Six Days in Hong Kong, Part 3

Part three of an essay about my visit to the 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival: Progress Marches Ever On

On Sunday in Central, the office towers and banks are closed, empty shells housing floor after floor of empty desks and computers. It should be a ghost town, like the downtown business area of most cities every Sunday. But instead, Central is stuffed to the gills with people. Every open space, every park, every bench, every small patch of grass, is occupied by women. Women eating, chatting, playing cards, or all to frequently gathered in a circle singing christian folk tunes accompanied by tamborine and guitar. They are the domestic servants of Hong Kong's middle to upper class, Filipino women who live with their employers and work six days a week, on two-year contracts, earning roughly $400 US per month. Sunday is their one day off per week, and given their small salaries, what better way to spend it than in free entertainments, visiting with friends in public squares?

These Filipino maids are now, one day a week, the most visible group of immigrants in Hong Kong, but it was not always so. The constant upheavals in China from the Japanese invasion, through World War II, to the Communist takeover, to the Cultural Revolution, ensured that desperate mainlanders, in crushing poverty and wild with terror, would do whatever they could to find refuge in the small British outpost of Hong Kong. Squatters villages sprung up around the city proper. And Kowloon Walled City, a small section of Hong Kong whose political status was ambiguous, also hosted refugees within its rat-warren of narrow alleyways and tumble-down homes, where water was taken from wells and electricity stolen from city mains. Now the squatters villages have been swept away, Kowloon Walled City converted into a park. Finding decent housing for the people of Hong Kong has been a priority of the government since the early fifties, and today over half of the housing in Hong Kong is public housing. The people who formerly lived in picaresque squalor now live in ugly concrete towers, with decent sanitation, clean water, and all the amenities of civilization. As a tourist one may mourn the loss of these unique aspects of Hong Kong life, the "seedy magnificence" of these urban structures featured in so many Hong Kong movies forever gone; yet as a human being I can only be thankful that few people in Hong Kong are forced to live under such conditions anymore.

From the peak, the great public housing towers can be seen surrounding downtown, and much farther out, to Kowloon and beyond, the New Territories, the Outlying Islands. These housing complexes, often with their own shopping, rec room, gymnasium, and theater, are somehow even more forbidding to the tourist than Kowloon Walled City ever was. There are no museums or monuments, no historic buildings, no colorful local practices. The public housing exists outside of the tourist sphere. So much the opposite of the peak itself, on which everything seems to be just for tourists. A shopping center, restaurants, a branch of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, enshrining some of the most famous local actors in wax, the living tradition already placed in a museum as if it may disappear at any moment.

And perhaps they will, perhaps they already have. The old movie houses -- the Palace, the State, the Yee, have all closed. In their place, sterile multiplexes that show plenty of Hollywood pictures. And why not? Hong Kong makes less and less movies every year, of less and less importance internationally. Their biggest stars -- Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh -- look for an international audience, and neglect the local. The cinematic brilliance of the city's past seems forever stuck there, in the past.

As is often the case, when a living tradition ages or dies, the museum takes over, to keep it alive even though the people no longer seem to much care to. For films, that museum is the Hong Kong Film Archive. Collecting movies, playbills, posters, items thought so insignificant at the time they were made, now treasured as valuable artifacts of a bygone age of creativity and quality that seems almost unattainable today. Collecting such artifacts was almost unheard of just a couple decades ago, when the only one who seemed to have any interest in Hong Kong's cinematic past was an eccentric gweilo film critic, Paul Fonoroff. Now, Hong Kong people help collect the cinematic artifacts that both reflected and defined who they were and who they have become.

And what has Hong Kong become? The urban landscape on the way to the Film Archive, through Sai Wan Ho, paints an unflattering picture. Next door a large gymnasium building, its exterior covered in what looks like tile that would not be out of place in public restrooms. From the train, cross several wide streets, highways screaming overhead, homeless huddled beneath. Just past the Pizza Hut. Then go towards the Archive following the "walk of stars" -- not celebrities, but actual constellations, lit up on the sidewalk with small colored lights. At last, inside the archive, the architectural wasteland surrounding the building is quickly forgotten.

The occasion of my visit is a special program hosted by the Archive during the 28th Annual Film Festival -- "Novel : Drama : Melodrama," a collection of Cantonese films from the fifties and sixties. These old films have always been an interest of mine, only increasing in recent years with the availability of some of them on VCD (though sadly unsubbed). The archive is presenting a handful of the films, many of them with projected subtitles. When trying to discuss the old Cantonese films online, only a handful of other Hong Kong film fans respond with interest. It is a small subset of a small subset of film-goers that take any interest in them whatsoever. I surmised that the small response online was a result of the filtering nature of the web. Only people who are online would respond, and only people who are interested in other types of Hong Kong films as well (since the online forums focus the majority of their time on more recent Hong Kong film fare), and finally only people who understand English. This must be just a small fraction of all those who truly enjoy these old films. Online, conversations quickly dwindle to only one or two people, including Dennis Lee, Tim Youngs, programmer for the Udine Film Festival, and a couple others. But, that's just the natural reduction of the web at work there! I imagined, going to a theater to see a revival of these old films, that it would be packed with fans!!!

Imagine my surprise, then, when I entered the theater, and found my assigned seat, that the theater was practically empty. And seated directly to my right, in his assigned seat, completely unexpectedly, was none other than Tim Youngs. Perhaps the Internet did not quite have as strong a filtering tendency as I thought. Once again, no one seems to care except for a few eccentric gweilos.

If more people aren't interested, it isn't because of a lack of quality. It's just because of a lack of access, a lack of knowledge. Perhaps, the Film Archive will remedy both problems. The first movie of the night was WILDERNESS (1956, Ng Wui), and though I had never heard of the film before, it is an incredible artistic achievement. Though it was not subtitled in English, Tim had brought a guest fluent in Cantonese, and we followed the dialog by whispering rough translations down the row. All of the action takes place in a small old wooden house on the edge of the moors. A man just released from prison (Ng Cho-Fan) arrives to claim his old lover, now married off to an imbecile due to the machinations of the naive man's mother, a hardened and terrifying old blind woman (Wong Man-lei). Her doofus son is no villain, but he does stand in the way of the star crossed lovers, and the blind hag will stop at nothing to make sure the woman stays with him forever, and the ex-con is once again sent behind bars. It doesn't work out that way, however, and the soundtrack, starting with wailing wind, then the wailing of the old woman, is utterly haunting. In fact WILDERNESS may have had the best sound work I've heard in any Hong Kong movie, to look for a film as beautiful and with as effective use of sound, you would have to turn to Japan and ONIBABA (1964, Kaneto Shindo).

The second movie of the night was thankfully subbed, and thankfully a bit more lighthearted, though make no mistake, LOVE AND PASSION (1964, Wong Yiu) is melodrama through and through. Even less people were in the theater to see this tale of a husband running a construction firm and wife who is an architect. The husband's father drives his construction company in the ground, then demands his son marry the daughter of a rich man to save the firm. So now in order to be a filial son, he must somehow get out of his own loving marriage and do what his father says. Another reminder that honoring your father can sometimes go way too far and sometimes its better just to tell your Dad to go stuff it. Some cultural norms of the past really do just belong in museums.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on June 12, 2007.

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