SKRIEN: ‘HONGKONG POST’ – 1997 to1999

INTRODUCTION

Between May 1997 and July 1999, shortly after giving up my job as Director of the Netherlands Film & Television Academy to become first Dean of Film & Television at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, I was invited to write a monthly column (Hong Kong Post) for the Dutch film journal Skrien. The then editor of that illustrious, but now (I hope, temporarily) defunct magazine, Mieke Bernink, gave me free range to combine film reviews and film-related topics with social and political comment from a personal perspective. Of the twenty articles written, fifteen (in their original English language versions) have survived, though all are still available in Dutch translation in archive copies of the magazine. This collection begins with my third column, written just after the Handover (or ‘hand-back’) of Hong Kong to China on June 30th, 1997. 

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STOLEN GOODS

So, at last, we are in China and, at last, the British have gone.

And, it has to be said, life after July 1st has been much more relaxed and sane that it was before. The bickering and bad mouthing; the vanity of the outgoing Governor, Chris Patten; the attempt by him (and most of the world’s press) to try and make everybody terrified of the incoming PLA; all contributed to a feeling of being in some second rate disaster movie that would end with our obliteration by the Beijing Chinese at midnight on June 30th. A typically apocalyptic and essentially racist view of  ‘Asian hordes descending’ couched in terms of fear of communism and a ‘we’re the good guys’ mentality. Personally, I’m glad to see the back of British colonialists, who give back stolen goods with such bad grace. Now, we can get on with real life and a more real form of self-government for the Hong Kong people than under the British.

But it would be a shame to avoid the topic of the Handover altogether, and dishonest of me to pretend that I haven’t (at times) been as obsessed as the next person with it. So, let us return to our title: Stolen Goods.

A few weeks back, I was asked by the Dutch World Radio Service to see the Chinese film ‘The Opium War’ directed by Xie Jin. The première had already caused a stir because the makers of the film had not invited the then British Governor, Chris Patten, to attend. He had responded by saying he didn’t mind, as he was ‘only interested in recent history’ – a statement that allowed him to conveniently ignore British imperial atrocities and bring the agenda back to Tiannemen Square.

‘The Opium War’ was made by the mainland Chinese and depicts events leading up to the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain in the l850’s. No expense has been spared in the recreation of old Canton – British warships under full sail, the Imperial Chinese court, and the opium dens that the British were so lucratively supplying. In fact, it was the Emperor’s attempt to put an end to the latter activity that led to the ‘Opium Wars’. On his orders, the Imperial Envoy to Canton seized all British Merchants’ opium in Canton and publicly burnt it. The merchants complained to a British army captain, who sent a message to Queen Victoria saying ‘millions of pounds worth of British property had been destroyed.’ The British, with their usual civility, sent a fleet to bombard Canton and killed a large number of Chinese. Not content with this bloody action, Palmerston (the prime minister) insisted on being given Chinese territory as compensation and ‘a nice birthday present for the Queen, who hasn’t got any Chinese lands in her empire’.

Hong Kong was thus stolen from China at gunpoint, but for telling this true story the film has been dubbed ‘one sided and ‘anti-British’ by English-language newspapers. In fact, it offers a balanced and accurate picture showing both opposition to the war in Britain and chronic corruption on the Chinese side. It is also strong on historical authenticity with stunning costumes and props and a set for the nineteenth century House of Commons  that is more convincing than most – dark, dirty, smoke filled, and overcrowded. What lets the film down is its characterisation. The aim was to make an accessible film telling the story of Hong Kong’s loss from a Chinese perspective. To do that, the makers needed sympathetic central characters to hang events on. Unfortunately, characters come and go in a haphazard manner, and we are never given time to identify with them. In the end, we are left with an opium-burning envoy sent into exile by a weak-kneed Emperor for offending the British, but we do not know him well enough to empathise Hollywood-style.

That said, I learnt a great deal from the film and, should it be shown in the Netherlands, I would recommend it to people wanting to learn more about a fragment of shameful British and shaming Chinese history, whose reversal, one hundred and fifty years later, has attracted so much media attention.

Hong Kong, China, July l997.

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GEWOON NAAR DE BIOSCOOP (A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES)

Since starting this column, I have, for the most part, written about festival films or special premières, or films with particular cultural or artistic significance. But what about the ordinary Hong Kong films, the Cantonese commercial films that fill at least half the screens here?

Back in Hong Kong from a summer break in Gweilo (‘White Ghost’) land, I decided to sample the latest fare. I glanced at the newspaper and settled on a film called ‘Downtown Torpedoes’ (Cantonese film with English subtitles) showing in Causeway Bay. Braving the summer humidity and early evening shoppers (shopping happens at all hours in Hong Kong, but gets heavy in the early evening), I emerged from the spotless metro and picked up a McDonald’s outside the cinema. If I was going to see a commercial Chinese film, it seemed only fair to have a commercial American snack. Settling in to my seat in the cinema, I turned up my collar against the air-con gale, tried to ignore the familiar sound of pagers and phones and prepared for action. And action I got, so hang on for a roller coaster review.

‘Downtown Torpedoes’ is about a team of four industrial espionage agents, who can break into (and escape from) any building and any computer anywhere. They can scale walls, smash through windows, hang glide from skyscrapers, jet ski under water and even log into Pentagon satellites when trying to trace the whereabouts of a useful piece of information. In short, a useful team for the Hong Kong Police to hire when they want to steal something from the British intelligence agency MI5.

MI5? Yes, sir. The plot of the film revolves around a banknote press for making counterfeit pound (sterling) notes, which the Iranians planned to use to destabilise Europe until the Brits stole it from under their noses. But the Brit head of MI5 has brought it to (guess where) Hong Kong for his own nefarious purposes. Call in the Torpedoes, who (having concocted a robbery plan worthy of ‘Rififi’) get the press back only to be double-crossed by the HK police, whose (also) corrupt inspector takes off with the banknote press for his own nefarious purposes (and has a face change into the bargain).

Still on the ride? Good. Having used all available Hong Kong locations (including of course the new suspension bridge to the not yet completed airport) and mobilised an entire fleet of Marks and Spencer vans, the film now switches (without batting a frame) to Budapest, where the Torpedoes (more gun toting than kung-fu fighting) battle it out with the ex head of HK police by hanging on to the roofs of taxis hurtling across the Danube and upsetting goulash eating tourists on the hills of Buda. Willing Hungarians act as extras to be shot and screamed at, and the Hungarian police earn a bob or two by arriving too late to stop several cars blowing up in front of the Hungarian Houses of Parliament.

It all ends with the Torpedoes getting the counterfeit machine and vowing, while decorously draped over a baroque statue of some Magyar hero of yesteryear, to meet up again for their next assignment  I was sprawled indecorously over my cinema seat by the end, wondering what had hit me, but with a strange feeling of invincibility and a strong urge to hang-glide from my apartment block to work the next day. The man behind me already had his mobile phone out and was back in the real world.

Hong Kongers like their films to be fast and furious. Not too much emotional involvement and oodles of surface physicality. A big screen roller coaster ride with no time (or need) to think, and then back to work. Speed, action, money and movement  the hallmarks of Hong Kong.

Very cleansing. I enjoyed it.

Hong Kong, China, September l997.

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ORDINARY PEOPLE

Last week, I finally made it to Beijing for an autumn break with a Chinese friend. Partly, to pay my respects to Hong Kong’s new bosses; partly, to catch a glimpse of tourist sights like the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Summer Palace; but mainly to experience the ordinary parts of the city from the old ‘hutongs’ South of Tiannemen Square to the new high rises further out. My aim: to get a feel of the place and its people and see if it matched up to the world we experience in the ‘dissident’ Chinese films shown at film festivals.

