Bright Lights Film Journal

A Better Tomorrow? American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films

This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994).

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Among their thrills, Woo’s homoerotic bullet ballets offered welcome distraction from 1997’s doomsday scenarios

Hong Kong gangster movies don’t work for everyone, and if you think the idea of “beautiful violence” seems like an oxymoron, then they probably aren’t for you. But if you’ve ever wished for a violent action film with the style and elegance of an MGM musical, Hong Kong cinema is the place to look. Imagine the scene: a slow-motion shot of a man sauntering through a nightclub wearing a white suit, dark glasses, and smoking a cigarette; a woman looking sultry by the piano singing the kind of sentimental song usually associated with schmaltzy romantic dramas; lots of corny shots of couples in love; and the whole scene shot in soft reds and yellows. Suddenly, the slo-mo stops, the Muzak stops, and our hero pulls out his guns and shoots – spicy handed (two hands) – a dozen people dead in five seconds, all without taking off his dark glasses or losing his unbelievably cool demeanor. Bullets are flying, blood leaps out of bodies, but the killer emerges unscathed …

Well, what can I say? It works for me, and, clearly, I’m not the only one. Hong Kong action films, which specialize in precisely this kind of juxtaposition of corny romantic melodrama with stylized and hyperbolic violence, have one of the biggest cult followings for films made outside of the American mainstream. The local UC Theater in Berkeley is always packed on its Thursday night Hong Kong double bills (now two years running), and videos (where available) do an extremely brisk trade.

Two men whose names are practically synonymous with the success of Hong Kong gangster films are the director/actor team of John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, who have been making films together for nearly ten years. Both Woo and Chow had made other films before their first collaboration in the mid-1980s; Woo started making films in the 1970s but mostly comedies, musicals, and love stories. Similarly, Chow was already established as a romantic lead in films like Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City, but had never been cast as an action hero. But when Woo cast Chow Yun-Fat as the gunman in A Better Tomorrow (1986), he launched not only the contemporary Hong Kong gangster film but also a new and extraordinarily successful phase in their respective careers. It was also the start of a very close friendship between the two men, the kind of friendship Woo valorizes in his films, with Chow becoming Woo’s alter ego, enacting his anger at the loss of traditional values in Hong Kong society.

Typically, Woo’s films deal with the tensions between freedom and duty, loyalty and authority, and between the individual and the group. Indeed, most of his films explore the kinds of social relationships available to individuals in difficult times, and the ways in which ostensibly different people can attain common goals by forging alliances with each other. Certainly, there is a sense in which the moral framework of Woo’s films can be rather simplistic: heroes ultimately succeed or fail depending on the place they occupy within the larger social framework. Specifically, if the loner-hero is a gangster, he will die, and if he is a cop, he will live. However, despite this, Woo’s heroes on both sides of the law are clearly offered up to spectators for identification and so it is interesting to explore what qualities it is that these men (for they almost always are men) embody that might be so appealing to Chinese and western audiences alike.

A Better Tomorrow, one of the most commercially successful films in Hong Kong cinema, represented a new approach to action films. It combined machine-gun violence with intense moments of male bonding and an almost campy humor, leavened with religious themes of redemption and morality. This combination of homoerotic male bonding with choreographed violence is extraordinarily compelling. However, it seems crucial to question why Woo would repeatedly link homoeroticism with violence, especially since he codes this combination as positive and liberating, albeit in a qualified way. Also, what strikes me as interesting is the way in which Woo locates the fear, uncertainty, and moral confusion about Hong Kong’s future within the lonely fighter heroes who perform this violence, and especially in the characters played by Chow Yun-Fat. However, Woo does not celebrate this violence, but rather uses it to represent a nostalgia for a lost code of honor and chivalry that he sees as necessary for human survival. In other words, the type of heroes found in Woo’s action films seem to represent the kind of responses available within the Hong Kong imagination to the colony’s reunification with China in 1997, a situation clearly understood and represented as a problematic time. Specifically, this is enacted at the intersection of the hero’s relationship to organizations, both legal (the police) and illegal (the triads), and the codes of honor he adheres to, codes that transcend both the system of capital and the system of law circulating in Hong Kong. Tracing the development of the Chow Yun-Fat character in Woo’s films over the years gives insight into how a particular Hong Kong film director perceives the future of the colony and its relationship to the rest of the Pacific Rim.

