Search for Character Self-Identification in Hong Kong Cinema
There is a faulty impression that Hong-Kong cinema comprises mostly the martial-arts and action movies. Although its mainstream core includes genre films that have gained their world popularity owing to to Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Lee, Chow Yun Fat and other action film icons, it would be a mistake to deny artistic values of some of these popular films, as well as to ignore a whole layer of art-films and works created by “festival favorites,” such as Wong Kar-wai, Fruit Chan, and Johnie To. The best examples of Honk Kong action films are also devoted to various character stories that, in accordance with the law of the genre, are presented through a series of action scenes. The differences between character depiction in the art-cinema and mainstream films are obvious: art-directors deal with deeper layers of character while action-directors operate with absolutes, thus providing clear and understandable messages to the viewer. Hong-Kong films analyzed in this work comprise stories of characters who try to change their lives and, thus, pursue their dreams and define their path. All three films under consideration provide a different angle and depth of characters’ presentation, as well as represent different artistic directions and directors’ approach.
Wong Kar-wai is considered as one of the most “European” directors of the Honk Kong cinema industry. He represents the so-called “Second Wave” of Honk Kong art cinema. Kar-wai started his career, as most directors of his generation, with the gangster films.
His films quickly evolved into the quiet and atmospheric character studies, with less plot and action, but with more details and character development. There is a tangible impact of the French New wave (Jean Luc Goddard in particular) on his work. This influence manifests itself in the director’s negation of the traditional narrative plot structure in favor of more indirect, episodic plot.
These features can be found in his films, such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. The main motives of his work are the search for a close soul, loneliness, as well as nostalgic memories. Characters of these films have short encounters that have deep emotional impacts on their lives. These characters are lonely souls who have managed to find each other just to lose each other again. They try to keep these memories of this encounter for the whole life. For them, their memories are as a reminder of life they wish they could have. In the Mood for Love is recognized as one of the most stylish and tender films by Wong Kar-wai. Its plot focuses on the relationship between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-Zhen. They are two neighbors whose respective partners are involved in an affair. Their relationship starts as a reaction to adultery, but very soon, it becomes clear that both of the characters are just lonely people in search of intimacy and acceptance. The connection between the characters starts as an intellectual and emotional bond that gradually grows in the sensual one. The viewer is left alone with these two characters. It is worth noting that people around the main characters are rarely involved in the flow of the film. For instance, the above-mentioned spouses of the main characters even have no faces, only voices. The story is presented from the point of view of Su and Chow, and everything that does not fit their story is ignored. In the middle of their life, both characters find themselves unhappy in their marriage and unsatisfied with their lives. The connection between them is an illusive beam of hope for a new life. After their paths have diverges, Chow and Sue have several possibilities to get reunited again, but they all come to nothing. The story of the main characters has no obvious dramatic resolution; it is just a series of encounters. The film is not about a love story, but about brief moments of closure that these characters have with each other, and how the bond between these two helps them to continue their lives. In the final scene, Chow hides his memories inside the ancient temple. He just whispers words into the hole in the wall. By doing this, he leaves his past behind and perpetuates it as something holy and sacred. In Kar-wai’s films, characters often seek for changes, as well as try to break free of the vicious circle of their loneliness and detachment by finding a close soul. It is evident that this search is almost always doomed from the start as it faces the insurmountable obstacles created by society, circumstances, and their personal insecurity. The world created by Wong Kar-wai in In the mood for love opposes the reality; it is more operatic than cinematic. The director consciously strips it of all conventions of the real life. For instance, characters live in the closed space of their apartments where time loses its normal flow and days are only marked by changing of the heroin’s dresses. One of the most important themes of the film is cherishing memories. Thus, the mood of the film is often dreamlike. Everything is covered with cigarette smoke, and the frame often blocked obstacles. The director alters a “nervous” method of framing and editing (which can be found in Chungking Express and his other early work) in favor of more quiet and elaborate composition. The framing is supported by the art-direction of the room interior. The mood that director creates is, at the same time, claustrophobic and delicate. The manner in which the film is shot and edited serves to represent both the historical period in which it takes place, as well as the mood of the characters’ relations (Cheuk-to; Wright).
In contrast to Kar-wai’s operatic approach, director Fruit Chan provides a look that is grounded on Honk Kong‘s reality. Chan has become world known for his shocker Dumplings, which was the most disturbing part of the horror anthology Three… Extremes. In the beginning of his career, Chan was well known as a straightforward descriptor of everyday life of Honk Kong and continental China. Durian Durian, in almost documentary manner, follows a life of two heroines: Fan and Yan. Fan is a daughter of an immigrant worker who is illegally living in Hong Kong with her family. Yan is a young girl who is working as a prostitute in Hong Kong until her tourist visa expires. The paths of two characters intersect briefly, and a friendship is established between them. The first part of the film, which takes place in Hong Kong, has a fast pacing. It is shot with a handheld camera and is frantically edited.
