Two HK classics blur – make that erase – gender boundaries with thrilling results
Films from Hong Kong have emerged to mainstream non–Chinese-speaking film audiences in the United States. Last year, at the NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles, a weeklong run of Hong Kong films outgrossed any other film festival at that theatre to date, and held the highest total weekend gross for the entire Los Angeles area.1 These foreign films have found extremely receptive audiences, both because of and despite the fact that the mass media has chosen to administer the Hong Kong films from the hopper of entertainment. Critics claim that the Hong Kong films have “resurrected the old Hollywood standards of entertainment,” and in fact “offer a refuge from the prosaic American product.”2 The modern American viewer is thus posited with a sense of nostalgia for the good old days. This is not an uncommon perspective for those who come to be entertained. However, it is extremely uncommon for an American film audience to seek and find satisfaction for such a perspective of homesickness in a Chinese-language foreign film from Hong Kong. It seems remarkable that the American viewer is receptive to this Hong Kong film – this foreign-language, subtitled product of another culture. However, the notion of entertainment is pivotal in understanding the peculiar situation of American cross-cultural consumption of foreign Hong Kong film product, revealing both what is really being consumed and what is not.
Many recent publications sanction and valorize the Hong Kong film as entertainment, but what has been said about why and how these films are entertaining? Entertainment seems to be served easily, consumed readily, and accepted casually. The notion that entertainment is such an obvious, self-evident, commonsense idea has encouraged Hong Kong films to slip easily into our mainstream spectatorship without much scrutiny. Furthermore, part of the meaning of the notion of entertainment is “anti-seriousness, against coming on heavy about things.” Hence entertainment is uniquely able to act as its own justification: I like it just because it is entertaining, it is entertaining just because I like it. Thus the notion of entertainment is at once a channel that opens up accessibility and allows viewers to willingly receive a product, and a force that binds the product and acts as a protective barrier, resistant to probing.
The Hong Kong film is easily administered to and accepted by the mainstream audience, not only because it is bound by entertainment, but because it is gagged by it. Hong Kong, the distant location of the product’s originating culture, becomes merely “Hong Kong,” a phrase emptied of all its meaning and “foreignness” except for, and because of its association to, the notion of entertainment. In this way, films from Hong Kong become herded and flattened as “Hong Kong film.” Thus serious questions about the individual Hong Kong films have been as seemingly inappropriate3 and absent as serious examinations of notions of entertainment.
The purpose of this article is to investigate a notion of entertainment through a specific analysis of the 1992 film Swordsman II and its 1993 sequel The East Is Red. Richard Dyer, in his recent groundbreaking book Only Entertainment (Routledge 1992), claims that film studies has been rich in the “but also” approach to studying entertainment. Such work claims that such and such is entertaining, granted and that’s fine, but that it is also something else, and then goes on to talking about this something else: “Time and again, we are not told why Westerns are exciting, why horror films horrify, why weepies make us cry, but instead are told that, while they are exciting, horrifying and tear-jerking, the films also deal with history, society, psychology, gender roles, indeed the meaning of life.”4
Although this article does indeed deal with gender roles, history, society, and possibly even the meaning of life, it is not written to map out (sexual difference, for example) in Dyer’s “but also” fashion. My point is to explore why the Swordsman films are entertaining by arguing how this particular film incites a pleasurable engagement for the viewer through its play on the social terrain of gender.
Dyer sets up several approaches to looking at “entertainment.” In the sugar on the pill approach, entertainment is the sugar and ideology the pill. Defining entertainment itself as an ideology is “sugaring the pill” (5). The direction Dyer finds most interesting (which is also most appropriate for my investigation) is “conceptualizing radical pleasure.” He describes this methodology as that which is concerned with the ideology of entertainment, but is also not anxious to throw the baby of enjoyment out with the bath water of ideology.
