A Short Meditation on “Whatever”: Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (1997) [DCCFF 2017]
When Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) has brought itself on par with the best of Hong Kong cinema’s kung-fu, shoot-outs, car chases, and romance in peril, would it be a hyperbole to proclaim the demise of what David Bordwell once championed as “Planet Hong Kong”?
To many cinephiles, local critics, scholars, and industry people, the answer is a definitely negative. For the underdeveloped and insider-only film critics circle, a crime thriller like Johnny To’s Three (2016) might be just as exciting as Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993). In academia, we also hear talks savoring the monstrosity of The Mermaid (2016) as if a production by the iconic Stephen Chow with lucrative box office returns is worth dying for. Outside of the academia, we see advocates of parochial pride defending Chan Chi-fat’s Weeds on Fire (2016) as a meaningful, domestic homage to Umin Boya’s Kano (2014).
There is yet a cluster of cineastes recalcitrantly upholding what they see as classics, including both popular romances and celebrated “indies.” These two categorizations are currently put on the spot again with the fad of digital restoration. In town, Broadway Cinematheque, for example, just witnessed sweeping success with the screening of Yonfan’s newly restored melodrama, Last Romance (1988). But there are other “indies” that draw an even more “eccentric” mass, whose taste has always served as the bedrock of making “minor” cinema a kind of landmark in the city’s film history. The return of “minor” cinema as such, from the vantage point of momentum, arguably resembles George A. Romero’s living dead in that these films possess the urge to return to our present cine-scape in ways that are hauntingly uncanny. A case in point is Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong.
Released in 1997, Made in Hong Kong immediately enshrined Fruit Chan as an auteur, paving his way for his two memorable series, 1997 trilogy and the “prostitute” trilogy. In spite of an impulse to hierarchize Chan’s oeuvre along the lines of “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” it is hard to dispute the central stage that Made in Hong Kong (1997) occupies in “Planet Hong Kong.” But where Bordwell casts the city’s motion picture industry in American terms, Chan’s film uses a cinematic language that defies many of the conventions in Hollywood studio system. The film’s irrefutable status has more to do with a hybridization altogether let loose: rawness derived from spontaneity, narrative structure a cornucopia of styles, and social consciousness the city’s grass-root existence.
Apart from the more impressionist recount of aesthetics elements, what exactly is the object – “the thing” – that is “made in Hong Kong”? Does it even exist outside of a history we discursively “bundled” as “Hong Kong culture”? Is it merely a thing made up by the critics for the sake of criticism? More problematically, to what degree are we being opportunistic, anachronistic, or reductive in cultivating a stance developed out of a cinema’s geographical background when discussions of “trans-” and “deterritorial” have been used to approach cinema studies?
To answer these questions, I suggest that we take a step removed from the straightjacket of the political junction of 1997 and examine a more “New Historical” issue. That is, letting go of the jovial celebration of subtle references that point to political figures, political references, or the history of politics the film originally makes, in what way is the film engaging with the audience? What else is there that goes beyond that confine of overt politics? Here, I am not referring to the castrated, politicized dialogues in Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong (2017), which purposely speak in a free indirect discourse mostly through the conflicts between a mythological, Chinese literary figure from the 16th century, the Monkey King, and Yang Jian, a kind of guardian of the galaxies. Instead of the banality of such contrived dialogues, I am interested in how Chan’s film, as an object of individual and social consumption, speaks about a more than mundane cultural “ethics” that many HongKongers do not even pay heed to: make do with whatever works.
