alishafryer
31st October 2019

Altered Perceptions: Lessons from Hong Kong

In the first of a series of articles about film’s ability to change perceptions, writer Alisha Fryer explores the Western preconceptions around international film through the lens Hong Kong cinema
Altered Perceptions: Lessons from Hong Kong
Cheng Pei-pei in ‘Come Drink with Me’ (Photo: Courtesy of HOME)

The diversity of mainstream British cinema is consistently being outdone by the efforts of more independent or arthouse cinemas, such as Manchester’s HOME. The expectations and understanding of non-western or non-anglophone films by mainstream audiences has therefore become limited.

In the case of Hong Kong, many British cinema-goers may come to expect films of male action, martial arts and crime, familiar with the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

However, King Hu’s 1966 Come Drink with Me, screened as part of the ongoing ‘Original Ass-Kickers’ collection at HOME, and Oliver Chan’s 2018 Still Human both subvert the stereotypical and rudimentary understanding of Hong Kong cinema. Whether it be in terms of gender or content, both films highlight the importance of occasionally stepping back from the mainstream.

Come Drink with Me is set in ancient China and centres on a female action heroine Chang Hsuan-yen (Cheng Pei-pei). She is sent by her father, the general, to rescue her brother from a gang of bandits.

The use of Pei-pei’s ballet background allows for revolutionary swordplay and the choreography of fight scenes which was relatively unpractised previously; fight scenes were typically improvised on the day of shooting.

Chang remains stunningly central and dominant during the action shots, providing impressive contrast between slow effortlessness and precise speed. The use of masculine pronouns, the ambiguous alias of ‘Golden Swallow’ and her existence within male domains, allows for the mockery of her male opposers who underestimate her ability as a woman.

Despite the final focus on the more typical heroic success of Chang’s male counterpart, the traditions of the genre and gender presentations are frequently subverted in a visually magnificent film that undoubtedly stands the test of time. Well deserving of its cinematic significance.

Still Human alternatively focuses on a domestic narrative between a paralysed man, Leung Cheong-wing (Anthony Wong) and his Filipino domestic worker, Evelyn Santos (Crisel Consunji), as they build a friendship in Hong Kong.

The film is based on a true story, yet contains much that will be familiar to its local audiences; the crowded public housing, the markets and 5% of Hong Kong’s own population constituted by foreign domestic helpers.

Through this authenticity, the theme of identity becomes central, particularly due to the contrast of the protagonist’s ages, gender, language and education. All of these are initial barriers which are broken down as they grow together. Yet these ideas of identity and incongruity are particularly prevalent within Hong Kong’s ongoing political crisis.

Uncertainty about the relationship to China and past relationship or influences from Britain culminate in a film about opposition and acceptance. It offers the reassuring reminder that change can mean growth. Bound to translate to its Hong Kong audience and that of the Hong Kong diaspora, Oliver Chan allows for an accessible insight into these issues.

 

These films are not made for the sole consumption of Hong Kong’s local audiences, and hence the advantage of places like HOME that continue to enable wider audiences to engage with international narratives.

Due to their enlightening nature of other cultures, issues and people, it is always worth being aware of independent screenings of films that may not be shown in mainstream cinemas.


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