This pleasure is one that is unclouded by misgiving. Dyer refers to Roland Barthes’s distinction between the “plaisir” of order and the “jouissance” of abandon, and Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of the “carnivalesque.” Such definitions are of a kind of enjoyment that evades the constrictions of “conservative” pleasure. Dyer terms this enjoyment “unruly delight”; an interest in, and valorization of, kinds of pleasure that seem to break free from the discipline of formally well-behaved narrativity and staid, coherent points of view.5)
Swordsman offers precisely such unruly delight. This “radical pleasure” can be located in an examination of the way the film utilizes notions of cross-dressing, through the depiction of the character named Fong/Invincible Asia. Fong’s guise remains fairly consistent throughout the film, and the following discussion is not exactly about transvestism or “drag.” Beyond garb, it is the dynamic of recognition and misrecognition that is radically at play in Swordsman II.6 It is this specific employment of signification that lends itself to Annette Kuhn’s discussion of cross-dressing, in the chapter “Sexual Disguise and Cinema,” from her book Power of the Image (Routledge 1985).
Kuhn’s work discusses the construction of stories that pivot around the mistaken identifications of gender. Swordsman II is outwardly structured as the narrative of Fong’s power-mad struggle to rule all of China. His desire for power is so great that he castrates himself in order to attain invincible and mystical powers. Although at the outset Fong is clearly identified as heterosexual and masculine, mistaken gender identification is pervasively discussed through the progression of Swordsman II. Ling, a swordsman who meets Fong coincidentally, identifies Fong as a nameless female, and the two become infatuated. Later, Ling sleeps with a woman believed to be Fong but actually Fong’s mistress Cici, who has been instructed by Fong to act as a stand-in. As a result of Ling’s identification of Fong, Swordsman II is ultimately about Ling’s extraordinary relationship with Fong. In fact, the story at the heart of the film, and the one that the viewer is thoroughly engaged with by the end of it, is not the narrative of Fong’s power struggle, but this relationship between Fong and Ling. Although Fong plainly tells his mistress Cici early on that his ambition is to have his name go down in history, and for all people to remember him as the invincible and the great, this statement is curiously transformed by the end of the film. In the final scene, as Fong’s death approaches, he refuses to tell Ling whether or not they actually slept together, for Fong’s final wish is that Ling remember her/him and mourn her/his death for the rest of his life.
Kuhn claims that the narrativization of such themes of mistaken identifications of gender may provoke questions about the way in which gender is constructed. It is this discussion, which “may even subject to a certain interrogation, the culturally taken-for-granted dualities of male/female and masculine/feminine,”7 that applies direct pressure to what is at stake in the pleasure of Swordsman II through its deployment of the Fong character. The concept of idealized love set forth by the end of Swordsman II is not defined clearly as staid, coherent, and heterosexual. Although Kuhn notes that the transgression of such a strategy is surely limited, she crucially points out that: “Perhaps the pleasure of the most popular films of sexual disguise does nevertheless lie in their capacity to offer, at least momentarily, a vision of fluidity of gender options; to provide a glimpse of a world outside the order normally seen or thought about – a utopian prospect of release from the ties of sexual difference that bind us into meaning, discourse, culture.”8
In Richard Dyer’s words, Annette Kuhn is talking about radical pleasure. Thus, tracking the descriptions of such a utopian prospect leads us to an analysis of the entertainment of boundary-breaking pleasure in Swordsman II.
Kuhn introduces what she terms the “view behind” of cross-dressing/mistaken identification of gender films. This “view behind” is the spectator’s knowledge of the true gender of the character in drag (the actor’s true gender). Kuhn argues that this knowledge creates a source of humor when watching the travesty of the character in drag. For example, in the popular American film Tootsie (1982), the perspective of the male character of Michael is made clear to the viewer, and it is precisely in the fact that we know it is Michael in drag as Tootsie that the tension of the comedy rests: we are privileged extreme close-ups of Michael’s lip sweating, expressing nervousness, or adjusting his wig when he wants to kiss the female protagonist Julie. It is this “view behind” that allows us to see and laugh at the travesty, not to mention deflecting a potential lesbian encounter from the viewer.
