November 25, 2009

The Festive Double: Reading the Image of Home in the Chinese New Year Films by Jeff Lau and Wong Kar-wai / Dr. Fiona Yuk-wa Law

New Year is a time for fun; it is also the time to plan ahead what one should do in the near future. Chinese New Year is a time both for fun and resuming the Chinese tradition passed on us from the ancestors. In addition to enjoying a variety of food, having a few days’ holiday and paying annual visit to relatives and friends, going to the movie-theatre to watch a spectacular blockbuster or farcical comedy is one of the most popular family activities during this important holiday, especially during the last decades when shops did not open during the Chinese New Year. This is also the time when bunches of local-made Chinese New Year films, or hesuipian (賀歲片), are shown. Laughter and happiness are the objectives of making and watching the Chinese New Year films in the local society. In this paper, I am going to look at what is beyond the laughter and emotional uplifting. I would suggest that the image of home and the homecoming motif are the hidden or unconscious agendas that local audiences have been seeking in their watching experience. In the context of Hong Kong, such a collective film-watching experience in this specific festive time has generated an imagined Chineseness that is persistent in helping to construct a cultural identity, especially before 1997. While I had in other occasions focused on the articulations of Chineseness, here I am framing my presentation on the image of home in the films by Jeff Lau and Wong Kar-wai.[1]

Image of Home in the Chinese New Year films in Hong Kong
I would define Chinese New Year films as films that are premiered during this festive period according to the lunar calendar. These films are either family comedies with lovematching or fortune-making as closures, like the popular trilogy of It’s a Mad Mad Mad World (富貴逼人系列, directed by Clifton Ko) shown during the 1980s, or the breathtaking blockbusters with famous casts and costly productions, like the various action pictures of Jackie Chan, or the non-sensical comedies featuring Stephen Chiau. Chinese New Year films are all self-claimed as hesuipian, meaning New Year celebrative films, when they are introduced to the audiences. In terms of marketing, these films are extremely commercial and audience-oriented, hence horror films are never found because of the traditional taboo in this period; erotic and sexual pictures are seldom found because this is the universal time for family activities. Comic elements and a happy ending are extremely essential because they match with the festive social atmosphere. However, in terms of generic study, these films can hardly be generalized into a unitary genre even though it is easy to exclude certain genres because of taboo. Instead of the textual understandings of these films, the temporal aspect should be paid more attention in defining Chinese New Year films. Regardless of their generic qualities and hybridities, these films are premiered during the long holidays of Chinese New Year; they are embedded in the traditional festive celebrations throughout the ages.

Fig. 1 It’s a Mad Mad World

Fig. 2 Forbidden City Cob

Hong Kong as a marginal space geographically and historically is one of these Chinatowns that Chinese New Year has been most widely celebrated and even evolved into the mediated cinematic space under the context of its colonial history and postcolonial situation. People come and go in this tiny city, and there have been different waves of emigration and immigration taking place since 1949. Hong Kong can be known as an important location regarding the Chinese diaspora. Diaspora should be closely related to the study of Chinese New Year films here. According to John Durham Peters (1999: 24), the notion of diaspora is quite suggestive for media studies in two aspects. First, he addresses diaspora to the peculiar spatial organization of broadcast audiences, which is a social aggregate sharing “a common symbolic orientation without sharing intimate interaction” (Peters, 1999: 24). Second, the German term for diaspora (which is Zerstreuung) means distraction. Walter Benjamin (1968) once mentions that the masses seek distraction rather than concentration in the age of mechanical reproduction, this German meaning of diaspora is quite relevant here: the idea of scatteredness describes both the spatial configuration of the audience and its attitude of reception. The diasporic experience within the movie-theatre is like the experience of an internal exile from the subject’s authentic centre. Also, this internal exile within the space of movie-theatre can facilitate an internal mediation of the subject towards the cinematic images and result in the cinematic identification with the image based on a mimetic desire of human beings suggested by Girard (1988).

