A New Solution to Herbert Marcuse’s Old Riddle
If we believe psychoanalysis, life itself is an ongoing contest of censorship, part political, part mythical, part dreamt. In the Freudian schema, the primal, sexually domineering father held sway over his jealous, oppressed horde until the sons rebelled with patricide. Plagued by a self-interested if not wholly rational guilt, the sons thereafter imposed upon themselves sexual restraint and moderation to curb their destructive ids and distribute female pleasures more equitably throughout the clan. From this proposed equitability and self-censorship was born the seed of law, the cultural taboos that legitimate law, and the reality principle that transforms law into cultural ideology. In Freud’s fairy tale, ironically tainted with the fatalistic residue of Christian myth, we forever pay for the sin of the original, tabooed patricide. Though the primal father’s murder was politically necessary, its taboo could never be repeated; we thereafter were indemnified by infinite other, if lesser, taboos, as an escalating series of libidinal prohibitions checked and balanced every new human attempt at revolutionary political freedom. Because this psychic indemnification had always exaggerated perceived societal dangers, however, the reality principle it produced also exaggerated the need for mass repression. Logically, democracies should have no need to overstate the subversions of the id or the dangers of the pleasure principle, but they repress nearly as well as primeval dictatorships still awaiting their fathers’ falls. With modernity, the pleasure principle becomes not merely repressed but explicitly neutered by the culture industry; the new freedoms proposed by postmodernity, sadly, become likewise manipulated and contained by the genres of the culture industry, now more amok than any infantile id. Even the most savage neutering of the pleasure principle is insufficient: society, in whatever guise, remains paranoid of the daemonic libido, and doubly ensures the proposed safety of its reality principle with what Herbert Marcuse had called an overcompensatory “surplus repression” — “surplus” because this politico-legal censorship is unreasonably layered over the inescapable, more organic censorships of our symbolically coded dreams and guilt-ridden, patricidal history.
Yet if we submit to living our post-industrial alienations as highly rationalized — or even unrationalized — pleasures, society will barely let us have even those, for surplus repression, codified as cultural or political censorship, returns with a venom, condemning non-reproductive sexualities, delegitimizing protest, demanding consumerism, and paradoxically encouraging both bodily self-denial and materialist acquisitiveness. Between the tribal warrior’s exaggerated phallic sheath and the anatomical incorrectness of a child’s plastic doll lie the traces of an unnecessarily bizarre history — humor becomes not only the antipode of censorship but its end result. In fascistic scenarios, the censorships are unequivocal; in liberal-democratic ones, the censorships are more intellectually insulting, for legal and municipal authorities never bother to claim truths but merely reconcile arbitrarily inherited prohibitions with slowly evolving “community standards.”
Attempts at subversion usually fail because they deal in quantity rather than quality, offering up sensational extremes of content rather than qualitatively new genres. Supposedly “controversial” texts that trade in libidinal violence rarely if ever challenge extant genres, and in fact are too easily appropriated by or repositioned within existing genres that — like capitalism itself — craftily absorb and commodify outside threats. Attempting to avoid this pattern of initial opposition, temporary censorship, and eventual synthesis or absorption, many studies of censorship follow the work of Annette Kuhn, who abandons the one-way “prohibition model” of censorship, which naively assumes censors interfere with a pure, unconstructed reality. Arguing along familiar lines of 1980s anti-essentialism, Kuhn posits a “productive” model of censorship that sees the censorship not as a direct intervention but as part and parcel of the construction and consciousness of early film grammar.4 But while all potential lives are obviously constructed through reality principles — even those in Marcusse’s Narcissistic state would still act within historical moments — no degree of cultural-studies wishful thinking can veil the fact that constructed realities are not cooperative, egalitarian affairs but systems of domination dependent on the masses’ tacit, alienated consent. Furthermore, if our realities are the products of both willed construction and unwilled interference — the two variables are entangled, not exclusive — the result is still inherently alienated, for we are allowed to participate only within the generic sociopathy created by the culture industry’s overlording surplus repression. Though postmodernism would deny any unmediated state of being, and while sociology might suggest that Freud’s primal father is merely an allegorical starting point for charting a history of bureaucracy, we might reasonably imagine with Marcuse an unrepressed, pre-bureaucratic life that judges pleasures — and indeed every category of experience — with rational discrimination but without irrational prejudice. Unfortunately, even “productive” censorship remains irrational as long as it develops from the paranoia of surplus repression.
