Hong Kong Crime Film & Film Noir

A review of The Hong Kong Crime Film: Genre and Film Noir from the 1940s to the Present, by Kristof Van den Troost.

Although an impressive amount of scholarship on Hong Kong cinema has been published in the last two decades, crime film as a genre has mostly evaded critical attention. Narrated in a keen, persuasive scholarly voice, Kristof Van den Troost’s Hong Kong Crime Film fills this gap by establishing the general lines of this important Hong Kong genre since its early inception in the 1940s. At the heart of this genre-oriented approach lies the author’s fundamental mistrust of the predominant academic practice in Hong Kong cultural studies, one that privileges the importance of 1997 and its impact on local identities. The single-mindedness of this approach often prompts scholars to find political corollaries in given film productions. Granted that no film can be truly independent of ideology and the dominant mechanism of socio-economic productions, the challenge here is to avoid overreaching, a mission the author suggests many have failed in various degrees. Common problems include “treating a film (or a select group of films) as a direct representation of society” and “singling out one film for a political analysis” (p. 127). As a result, studies on Hong Kong cinema have become “more [focused] on ‘Hong Kong’ than on its cinema,” with many significant aspects of Hong Kong cinema, including the historical study of genres, remaining virtually unexplored (p. 1).

As the author clearly states in a beginning section tellingly titled “What it is not,” The Hong Kong Crime Film is a “reaction against the dominant trends in academic writing on Hong Kong and Chinese cinema” that is “particularly obsessed with identity and ‘name giving’” (p. 1). He cites David Bordwell, who has argued extensively for an alternative perspective: “Instead of reflecting the mood of the moment, popular cinema is better considered as part of an open-ended dialogue with its culture” (Planet Hong Kong p. 37, my emphasis). The author’s own approach involves treating genre historically, which allows for exposure and scrutiny of many themes and concerns that have previously been sidelined. To think of genre as an ongoing process, rather than fixed and self-evident, is also to acknowledge the innate ambiguity and porosity that come along with this complex process. This dialectical attitude is best exemplified by the author’s observations on Hong Kong crime film in the 1980s. To fundamentally question the facile linkage between crime film in this period and the 1997 factor — mostly derived from the dark, cynical characters in a few noirish films — the author convincingly lists other contributing factors that are equally if not more important, such as “the traditions of martial arts cinema (its concepts of heroism and fatalism), local and overseas generic developments (the local resonance of Dirty Harry), the workings of the market (the enormous success of A Better Tomorrow spawning many imitators), the agency of individual producers/directors (a Tsui Hark who tends to explicitly address 1997 in his films), and the feedback from critics and audiences (the Hong Kong critics who … insist that filmmakers ‘depict their social and historical reality’)” (p. 154).

The structure of the dissertation, outlined on the “Contents” page, is coherent and logical. Chapters 1 to 4 chart the generic origin and development of the Hong Kong crime film. Part of each chapter is devoted to film noir, a genre that has been closely related to the Hong Kong crime film category since the 1980s. Chapter 5 places critical focus on director Johnnie To and his Milkyway Image studio, who and which are responsible for many of Hong Kong’s celebrated (crime) films from the last 15 years, and in turn representative of a distinct creative force in today’s Hong Kong cinema. To contextualize each developmental stage, every chapter begins with a description of important events in society, the changes in film industry, and the trends in genre filmmaking (p. 15).

Chapter 1 studies the period from the late 1940s to 1969, when Mandarin and Cantonese cinemas coexisted, and each withstood the vicissitudes of certain types of popular genres. The crime film is further divided into three categories, correlating to Steve Neale’s noted focus on the three major figures in the film: the detective film (the agent of law and order), the suspense thriller (the victim), and the gangster film (the criminal). To account for a highly hybrid and popular subgenre, Van den Troost creates a fourth category, which he calls “the female detective/chivalrous thief action-adventure film,” and which broadly includes elements from the three aforementioned categories. This chapter also identifies the five film noir parameters used in the thesis to investigate the noirish Hong Kong films at the time (mostly in Mandarin and with prominent femme fatale characters) that were contemporaneous with the “classic” era of Hollywood noir.

