In Sparrow, this sense of melancholia manifests as an abstract nostalgia for the architecture and cultural values of an old Hong Kong that is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by the structures of a global bureaucratic state. To paints Hong Kong as a city in a state of permanent transit in which the subject is unable to find a concrete identity or cultural roots.
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Johnnie To is one of the most prolific and critically celebrated filmmakers to have emerged from the modern Chinese studio system, his films consistently not only gaining huge popularity in his home country but also achieving significant international attention. His work thus brings to overseas audiences the existential and spiritual malaise of post-colonial Hong Kong, packaged as relatively straightforward genre films. The tension between tradition and hyper-modernity has formed the thematic basis of much of To’s his recent work, each taking on a different aspect of life in modern Hong Kong: the financialization and de-industrialization of the Chinese economy in Office, the interconnection between mass media and the surveillance state in Breaking News, the technocracy of the mafia in Drug War, and the pressures of the free market in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Although there is a general agreement in critical circles of To’s engagement with the changing cultural status of Hong Kong, perspectives on the role sociopolitics plays in his features are divergent. Kozo from LoveHKFilm.com perceives the feature as being little more than a love letter to the city, rife with “locations that highlight the city’s cultural charm as well as its urban architecture and cosmopolitan feel.” The review concludes that “Sparrow portrays Hong Kong as a romantic and very lovely place – a very large reason that the film feels as seductive as it does.”1 On the contrary, Cheung reads Sparrow as simply positioning the glory of the old Hong Kong in opposition to the ruination of hyper-modernity, arguing that the film is expressive of To’s desire to record some parts of the history of Hong Kong on film before all the period elements […] completely disappear, and are replaced by newer buildings and other kinds of city constructions.”2 Cheung’s piece on the film is perceptive, and I believe that the form of the feature is largely based on a quest to preserve sights and traditions of traditional Hong Kong. To’s own description of the motivation behind the project corroborates this perspective: “I feel that Hong Kong is a fast-changing city […] Over the past few years we see these things gradually disappear. With Sparrow we hope to catch the fading aspects of Hong Kong. The history, or information, or memories.” [sic] (Figure 1)3
In this article, I read To’s 2008 feature Sparrow as being expressive of the condition Freud terms “melancholia.” It is first important to make a distinction between “melancholia” and “mourning” – while “mourning” is a clear reaction to a specific loss that can easily be identified, the process of “melancholia” is rooted in a loss of a more abstract kind. “Melancholia” is a response to an absence that has “withdrawn from consciousness,” so that its subject “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost […] and what he has lost in him.”4 While the mourning process is a direct, relatively straightforward reaction to loss that enables the cathartic expunging of negative feelings, “melancholia” is a sensation that allows for no such emotional release. Building on Freud, Abraham and Torok write that the sensation of melancholia leads to “incorporation”: “Incorporation results from those losses that for some reason cannot be acknowledged as such,” resulting in “a refusal to mourn.” In such cases, the feeling of melancholia gives rise to a “tomb inside the subject [where] the loss is buried in [a] crypt.”5 In Sparrow, this sense of melancholia manifests as an abstract nostalgia for the architecture and cultural values of an old Hong Kong that is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by the structures of a global bureaucratic state. To paints Hong Kong as a city in a state of permanent transit in which the subject is unable to find a concrete identity or cultural roots. I will draw on the writings of Vivian in relation to the therapeutic capabilities of Hong Kong cinema to come to terms with cultural transition to argue that To does not simply mourn the passing of the Old Hong Kong, but highlights the ways in which certain cultural values may be sustained within a realm of hyper-modernity. The film does this by constructing a lens of nostalgia that is both diegetic and extra-diegetic, employing film form to create a structure of feeling that aligns the viewer with his characters (Figure 2).