The phenomenon of Hong Kong’s “category III” films provides a useful case study in a censorship that is both a social construction and an intervention, as HK filmmakers have used this more liberal rating category to express previously disallowed social, political, and/or sexual concerns.5 The category III marker, created in 1989, pan-generically indicates a variety of films HK colonial authorities deemed socially threatening: glamorized gangster dramas, such as Triads, The Inside Story (Wo zai heishehui de rizi, 1989)6 and The Tragic Fantasy: The Tiger of Wanchai (Zuisheng mengsi zhi Wanzi zhi fu,1994), whose screenplays use underground triad slang forbidden by HK law; nihilistic horrors, like Run and Kill (Wushu, 1993) and The Untold Story (Baxian fandian zhi renrou chashaohbao, 1993), whose unaccountable sadisms are often interpreted as expressions of sublimated, ineffable anxiety over the 1997 handover; self-explanatorily titled sex-and-violence potboilers, such as Escape from Brothel (Huajie kuangben,1992) and Bloodshed in Nitery [sic] (Xuejian hongdengqu, 1993); costumed bawdry, of which the seriocomic Sex and Zen (Yuputuan zhi touqing baojian, 1991) and A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (Manqing shida kuxing, 1994) are best known; and more recent art films dealing with sexual politics, such as Lan Yu (2001) and Amphetamine (Anfei taming, 2010), whose gay fictions have introduced into local cinema frontal (if flaccid) male nudity in a liberal, film-festival manner. Though category III was instituted in 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square, there is, notably, no direct correlation between the two phenomena; the new category was apparently created as a reaction against the previous year’s censorship of imported prestige films, such as Hollywood’s The Accused (1988) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Nevertheless, this marginal, often low-budget, and less surveilled category made available to genre filmmakers spaces of cultural resistance, especially as the 1997 handover prompted repressed political anxieties to rise climactically to the surface.
For aficionados of HK new wave cinema, the issue of “1997 syndrome” became something of a deadening cliché, yet it was never a reification of the Western spectator, as handover anxiety cropped up endlessly in film texts, implicitly and explicitly. From Hong Kong Hong Kong (Nan yu nu, 1983) to Police Story 3: Supercop (Jingcha gushi 3: Chaoji jingcha, 1992), from On the Run (Wangming yuanyang,1988) to Rock n’ Roll Cop (Shenggang yihao tongjifan (1994), from The Bodyguard from Beijing (Zhongnanhai baobiao, 1994) to Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer (Qunian yanhua tebie duo, 1998), the theme of 1997-ism appeared irrepressibly. Yet political commentary in pre-1997, mainstream HK cinema — perhaps excluding the more verbose films of Allen Fong or Evans Chan — was generally coy and hardly contentious, limited mainly to offhand remarks, the non-confrontational humanism of Ann Hui, or perilously light satire, as in Her Fatal Ways (Biaojie, ni haoye!, 1991). But if the newly installed category III manufactured subgenres in which the repressed could return more freely, what exactly was returning, and why had political subjects been repressed earlier with such surplus zeal? An answer to these questions requires a brief summary of prior film censorship in the former colony, where British censors automatically tended to equate “politics” with radical leftism.
In accordance with the usual ideology of censorship, the Censorship Authority withheld consistent or even rational explanations for its policies, allowing itself enough flexibility to improvise, back-pedal, or manufacture paranoia as needed. Generally, censors bandied the euphemistic term “political reasons” to raise suspicions of real or imagined communist ideology, particularly after 1958, the year the Great Leap began and Maoist modernization exploded in full force.9 Films and textbooks published in the 1950s couldn’t display the words “the People’s Republic of China,” show Mao Zedong’s visage or communist China’s five-starred national flag, or “indicate that China’s capital is Beijing.”10 Perhaps most tellingly, approved history textbooks in Hong Kong were disallowed to discuss Chinese history beyond the 1911 republican revolution. While the British presumably might have liked to recount fully the fall of Qing dynasticism, one imagines that broaching post-1911 republicanism would raise the specter of its demise, the ensuing warlordism of the 1920s, and the communism that would later “resolve” China’s internal contentions.