In Swordsman II, the Fong character, whose gender identification is in question, is played by Lin Ching-Hsia, an actress extremely well known to Hong Kong film culture as female. In fact, she has been the quintessential Hong Kong leading lady for over fifteen years. Oddly enough, Lin has recently been cast more than once in drag-engaged roles, through her collaborations with Hong Kong writer/director/producer Tsui Hark. Tsui’s clever usage of Lin moves beyond the dynamic of Kuhn’s “view behind,” functioning instead as what I would term a “view outside.” The purpose here is not to see behind the garb, but to look beyond the narrative completely, in order to know it is Lin Ching-Hsia, the famous Hong Kong actress. In Lin’s previous drag-engaged roles in Dragon Inn (1987) and Peking Opera Blues (1986), the narrative utilizes the knowledge of the view outside as part of the plot’s elaboration. In these two films, the visual cue, which triggers the audience’s recognition of Lin in character in drag (and one need not be familiar with the actress Lin in order to recognize the conventional signs of gender articulated by her face), is all that is necessary to convey that what is being presented to us is a female character in the film who has had to dress in male garb for some reason or another. This visual cue of the female Lin personage as actress is extremely effective – no other narrative elaboration is necessary.
In Swordsman II, the workings are calculatedly different. Once again, the visual cue of Lin Ching-Hsia is used for the viewer, but the designated gender roles of the narrative are not as they were in the above examples. Instead of being cast as a female character, she is to play a character who is initially male. The fact that this male character is castrated and is to transform into a woman through the course of the film makes this view outside all the more interesting. The utilization of the view outside in this scenario encourages the viewer to perceive the male Fong character as a woman. Thus, the spectator is deliberately set up to misrecognize, to mistake Fong’s identity of gender as female, just as the Ling character does in the narrative. Because we can view Fong as Lin Ching Hsia, the famous Hong Kong actress, rather than as the castrated power-mad masculine Uncle, the plausibility of a romance between Ling (male) and Fong (understandably female) is relayed clearly. The identification is clear, but the traditional boundaries of appropriateness and gender are exceedingly blurred.
Kuhn points out the bounds that are being traversed in gender misrecognition: “Discourses on gender identity and sexual difference hold together a range of notions centering on biological sex, social gender, sexual identification and sexual object choice. The incorporation of these in constructs of gender identity is a historically grounded ideological project whose effect, it has been argued, has been to set up a heterogeneous and psychic construct as a unitary, fixed and unproblematic attribute of human subjectivity. Within this ideological project, subjectivity is always gendered and every human being is, and remains, either male or female … ideology gender identity is not merely absolute: it also lies at the very heart of human subjectivity. Gender is what crucially defines us, so that an ungendered subject cannot, in this view, be human.”9
In this very concise summary of the ideological project of gender, Kuhn brings to the surface a very keen suggestion: that the ungendered subject is not human.
Barbara Creed’s article “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” from Fantasy and Cinema (BFI 1989), edited by James Donald, discusses what Julia Kristeva terms abjection: “that which does not respect borders, positions, rules, that which disturbs identity, system, order.” In general terms, Kristeva is attempting to explore the different ways in which abjection, as a source of horror, works within patriarchal societies, as a means of separating the human from the nonhuman.10 Although Creed uses Kristeva’s ideas in a discussion of the modern horror film text, she describes a monster grounded in notions of abjection, particularly in relation to many abominations, including corporeal alteration.
In Swordsman II, Fong does not simply make a smooth and easy transition from male to female. The supernatural change demands that he endeavor exactly a corporeal altercation of castration, and because she/he lingers in this “borderless and disturbing” in-between space of masculine and feminine while in transit, the final transformation does not make Fong a bona fide woman. Instead, Fong becomes the undifferentiated abject, a monster – and even worse, a “monstrous feminine.”11
As I have stated before, the viewer is set up to want the Ling and Fong characters to be together. If the utopian prospect is of a vision at least momentarily of the fluidity of gender options, then the most radical dynamic of pleasure put forth in Swordsman II is the prospect of loving the monster: the taboo of embracing the abject.
At the end of the final bout between Fong and Ling, despite the fact that Ling knows that the person before him is the notorious transformed Fong, he jumps to embrace him/her, risking his own life to exclaim that he wants him/her to be Cici, and that he wants to have spent the night with Fong – monstrous feminine or not. This exclamation by Ling could also be read as his needing to settle the score: if he had slept with her, he could achieve a certain resolution – he would know the truth of Fong’s body, the truth of a differentiated body making the love relationship a lot easier to swallow. After all, as Kuhn points out, “what is at stake in the expression of the dualism of appearance and essence is a fundamentalism of the body – an appeal to bodily attributes as the final arbiter of truth.”12
Nonetheless, Fong hurls Ling back up to safety, and falls to his/her own destruction (although not ultimately, as there is a sequel …), taking the secret of whether they did or did not spend the night together with him/her, leaving Ling to truly remember him/her as undifferentiated and monstrous, and to continue to love and feel remorse for his/her death for the rest of his life. Of course, the viewer knows the truth of Cici, the stand-in, and this knowledge may be read as the patriarchal safety net from consummating relationships with monsters. However, it can also be read as heightening the impact and reception of Fong’s finale, functioning as Fong’s “ace” in refusing resolution for Ling, as well as refusing closure for the audience. By not spending the night with Ling, we too know not the truth of Fong’s concealed body. We too are left forever with the undifferentiated abject.
