Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 37, October 2003



Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover


Comments on Karen Fang's Review of _City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema_



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


In the Epigraph to our book, _City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema_, we quote Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan: 'When you make a movie you can't really expect anything from the audience . . . I don't get frustrated when people interpret my movies because, when you've made a movie, your movie is not your movie anymore -- it's theirs.' The phenomenon that Chan describes applies to other artistic and cultural works, including our book. We think that films are 'serious fun' in that entertainment and social commentary or political relevance are neither counter-posed to, nor mutually exclusive of one another. We generalize about 1997, a generalization borne out by many Hong Kongers whom we interviewed, and the marker to which Tiananmen (among other things) pointed. Ours is a 'political reading' revealed by subtexts, issues, conflicts, and allegories. In contrast, some reader-reviewers suggest that we are 'too serious' in considering Hong Kong films to be more than 'sheer fun' escapism and fantasy (a view we believe slights those who make the movies from which we derive much pleasure). Others criticize us for 'seeing 1997' everywhere; still others take us to task for 'injecting politics' into everything.


Karen Fang is among the _City on Fire_ commentators (whether favorable or not) who have noted both its wealth of first-hand source material and its heavily-researched and well-documented secondary source information. We quote sundry sources from personal interviews and correspondence, as well as from numerous publications throughout the book. On the one hand, we use theoretical propositions and empirical evidence alongside anecdotal material to try to make the latter representative; on the other, we employ anecdotes to support theoretical statements and empirical data. Towards these ends, we cite many theorists, critics, and filmmakers; for example, we turn to Karl Marx in our discussions of alienation, commodification, early capitalist accumulation, and social relations in Hong Kong and in Hong Kong films. After all, the former British colony (now Special Administrative Region) has, in many ways, unfolded like so many pages of _Capital_.


While Marx's appearance has uniformly drawn the critics' greatest ire (to the best of our knowledge, no one has objected to the multiple quoting of a number of other persons), we have not been surprised by the antagonism (and sometimes even hostility) that he has engendered. In fact, we prefigure as much in our book:


'the concept of class in much film criticism and theory is marked by the presence of its absence . . . Contemporary cultural studies has judged class analysis as reductionist; many film critics and scholars practice self-contained readings of film narratives; and the concept of class challenges the cultural production process, of which intellectual labor is part, of late capitalist society.' (306)


Our comparison of working conditions in the Hong Kong film industry to Marx's characterization of the capitalist workplace merits specific mention because of the way that several reviewers have used (misused, in our opinion) the passage. Here is Fang's rather tortured account and quotation of what we write:


'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).


A more complete, and certainly more correct allusion to what appears above would begin with Chow Yun-fat discussing the making of about 70 films in ten years: 'It is one kind of way to survive in the Hong Kong film industry . . . Sometimes everyone is proud of themselves when they make twelve films in a year, but on the other hand, there is a sadness, I feel shame that we have been working like a dog.' The actor then says: 'in Hong Kong, our buildings, our rooms are narrow . . . we're always breaking the law, shooting on the streets without a permit' (27). We suggest that Chow's words bear similarity to Marx's description in _Capital_ of:


'the transformation of the laborer into a workhorse, [which] is a means of increasing capital, or speeding up the production of surplus-value. Such economy extends to overcrowding close and unsanitary premises with laborers . . . to crowding dangerous machinery into close quarters without using safety devices; to neglecting safety rules in production processes pernicious to health.' (27)


We should point out that when we quoted this passage in _City on Fire_ we framed it with both the actor Roy Cheung talking about sitting in stinking water for three days and nights (without adequate ventilation) on the cramped set of Ringo Lam's _Prison on Fire_, and the _Ah Kam_ incident to which Fang refers.


Fang acknowledges in a footnote to her review that there are Chinese scholars and critics of Hong Kong cinema who have adopted Marxism. Regarding scholars, we would point out that Marxism was the ideology of choice for most twentieth-century intellectuals throughout China and East Asia in that it offered those who rejected Confucianism both a path to modernization and a way to oppose capitalism and imperialism. The more recent past has witnessed both a turn to various post-Marxist theories and to a neo-Confucianism aligned with modernization but critical of liberal individualism and free markets. As for critics, we should include among the Marxists some members of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society who utilize a framework similar to our own, in they that read films as more than textual signifiers in and of themselves, and they understand cinema as more than simply a commercial or technological industry.


