Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 36, October 2003

 

 

Karen Fang

 

The Poverty of Sociological Studies of Hong Kong Cinema:

Stokes and Hoover's _City on Fire_

 

 

Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover

_City On Fire: Hong Kong Cinema_

London: Verso, 1999

ISBN 1-85984-203-8

372 pp.

 

_City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema_ is an avowedly Marxist analysis of the vibrant Asian film industry, whose dynamic visuality withstood Hollywood imports for years, and which is now a major influence in American and worldwide filmmaking. The volume may be the most extreme of the studies in English on Hong Kong film that have appeared in the past decade, which have for the most part all pursued similar emphases on the cultural and industrial factors of the cinema. [1] Although such a materialistic approach to movies may seem antithetical to the more philosophical inquiries of a journal such as _Film-Philosophy_, in fact the volume, by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, a humanist and a political scientist respectively, is a powerful flashpoint for examining why a non-western cinema repeatedly attracts this particular perspective in western criticism. The reason for this is that the globalization processes that surrounded the height of the Hong Kong film industry and the western discovery of the cinema revealed a western inferiority that was compensated for by an aggressive application of western theory, which accords the Asian cinema a status as an interesting socioeconomic specimen but not as a product of artistic ambition. This marginalizing position betrays western desires for cultural authority and fears of eclipse in the age of globalization.

 

Stokes and Hoover's approach is to see Hong Kong films as direct representations of the economic conditions in the territory: 80s and 90s 'gambling movies' directly reflect Hong Kong's economic transformation and their inahbitants' anxieties over reunification with China (219); John Woo's romantic gangster movies are nostalgic depictions of a culture that no longer exists -- that is, one of 'non-acquisitiveness' (40); and the dysfunctional families that are often the subject of comedies released for the Chinese New Year (the territory's highest moviegoing period) are outcomes of the crass commercialism and consumer society that is the very reason for moviegoing and the targeting of that audience at that time (205). By the same token, the authors argue that the highly commercial Hong Kong film industry is an index of the territory's ambitious society and expansionist economy in general: the frequency of production is emblematic of a 'tiger' economy, just as Ann Hui's 1996 film _Ah Kam_, about a stuntwoman in the local film industry, is 'a disturbing visual reminder of Marx's words', as scenes of the character being pushed onto a truck by the director 'have a striking similarity to Marx's description of the transformation of the laborer into a workhorse . . . neglecting safety rules in production processes pernicious to health' (27). (The connection is rendered all the more obvious in the outtakes that show actress Michelle Yeoh injured in the filming.) All of these aspects of Hong Kong film and culture interest Stokes and Hoover because it so perfectly illustrates the fierce conditions of industrial capitalism that Marx describes. In fact, for Stokes and Hoover, Hong Kong film is such a striking instance of Marxian phenomena that plot summaries or dialogue from the movies can be used to exemplify economic theory and vice versa. The authors repeatedly lift sentences from Marx and insert them, without elaboration, in their descriptions of the movies, such as in this discussion of the 1997 action film, _Beyond Hypothermia_, which sketches the psychology of the main character, an assassin:

 

'She is . . . aloof and unresponsive, contextualized . . . by the squalor from which she came . . . Her only connection to humanity is through the noodles she likes . . . For the most part, she is her job. 'In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunder for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day.' Her work follows her' (166).

 

Or, to provide the reverse instance, in the discussion of Peter Chan's popular film, _He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father_ (1993), the authors quote the opening voice-over in the movie (in which a character claims his failure is due to the poor example of his father) in order to show how Hong Kong movies repeatedly reveal local culture to be dictated by consumer society. Although these questions of envy and possessions are touched upon in the monologue, the authors' discussion of the it claims a more extensive responsibility, above and beyond what exists in the monologue. According to Stokes and Hoover, the main character represents:

 

'the man of the fetished world, who can cure his disgust with the world only in intoxication, who seeks, like the morphine addict, to find a way out by heightening the intensity of the intoxicant rather than a way of life that has no need of intoxication' (211).

 

Such an insistently materialistic emphasis on Hong Kong film has its merits. As the authors state in their Introduction, their aim in the volume is to highlight Hong Kong as a profoundly modern place, providing extensive description of plot, scenario, visual setting, and editorial style in Hong Kong film as cinematic corroboration of the scholarly and theoretical accounts of Hong Kong stemming from prominent geographers such as David Harvey, Manuel Castells, and Saskia Sassen. [2] The volume, published in 1999, precedes David Bordwell's 2000 study _Planet Hong Kong_, and is chock-full of statistical and demographic data to help contextualize their study and introduce the territory to western readers less familiar with Hong Kong, and, as a relatively early work, appears to benefit from extensive access to local filmmakers. The volume is rich in unprecedented commentary from first-person interviews with numerous luminaries, all providing first-hand glimpses into the procedures, motivations, and decision-making processes of local filmmaking. For the readers and viewers new to Hong Kong cinema the volume is, like the literal translations of Chinese movie titles that it provides along with the English title, a valuable glimpse into the modes of production and reception that would otherwise be invisible to Hollywood consumers. Most interesting about the authors' insistent return to aspects and rhetoric of Marxian thinking in relation to the territory is that it raises the question of how these capitalistic conditions in the current Hong Kong film industry -- or the territory in general -- originate in the imperial capitalism of the nineteenth century, the period in which Marx was writing and in which the colony of Hong Kong was founded. If Hong Kong film is indeed the exemplar of Marxian dynamics as the authors suggest, then much interest must lie in the historical continuity of mid-nineteenth century British theory in late-twentieth century global examples. This connection would be interesting because it further substantiates the relevance of the postcolonial moment upon which most studies of Hong Kong film are focused.

