Honk Kong Polars
BACK TO HONK KONG
Shall we indulge in colonial nostalgia for a bit ? One thing is sure : Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t be what it is and wouldn’t have been what it used to be had Hong Kong not been a British Overseas Territory separated from its “mother country” China for 150 years.
Hong Kong people, you have to put yourself in their shoes. They used to speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin Chinese, the main language of their peers in the People’s Republic of China. They were fierce capitalists while their neighbours remained faithful to Maoist dogma. They huddled up in a tiny territory while a continent of a country stretched out endlessly at their door. There was this crazy paradox : they were free but busy ; they were free but trapped, a situation which finally got on their nerves and prompted them to draw their guns rightly or wrongly, left, right and centre.
Truth is, it’s not really Hong Kong cinema we are talking about, but rather cinema in Hong Kong, cinema in the city. HK thriller is all about narrow streets and confined spaces, where characters are trapped like rats or mice in cages, the opposite of American thriller, based on infinite spaces and the novelistic possibility to run away and get lost forever. In Hong Kong, people can hide but end up being caught eventually. Space narrowness is matched by temporal confinement. The thriller genre developed there between 1984, when the agreement on the British transfer of sovereignty was signed, and 1997, when the red flag actually replaced the Union Jack on official buildings. Either melodramatic and melancholic (John Woo), putrid and nihilistic (Ringo Lam), or pragmatic and resigned (Kirk Wong), all the feature films from this Golden Age share the same angst resulting from the urgency of an inescapable countdown. A world is about to end, and the one to come is drenched in uncertainty. Jumping down each other’s throats holding a gun becomes a way to pretend your fate is well in hand.
Since 1997, Hong Kong people have changed their viewpoints. The island doesn’t live a secluded life and days aren’t numbered any more. No wonder Johnnie To only came to light as a brilliant stylist after the transfer of sovereignty, and Tsui Hark waited until 2000 to shoot his only real thriller, Time & Tide. For them as for the directors of Infernal Affairs or S.P.L. : Kill Zone, Hong Kong has become a genuine film set, an ideal playing field for formal experiments, postmodern concepts and abstract existentialism. But we mustn’t forget that at a key moment in the history of this crossroads of a city, the thriller genre has been a vessel for the angst of a whole population, for its sense of alienation and suffocation, and for its disillusioned renunciation to “better tomorrows”, as John Woo put it so nicely.