Hong Kong Undercover

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  • Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 9, Number 4, 2008

    ISSN 14649373 Print/ISSN 14698447 Online/08/04052221 2008 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/14649370802386412

    Hong Kong undercover: an approach to collaborative colonialism

    LAW Wing-sang

    Taylor and FrancisRIAC_A_338808.sgm10.1080/14649370802386412Inter-Asia Cultural Studies1464-9373 (print)/1469-8447 (online)Original Article2008Taylor & Francis94000000December 2008Wing-sangLawlawws@ln.edu.hk


    Early Hong Kong colonial history offers a distinct angle for understanding the excep-tional circumstances in which a place was colonized by both the British and their Chinese collabora-tors. The term collaborative colonialism characterizes a political-cultural formation wheredescriptions of flows and trajectories of forces may be more helpful than history in illuminating thecolonys murky pasts. Full of treacheries, conspiracies, betrayals and mistrust, such pasts can alsohelp to explain the popularity of undercover figures in Hong Kongs movies. At risk of losing histrue identity, the undercover figure was received as a social victim in the early 1980s new wavethat followed the legacy of social realism. To feed the appetite for gang heroism, this victim soontransformed into a tragic hero agonized by moral anxieties. Yet the frame imposed by the police-gangster genre did not stop it from being used as a vehicle to reflect on Hong Kongs geo-politicalsituation: a place located in-between different political projects beyond the locals control, and grippedby the relentless march of policed-managerial modern order. A twist in the 1990s gave the undercoverfigure a cynicist and comedic turn. Postmodern celebrations of witty betrayal can be read as rewrit-ing the undercover story to reinscribe Hong Kongs fate: released from narcissistic heroism, newundercover images responding to the 1997 transition took identity less as a matter of authenticitythan of performance. Unravelling this historically-embedded structure of feelings shows how the wayhad long been paved for the success of the award-winning series

    Infernal Affairs

    , extending a deeperreach into the local politics of memory and time.



    : gangster films, structure of feeling, undercover, genre, city, colonialism, collaboration, Hong Kong

    Baudrillard writes in his book


    , The American city seems to have stepped right outof the movies. To grasp its secret, you should not, then, begin with the city and move

    inwards towards

    the screen; you should begin with the screen and move

    outwards towards

    thecity (Baudrillard 1988: 56, emphasis added). His suggested reverse movement unsettles theusual conception about relationship between cinema and city: namely, films are just amedium visually representing the material objective city. Baudrillards insight points, onthe contrary, to the fact that cities are never the sum of their physical parts but are alwayssaturated in the symbolic, increasingly couched in filmic images and filmic texts. The citiescan then be seen as possessing perceptible cinematic qualities. As John Orr writes, a film isboth representation of that living tissue of the city [including both the humdrum activitiesand public spectacle] and an integral element within it. It not only records and documentsthe symbolic. It is itself symbolic (Orr 2003: 285).

    The Baudrillardian conception of cityscape as


    , together with the notion ofthe cinematic city, has inspired many writers to research the relationships between cinemaand city (e.g. Davis 1990; Clarke 1997; Shiel and Fitzmaurice 2001, 2003). They are interestedin probing into how cinema has impacted upon the formation of cities as both physical andcultural constructs, and how the city has impacted upon cinema. In many important

  • Hong Kong undercover


    aspects, the concept of cinematic city is instrumental in efforts to understand HongKongnot only because Hong Kong once had a very spectacular film industry but alsobecause the city has made itself known to the world mainly through its screen images. The

    kung fu

    genre, Bruce Lees fist-fights, John Woos bullet-ballets, and Wong Kar-wais recent


    ed women (

    In the Mood for Love

    [2000]), constitute the screenscape, much moreso than the physical or human landscape, on which both the international images of HongKong and the local cultural identity are shaped, as witnessed by the prominence of JackieChans figure in the 2001 promotion campaign for Hong Kongs tourism.

