The 38 brief (2-5 page) movie reviews in Once a Hero: The Vanishing Hong Kong Cinema were written by Perry Lam in his capacity as Muse Magazine's editor and resident film reviewer. Muse Magazine was a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine patterned after The New Yorker that was published between 2007 and 2010. This small-format book, Once A Hero: The Vanishing Hong Kong Cinema, collects a selection of Lam's film reviews written between 2007 and 2010.
It is no secret to fans of Hong Kong films that the industry is in serious decline. This decline is economic (the city produces only a fraction of the number of films that it did in its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s), and it is artistic. Several Hong Kong directors who were key to the success of the cinema in the so-called Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema have abandoned the local industry, while most of those who have remained have either struggled artistically to find their footing in the post-Handover industry, or they have turned their talents to Mainland co-productions and have (willingly or not) surrendered a great deal of their power and uniqueness as Hong Kong filmmakers in the process. Many have lamented the current state of the Hong Kong film industry, but few have tried to seriously analyze the causes of its collapse and shaky attempts to reestablish itself as a very different beast in the new millennium. Into this breach steps Perry Lam.
Woven into the short reviews of 38 films released in Hong Kong between 2007 and the end of 2010, Lam ponders what made Hong Kong cinema so great to begin with, and what has become of it since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. In this book, Lam's reviews are organized around five themes:
- Reinventing Heroism
- Author! Author!
- Signs of Life
- Lost in Translation
- Mainlanders are Coming
In early 2011, Lam added a 5-page forward written especially for this book.
In the Forward, Lam lays out the crux of the problem--as he sees it--with Hong Kong cinema:
The real story about Hong Kong films after the city's return to Chinese sovereignty…is the surgical removal of their distinctiveness as movies of Hong Kong…Hong Kong cinema has been pulling a “disappearing act” since the city's return to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. Hong Kong cinema as we knew it is coming to an end. But the world doesn't seem to give a damn…the world is likely to go on for quite a long time talking of Hong Kong cinema and writing about it, pretending all the while not to notice that the real thing has not only changed beyond recognition, but is gone for good. (v)
On one level, Lam's book functions as a detailed chronicle of three years of Hong Kong movie releases. All of the films that he reviews are new releases, though he contextualizes his criticism with abundant references to earlier films. The greater the reader's familiarity with the history of Hong Kong cinema in the past 35 years, the more the author's vision of the uniqueness of Hong Kong cinema will come into focus. In many of these reviews, the more important discussion is about the industry and its history rather than about the film being reviewed. Lam belongs to the “auteur” camp of film criticism, viewing movies primarily as the work of gifted individual filmmakers, masters with a distinctive personal artistic vision that is revealed in individual films and over the course of a career. Perhaps for this reason, the preponderance of reviews are for films by “serious,” what could even be categorized as “art house” directors: Derek Yee, Peter Chan, Johnnie To, Dante Lam, Patrick Tam, Wong Kar Wai, Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung, and his favorite director, Ann Hui. A handful of more commercial filmmakers and directors of small, independent films round-out the Hong Kong reviews. A few Taiwanese films are included (though it is unclear why, really) in the discussion of independent films. Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is examined in a section that groups a heterogeneous collection of otherwise unrelated films together under the rubric “Lost in Translation.” Some major Mainland filmmakers--Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Jiang Wen and Lu Chuan--also have films reviewed in the book. The reason for including so many Mainland filmmakers is because they are making major commercial inroads on the Hong Kong box office, which illustrates a very real fear that eventually Hong Kong filmmakers will be marginalized even in the local market.
The most coherent grouping of reviews appears in the first chapter, “Reinventing Heroism,” in which Lam looks at Hong Kong's distinctive tradition of movie heroes. The way he relates the colonial experience to the particular qualities of this city's film heroes is intriguing. He also looks at the crisis that has gripped the collective consciousness of Hong Kong's citizens, which, in turn, has led to the unraveling of this heroic tradition in the city's post-Handover films. Lam's greatest lament is that Hong Kong filmmakers no longer take Hong Kong and its people as their subject and have, instead, turned their eyes to the Mainland where the money is to be made.
Chapter 2, “Author! Author!”, is also a fairly coherent grouping of films and includes the work of several Hong Kong auteurs, including Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung and Wong Kar Wai. The discussion of the three recent releases by Ann Hui forms the backbone of this chapter. Lam's sensitive appreciation of Hui's films is the great strength of this chapter. Clearly, she is Lam's favorite filmmaker, and he brings a wide-ranging knowledge of her entire career (including her early television work) to bear when he examines some of her most recent work.
The chapter that looks at independent cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan(!), “Signs of Life,” is less coherent in terms of the themes that emerge from the reviews. There is also the rather strange case of Lam's review of The Drunkard. Clearly Lam admires Freddie Wong, film critic turned first time filmmaker, whose dream it always was to bring a classic Hong Kong novel to the screen. What Lam doesn't seem to admire, however, is the actual film that Wong made. Lam offers apology after apology for the film's shortcomings, including, in Lam's opinion, a weak script, a miscast lead actor, and problems with the direction, cinematography and editing. The review ends on the following note: “ The Drunkard is too often afflicted with long spells of aimlessness, and the viewer with the curse ennui.” Faint praise, indeed!
