Made in Hong Kong:
Translation and Transmutation
Just as the comparison between Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) comments on the differences between Jean Renoir's Paris and Paul Mazursky's Los Angeles (Morgan, 1990), so other films that move along less predictable cultural pathways also reflect the cities in which they are made. Since those pathways are usually cut along the lines of the flow of power—economic, political, cultural—differences also refract those realities through a creative prism. In Hong Kong, a city where economic growth and political anxiety mix headily, a flourishing, unabashedly imitative cinema inescapably comments on surrounding social and political tensions in the choices of its adaptations.
In national and subcultural cinemas worldwide, issues of cultural autonomy, cultural and national identity, and resistance to international cultural domination are all familiar and intertwined themes (Armes, 1987; Cooper, 1989). Also familiar is the criticism of the exoticization of foreign cultures in international entertainment, as was done in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) (Shohat, 1991). At the same time, the entertainment appeal and market success of dominant international cinema is undeniable and, to many filmmakers, enviable.
Humor, irony, parody and flamboyant imitation can be seen as strategies to express both resistance to and fascination with dominant cinema (and culture). Within the U.S. mainstream tradition, one might point to Robert Townsend's 1987 Hollywood Shuffle, a send-up of many black film roles and racist film clichés. In Brazil, whose film industry has often struggled to compete with U.S. product (Aufderheide, 1987), wry and sometimes self-deprecating parodies have long been a staple. For instance, High Noon (1952) was parodied in Kill or Run (1954), in which the hero role is buffoonish and cowardly; Jaws (1975) called forth the raucous comedy Codfish
(1976) (Vieira, 1982, 259, 262). In Nigeria, James Bond's 007 has been one-upped, at least numerically, by a local hero, "009." The spoofing of Hollywood reflects a simultaneous chafing at and admiration for at least some aspects of internationally dominant film culture, and it carries distinctive regional and national implications.
Hong Kong is a case in point. The postage stamp—size British crown colony, poised uneasily for integration into China in 1997, has a complex history in which East met West, fought, and eventually did business. Its post—World War II political history has been powerfully affected by tensions with mainland China, which resulted in pervasive and enduring censorship, earlier marked by anticommunism and more recently censorship of films that might antagonize China (Elley, 1988, 203). Culturally, it has been a place where different international currents of pop culture come together. It has also been marked by an international trading economy in perpetual high gear, which among other things has generated an elaborate underworld whose money laundering has benefited the film industry.
Hong Kong film has been a favorite with the locals since the 1930s, and widespread anxiety over 1997 has apparently only fueled "moviemaking fever" (Elley, 1992, 185; O'Brien, 1992, 39). It is a rare case of a small national cinema where local productions outsell imports at the box office. Helping the financial situation is the fact that the Hong Kong market extends not only throughout the Pacific Rim but worldwide, although violent fluctuations in the market are common. Wherever there are Chinatowns, there are devotees of Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat. But it is also a remarkable testimonial to Hong Kong's cultural uniqueness that national cinema has always been commercially successful.
A distinctive and long-standing feature of Hong Kong film—perhaps one indicator of Hong Kong's unusual positioning as an international business crossroads—is its voracious appetite for imitation, most boldly of Hollywood material but also of anything that has had international commercial success. Hong Kong movies as a whole constitute, for critic Geoffrey O'Brien, "a single metanarrative incorporating every available variant of sentimental, melodramatic and horrific plotting set to the beat of nonstop synthesized pop music" (9).
Some of the most popular Hong Kong films have been remakes, takeoffs or simply steals of popular American movies. Hong Kong—based film critic Paul Fonoroff notes that both in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Charlie Chan knockoffs were made in the 1930s and 1940s, starring a Chinese actor who resembled Hollywood's (Caucasian) Charlie Chan, Warner Oland. Other instantly imitated films include Some Like It Hot (1959; Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining ), City Heat (1984; All the Wrong Clues ), and Police Academy (1984; Naughty Cadets on Patrol ) (Fonoroff, 1988).
The past is also fertile territory for rifling; a Jackie Chan hit of the 1989–
90 season was a period film set in the 1930s, Mr. Canton and Lady Rose, a remake of Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (Elley, 1991, 188). Imitation does not restrain itself to one major source, either. An early success by Vietnamese-born, Texas-trained, Hong Kong—based (and now Toronto-based as well) Tsui Hark, Butterfly Murders (1979), drew different elements from a Chinese novel, a Japanese thriller, Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977).
