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Thursday, July 13, 2000

It's Karl Marx vs. Jackie Chan, and the old, fat guy wins


By DAVID WILLIAMS
CITY ON FIRE: Hong Kong Cinema, by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover. London: Verso, Sept. 1999, 372 pp., $22 (paper).

It began as a buzzing, multicultural confusion. The year is 1909. Hong Kong's cinema is born with a silent effort titled "Stealing the Roasted Duck." It is the handiwork of Liang Shaobo, the famous Shanghai-based director. So far, so good.

In a masterstroke of timing, however, the film is finished before the colony's first movie theater opens. That won't happen until 1910. But, before it does, Benjamin Brodsky, the film's American financier, returns to the United States, taking the only print with him. As a result, Hong Kong's first step into cinematic history is not shown in the British colony.

Since that fateful moment in 1909, the buzz and the chaos of the Hong Kong film industry have never ceased. Take, for example, the so-called "seven-day wonders" that dominated Cantonese cinema after World War II. These were films produced in a week with "little direction, minimal sets and prerecorded sound" for single-week runs in the colony's cinemas.

Hundreds of films were turned out this way: The dynamic duo of Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin appeared in over 50 films rushed onto the screen only to be rushed off again during the 1950s and '60s. The great Chow Kwun-ling set an even more frenzied pace by starring in some 70 films just in the years 1952-53.

There was method to this madness, but it was mainly madness. During the 1980s, the director Cheung Yuen-ting remembers a colleague who "hadn't slept for four days and who had to rely on an oxygen mask to keep himself going," as well as an actress friend "who was nicknamed 'Cheng nine sets a day' because she was making nine movies at the same time."

Even Cantopop king Andy Lau fell victim to the chaos. During 1991, he averaged a movie a month. At one point, he was "shooting four movies at once on four locations, and sleeping in his car." Roy Cheung of "City on Fire" fame (the film that gives this book its title) recalls with the pride of a bloodied veteran, "It was common for us to work for two or three days and nights nonstop without a wink of sleep."

In other words, the energetic craziness that one so often associates with a "made-in-Hong Kong" film merely reflects the creative frenzy at work behind the camera. And it is the loving exploration (surely the authors must speak Cantonese) of the world "behind the camera" that gives this wonderful book its reason for being. It also explains why "City on Fire" is the unlikely tale of how Karl ambushed Jackie.

The ambushed Jackie is, of course, Jackie Chan, Hong Kong's greatest star since Bruce Lee and the victim of fan clubs on four continents. But Karl the ambusher is Karl Marx. So be warned when you discover that the cover of "City on Fire" displays that famous still of Chow Yun-fat lighting a cigarette with a counterfeit $100 bill in "Tomorrow is a Better Day." This is ideological commentary, not cool grit.

Thus, "City on Fire" begins with two quotations: One is from the director Peter Chan in which he observes, "When you make a movie you can't expect anything from the audience," and other is from "Theories of Surplus Value," where Marx asserts, "The actor's relation to the public is that of an artist, but in relation to his employer he is a productive laborer."

Neither of these remarks is true, but the authors of "City on Fire" reject the first and believe the second. So, the real plot of the book is how the author of "The Communist Manifesto," that witty middle-class Victorian, delivers a kung-fu blow to the master of the crazy action stunt.

Or, more precisely, how a little Marxist probing can dissolve the madcap image of our Jackie, and replace it with something richer and more interesting, often funnier and certainly closer to the truth. But none of this should obscure the fact that, viewed from East Asia, American Marxism is a rather strange beast.

In Japan, certainly immediately before and after the Pacific War, Marxism was a great intellectual and political force. Today, Mickey-Mouse globalization may prevail elsewhere, but Marxism is still the official philosophy of state for a billion-plus East Asians, and that now includes Hong Kong.

In the U.S., by contrast, Marxism has never been a power (not outside Manhattan and the fringes of the labor movement). Rather, it thrives in the humanities ghetto of academe. The authors of "City on Fire" teach at Seminole Community College in Central Florida.

The organized rather than organic relationship of Marxist academics to U.S. society has its drawbacks. Detached from reality as it is lived, one can become a bit free with words such as "oppressors." If a Victorian Hong Kong matron spanking one of her Chinese servants with an umbrella is an oppressor, what word does one use to describe the horrors of slavery in Florida or Andrew Jackson's campaigns of ethnic cleansing against the Seminole?

Another ghetto problem is hypersensitivity to political correctness. On the plus side, the authors celebrate the rise of female talent in Hong Kong films (stars such as Maggie Cheung), and rightly stress that women are needed behind the camera to break the "male gaze" that dominates so much of Asian filmmaking.

Stokes and Hoover also feel obliged to endorse the cause of gay rights in Hong Kong society. This is liberal-minded, but in film criticism, this gets the cart before the horse because the central thesis on the role of homosexual talent in film has nothing to do with political correctness.

George Steiner states it: "There is hardly a branch of literature, of music, of the plastic arts, of philosophy, of drama, of film, fashion and the furnishings of daily life in which homosexuality has not been crucially involved, often dominantly. Judaism and homosexuality can be seen to have been the two main generators of the entire fabric and savour of urban modernity in the West."

So the questions that count about the role of gays in Asian cinema are these: Have homosexuals served as the main generators of East Asian modernity, including the Hong Kong film? If not, does this failure explain the manifest weaknesses of the Hong Kong film industry?

Stokes and Hoover are the very people to tackle this question because, between the lines of "City on Fire," they suggest a powerful social theory of how cinematic energy and excellence are sustained.

Clarity is essential here because the metropolitan model (London, Tokyo, Rome, Paris) appears unable to run the marathon. If one crowds all film's needs into a national capital where filmmaking can never be the dominant creative activity, something goes wrong (India's Bollywood is another planet).

By contrast, U.S. film hegemony depends on a triple alliance: a despised but self-contained film city (Hollywood), a vast hinterland (the American heartland) to generate and consume the human stories that are captured and fictionalized by a trend-setting urban intelligentsia (Manhattan and its cultural satellites).

In the Chinese version, Hong Kong plus Taiwan might play Hollywood, Shanghai stands in for New York City, and the need for a hinterland unites the Chinese overseas diaspora and the new emerging colossus of mainland China. Speculation along such lines will find the marvelous histories narrated in "City on Fire" invaluable.

All this means that despite the wistful, almost defeated, comments contained in the acute round-table discussion, bringing together some of the brightest lights in Hong Kong film, that draws this fine book to a close, there is everything to play for in Jackie Chan land -- whatever Karl may think.

David Williams, a former contributor to The Japan Times' editorial page, is a freelance journalist in Britain.


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