 

The automatic critique of methods like Stokes and Hoover's, usually coming from practitioners of traditional studies of national film, is that their account, despite its commitment to cultural contextualization, cannot be expert because the authors are, as they acknowledge, new to Hong Kong and Asia in general (viii). The point has some validity, as their descriptions of characteristics of local film sometimes cannot distinguish between the unique, the banal, and the widespread. For example, on different occasions the authors claim that families 'come in all shapes and sizes', storytelling 'is celebrated in Hong Kong movies', and that eating is perhaps the 'single phenomenon that is common to all [Hong Kong] movies' (205, 169, 237). These observations are not wrong, but are they really specific to Hong Kong culture and film alone? More disturbing about this apparent inability to sense what matters in the movies is evident in the range of films that they discuss: the authors move with little discretion from discussions of little-known movies and box-office busts to historic, record-shattering, and trend-setting films such as John Woo's _A Better Tomorrow_, conveying a false sense of the cultural landscape because the movies they cite as representative of society had no earnings to suggest the social identification that authors presume. For example, the intimate 1993 film, _Roof with a View_, which the authors discuss at length, did little at the box office, ranking a dismal 47th in the year of its release. To accord it the same importance as a Stephen Chow comedy, which regularly tops the year-end box office, must be inaccurate, especially given the materialist and sociological criteria of their study.

 

Instead of Stokes and Hoover's outsider status, however, it is precisely their willingness to see Hong Kong film as unknown and foreign and their reliance upon their own western theoretical training that is most problematic. Any study which sees epiphenomena such as eating and family structure as unique to a film tradition must bear questioning. Similarly, in a discussion of gender relations in Hong Kong cinema and how they reveal those 'patterns of behavior, thoughts and feelings' of economic self-interest that the authors feel typifies Hong Kong culture and cinema, their discussion of the Chow Yun-fat comedy _Diary of Big Man_ (1988) notes that women are portrayed as objects or commodities like 'honeymoon souvenirs' (229). As Gayle Rubin -- whom the authors cite -- would ask about this scenario: what is unusual about such traffic in women? Part of the insights of the work Harvey, Castells, and Sassen is to show that Hong Kong, if different from the west in any way, represents a modernity that is more advanced than ours; their work presents Hong Kong as different from the west only in the sense that it is the west's future. But instead, the aspects that Stokes and Hoover point towards as part of our divide are almost otherizing gestures that suggest that such basic social features as food, family life, and gender relations are profoundly unusual in Hong Kong. This should be familiar as Orientalism, which in its importance in the conceptual work of the volume is far more disturbing than the occasional lapses into Orientalist rhetoric that the volume also contains -- e.g. 'Watching a Stanley Kwan film is like opening a Chinese box' (160). What is unusual about this new form of Orientalism in comparison to those studied by Edward Said and Lisa Lowe, [3] which crystalized in the imperial rhetoric of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is that the language of Stokes and Hoover shows the Asian place to be more modern than the west that it opposes.

 

With regard to the volume's unequalled commitment to reflectionist strategies, the heavy reliance on Marxian interpretation often does nothing to illuminate the films themselves. While this fails to fulfill the authors' own concerns for using the films to understand Hong Kong culture and economy, the approach completely neglects to address visual analysis, an issue that would seem to be primary to film studies. This is unfortunate, as the chief traits of Hong Kong cinema, as the other English studies by Bordwell, Ackbar Abbas, Stephen Teo, and Esther Yau (as editor) remind us, are the disparate and dynamic film styles it inhabits, ranging from martial arts and full-throttle action spectacles, to the languid cinematography of art filmmakers Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-wai, and the recent yoking of verbal comedy with digital effects in the latest films from Stephen Chow. [4] (For scholars seeking theoretical discussion of the visual stylizations in Hong Kong film, seek out the work of those scholars and critics mentioned above.) More importantly, though, by failing to provide any significant visual analysis in their Marxist study, Stokes and Hoover pass up the opportunity to link Marx's vivid and metaphor-strewn language with the political and economic questions he considers. This could have conclusively justified the rigorously materialist approach in _City on Fire_, and provided a powerful and unique insight into Hong Kong film.