The perspective embodied by Sparrow is what Boym terms “reflective nostalgia.” In her seminal study The Future of Nostalgia, Boym argues that there are two major forms of nostalgia: reflective and restorative. Reflective nostalgia seeks to reflect on an idealized past to highlight the alienated and uprooted nature of a ruinous present, whereas restorative nostalgia looks to the past as a means to “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”6 To’s cinema evokes “reflective nostalgia” as it explores how disappearing sites and values in the city evokes feelings of loss and melancholia. There is a binary opposition set up in the film between the past and a ruinous present characterized by transit, speed, and hybridity. This is what Castells terms an “informational city,” based on post-industrial capital, materialism, and fluidity, characterized by the flow of information over national politics and traditional boundaries. Increasingly, Hong Kong has become subsumed into the structures of globalization and late-period capitalism, which collapses the specific qualities of individual culture and geographical boundaries in favour of uniting the major superpowers of the world.7 As Ackbar Abbas argues, Hong Kong has always been a city of transition, as it has evolved from “fishing village to British colony to global city,” now standing as a capitalist economic superpower.8 A city perpetually in the throes of rapid historical and technological change gives rise to what Abbas terms a “space of disappearance,”9 an environment in which space seems to become “more varied and multifarious, oversaturated with signs and images, at the same time as it becomes more abstract and ungraspable.”10 This lack of a concrete identity has, as Berry argues, been at the centre of much of the Hong Kong cinema of the late 20th century:
Hong Kong’s situation as a colony and a site of exile led to the development of a particular consciousness, expressed and developed in the cinema, of the territory’s liminal status […] Although the new generation imagined Hong Kong as home rather than as a space of exile, the metaphor of the jianghu outlaw land persisted. But now, instead of being coloured by nostalgia for a lost homeland, it was accented by an anticipatory nostalgia for a home-in-the-outlaw-land that would soon be lost.11
At the centre of Sparrow, then, is a tension between the rapid forward motion of modernity and the desire to hold off the passage of time, to keep constant elements of the Hong Kong culture permanent. Freud defines mourning as originating in “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on.” The act of mourning involves first recognizing this loss, and then overcoming it. When this “has been accomplished, the ego will have succeeded in freeing its libido from the lost object.”12 In the film, the relation of the characters to the past is more closely aligned to Freud’s definition of “melancholia,” which expresses a reaction to a “loss of a more ideal kind, one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost … and what he has lost in him.” This is a more abstract, intangible form of loss, which can be described, in the words of Abraham and Torok, as “a trauma whose very occurrence and devastating emotional consequences are entombed and thereby consigned to internal silence, albeit unwittingly, by the sufferers themselves.”13 This is a more abstract process than mourning, as the subject realizes on an unconscious level that a loss has taken place, yet they consciously refuse to recognize that a loss has occurred. As a result of this refusal to come to terms with a substantial loss, the lost object returns as a repressed force, often taking on a haunting, spectral form (Figure 3).
To’s recent filmography foregrounds the status of Hong Kong as a city of hybridity and rapid acceleration, trapped between the values of Old Hong Kong and the relentless forces of forward progress, globalization, and materialism. The persistence of cultural traditions, familial bonds, and localized areas collides with the mass tourism, gentrification, and rampart consumerism overtaking the city in the years following its liberation from British rule. The cultural space of Hong Kong in Sparrow is one of spatial and temporal abstraction, where modern high-rises and old tenement buildings sit side-by-side, a paradoxical mishmash of various cultures and eras that the characters struggle to adjust to – intellectually, physically, and emotionally. The city is not a fixed space that houses one dominant social group, but rather a paradoxical blend of various cultures. Many languages appear in both written and verbal forms, including Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and the pickpockets collect a wide variety of different currencies from their victims. Advertisements for American fast-food chains and Western-style bars are placed prominently in the background of many shots, and characters spend their free time partaking in Western pastimes such as poker. The presence of Lei, a mainland woman who longs to escape the city, represents the influx of intruders who perceive the city merely as a liminal space. The binary attitudes of the two criminal groups at the centre of Sparrow parallel the vastly contrasted physical space of the setting, split between the quaint neighbourhoods of Old Hong Kong and modernized, gentrified tower blocks. As the central group of pickpockets represent a lifestyle that is becoming increasingly marginalized in modern Hong Kong culture, they are on the brink of dissolution. To’s conception of Hong Kong thus has much in common with Clarke’s conception of the “haunted city.” For Clarke, cities that are undergoing a process of significant architectural, social, or political development are suspended in a transitional phase between one time period and another, as well as being haunted by other world cities seeking to impose their culture upon it. This results in a fear that the city might “lose its distinctiveness” upon its absorption into a world economy.14
The unique experiential effects created by the rapid unmooring of traditional cultural bearings are expressed through To’s aesthetic construction. Eschewing close-ups and one-shots, To frames his characters in roomy wide shots that draw the viewer’s eye to the visual surroundings, often with the characters positioned so that they appear small in the frame. Often, an architectural object in the foreground will obscure characters framed in the middle ground, or they will be positioned behind a reflective surface that will superimpose a reflection of the cityscape on top of them. The composition in Figure 415 features the four pickpockets discussing business in a car, with images of modern high-rises obscuring their figures. This image suggests not only the imposing nature of modernity on the protagonists, but also the ungraspable, insubstantial nature of a city constantly in a point of transition between one temporal state and the next.