In the context of Chinese society, the movie-theatre is also the place where affective pleasure is attained with an affirmation of a vague sense of Chineseness if our friends and families are sitting next to us at the time watching the films during the New Year holiday. It is here in the movie-theatre where we consume the festive cinematic texts that a sense of home is constructed, or we can even say that the movie-theatre can be understood as a temporal home in which the boundary of the private and the public is temporarily converged. The concept of home is in general built on select inclusions that are grounded in a sense of kinship or any kinds of membership. Home is a place to escape and a place to escape from; this shares a common quality with the experience of entering a movie-theatre or the film-watching experience. Rosemary Marangoly George (1996) mentions that both home and community have provided the substantial pleasures of comforts and terrors that have been so thoroughly assumed as natural. But this feeling of naturalness has been articulated with a social and historical context which is in constant changes.

In addition to the homely theatrical space, the image of home has been a crucial and central cinematic element to Chinese New Year films. First, the image of home is commonly based on a narrative about homecoming. The Chinese New Year is in general a time for family gathering in the contemporary world, while the ancient Chinese society saw this festive occasion as an important time for family reunion, especially for the numerous officials who could not work in their hometown according to the imperial rule throughout the dynasties. Thus, this residual perception of family reunion is also based on a feeling of homesick, or nostalgia, that has been passed on to the contemporary world and become a motif in cultural productions of the festive occasion. The collective festivity and nostalgic feelings have allowed the image of home to be re-created and re-presented not only as an affective space of familiarity and safety, but an affective quality that is imagined through the spatial and temporal aspects. In the following discussion, I will focus on Jeff Lau’s Chinese New Year films (The Eagle Shooting Heroes: Dong Chen Xi Jiu, 1993; A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II, 1995), which have created an anachronistic reference not only to his later festive film (A Chinese Odyssey 2002, 2002), but more interestingly, his films are responding intertextually and dialogically to Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) in terms of industrial reasons and thematic elements. I would suggest that there has been a consistent reference to a nostalgic feeling that is resulted from a melancholic yearning for home.

Fig. 3 Ashes of Time

Fig. 4 The Eagle Shooting Heroes

The Festive Brothers
It seems to be quite widely known that the release of A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II in January 1995 was a dialogic response to Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, which was released in September 1994. Sharing the same geographical location of shooting and the same music soundtrack, both films are re-written prequels to the canonical Chinese novels──Wong’s is a prequel to Jin Yong’s infamous martial arts novel The Condor-Shooting Heroes (or The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Shi Diao Ying Xiong Chuan, 射鵰英雄傳), while Lau’s is a prequel to the 16th century novel Journey to the West (Xi You Ji, 西遊記) by Wu Cheng-en. Made in 3-months’ time, Lau reframes the themes of time, memory, the melancholic and regretful love in Wong’s film in a comic and grotesque way. As Lau notes in an interview, that Wong and himself always wonder what would happen to the protagonists in fairytales and literary works before and after the narratives.[2] Lau and Wong’s shared thoughts and friendship have not only resulted in their collaboration by establishing Jet Tone Productions Limited together but also shown in their constant dialogic exchange in their films.[3] Lau has been multiplying Wong’s works in various ways. For example, in A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II, the familiar line that the Monkey King says to Zixia [4] and the ten thousand years of promised love are melancholic yet parodic borrowings from Wong’s Chungking Express (1994) in which Takeshi Kaneshiro, the love-obsessed man, utters these lines in front of the canned pineapple as voice-over. Zixia’s schizophrenic self is a parodic reference to Brigitte Lin’s split persona in Ashes of Time [5], while Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s role as the blind swordsman is also re-articulated in Chiau’s final appearance as the Sunset Warrior in A Chinese Odyssey Part II.