The perils of trying to force thematic coherence onto individual, one-off film reviews surfaces in Chapter 4, “Lost in Translation.” This chapter is truly a grab-bag, with a raft of films that don't really coalesce around the themes Lam assigns to this chapter. Furthermore, most of these films have only a tangential relationship to Hong Kong cinema. Lam even throws in a review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ! This is also where Lam puts the review of Lust, Caution . How, exactly, Lust,Caution fits into a book that sets out to examine the Hong Kong film industry is never clearly articulated. It is grouped with other films purporting to show the problems encountered when “translating in cinematic terms, Hong Kong into China, Chinese into Hollywood and vice versa, and…Eileen Chang and Confucius into movies” (111), all of which imposes an order and thematic coherence on the chapter that the reviews, taken by themselves, otherwise do not display.
The final chapter, “Mainlanders are Coming,” examines the impact of Mainland cinema on Hong Kong, at least in terms of those Mainland films that are grabbing a larger and larger share of the Hong Kong box office. Lam posits the heretofore unthinkable, an invasion of the Hong Kong film market by Mainland movies. He focuses on a few filmmakers he feels display not only commercial, but also critical strength. Lam ends this chapter (and the book, except for the appendix that discusses the television work of Ann Hui and Patrick Tam) with a rather passive-aggressive review of Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death. Lam begins his review by calling this film the Chinese film of the year in 2009. He characterizes the movie as “a minor miracle and one of the most original, moving and accomplished Chinese movies in recent years.” (159) The film “represents a watershed moment in Chinese cinema…[and] demonstrates with crystal clarity that in the hands of its best and brightest, the consummate craftsmanship of Chinese filmmaking has reached a level of sophistication and eloquence rivaling that of Hollywood.”(159-160) After two-and-a-half pages of praise like this, Lam then spends the second half of the review taking Lu to task for what he feels is a major deficiency of the film, its lack of a proper moral (or perhaps moralizing) stance. He even goes so far as to suggest that the filmmaker watch a French documentary on the deportation of the Jews from France in World War II. Lam instructs the director of City of Life and Death on what lessons he should take away from a viewing of this documentary “recently available on DVD.” He particularly faults the filmmaker's decision to turn a dispassionate eye on all involved in the Nanjing Massacre, victims and perpetrators alike, and to let the facts speak for themselves, thus leaving viewers to draw their own moral conclusions. Lam judges this decision by the filmmaker as a grave moral failing: “Only God, all knowing and all forgiving, is entitled to such a perspective. The director often plays god in deciding the fate of the characters. But he is not God. If he tries to look at events and people from a god-like perspective, he will end up with a very distorted view.”(163)
Two significant films that were released in Hong Kong between 2007 and 2010 are strangely absent from this book. Given Lam's constant reference to the work of Wong Kar Wai as representing both the most perfect expression of the character of the Hong Kong people (Chungking Express) and the height of a director's self-indulgence and decadence (Ashes of Time and 2046), it is very strange not to see a review of Ashes of Time Redux included in the book. At the very least, it would have given Lam the perfect opportunity to show in detail how, in his opinion, Wong Kar Wai has lost his way and by extension, how the industry in Hong Kong has lost touch with what once made it such a vibrant expression of Hong Kong identity.
Equally notable by their absence are the Red Cliff films by John Woo. Since Lam does take on the problematic triangulation between Hong Kong, Hollywood, and the Mainland, it would be been extremely interesting to see what Lam makes of John Woo's return, not to Hong Kong filmmaking, but to the kind of Mainland-Hong Kong co-productions that Lam laments as robbing Hong Kong cinema of its lifeblood.
Follow the money
While Lam's book is laudable in many ways, it fails to examine one key factor in the demise of the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema. Lam regards Hong Kong cinema as primarily a cultural institution, one related part and parcel to a sense of Hong Kong identity that characterizes the generation of Hong Kong Chinese who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. These are the filmmakers, actors and scriptwriters who translated that unique Hong Kong identity into films that delighted a generation of filmgoers in Hong Kong and throughout Asia. This is the generation that gave us the likes of John Woo and Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow, Wong Kar Wai and Bruce Lee. It gave us movies that defined Hong Kong and its people in new ways, showing Hong Kong (and the rest of the world) a reality that was uniquely its own.
But I would argue that Hong Kong filmmakers were forced to respond not only to an artistic, even existential crisis, they were likewise faced with an economic crisis of monumental proportions. With very few exceptions, Hong Kong filmmakers function in the world of profit-driven commercial cinema. They have to take into account not only the artistic elements of film production, but must equally keep an eye on the bottom line. If Hong Kong can be characterized in only a few words, one could say that its citizens place a premium on economic success. The film industry is no exception. Sometimes when the chips are truly down (as they have been in the Hong Kong film business since 1997), financial exigencies trump artistic convictions.
During the 1990s, in the matter of a few short years, Hong Kong cinema went from being a largely export-oriented cinema to a purely local affair. A city of 6.75 million is hard pressed to support the kind of film industry that Hong Kong had before the encroachment of Hollywood films in its traditional overseas markets. The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-1998 was the final nail in the coffin. While changes in co-production rules in recent years may have opened up the Mainland market to Hong Kong filmmakers, working in that market has also imposed severe artistic restrictions on these same filmmakers. The choice for the Hong Kong film industry would appear to be to produce purely local films on a shoestring budget or to make big budget films that target Mainland rather than Hong Kong audiences, while adhering to China's restrictive and often capricious censorship rules. Neither of these choices bodes well for the Hong Kong film industry.