CRIME: Hong Kong Style at HOME, February – April 2016
Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong usually begin and end without making international headlines, but this year was different. On the evening of February 8th, the heavy-handed policing of street vendors in Mong Kok gave rise to the violent stand-offs that are now being called the ‘fishball revolution’, after one of the cheap and widely-available street foods that would have been on sale that night. Hong Kong’s streets are usually almost unnervingly safe and peaceful places, but the events last week give a reminder of how easily they can become stages for bitter protests against any signs of overbearing governmental interference in the daily lives of its citizens.
If Hong Kong crime films hardly position themselves as cohesive political statements, at the start of Crime: Hong Kong Style, the unlikely symbol of the fishball seems poised to enter public unrest. In a short scene in As Tears Go By (1988), would-be gangster Fly is relegated to work on a fishball stand by his brother, away from the demands of debt collection. While handing out sticks of the one-dollar snack, he is mocked by the flamboyant gang leader Tony: ‘poor Mr Fly! why are you so poor? … Look at my followers, all dressed up’. As the boasts roll on, the police show up, with vendors rapidly wheeling their carts away, but Tony stops Fly’s escape, handing him over the waiting officers. If the confrontation is contained in that moment, they are at the start of a series of violent outbursts that characterise the second part of the film.
An emphasis on public streets is not quite a constant in the films shown so far in Crime: Hong Kong Style, but they have an important place. They drive the plot forward from the opening of The Boxer from Shantung (1972); the action of Wild City (2014) is seldom far from markets, streets, and public squares, and the leading characters’ escapes to Lamma island give a welcome retreat from the unpredictability of the city. Even if Hong Kong’s interest in public acts of unrest is not unique to the region’s engagement with the crime genre, there is a strange and unexpected relevance for the contemporary situation in the SAR.
Part of the charm of this eclectic season is the way that films complement one another in unexpected ways. There is nothing predictable or limited about the genre of crime ‘Hong Kong style’, especially when attentively and originally curated by a team lead by Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at the University of Salford. When we asked Andy about what might surprise people about the films they’re going to see over the next couple of months, he emphasised the historical range of the season, starting with the 1961 The Swallow Thief, a rare chance for UK audiences to see studio films from this period in Hong Kong cinema. We’ll also see several of the classic 1970s films from the golden age of Kung Fu, such as the Shaw Brothers’ The Boxer From Shantung, set in period Shanghai. The season spans the huge range of genres that crime films have fallen into over the decades, from 1977 slapstick caper The Pilferers’ Progress and other 1970s Kung Fu and martial arts films like The Teahouse, more violent and gun-driven plots in the 1980s, up to the interest in localism and social issues which Andy points out in the work of a younger generation of filmmakers like Felix Chong.
Alongside the changes in genre and style over the years, the industry has had its ups and downs: “the Hong Kong film industry is in a perpetual state of crisis at the moment,” Andy explains. The financial crash in Asia in the late 1990s hit box offices hard, and the opening up of the mainland Chinese market in the early 2000s meant that Hong Kong films now formed part of the quota of foreign films allowed, frequently losing out to Hollywood blockbusters. To maintain their distribution in the lucrative mainland market, Hong Kong filmmakers were obliged to collaborate with Chinese production companies, cater to the different tastes of the mainland, and negotiate strict censorship rules. However, Hong Kongers are largely resistant to China’s influence, keen to defend a distinct Cantonese identity and the cultural independence of the SAR as a separate entity (seen recently in events like 2014’s Umbrella Movement), issues which have been increasingly evident in Hong Kong films of the last few years in what Andy describes as a recent turn towards localism.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for the industry, though. As well as classic films by titans like Johnnie To and the Shaw Brothers, the season also includes recent work from the exciting new filmmaker Felix Chong, who will also fly to Manchester to take part in Q&As for his screenings. Chong’s films, Andy explains, are very much engaged with contemporary social issues: corruption in Hong Kong’s financial industry in 2009’s Overheard and 2011’s Overheard 2; and Overheard 3 (whose UK premiere forms part of the season) which deals with corruption in the land deals between the government, developers, and villagers in the rural New Territories. This social conscience in the genre is far from a recent development, however: Andy points out that many of the 1970s crime films highlight issues such as housing and the rise of the Triads.
If crime is a global genre, enjoying particular prominence in Europe and America with the success of TV programmes like The Wire and The Killing, there is still something distinctive about Hong Kong’s take on the genre. Andy explains: “Hong Kong films tend to be under two hours long, which helps give them that sense of energy and narrative propulsion; they’re always moving forwards. I think that reflects the place, in a way. The cinema is quite energised, just like the place is quite energised.” The localism we discussed is particularly evident in the settings the films use: steamy Kowloon backstreets, mountains in the New Territories, and the open waters and beaches of Hong Kong’s many outlying islands are all instantly identifiable for local audiences.
If Hong Kong is visually distinctive, though, the extreme violence and danger so prominent in its crime films are strikingly absent from day-to-day life in one of the safest cities in the world. Like New York’s Gotham atmosphere, Andy speculates that there might just be something about Hong Kong that lends itself to the crime genre, from the look of its densely-packed skyscrapers and neon streets to the contrast between extreme wealth and extreme poverty living side by side. Like the American dream, Hong Kong’s view of itself as a meritocracy creates opportunities, in narrative fiction if not so much in real life, for the protagonist who starts off with nothing to work his way to the top; often, in these films, through crime and Triad connections.
Many of the films in the season are introduced by specialists from universities around Manchester, as well as Q&As with director Felix Chong. Click here to download the full programme.
Laura Swift and Joel Swann