While I would not necessarily want to make an auteurist argument for Woo (if only because the films are clearly collaborative projects and so their ideology will be the product of the entire production staff, not the director alone), there is a sense in which the way Hong Kong films are received in the United States beg such a reading. In western-venue screenings of Woo/Chow films, audiences applaud madly when their credits appear. In other words, films made by John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat are distinctive, recognizable, and deliberately sought out. In addition, for Western viewers, their films are the product of a Hong Kong film industry reminiscent of the Hollywood studio system, promoting individual stars and directors. Golden Princess, a subsidiary of Golden Harvest, which has financed many of Woo’s films, favors individual superstars such as Chow Yun-Fat (and for martial arts films, Jackie Chan), and this relates to the kinds of films Woo makes. Both Golden Princess and John Woo favor glamorous individuals rather than anonymous groups, and just as a film studio places a certain responsibility on the stars to ensure the success of the film, so too Woo portrays his heroes, and especially Chow Yun-Fat, as embodying the kind of freedom and individuality that is necessary for the success and survival of Hong Kong.

Chow Yun-Fat is probably most famous for his roles in Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1991), all of which deal explicitly with the theme of the individual fighting for loyalty and honor within corrupt institutions. However, whereas the premise in each film is the same, the solution varies. These films demonstrate the changing understanding of the role of the free-agent individual in Hong Kong society. In fact, these three films act as a kind of allegory of male anxiety over Hong Kong’s future and, taken together, offer a coherent explanation of why the cost that loner individuals extort from society is always too high. Simply put, there is no place for the free-agent individual in Hong Kong, except insofar as this individuality is completely integrated within, and put to the service of, the organization. However, while this individuality is always framed in the context of larger institutions, its true potential is revealed through the alliances forged between individual men. In other words, male bonding is crucial to the way in which Hong Kong’s future relationship with China in being imagined. Specifically, these films seem to represent the fantasy of a relationship between equals (analogous to a relationship between men) rather than between unequals (i.e., between men and women); and it is a fear of China and all it represents (returning to a differently organized and “less developed” kind of economy, and a mode of social relations that has strong ties to its feudal past) that makes the homoerotic element such a compelling fantasy.

However, this homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized, and desirable. The very filmic techniques used – soft focus, slow motion, and subtle colors – characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost dance and swoon as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons. Indeed, the one film in which Woo showed violence as brutal and ugly, A Bullet in the Head, while still successful, was one of the least popular among both his Hong Kong and American fans. Set in Vietnam, A Bullet in the Head is characteristically violent but it features a kind of violence that spectators find hard to experience as pleasurable. While on one level it makes perfect sense to say that violence is not enjoyable, the fact that both Chinese and American fans resisted this move by Woo suggests that aestheticized violence can be, paradoxically, both compelling and pleasurable. Indeed, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled all feature Chow Yun-Fat performing violence in such an aesthetically pleasing way that these films have become among the most popular in the Hong Kong gangster tradition.

A Better Tomorrow revolves around the lives of three men: Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), a gangster; Ho (Ti Lung), his partner in crime who wants to go straight; and Kit (Leslie Cheung), an idealistic cop and Ho’s younger brother. They are all loner heroes, marginalized from their respective organizations. Kit cannot rise through the ranks of the police force because of the taint of his family name; the battle between good and evil becomes for him a personal vendetta between himself and his brother. Mark and Ho, shown at the beginning surveying millions of forged American dollars they are about to trade with the Taiwanese underworld, are betrayed by their gangland bosses, putting them on a downward trajectory that further marginalizes them. Ho goes to prison for three years, and when he gets out joins a legitimate ex-con taxi company, a cooperative enclave. His attempt to live outside the institutions available within Hong Kong capitalism ultimately fails, and the taxi collective is destroyed by some of the “Big brothers.”