I travelled there and back by train, giving me time to reflect on modern Chinese society as images of rice fields, sugar loaf hills and land tilling agricultural workers (formerly collectivised peasants, now socialist farmers with Chinese characteristics) flashed by. Countryside around the Yellow River reminded me of Holland as it might have been in earlier times: canals, trees and fields stretching to the horizon; villages of home baked brick and roads devoid of cars – the sense of a community at work. Seeing the Chinese go about their day-to-day business in a rural (and, later, on arrival in Beijing, an urban) context led me to realise that some of us see their country too often (and, perhaps, too exclusively) through the prism of dissident eyes. We gasp at the events of Tiannemen Square, shake our heads at the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, send out scouts to find those films most likely to be disapproved of by the Chinese authorities and then publicise them at our festival to show support for artistic freedom and express our outrage at suppression.

But, in the process, do we learn much about everyday China? Do we see stories about the ordinary people who live there? Are we aware that, in Beijing, they buy fast food and visit well-stocked supermarkets as they do in Amsterdam or Rotterdam? Do we know that kite-flying youngsters populate Tiannemen Square, not gun toting soldiers? Perhaps some do, but a Skrien reader like myself, fed on a diet of dissident films, is surprised by the openness and ordinariness of Beijing, by the friendliness of the people, who seem more polite and approachable than their counterparts in Hong Kong or Amsterdam. It all reminded me of East Berlin after the wall fell and before the DDR collapsed. Consumers with communist solidarity, street life under the shadow of mega hotels, socialism with Chinese characteristics sold as a modern product on flashy advertising hoardings. Capitalism is on its way in China, but the indefinable sense of togetherness that Western individualism so ruthlessly destroys, is still there. Belonging is as much a human right as individual expression; both can be abused.

I am not knocking the films we see at festivals – they tell individual stories about individual aspects of Chinese society. But, as with the former Soviet Union, China has become too easy a target for the guardians of artistic liberty, and films selected for festivals too often emphasise one side of the coin. China has 1.3 billion people and most have enough to eat and a place to live; there is suffering and poverty, of course, but, perhaps, no more so than in parts of Europe and America. Life in the Soviet Union had little to do with Tarkovsky’s work and films from communist countries were often feted only because they were seen as dissident. Who is interested in Russian cinema now, what cinema is there to be interested in?

I was intrigued by the real life movie I saw in China – from the train and on the streets of its capital city; but I don’t suppose it will play in Rotterdam or Cannes.

Hong Kong, China, October 1997.

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CONSUMER CHOICE

Since the Chinese president Jiang Xemin’s visit to the US in October, there have been endless debates about human rights, censorship and freedom of expression in China, and (in the Anglo-Saxon press at least) endless comparisons with that paradise of earthly freedoms, the USA. This month, I want to write about freedom of expression and consumption, and therefore, indirectly, about human rights. A big issue for a small column, but in these hypocritical times, when there is apparently no acceptable alternative to consumer capitalism, an issue of great importance whether you live in Hong Kong or Holland, China or the U.S.A.

Let us start with censorship. There was some consternation here, when it turned out that no Hong Kong distributor was prepared to take up two recent Hollywood offerings, ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ by Martin Scorsese, and Richard Gere’s attempt to make a comeback with a PC hat on, ‘The Red Corner’ – a film about legal corruption in China. Self-censorship, shouted the English language press in Hong Kong, restriction of audience choice. No, replied the distributors, both films have a low audience potential, political issues are not of interest to an audience here. Others, in the Chinese language press, added that they were both anti-Chinese propaganda films perpetrating a typically Western view of China.

But that’s exactly the point, you, the discerning reader, mutter to yourself, in a ‘free’ country everybody can see everything – propaganda or not. Oh, yes? A couple of months earlier US distributors (both cinema and video) refused to pick up ‘The Opium War’ (reviewed by me for Skrien in September) and another Chinese feature, ‘Red River Valley’, concerning the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, on the grounds that they were ‘propaganda films’ of no interest to Americans. I’m sure the US distributors, just as much as their HK counterparts, had sound commercial reasons for not picking up the films (though 4 million Chinese Americans might have been interested), but the parallel reactions go to show that notions of censorship and propaganda are subjective. One key difference, though: there was no outrage in the US press when ‘The Opium War’ and ‘Red River Valley’ were not released there – no cry of: ‘Self-censorship!’

The second area of freedom of expression and consumption is less clear-cut and more contentious. I read that the Rotterdam Film Festival is to run a series of screenings entitled ‘The Cruel Cinema’ – unpleasant and violent images of human’s being horrible to each other. Ultimate individual freedom you might say, the right to be shocked. But is this a right, or is it an intrusion, in the name of art and individualism, on normal human sensibilities? Recently that old debate of horror and thriller films influencing young people has been in the news in Hong Kong. Should children see images of gangland triad violence in an uncritical context? Should children have access to cruel sadistic images on the Internet? Should teenagers be exposed to sadistic Japanese comics and violent pornography? We might add, should festivals be running voyeuristic images of inhumanity under the cover of discussing the films ‘structure and form’?

In China, you can’t see violent sex films; you can’t even buy military toys or guns for children. They have other sorts of ‘pornography’, of course, like the killings in Tiannemen square, political prisoners and (in common with the USA) the death penalty. But the right to portray violence in its most extreme and unpleasant forms is not paraded as a ‘human right’ and the extreme violence and cruelty that permeates certain areas of American and European cinema (both commercial and artistic) does not feature on the big or small screen in public.

Is that depriving people of a human right? Or are we in the West, through our endless pushing back of barriers in the name of, on the one hand, ‘individual choice’ and, on the other, ‘making a fast buck’, depriving upcoming generations of a much more important human rights: the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, the ability to respect human life, the ability to be shocked and outraged rather than entertained by human suffering.  I read in the NRC that acts of violence carried out by young people ‘just for fun’ are on the increase in Holland. I wonder why.

It is a question we need to ask, especially if we have anything to do with film and television. It is a question we need to ask, if we still believe there might be another way, a better way, than the hyper-individualism of consumer capitalism and the over protective, often corrupt coercion of consumer communism. But we will never find that way unless we acknowledge the pluses and minuses in both systems – the flaws in ourselves, as well as in others. It’s no good shouting ‘Free Tibet!’ or ‘Free the dissidents!’, if we are busy enslaving our own youth in a (high and low culture) consumer prison far darker and more lonely than any that has gone before. It would be as much a tragedy for China to be americanised and imbued with Western notions of ‘freedom’ (including the right to tote a gun and choose cruelty if that’s what you’re into), as it would for America to be run by Chinese post-modern communists.

Living in Hong Kong makes finding a third way seem more imperative than ever.

Hong Kong, China, November 1997.

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 CHINA – A BRIDGE TOO FAR

With currencies free falling, stock markets crash landing and chickens being slaughtered in their millions for having dared to have the flu, Hong Kong is a bewildering place right now. Add to that (for newcomers like me), Christmas in 25C sunshine, all shops open on Christmas AND New Year’s day, and prices of designer clothes slashed by 80% and you could be forgiven for thinking you were witnessing the initial symptoms of a millennium meltdown. Perhaps those aberrant computers that refuse to recognise the new century have got it right, everything will return to zero. There will be no record of Christ’s birth, no retail value for consumer goods and money will be worth precisely zilch, when the 1st of January 2000 A.D. dawns.

But, meanwhile, life goes on and my senior students, who never had any shares or money to free fall with in the first place, are preparing to shoot our new school’s inaugural graduation projects. In theory, I shouldn’t have any graduates this year as the School has only been in operation eighteen months but some of the initial applicants were taken on with ‘advanced standing’ and will complete their degree programmes this summer. Of course, just as with the world’s currencies, value for money plays a big role in student productions. Whatever budget limit you set will be attacked as too low by fledgling Spielbergs and wilful Wong Kar-wais. In fact, given the current volatility of economies in SE Asia, it would probably be a good idea to set all student films in Indonesia, Malaysia or South Korea, where the Hong Kong Dollars allocated would be worth twice as much as they were a few weeks ago.

