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June 13, 2017

Hong Kong Neo-Noir

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Edited by Esther C.M. Yau and Tony Williams
Edinburgh University Press - 2017

About six years ago, there was a retrospective of films from Hong Kong and France that were considered examples of film noir from their respective countries. I've seen five of the nine Hong Kong films listed, and read about the others. If one was to do a study of Hong Kong films, be they classified as noir or neo-noir, that list would be a good place to start.

To the credit of the editors, they acknowledge that film noir may be more of a style rather than a defined genre, and that their book should be taken as the beginning of discussions on this loose survey of films. I admit to having perhaps unrealistic expectations for a book that includes such heavy hitters as Adam Bingham, Gina Marchetti and David Desser. I wouldn't have minded that several films are only mentioned in passing, such as Donnie Yen's brooding Ballistic Kiss, or not discussed at all, like Sleepless Town by Lee Chi-Ngai, about Chinese gangsters in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. What is a problem is that the parameters for noir are so wide here that some of the chapters go into tangents make their inclusion highly questionable.

I've not seen the television series, "24", so I am unable to verify in what ways Hong Kong action films may have been an influence. What is a problem is when the author spends more time discussing individual episodes, so that any similarities to the several Hong Kong films mentioned seem secondary. And having a chapter titled, "Tech-Noir: A Sub-Genre May not Exist in Hong Kong Science Fiction Films" also seems to be shoe-horned in, discussing a handful of Hong Kong films in relation to the noir influenced The Terminator and Blade Runner.

Where Hong Kong noir ends and Hong Kong neo-noir begins isn't clearly designated. The first period would appear to be during the 1950s and 60s, at a time when the main stars were female. The one film that benefits from a consensus of opinion is The Wild, Wild Rose (1960). Inspired in part by Carmen, with one of the biggest stars of the time, Grace Chang, uncharacteristically playing the "bad girl", the film is admittedly a hybrid of noir, melodrama and musical. The production of the film is discussed in detail by Lisa Odham Stokes. The chapter by Law Kar, "Black and Red: Post-War Hong Kong Noir and its Interrelation with Progressive Cinema, 1947-57", provides a survey of films primarily made by filmmakers from Shanghai, who provided much of the behind the camera talent. One would hope that more of the films from mainland China become more easily available for study. That chapter also discusses how Hollywood films became available in Hong Kong following the occupation by Japan, becoming sources for both stories and style.

Neo-noir would primarily be the crime films most notable made around the time of the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. Johnnie To gets the most attention with Gina Marchetti's chapter on Running on Karma and Jinhee Choi discussing Exiled. Ms. Choi's chapter also looks at Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile. Partially due to his own self-imposed exile from Hong Kong filmmaking, Tam is not as well known as he should be. Julian Stringer's chapter on the chase sequence from Ringo Lam's Full Alert is of interest in covering the legalities of film production in Hong Kong prior and after the handover, as well as Lam's reasoning for trying to document what Hong Kong looked like in 1997.

I don't know who is responsible for this error, but Ms. Choi's chapter is somewhat undermined by references to "axes of action". There is the axis of action which refers to the 180-degree rule of film making. Axes of action would more likely be found in the horror movies of William Castle.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 13, 2017 09:57 AM