If commercial HK filmmakers working within this history of rightist surplus repression unsurprisingly avoided political controversy, it was equally unsurprising that colonialism’s impending finale demanded opportunities for long-denied catharsis. Though category III did become a kind of “productive” censorship in the early and mid-1990s, I should stress that its attempted metaphors are often crude, ritualistic, and rarely progressive in the liberal-humanist sense. The films’ obsessions with bodily violation tend to be as generically repetitive as those of the Japanese pinku eiga of the 1960s and early 70s, which ritually reified leftist dissent with materialistic images of rape and juvenile sexual rebellion. On the other hand, numerous category III sexploitations feature ambisexual or bisexually curious plotlines that, in the mid-1990s, were more enlightened than the openly homophobic HK films which preceded them, such as as Tsui Hark’s Don’t Play with Fire (Diyi leixing weixian, 1980) and The Big Heat (Chengshi tejing, 1988), or Sammo Hung’s lamentable Pantyhose Heroes (Zhifen shuangxiong, 1991). Category III cinema reached a dense concentration between 1992 to 1994, and in 1993 — the year that most conspicuously marked the pre-1997 devolution of HK cinema’s production values — approximately a third of all films were rated III, even top box office items such as Flirting Scholar (Tang bohu dian qiuxiang, 1993) and (rather inexplicably) Once Upon a Time in China IV (Huang feihong zhi si: Wangzhe zhi feng, 1993). By the late 1990’s and especially 2000’s, category III films had faded into obscurity, partly because the post-1997 film industry as a whole deflated economically, and partly because recent films must be marketable in the tightly censored Mainland,12 where even apolitical films dealing with folk superstition and ghosts are deemed “regressive.”
After cuckolding and murdering a gangland boss in Ebola‘s opening scene, Wong flees to post-apartheid Johannesburg, where he works illegally in a Chinese restaurant, suffering penurious wages and rampant anti-Chinese discrimination. Even more repellent than the antihero of Yau and Wong’s previous The Untold Story (which this film openly parodies), the shabby protagonist cannot even find a whore willing to fondle him and is reduced to the ignominy of masturbating into a raw chicken breast while eavesdropping on the nocturnal rapture of his middle-class boss. When venturing into an Ebola-afflicted tribal area to purchase discount swine, Wong cannot help but rape a semi-comatose tribal woman he fails to realize is infected with the disease. After he becomes a carrier of Ebola, he not only finds time to carve his petit bourgeois employers into “African pork buns” but embarks on an infectious spree throughout Johannesburg and later Hong Kong, bloodily liquefying an oppressive reality principle with his primeval, organ-dissolving lusts. For director Yau, Wong’s character is an “instinctual child” and a “primitive” whose desperate, random acts of violence demonstrate that “the lower class has many ways of revenge” against a patriarchal cum bourgeois regime.15 Of course, the attempted metaphor has clear limitations, and actor Wong is more realistic. “But their revenge is helpless . . . they have no knowledge and no money,” Wong responds16, reminding us that while category III shock may provide subversive pleasures to sub-proletarian audiences, such pleasures are in fact the very problem, for the temporary, alienated release they offer to the disenfranchised excuses and masks the reality principle’s overarching oppressions. In Marcusian fashion, pleasure — at its most controlled and transitory — becomes a tool of the oppressor.