But it is Mark, crippled in the shoot-out following the betrayal, who is completely humiliated and reduced to living in a parking lot, wearing rags and cleaning the cars of his former co-gangsters. Coded at the beginning as the glamorous, free-agent individual, wearing his long white coat over a smart suit and the ubiquitous dark glasses, this is clearly the nightmare of living outside of the institution, and after he is betrayed, Mark loses not only his work and home but also, most importantly, his self-respect. The incredibly touching reunion of Mark and Ho when Ho gets out of prison is like a reunion of lovers. “I waited for you for so long, ” says Mark. “Three years, ” says Ho. And this intensely homoerotic moment indicates the importance of male friendship within the code of honor in which they believe. Alone, neither man can survive, either as an individual or as part of a group, but they are able to come together and forge an alliance between equals that is emotionally and materially fulfilling.

The violent finale, where Mark, Ho and Kit come together to fight the gangland bosses, is a utopian moment of three men forgetting their differences and joining forces to fight their common enemy. As many commentators have noted, A Better Tomorrow gives young people the message of forging alliances with each other and together fighting the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. The alliance between the men is based on honor (Kit’s honor as a heroic cop out to get the bad guys, Mark and Ho’s honor to avenge the same bad guys who betrayed them), but honor alone is not enough. The orgy of destruction in the final shoot-out succeeds in destroying the bad guys and reconciling the brothers, but at what cost? Kit and Ho survive but only to immediately reintegrate themselves into their respective organizations. Ho handcuffs himself to his brother, allowing Kit to be an honorable policeman (i.e., he gets to arrest a bad guy even if it is his brother), and Ho also gets to be honorable, by going back to jail to pay for his crimes. Honor here seems to be a kind of shorthand for individualism and thus, as mentioned earlier, individual heroics are only rewarded when put to the service of a larger organization. This ideological move seems to valorize a certain kind of capitalism, such as is found in the United States, that embraces the idea of free agents while at the same time accommodating them within the larger mode of economic relations. A Better Tomorrow thus looks to the West, rather than to China, for a role model for future kinds of social and economic relations.

Mark, however, the supreme loner who rejects organizations (both legal and illegal), ultimately has no place in the world. He joins with the brothers to fight the common enemy, but the particular kind of honor he represents (free-agent loner hero with no affiliations) cannot be accommodated within the economy of the film, and so he must die. But he dies not so much from his wounds – after all, he has withstood the impact of hundreds of bullets throughout the film – but rather of exhaustion. This kind of hero is old and tired, a throwback to China’s past with no place in contemporary Hong Kong. It is not until Hard-Boiled that such a hero can be successfully accommodated within the world of the Hong Kong gangster film, and Chow-as-hero is finally able to re-enter the fold of law, order, and justice.

The redemption of the hero is anticipated, though not fully realized, in The Killer (1989), a film in which the eroticization of the gangster body reaches a whole new level and where male bonding is explicitly tied to a rejection of femininity and, by implication, of China. The Killer again features Chow as the world-weary loner assassin pursued by the loner cop but this time it is Chow himself (not his partner as in A Better Tomorrow) who is trying to go straight, and the film opens with him agreeing to do one final job before giving it up. When he accidentally blinds a female singer in the cross-fire of the assassination, he vows to do just one more job to raise the money to pay for her cornea transplants. However, he is again betrayed by his gangland bosses and pursued by both them and the police, leading to an amazingly beautiful final shoot-out in a church, with Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat) and Li (Danny Lee) joining forces against the “real” bad guys. However, they do more than merely join forces: they fire their weapons in harmony; gracefully leap away from flying bullets; gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes; and move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some sense, transcendent.

The doubling of Jeff with Li, the cop, is made explicit from the start, and again this is coded as intensely homoerotic. One scene has Li in his office, surrounded by dozens of pictures of Jeff, musing on how the latter’s eyes are “filled with passion” and arguing that “he is no ordinary assassin.” This idea – that Jeff is no ordinary assassin and Li no ordinary cop – is repeated many times throughout the film, driving home the point that what they share is a code of morality and justice that remains outside of, and unrecognized, by both of their worlds.

