City on Fire

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Wed Sep 1 18:25:53 MDT 1999

Charles Brown wrote:
>Yea, and I point out that the first big entrepreneurs in modern European
history made their primitive accumulation of wealth based on cutthroat gangsters
on ships who kidnapped people into slavery.
>The movie/novel _The Godfather_ is noteworthy, not as an exception, but as a
typical method by which entrepreneurship initiates itself. Look at Russia today.
>Entrepreneurism is the most organized crime.
For a fascinating exegesis of the allegories of primitive accumulation,
cutthroat gangsterism, etc. in the Hong Kong cinema, read _City on Fire_ (NY:
Verso, 1999) by Lisa Odham Stokes and (our very own) Michael Hoover!
Stokes & Hoover write on John Woo's _Hard-Boiled_ (1992):
***** 'Everyone knows you have the Midas touch,' Alan [the deep-cover cop whose
real name is Tony] tells Johnny [a Triad boss who is scheming to use Alan/Tony,
in one of his many plans to "eliminate local competition and to gain control of
the international gun trade"]. Johnny bolsters the connection between guns and
money: 'With your talents,' he advises Alan, 'you should be making big bucks. My
arms business is real money. It's worldwide. Wherever there's war, there's
Johnny. Most things go in and out of fashion -- except war, my friend. When I
say real money, I mean it.' So much for Woo's dream of pacifism. In a perverted
twist, this Johnny never comes marching home. He functions as the greedy and
power-hungry nemesis to be confronted by the cop buddies [Alan/Tony and his
friend Tequila]. Unlike some of Woo's other villains, he is present on-screen
only long enough to set events in motion or to complicate the action. Like other
villains, he disregards the value of human life. Johnny gives the order for his
men to take innocent hospital patients hostage; rapidly firing his
semi-automatic, he mows them down without a second thought, and he even kills
his own loyal man, Mad Dog....'I kill whoever's in my way,' he smirks. As Marx
puts it, 'One capitalist always kills many.'
If Johnny represents the new way of doing business, Uncle Hui embodies the
older, traditional Triad way. Johnny complains that Hui 'doesn't want big bucks,
but I sure as hell do. His prices are killing my market. I'm losing out. It's
what you've got, not how you made it.' For Johnny, Hui is behind the times and
in the way. 'Commercial wars...increase gigantically in the infancy of Modern
Industry,' Marx reminds us, and 'the birth of the latter is heralded by a great
slaughter of the innocents.'
...Woo has described the hospital as a 'microcosm for Hong Kong, surrounded by
darkness and chaos.' The explosion of the hospital and the weapons arsenal
epitomizes a 'city on fire,' a place of death, destruction, and
uncertainty....Besides the heavy artillery, the stockpiled arsenal, and the
flying corpses, this extended scene...includes numerous face-offs -- Tequila
against Mad Dog, Mad Dog against Tony, Tequila against Johnny; hundreds of
baddies against the good guys, each first framed as a man with a gun facing a
man with a gun. The redundancy of these face-offs goes beyond good versus evil,
to reflect the open face-to-face encounter of Hong Kong and the Mainland. The
1997 handover looms large, present in Woo's signature face-offs interspersed
through all his gangster movies....Consider Woo's contradictory statement:

I have no intention to talk about politics in my films. I'm not interested in
politics and there's no political system that's perfect. People are always using
politics to gain certain power for themselves. But subconsciously I can't help
putting my own personal feelings towards some politics into the film. For
instance, I do have very strong feelings toward 1997.

Woo's gangster movies create a political and social subtext of early capitalism
as a bloody battlefield. The return of Hong Kong to the Mainland, in light of
the PRC's recent market-economics policies, as well as its guarantee of 'one
country, two systems,' links the handover and its aftermath to capitalist
expansion. Woo's rawest and most brutal film, the 1990 _Bullet in the Head_
would draw upon the face-off motif but make it more horrifying, its title
emphasizing the controlling metaphor -- a gun to the head, time running out.
(59-63) *****
I add that _Bullet in the Head_ is one of the most politically confused and
confusing films ever made -- its texture shot with Woo's anticommunism (seen
most explicitly in a portrayal of ruthless Vietnamese Communists, Woo quoting
the infamous POW scenes from _Deer Hunter_); a bitter taste left by the
projection of American power in the mouth of many a liberal intellectual in Asia
(embodied by gunships that overpower Communists and kill indiscriminately);
moral criticisms of betrayal (of friendship, of 'tradition,' etc.) inherent in
dog-eat-dog competition; 'guilt' inspired by comparative success enjoyed by many
HK professionals in contrast to the relatively poorer Asians (represented by
Vietnamese civilians fleeing carnage); a nostalgic glance cast upon
anti-capitalist HK student demonstrators near the beginning of the film; etc.

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