The Secret of the Body
This concept of the secret of the body is further explored in the film’s sequel, The East Is Red. The sequel picks up the story four months later, at the site of Fong’s death scene, Black Cliff. A Spanish general named Golida, with a Chinese government official named Koo, has come to look for a sunken Dutch ship. It is rumored that Fong never really died, and while at Black Cliff, both of the men are curious to see Fong’s grave for themselves. They meet an old and mysterious gray-haired person (gender is not conveyed), who claims to be the warden of the Black Cliff and leads them to the grave. Koo expresses doubts about Fong’s death and wants proof in the form of the corpse. Before further discussion, Golida and his men explode the tomb with gunpowder. When the coffin is opened, the Spanish general begins to disrobe the corpse with his sword. Golida reveals that he was never interested in the sunken ship, and is really after the mythical sacred scroll, believed to hold the secret to Fong’s power.
In Swordsman II, we learned that the valuable sacred scroll and its secrets have been inscribed on and pointedly hidden in the inside of Fong’s gown. The significance and power of the much sought-after and excessively protected “sacred scroll” can thus be read as an articulation of the truth of the fundamental body. To attain the scroll would require the undressing of Fong. This cleverly set up circumstance not only allows one to attain the scroll on the robe by stripping the clothes off the body, but the act yields an opportunity to read and differentiate the sight of the exposed body. Thus, in The East Is Red’s opening scene described above, Koo’s assertion that seeing is believing is not far from the truth. If bodily attributes are the final arbiter of gender, Golida’s attempt at learning the “secret of Fong’s power” is almost achieved as he attempts to disrobe the corpse – not by attaining the scroll but through disclosing the secret of Fong’s visible body.
Pious and upright, Koo opposes Golida’s desecration of the corpse, and manages to stop Golida with the aid of the old warden, who exhibits great fighting abilities. The secret remains hidden, and Koo and the enigmatic warden are left to speak privately. Koo expresses his suspicion that the warden is actually Fong, and says that he would die for a glimpse of Fong’s true face. The warden removes a mask to reveal the face of Fong. Since the final battle (of Swordsman II), Fong has been invisibly in seclusion and anonymity. Koo informs Fong that while she/he has been hiding, many others pretending to be Fong have continued to wreak havoc in the world. Fong vows to put an end the misuse of her/his name and has Koo lead her/him to the frauds.
When Koo asks for a glimpse of Fong’s true face, the secret of the body and the dualism of appearance and essence are no longer an elision of gender. Koo doesn’t want to know Fong’s sex, for he has completely accepted the existence of Fong’s abjection. Instead, he wants to catch a glimpse of Fong the monster. If the ungendered subject, as argued by Kuhn, Creed, and Kristeva, cannot be human, and Fong has so stealthily convinced us to transgressively love this undifferentiated monster in Swordsman II, then the argument in The East Is Red must negotiate the extension of this conclusion: is the monstrous abject Fong a human being? The boundaries of identity have been blurred by Swordsman II, and in The East Is Red, Fong essentially has to make the passage back to convince us she is a human being in order to transgress bounds.
The East Is Red explores this realm through a complex narrative use of masks and masquerade. Throughout the film, many of the characters wear masks. The individual currently masquerading in the world as invincible Fong is actually the weak-hearted and fragile Snow, a woman who was once Fong’s lover; the beautiful mistress of Snow/Fong is discovered to be a vile and repulsive ninja sent by Mo Yan Lu Chong, the fierce Japanese ruler; he in turn is exposed as a weak dwarf/sorcerer in Mo Yan Lu Chong’s armor; an occult leader claiming to be the human link to the ever-powerful Fong proves to be a powerless fraud; and a band of Fong-like robed individuals are actually outfitted prostitutes who obviously hide no secrets in their bodies. The above characterizations foreshadow Fong’s necessary passage – although these characters masquerade as dangerous, otherworldly beings far different from their true identities, all ultimately prove their human existence through their mortality.