In addition, the Hong Kong film industry is notorious for seizing upon a working formula (for instance, John Woo's high-violence gangster drama A Better Tomorrow ) and then working it to death. (A Better Tomorrow generated two sequels and many imitators.) It own movie traditions instantly become grist for remakes, parodies, and transformations. The post—World War II history of Hong Kong film is the rapid rise, flourishing, exhaustion, and transformation of genres—such as the evolution of the martial arts drama from origins in a kind of Eastern western (bad guys attack the village) into swordplay films, kung-fu comedy, and "spectacular mega-comedy" (Lent, 1990, 115–16; Hong Kong International Film Festival, 34 and passim).
The brazen and catholic imitation of Hong Kong films permits, ironically, a kind of cultural autonomy over the material. Like genre work generally, imitation emphasizes treatment, style, and selection rather than originality of raw material, and it positively values entrepreneurial opportunism. The attitude mirrors and even plays with prevailing stereotypes of Hong Kong commercial culture.
A recent Hong Kong action film by the renowned comic and producer Samo Hung, Eastern Condors (1986), provides an intriguing case of the tongue-in-cheek remake. The film, a commercial failure on its release despite its all-star cast and star director, has become a cult classic. Set in post-war Vietnam, it replays the characters, themes, and plot of The Dirty Dozen (1967), with touches of Rambo (1985), The Deer Hunter (1978), and The Guns of Navarone (1961). The film also draws on traditions of Chinese opera—style acrobatics and martial arts films to entertain audiences entirely aware of genre expectations in at least two cultures.
Samo Hung is the person to weave together these expectations. Born in Hong Kong circa 1950, he studied traditional Chinese singing, acrobatics, and martial arts for Chinese opera as a student, becoming a child star. Working first as a martial arts instructor for the hugely successful Golden Harvest studio, he went on to become a major Hong Kong star and film producer, making his first film in 1977. His films have been marked by a zesty reworking of traditional entertainment forms, both Eastern and Western (Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1980, 173–74; Overby, 1987, 177).
In Eastern Condors, Samo Hung cheerfully mixes and matches from East
and West to produce an action drama with comic overtones. As in The Dirty Dozen, each of a group of convicted "Asian American" felons in U.S. jails—a buffoon, a stutterer, a coward, a grizzled cynic, and so on, each a major star—is offered a chance at suicidal heroism in exchange for a clean slate and two hundred thousand dollars if he survives. (Samo Hung himself plays the intrepid second in command and eventual leader of the survivors.) The mission, evocative of The Guns of Navarone, is to destroy a U.S. arsenal of 2 million pounds of explosives left behind in Vietnam by the Americans. The enemy is the fat-cat Vietnamese military bureaucracy; the allies are Cambodian women guerrillas. On the eve of departure, the colonel (also Asian American) tells the commando team leader, "Just do the job and don't get killed." However, he also asks him to rescue his brother, trapped in a Vietnamese village, if possible.
Upon parachuting into Vietnam (the jump is midway when the mission is canceled, but the leader proceeds anyway, following his men), the ragtag bunch falls in with the guerrillas, who acrobatically dazzle their enemies and rescue the fallen parachutists. One team member doesn't make it; the stutterer has taken too literally the leader's command to "count to twenty" before opening the chute, and is still on "sixteen" when they find him on the ground. This mixture of buffoonery and gore is typical of the film's tone (although Hong Kong audiences reportedly found the humor far too subtle [S. C. Dacy, personal communication, 28 December 1992]).
Vietnamese troops on river patrol surprise a team member urinating in a field, mortally wounding him and triggering a battle. They escape with the wounded man. "It's only a bruise," his buddy tells him with false bravado, as he gazes appalled at the ghastly chest wound. "We won't let you die," he says, as the man expires.
Anger at the leader's silence on the purpose of the mission leads to a walkout. National pride turns the situation around, when a friend runs up to a deserter and says, "It's ok for a Vietnamese [referring to another deserter] to leave, but it's a disgrace for us Hong Kong men." He returns "for the dignity of it."
A handful of the men proceed to the colonel's brother's village—it's a Vietnamese military stronghold, of course—and there find both the brother (played by Haing S. Ngor, who had won an Academy Award for his role in The Killing Fields ), apparently deranged, and a cheerfully apolitical but extremely entrepreneurial peddler (the renowned Hong Kong actor Yuen Biao). Both perforce join the team in the ensuing confrontation.
The group is reunited when the guerrilla women show up on the peddler's motor scooter, and they flee to the forest where another urination scene triggers a battle and their capture.
In camp, the heroes are put in tiger cages; one is tortured and hard-eyed
local children force the POWs to play Russian roulette. The team deploys acrobatics and martial arts once again, dodging and setting explosives as well, in their escape. One soldier dies at the hand of one of the hard-eyed kids, after refusing to kill him.