While the city is characterized by speed and fluidity, the central pickpockets are defined by their stasis and a backward-looking mentality. It is through the behaviour of these characters that the film most clearly expresses a sense of melancholia regarding the loss of traditional Chinese culture within a globalized cityscape. The characters are weighed down by an unacknowledged sense of nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing way of life, and many of their actions and attitudes can be perceived as an implicit attempt to reconnect with the lost values of this earlier era. They live in old tenement apartment buildings, dine in traditional tea rooms, traverse the city on bicycles, and generally express an attachment to vintage and physical media, such as Kei’s Rollieflex reflex camera, with which he records images he then processes in a darkroom. The characters have interiorized an unacknowledged state of melancholy and maladjustment typical of the Hong Kong dweller, which is expressed through their desperate attempts to retain a sense of individual identity through their attachment to rituals and mundane objects. As To explains in the introduction to the film on the special edition DVD, the Cantonese title of the feature, Man Jeuk, is, in its original language, an antiquated slang term more commonly used by the middle-aged and the elderly than the young men at the centre of Sparrow. Indeed, the low-level, nonviolent, non-technocratic criminal activity indulged in by the central foursome seems quaint and antiquated in contrast to the wide criminal syndicate presided over by Mr. Fu, the villain of the film. The fact that the chief antagonist, Fu, was in the past a pickpocket before rising up the ranks of criminal enterprise to occupy his current position as a mafia boss emphasizes the precarious nature of the men’s work.
Because the film is set entirely in the present, the nostalgia is conjured only through modern-day remnants of the past rather than its direct visualisation, as To encourages his audience to view the action through the prism of a pre-existing knowledge of Chinese history and its customs. As Carolyn Cartier argues, the work of Hong Kong artists has played a large part in the conservation efforts to retain historic sites and preserve a semblance of national identity in the face of the overwhelming land development policies and gentrification efforts that took over the city in the wake of the 1997 liberation.16 These modernization efforts not only cause physical destruction to local spaces, but simultaneously erase traces of the collective memory and shared experience of the city’s inhabitants. In Sparrow, Hong Kong’s popular cultural traditions such as old tenement buildings and tea rooms, are painted as being the “repository of the community’s collective memory.” It is through these images that To connects the viewer to a shared cultural past. By capturing images of locations and traditions that are under threat by modernity, Sparrow functions as what Vivian terms a “theatre of memory,”17 preserving a localized impression of the past for consumption by a wide audience. As Louie observes, “while most governments and education systems produce narratives of fixed ‘national cultures,’ in fact cultures are in a perpetual state of change.” Yet, despite “the increasing modernization in the twentieth century, many core traditions continued to characterize the landscape.”18 Their desire to hold on to traditional aspects of Hong Kong culture that are being increasingly placed under threat by the gentrifying forces of modernity is perhaps best exemplified by Kei’s habit of photographing the neglected areas of the city – decrepit alleyways in Sheung Wan, Wanchai, and the outskirts of Hong Kong. Through this, he is implicitly preserving sights that are likely to soon disappear. The resulting images, intercut seamlessly with the action, taking up the entire frame, have a documentary quality. The film uses this character and the act of photography as a means to reflect on the issues of heritage and collective memory as they exist spatially. The end credits of the film are presented alongside a slideshow of Kei’s black-and-white portraits, thus aligning the character even more closely with To and portraying his sense of nostalgia with that of the film itself (Figures 4-6). The split between the backward-looking Kei and the forward momentum of Lei is foregrounded when she, seeing his work in his darkroom, asks incredulously “Why are the photos in black and white?,” to which he responds “colours can be deceiving.” Lei is so caught up in the relentless speed of modernization that she sees no value in nostalgia or reflection.