According to my teaching staff that is exactly what we should have done with one of the graduation projects written, directed and produced by three local students. These latter-day Galileos have come up with the ‘ridiculous’ idea of shooting in Mainland China. At our first discussion of this project, even before the currency crisis had hit, my Hong Kong Chinese staff were adamantly against letting a student go to China to shoot a film. The Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, even Europe, yes. China? Suicide. ‘But,’ I said, in the deceptively gentle manner former Dutch Academy colleagues may remember from discussions on madcap Dutch graduation projects located in Uzbekistan, Brazil and the occupied West Bank, ‘surely students should widen their horizons?’ ‘In China?!’ insisted the most vocal opponent of the project. ‘That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?’ I took a deep breath and stated the obvious. ‘Fifteen miles  –  too far? We are IN China now.’ A brief pause, a shaking of heads, but no further attempt to question the wisdom of Dean Woolley. After all, reasoned my opponents, the English are as mad as mad dogs, otherwise they would never have stolen this humid lump of barren rock in the first place. Better let him have his way, even if it does all end in tears.

And so, much to my and the students’ delight, my way I got. Our School has submitted its first script to the China News Agency ‘Xinhua’ for approval and the film’s director has been in Shanghai casting and searching for locations. I am told that the chance of getting approval by mid-February (the deadline we have set ourselves) is almost nil, most professional producers wait six months or more before being allowed to shoot in mainland China. But who knows, perhaps the authorities will want to foster good relations between young people in old and new China.

The script is innocuous enough. Studious, violin-playing student from Shanghai (her) meets dilettante fashion fetishist from Hong Kong (him) on his first visit to the People’s Republic. Initially attracted to each other, in the end, she considers him too superficial for serious love, and opts for a home-grown boy, leaving fashion king to head off east to America. A moral tale the authorities might just approve of, unless, of course, their drive towards capitalist consumerism has gone so far that the cultural committee would now prefer a tale of ‘frivolous fashion trumping serious study’ to our fable of ‘socialist dedication remaining impervious to capitalist charm’.

In a later column, I will inform Skrien readers how our School’s first attempt at ‘one country two systems’ film making goes. Now I must stop, as more pressing matters need my attention: whether to convert my HK$ to US$ via a digital phone banking currency line; whether to buy the 80% discounted Armani suit or wait for a further price cut; and, finally, whether to pick Indonesia or Thailand for my Chinese New Year break. China? Don’t be ridiculous. That would be going too far.

Hong Kong, China, January 1998.

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OF TIGERS, PIGS AND MONKEYS

The Lunar (Chinese) New Year is with us once again. The Year of the Tiger has started and, according to various authorities in the newspapers, this is the best year for forty years for those, such as myself, born in the year of the Pig. Forget the swine flu, fellow piggies, this is the year to get your snout well and truly stuck into the trough and make serious money. Those of you, on the other hand, born in the year of the Monkey would do better to lie low and hibernate until spring l999 as this is definitely NOT your year forget the top bananas this time round, OK? Of course, it’s not what soothsayers and fortune tellers tell you about life that matters, it’s what you make of it, and this is as true of the Hong Kong Film Industry as anything else. Newspapers predicting pearls at the feet of swine for 1998 have also been running doom laden articles about the imminent demise of the industry. Headlines such as ‘Nightmare on Film Street’ warn us that all is not well and that something better happen pretty sharp or Hong Kong will fall off the screen as a significant movie power. It has already lost its rating as number three.

Despite (in common with most of the developed world) box office receipts rising last year, the market share for local films in this-bums-on-seats bonanza fell below fifty percent for the first time ever. Hollywood dominated the top ten films for l997 with only Jackie Chan’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ (shot in Australia) and Stephen Chow’s ‘All’s Well, Ends Well’ (made in Taiwan) making it to the upper echelons of the hit list. Compare this with 1992, when there wasn’t one Hollywood film in the top fifteen, and something of a kamikaze nosedive in China’s new SAR becomes apparent.

A number of films popular in Hong Kong over the last twelve months have, however, had a Chinese face to front them, or a Hong Kong director behind the camera. John Woo’s Hollywood offering ‘Face Off’ was number five, ‘Once upon a time in China and America’ was number four, and, showing this lunar new year holiday week, we have Chow Yun Fat in ‘Replacement Killers’ and Michelle Yeoh in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. But money from all these films goes back across the Pacific to Californian coffers. Home-grown product, meanwhile, is churned out on less and less money using tired plots and fading formulas well passed their sell by date.

For it is precisely the wide variety of Hollywood stories, and the professional production values behind them, that makes the American Dream Factory so attractive. Hong Kong audiences migrate from home paddocks to foreign fields, whilst Hong Kong stars and directors jet to Hollywood, as fast as Cathay Pacific can carry them, to feel the width and depth of US celluloid. It seems there aren’t producers or scriptwriters in Hong Kong able to provide the kind of material they need, and certainly (for the stars) not the kind of money they can earn in Tinseltown.

Last year saw successes on the Art Film front with Wong Kar-wai winning a Palme d’Or, Fruit Chan getting rave reviews for ‘Made in Hong Kong’ and Peter Chan’s ‘Comrades, Almost a love Story’ winning awards world wide. But none of these show up on the box office clapo-meter or make significant profits that can be ploughed back into the film industry proper. Amongst the villains of the piece in this tale of despair and decline is the outgoing British Administration. Producers may lack imagination and try to recycle the un-recyclable, video pirates may sail the home-movie seas unhindered, but the  Government, up until the Handover in July last year, had been down right obstructive. There was no Film Commission (a must in most American and European Cities) and a veto on setting one up. Paperwork for permission to film on location travelled from department to department and often ended up with a ‘Permit Refused’ stamp on it. And there was a total ban on importing explosives for special effects in an industry that in the seventies led the way in the area of spectacular action sequences.  There may however be some money-spinning Pigs in the new administration: a Film Services Office has been proposed in a policy paper; the Culture and Broadcasting Department has brought our Film School in to contact with industry chiefs to provide post production digital training; and a Government owned three hectare site in Junk Bay is up for tender as a film studio.

The Producers must get their act together, too, by starting script development programmes instead of relying on backs of envelopes and the changing of characters’ names in existing stories. And we in the training business must nurture professional creative partnerships between students, so that when they hit the market place they can make the industry come alive as well as win festival awards. That said, the Government’s recognition, in laissez faire Hong Kong, that it can play a role in rebuilding an effective film factory should not be dismissed as gesture politics, but rather as a belated recognition of self interest. With a potential audience of 1.4 billion for Chinese language films worldwide, Hong Kong does not suffer from the limited language market problem of Dutch producers. Films made here can mean big money for the Hong Kong economy and with South East Asia in financial turmoil who would say no to that.

So, let’s hope there is a big leap forward for all in the film industry (Monkeys included) in the coming Year of the Tiger.

 Hong Kong, China, February 1998.

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POST-COLONIAL SCHIZOPHRENIA

I have just returned from my first visit to Amsterdam in fifteen months. Meeting friends and colleagues, speaking Dutch, catching up on issues (both personal and political) that are important to the Netherlands and Netherlanders. At no point did I have any doubt about where I was, or with whom I was talking. I was in the Netherlands talking to Dutch people. Nor did the newspapers and television (or people with whom I spoke) have any doubt about what perspective they saw things from  a Dutch perspective. For or against this or that; PvdA-ish or CDA-ish in their political opinions; celebrating the return of the Olympic skaters, or concerned about closure of coffee shops; bemoaning the traffic jams on the A10, or campaigning to reduce flights in and out of Schiphol. National concerns from the macro to the micro.

But what if there were no consensus about which country everyone was in? Supposing (unlikely, I admit, but just supposing) some people said the Dutch should see everything from an English perspective, or a French perspective, or an American perspective. Perhaps some people who originate from these countries still do view issues in Holland from their own national perspective, but they are a small group and most immigrants start seeing things from their adopted country’s perspective early on, because, in the end, having a say in that perspective (or being incorporated into that perspective) is more important than staying outside it and bemoaning the fact that you have ended up in the land of endless dykes and rising damp.