The intimate moments they share in the final scenes, between shooting what seems like hundreds of men, are among the most perfect expressions of love, friendship, and honor in any Woo film, and this seems to be fulfilling enough until we realize the cost of such moments. Aside from the obvious one of violence, The Killer, more than any of the other films, makes clear that individual male heroics are always at the expense and in repudiation of femininity and the family. Women and families not only are the cause of problems in Woo’s films, but they represent everything that these men reject and fear: the fear of a world where there is no place for individualism. Indeed, as Wayne Wang, a noted Chinese-American filmmaker, has commented, “Hong Kong gangster movies show how much Chinese men are obsessed with castration.” The explicit enemies in Woo’s films are always families of gangsters (such as the triads), but implicitly, in the way in which they are aligned with eastern religion and values, they represent China. Thus the China-as-enemy scenario becomes coded as a fear of feminization and a return for Hong Kong to a world of tradition and old-fashioned social relations based on family-run organizations that cannot accommodate any kind of individualism.

Indeed, the final shots of The Killer show Chow, himself now also blinded from the shoot-out, and Jennie, the blind singer, groping for each other on the ground in front of the church. Of course, they miss by a mile, and, despite being milked for ironic humor, this scene nevertheless represents the exemplary moment of heterosexuality within the world of Hong Kong action films – i.e., relationships between unequals (men and women) will always lack the kind of vision and potential that the relationships between the men (as equals) can attain. Compared to the transcendent moments shared by Chow and Li (who call each other “Mickey Mouse” and “Dumbo” in some of the prints), relationships between men and women are fraught with problems. The kinship between the two male loner heroes is romantic, equal, and fulfilling; however, it also remains within the realm of the fantastic and unobtainable, specifically, within the realm of U.S. Disney characters and therefore the West. The film also codes such relationships as being outside the reach of women, for Jennie can neither see, nor comprehend, the bonding that is going on between the men. Thus, the utopia of the romantic exchange between the men, amid all the beautiful violence, is displaced into a realm that is coded as both childish and Western, and a realm that ultimately remains inaccessible. Thus, neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality are available to the characters in any meaningful way and instead bodily desires are satisfied through the eroticization of violence, an ultimately unsatisfactory solution that I will return to later. Finally, Chow dies, leaving only the cop, also a loner individual but, crucially, on the right side of the law alive.

If The Killer explicitly eroticizes male violence at the expense of heterosexuality and family, Hard-Boiled does so implicitly while being more overtly concerned with the assimilation of the loner hero back into the side of law and order. Thus, the repudiation of femininity is a prerequisite for the recuperation of the individualistic male. There is still plenty of homoerotic bonding and aestheticized violence, but as Woo’s last picture before leaving Hong Kong for the United States, Hard-Boiled marks the final resolution of the problem of the free-agent individual. Indeed, not one but two individuals are taken back into the fold, but significantly this time they are both on the right side of the law – both Chow Yun-Fat and Tong Leung play loner-cops who take the law into their own hands – and this is precisely why they are able to be assimilated.

Predictably, Tequila (Chow) and Tony (Leung) have what we can by now call a “romance.” Tony, an undercover cop posing as a triad hit-man, teams up with Tequila and together they nail a brutal arms dealer and his men. In a legendary sequence lasting 45 minutes, the final shoot-out, packed with excessive and stylized ultraviolence, takes place in a hospital where the strict code of honor forms the backdrop to the senseless carnage. Tony, shattered at the realization that he has accidentally killed a fellow policeman, then has to force himself to kill his former gangland boss, whom he actually respects. Later, Tony and a hit man refuse to fire at each other while surrounded by hospital patients, and Tequila, the indestructible cop, mows down villain after villain while holding a newborn child in his arms. Indeed, the evacuation of the maternity ward, although played as a comic moment, acts as a real-life example of the honor these men espouse. They may want to rip each other’s guts out, but they will put their differences aside to save innocent bystanders, especially the weak or helpless.

