City on Fire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Sep 19 09:11:54 MDT 1999

After exchanging email with Michael Hoover for over three years, I finally
got a chance to meet him here in NYC this weekend. He was promoting his new
Verso book on Hong Kong cinema titled "City on Fire" along with co-author
Lisa Stokes.

I am a big fan of Hoover postings on PEN-L and the Marxism list, which
usually consist of some pointed factual observations about a topic under
discussion. Instead of giving you his opinion about that topic, Michael
prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. The other notable thing
about Hoover is that he never gets into the sort of highly contentious
toe-to-toe debates that people like me thrive on. He explained to me
yesterday that he views mailing lists as public spaces that give him the
opportunity to speak to a broader audience.

Michael is a native Floridian who teaches at Seminole Community College
with Lisa Stokes. He has been an activist with Florida farm workers
movements for the past 20 years as well. His activism goes back to his high
school days, when he was summoned before the principal as an "SDS'er"--a
group he had no connection with. In those days, being called an "SDS'er"
was equivalent to being called a "red" or "anarchist" in earlier times.

"City on Fire" is a comprehensive study of the politics and esthetics of
Hong Kong action movies, a genre that I share an enthusiasm for. Most
people are aware of the recent explosion of interest in the genre,
ironically occurring while the industry itself has been in relative decline
because of the East Asian financial crisis. Quentin Tarentino's "Reservoir
Dogs" is openly acknowledged by him to be strongly influenced by John Woo's
gangster movies. Jackie Chan's highly acrobatic martial arts movies in
which he does all of his own risky stunts have begun to appear in American
movie houses in dubbed versions. And Sammo Hung, the rotund co-star of a
number of Chan's films, now has his own prime-time CBS television show
"Martial Law." All of these actors and directors cite Bruce Lee as a
primary influence, especially Chan who modeled himself as the new Bruce
Lee. What is not so widely known is that Hong Kong movies are also pervaded
by Hollywood influences as well. Chan's movies owe a great deal to Buster
Keaton, while all of Woo's movies evoke over a half-century of the movies
he grew up admiring, from musicals like "West Side Story" to Sam
Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch".

Michael and Lisa spoke at a Hong Kong twin bill at the Anthology of Film
Archives yesterday afternoon. In the audience was Doug Henwood, who told me
that he had never seen a Hong Kong movie before. I assured him that he
would at least find the experience unforgettable. There would be no
mistaking John Woo's "Bullet to the Head," which Doug squirmed through from
beginning to end, for an Eric Rohmer movie.

Also attending was Bill Thompson, who was curator of Asian movies for the
defunct Bleecker Street Cinema, and who gets an acknowledgement in "City on
Fire" for supplying valuable background information to the authors. Bill
also happens to be working as a computer programmer and systems analyst on
the same project as me at Columbia University, where both of us have sought
shelter from the insanity of the corporate world. It gave me pleasure to
introduce Michael and Lisa to him.

The first film to show was "Ballistic Kiss", produced and directed by, and
starring, Donnie Yen. This low-budget ($475,000) movie is an example of
more recent Hong Kong movies, both in terms of the aesthetic sensibility
and the financial limitations imposed by the meltdown. It is a brilliant film.

Just like American cowboy movies operated within tight thematic parameters
(a writers workshop instructor at NYU once told his class--including
me--that there were only ten basic plots in all of the novels ever
written), "Ballistic Kiss" is a variation on the hit-man with a heart of
gold theme.

The opening scene was probably the high point of the movie and a classic
for the genre. Yen plays Cat, a slightly built hit-man, who has been sent
to assassinate a gangster in his cocaine den. Standing in front of a dozen
snarling, heavily armed thugs, Cat, armed characteristically with only a
derringer, announces that "You will all have to die now." But before
proceeding to hack, shoot and kick the villains into oblivion, Chen
performs a wildly incongruous ritual dance in front of them, consisting of
him twirling about and waving his arms above his head like a classical
orchestra conductor.

Hoover and Stokes view "Ballistic Kiss" as a reflection of current-day Hong
Kong insecurities:

"The movie is dark both visually and thematically; this is represented
through the light-sensitive, and therefore generally darkened, glasses that
Cat wears. His vision of Hong Kong is dark indeed. Twice in the film he
describes what he sees, first in Cantonese looking over the flats of Happy
Valley from a rooftop, and second in English voice-over, near the film’s
end as he lies dying, having been ‘ballistically kissed.’ He is surrounded
by cops, who are running around him pointing guns as he painfully and
ineffectually reaches for his glasses, a visual representation of Hong
Kongers’ confused struggle against their own. Carrie [his lover, a cop],
hysterical, strains, held back by others, but breaks free to hold the dying
Cat. Her roommate looks on, genuinely moved but puzzled, and we view the
scene, shot in slo-mo, through her eves. In voice-over, Cat narrates once
more: ‘It is so quiet and peaceful. But if you really look at each home,
each window and look inside those ordinary lives, what do you see? Sons
stealing from mothers, wives betraying husbands, the rape of children,
women being beaten.... Anger, sickness and despair.’ Carrie likewise shares
a similar view. ‘Are there any values in human life any more?’ she asks her
roommate. When she puts on Cat’s glasses while visiting his grave at the
film’s end and the musical theme recurs, we know that his perspective has
been passed on to her. A black-and-white sequence, with Cat moving through
the streets, appears very early in the film and recurs with his death,
following Carrie into the graveyard. This absence of color, this bleakness,
reflects Hong Kong belongers’ [a term for natives] psyche amidst the return
and the Asian economic crisis."