Chapter 2 introduces the birth of the “modern” Hong Kong crime film in the 1970s. The argument here is that the crime film played an important role in the indigenization of Hong Kong cinema. This statement is significant because, as often argued, the localization of the Hong Kong film industry is largely accredited to the New Wave directors who came to the scene in 1979. What becomes clear in this chapter is another ambition of the dissertation — to create a pantheon of canonical masterworks in the crime genre throughout its history. The author makes unambiguous statements to turn previously obscure films into major milestones in the crime category. For example, by the time one finishes reading this chapter, it is hard not to agree with the author’s claim that The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Kuei Chih-hung, 1974) is “arguably the first real ‘Hong Kong’ crime film” (p. 89).

Chapter 3 examines the Hong Kong New Wave directors, many of whom made their first works in the crime genre and whose arrival “completed the process of indigenization” (p. 23). John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), a film that ensured the dominance of the crime film genre in the local industry for the next fifteen years, is discussed in great detail. By laying out the various precedents for Woo’s seminal film, the author convincingly argues that it is in fact much more derivative (in terms of themes, generic elements and cinematic techniques) than often assumed (p. 116). Along with the “hero film” subgenre that came into being in the wake of A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色) and the neglected police film of this period, this chapter also includes discussions on two important characters in the Hong Kong crime film — the immigrant gangster and Hong Kong’s own “Dirty-Harry”-style detective. The late 1980s also witnessed the first wave of Hong Kong noir. The author’s argument is that the noir traits already present in many martial arts films during the preceding fifteen years “migrated” into the modern urban crime genre in the late 1970s and early 1980s (p. 142).

Chapter 4 delineates the decline of the Hong Kong crime film from 1990 to 2010. This chapter charts the developments of no less than seven subgenres, cycles, and trends within the crime genre: the Big Timer (梟雄片) cycle and Category III films in the golden era of 1990–94; and the Police film, the Triad Film, the Assassin Film, the Undercover Cop Film, the “International Action” film and the Infernal Affairs 無間道-inspired Thrillers during the industrial depression period (1994–present). The author attributes the decline of the crime film to the complex combination of three factors: changing audience tastes, generic exhaustion, and the industry-wide orientation towards overseas markets in general and to the Mainland in particular (p. 176). The main contribution of this chapter, however, lies in its research on the Hong Kong film industry in the late 1990s and its creative surge in local films — many in the crime genre — that have barely been largely overlooked by English language histories of Hong Kong cinema.

Chapter 5 considers the unique combination of crime film and contemporary noir, a category in which Johnnie To and his Milkyway Image studio have played a central role. This shift away from the historical trajectory delineated by the previous four chapters to a focus on one particular film studio and its central figure(s) is appropriate. Distinctly local, Milkyway Image and its quirky idiosyncrasies are not only pivotal in carrying forward the crime film tradition (and, in no small way, the experimental spirit and creative impulse in the industry in the late 1990s), but are also instrumental to an industry-wide trend towards noirish filmmaking. The author effectively sums up the characteristics — the thematic, visual, narrative and structural elements — that comprise the “Milkyway house style” (p. 231). Finally, in concluding the patterns of development of the crime film, the author is able to persuasively arrive at the conclusion pre-established in the earlier chapters, that Hong Kong film noir is “a viable, recognizable current of Hong Kong cinema” (p. 266).

The Hong Kong Crime Film is an important contribution to the field. Challenging familiar attitudes, the dissertation introduces a new conceptual framework and offers a more flexible understanding of Hong Kong cinema for readers who are willing to abandon certain basic assumptions such as the reflectionist nature of Hong Kong films or noir’s quintessential American connection. The author’s introduction to the crime film genre also attests to genre criticism’s continued validity as an approach to Chinese film studies. A sensible and accessible read, the dissertation further benefits from many scholarly and anecdotal footnotes, an elaborate glossary, and a personal interview with director Johnnie To that contains interesting first-hand information on Milkyway Image films.

Wei Yang
Assistant Professor
Asian Studies Program and Film Studies Program
Sewanee: The University of the South
weiyang@sewanee.edu

Sources

A Better Tomorrow 英雄本色 series (1986-1989)
Long Arm of the Law 省港旗兵 series (1984-1990)
The Young and Dangerous 古惑仔 series (1996- )
Infernal Affairs 無間道 series (2002-2003)
Election 黑社會 (2005),Election 2 黑社會:以和為貴(2006)

Dissertation Information

Chinese University of Hong Kong. 2010. 334 pp. Primary Advisor: Ann Huss.

 

Image: Screenshot of Chow Yun-Fat, from A Better Tomorrow 英雄本色 (1986, dir. John Woo). Screen Junkies.

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