This helps the director to display the rhythm of the city life. In the second part of the film, Yan returns to her native region in Mainland China. Then the pacing of the film slows down. The second part of Durian Durian is made of long, slow and steady shots; the atmosphere is filled with melancholia and nostalgia. After three months in Hong Kong, Yan tries to resolve her personal issues and return to normal life, but something inside her has already changed. She is constantly tempted to return to Hong Kong; this temptation is offered by constant calls with the “work-proposals”. At the same time, Fan and her family are deported back to her native village. Her short trip to Hong Kong is over, and for her, it remains an adventure. The only thing Fan takes from it is friendship with Yan. The film has little plot in the traditional sense. Its first part is mostly a montage of Yan’s “work” and her communication with “colleagues.” Only when action shifts to Continental China, the audience starts to understand the motivation behind Yan’s trip to Hong Kong. Although this trip has provided Yan with enough money to start her own business, she does not seem to be satisfied. It is up to the viewer to decide whether she is deeply traumatized by her experience as a prostitute or she feels like a stranger at home, after her visit to another world. The trips of both characters are both geographical and spiritual. Their visits to Hong Kong from Continental China provide them with a taste of different life, which changes their conception of reality.
The question concerning the depth of these changes also remained unanswered. The durian fruit, uncommon for the inhabitants of Northeast regions of China, serves as a symbol of the bond between the characters, as well as a taste of another world. The fruit itself has eloquent characteristics – it is hard to cut open, and on the one hand, it has an unpleasant smell, but on the other hand, it has a great taste. The fruit can be interpreted as a symbol of life in Hong Kong where it is very difficult to win something, but the goal is worth the effort. Among the films motives is an escape in order to break free from the world that surrounds the characters.
The first part of the film shows the effects of this escape; the second part represents its causes. Yan tries to break free from her professional and private failures, as well as life without any opportunities. Her escape was a success from the practical point of view and a failure, a moral defeat. For Fan, Yan’s story is an example, a very possible perspective in the future. It remains unclear what decisions Fan will make and how encounter with Yen will influence her own destiny. It is up to the viewer’s consideration. The film leaves a lot for the viewer to decide and reflect on.
Fruit Chan provides the audience with a short glimpse at the life of usual people. He uses unprofessional actors and, thus, achieves an unusually realistic depiction of their lives. His characters live, breathe and dream like real people. On the one hand, their decisions and mistakes, their desires and aspirations are all grounded on the cultural and economic surroundings, but on the other hand, they are common and understandable regardless of the context. The realistic feel of the movie, as well as its attention to details of life both in Hong Kong and Continental China help to create a realistic environment for characters to reveal themselves. It seems as if the viewer caught them in the middle of their everyday life. Although the film has enough dramatic tension and humor to make it an interesting watch, both drama and comedy come from the casual interactions of characters in the film (Gan).
Stephen Chow is one of the most popular modern Hong Kong action directors and actors. His films represent a unique blend of action, comedy, fantasy, and drama. At the same time, his films are deeply rooted in the Buddhist ideology and martial-art film tradition. Unlike both Kar-wai and Chan, Stephen Chowdoes not go deep into the social and psychological issues. His goal is to provide entertainment, but this does not mean there is no depth in his characters. On the contrary, there are autobiographical motives present in the characterization of the main character in his film Kung-fu Hustle. The main character faces deep moral challenges and makes pivotal life decisions. Kung-fu Hustle is a parody of traditional Chinese “wuxia” genre. It represents the story of heroic martial art-master, presented from a post-modern perspective, with noticeable impact of western cinema and an unusual blend of various film genres. Kung-fu Hustle is a combination of a gangster drama, inspired by classic American gangster films, a slapstick comedy with cartoonish elements, fueled by comedic charisma of the main characters, a kung-fu film with great fight choreography and stunt work, and a special effect-driven fantasy film. This film could have failed due to the combination of all these stylistically and tonally divisive components, but Chow’s talent to mix them all together in the right proportions keeps it from becoming tedious. Another important element of the film is that its main focus is a simple but effective character story. This film is considered a typical underdog story with a deep moral core. The protagonist – Sing – begins his journey as comedic anti-hero who lost his moral direction and turned to evil just because the way of evil seemed easier. When Sing faces the results of his actions, he realizes his faults and goes through a moral and spiritual transformation. This transformation helps Sing to release all his physical potential and overcome much stronger enemies. The premise of the story is simple but effective. The motivations of characters, as well as the consequences of their actions are evident.
