Cosmopolitanism & Cinema in Hong Kong, Taiwan

A review of Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan, by Brian Hu.

Much of the growth in the field of Chinese cinema studies over the last two decades has been fuelled by a questioning of the category of Chinese cinema itself. With the national cinema paradigm considered outdated and inadequate, scholars have explored new ways to understand the film industries of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as the many transnational connections forged by Chinese filmmakers in an increasingly globalized world. Despite the wealth of research already produced on this topic, Brian Hu’s dissertation manages to break new ground, and makes an important theoretical intervention in the field. But Hu’s contribution goes further than this. Methodologically, he combines archival research and close readings of films with less explored avenues of research—particularly the study of film music, industrial texts, and audiences. Covering a period of more than sixty years (from the 1950s to the 2000s), Hu consistently looks at film genres, production cycles, and stars that have been relatively ignored, in the process offering a fresh perspective on Hong Kong and Taiwanese film history.

Theoretically, Hu’s starting point is Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar’s call to turn away from studying “national cinema” to instead study “cinema and the national”, which allows one to focus on how film texts construct the nation in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways (Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006). Instead of Berry and Farquhar’s “inward-looking approach,” however, Hu proposes a “partly outward” one, to explore “how the cinemas of Hong Kong and Taiwan imagine the rest of the world through the mobile and culturally-flexible national and ethnic subject” (p. 21). This cosmopolitan figure, through his/her interactions with the outside world, is as much one of the ingredients that constitute the national as the aesthetic traditions and social contexts that are more commonly focused on. At the same time, this figure allows domestic viewers to feel they are a part of the outside world.

Rather than simply identifying transnationality as some of the earlier works on the topic do, Hu is attempting to theorize the “specific formation of transnationality” that is cosmopolitanism (p. 25), and how this formation “is able to imagine identity, belonging, and prosperity in an imminent global future” (p. 26). The “worldly desires” in the title of the dissertation then refer to the “desires for the world and its consumable, philosophical, and touristic pleasures” in “marginalized locales” like Hong Kong and Taiwan, but it is also the “desire to see the world recognize and desire Hong Kong and Taiwan in return” (p. 28). The term “worldly” further indicates a more pragmatic understanding of nationalism, Chineseness, diaspora, and the cosmopolitan: for the industry, evoking these ideals is a way to make money and expand markets, and for the audience, playing along with them can deliver social/cultural capital.

Chronologically organized, the five chapters of the dissertation examine different historical expressions of the cosmopolitan ideal. Chapter 1 deals with the Mandarin musicals produced in 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong by the Shaw Brothers邵氏兄弟 and MP&GI studios 國際電影懋業有限公司 (電懋). Basing his argument on the fan magazines and advertising materials of these studios, as well as on the films themselves, Hu argues that each studio used its female stars to brand itself as cosmopolitan—a rather daring claim especially in the case of Shaw Brothers, which most scholars have tended to depict as promoting the Chinese tradition. In promotional materials, actresses like Linda Lin Dai 林黛, Grace Chang 葛蘭, Lam Fung 林鳳 and others were shown to fly around the world, to wear the latest fashions, to mingle with European and American elites, and to quickly pick up cosmopolitan skills (especially the latest dance styles). By combining these particular female star images with the upgrading of production facilities, the two studios were able to portray themselves as in sync with world standards, and as a result obtained a competitive advantage against smaller studios that could not afford the significant investments this strategy required (p. 42). In addition, the branding of female stars as cosmopolitan had its value in the world film economy, as these stars opened the door to co-productions with some of the top studios in Asia and around the world (pp. 67-71).

In Chapter 2, Hu shifts his attention to the male martial artists in the Shaolin Temple cycle of the 1970s and 1980s. Framing this martial arts hero as “proto-cosmopolitan” in his mobility, flexibility, and pragmatism, he aptly highlights how the legend of the burning of Shaolin Temple and the subsequent dispersal of martial arts heroes in the secular world can be read as an allegory of a diasporic identity “seeking to harness Chineseness to succeed in international competition” (p. 30). Given that the Hong Kong and Taiwan economies took off spectacularly at this time, and in the process increasingly integrated into the global economy, the popularity of such a competitive, flexible, and mobile figure should not be surprising. Hu points out the political dimension to these films in the 1970s, as they celebrated the success of the Chinese diaspora exiled from the Mainland after the Communist revolution: the films “worked through the diaspora’s own sense of nationalism and anti-Communism by appealing to the diaspora’s sense of cultural truth” (p. 100). Later films brought this allegory to the context of the 1990s and 2000s, but were less overtly political, showing instead “how Shaolin can make Chinese men (and in some rare cases, women) participants on a world stage, triumphing in everything from international martial arts to global sports to world-class cooking” (p. 87).

