A Personal Note on Hong Kong's Transfer

by LF (6/97)

[7:17pm, June 30, 1997: I just got home a few minutes ago, and am typing this on my laptop as I watch C-Span's rebroadcast of the PRC's state-controlled CCTV's coverage of Hong Kong's return to mainland control. Please forgive any typo's, etc., as I am drinking heavily.]

I can only hope for the best for my friends in Hong Kong. But it's very hard.

While I've never actually been there, I've developed an enormous respect for the people of HK through their popular culture, specifically their fantastic films.

While growing up in Cleveland, I saw a surprising number of martial arts flicks. Most were of the endearingly crude period "flying guillotine" variety churned out by the prolific Shaw brothers. While the occasional jewel (e.g., Enter the Dragon) popped up long enough to grab the interest of more mainstream audiences, the remainder were definitely an acquired taste in this country.

Jackie Chan made some valiant attempts to crack the fickle American market, but his The Big Brawl and The Protector failed to generate the hoped-for groundswell of support.

[Are those Chris Patten's daughters? Cute . . .]

Unfortunately, even during the home video revolution, HK films were hard to find. Some of us resorted to rental cassette roulette at local Oriental markets, straining to match the only vaguely-remembered faces of action stars to the glamour shots on the Cantonese-only boxes, hoping to avoid the many pure comedies and non-violent dramas.

And then John Woo came along. His breakthrough film, the ultra-modern gangster epic A Better Tomorrow generated a sufficient worldwide buzz -- critically, among some prominent American filmmakers -- to ensure that his mind-numbing The Killer received an art-house run here in the states (I was a lucky member of an awed house thanks to the dependable Cleveland Cinematheque).

Word of Woo's work spread like wildfire amongst action afficionados, and within a few years several of his films became widely available even at the usually worthless Blockbuster chain. Even though panned-and-scanned, poorly dubbed, and somewhat chopped, the astounding talent on tap was apparent to those tired of relentlessly obvious Hollywood action fare.

[Huh, looks like the Peking Opera Company just walked on . . . ]

To steal a line from John Milius, Woo's films captured the desperation of "rock-n-rollers with one foot in the grave." 1997 has always loomed large in his work, providing an awesomely ominous background to the dueling of larger-than-life tortured cops, their underworld opponents, crooked politicos, and the decent folks caught in between.

Sleek, capitalist Hong Kong itself always played an important role. Prosperity dripped off the screen -- even areas meant to look sleazy appeared to be an order of magnitude nicer than most sections of our larger cities -- a glorious artifact of the island's political policies that resulted, the last I heard, in an unemployment rate of 2.5%, a 5% growth rate, and a 15% top personal income tax rate. No wonder none of our prominent elected "representatives" kicked up much of a fuss about the colony's fate!

I've read reviewers who palm off the "Western" components of the work of Woo and his "new wave" compatriots (the great Ringo Lam, Johnny To, and many others) to their British landlords. I doubt it. There is none of the oppressive class hierarchy or post-WWII sad English resignation in evidence. Heck, the innocents in the films are usually righteously pissed-off that they are getting mucked with.

[Sorry, Prince Charles just came on. He's talking about "dynamism" and the mainland's responsibilty to provide for HK's "remarkable history." Sure.]

If anything, the HK vibe was definitely "old school" American -- the hard-charging America we are now reduced to pretending, on appropriate holidays, that we still revere. Think of the work of Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah, two great directors who explored the meaning of personal honor, loyalty, friendship, etc.

[They're lowering the old flag. They should be playing "The World Turned Upside Down" -- wasn't that the tune Cornwallis requested? . . .]

Don't get me wrong. No, there weren't Americans waiting to crawl out of HK's people. They're so familiar to us because they reflected many of what used to be our finest attributes. They liked being free. Like we used to.

If they disappear, we will be losing some needed, wonderfully lively friends.

Crap. I'm gonna wrap it up for the night.

[9:50 pm, June 30th, 1997]

Up the spout