The central pickpockets exemplify what Vivian Pui-Yin Lee describes as the “Hong Kong spirit” expressed in many popular Chinese films and various forms of media. This form of personality is designed to “popularize and internationalize a ‘Hong Kong identity’ in the post-handover era” and can be defined as an “energetic, hardworking, fun-loving, adaptable, resilient, and an ever-loyal buddy” as well as an “enterprising, energetic, resilient, and upwardly mobile everyman.”19 The exploration of such traits in cinematic form holds the potential to be therapeutic, as they alleviate collective anxieties surrounding contemporary technological and sociopolitical change by reflecting on the past and highlighting which cultural values should be preserved in the future. In this sense, Hong Kong films not only delve into nostalgia diegetically, but also extra-diegetically, as they encourage the preservation of positive cultural values within the shifting landscape of the city.20 Thus, the collective memory that To taps into in Sparrow is not simply one of material elements, but one of shared cultural values that are placed under threat in a bureaucratic state. The heroes of Sparrow certainly fulfil such a characterisation. They are humble everymen, united by a strong sense of camaraderie, bound to a loyal code of criminal honour (although they rob unsuspecting victims, they have a pact never to cause them physical harm or emotional distress), and get on with their neighbours. It is through holding onto these fixed interior values that To’s characters are able to survive within a culture of disappearance, preventing them from being assimilated into the structures of late capitalism that have ensnared Mr. Fu’s gang. However, their steadfast refusal to abandon these core cultural values has also rendered them outcasts unable to adapt to the structures of the modernized city.
There are three layers of cultural memory and preservation that Sparrow addresses: the past in architectural form, the past as a set of communal values, and the past as a site of collective memory preserved in the photographic images collected by Kei. It is only by remaining rooted in all three forms that the central group of pickpockets are able to fight the de-humanizing effects of modernity. If the protagonists, however, embody the ideal of positive cultural preservation, then their antagonist, Mr. Fu, is the symbol of the corrupting aspects of forward progress. The two are diametrically opposed: Mr. Fu traverses the city in a plush limousine, while the pickpockets ride bicycles. Mr. Fu operates from a large modern skyscraper (introduced in a slow pan down to emphasize its monolithic size), while the pickpockets work in run-down tenement apartments – the introduction of the two locations are even framed in opposing ways, as the skyscraper is introduced with a slow pan down its outer surface, to emphasize not only its monolithic size, but also its generic, chrome appearance, while Kei’s apartment is introduced with a slow dolly-in into its interior. Mr. Fu indulges in capitalistic excess, such as an extensive massage treatment, whereas the pickpockets lead lives of few thrills and modest means. The pickpockets are tied to their profession through their love of the work, captured by To in exhilarating, unbroken Steadicam shots, whereas the ambitious Mr. Fu sees his background as a pickpocket only as an early stepping-stone to his later criminal empire. Kei treats his cohorts as friends, while Mr. Fu treats his partners as employees.
Put simply, if the central pickpockets are tied to local identity and a longing to preserve the past, Mr. Fu represents monstrous capitalistic greed run unfettered. The extended sequences of Mr. Fu undergoing grotesque massage practices and lounging in his luxurious office are exemplary of Abbas’ conception of 21st-century Hong Kong decadence: “Historical imagination, the citizens’ belief that they might have a hand in shaping their own history, gets replaced by speculation on the property or stock markets, or by an obsession with fashion or consumerism.”21 This lengthy sequence ironizes the ambitions of democracy and economic splendour that late capitalism promises to hold, instead demonstrating how it is squandered on unnecessary excesses. The ideological opposition between the groups is made explicit in the narrative of the feature, which sees the four heroes setting out to free Chung from the control of the domineering Mr. Fu, who views her as being an extension of his property. The huge difference in mentality between Kei and Fu is made clear in the face-to-face meeting between them. Kei demonstrates an understated sense of honour and selflessness, as he pleads with Mr. Fu: “Love can’t be forced. Understand?” Fu angrily responds “You were still in nappies when I was picking pockets. You can’t afford to play this game.” The use of the word “afford,” with its clear capitalistic undertones, draws a connection between monetary value and the value of human life in a post-industrial economy.