Yen's film is clearly a homage to John Woo's "The Killer," which also
features a hit-man with a heart of gold. However, the film chosen to play
opposite "Ballistic Kiss" on the double-bill was Woo's "Bullet to the
Head," an atypical movie. Made in 1990, it is the story of three young
hoodlums from Hong Kong who seek their fortune as smugglers in South
Vietnam in 1967. Arriving there with dreams of riches, they soon find
themselves caught between the two warring armies, neither of whom has any
redeeming qualities in Woo's deeply pessimistic screenplay.

The Hong Kong depicted in Woo's film is conflicted as well, with local
versions of the Red Guards battling cops in the streets. The three
protagonists, Ben, Paul and Frank, have concluded that there is no future
for them on the island so South Vietnam represents an escape. As it turns
out, this is going from the frying pan into the fire.

Not only is it a tale of divided warring parties, it is also a story of how
greed can destroy human relationships. When the three friends rip off a
chest of gold from a Saigon gang lord, one of them becomes totally consumed
with the treasure--to the point of betraying his comrades. Seen within the
traditions of Hollywood film, the two strongest influences would appear to
be "The Deer Hunter", Michael Cimino's existential riff on the horrors of
war, and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," a morality tale on the corrupting
influence of gold.

The film is a relentless assault on one's nerves and stomach. As much of a
fan of Hong Kong action films as I am, I eventually began to feel
suffocated by the steady procession of torture and murder. Woo stated that
the primary motivation for making the film was the Tienamen massacre. Hong
Kong audiences did not feel comfortable with the movie either and it was a
commercial failure, even though Woo considers it his best film. Made in
1990, the local film-going public identified with Paul, the greedy,
betraying member of the trio, which says as much about the acquisitive mood
in Hong Kong in those days as anything else.

Hoover and Stokes size up the film as follows:

"Woo admits that his brutal Bullet in the Head (literally Bloodshed Street
Corner, 1990), in which three Hong Kong buddies undergo torture and
unspeakable horrors during the Vietnam War, was influenced by the massacre
in Tiananmen Square. He stated that, ‘I also wanted to use Vietnam as a
mirror for what’s going to happen in Hong Kong in 1997’; Woo also explains
that ‘Bullet in the Head is the closest to an autobiography for me. Woo
devised a fine allegory. Opening to an upbeat instrumental version of The
Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer,’ the song links to one of the friends, Ben (Tony
Leung Chiu-wai), whose ideals are destroyed by the brutalization that he,
Frank (Jacky Cheung), and Paul (Waise Lee) undergo in 1967 Hong Kong and
Vietnam. Befriended by Chinese—French former CIA operative Luke (Simon Yam)
and torch singer Sally (Fennie Yuen), the friends’ cohesiveness is
decimated by historical events and betrayal by one of their own — Paul,
whose determination not to end up like his father adds to the brutality and
corruption he witnesses in Vietnam, blinding him to bonds of trust and
loyalty. A former soldier, now a streetsweeper, Paul’s father tells him,
‘It’s destiny. I’m a nobody. It’s okay. But my son won’t be sweeping
streets. It’s a cruel world, money talks. Without it, you’re shit.
Remember, if you get a break, hang on in there.’ As Marx insists, ‘Money is
not just an object of the passion for enrichment, it is "the" object. When
Paul intercepts a cache of gold leaf in a crate marked ‘US Army,’ his face
reflects the gold sheen. He tells his friends, ‘What you want? Today I saw
some soldiers kill people. I learned something. In this world if you have
guns, you have everything. Tell me how much is a human life!’ Paul has
learned well. He will shoot Frank in the head, choosing gold over his
buddy’s life. Frank’s existence will become a nightmare, as the pain from
his wound leads to heroin addiction, turning him into a hired killer to
support his habit. Perhaps Ben suffers most because he experiences and
witnesses others’ pain and anguish; he is no longer the true believer. The
film’s cynicism is overpowering."

Earlier in the year I posted a series of articles on Marxism and art to
PEN-L and the Marxism list. Although there was keen interest in the social
and political backgrounds of the artists I was reporting on, Gary McLennan
of the Marxism list had an important criticism. He said that they tended to
neglect the work as such. Since I am no expert on the esthetics of modern
art, it was probably just as well that I bracketed those considerations
out. No such criticism can be made of "City on Fire" which is a powerful
synthesis of the author's political insights and their ability to
appreciate the unique qualities of Hong Kong film. John Woo says that the
book is "exciting and riveting" and "the best book on Hong Kong cinema."
Who in their right mind would argue with John Woo?

Louis Proyect

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