 

Of course, what is interesting about such tendentious critical interest in economics is what it reveals about the criticism, and not the films themselves. In the case of _City on Fire_, Stokes and Hoover's emphatically materialist, arguably reductive Marxism has the effect of depicting Hong Kong cinema as an object of only socioeconomic interest, rather than the art form that cinema is. There are two advantages to such an approach. First, the aggressive whole-quotation-lifting of Marx that the authors adopt to illuminate Hong Kong film counteracts its focus on an eastern accomplishment by an obsessive celebration of a western contribution. Marxian economics thus start to appear as much an object of praise as the nominal focus of the volume, almost to the point of obscuring the actual subject of film. Indeed, upon reflection the volume seems to endorse an implied hierarchy in which the achievements of western economic theory are thought to be more valuable than the cultural artifacts of the east that the theory illuminates. This is the second objective of the style of criticism in _City on Fire_: by using Marx to discuss Hong Kong cinema the authors position themselves to 'understand' Hong Kong film in a way that local scholars and critics, who may use economic theory in a more naturalized, less aggressive way, do not -- implicitly suggesting that Hong Kong cinema had not been adequately theorized until the introduction of a specifically western voice. [5] Moreover, the difference between theory and the status of cinema as art form and cultural site further corroborates this hierarchy. In this hierarchal construction Stokes and Hoover participate in the longstanding notions of eastern simplicity: while for them Hong Kong has produced, almost accidentally as it were, a vibrant and visually innovative cinema, the fierce Marxian voice in _City on Fire_ repeatedly implies that accomplishment is limited to this form of organic beauty and that the society is not incapable of scientific thought.

 

Where does this dismissive position as regards Hong Kong film come from? Paradoxically, from a position of western inferiority, as manifested by the vitality of Hong Kong film at its height, when the local cinema not only resisted Hollywood imports but was increasingly being seen as a crucial source of invention and inspiration for western filmmakers. The background to this history is globalization, the worldwide consolidation of economy and culture that all studies of Hong Kong film must acknowledge. Hong Kong occupies an important role in this history, and it was in the 1980's and early 1990's (the years now cited as the advent of globalization) that the colony became a financial center for the world: 'capitalism's major success story . . . with a higher per capita income than in the USA' (205). This historical moment is important because it not only shows the spread of global trade from metropole to former periphery, but the reappearance of the periphery as the new metropole, with money that the erstwhile home country can only envy. For the heavily economic perspective in _City on Fire_, Hong Kong film exemplifies the expansionist acumen in the local economy at large, and hence is an object of both admiration and envy. Not surprisingly, then, western interest in Hong Kong film reflects this ambivalence, as the strange fact of a bastion against global Hollywood hegemony makes Hong Kong cinema worth noting. By limiting its relevance to the economic arena, however, the approach also diminishes its importance at the very moment that it acknowledges it. This strategy of limiting the subject to the arena in which the west is most threatened (economics), enables the authors to mount a defense against the west's eclipse.

 

Most importantly, _City on Fire_ falls short of exploring the visual and temporal components constitutive of cinema, and therefore misses the potentially most intriguing aspect of a materialist examination of Hong Kong film. As most of the other studies of Hong Kong cinema are careful to note, the evanescent vitality of the local film has been all the more poignant as the industry has since been cannibalized by Hollywood, and the Hong Kong economy as a whole has fallen victim to the slump currently endured throughout Asia. This failure to elaborate on the value of film as a metaphor for Asian power is symptomatic of the unfulfilled potential of _City of Fire_, whose rigidly Marxist study of Hong Kong cinema does not explore the significance of the illusoriness of filmic representation. Like a bad reading of Marx's _Poverty of Philosophy_, the crucial work leading up to Capital, but a study whose thesis and title are too easily parodied, _City on Fire_ is an unsubtle application of economic analysis whose suggestion that abstract approaches to cinema are simpleminded only betrays the poverty of that approach.

 

University of Houston

Texas, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. For characteristic studies, see Stephen Teo, _Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimension_ (London: British Film Institute, 1997); Ackbar Abbas, _Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Poshek Fu and David Desser, eds., _The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); David Bordwell, _Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment_ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); and the essays in special issue of _Post Script_, vol. 19 no. 1, Fall 1999.

 

2. David Harvey, _The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change_ (New York: Blackwell, 1989); Manuel Castells, _The Rise of the Network Society_ (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996); Saskia Sassen, _The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

 

3. Edward Said, _Orientalism_ (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Lisa Lowe, _Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms_ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

 

4. See Esther Yau, ed., _At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001).

 

5. This is not to say, however, that Marx has never been adopted by Chinese scholars and critics of Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong-born scholar Rey Chow, for example, has been writing (in both English and Chinese) on postcolonial traumas in local culture for some time; her work is an astute mix of empirical knowledge and theoretical precision that conveys the artistic and emotional depths of Hong Kong films, a depth that _City on Fire_ can only allude to by reference to colorful quotations from Marx. See Rey Chow, _Ethics After Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity_ (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Karen Fang, 'The Poverty of Sociological Studies of Hong Kong Cinema: Stokes and Hoover's _City on Fire_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 36, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n36fang>.

 

Read a response to this text:

Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, 'Comments on Karen Fang's Review of _City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 37, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n37stokeshoover>.

 

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