I finally finished the City on Fire book. Debating on doing a proper review.
Ultimately I have very mixed feelings about this book from Lisa Odham Stokes (author of Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema) and Michael Hoover. I like the amount of research that went into it and the amount of interviews that were specifically done for the book. The majority of the study is on films from the 1990s. I originally thought there was going to be more allusions to the 1997 handover (and there is a decent amount of them) but the amount of Marx and postmodernist quotes are what is overdone. I would not doubt that Marx is mentioned and/or quoted at least 100 times (I wish I had a pdf or other digital copy to check this.) It gives one the feeling that the authors did not project enough of their thoughts and leaned on certain social philosophers that often had nothing to do with Hong Kong cinema. It takes on an anti-capitalist stance throughout without being as hard on the PRC (People’s Republic of China) though in the last chapter “Meet the New Boss” it equates the two as the same: “Apparently, ‘the interests of the capitalist class in Hong Kong and the rulers in Beijing are the same: keeping the workers down and minimizing popular politics.’”
This book has a strange style for commenting and sometimes strains to connect social points and often spouts truisms or tautologies. For example on Long Arm of the Law: “Britain’s much-ballyhooed ‘hands off’ approach to Hong Kong notwithstanding, as Chandra Mohanty remarks, ‘colonization almost invariably implies a structure of domination … and political suppression.’” First I am always wary of ellipses in quotations as they can dramatically alter the meaning. Second I am not sure who Chandra Mohanty is or why we should care because there is no introduction to who she is. You have to go to the notes page to find out she is an author of “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Third the quotation comes off as a truism. Did that statement need to be there? There are hundreds of these type of quotations which are sometimes appropriate, sometimes appear out of the blue and often feel too didactic.*
The book has a foreword from John A. Lent (who is editor of the 2014 book Southeast Asian Cartoon Art: History, Trends and Problems), twelve chapters, an epilogue “Hong Kong Calling” and quite a bit of end notes that are worth reviewing. The first chapter “Mapping the Territory” literally maps a historical account of Hong Kong. The second “Reeling in the Years” is a too short account for the history of its cinema. Chapters three through twelve take a variety of topics from John Woo to comedy, describe movie plots and often put it in a social-political bent with a Marxist and postmodern influence as well as include many allegorical usages of the 1997 handover. Chapter twelve “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss” specifically discusses post-handover Hong Kong and some of its cinema leading up to 1999 (the publish date of the book.) The epilogue has several pages of interview quotations from a plethora of people including Tsui Hark, John Woo, Donnie Yen, Ronny Yu, Chris Doyle and Chow Yun-fat that is mostly on Hollywood, but is worth reading.
It is not a book I would recommend for starting into HK cinema. Stephen Teo's Hong Kong Cinema (which needs a new release) and David Bordwell's second edition of Planet Hong Kong are easily more complete reads on Hong Kong movies. If you are looking for a social critique with postmodernistic and Marxist fervor on mainly the more well-known 1990s Hong Kong films then this is your book. Since there is a lot of interviews done specifically for the book interspersed throughout as well as a good amount of research was put into the making of this (with some usual canards like The Killer “did not do well in Hong Kong” and stating Kwan Tak-hing making ninety-nine Wong Fei-hung films), scholars of Hong Kong cinema will want this for their library. Others might be put off by its approach or the fact that there is a wealth of new material on Hong Kong now like the Shaw Brothers library of films and lots of newer books.
* Another example [on Chungking Express]: “he says “Do you think I’ve change? Getting optimistic all of a sudden and things just turn beautiful. You look a lot cuter than before now. You were sort of neat and that was alright. But this goldfish look? With patches all over? Have you been fighting?’ Marx notes that “Commodities as such are indifferent to all religious, political, national and linguistic barriers.’” Doesn’t this read awkwardly? It seems like a forced attempt to thrown in a Marx quote.
Postmodern rhetoric example: “Lefebvre suggests that the privatization of consumption means a replacement of signs by signals and of symbols by images. This condition strips individuals of their ability to connect; people cannot ‘totalize’ their experiences. Commodified objects contribute to a condition in which alienation has become ‘social practice,’ creating what he calls ‘the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.’”
---------------------- some comments I have on the first couple of chapters (originally posted at Bullets and Babes)
What I do like about the book is the interviews done for it. I am certainly highlighting quite a bit of it. Unfortunately, too much is on attacking capitalism and quoting Marx. When I first heard the complaints on the book I thought it was exagerated, but she and Hoover draw from the same well too much. I find it interesting that the main reasons Mandarin speakers came here after the war was "wishing to escape Chiang Kai-shek's censorship policies" and yet while later mentioning "A third wave of people began flowing into the colony following the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949..." yet never mentions in this section Mao by name.
Some interesting quotes from the second chapter (yes I'm picking on a little bit, but still having fun with the book; I probably made a few mistakes here and there transcribing):
"...commercial studios fostered possessive individualist values associated with consumer capitalism while exploiting the Chinese diaspora's curiousity about its culture and history."
"...despite the glaring inequalities present in the colony, movie audiences continued to grow."
"His words have a striking similarity to Marx's description of "the transformation of the laborer into a workhorse, [which] is a means of increasing captial, or speeding up the produciton of surplus value..."" [there is a block quote here that goes on for awhile.]
"provides a disturbing visual reminder of Marx's words."
"...whose consideration of women and sexuality not only deconstructed the ways that cinema 'naturalizes' socially constructed masculine fantasies and ideologies but also problematized essentialism of a 'heterosexual division of the universe.'"
"As Marx noted, the methods of early captialism were 'anything but idyllic.'"
"As Homi Bhabha points out, 'cultures are never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in reltion of Self to Other.'"
"...what Uma Magal calls the 'reverse angle' of global cinema."
"...that Ackbar Abbas calls 'postcoloniality that precedes decolonization'"
"...what Michel Pecheux calls 'identification'"
"...affirm Horkheimer and Adorno's depiction of the culture industry as amusement, diversion, and distraction."
On Chapter 3: Whose Better Tomorrow
"What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo's martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads?"
"...the most meanly odious,' characteristic of early capitalist expropriation."
"Blood Brothers (1973), considered Chang's masterpiece" [now being more serious, I like this film, but this is an interesting choice to consider his "masterpiece"; Chang is tough to just pick one film it is kind of like saying Raging Bull is Scorsese's masterpiece.]
"Financial gain and expanded profit margins are all that matters to these villains."
"Shing will be the vampire-capitalist, who 'only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.'" [the inner quotations are direct quotations from Marx, same goes to the previous quotations in the earlier posts]
"Ko's ruling passions are avarice and a desire to get rich, shared by every capitalist upstart."
"To Ko they are a 'disposable reserve army of labor ... a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.'"
"Yet it is the expressiveness of such a scene that communicates to an audience and provides an alternative to a world currupted by capitalism."
"...they serve to reflect the harsh social reality for the many stepped on or over in a capitalist society."
"As Marx puts it, 'One capitalist always kills many.'"
"Marx reminds us, and 'the birth of the latter [Modern Industry] is heralded by a great slaughter of the innocents.'"
"Woo's gangster movies create a political and social subtext of early capitalism as a bloody battlefield."
Last edited by Masterofoneinchpunch on Thu Jul 10, 2014 4:40 pm; edited 7 times in total