At this point, you may be wondering whether you are reading Skrien or have accidentally picked up a copy of VN (Dutch New Statesman) or the latest Clingendael Institute (Dutch foreign policy think-tank) report. Stay with me, we’re only a sentence away from contact with the world of film and will shortly be landing in the territory designated for use by this column, Hong Kong. But the question is: will we then know where we are?

Shortly before I left for Amsterdam, there was a storm in a cup of Chinese (or possibly English) tea about including seven personal films dealing with the 1997 reunification in the upcoming Hong Kong Film Festival. The seven were: ‘Journey to Beijing’, a documentary about a four-month walk in early ’97 from Hong Kong to Beijing to raise money for impoverished schools in rural China; ‘Still love you after all these years’, a personal statement by Stanley Kwan about growing up and ‘coming out’ in pre-1997 Hong Kong; ‘As time goes by’, in which award-winning director Ann Hui talks with a friends about their identity as ethnic Chinese living in a British colony; ‘Questionnaire’, a minimalist contribution to the handover theme; ‘Three daughters’ by Kate Leung, who sees the Handover as a parent’s reunion with an errant child; ‘Riding the Tiger’, another personal who-are-we diary by father and daughter team Leong Poh Chi and Leong Sze Wing; and, finally, a compilation of films by  various directors called ‘Digital Biography of HK 97, Programmes 1 & 2’. The latter includes a contribution by Christine Loh, a candidate at the Legislative Council elections in May. Some members of the Urban Council, chief funder of the festival, tried to remove her film from the programme on the grounds that she would be making unfair political capital by showing it before polling day. Others suggested moving the whole festival to a date after the elections. In the end, both motions were defeated and the festival will go ahead on time in April along with all seven films. Big sigh of relief all round.

What I found interesting about the debate was the identity perspectives people related to. In simple terms, it was the ‘We are now Chinese so we should/should not do this’ versus the ‘We are Hong Kongers (i.e not Chinese and still impregnated with British anti-China genes) and should/should not do this’. By and large, the latter group is made up of artists, intellectuals and US-inspired politicians; the former of businessmen, politicians in power and the vast majority of the population, who do not speak English and never saw themselves as British in the first place.

I might have let the issue pass and not bothered Skrien readers with such far-off symptoms of post-colonial schizophrenia, had I not been confronted with a second, teapot-sized storm as soon as my 747 touched down on Chinese soil. It concerned not film, but the government financed RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong). Some ageing, but amiable HK delegate to the National People’s Congress in Beijing had dared to say (while still in Beijing, which compounded the crime) that RTHK should stop criticising the Hong Kong government and take a more Chinese perspective. Immediate outrage and cries of ‘threat to press freedom’ and ‘hands off Hong Kong’, and a repeat of the identity polarization outlined above. What was forgotten, in this second debate, was that RTHK was set up as a government mouthpiece by the British administration. When the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, disappeared in July 1997, RTHK was left as a kind of Trojan Horse. A heavily pro British/US editorial and journalistic staff with implicit instructions to treat all anti-China politicians with kid gloves and put the boot in to all new government officials and pro-Beijingers.

The Netherlands have not been under colonial rule for the last hundred and fifty years and your identity as a Dutch person still allows you to be for or against any number of things  from a Dutch perspective. The difficulty for people here is finding a way of being Chinese and seeing things from a Chinese perspective without feeling that they are losing their own identity as inhabitants of Hong Kong. Powers that occupy other countries have much to answer for with regard to the mental stability of former subjects. How to discover and re-establish a safe, warm and integrated Chinese identity is what the seven films at the upcoming film festival are all about. The rantings of RTHK are part of the outgoing, imposed-from-above colonial personality.

It may be stretching a point, but imagine Dutch public service broadcasters, in the name of impartiality and freedom from government intervention, always putting things from a German perspective.

Hong Kong, China, March 1998.

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A SHEEP IN WOLF’S CLOTHING

Unfortunately, my deadline for the June issue comes too early to give you a report back on the Hong Kong Film Festival (3-18 April), which kicks off tomorrow with Gordon Chan’s ‘Beast Cop’ as opening film. Apart from the storm in a teacup around potential election candidates showing their films (reported in my last column), everything seems to be going smoothly and festival organisers are more worried about the downturn in tourism than censorship from Mother China. I think people are starting to realise that Beijing is not going to interfere in anything, and that trying to making political capital out of the Big Bad Wolf up north is a waste of time. Despite endless bating and prodding from a desperate Democratic party, the wolf just gives an affectionate pat to its long lost Hong Kong cub and goes back to sleep.

Well, not exactly to sleep, because mainland China is actively trying to improve relations with her child in more ways than one a fact not yet fully appreciated by the people of Hong Kong. For years, China was, according to Nanny Britain, enemy number one, an ever present threat to freedom waiting to pounce should Nanny turn her back. And, as the Americans know only too well, having a clearly defined enemy makes you feel secure and safe in Nanny’s arms (or in America’s case in Uncle Ron’s arms). You are good, they are bad; life is defined and simple to understand, and, as long as you don’t go into the evil empire’s forest, no harm can come to you. On the other hand, being deprived of the big bad wolf or, even worse, being asked to believe that the wolf is really your long lost and loving mother can produce severe withdrawal symptoms and a condition psychologists term ‘denial of reality’.

I have experienced this at close quarters with the ongoing story of our students’ film project in Shanghai. The tale began in my column in January when we left our intrepid students trying to get permission to film in ‘far off China’ before the mid-February deadline set by sceptical film school staff. The latter (with one or two exceptions) had all been brought up to believe in Nanny Britain’s view of the world and were confident that permission would be refused, or, at the very least, that a decision on permission would be postponed until well into the next century.

Imagine the consternation therefore, when two weeks after delivery of the script, a representative of Xinhua rang to say ‘No problem, permission to film in March granted’. ‘Don’t trust a phone call,’ muttered a member of my staff. ‘Just a low-paid official hoping for a back hander,’ added another. I was not to raise my hopes, nothing in China was official until it was in writing. Meanwhile, I should insist that students continue with their preparations for alternative projects based in Hong Kong. Such scepticism and ideologically ingrained prejudices are contagious, and, over the next week, I became more and more gloomy, convinced that my hopes and the hopes of our young (and unprejudiced) students were about to be dashed. The wolf was, after all, very big, very bad and very devious, and we, the gullible optimists, had been cruelly deceived by its post-handover sheep’s clothing.

Oh ye (or me) of little faith! A week after the phone call, an official letter popped through the letter box and the project was on. The students were thrilled. The staff, still desperately trying to deny reality, warned that students would never be allowed to bring their shot footage back. But I had had enough of the gloom and doom merchants and, in a magnanimous gesture of celebration, awarded the Shanghai project an extra HK$30,000 and told the students to book their tickets and pack their bags. In fact, had it not been for a pressing meeting on budget allocations for the coming year, I would have packed one, too.

Now the students are back with, much to the sceptics dismay, their footage in tact and glowing praise for the cooperation and support they received in ‘Verwegistan’. Other students want to follow suit and, with Hong Kong’s establishment slowly freeing itself of nanny’s strictures, that should become easier and easier. Last week, one of the local banks offered a new scholarship for student projects undertaken on the mainland and exchange programmes (formerly with ‘western’ lands) are beginning to reorientate themselves to the unexplored back garden. Maybe, the moral of my fairy tale with a happy ending is this: we are always afraid (or suspicious) of what we do not know, and as long as we allow ourselves to be conditioned by the prejudices of others (particularly those in authority) we will continue to be afraid. Nanny would prefer us to stay scared, it makes us more docile and grateful for her protection. And, as long as we are in her protection (and not in Mother’s), we will do as she says.