    However, viewing the cityscape as screenscape would always run the risk of taking aspecific screenscape as the equivalent to the actual cityscape. Furthermore, such an exercisedoes not often question where and how the screen is viewed. One obvious example of thisdelusional universalism embedded in the drives to investigate the cinema-city relationshipcan be found in genre studies that are dominated by American framings. For example,before the phenomenal success in the 2007 Oscars of Martin Scorseses

    The Departed

    (2006)a remake of the Hong Kong blockbuster

    Infernal Affairs

    (20023) by Andrew Lau and AlanMakmost American film critics say they are awed by the scenes of action and violence inHong Kong gangster movies but bemused by their redundant or excessive sentimentality(Vesia 2002; Totaro 2000). In other words, what is particularly


    for them in HongKong movies is not any specific quality of the city other than its action and speed inscribedon the Hong Kong screen; or, the urban quality of Hong Kong is often captured throughclich such as cultural cosmopolitanism, confluences of the East and the West, etc. It isagainst this backdrop that while

    Infernal Affairs I

    swept the box office in most Asian citiesand won overwhelming acclaim in Hong Kong when it was released in 2002, the filmgarnered very polarizing reviews among American critics: for example, one hostile criticwho rated it harshly for merely duplicating


    s (1995) examination of the distinctionbetween cops and crooks concluded that the film is ultimately quite tepid (Schager 2004);another American review, this time very positive, stated that the film, being one of thetruest


    gangster films of all time, is a solid genre exercise (Zacharek 2004, empha-sis added). In another review, which might have nicely underscored the drive for Scorseseto do a remake of

    Infernal Affairs

    , film critic Zacharek says although Hollywood churns outa new cop thriller just about every other week, weve forgotten how to make true gangsterfilms, a genre we consider

    quintessentially American

    to the point where we feel we no longerhave to work at it (emphasis added). She goes on to complain that even though many ofour cop thrillers feature gangsters of one sort or another (and even though they often makebig money, worldwide), so many of these pictures clump together into a generically dullball. Its gotten to the point where we need Hong Kong to remind America who it is(Zacharek 2004).

    It is amazing that common to all these critics who presented divergent evaluations ofthe film is the shared assumption that within the global screenscape, the gangster genre isAmerican territory proper. Whereas

    The Departed

    is often credited for its nice depiction ofthe cops and mobsters of Boston (MacDonald 2006), its original from Hong Kong wasseldom viewed with much interest in seeing how well the series is emblematic of HongKong as a city, nor in which kind of cinematic qualities does Hong Kong excel that mighthave led to the success of

    Infernal Affairs

    that Zacharek (or Scorsese) admires. However, thispaper does not set out to compare

    The Departed


    Infernal Affairs

    , nor do I wish to engagein debates about

    Infernal Affairs

    itself (but see Law 2006); rather, I would like to take thatlittle controversy as a point of my departure from the current (American) global-genreregime to prepare the ground for an alternative account for the

    Infernal Affairs

    seriessuccess. This move necessitates a closer examination of the trajectories in which a vibrantsub-genre of undercover cops took shape in Hong Kong. It is certainly not an overstatementto argue that

    Infernal Affairs

    has a far closer lineage to this local generic formation in vogue

  • 524

    Law Wing-Sang

    in Hong Kong action cinema for decades than to the American gangster genre in a verygeneral sense. It is more important to understand that instead of simply being a replica oran extension of the American gangster genre, such a locally-developed sub-genre of under-cover cop story has emerged as a product of a unique historical experience of colonialpowers that Hong Kong gained since its inception.

    In the following, I will first explain how the peculiarities of colonial history of HongKong have set the scene for the identity crisis played out in its long colonial past, mostvividly in the post-war years in particular. This quick historical tour will end with a briefdiscussion of a concept of collaborative colonialism which I think capable of capturing themain characteristics of a socio-cultural formation underpinning the (post)colonial subjectiv-ity of Hong Kong people. I will then turn to an elaboration of how this troubled subjectivityhas found its manifestations in variants of a specific cinematic figure: the undercover cop. Iwill then try to demonstrate how the undercover figure has been evolving throughout thelast few decades in Hong Kong cinema. I see the review of such trajectories, both of thesocial and the cinematic, as offering us an important mode of access to the historically-specific