The global and local in Hong Kong cinema

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By 2017-08-20

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

John Woo's cinematic world is full of evil, and we as human beings have to confront the force of this ubiquitous evil. It operates at three levels: personal, social and metaphysical. At a personal level, the various characters have to face up to evil that is generated through interpersonal relations and through themselves inwardly. Second, there is the social or institutional evil which might not be as legible as the personal evil, but it is present nonetheless. Third, there is the metaphysical level which connects to ideas of redemption, sacrifice, loyalty etc. in the filmic texts.

All three types of evil, it needs to be stressed, are imbricated. This metaphysical evil clears a space in which both the characters and the members of the audience engage in acts of self-reflection. The character of Jeff is important in this regard. One aspect of moral responsibility, as philosophers have pointed out, is the existence of alternate possibilities. They tell us that a person is morally responsible for what he or she has done only if he or she could have chosen otherwise. In the case of Jeff he could have ignored the young girl seriously injured in the gun battle and fled to his safety; that is the alternate possibility. But he did not do so; he chose otherwise underlying his moral responsibility. The way he presents this scene with all the melodrama and emotionalism is more akin to traditional Chinese narratives than to Western action films .We need to pay close attention to the cultural semiotics associated with scenes such as this that one finds in Woo's films.

Many commentators have pointed to the idea of suffering that is inscribed in Woo's filmic texts, mostly the suffering associated with male protagonists. Woo makes it a point to demonstrate that this suffering, at times presented through hyperbole, directs our attention to the moral universe that he is keen to construct. Suffering of various types is present in Western action/gangster films as well. However, it is the ethos of the scenes, the representational strategies deployed, the visual and acoustic registers pressed into service that make a difference. Significantly, they bear traces of traditional Chinese sensibility. Similarly, the way desire functions in Woo's films merits close consideration. One of the most important theorists of desire, to my mind, is Rene Girard. He advanced a theory of mimetic desire. He says that human desire needs to be differentiated from need or appetite to the extent that appetites are biologically determined, while desire is largely a function of culture. Human biological needs such as hunger can be readily identified whereas the objects of desire are much more difficult to specify; they are indeed virtually unlimited.

Because of this, according to Girard, men and women learn from each other what it is that they should desire. When we think along these lines we would realize that human beings are mimetic, they imitate one another in terms of language, gestures and other external manifestations but also with regard to what they desire. The mimetic theory of desire has the effect of undermining the romantic valorization of the autonomous and independent individual. Rene Girard makes the following remark. 'We find ourselves reverting to an ancient notion – mimesis – one whose conflictual implications have always been misunderstood. We must understand that desire itself is essentially mimetic, directed toward an object desired by the model.' This concept of mimetic desire can be applied loosely to the relationship among Jeff, Li and Jenny in The Killer. The way that both Jeff and Li are fond of Jenny prompts us to apply Girard concept of mimetic desire to understanding deeply their relationships. But at the same time Woo goes beyond this idea of mimetic desire. He frames that discourse of intimacy within Confucian conceptualities, bringing into play ideas of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice and so on. So what we see here is an extension of the idea of mimetic desire which is very common in Western action films. This ties in which the interplay of de-territorializing and re-territorializing that I have been discussing throughout this paper.

Tenth, the social and cultural contexts out of which some of Woo's films emerge are important. Some films manifest their contexts of production explicitly, while in others they are much more implicit. Many of the Western fans of Woo's films are unaware of the social and political contexts out of which his films arise. For example when we examine Western film noir we recognize the fact that generally speaking, it can be said that film noir is typified by the deployment of claustrophobic framing strategies, which serve to separate characters from one another, unbalanced compositions with shatters bringing up oblique shadows, placing girds over faces, obtrusive and unsettling close-ups, high angle shots which capture the entrapment of characters. These devices have the effect of generating a sense of disorientation, uncertainty and self-questioning that are reflective of the 1940s and 1950s when film noir was most popular. The insecurity and paranoia that males experienced in America at the time as well as an impending social malaise are manifested in these films.

A dominant feature of film noir is the presence of femme fatale who is responsible for the downfall of the male protagonists. There is a reason for this phenomenon. During World War II women decided to go in large numbers to facilitate the war effort. Frequently, they did so by taking up the professions that were occupied by men who were at the end of the war these women once again returned to the domestic sphere. This led to much tension generating the paranoia and insecurity in men that I referred to earlier. So what we find in film noir is a reflection of the ethos, structure of feeling that was prevalent at the time. Similarly, some of Woo's films like The Killer mirror the anxiety that Hong Kong was experiencing at the time regarding the imminent handover of Hong Kong to China, which until now had been under the British. The sense of anxiety, ambivalence of feeling, self-doubt, unease that was prevalent in Hong Kong at the time, and john woo felt it intensely, find articulation in his films. There are no overt references to the handover; but the general sense of anxiety is reflected in the tensions and uncertainties that mark the ethos of films. This is an aspect of his films which western audiences do not readily understand, but which Hong Kong audiences do instinctively.

In order to shed more light on the contexts of film production, dissemination and consumption, I would like to invoke the concept of the social imaginary. Theorists such as Charles Taylor have underlined the importance of this concept in understanding the ways in which collectivities come together. The concept of the social imaginary is increasingly attracting the attention of scholars working in both the humanities and social sciences, and is proving to be an instrument of analysis with far reaching possibilities in social analysis and cultural re-description. As Charles Taylor emphasizes the concept of the social imaginary encompasses something much wider and deeper than analytical schemes and intellectual categories that scholars make use of when investigating into social reality. He has chosen to focus on the 'ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.' Here, it is obvious that Taylor is calling attention to the experiential dimensions of social living.




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