On a less philosophical note, one of the most positive outcomes of the Shanghai shoot has been the conversion of our finance director, a lovely Hong Kong Chinese woman of infinite fiscal flexibility. Before the students left, she rang my office in an agitated state to discuss the project budget. She wanted to know why there was no money allocated for a member of staff to accompany the students to Shanghai. ‘They’re going by themselves,’ I said. ‘By themselves?!’ she cried down the phone.’The poor dears, will they be all right?’ A genuine concern that I do not wish to mock, but one which the students’ safe return seems to have consigned to history. Rumour has it that, much to the dismay of teaching staff, who have traditionally seen student supervision in China as a free ticket to the wolf’s lair, the finance director is now busy removing all accompanying staff costs from mainland project submissions.

Losing prejudices, it seems, can also save money.

Hong Kong, China, April 1998.

* * *

AIR CONDITIONED ALIENATION

I noticed on the weather report last week that Amsterdam had, like Hong Kong, daytime temperatures in the 3O’s but, unlike Hong Kong, a night-time low of 12 C. What bliss! I longed to be sitting outside in the cool manure-scented evening air of Landsmeer, listening to the gentle roar of planes coming in to land at Schiphol.

Here we steam and sweat twenty four hours a day with daytime temperatures of 32, night-time temperatures only one or two degrees cooler and humidity of 95%, I have never changed my T-shirt so often, never sweated so much just lying in bed, never realised that there was so much water in the air and in my body. My brain feels as if it is rotting, like an old sponge left too long in the corner of a damp bathroom; my capacity for original and stimulating thought pours out of me with the daily perspirations and I can think no further than the next cup of Chinese tea.

What’s wrong with air-con you much travelled, hotel-hopping Skrien readers may ask? Well, air-con is a bind as well as a blessing: an antidote to the heat and a cause of cryogenic brain death. With your creative and intellectual faculties soggy from sun and sweat, you dive into a taxi, a bus, or your work place, only to be confronted with jets of subzero air that freeze the upper cranium as effectively as a full scale lobotomy. You can’t think about anything but getting out of this excruciating polar wind and back into the excruciating hotness and humidity outside. And so it goes on, back and forth, forth and back, and it is no surprise to hear that Hong Kong has the highest rate of colds and coughs in the world – URTI, they call it here: unspecified respiratory tract infection.

But why, you may ask, am I telling you all this in a journal better known for its high level of theoretical debate than for its discussion of climactic conditions and bodily reactions in subtropical urban environments? Well, just as the old avant-garde film makers in the sixties and seventies wanted you, the viewer, to be aware of the act of viewing (remember all those scratched films and seven hour shots of the Empire State?), I thought I should make you aware of the act of writing. Aware of what I went through in order to get the material for this month’s column, and what you should be feeling as you read it. A kind of meteorological ‘verfremdungseffekt’ – or, if you prefer, air-conditioned alienation.

I have not done a straightforward review for some time, so, for this issue, decided to find a film that you were unlikely to have seen in Holland, but which might be of interest. The one I chose was showing in a tiny Kowloon cinema (air-conditioned by a unit big enough for the Tuschinski) and only accessible by a (non air-conditioned) mini-bus. A Skrien correspondent, however, will go through hell and high water to bring you an exclusive, so read on. The film was called ‘Xiao Wu’ and was made by the young mainland director Jia Zhangke. Jia, born in 1970, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1997 having already won a prize at the Hong Kong Short Film & Video Awards in 1996 with his short  feature ‘Shan going home’. He was also a founder member of the Youth Experimental Film Group in 1995, and has been an active proponent of independent film making in China ever since. In many ways, his career might be compared to someone like Lodewijk Crijns in Holland, whose student work (‘Lap Rouge’) led on quickly to a first feature (‘Jesus is een Palestijn’). The (ironic) difference is that whereas, in officially capitalist Holland, the Film Fonds finances a first-timer, in officially communist China, the film maker must scrape his own budget together.                                 

 ‘Xiao Wu’ is set in Jia’s home province of Shanxi in Western China and makes convincing use of a local non-professional cast. It looks at life in a small town through the eyes of a young male ‘pickpocket’ and would-be intellectual, Xiao Wu. This anti-hero wanders from bar to bar, and cafe to cafe, collecting gossip and the takings of his trainee pickpockets while trying (unsuccessfully) to develop a relationship with an attractive, but status-conscious hostess from a karaoke bar. His minimal, regulated life goes wrong when he steals a wallet to buy a ring for his new love. The hostess disappears back to Beijing; Xiao visits his impoverished peasant farming family and gives the ring to his mother, who in turn, much to Xiao’s dismay, hands it on to her new daughter-in-law to show off the wealth of the family. Xiao, no longer at ease with his ‘own’ village people, wanders back to town and is arrested for stealing the wallet, which belonged to a well-to-do businessman. The last shot has Xiao hand cuffed to a lamppost by a policeman, who has gone into a shop to buy cigarettes. Passers-by stop to stare at the crestfallen Xiao, who hides his face in despair. 

The film reminds me of early Truffaut, shot (mostly handheld) in the style of Godard with newcomer Wang Hongwei acting (and smoking) very much in the manner of Jean Pierre Leaud. The difference is the harsh alienation present. Not only in the style of the film, where one shot has Xiao and his girlfriend sitting on a bed in silence for nearly five minutes, but also in the tough environment of emerging consumerism and competitiveness, where everyone is out for their own gain and betterment. Values of solidarity and mutual support have been replaced by greed and individual gratification. Capitalism has arrived. But the film is far from nostalgic, and, despite its downbeat ending, not particularly pessimistic. Perhaps the director sums it up best when he says: ‘ ‘Xiao Wu’ is a film about emotions. It doesn’t deal with the destruction of emotions as such, but with the loss of a framework in which feelings are possible.’ A more succinct and accurate description of how it is to be young and alive in society today (East or West) would be hard to find.

The natural sweat of my body, slowly solidifying in the artificially iced air of the outsized air-con unit, somehow seemed an appropriate metaphor for the film’s theme. See it, if you can.

Hong Kong, China, May 1998.

* * *

GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS

I would like to return to a theme broached earlier in this column: when is a film propaganda and when is it not? In Europe, we see the world almost exclusively through Western (and predominantly American) eyes; everything from art to politics is defined by notions of Western individualism, by the supposed superiority of our system of democratic government, and by our version of history.

This one sided vision has become even more dominant since the end of the cold war. Proponents of alternative views of the world (and its history) are dismissed as dangerous apologists for discredited philosophies and regimes. And, as the one superpower in the world is also the only cinematic superpower, this vision is endlessly reinforced in the cinema and on television without ever being referred to as western propaganda. Only films made by ‘foreigners’ and showing the West and its history in a bad light get the honour of that title.

Tibet has recently become a cause celebre with Hollywood and, subsequently, with young people across America (and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world). ‘Free Tibet!’ they cry, ‘Let the Dalai Lama return!’ The issue is presented to us by western media as a typical good versus evil story with China as the bad guy and the Dalai Lama with US backing as the good guy. The Chinese argument that Tibet has been part of China for a thousand years (apart from a brief period this century) is not given a hearing, the fact that Tibet was a feudal theocracy with extreme poverty and illiteracy prior to the re-establishment of Chinese rule in the fifties dismissed as irrelevant.

It is, therefore, unlikely that a new Chinese film entitled ‘Red River Valley’ (Hong He Gu) will ever be screened or distributed in either Europe or America. It is not an art movie, nor made by a dissident, nor packed with Hollywood stars, so will be unacceptable for either art house or commercial release. And yet, in many ways, it is one of the most informative films with regard to Tibet that I have seen. It is certainly more acceptable with regard to audience identification than ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. Being asked to sympathise with Brad Pitt as an ex-nazi battling the Chinese made me uneasy. Being asked, in ‘Red River Valley’, to identify with a British explorer and a Han Chinese woman trying to stop British soldiers from slaughtering a Tibetan village was easier, though still, for different reasons, disquieting.