Fong’s unmasking is much more complicated. Fong’s anger at being misunderstood and treated like a god drives him/her to murder massively and viciously in order to incur hate. However, rather than leveling Fong’s status; as a god, his/her efforts afford even more power. Furthermore, wearing the face of the old warden, dressing in prostitute’s attire, and climbing into Mo Yan Lu Chong’s armor does not make Fong more common. Instead, Fong continually adds layers that shield rather than expose identity. This ability to put on consecutive masks is also extremely empowering, and Fong’s mutability makes a vulnerable human face difficult to imagine. Fong too becomes confused in his/her goals, and the nonhuman god identity reaches a peak of monstrosity when Fong vanquishes the ship of Spaniards and forces them to pray to him/her. As I’ve said above, Swordsman II has already convinced us to accept this monstrous, abject characterization of Fong – in a sense it’s nothing new and hence no longer radical play. However, Fong ultimately does make the identity transgression – becoming “human” – through his/her relationship with Snow.
In Fong’s efforts to destroy the godly worship from others, Fong wrongly rejects Snow, for it is Snow’s human love, affection, and worship that is the key to proving Fong’s humanity. Fong fails to see this until the very end of the film. In the middle of a vicious battle and display of power that inadvertently lead to Snow’s death, Fong finally realizes his/her affection for Snow and stops fighting. Showing pain and remorse and finally reciprocating Snow’s love, Fong ultimately appears human as she/he tenderly cradles the dead Snow in his/her arms. Examining the notion of entertainment in relation to Swordsman II and The East Is Red, it is not surprising that entertainment is as devalued and silenced as it is. The phenomenal declaration of the “secret” of The Crying Game (Neil Jordan 1992) was invoked not only to maintain the entertainment (“Don’t tell, it’ll ruin the movie!”), but to silence the discussion of the radical pleasure of blurred and fluid gender options. If Hong Kong films are being gagged and emptied by the mass media, and explained away as “sheer entertainment,” it is the surest sign to start looking for plum articulations of unruly delight.
- Jeffrey Ressner, “Hong Kong’s Flashy Films Battle for American Fans,” The New York Times, May 9, 1993. [↩]
- Bob Stephens, “Hong Kong Goes Hollywood One Better,” San Francisco Examiner, April 18, 1993. [↩]
- Alan Stanbrook’s article “Under Western Eyes: An Occidental View of Hong Kong” begins: “First, to clear up any misconceptions, let me say what this article is not. It is not a learned treatise on Hong Kong movies, it is not semiological, psychoanalytical, structuralist or imbued with any kind of “ism’, political or aesthetic.” (Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalog, 1991). [↩]
- Dyer, 3. [↩]
- Dyer recognizes that this points to a “fantasy of being beyond responsibility and cerebration, the fantasy of regression.” But he also points out the reality of delight of abandon, and queries the implication that abandon is not itself a social construction. He writes however, that, “whatever the theorization, there is a recourse to unsocialised pleasure … this takes the form of a simple assertion that something is, after all, enjoyable and why not, even if it is ideologically unsound, a kind of born again hedonism …” (7 [↩]
- The fact that Fong’s gender identity is misrecognized through his/her silence, rather than purposefully executed and performed via drag, is boundary-breaking in its connotations of “passing”: “Passing demands a desire to become invisible. A ghost-life. An ignorance of connections … Passing demands quiet. And from that quiet – silence … Passing demands that you keep that knowledge (of history) to yourself.” Michelle Cliff, “Passing,” from Land of Look Behind (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1985). [↩]
- Kuhn, 50. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Kuhn, 52. [↩]
- Creed, 64. [↩]
- Of course, even Swordsman II ultimately complies with the need to destroy and purge the abject in the final purification/confrontation scene, which is complete with a gaping wound shot of Fong’s blood-gushing (!) monster body. [↩]
- Kuhn, 54. [↩]