Planet Hong Kong: popular cinema and the art of entertainment., by David Bordwell
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000. 329 pp.
A book review by Shelly Kraicer
Film scholar David Bordwell redefines the study of Hong Kong cinema with Planet Hong Kong, his magisterial new survey of Hong Kong cinema as popular, artful entertainment. Whether you're a film fan, a practising cinema scholar, a filmmaker, a film historian, merely a student of popular culture, or even a Hollywood filmmaker, there's something of substance here to chew on.
Although the book builds a careful, even provocative thesis about how popular entertainment can be both popular and artful, the thoroughness and analytical acuity with which Bordwell builds his case ensures that Planet Hong Kong is packed with fascinating information that should be new at least for Western students of Hong Kong cinema and essential to take into account for anyone writing on Hong Kong film. The book's contributions to methodology, case studies built on close readings, comparative film analysis, reception history, and brushes with historical and critical film studies are all substantial, in some cases elegantly summarizing the field for non-experts, in others breaking new ground, opening exhilarating vistas for further research. And, not the least of its virtues, Bordwell inspires the reader to watch Hong Kong movies with more open eyes. His evident enthusiasm is infectious, a gift that he compounds by providing tools for better, richer, more intensely focussed viewing.
Bordwell outlines his project in the preface: he will explore Hong Kong cinema "not as an expression of local society, nor as part of the history of Chinese culture, but as an example of how popular cinema can produce movies that are beautiful, [
by seeking] to understand the interplay of art and entertainment in one popular cinema". I should signal, from the outset, that in my own writing on Hong Kong cinema, I stress the two approaches that Bordwell declines to follow, which is to trace out the links between HK cinema and local society, and to read HK cinema in a Chinese cultural context. But I don't want to have to choose between the two approaches, and I don't think that it's ultimately necessary to do so. In fact, an "interpretive" approach to a local cinema that is not founded on the close readings that Bordwell offers of practice, craft, style, and structure, risks saying little or nothing at all about the films it purports to be about. So the more carefully a contextual approach takes into account Bordwell's textual approach, the better it should be at reading HK cinema into its local environment and its cultural context.
Bordwell proposes a corollary, theoretical project: to use HK cinema as a case study to explore what an "aesthetic of popular film [might] look like". At the core of his methodology is a close examination of Hong Kong filmmaking as craft: "setting oneself a craft problem and solving it in a fresh, virtuosic, but absolutely comprehensible way may be one equivalent in popular cinema for the experimental daring we find in the avant-garde". The books following nine meaty chapters and six sidebars (case studies of specific directors, genres, stars, or works that supplement the main argument) set out the historical and geographical context of Hong Kong cinema, then examine specific practices that lead to distinctive features of its form and style.
After an introductory chapter comparing Hong Kong and Hollywood film practice, Bordwell moves through what one might call a "reception history" of Hong Kong cinema (although that term is too constrictive, excluding the reciprocal relationships the web of mutual influence that Bordwell traces between the films' audiences and its filmmakers). Three chapters move through historical accounts of the local context (Hong Kong audiences and Hong Kong film), through a history of Hong Kong's cinema in its regional market (east and south-east Asia), to an account of Western reception of Hong Kong film, from its genre niches in '70s "chop socky" grindhouses to its current trans-national appeal, both to the Hollywood industry and to certain subcultures of film enthusiasts.
The book covers an impressive amount of ground in these chapters. The first takes on, in what might be one of the more controversial sections of the book, Hong Kong film critics' reception of their own films. Bordwell is not enthusiastic about the local tradition of what he calls "reflectionism", "the most powerful and pervasive assumption in Hong Kong film criticism, [
in which] critics treat the industry's output as reflecting social trends". The second section, on regional markets, offers a superb mini-history of the HK film industry from the '50s to the present, and explains, along the way, such things as the changing relationships between Cantonese- and Mandarin-language filmmaking, the origin and pervasiveness of English-language subtitles, the rise and continued influence of the early '80s Hong Kong new wave. The third chapter places Hong Kong cinema in a global context, and acutely interrogates its inter-cultural appeal. As well as examining the resulting differences in Western and local canonical film lists, Bordwell analyzes how, in this case, "
a local cinema has achieved international reach by becoming a subcultural cinema. From this standpoint, Hong Kong becomes the leading edge of World Film
The middle three chapters form the thematic core of Planet Hong Kong. Bordwell analyzes production methods and craft traditions especially segment shooting and reel construction and Hong Kong film conventions, including genres, the star system, visual style, and narrative structure. His general thesis is that mastery of constraints of craft practice and convention allow Hong Kong filmmakers, within a commercial film industry, to produce artistically interesting popular entertainment. He finds these structures, skilfully exploited, to be enabling rather than constraining. This is convincingly demonstrated with numerous extended close readings that typify the author's virtuoso style of film analysis: shot-by-shot analyses that reveal, making stunningly transparent, whole congeries of coordinated detail in specific shots or sequences. These demonstrations, a familiar and admired feature of many of Bordwell's other books and articles, are a thrill to read and a formidable example for other would-be analysts of Hong Kong cinema: see, for example, the detailed analysis of Saviour of the Soul's (1986) colour range, or his stunning account of the techniques of constructive editing and segment shots deployed in Corey Yuen's Righting Wrongs (1986).