Seeing my ‘own’ soldiers cold bloodedly kill the village chief and his daughter was an unusual experience that initially made me indignant. Did ‘we’ really do this? Wasn’t this just anti-Western propaganda? But gradually the indignation turned to shame as I thought of all the films in which ‘Orientals’ are portrayed as villains and aliens; films always defined as entertainment and never as propaganda. The historical facts on which ‘Red River Valley’ is based are undisputed. The British wanted to control Tibet and civilize it. They wanted to take it away from China and treat it as a province of their other possession, India. And, as in most British colonial escapades, they did not much care how they did it, as long as the natives got the message, buckled under, and brought British goods in return for their raw materials (a set of aims still underpinning much American and Western Foreign Policy today, albeit with McDonald’s, Hollywood and satellite television replacing the troops).

I have, of course, seen other films in which the British are portrayed in a bad light, but such films have nearly always been made by Western directors with a sense of moral superiority and liberal hindsight to ease the pain and salve the conscience of the Western viewer. ‘Red River Valley’ with its stunning location photography, loving and detailed recreation of tribal ritual, and seductive acting is unashamedly from a Chinese perspective, untouched by Western historical orthodoxies or by any comforting assumption that the West is no longer as predatory as it once was.

Luckily the film (like its Hollywood counterparts) was well enough constructed emotionally to purge (if not absolve) me of my colonial guilt, when, at the end, the chief’s daughter manages in her dying moments to set alight the British ammunition dump and blow the vicious invaders to hell. Only the good British explorer survives, and, as he stands alone above the dead and dying bodies, the clouds lift for the first time and he sees the sacred mountain from which all wisdom and understanding comes. Will his people learn to stop roving the world, stealing other people’s land and telling them how to live their lives? Only time will tell.

The film is interesting, too, because the bloody confrontation with the invaders takes up a relatively small amount of screen time. Much of the film focuses on the Han Chinese girl’s life with a Tibetan family, who has adopted her. She in her turn saves the British explorer from an avalanche, and, when the explorer decides to stay, she teaches him about the local customs.

‘Red River Valley’ is a surprisingly gentle and lyrical film and can be defined as propaganda only if your definition of propaganda is something that manipulates you into seeing the world from a different and ‘officially’ hostile perspective. For me, propaganda is precisely the opposite. It is when the social and psychological perspective is always the same; when the good guys and the bad guys are predictable; when the individual hero from the West always wins. In other words, when we are saved whether we want to be or not, and the American Dream (in its art-house or commercial form) is the only Dream on offer.

Hong Kong, China, July 1998

* * *

FACT OR FICTION?

Documentaries in Hong Kong are far and few between. The television stations (whether English language or Cantonese) only show factual films occasionally and cinemas (with the exception of a three month long screening of the Tiannemen Square film in 1997) hardly ever.

Those factual films that are broadcast tend to be Discovery or National Geographic nature films or American investigative programmes such as ’60 minutes’. There is a strong tradition of television journalism here, but that mostly takes the form of magazine reports about local issues such as the new airport or chicken flu. These programmes could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be defined as creative or personal investigative documentaries and never cover topics abroad except in the form of travelogues on exotic destinations.

No one seems certain why this state of affairs has arisen, or why no tradition of documentary film-making has developed here. It could be that the presence of a successful and prolific feature film industry has meant that most young film-makers opt for fiction. It is what they were brought up with and it is what other Hong Kongers want to watch. Escaping into the ‘unreality’ of Kung Fu and gangster shoot-outs appeals more to the average Hong Konger than seeing the ‘reality’ of their crowded and hectic lives mirrored in a documentary director’s lens. Or, perhaps, the dearth of factual films is because there has never been any form of subsidy for film-making here and all films have (at least on paper) to show some commercial cinematic potential, or offer the prospect of video or disc exploitation. Documentaries are not big sellers or crowd pullers and throughout the world most are subsidised by television or national film funds.The latter in particular are usually interested in investigating topics of local interest, or allowing film-makers to look at issues or people further afield from a national perspective.

But Hong Kong has had no national identity for a very long time and, until recently, was encouraged not to think too much about it’s own social or political situation. Whilst British TV organisations like the BBC and ITV were busy building on the Grierson tradition back in Britain, the colonial masters here did nothing to support the development of documentary and, in many cases, actively discouraged it through an indirect form of censorship. Only propaganda projects specifically commissioned by the Central Office of Information received the money and bureaucratic green light to go ahead. Is it any wonder then that escapist fiction dominated in the colonial era, allowing, as it did, for stories to be developed without political implication and free of censorious civil servants.

Some people argue that documentaries dealing with serious issues are only for intellectuals and first-world countries that can afford the time to navel gaze and search their collective souls. Hong Kong, they say, is concerned with shopping, money, business and entertainment. If factual programmes aren’t about one of those, then what’s the point in watching them? In other words, infotainment rules. Fashion docs abound on all the channels, programmes on stock markets and economic developments are two a penny, extended promos for products are standard fair, and profiles of pop and movie stars (and the movies they make) crop up every night .

At our film academy, we try to nuance that view of the documentary as an elite form. We allocate equal time to fact and fiction and invite documentary experts from other countries to come and talk about their work. Recently, we had Ren Yuan from Beijing to give a master-class. Ren is one of mainland China’s most renowned documentary film-makers and has, in a very personal style, recorded the life and times of the People’s Republic from Mao to Deng. The students were fascinated by his poetic approach (he is a great fan of Joris Ivens) and were surprised to discover how much creative documentary film-making there is in China.

But it’s a slow process, and at the last graduation screening only one of the films presented was a documentary. It concerned a Hong Kong Chinese man who served for twenty five years in the British Army Reserve and was pensioned off with a medal and no money at the Handover. Unfortunately, whilst the images of the handover were well compiled, the student did not manage to get the soldier to express his feelings on film. Chinese people (perhaps wisely) are not as keen as Westerners to bear their souls to the camera, and see the notion of having a film made about them as an invasion of privacy rather than a chance to become a celebrity.

Nevertheless, we shall persevere in propagating the creative potential of fact and fiction and give students the chance to experiment in both areas, as well as hybrids of the two (the faction and docudrama formats so popular in the West). Maybe fiction will always be more attractive in a society that has, for so long,  had to balance itself between ethnic Chinese maternalism on the one hand and political British paternalism on the other. The fly-on-the-wall style of Chris Doyle’s camera work for Wong Kar wai, or the hyper-realism of Fruit Chan’s back streets in ‘Made in Hong Kong’, are probably as close as we will get to documenting the real Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, China, September 1998

* * *

TO THE LAND OF SURPRISING SUN

Over Christmas and New Year, I visited Japan. I had been meaning to do so since coming East two years ago, and, on December 22nd, a combination of work and tourist opportunities finally got me on a JAL 747 from Chek Lap Kok to Narita.

The Japanese don’t celebrate Christmas except as a sales opportunity for the mega-stores in Tokyo’s Ginza district and, apart from the odd Christmas tree and digitised version of ‘Silent Night’, Jesus and Santa don’t feature. There is a holiday on the 23rd (Emperor’s birthday), but most people wait for the three day break over New Year.

Being British, I felt a rapport with this proud island race of 180 million people. Apart from the disaster of the second world war, and subsequent American occupation, they have, like the British, never been colonised or invaded. In fact, for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they refused to have contact with any foreigners apart from a group of Dutch merchants who lived on a tiny island off Nagasaki and were allowed to ply their trade via Korean intermediaries. Unlike Hong Kongers, the Japanese seem confidant (though not arrogant) about who they are, and, apart from the ubiquitous American culture, do not suffer from any post colonial schizophrenia. Like the British, they mostly speak only their own language, and, like the British, maintain a polite distance behind a façade of ritual. Where the British smile and make a joke, even when they hate you, the Japanese smile and bow. Home from home.