Chapter 3 begins with the claim that the figure of the overseas student helped audiences in Greater China cope with the changing place of the Chinese national in a globalizing world. Here, Hu acknowledges that while cosmopolitanism is often seen as an end ideal, it is also “an anxiety-laden process which requires the mediation and sometimes compromise between competing affiliations of emotional importance” (p. 140). The figure of the overseas student in the 1970s Taiwanese melodramas is thus not only a source of fascination, but also signals loss. Breaking down the boundary between entertainment and “Healthy Realist” propaganda conventionally employed in scholarly writing about this period, Hu argues that films consistently place overseas students within “a matrix of family, lover, self, and nation” (p. 141). What unites these films is not one specific ideological or ethical position, but rather that they all depict the (re-)integration of the cosmopolitan figure into the nation, family, or romantic couple as a process characterized by painful compromises and tearful goodbyes—a depiction Hu defines as “sentimental romanticism” (p. 142). As in the second chapter about the Shaolin temple cycle, the focus here is on genre analysis of the “overseas student film” and the interrelated form of the Chiung Yao瓊瑤 melodrama, both understood from the angle of cosmopolitanism. Recurring narrative patterns (the departure and arrival of overseas students), settings (in particular the use of nature as “romantic space”), and even musical motifs are shown to be part of the specific mix of cosmopolitanism and nationalism in 1970s Taiwanese melodramas.

Chapters 4 and 5 move the discussion to the 1990s and 2000s to explore how Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinemas imagine a cosmopolitan future in the face of long-term industrial decline. Chapter 4 deals with the American Born Chinese (ABC) and mixed-race stars who became an important presence in Hong Kong and Taiwanese film, TV, and popular music in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Unlike the overseas student of the 1970s, the ABC does not signal loss, but instead is perceived as simply looking and sounding “different.” Moreover, for many young people Hu talked to, this difference is not just culturally but also biologically determined (they have higher-bridged noses, taller frames, etc.), even though genetically they may not be all that different from their family members in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The difference they represent is thus similar to that of mixed-race people. Both groups are often considered as physically embodying the “best-of-both-worlds”—in other words, they are “naturally cosmopolitan.” As physical appearance and other “superficial” qualities are most important in this version of the cosmopolitan, Hu opts in this chapter to examine star images and draw on the tools of star studies, offering case studies of pop trio L.A. Boyz’ muscles, Maggie Q’s face, Terence Yin’s 尹子維 smirk, Janet Hsieh’s 謝怡芬 tan, and Edison Chen’s 陳冠希 English. Like the figure of the overseas student in the 1970s, the ABC star is often represented as an ambiguous figure—“an object of fascination, adoration, and ultimately, rejection” (p. 223). As Hu concludes, the overseas Chinese star “becomes a cosmopolitan type (the ‘ABC’) who exudes authenticity but must then be a perpetual outsider, a cultural and biological mutation, a monstrous child of globalization” (p. 283).

Chapter 5 takes yet another approach to the study of the cosmopolitan. Using the self-reflexive industrial texts produced by state organs in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Hu’s ethnographic approach reveals how state representatives brand their respective cinemas as “cosmopolitan Chinese” in order to position themselves as the ideal middleman between Mainland China and the world. They do this by presenting their industries as technologically cutting edge, multicultural, integrated with the rest of the world, and in the possession of cheap labor. At the same time, they play to foreign stereotypes of Mainland China and present the country as “inflexible, inscrutable, and insular” (p. 314), so that the need for a middleman seems more pressing. In his concluding chapter, Hu briefly considers that most “cosmopolitan Chinese” director, Ang Lee 李安, and how the discourse surrounding him in Taiwan illustrates that cosmopolitanism remains an ideologically fraught subject. He also offers some thoughts about the imagination of the cosmopolitan in Mainland China, which in the Mao era was a Communist-inspired one but has since developed in ways similar to that in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Especially insightful here is the observation that “Hong Kong and Taiwan seem to play a similar role for China that the overseas Chinese played for Hong Kong and Taiwan” (p. 332).

Worldly Desires is impressive for its innovative theoretical framework, the broad range of sources and films it covers, and its eclectic yet highly appropriate mix of research methods. Especially noteworthy is Hu’s effort in discussing largely ignored and often-disparaged film genres, and to analyze them in deeply insightful ways. As such this dissertation deserves to be widely read by scholars interested in the cinemas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and equally by students of national identity and those working on the Chinese diaspora.

Kristof Van den Troost
Centre for China Studies
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
k.vandentroost@cuhk.edu.hk

Primary Sources

Hong Kong Film Archive
National Archives of Singapore
International Screen
Southern Screen
Cinemart

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 384 pp. Primary Advisor: Nick Browne.

Image: Maggie Q at the premier of The Warrior and the Wold. Wikimedia Commons.

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