While A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II are the aftermaths of Ashes of Time, Ashes of Time and The Eagle Shooting Heroes are originally the twins that Wong and Lau intended to make as the two prequels to Jin Yong’s novel. According to Lau, it was planned that Wong would make the first part and he would be responsible for the second part or the sequel.[6] However, as Wong did not complete the production schedule on time, Lau rushed to begin shooting and finish The Eagle Shooting Heroes with the same casting structure in 27 days in order to fill up the release period of Chinese New Year.[7] As a result, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, released in the Chinese New Year of 1993, becomes the prequel of Ashes of Time since it was released nearly two years earlier than Wong’s film. As a prequel of the prequel, The Eagle Shooting Heroes completely detaches from Ashes of Time and Jin Yong’s original novel except the names of the characters── only Jacky Cheung remains the same role as Hong Qi in both Wong and Lau’s films, while Leslie Cheung interestingly acts as the Sinister East in Lau’s film and as his rival (the Malicious West) in Wong’s film[8], and other actors simply mix up their identities in the two films.[9]

In order to compete for more audience in the domestic box office during the Chinese New Year, The Eagle Shooting Heroes is framed as an uncouth merrymaking through an extremely exaggerated story about Jin Yong’s characters in an anachronistic sense – spectators should completely abandon their knowledge about the martial arts novel originally set in the 13th century, since the characters, all of which are in cultish costumes in the contemporarily fantasized Arabian / Indian styles, are involved in a new story about the carnivalesque process of the recovery of the kingdom. Beginning with the conspiracy of the Chaozhou dialect-accented Ouyang Feng (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his cousin in overthrowing the Kingdom of Jinlun / Kingdom of Gold Wheel, they kidnap the king and force the priest (Maggie Cheung) to help them. At the same time, the Third Princess of Jinlun (Brigitte Lin) seeks help from her martial arts master so that she can reclaim the homeland. During this process, the characters get to know each other in the comic twists-and-turns of revenge, mistaken identities and romances.

As a Chinese New Year film, The Eagle Shooting Heroes was commented by the local critics as excessively crazy but it received satisfactory box-office revenue that was enough even to cover the overrun budget in making Ashes of Time. Overlooked by most audiences and critics, this film actually exemplifies the process of homecoming in addition to the festive title Dong Chen Xi Jiu (東成西就, meaning ‘prosperity everywhere’), which is obviously a pun to the Chinese title of Ashes of Time (Dong Xie Xi Du, 東邪西毒, which refers to the nicknames of the two protagonists). The Third Princess’s recovery and reclaiming of the homeland from the traitors/foreigners’ hands is a nostalgic attempt to get hold of the lost origin. She refuses to seek help from her fiancé (acted by Tony Leung Kar-fai as Duan Zhixing, or the South Emperor, the emperor of Dali) because she wants to use her own capacity to do so. It is her journey to get the Scripture of Nine Yin (jiu yin zhen jing, 九陰真經) and learn the advanced martial arts skills, that makes this jolly-folly adventure happen.

On the other hand, the nostalgic sentiment is represented stylistically by the frequent intertextual references to old Cantonese films in the 1960s. For example, the Princess’s revenge and reclaiming of the country through learning an advanced martial arts skill is a constant motif or narrative pattern in the Cantonese oldies; the costumes, the bodily and verbal expressions of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong are directly referring to the screen-couple famously played by Chow Dat-wah (曹達華) and Yu Su-qiu (于素秋, which is also the name of Joey Wong in the film) in the oldies. The cousins-as-lovers (Ouyang Feng and his cousin; Hong Qi and his cousin) or senior-junior-as-lovers (the Princess and Huang Yaoshi; Huang and Yu) are common romantic pattern in old martial arts films and melodramas. Also, the obviously low-tech making of the three monsters (costumed by human beings) in the badly-made cave awfully re-present the pre-digital era of cinematic fantasy. The inserted sing-song sequence performed by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Kar-fai, who is in disguise as a songstress, is another parodic re-presentation of the style of acting in oldies, which was first expressed in Lau’s earlier film 92 Legendary La Rose Noire (92 Hei Mei Gui Dui Hei Mei Gui, 92 黑玫瑰對黑玫瑰, 1992). Comic and festive laughter is created in the nostalgic reception by the local audiences who know well where these imitations come from. Collective laughter is the emotional response aroused in this carnivalesque film in contrast to the alienated loneliness and melancholia in Wong’s later film based on the same canonical ‘story.’