Furthermore, Fang has a go at us for being less than 'expert' (whatever that means) because 'the authors are, as they acknowledge, new to Hong Kong and Asia in general'. However, we nowhere state this; rather, we note that 'we have remained aware . . . that we write as Hong Kong outsiders' (vii) -- a quite different sentiment and state of affairs. Fang's commentary ostensibly exposes our naivete when she claims that we consider 'eating and family structure' (storytelling as well) to be 'specific to Hong Kong culture and film alone'. Again, we nowhere claim that such 'epiphenomena . . . are unique to [Hong Kong's] film tradition'. Regarding food, we do quote director Stanley Tong at some length on why he thinks that food features prominently in Hong Kong films -- the city-state's status as a gourmand's paradise and the film industry workers' desire for a good meal. More damning, according to Fang, is our 'inability to sense what matters in the movies'. The problem in this instance stems from our 'indiscriminately' discussing 'historic, record-shattering, and trend-setting films' such as John Woo's _A Better Tomorrow_ alongside 'little-known movies and box office busts' such as Tony Au's _Roof With a View_. Fang proceeds to make the quite remarkable -- and reductionist -- statement that films generating little revenue are not 'representative of society [because they have] no earnings to suggest the social identification the authors presume'. Meaning as the 'cash nexus'!


Fang's apparent coup de grace is charging us with 'Orientalism' (of a neo-kind) in her contention that we see objectified and commodified gender relations as 'profoundly unusual in Hong Kong'. She both misreads and overstates here, in the manner of her earlier comments about food and family life; we make no claims of particularism or of exoticism. The allegation does warrant attention as Fang variously depicts _City on Fire_ to be representative of 'western desires for cultural authority and fears of eclipse in the age of globalization', 'obsessive celebration of a western contribution', and 'a defense against the west's eclipse'. What is this 'west' into which Fang places us? Much as the term 'euro-centric' is problematic (although we agree with the late geographer Jim Blaut that the concept is the 'colonizer's model of the world'), certain applications of the term/concept 'west' flattens the complexity of European/western culture and history's peripheral regions, social classes, and marginalized and stigmatized peoples. Simple inversion, turning the colonialist model on its head, makes Orientalism and post-colonialism two sides of the same coin.


Postcolonial theory was largely generated by Third World scholars in western universities as a means of cultural resistance to 'dominant discourses'. Along with poststructuralism and postmodernism, postcolonialism has attracted 'leftist' adherents and advocates in the wake of Marxism's supposed exhaustion. The theory has had -- and rightly so -- a powerful impact, ranging from its critique of 'authentic past' (a point made, for what it's worth, by Marx in _The Eighteenth Brumaire_) to its focus on displacement and migration. Consistent with other post-Marxist approaches, however, class is often missing from postcolonial discourse. Additionally, the theory's origins have made certain terms and concepts -- such as 'ambivalence', 'difference', and 'globalization' -- vulnerable to fashionable academic use. Most importantly, postcolonial theory has offered little in the way of practical political struggle; neither de-centering unitary Enlightenment discourse nor renouncing Euro-centric models are likely to liberate oppressed peoples or overturn the exploitative programs of international finance.


Historical materialist/class analysis informs and structures _City on Fire_, but we rely on other perspectives: including postcolonial, gender, and identity theories as well as poststructuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, and some formalist and textual analysis (surely someone should call us 'intellectual tourists'). We appreciate cinema's complexity as technology, practice, and imaginary. Thus, contra Fang's assertion that we offer no visual examination (read: aesthetics of film), we do so in support of our thesis and approach -- see our discussions of Ronny Yu's _The Bride With White Hair_ and Wong Kar-wai's _Ashes of Time_, to identify but two examples. Fang ends her review by suggesting that our book is akin to a 'bad reading of Marx's _Poverty of Philosophy_'. We confess to being unsure what she means; our understanding of this work -- which Marx suggested could be read along with the _The Communist Manifesto_ as an introduction to _Capital_ -- is that it is a refutation of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis view of history commonly attributed to Marx. Perhaps we have read Marx poorly. But then, maybe Karen Fang hasn't read us too well either.


Seminole Community College

Florida, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



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 <>.



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