Particularly fascinating is Bordwell's analysis of storytelling. Within a tradition of episodic plotting, he finds Hong Kong filmmakers to consistently rely on reel-based narrative. In a typical nine or ten-reel feature, reel one provides a vigorous opening; reel four the first major climax, reel six or seven the second climax, and reels nine and/or ten an "overwhelming denouement". Bordwell locates this structure from the most rote-produced film factory genre action product all the way to Wong Kar-wai's experimental stylistic exercises. Even if you find it hard to see the structure clearly in Wong's later films, the overall argument remains completely convincing, and provides a handy template for narrative analysis of almost any Hong Kong film.
The book concludes with an extended genre study, "the art of the action movie", which should be required reading for Hollywood practitioners, as well as fans of the Hong Kong variety. This extended reworking of an earlier article finds the principle of "expressive amplification" at the core of HK action cinema's power. At the core of this, Bordwell identifies a "pause burst pause" pattern that ensures the rhythmic clarity of Hong Kong action, whether it be '70s kung-fu fists-and-legs fighting, '80s modern double-gun-wielding battles, or '90s flying swordplay fantasies.
Punctuating Planet Hong Kong's through-narrative are sidebars, full of illuminating detail on action icons Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, directors John Woo, Tsui Hark, comedy/action schlock-master Wong Jing (a provocative choice, but I miss the lack of any extended discussion of '90s comedy genius Stephen Chiau), "action masters" Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, and King Hu, and Wong Kar-wai. The book's final, intriguing chapter opens up a study of Hong Kong experimental and art films, which Bordwell calls, typically provocatively, "avant-pop cinema". Playing against our expectations that these films (by such directors as Tang Shuxuan, Patrick Tam, Stanley Kwan, and Wong Kar-wai) will be exceptions to Bordwell's thesis on HK cinema as popular art, he argues that they are "strongly rooted in conventions of local entertainment", and seeks to extend his theoretical umbrella to account for them, too.
In this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, Bordwell cautions against "
treating these lovelorn films [by, in this case, Wong Kar-wai] as abstract allegories of Hong Kong's historical situation", a practice that risks losing sight of the film's intrinsic procedures, formal construction, and finely tuned play with the standards of locally defined filmmaking practice. I would agree, though I would want to insert "merely" at the beginning of the quote. Bordwell's analytical practice, exemplified in this book, doesn't necessarily conflict with broader readings of social or cultural context, with practices for political, allegorical readings. Or it shouldn't. In an ideal world, the two approaches should be complementary, allies in opening, unfolding the layers of delight, power, meaning, and artistry in a film. There are, of course, (too) many possible allegorical readings of a particular text. To the extent that such readings fail to be grounded on the careful analysis that Bordwell proposes, they will be that much less convincing, more arbitrarily wilful; they will seem that much more "imposed" on the texts. Perhaps Planet Hong Kong's most lasting influence will be its demand for closely argued readings rigorously tied to the film text, that ground any possible attempts to read beyond the films themselves.
Planet Hong Kong, itself, seems to be modelled on the vividness and legibility of these films from Hong Kong that Bordwell so clearly loves. Written with vigour and clarity, beautifully crafted (with many superb illustrations and a functionally elegant layout), in a more relaxed register than one finds in tomes of film analysis, this book is not only a substantial work of new scholarship; it's a pleasure to read. It will enhance any Hong Kong film enthusiast's delight in watching these films, guiding our eyes, our ears, and our sensibilities to be, more acute, more responsive, more finely attuned to the substantial pleasures that Hong Kong cinema offers.
Note: A beautifully designed Chinese translation of Planet Hong Kong (with several additional pages of colour plates) was published in 2001, by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society: translated by Ho Wai-leng, edited by Li Cheuk-to.