Onto this dichotomy of infanticide and patricide is frequently layered the theme of male impotence. In the extremely violent A Day without a Policeman (Moujing shifen, 1993), Simon Yam’s divorced cop must regain his lost manhood and overcome his fear of the villains’ phallic AK-47s,19 while the perennially abused male hero of Brother of Darkness (1994) decries his powerlessness when frontally displaying his limp penis before his girlfriend (a shot censored in the HK release but present in the Taiwanese version). In some scenarios — such as those of Dr. Lamb (Gaoyang yisheng, 1992), The Untold Story, and Twist (Zeiwong, 1995) — themes of impotence and patricide are symbolically combined when the villainous sociopath, rather than suffering the murder demanded of a truly potent primal father, is revealed as ultimately powerless or infantile when tortured at the hands of fascistic police. In Twist, the torture becomes openly sodomitic and effeminizing, as Simon Yam’s incorrigible, charismatic, and eventually captured thief must endure penile electroshock and anal penetration with an industrial water hose as part of police interrogation. The subgenre’s rebounding system of sadistic infanticide and vengeful patricide gives rise to an admittedly too-convenient allegory: the films apparently attempt to rationalize the impending political scenario of a child (HK) endangered by an all-consuming father (Mainland China) who must be either cathartically destroyed or tortured into passivity and infantilism. Themes of patricide and infanticide rebound and mix so freely, in fact, that the rebounding itself renders the two themes nearly indistinguishable after one has seen enough of these films. The resultant “patri-infanticide” proposes a synthesis that recalls Freud’s explanation for the paradox of the Christian Trinity: the father and son must be mixed into a single (if still magically separable) entity such that the otherwise usurping son and otherwise domineering father might reconcile transcendentally and guiltlessly. If we accept that patricide and infanticide in category III horror become nearly indistinguishable themes, then beneath category III’s unrepressed sadism and much-discussed “anxiety” lurks the optimistic hope that former colony and fatherland may confusedly coexist.
Less self-conscious but more surprising is The Sweet Smell of Death (Luoming geluofang, 1994),21 by all conventional standards a laughably bad film that nevertheless does what supposedly outré cult films refuse to do: consider without irony an authoritarian male protagonist as a passive object of rape. The film’s hero is a chauvinistic, misogynistic cop who mocks rape complainants but soon becomes the target of a bisexual, chloroform-using rapist. Detaining the suspected rapist for questioning, the cop demands a sperm sample and then, when the suspect refuses, proceeds to masturbate the rapist at gunpoint to procure a specimen, whereupon the rapist licks the officer’s gun in lascivious defiance. After much ludicrous cat-and-mouse, the film finally arrives at its raison d’etre when the flabbily bodied, rather dim cop is drugged by the rapist, stripped, and sodomized. Humiliated, he hesitantly raises his gun to his desecrated temple, but there will be no simply suicidal cleansing. Nor, apparently, can there be the feminist consciousness-raising that attends the victim of the female rape-revenge formula, for after the cop shoots his rapist dead, the credits roll abruptly, even defensively, forestalling any enlightened denouement. Obviously, there is nothing progressive about this homophobic scenario as such — notably, the rapist’s death, like the hero’s violated anus, remains offscreen, as if the film cannot confront the generic ramifications of a male rape-revenge plot whose hero is not a civilian (like Ned Beatty in Deliverance) but a representative of supposedly inviolable legal authority. Nevertheless, the continually stretching boundaries (and low budgets) of category III do allow for the simple existence of such an unsellable plot, whereas mainstream Hollywood or HK cinemas would balk at the very possibility of having their action heroes illegally penetrated. More importantly, the stealthily nonheternornmative scenarios of Red to Kill and The Sweet Smell of Death do what Marcuse says the reality principle never does: ask a repressed audience (here, young heterosexual males) to consider an object of desire radically different from the objects it is ideologically expected to desire.
If besieged masculinity is the dominant theme of category III’s “Confucianist” horrors, other category III films reveal a converse scheme of female empowerment by repositioning the avenging femme castratrice within recognized action-film or martial arts tropes. Most frequently cited in this respect is queer director Clarence Ford’s Naked Killer (Chiluo gaoyang, 1992), which posits a universe of man-hating lipstick lesbians who evince not penis envy but a desire to negate (rather than claim) the dangling monstrosity of masculine dominion. Often overlooked in Naked Killer is that the lesbian heroine’s ultimate demise is prompted by a heterosexual transgression with a cop (again, Simon Yam) that violates her lesbian code of honor. The nether regions of category III elsewhere rewrite HK cinema’s rules of the woman warrior to allow her increasingly sexualized (if exploitative) participation. Offense Storm (Nutongdang xingfengbao, 1993) features a gang of pretty, bat-wielding castrators, while in Rock on Fire (Jimi dangan zhi zhiming youhuo, 1994) female killers tear out men’s jugulars, gouge their predacious eyes, and fight with them one-on-one in the boxing ring. Marginally more enlightened, the action-rape revenge hybrid Passionate Killing in the Dream (Yunyu diliugan, 1992) includes a promiscuous, kung fu lesbian who spends much screen time scolding rogues for their homophobia.