What’s all this got to do with film? Not a lot, except that, as with my first visit to Beijing, I was aware of how preconceptions (and misconceptions) of a country and its people are influenced by the films we have seen. In the case of Japan (apart from Godzilla) that means art films. In fact, on the drive from Narita Airport to the down-town hotel in Shinjuku, it wasn’t a Japanese art film that came to mind but the futuristic urban sequences from ‘Solaris’, all shot in Tokyo. Four-storey flyovers carrying urban motorways (snarled up with slow moving traffic) on a level with the fifteenth floor of office blocks (filled with Japanese salary-men and sushi-eating secretaries); criss-cross intersections (perched on precarious pillars) plunging down into the brightly-lit urban sprawl beneath before soaring up again to unimagined heights. Images that must have made Tarkovsky (who at the time had rarely been out of Russia) think he was on another planet. Even to a West European like myself, the scale of the urban motorway system and the vastness of Tokyo laid out below and above this highway spaghetti seemed closer to science fiction than reality.

But once out of the vertiginous traffic jams and down on to the bustling streets of Shinjuku, you begin to sense the normality of Japan. Unlike other countries in Asia, there is no hint of third-worldliness and a strong echo of Scandinavian egalitarianism and prosperity. Whether it is the state or the mega corporations, somebody is caring for the average Japanese in a way only the most welfare-orientated countries of Europe can emulate. In fact, one of the first articles I read in the English language ‘Japanese Times’ was an interview with the chairman of a giant electronics company, who said he never sacked workers as it was his duty to look after them for life. No wonder the Americans try to talk up the Japanese economic crisis and want them to change their system. Otherwise, socialism might get a good name.

Of course, given that art film-makers in capitalist countries rarely say anything positive about their own societies, this was not the impression of the country that I had built up from Japanese films. In the same way that my emerging adolescent film self imagined prosperous Sweden to be populated with predatory, blonde-haired girls and suicidal, monosyllabic Max von Sydow clones with faces like Death, my movie-moulded, middle-aged self expected the Japanese to be obsessed with anonymous and pleasure-less sex (preferably with school girls) and alienated to the point of hara-kiri by the dishonourable activities of their children and/or parents.

I suppose, in the sense that prosperity breeds alienation, the corporate welfare system of Japan did inform the context of many sixties and seventies films. ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ (‘Ai No Corrida’) by Nagisa Oshima (1976) was always billed as a critique of militarism, but is also a classic example of Marcuse’s repressive tolerance theory:  advanced capitalist societies tranquillize populations by letting them do what they want, as long as what they want to do does not threaten the state. Permit an orgy of blood and sex on screen and everyone will be too shell-shocked to revolt. A more recent film like Shunji Iwai’s ‘Love Letter’ (1996) gives a more sympathetic picture of the middle class consumer society Japan has become. While his other films concentrated on the rough side of life, ‘Love Letters’ is set in a well-to-do provincial suburb characteristic of much of modern Japan. The work of Masayuki Suo (‘Shall we dance?’ and ‘Sumo do, Sumo don’t’) also offers a slightly less jaundiced view of Japanese life than earlier art-with-angst (or sex-with-swords) merchants.

But, ultimately, impressions of a country should be personal and formed by the people we meet and the places we go to rather than the films we see. We should be on our guard against assuming our favourite celluloid artists have ‘got it right’. Films are films, and life is life. That said, I was disappointed not to see one samurai warrior (even in the countryside). Come back, Kurosawa, all is forgiven.

Hong Kong, China, January 1999.

* * *

RIPER FRUIT

For the last two months, this column has been busy expanding its borders metaphysically and geographically. Now, it is time to get back to basics with a straightforward review.

And what better film to pick than the latest offering from Fruit Chan, released last month on to a dozen screens around Hong Kong. Entitled ‘The Longest Summer’ (‘Hui nin yin fa dak bit doh’), it overlaps and picks up from where his first cult success ‘Made in Hong Kong’ ( ‘Xiang Gang zhi zao’) left off. In the latter, the hero cannot face the uncertainty of the hand-back to China and commits suicide. In Chan’s new film, the heroes (or most of them) make it through to the other side of July 1st 1997 – just.

The plot revolves around a group of Hong Kong Chinese men, who have been ‘local’ soldiers in the British army garrison. But with the handover looming the British have shown their gratitude for loyalty and bearing arms in the Queen’s name by dumping the five friends without work, money or accommodation. Told they would be ‘looked after’ and get British passports, now they are nobodies. So, left to their own devices by the departing colonial power, whose sole legacy to them is the ability to behave like soldiers (and, if necessary, kill), they turn their faces to the future and the new boss China and decide to rob a bank. But it has to be a British bank.

Their self-appointed leader Ga Yuen decides to co-opt his younger brother Ga Ja into the group, as Ga Ja is apprenticed to an ineffective triad boss and presumed to have some experience of crime. Another member has a job as a security guard at a suitable bank and plans are laid with (attempted) military precision. They decide to use fake guns, but on the big day find that another gang (with real guns) has got to the bank first. In an ensuing shoot out with the police, one of the rival gang members jumps into our heroes’ getaway van with the stolen money. She turns out to be the triad boss’s daughter and agrees to hand over the money, if they let her go.

Against a vividly filmed background of the actual Handover in June and July 1997, the rest of the story revolves, on the surface at least, around what to do with the money and attempts by the rival gang to get it back. The metaphor is clear: while world-shattering events are occurring all around Hong Kong, most people are concerned about one thing – making money. It couldn’t matter less  to them who the boss is, as long as they can still get rich quick. But Fruit Chan does not make the metaphor too obvious. Through apparently effortless use of his high-energy, documentary-style hand-held camera (less self conscious and ‘arty. than Wong Kar-wai’s), and through the high-energy, high-realism performances of his leading actors (the five gang members are beautifully differentiated in both looks and character), he takes us on a non-stop, roller-coaster ride of action, humour and tragedy, which left me breathless, but unaware that I had been in the cinema for nearly two and a half hours.

The skill of Chan lies in his ability to make films that are accessible and intellectually stimulating without either resorting to Godardian tactics of alienation and disorientation or slavishly imitating Hollywood. His storyline, apart from a brief lapse towards the end, is effective and convincing and slips easily back and forth between action movie and psychological/social drama. His observation of the events of the handover (recorded less accurately and less effectively in numerous forms by other film-makers) fits effortlessly into the story, and its incorporation does not seem forced or artificial. A scene where the five friends watch the dawn arrival of the PLA (filmed live in the pouring rain that accompanied the entire Handover) is effective and touching. The old ‘British’ soldiers stand and salute the new Chinese soldiers and the latter wave back with military precision at the welcoming crowd, while the formerly British-controlled Hong Kong police (since midnight Chinese police) mingle with the onlookers  to make sure their new masters get an undisturbed welcome.

Like ‘Made in Hong Kong’ the film is ultimately more pessimistic than optimistic, implying as it does that the only way forward for the ordinary Hong Konger is to radically and literally lobotomise memories of the past. Hong Kong cannot dwell on its history, but nor can it be certain of its future. The only thing to do, therefore, is to keep living in the present and turn a blind eye to both nostalgia and notions of a new beginning. But at least this time the message is: stay alive, if you can.

The film feels more confidant and mature than ‘Made in Hong Kong’, which may have to do with the larger budget Chan had at his disposal, or with his more disciplined approach to plot and character. Whatever the reason, this film clearly heralds (or perhaps more accurately reconfirms) the emergence of a major Hong Kong film-making talent, who draws unashamedly on both the artistic and commercial traditions of his city’s cinematic past. Let’s hope he doesn’t emigrate too quickly, but keeps making films in and about his home town, documenting its progress (and that of its less fortunate inhabitants) as they lurch towards the twenty first century. As one character in ‘The Longest Summer’ reminds us, they are now citizens of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, and, as he also points out, the official acronym, for that, HKSAR, is also an anagram for SHARK. And Hong Kong is full of sharks. The trick is to keep breathing and out of their way – or else become one of them.

Hong Kong, China, February 1999.

* * *

GORGEOUS JACKIE CHAN – THE KING OF SCREEN CHARISMA

After teaming up with newly-arrived Hollywood star, Will Smith, for the comedy-thriller ‘Rush Hour’ – the box office hit about a Hong Kong detective called to LA to help a hapless FBI agent sort out a kidnapping – Jackie Chan has come home for his latest film ‘Gorgeous’.