In the forest, the latest casualty's brother grieves loudly, saying he prefers to die in place with his brother if he cannot know the reason for the mission. Just as the leader is about the reveal it, one of the guerrillas is discovered to be a spy and is executed by her fellow guerrillas.
Hotly pursued by the Vietnamese, the commando team must cross a heavily defended bridge; the crossing leaves two mortally wounded. They stay to stave off the tanks with explosives. (The grizzled cynic says he doesn't mind "dying in the East," since "my daughters are all married.") "Uncle, see you down below," says the younger man, grunting in pain. "No, up above," assures the other as his vision fails him.
When the heroes finally encounter the weapons arsenal—an underground set looking, as producer S. C. Dacy (personal communication, 21 December 1992) has noted, like a low-rent steal from a James Bond film—the scene is set for the final encounter, which involves close shooting, running up and down ladders, and explosions. Our heroes are in competition with the wounded Cambodian guerrilla leader, who lays claim to the arms for her cause. She dies, but takes a bad guy with her. The remaining heroes—the second in command, another soldier, and the local peddler—escape through the (polluted) sewer as the entire top of the mountain is blown away, plunging over a (cleansing) waterfall to (Western) freedom.
The film borrows in a cheerfully catholic way from all available traditions. Martial arts traditions as they had evolved into fantastic and showy displays by the 1970s (the period in which Samo Hung was a martial arts instructor) are of course fully exploited. So are story lines and characters. For instance, the peddler character draws from a Hong Kong slapstick comedy tradition of the little guy who lives by his wits and wisecracks (Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1980, 34; Rayns, 1992, 22).
East and West mix and match. For instance, the guerrillas conform to a stereotype, evolved in Chinese opera and backed by a long literary tradition, of the aggressive heroine, often disguised as a boy, who confronts the enemies (Eberhard, 1972, 6–7). At the same time, the execution of the spy by her comrade, after the commando team members hesitate, echoes a scene in The Guns of Navarone . In it, Gregory Peck hesitates to kill a woman who betrayed them; she is then killed by another woman partisan.
The Dirty Dozen gleefully inverted some basic elements of the World War II combat film by portraying the group as tainted from the start, making its mission questionable, and celebrating the antihero (Basinger, 1986, 202–13). Critics called it "a glorification of the dropout" (Sarris, 1970, 296), "irresponsible" (Drummond, 1967, 445), and "a studied indulgence
in sadism" that encouraged "hooliganism" (Crowther, 1967). It went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of the year, appreciated for its high-intensity war action by some, and for its sly anti-authoritarianism and underlying commentary on the savagery of warfare by others.
Eastern Condors builds on and plays with this legacy of anti-authoritarianism and ragtag heroics, by now itself a cliché. The conventions are the object of knowing irony—there's a "Hey guys, it's only a movie" quality to the whole film. The comic banter, the slow motion shots to let the viewer savor the spectacular action (a staple technique of Hong Kong action films), and of course visual jokes clue the viewer to the fact that the framework of reference is familiar. For instance, as a night scene begins the good guys are seen in infrared rifle sights, backed by ominous music; suddenly we see that some members of the team are spying on others, to see if anyone's involved in hanky-panky with the guerrillas. The conventions, however, simply facilitate the action plot. Thus, Eastern Condors can be read as a simple action thriller or as an arch, sophisticated send-up of the form.
The Dirty Dozen was widely seen as, if not an antiwar film, at least a product of the Vietnam era and its cultural conflicts. Eastern Condors might be seen as a product of the 1997 era, using the past as a metaphor for the perils of the future.
Eastern Condors, like several of its sources, pits an unstructured fighting unit against minions of a hostile state, led by an arrogant and dandified officer. Its digs against the Communist Vietnamese government are unsubtle. Like The Deer Hunter, the film enthusiastically uses tiger cages and Russian roulette as emblems of the monstrosity of the regime, even though the South Vietnamese government had been better known for tiger cages than the Communist Northern government that eventually ran the country, and Russian roulette games appear to have been a product of media imagination. It too celebrates guerrilla military actions, while at the same time linking them to feminine wiliness.
As in Rambo, misunderstood heroes are refighting the Vietnam war, against the odds. But these heroes do not have or need the peculiarly American chip on the shoulder, Rambo's smoldering resentment against an authority that he trusted and that betrayed him, his will to rewrite his own country's history with his muscles (Aufderheide, 1991). These heroes are aware that they are cleaning up the mess someone else—the Americans—left behind, a mess the Americans could be expected to make.