Hau’s next “ambisexual” film, the barely released Crazy (Siji sharenkuang 2: Nanfeng,23 1999), comes across as a perverse, unsentimental variation on Julian Lee’s category III art film The Accident (Xinyuan yima, 1999), as a married yet bisexually curious taxi driver, Ah Huei, meets the man of his dreams, Michael, while adrift in a noirish sea of existential loneliness. While in bed with his distant wife, Ah Huei masturbates thinking about Michael, whom we later learn is (of course) a homicidal lunatic; here, actor Vincent Lam (as Ah Huei) commences one of numerous semi-nude scenes that apparently attempt to coax a latent homosexual gaze from a category III audience expecting the usual sexploitation. After a typically nonsensical serial killer plot develops, Ah Huei, wanting revenge on insensitive killer Michael, asks his wife to seduce Michael’s girlfriend, as if their lesbianism will transitively fortify their own homosexual bond. Just as Michael’s lustful killings remain conspicuously offscreen, so do the characters’ sexualities remain in a transitory, intermediate limbo, for the contortions of the film’s double-crossing murder plot never truly allow consummated sexual relations to come into existence. Though sometimes opaque to the point of incoherence, Crazy is ultimately about the polysemous spaces between sexual identities, successfully sidestepping the essentialist humanism that has informed many mainstream Hong Kong LGBT films of the past two decades.
Many of the category III films we’ve discussed challenge certain of the reality principle’s expectations, generic conventions, and symptoms, placing within generic filmmaking sexual or political ideas disallowed under previous categories of censorship. Nevertheless, it will be rightly argued that even at their least conventional, none of these films really undoes the fabric of the reality principle itself — the fabric is merely stretched a bit further to accommodate, appropriate, or absorb new themes. Critics influenced by Lacanianism or culturalist zeal may champion the psychic liberations of cinematic “pleasure,” but we cannot lose sight of our original Marcusian problem: generic pleasure, no matter how subversively it may be framed, merely numbs our alienations and masks our overriding cultural-industrial oppressions, for without shattering the genres of the reality principle, even our most savage, sybaritic pleasures can be nothing more than prearranged narcotics. As Marcuse says, “The most orgastic Liebestod still celebrates the most orgastic renunciation”25 of existence, for the Liebestod is neither a Nirvanic quietude (as it was for Wagner or Freud) nor an ecstatic rebellion (as it was for Camus) but simply another of the culture industry’s alienated illusions.26
Though the film is undoubtedly trans-phobic (the yinyao of the title can be translated as “flirtatious freaks” or “flirtatious monsters”) and frames Thailand as a site of the exotic other, the film, in its textual audacity, both transcends the polysemous subversions of Red to Kill and Crazy and dispenses with the coy transgender games of Tsui Hark’s The East Is Red (Dongfang bubai: Fengyun zaiqi, 1993) and other cross-dressing wuxia scenarios of the early 1990s. In Hero Dream, interpretation is rendered obsolete: the repressed vision of “monstrous” sexuality has not only surfaced without hermeneutic effort but has been placed in direct, clashing opposition with the reality principle that generic, heterosexist action films signify. (Mis-)directed at two conflicting audiences, Hero Dream presents a thesis (macho action film) and antithesis (transsexual pornography) that sit dissonantly unrequited, resulting in — depending on your viewpoint — a disorienting Eisensteinian clash, a Brechtian alienation effect, or something like the old surrealist game of exquisite corpse, in which multiple authors contribute to a single text without knowing of the other authors’ contributions.
