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Review: New Hong Kong Cinema by Ruby Cheung

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In New Hong Kong Cinema, Ruby Cheung sets out to explore how Hong Kong films, as produced since the 1980s, relate to and are conditioned by the 1997 sovereignty handover of the city. She claims that this so-called New Hong Kong Cinema should be discussed “from the angle of ‘transitions’ in the renewed and continuously changing East Asian regional context in the age of China’s Rise” (p. 2). This point of departure limits the possibilities for a formal analysis of this relatively new, partly geographical film category. Instead, slow films, independent productions, sensory videos, and ‘blockbusters’ are brought together for their shared interest in human migrations.

Cheung’s study, then, is primarily concerned with movements, journeys, migrations, sojourns in Hong Kong films, and how these thematic components give us an insight in the relationship between moving images and the city’s sociopolitical and historic situation. Here the strength of New Hong Kong Cinema is located, for its contextual analysis not only enriches the audience’s experience of the films at issue, but also makes for a strong argument on the ways the ‘handover’ affects local and individual identities.

Cinematic journeys and Wong Kar-wai
In other words: for Cheung, new Hong Kong films serve as lenses to study the lived experiences of Hong Kong over the last few decades. It is for this reason that the first chapter, entitled Cinematic Journeys and Journeying in New Hong Kong Films, is a valuable contribution to studies of social and national identity, as well as to the affective qualities and cultural position of cinema. In this chapter, the “long history of Chinese people journeying across the national border” (p. 42) serves as a starting point for approaching New Hong Kong Cinema as a ‘Cinema of Transitions’.

Opening up a variety of historical and cinematic journeys, Cheung introduces seven ‘Hong Kong-related Chinese-language’ films. All of these films reflect upon or directly deal with migration issues of former or new Hong Kong inhabitants – displaying first-hand experiences of the city’s 1997 sovereignty handover. Cheung refers to films like Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996) and Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow (2010), allowing for a diversity in style, budget, and cultural background, yet it’s interesting that Wong Kar-wai’s work is discussed twice.

Moreover, in the review of Wong’s Happy Together (1997), Cheung includes an interpretation of both In the Mood for Love (1999) and 2046 (2004). Because of a similarity in audiovisual style, as well as the reappearance of main character Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai), these films have been categorised as a triology before. Interestingly, for Cheung the continuity between these films is located somewhere else; their narratives relate to and reflect upon the city’s handover, sometimes literally, yet also in an allegorical manner. The title of 2046, for example, refers to “the last year of the transitional period given as a grace period to Hong Kong by the Chinese government, before Hong Kong will be completely absorbed into the PRC’s political and economic systems” (p. 56).

Context and comparative studies
This attention to contextual details is the strength of New Hong Kong Cinema. Emblemetic of this is the third chapter, entitled Hong Kong Filmmakers: Authorial Vision, Self-Inscription and Social Underdogs, in which Cheung points at the ‘displacements from places of birth’ as a mutual experience among the discussed filmmakers. They share not simply the collective memory of Hongkongers, but have lived through the migration from East and South East Asian regions to Hong Kong at a relatively young age. What’s more, although these filmmakers seem to cinematically address the notion of identity in relation to Hong Kong’s 1997 sovereignty handover, the film production increasingly moves to mainland China. Cheung is interested in how this phenomenon of ‘mainlandisation’ affects authorial vision and concerns, which she explains by examining the “specific biographical and professional conditions that have given rise to their autorship” (p. 109).

Precisely by contextualising these films and filmmakers, New Hong Kong Cinema offers a relevant and insightful reconsideration of contemporary Hong Kong films. Simultaneously, it opens up the possibility for comparative studies. The work of Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, for example, is also concerned with migration, journeys, and fluid identities – and his family moved from the Guangdong province in China to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Edward Yang was born in Shanghai, yet also moved to Taiwan at an early age. In its current state, Cheung’s study only compares the Hong Kong film industry with four other cities, or ‘nodes’, “where East Asian film businesses tend to concentrate: Bejing, Busan, Shanghai, and Tokyo. This way of mapping the East Asian film industry is relevant, but it seems to me that a comparison on the level of filmic journeys, sociopolitical contexts, and shifting identities would perhaps be preferable.

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