But as should be quite obvious by now, despite the same code of honor being held by individuals on both sides of the law, it is only those who legally avenge crimes who are allowed such a luxury, and so all the bad guys must die. Indeed, even Tony, who had been undercover so long that his identity as a cop lacks the necessary coherence and conviction, dies in the end, his parting words, “I’m a cop.” He thus reclaims his identity but not his life. Chow, however, has earned his identity and, after saving the maternity ward, and by implication the future of Hong Kong, he has also earned his life. The free-agent individual, having slain the enemy and with it the (fantasized) fate of Hong Kong decided, reassimilates into the police force.

More than A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, Hard-Boiled makes explicit that the boundary between justice and crime is such a blurred one that it is often hard to know who one’s enemy is. Thus, Hard-Boiled leaves Hong Kong with a solution: free agents are fine so long as they remain within, and work for, the organization. But now the problem itself remains unclear – who is the enemy for which this is the solution?

Clearly, for Woo, China really is the enemy. Woo may have resolved the dilemma within the world of the film, but he himself has taken another option, an option that both challenges and supports his filmic solution. Woo no longer lives in Hong Kong or makes Hong Kong films; he has moved to Hollywood and is now making films in the United States, thus self-consciously assimilating himself within the institution of mainstream American cinema. I’ve already talked about the cost of being outside the organization, but what of the cost of being inside it? Hard Target, Woo’s first Hollywood film, made seven attempts before it could clear the ratings board. He has no control over casting lead actors (Jean-Claude Van Damme was not Woo’s choice, he was “given” him for the film), and so he can no longer make films with Chow Yun-Fat, a sad and noticeable loss. Thus, while Woo has been accepted into the fold of the Hollywood film industry, the irony is that the price he has to pay is his individuality, the very quality he promoted as being possible only within the organizations of the United States economy.

Ultimately, Woo’s situation is analogous to the situation of spectators of his films. To watch and enjoy a Woo film involves a kind of masochism. By this I mean that the pleasure of participating, via identification, in a relationship between equals is always premised on the pain of the violence. Thus, the stylized “beautiful violence” within the film, which I have already suggested codes and aligns romance and equality with violence, is dependent upon a similarly paradoxical “pleasurable violence” at the ideological level. Moreover, this is exactly the kind of relationship available within the capitalist mode of relations that the films valorize, and thus it should be no surprise that Woo is not entirely satisfied with life in the United States. The desire to consciously participate in capitalism, an idea Woo/Chow films invariably promote, is to adopt a masochistic position whereby one willingly submits to oppression and violence, albeit with certain compensatory moments. Indeed, the fact that western audiences consume these films so avidly would seem to indicate that we find capitalism as seductive as the Hong Kong Chinese do. Although, as Woo makes clear, it is not just any kind of capitalism that is desired. In The Killer, Japanese organizations (which promote uniformity between individuals) are ridiculed and shown as being unable to wield the kind of potential that organizations which accommodate a degree of individuality can. Woo is now part of the kind of economy he valorizes in his films and the reward (or pleasure) of being seduced into this kind of relationship is the monetary compensation he has achieved, but the price he pays is a certain lack of creative control, the very quality for which he was courted.

The kinds of alliances made between the men in A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled, while momentarily utopian, are nevertheless always facilitated by violence, rather than cooperation and sharing, and it is questionable to what extent a community founded on violence can ever be worthwhile. The characters portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat are explicitly offered up for identification, but this means identifying with a character whose sense of individuality is always premised upon subjecting his body to excessive pain and violence; in other words, identifying with a masochist. Indeed, individuals reaching out to connect with each other are always forced into a kind of sadomasochist position, because alliances within Western capitalism are always located within the framework of competition rather than community. Such is the nature of capitalism, whereby relationships are always dependent on either receiving or administering a kind of social or economic violence. The fantasy of individuals working together – as equals – for the good of society is an extremely worthwhile fantasy to have. Ultimately, however, what John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Hong Kong, and the rest of us all need to remember is that such a fantasy will always be impossible within capitalism. Just as neither masochism nor feminization are viable alternatives within the realm of the film, similarly capitalism does not offer a solution to Hong Kong’s situation but rather just a new form of oppression.