Global and Local in Hong Kong cinema- Part- 1
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
The interplay between the global and local is most prominent in Hong Kong cinema. I wish to explore this phenomenon through the films of the celebrated director John Woo. For this purpose, I will be invoking the two concepts of territorializing and de-territorializing.
Globalization is a social phenomenon, a political goal, a state of mind, a category of analysis and much more. One effect of the increasing velocity of globalization has been to complicate the landscape of international cinema and bring into focus a newer cartography of cinema. Instead of the one way model of cinematic flow of ideas and styles, we now have diverse flows; in other words, instead of Hollywood influencing the rest of the world, we now have a multi-directional flow. Japan and Hong Kong have impacted Hollywood while Hong Kong cinema has shaped aspects of South Korean cinema. The theme of this symposium,
East goes West, is reflective of this situation. Many directors from Hong Kong such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Wong Kar-wai have had a palpable impact on Hollywood films. Among these directors John Woo has been the most successful. In this paper my objective is to examine the presence of John Woo in the Hollywood imaginary in terms of two of his landmark films, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. The first film enabled Woo to secure a national and international visibility as an innovative filmmaker with his recognizable signature features and the second consolidated that reputation by becoming a cult film. I wish to examine the impact of these two films on the sensibility of the West through the lens of the two interlocking concepts of de-territorializing and re-territorializing.
In our book, 'Global/Local' Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary' we made the following observation.' The ongoing process of disruption and manipulation by global discourse and technologies is all too uncritically being rearticulated as a process of translating the transnational structuration's of nation, self, and communities into trans-local, in between spaces of negotiated language, borderland being, and bicultural ambivalence.
It is no longer adequate to map the globe into binary zones of center and periphery as an externally Manichean space of colonial victimizations not even as Edward Said's rich culture scape of contrapuntal imperialism. .Still whatever our attitude toward the creative-destructive dynamic driving the contemporary phases of global capitalism, the local goes on being micro-mapped and micro-mined into so many consumer zones.'
This observation, I believe, has a great relevance to the understanding of contemporary international cinema. In the case of John Woo's films, these observations enable us to frame a productive approach to comprehend his agendas, investments and desires. When we examine contemporary international cinema, it is important that we investigate the complex ways in which cultural production is re-understood in a post-nationally reconfigured world in an era of transnational capitalism. It is important that we avoid the trap of regarding globalization as a homogenizing and universal force and localism as an endangered particularity. One might be tempted, at a superficial level, to assert that we are witnessing the emergence of a homogenized global culture and a uniformly trans nationalized global discursivity. However, it becomes increasingly evident to the discerning observer that this newly arisen global culture is not a magnification of the culture of the nation-state. A complex dynamic takes place at diverse registers of social and cultural formation. This generates newer cultural postmodernity's and discrepant cosmopolitanisms. The surprising ways in which transnational culture intersects with local rhetoric's and practices and worldviews is as fascinating as it is significant.
As a consequence of the increasing intensification of globalization, the international cinematic landscape has changed appreciably and filmmakers like John Woo have come to occupy a significant place in the Hollywood imaginary. The following is a typical description of John Woo found in Western publications. 'Once hailed by the action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as the Martin Scorsese of Asia, John Woo is a legendary action director in the Hong Kong film industry long before immigrating to Hollywood to direct his first action film Hard Target. (1993). Reportedly the first Asian to direct a major Hollywood studio film, Woo made his name with action-packed emotionally florid thrillers like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), A Bullet in the Head (1990,
and Hard Boiled (1992). Enthusiastically endorsed by English-speaking critics, Woo was bold visual stylist who learned the meticulous choreography of movement, graceful camera moves and over-the-top violence from the likes of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Jean-Pierre Melville. Though soaked in blood, his films were marked by old-fashioned morality and chastely gallant attitude towards women, while even among villains, valuing friendship and loyalty. But by the time he began making films in America, Woo was forced to tone down the carnage and greatly slow the pace of his action to appease uninitiated audiences. Though he found some measure of success with Face/Off (1997) and M.I.2 (2001), Woo failed to match the artistry he achieved in Hong Kong. Nevertheless woo remained an influential figure among a new generation of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez who eagerly adopted his signature moves as woo once did with his own cinematic heroes.'
I have quoted these comments at length, because they serve to highlight the contours of the presence and reconfigurations of Woo in the Hollywood imaginary- Woo as both similar and different to Hollywood and Western filmmakers is a basic ingredient in the Hollywood imaginary. He was both near and distant. John Woo's films A Better Tomorrow and The Killers had a profound impact on the growth of action films in Hong King and the wider world. They certainly had a palpable impact on Hollywood and served to generate a new vocabulary of analysis of international action films. During the past twenty five years or so, The Killers has attained the status of a cult film. Woo was born in 1946 in the Guangzhou province of China which is not very far from Hong Kong. In 1951, his father who was dissatisfied with the communist administration in China, decided to relocate in Hong Kong. At the age of seven John Woo was the victim of a massive fire and the family was rendered homeless and his family, for a certain period of time, lived in a slum. His father came down with tuberculosis and his family was unable to send John Woo to school.