At once a universal and particular, “whatever” must be distinguished from indifference or the postmodern “anything goes.” Conventionally, insofar as ethics are concerned, we refer to some virtue or principle by which our actions or motivations abide. Virtue understood this way is elevated and sustained above what the mundane mediocrity of our everyday existence demands. But the “whatever works” underlying Made in Hong Kong’s all operate on levels that are the opposite of the higher ground the defines the sublime in art. In one scene where Chung Chaau (Sam Lee), the main character, interacts with his retarded follower, Ah Lung (Wenders Lee), we get a glimpse of “cheap” jokes that take us all the way down to the everyday. Playing with the dark humor of using tampon as Bend-Aid on a’s face, Chan adds to the narrative not merely a light-hearted moment that serves as a kind of punch line. Weighting it a little more, however, makes us realize that what Chan does is to embed in the film what someone from the grass-root strata of the society would have done and, based on the narrative development, should have done. The fact that Bend-Aid can be grotesquely replaced with a woman’s sanitary pack, while enacting de Certeau’s politics of the everyday, speaks of an ethics of an utilitarian outcast drifting in the liminal spaces of colonial Hong Kong’s real estate for the poor: “whatever works,” just grab it.
Now this principle of “whatever works” gets more nuanced if we were to consider the numerous incidents of wild ventures that occurred during shooting. From the various interviews with the director and lead actor Sam Lee, we learn that restrictions in resources and legality forced Chan to come up with preposterous solutions, if they might be called such. Lee’s scene in which he rushes across the railway of the peak tram on a steep slope, for example, is an impromptu move that Lee himself, in a brief interview reflecting on the recent digital restoration of the film, admits as shocking to himself and the tram driver, as the trams were still in full operation. Illegal and lethally risky, the scene nevertheless comes off as a crowning moment in exposing the character’s illusionary heroism. In a figurative way, Chan’s film suggests that “whatever works” is what the circumstance allows, if not incited, and it is through this unrehearsed scene that we experience the protagonist’s inability to go beyond his dirt poor, uneducated background. It is the “object” which endows the film with an aura that Baroque art or eclectic productions envy.
Many who are familiar with the stories behind the production of Made in Hong Kong often hail the film was shot entirely with leftover negatives, quite some of which were partially damaged. This trivia might first appear as remotely related to our aesthetic meditation, as we have been focusing on how the predilection for the lowly life in a way de-sublimates the narrative, bringing the audience from an elevated stance of autonomous art to an “ordinary” narrative that unveils the frivolous malingering of low lives. The putting together of leftover negatives, however, could be understood as yet another figuration for our investigation of the notion of “whatever.”
Consider, for a moment, “the object” referred to earlier. If Hong Kong cinema is searching for a thing that represents or speaks to or about the city’s subjectivity, a topic to which lots of academic papers and studies are so addicted, it is not the “split identity” or an anxiety about the postcolonial struggles one finds in articles after articles. The more pressing concern for the city’s cinema, this object that matters, is how to make the director’s voice free from commercial concerns and constraints. As Chan himself says in one of his public lectures, “Through the Tunnel with Fruit Chan,” Made in Hong Kong cannot be classified by any genre and it is this obduracy that saves the film’s vision – a personal, affective dialogue with Hong Kong – from being drowned by other voices, production and otherwise. This object is that which resists preconceived notions of style, a state or condition that discourses stumble to account for.
Examine, too, the aleatory encounter of the three social outcasts. Like the absolutely haphazard game of most Altman’s films, the chance encounter of the three main characters is defiant of routines that capitalist society reverses. What are the chances of the coming together of three distinctly marginalized social beings who are plagued by physical ailment, mental retardation, and education system? Yet, it is this accidental nature that presents the audience with the ethics of “whatever,” an affirmative “why not.” Chung Chaau is a high-school dropout who mimics characters in the popular cultures the city allows him to experience. He recruits Ah Lung, the mentally retarded to be his help in his job to collect money for the loan-shark. Meanwhile, Chung Chaau falls in love with Ah Ping, a girl that suffers from a failing kidney but happens to meet him while he is chasing after his debtors. Their conjunction, although a part of narrative development, brings the divergent paths of individuals in some magic makeshift that nonetheless coheres and sustains the story.