The film’s denial of reconciliation and generic synthesis is its unique if unintentional triumph. While the reality principle and culture industry are in the business of absorbing and digesting attempted subversions, Hero Dream presents a dominant, formulaic element and a marginal, subversive element that ideologically refuse to be absorbed into one another. Here the two elements sit side-by-side, the subversive, queer half unrepressed by the normative, rigid half, the anarchic id visible in the same frame with the ego, the other in bed with the self. If the two elements are to be reconciled, the synthesis will occur in the minds of the audience, not in the text, for when the abject and the normative are finally presented equivalently, side-by-side, the audience will be newly empowered to judge which side is real and which is the ideological illusion.
- Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization. New York: Vintage Books, 1955, 14. [↩]
- Ibid, 42. [↩]
- Indeed, I cannot think of a particular content that in recent American cinema could not be culturally appropriated; for instance, no mainstream American filmmaker of note openly advocates political assassination, communism, pedophilia, incest, or other unassimilable taboos. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) obviously stops far short of advocating revolution, and its conclusion remains unconvincing precisely because the film was itself sold as a commodity. Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) is probably a more revolutionary film. [↩]
- That Kuhn (in her classic Cinema, Censorship, and Sexuality) cherry-picks films only from cinema’s inchoate era, when cinematic rules were still developing, also makes her social constructionist approach a fait accompli. [↩]
- The current HK film rating system includes Category I (general audiences), Category IIa (equivalent to an American PG or PG-13), Category IIb (equivalent to a hard PG-13 or R), and Category III (audiences eighteen or older). [↩]
- For the sake of consistency, both Hong Kong and Mainland film titles are given in Mandarin (pinyin) transliteration. [↩]
- Zhou, Yi. The History of Leftist Struggles in Hong Kong. Translation by King-to Yeung. Hong Kong: Leeman, 2002, 182. [↩]
- Ibid, 182. [↩]
- Ibid, 182. [↩]
- Ibid, 182. [↩]
- Ibid, 185. [↩]
- Consider, for instance, Stephen Chow’s innocuous, Mainland-friendly CJ7 (2008), which has none of the irreverence of his 1990s films. [↩]
- From the commentary track on the American DVD release of Ebola Syndrome from Discotek Media, 2007. [↩]
- Yau, Discotek Media commentary, ibid. [↩]
- Yau, ibid. [↩]
- Wong, ibid. [↩]
- Despite category III’s professed permissiveness, the more extreme III-rated films still suffer arbitrary cuts for sex and violence; a consistent rationale for cuts across all III-rated films is elusive, to say the least, when HK and Taiwanese prints are compared. [↩]
- In Brother of Darkness, the patricide is only metaphorical, but the impotent hero’s killing of his evil elder brother is consistent with themes of patriarchal downfall. [↩]
- In the film’s climax, Yam’s cop reunites with his estranged wife to kill the rampaging villain by anally impaling him with a protruding tree branch — the effeminizing moment is slightly trimmed in the still-censored HK version, but present in Taiwanese versions. [↩]
- Other category III films continue in eroticizing the rapist himself, such as The Wrath of Silence (Chenmo de guniang,1994), a direct parody of Red to Kill, and Raped by an Angel 2: The Uniform Fan (Qiangjian 2 zhifu youhuo, 1998). [↩]
- The Chinese title makes it clear that the villain uses chloroform (geluofang) to drug his victims. [↩]
- Though Joe Hau Wing-Choi (sometimes credited as “John Hau”) is marginal as a director, he was an accomplished art director and costume designer throughout the 1980s. [↩]
- While the Chinese title implies that this is a direct sequel to Passion Unbounded, there is no relation beyond the films’ shared director. [↩]
- The English title is a misnomer; “Trinity of Lust” is more appropriate. The film exists in various softcore and hardcore versions, including a more explicit version released in Germany; my summary refers to the standard HK release. 1995 also witnessed Julie Lee’s Trilogy of Lust 2, which, bereft of politics, does feature a novel murder by staple gun and giant poisonous octopus. [↩]
- Ibid., 108. [↩]
- In this, the Liebestod reveals a marked characteristic of capitalism, for it combines two seemingly irreconcilable elements — love and death — into a newly fetishistic and thereby digestible genre. [↩]
- I had previously remarked on Hero Dream at https://www.brightlightsfilm.com/43/atonal.php [↩]