This is, unusually for the Cantonese mega-star, ostensibly a comedy romance. Set in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it tells the story of a Taiwanese girl (played by ex Taipei porn star Qi Shu), who finds a message in a bottle from a lonely heart in Hong Kong. Despite remonstrances from her father and mother, she sets out to find the sender (a certain Albert) who has conveniently enclosed his address in the message. Albert turns out to be gay and not keen on the presence of women in his flat. But, being soft hearted, he eventually agrees to help Siu Qi by introducing her to his eco-friendly business tycoon and international playboy friend, Jackie Chan.

So far so good for the comedy and romance elements of the story, at least. But no Jackie Chan film is complete without a large dose of daredevil action, so this has to be squeezed into the plot, too. Solution: introduce a rival triad tycoon who has nothing to do with the main romance plot, or comic gay sub-plot, and arrange for him to challenge Jackie to a duel ‘just for the hell of it’. Then, to ensure Jackie (now in his mid-forties) comes across as still the best acrobatic kick-boxer and kung-fu fighter currently on screen, bring in a twenty-year old western fighter to challenge him on the rival tycoon’s behalf. Jackie loses the first round, but then (in the manner of Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou) gets into shape with the help of Siu Qi and beats the shit out of the Western upstart.

In short, a totally artificial and dislocated story, in which the dialogue is terrible, the characterisation minimal and the sexual romantic chemistry between hero and heroine non-existent – they don’t even get to kiss and are clearly not happy about being on screen together. Yet I, and my fellow-viewers in the packed cinema, remained riveted throughout. Why? Gorgeous Jackie Chan! The man has such screen presence and charisma you suspend disbelieve (and most of your critical faculties) when he’s up there larger than life in front of you. Whether he is being beaten up or beating someone up, falling through a ceiling or being dragged through shark invested waters, you stay riveted. He is a virtuoso performer and, like the child prodigy violinist forced to play with a second rate school orchestra, his virtuosity shines through and diverts attention from the terrible plot and irritating overacting of his co-star.

And as in a violin concerto there are cadenzas, too, when (like the orchestra) accompanying actors and story-lines are rested to allow soloist Jackie to strut his stuff and dazzle his fans. The two central fight sequences last almost ten minutes each (a fifth of the films running time) and are choreographed as precisely and aesthetically as any ballet or Hollywood musical dance sequence. True, Jackie is beginning to show his age a bit, but he still manages (with the judicious help of the film editor) to perform the most impossible movements with grace and agility. For, as we all know, after he was nearly killed performing a stunt in the late eighties, there are never stand-ins for Mr Chan.

The extraordinary thing is, when you meet him (which I did, when he was made an Honorary Fellow at our Academy) you find a small, unassuming man, who talks softly, rarely smiles and seems surprisingly frail. Only when his eyes meet yours does the charisma connect and do you find yourself longing for a display of his physical fireworks, a sudden movement from those acrobatic limbs, even if that means being picked up and thrown across the room yourself. You’re gorgeous, Mr Chan  simply gorgeous!

Hong Kong, China, March 1999.

* * *

SCRIPTING THE WAR

As I write this, NATO bombers over Yugoslavia have just killed twenty civilians crossing a busy bridge on their way to market, eleven patients in a sanatorium, and six people in a village – all in broad daylight. The latest in a string of ‘surgical’ killings committed in the name of human rights and Western self-righteousness.

NATO said they were justifiable military targets and that people shouldn’t have been in the way. NATO is the good guy, what it says is fact. The bad guys are Serbs, Milosevic is Darth Vadar. What he says is lies and evil propaganda. The good guy presses the buttons and people die – like in the movies, like in the computer games; the player never gets hurt, only those on screen. But people in Yugoslavia are not virtual, not celluloid, not dreamt up by a scriptwriter to represent evil. They are innocent civilians being killed by Western Europeans. By the British, French, Germans and Dutch acting out an over-simplistic, Manichean script written by the Americans and beefed up by script-doctor Tony Blair.

But the script is flawed, at least from a non-European perspective. The bad guys, seen from Hong Kong, are the vastly superior forces of the most powerful alliance on earth vandalising an entire nation with often-indiscriminate killing of innocent people. How am I meant to identify with these NATO ‘heroes’? Nothing is solved by their actions, they merely create more suffering and despair; nothing is solved by murdering more people than you set out to save in the first place, and destroying the infrastructure of an entire nation to boot. The script is flawed, because NATO is a bigger bully than Serbia ever was, a military aggressor in sovereign territory the like of which has not been seen in Europe since the Second World War. Have people (especially in Holland) forgotten what it is like to be bombed?

And it is no good trying to write up Milosevic’s part – give more depth to his character and say it is all his fault. He didn’t start the bombing. He didn’t lay waste an entire country. What he was doing was unpardonable, but since Yugoslavia broke up everyone has been doing unpardonable things: Tudjman and the Croats, the KLA, the Sarajevo Muslims – all have fought their corners viciously and violently. There has been a civil war and that is difficult to pitch to an audience. Two sides with the same back-stories don’t always work in a script and are a nightmare for the writer trying to get story-lines straight and positive character identification fixed. Having too many bad guys confuses the audience and stops them going along with the lawful violence of one side: flashback scenes of Serbs being expelled en masse from Krajina by the Croats with the backing of the Americans will reduce the impact of Kosovars being expelled by Serbians now. To admit these latter expulsions only happened on such a vast scale once the NATO bombing had started moves the Centre of Good in the story to the wrong side. Protagonists become antagonists and vice verse. Keep the plot simple and make sure your villains are always more villainous than your heroes.

But surely European audiences are more sophisticated than that? Surely they see that brute force never solved anything and should only be used in self-defence? That sanctions, diplomatic pressure and support of democratic movements is the only sane and effective way, even if it takes longer? A boring story, perhaps – less dramatic, no scenes of violent destruction, no absolute line between good and evil – but isn’t that what distinguishes European movies from American movies? Their lack of naivety, their ability to approach the human condition (in its negative and positive aspects) in a more subtle and realistic way? Or have we all become so sure that the Western way, the American way is right? That crusades meting out death and destruction are justified? That simple, action-packed stories are better than complex, slow moving ones? Everything they do is evil and in defence of corrupt regimes, everything we do is holy and in defence of ‘democracy.

No wonder Zhang Yimou withdrew his films ‘Not one Less’ and ‘The Road Home’ from Cannes in disgust at the comments of jury chairman David Cronenbourg, who referred to them as ‘propaganda with some artistic worth’. Why propaganda? Because they were not overtly anti Beijing. As Yimou said: ‘In the West now, everyone from presidents to radical artists sees only two categories of Chinese movie – anti-government or propaganda.’ The warlords of the West have neatly reversed this: there, it now seems, there is only pro-government news or propaganda. And, according to a well-known columnist in the NRC Handelsblad, artists in Holland should not comment on the war – it’s none of their business. Such matters should be left to the politicians who ‘understand’ these things. Does that stricture on comment apply to dissident artists in China as well?

Wake up, please! The West can play the bad guy, too, and then it is time for those with a heart and a mind to tear up the old script and start again.

Hong Kong, China, June 1999.

[This final column was not, in the end, published. Partly because it was felt that by the time the relevant Skrien appeared events would have moved on, and partly because (even by Skrien’s permissive standards) the piece was seen as too political. Undoubtedly my plea for peace and my strong polemic against the NATO intervention in Serbia were influenced by my Hong Kong perspective and the supposedly ‘accidental’ rocket attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. But that Serbian intervention by NATO did change the rules of engagement from self-defence to ‘regime change’ and heralded the start of a series of military interventions from Afghanistan (2001) through Iraq (2003) to Libya (2011). Whether in the end more lives are lost or saved by such interventions is sometimes debatable, but the Arab Spring shows that waiting for the people to impose their own will (though this, too, may cost lives and may not necessarily lead to an outcome desired by the West) is almost always preferable to armed intervention by outsiders.  – Richard Woolley, March 2012]

* * *

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