If we allow ourselves one final dive into the film, we find – or, is it we fantasize this as such? – Made in Hong Kong is almost too rich in its intertexual references. The two all-too-obvious homages, as they were, were the posters in the characters’ homes: My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Immediately, our spectatorship is brought to face two earlier landmarks in the history of cinema, making connections of all kinds in terms of theme, genre, and perhaps, film language. Chan is being fruity here, to say the very least. Tarrying with the tradition of literary criticism, we could maintain that these references should not be taken too seriously in the traditional sense of “poetic influence.” In the tradition of literary criticism, the giant Harold Bloom redefines this devise of “poetic influence” as the involvement of “misreading” of an earlier, strong poet by a later, equally strong one. To Bloom, this is a necessary “misinterpretation” that displays “a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.”[i] In that sense, we might be able to argue that the films that Made in Hong Kong invokes willingly perverse the original, making the bastardry of genres challenge readers of auteur theory. Where the tradition of auteur concerns signatures that allow us to swiftly identify a film a director produces, Chan’s gesture in Made in Hong Kong is neither original nor unoriginal precisely because there are countless intertexts and there is just no proper genre classification for it. While Chung Chaau is a comic-depressive version of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976), they all share that recklessness of Larry Clark’s kids. Above all, what propels the film is the “letter from an unknown woman,” letters fell from the sky when Ah Ping, a girl who falls hopelessly in love with her coach in high-school, jumps off a building. The rest of Made in Hong Kong showcases how Chung Chaau is caught up in his own fantasy of heroic deeds to survive in a “city of sadness,” but like Max Orphuls’ film, the letters read in the end dispel the psyches of each social outcast, brining all storylines together as a meta-commentary on Chung Chaau’s ultimate suicide after he goes on a real killing spree that he has been too timid to act out. Whatever films Chan has in mind in conceiving the trajectory for Made in Hong Kong, his universe through the three main characters is one of a functional dystopia.
Rather than being a critique, my reflection on Made in Hong Kong is by and large coming from a perspective that relies on the dialogue between film and philosophy, with a modicum amount of contextualization along limited cultural axis. But as much as I enjoy immersing myself in the suavity and narrative ingenuity of Made in Hong Kong, I refrain myself from eulogizing it as the Citizen Kane (1941) of Hong Kong cinema, as some marketing jingo would have it. To juxtapose the two would simply be politically incorrect because the city’s subjectivity was and is never nationalistic now and then. We might place the film along cultural gridlocks of ethnicity but nationality is certainly a misnomer. More contestably, the aesthetic value of Made in Hong Kong pales in face of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, which came out in the same year. Wong’s art operates on far more layers than Chan’s film, even though Made in Hong Kong deserves our re-evaluation of its socio-historical significance within the Hong Kong cinematic imaginary.
Does this mean that we have been duped by Chan’s own title and all these efforts, including the present one, that try to define or work out a subjectivity central to the signifier “Hong Kong”? Far from it. The answer to this heavy-duty conundrum might be addressed, albeit tangentially, by a quotation from the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. In The Coming Community, Agamben writes,
Whatever singularities cannot form a socius because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition…What the State cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging.[ii]
Agamben is, I think, suggesting that there is a new sense of understanding our “self” if we can take it as a combination of various “singularities” put together but this disjunctive conjunction works so well that it refuses to be fit into any preconceived notions of identity. It will even be foolhardy to argue that the coming together of “singularities” is meant to assert its new being. Instead, this new sense of “self” or “style” is in the process of becoming, an event that arises from a condition but is nonetheless subtracted from its enchainment by the existing “state of things.” This is the “whatever” we encounter in Chan, localizable in his own anxiety of influences that he could not possibly do away with. That, to my own private fantasy, is the object par excellence, unrepresentable but theorizable through our dedication to thoughts summoned by the masochism that mise-en-scène inflicts.
[i] Hollander, John. “The Anxiety of Influence,” The New York Times, 4 March, 1973. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/specials/bloom-influence.html.
[ii] Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
This piece has been cross-posted at the Medium blog of the DC Chinese Film Festival.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.