy and make punishment. The two aspects work in a circle and affect each other.

The obsession of realism has not only been shown from the narrative, but also from mise-en-scene and visual styles. The film is being shot mostly in real city spaces rather than remote film bases. The city is being shown through familiar sights, such as Hong Kong skyscrapers, the busy streets, the Victoria Bay, and the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. The representation of familiar city spaces pulls viewers to the world they eyes and experiences every day. It constantly reminds viewers that they experience the same situation that will happen in real life. The obsession of realism shifts from what Bazin suggest of the movement of realism towards to the container, the signifiers, imagines of the reality. In other word, people are more believing in what they see as the truth rather than what it really is. Same with the actions, actions are more involved into the film to create movements, which leads into excitement.

The film Exodus has been never on the cinematic realistic side. Hong Kong looks extraneous in this film. Although the film takes places in Hong Kong, there is no a single shot of the traditional settings of Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong is being shown through the unfamiliar way of presenting Hong Kong. Most of the scenes are shot indoors. Then when there are outdoor scenes are character travels from one place to another. Hong Kong is being shown through the underground pathways, the road in the night, and the concrete structure of the bridge. There is a scene when Tsim follows Kwan to work. Kwan works in a power plant where he needs to climb to the top of the wide chimney and spray water in the “lake” inside the chimney. Unlike the normal Hong Kong cinema where the confrontation happens at the top of the roof, the dialogue between Tsim and Kwan happens at the top of the chimney. Later in the film Tsim also meet Kwan’s wife in the same place. The huge man-made lake on the top of th