All three films by different directors represent a desire of characters to change their lives. Films by Chan and Kar-wai are grounded on the reality; thus, they do not have a dramatic resolution to the desires. The changes that characters go through in these films take place in their consciousness, and thus, they are almost unnoticeable. They change these characters, but they do not change the courses of their lives as they are still influenced by the external factors. Unlike these films, Kung-fu Hustle is a fantasy story in which the changes within the characters can result in the changes around them. It is subordinated to the logic of entertainment cinema and deals with absolute categories of good and evil, right and wrong. Also, it has deep religious Buddhist motives as a moral compass. The resolution in the film unambiguous and simple – evil must be defeated, but this does not mean that the moral provided by the film is superficial. It still deals with a person’s struggle with self-identification and overcoming of the social pressure. The only difference is the language in which these stories are told.
Successes and Failures in Hong Kong Action Cinema
When talking about Hong Kong action movies, it is of great importance to distance as far as possible from judging them by two criteria: from the point of action choreography and charisma of a protagonist. Action scenes in most of these films are considered to be of a high quality standard even today, and such action stars as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat can make a spectacle even of the most simplistic and trivial plot. If the action and the performances are excluded, the main aspects, such as character motivations and artistic merits, are supposed to be judged on. From this point of view, some of the action classics such as Fist of Fury lose most of charm. Thus, there is a simplistic and rather boring film under the bright and entertaining cover. The plot of Fist of Fury is a typical revenge story. The protagonist played by Bruce Lee has no other characterization accept for being Bruce Lee. There is nothing interesting about his character, he has no arc, his actions are initiated by the “dead teacher” plot device, and the story ends with a pointless heroic self-sacrifice. With all above-mentioned, the questionable artistic merits of the film have no impact on its entertainment value as thei comes mostly from the action scenes and lead actor’s charisma. This is more evident in One Armed Swordsman. This film can be considered just a poorly shot and acted B-movie without the star power of Bruce Lee. In contrast to these films, there are Enter Dragon and Drunken Master. Enter Dragon, which is similar to most of the Bruce Lee films, has a much higher production values (art-direction in the film is impressive), as well as much more charismatic secondary characters. This film is worth discussing from the plot perspective. It has interesting elements of a spy-film that are well integrated in the typical martial arts plot. The Drunken Master provides another element to make simple martial arts movie more interesting. This element is humor provided by Jackie Chan and some good elements of character development. At the beginning of the film, Chan is arrogant and cocky. Only with the help of his master, he develops his talents and gains the potential to support his arrogance. His evolution as a character is accompanied with suffering, as well as overcoming of obstacles. Chan’s character is defeated and punished for his self-confidence. This makes his character more familiar to a casual viewer, much more common that superman figures played by Bruce Lee. Chan’s characters are more relatable when they are in a defensive position. Even if his characters are vulnerable, they still try to overcome the odds.
The best balance between action and drama, style and substance, can be found in John Woos’ films The Better Tomorrow and The Killer. These stylized crime dramas, with sometimes excessive and always operatic violence, have a complex plot and ambiguous characters. Conflicts between these characters are deeply rooted in their personal relationships. They operate not with simple notions of good and evil, but they are led by their personal code of honor. The plot of A Better Tomorrow is reminiscent with the classical tragedies. Although characters are on the different sides of the conflict, they have to overcome their personal odds, grow, and change to survive.
The Killer is the best example of a well-created action drama. It should be noted that “drama” is the key word to describe it. It deals with the themes of regret and self-sacrifice, and all the violence in the film is meaningful. The actions scenes in The Killer serve to move the plot, unlike most of the above-mentioned martial arts films where the plot serves to unite a series of the action scenes. The characters are vulnerable, emotional, and sometimes overdramatic. Sometimes their relationships seem as if they were taken from the soap operas. The plot of The Killer begins and ends with a tragedy. The film centers around an anti-hero. The audience has no delusions about the fate of anti-heros. His crimes are not romanticized as innocent people also suffer from various encounters. Anti-heroes of Woo’s films pay for their crimes. They destroy their lives and the lives of people around them. They are represented not as invincible action heroes but deeper characters who make mistakes and pay for them. In Woo’s films, all actions have consequences, and the division concerning right and wrong is as vague as an action film canon allows. This combination of melodrama, character development and violent action create a unique original genre, which has had a massive impact on the action cinema both in Honk Kong and abroad.
Hong Kong action and auteur cinema is a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. Like no other national cinema, it blends native tradition and outside influence, without losing its identity. From simplistic martial arts films led by the action icons to the deeply layered art films, Hong Kong cinema remains focused on character stories in order to keep both casual and tempted viewers interested.