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December 03, 2010



Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Post Colonial Hong Kong
Helen Hok-Sze Leung - 2008
UBC Press

I had seen a handful of films from Hong Kong prior to my getting my first DVD player around Labor Day, 2001. After then, I started watching a fair number of film through my Netflix subscription. And I noticed that in several films, women were either disguised as young men, or might actually be playing a male role. The earliest example I came across was in my own viewing was Come Drink with Me starring Cheng Pei-Pei that was screened in Denver almost eight years ago. Other performances that stuck with me were Brigitte Lin in Swordsman II, and Maggie Cheung in New Dragon Inn, where in male garb she convincingly flirts with Lin. It was at the time that I saw Come Drink with Me that I began to wonder if there was a book, or at least something of substance in English, that addressed this particular aspect of Hong Kong martial arts films.

I'm still looking. But I may have found a couple of titles that may answer some of my questions. I have found a little bit of information also in Undercurrents. Helen Leung's book is partially about films, but is mostly about Hong Kong and Chinese culture, alternative sexuality, and how western culture is sometimes used to impose ideas or is a cause for misunderstanding other cultures. There are several different themes intersecting and intertwining. What I have learned is that the phenomena of females dressed as males is rooted in Chinese opera, more specifically from southern China which has had the largest influence on Hong Kong culture. I will be checking out a book on Chinese opera in the near future.

Part of my motivation on understanding this subject a bit more comes from an internet conversation regarding John Woo's Red Cliff. One of the subplots involves Vickie Zhou, a princess, disguising herself as a common foot soldier to spy on the enemy. As a young man, nicknamed Piggy, she develops friendship with another soldier at the enemy camp. Zhou never reveals her true identity, but she has fallen in love with the good hearted, unsophisticated soldier. The attraction between the two could be interpreted as either potentially heterosexual or homoerotic. Leung wrote her book prior to the release of Red Cliff, but her discussion of sublimated homosexuality in John Woo's Hong Kong films, citing The Killers, by both herself and others, offers different ways of reading Woo's other films as well.

Where Leung's book was helpful was in discussing certain aspects of Chinese culture which often are not understood properly. Among these aspects are the conferring of family membership to a non-family member, frequently a part of the gangster genre where men address each other as "brother". One other aspect is having a place at the dinner table, dinner as a family ritual, again signifying a family relationship, often assigned by a patriarchal character. Some of the nuances of "family" relationships are discussed in more detail in a chapter devoted to actor Leslie Cheung, whose own sexuality during his lifetime might be best described as an open secret.

let's love hong kong.jpg
Chan Kwok-Chan in Let's Love Hong Hong (Yau Ching - 2002)

As in any reasonable good book about film, Leung made me interested in seeing other films. One film covered is Yau Ching'sLet's Love Hong Kong, about several Hong Kong women. One could easily transpose the story to any other large city. The film is about the inability to connect with other people, even in a large urban area. Some of the women share the same space. One young woman pursues another only to get rejected at the end. The film is loosely constructed, and with its title made me think a bit about Jacques Rivette's Out One. The title could have well been inspired by Paris Belongs to Us. The final shot of Chan Kwok-Chan, with the top of her turtleneck shirt covering her face, reminded me of a similar shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows.

Spacked Out is not the kind of film one might expect from producer Johnny To. Following four high school age girls who are left to their own devices, the film is almost documentary style, until a night of partying with drugs takes a surrealistic turn. One of the girl has close cropped hair, and refers to one of the others as her lover, but the relationship they have appears to be based on emotional ties. Made in 2000, Laurence Au Mon's film takes place outside of Hong Kong in Tuen Mun, the location in turn emphasizing the marginal existence of the girls, and the sense of disconnection with their homes and families.

Beyond Our Ken seems to have been included for mention by Leung primarily for the exploration of female bonding. In this case it is two women, the former and current girlfriends of a young fire fighter named Ken, who conspire against him. Like his film Exodus, Pang Ho-Cheung has made a darkly funny film about men, women and hiccups. Sure, the title is a goofy pun, but Pang is a very good filmmaker who might be getting overdue recognition with his newest film, Dream Home getting U.S. distribution for next year. I've just seen three of his films so far, but they share traits of stories where appearances are deceiving. Pang's sense of framing and color mark him as a true visual stylist. The use of classical music by Mozart as well as an Italian pop song provide something of a European flavor to the film. No one is innocent in Pang's films, but the revelations of guilt make up part of the fun.

beyond our ken.jpg
Gillian Chung and Tao Hong in Beyond Our Ken (Pang Ho-Cheung - 2004)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 3, 2010 08:13 AM


This sounds like a fascinating book, Peter.

I've only seen a couple of Huangmei opera films, but they both prominently feature female-to-male cross-dressing. In The Grand Substitution Ivy Ling Po plays a prince. The other film, Lady General Hua-Mulan is self-explanatory to anyone who doesn't shield themselves from all things Disney. Both are good films, but I especially liked the latter (perhaps because I was already familiar with the story before watching it? Or perhaps because I saw it on 35mm rather than on VCD?)

The SF Silent Film Festival last summer screened a Chinese film called a Spray of Plum Blossoms, which is also apparently available on DVD through the Cinema Epoch label. This 1931 version of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona (the only version ever released as a film anywhere, according to wikipedia) features Ruan Lingyu as the cross-dressing Julia. Though this film is from the Shanghai movie industry, not Hong Kong's, it seems worth mentioning here.

Posted by: Brian at December 7, 2010 02:39 AM

I like BEYOND OUR KEN very much. ISABELLA (2006, Pang Ho-cheung) also shares " traits of stories where appearances are deceiving.".

Anita Mui also plays a male role in WU YEN (2001, Johnnie To + Wai Ka-fai).

Feng Baobao (Fung Bobo or Petrina Fung) plays the hero in some TV-series, including YANG'S FEMALE WARRIORS (1981) and ONE SWORD in the late 1970's. It is interesting that ONE SWORD's original novel was also adapted into another TV-series called THE SPIRIT OF THE SWORD (1978-1979) at the same time by the rival TV production company, and the actor who plays the same role as Petrina Fung is Leslie Cheung. So we have two TV-series telling the same story. One of them features a hero played by a gay man. The other features a hero played by a woman.


Candy Wen (Wen Xue-er) plays the hero in the TV-series ROYAL TRAMP in the early 1980's.

Personally, I don't like the tradition of an actress playing the male role, because these actresses don't attract me. Hahaha.

Posted by: Celinejulie at December 12, 2010 12:06 AM