A theoretical approach to Sparrow as an expression of the sensation of displacement experienced by citizens of post-handover Hong Kong, as this critical reading has demonstrated, allows us to perceive his work as a mnemonic cultural tool that constructs a narrative built on shared memories of a localized and idealized past. To’s work offers substantial insights into the sociocultural effects that globalization and post-industrial capitalism have had on the fabric of contemporary Hong Kong. A reading of To’s work against the grain of modernity and forward progress through the lens of Freud’s concept of melancholia fills a gap in To scholarship by arguing for an interpretative paradigm that investigates the symbiotic relation between late capitalism and alienation at the centre of To’s filmography. This reading highlights the sense of loss and longing informing To’s work, through which Sparrow expresses the experiential effects of hybridity and modernization that post-liberation Hong Kong is based on. Recognizing the centrality of these issues to To’s oeuvre can also aid a reflection on the relationship between Hong Kong, gentrification, capital, and imperialism over the early 21st century. By using his characters to engage with the cultural past and establish a connection with the collective memory of the city, Sparrow holds therapeutic qualities, aiding viewers in overcoming the disappearance of the local culture. As To’s films make visible the links between everyday life and the forces of modernity, Sparrow testifies to the power of cinema to aid in the development a critical understanding of the wider cultural and political forces that shape personal life.
Breaking News, 2004 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, 2011 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution.
Drug War, 2012 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution and Variance Films.
Office, 2015 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Edko Films.
Sparrow, 2008 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: China Film Group and Universe Films Distribution Co. Ltd.
Abbas, A. (1997). Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Abraham, N. and Torok, M. (1994). “Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation.” In Rand, Nicholas T. (ed.), The Shell and the Kernel. Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 125-139.
Berry, C (2008). “Cinema: From Foreign Import to Global Brand.” In Kam Louie, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge Companions to Culture). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 297-318.
Boym, S (2002). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Cartier, C (2010). “Power Plays: Alternative Performance Art and Urban Space in the Political Life of the City.” In Louie, K. ed, Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. pp. 25-40.
Castells, M (1989). The Informational City. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cheung, R (2016). “Johnnie To and Sparrow.” In New Hong Kong Cinema: Transitions to Becoming Chinese in 21st-Century East Asia. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. pp. 123-27.
Clarke, D (2010). “The Haunted City: Hong Kong and Its Urban Others.” In Louie, K. ed., Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. pp. 41-54.
Freud, Sigmund (1915). “Mourning and Melancholia.” In James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV. London: Hogarth Press. pp. 243-258.
Kozo, (2008). “Sparrow.” Love Hong Kong Film. Available at: http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews_2/sparrow.htm [Accessed 1st May 2018]
Lee, Vivian p. Y (2011). “Contested Heritage: Cinema, Collective Memory, and the Politics of Local Heritage in Hong Kong.” In Yau Shuk-ting, Kinnia, ed., East Asian Cinema and Cultural Heritage: From China, Hong Kong, Taiwan to Japan and South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 53-79.
Louie, K (2008). “Defining Modern Chinese Culture.” In Louie, K., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge Companions to Culture). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1-20.
Zarrow, P (2008). “Social and Political Developments: The Making of The Twentieth-Century Chinese State.” In Kam Louise, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge Companions to Culture). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 20-46.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.
- Kozo, “Sparrow.” [↩]
- Cheung, “Johnnie To and Sparrow,” p. 126. [↩]
- To, J. (2011). Introduction [Bonus Feature]. Sparrow: 3 Disc Collector Box Set. London: Terracotta Distribution. [↩]
- Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 243. [↩]
- Abraham, and Torok, “Mourning or Melancholia,” p. 130. [↩]
- Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, pp. 49-55 [↩]
- Castells, The Informational City. [↩]
- Abbas, Hong Kong, pp. 1-3. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 1. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 9. [↩]
- Berry, “Cinema,” p. 311. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 249. [↩]
- Rand and Torok, The Shell and the Kernel, p. 99. [↩]
- Clarke, “The Haunted City,” pp. 42-44. [↩]
- Screenshot taken from the 2008 UK DVD release from Terracotta Distribution. [↩]
- Cartier, “Power Plays,” p. 27. [↩]
- Lee, “Contested Heritage,” p. 57. [↩]
- Louie, Defining Modern Chinese Culture,” p. 2. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 55. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 62. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 5. [↩]