The Americans are untrustworthy from the start, on a personal and cultural basis. The white, U.S. military officer briefing his men at the outset snarls, "Well, we lost the goddamn war." The Americans' pusillanimous vacillation is shown by the last-minute (but rejected) cancellation of the mission. The jailer who releases the criminals who will become the commando team says, leering, "Take ten, take a hundred . . . and if that's not
enough, no problem. I can always arrest more." So these men fight not to vindicate America, and not even, in the end, for their release from jail and cash reward, but for their own reputations as "Hong Kong men."
The resentment generated by the Americans' perceived contemptuous attitude, especially in light of American incompetence, is demonstrated at the story's outset. In the opening scene, as the commando team's future leader is being driven past a military post, a hapless U.S. soldier is trying to raise the U.S. flag. But the flag is stuck, and so the bugles keep tooting while the soldier yanks. "Why are foreigners so stupid?" says his Asian American colleague. The officer jumps out of the jeep, shinnies up the flagpole, releases the catch, shoots down, and smartly salutes the flag. The superiority of the Chinese hero over the creaky imperial military machine has been deftly demonstrated, as has his therapeutic contempt.
Clearly, the United States, as the military power that created the problem our heroes have to solve, is the most powerful, if behind the scenes, geopolitical force in the story. As the conclusion makes clear, it is also the most powerful cultural force, a focus of desire as well as rage and contempt.
The three survivors stagger away from the waterfall, onto a plain where they wonder if the plane will arrive. One soldier, now free but stunned by his travails, rails to the skies, "So those Americans brought us this. Fucking America, God damn America!" "Where will you go if the plane arrives?" asks the stalwart. "America, of course!" he replies.
Thus, as in the Brazilian parody genre, Eastern Condors pays tribute to an enduring love-hate relationship with a culture whose movies provide not merely entertainment but promotions for a way of life. (Not for nothing is Jack Valenti at the Motion Picture Association of America proud to call Hollywood America's ambassador to the world.) It also reflects an uneasy and censored concern with the power of its neighbor and soon-to-be-owner, China. It indirectly alludes to the flight fantasies of many Hong Kong residents uneasy about the 1997 transition—as the closing song asks, "How to get out?" Eastern Condors' pointedly negative references to communism, its celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, its portrayal of Hong Kong as the cleanup crew for the bungling imperial power, all bolster the final reference to flight.
In these allusions to 1997, and in their very indirectness, Eastern Condors is at one with much recent Hong Kong work ("Hongkong's Film-makers," 1990; Elley, 1991, 185; Rayns, 1992, 21–22) marked by "a fearful undertone of geographic precariousness" (O'Brien, 1992, 43). Many in the Hong Kong filmmaking community have either invested or actually relocated—as has Samo Hung himself—overseas. But reference to 1997 and flight has been encoded or treated in what critic Tony Rayns calls a "frivolous" way (Rayns, 1992, 21), because of the combination of political censorship and the drive for box office popularity. Tsui Hark's bold, dark 1980 experiment
in imagining a post-1997 future, Dangerous Encounters—First Kind, was a box office flop. By contrast, his 1986 Peking Opera Blues, with clear and intended parallels between the early twentieth-century period of warlord rule in China and the immediate future, was a hit. Filmgoers appear to like their anxiety refracted through an entertainment matrix.
Perhaps it was the entertainment threshold that Eastern Condors, with its anti-imperial grace notes, did not clear on its release, when Hong Kong audiences initially dismissed it (S. C. Dacy, personal communication, 28 December 1992). One common reaction, apparently, was to reject the film's premise—the commando team—as being too Western, a military action that was simply unbelievable in a Chinese context, with Chinese stars. The film, under this logic, simply deviated too far from the martial arts origins of Hong Kong action films. At the same time, it was that very setup that permitted the expression of chafing under cultural colonialism that marks the film and that has contributed to its cult success.
The choices for imitation and transformation in Eastern Condors bespeak the peculiar historical conditions of the Hong Kong colony in a moment of anxiety-laden transition. It would be interesting to pursue the question of genre parody in other cross-cultural permutations, to see what is fashioned when Hollywood, seen as a cultural dominator, is remade in one's own image.
In addition, the Hong Kong film industry may be pioneering a new phase in global cinema. In the nineties, Hong Kong films became filmfest fashion in the West, and Hong Kong directors—notably John Woo—have won U.S. studio contracts. Hong Kong cinema, itself a pastiche product, may now become the inspiration for tomorrow's Hollywood hits.
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