Luckily for him, an American family came forward to send him to a Lutheran school, and in numerous occasions, Woo has expressed his deep gratitude to the American family for their kindness. At one point he decided to become a minister so that he could help others like him, although that did not materialize. The following two incidents – his living in slum while the consumer society was growing lavishly around him, and the importance of religion as an ethical force for social good – has much to with the subsequent filmmaking and the kind of issues he was keen in exploring and the social vision that he was bent in projecting. I will expand on these aspects of his filmmaking later in the paper.
From his young days, Woo was interested in cinema, but unfortunately for him, film schools were not in existence at the time. He had to receive on-the job training. Cathay Studios employed him in 1969 as a production assistant. Two years later he started to work at the Shaw Brothers studio as an assistant to Chang Cheh who had by then made a name for himself as a highly productive director. The association with Chang Cheh proved to be hugely consequential for Woo; he learned many tricks of the trade from him and was impressed by Chang Cheh's bold depiction of emotion and the display of chivalry – two traits that are abundantly present in Woo's own films.
John Woo realized that as a paid employee of Shaw Brothers it was expected of him to make the kind of film that was favored by them. Martial arts films that were highly conventional and formula-based were the staple at the time. John Woo made his first film, The Young Dragons in 1973. One year later he made Dragon Tamers. In 1975 he directed Princess Chang Ping and in 1976 he made Hand of Death. This film is interesting because in it he directed Sammy Hung and Jackie Chan who later went on to become celebrities themselves. After making these martial arts films, John Woo directed his attention to film comedies. In 1977 he made Money Crazy which became very popular. Although Woo was interested in creating comedies with a difference, the studio had other ideas. It encouraged Woo to make light-hearted comedies - films such as Hello, Late Home comers (1978) and From Rags to Riches (1981).
John Woo, like most other film directors, had had his ups and downs. The years 1984 and 1985 were particularly bad for him; he was in low spirits. He was sent to Taiwan where he was more of an administrator than an artist. Things changed when he and Tsui Hark cemented an alliance.in 1986 he made A Better Tomorrow which had an electrifying effect on the growth of Hong Kong action films. Woo was able to re-vitalize Hong Kong action films by introducing various elements from traditional martial arts films, the sense of chivalry and romanticism, the ethos of Chinese opera into modern action films. This blending of the old and the new, traditional and modern in the hands of Woo became extremely captivating and catalytic. A Better Tomorrow is basically a narrative dealing with two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the law and ultimately find reconciliation, despite the urgings of his once friend a gangster played by chow Yun-Fat.
A Better Tomorrow was followed by The Killers made in 1989. This is the film that was able to gain for Woo international acclaim and popularity and later open the door to Hollywood in a big way. In this paper my focus will be on the two films, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. These two films succeeded in widening the discursive parameters of the western action film and making Hong Kong a vital reference point in the discussion of modern action films. Until this point Hollywood was the single and inescapable reference point in any discussion of this genre. The Hong Kong inspired action films now have attained the status of vital facet of the newly emergent global visual culture.
A Better Tomorrow deals with the story of two brothers. Ho (Ti Lung) is a leader of a gang, and he is sent jail having been double-crossed. He was arrested in Taiwan and later seeks to mend his ways, and reform himself. After he is released from prison, his former buddy mark (Chow Yun-fat) seeks to return to his former life. Ho, on the other hand, is straining to achieve reconciliation with his brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). Kit is a member of the police force and is convinced that his brother is responsible for their father's death. Shing (Waise Lee) one time a subordinate of Ho has now risen to his former position in the gang. Shing tries hard to drive a wedge between the two brothers. Tensions between Kit and his wife grow; Ho paves the way for Shing's arrest .As the story unfolds, Mark and Shing come to a violent end; Ho and kit come to an amicable understanding, their differences erased; as this reconciliation takes place, Ho has to go back to jail. A Better Tomorrow is a moving film that is based on these complicated interpersonal relationships depicted against a life of crime and violence.
The Killer which followed A Better Tomorrow centers round the life and death of Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat). He is an assassin who has a capacity for empathy and moral imagination. Jeff is a killer who accidentally causes damage to the eye of the singer Jenny (Sally Yeh). This unfortunate incident takes place during a shootout. Jeff comes to learn that if Jenny does not undergo a costly operation it is almost certain that she would go blind. In order to obtain the requisite money for Jenny's operation, Jeff resolves to undertake one last assignment. This leads him into a chain of violent confrontations. After the completion of the assassination,
Jeff ends up in the curious position of being pursued by the leader of the gang, Johnny Weng (Shing Fui-On) and a police inspector Li (Danny Lee). As the events unfold Jeff and Li, the police inspector Strike up a friendship. As the narrative comes to an end, Jeff, Sydney and Weng end their lives violently and Jennie is stranded in a cruel world. As the police inspector li prepares to meet his superiors he grieves for the loss of his friend Jeff. John Woo has reconfigured these incidents into a wonderfully persuasive film that displays Woo's indubitable gifts as an innovative director of action films. Woo has cinematized this experience deploying his trademark features of stylized gun play, freeze frames, slow motions and anesthetization of violence.
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