Fig. 5 The Eagle Shooting Heroes

Fig. 6 92 Legendary La Rose Noire

The Homecoming Hero in A Chinese Odyssey (1995)
One of the most provocative representations of the tragic heroes in recent Hong Kong cinema comes from Stephen Chiau’s role as the Monkey King (or Joker) in A Chinese Odyssey Part I: Pandora’s Box (Xi You Ji Di Yi Bai Ling Yi Hui Zhi Yue Guang Bao He, 西遊記第 壹佰零壹回之月光寶盒) and A Chinese Odyssey Part II: Cinderella (Xi You Ji Da Jie Ju Zhi Xian Li Qi Yuan, 西遊記大結局之仙履奇緣), both of which were released during the Chinese New Year in 1995. This film is seemingly a cinematic adaptation from the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West[10], but like Ashes of Time and The Eagle Shooting Heroes, it subverts the original narrative structure by focusing on the pre-journey plot──instead of telling the story of how the Monkey King helps the Monk in getting the Buddhist scripture from the west (India), this film is about how the Monkey King forgoes his personal interests and romances before the journey begins. This Odysseus-motif is actually indicated in the English title, in which the Greek mythological elements like ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Odyssey’ recall the correspondence from the western culture, while ‘Cinderella’ is perhaps a satirical reference to Chiau’s search for the real lover (‘Cinderella’/Zixia). By showing the transformation of Chiau from reluctance to a whole-hearted willingness in taking responsible of the heroic mission for the human kind (the Buddhist mission of spreading truth and kindness through the Sutra), it is also a bildungsroman or the personal odyssey of Chiau in understanding himself, whose self-pride has changed to regret and maturity. The effect of catharsis is constructed on a comically tragic narrative about the loner (the Monkey King/Joker)’s romance with two girls, Zixia and Jing Jing, in which he goes through a process of self-revelation by travelling back to 500 years ago.

Fig. 7 A Chinese Odyssey Part I: Pandora’s Box

Fig. 8 A Chinese Odyssey Part II: Cinderella

This journey to the past again reminds one of migrant’s nostalgic yearnings of a cultural origin represented by the image of home. In the two films, Chiau acts as both the Monkey King and its reincarnation as Joker 500 years later. His journey back to the past has resulted in a series of events caused by their mistaken temporal identities. Although Joker refuses to admit that he is the Monkey King, he unconsciously dreams of returning to the Monkey’s original home, the Waterfall Cave (which is later renamed as the Cobweb Cave and Buddha Cave), and he always accidentally, subconsciously and reluctantly returns to that cave as the story develops. Like Ouyang Feng’s belief in the predetermined destiny by constantly referring to the fortune-telling book (ming shu, 命書) in Ashes of Time, the Monkey King’s helplessness about his fate is shown in this constant return to the cave (the home) and the necessity of catharsis is recognized only until the Monkey King’s posthumous conversation (or confession) with the Bodhisattva Guanyin. He later willingly puts on the spellbound Golden Band on his head to show his complete abandonment of human desires in service for the higher religious beliefs.[11] This change from the rebellious persona to the ascetic servant for the human kind recalls the similar experience of Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time, in which he lives a simple and almost ascetic life after he has left his homeland (the White Camel Mountain) and settles in the desert to begin his business as killers’ agent.

Being the Chinese New Year films that were expected to bring carnivalesque enjoyment, A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II do not exhibit a festive spirit as they are basically presented as tragicomedies (or better known as comic-tragedies) which evoke more tears than laughter. The obsession to the nostalgic sentiments of the melancholic hero is expressed in farcical and regretful manners of Stephen Chiau’s verbal performance, which goes beyond the microlevel of everyday domains in his other films and reaches a macrolevel concerning a more philosophical discussion of fate and human powerlessness. These two films are undoubtedly subversions to the public’s usual expectation of Chinese New Year films, especially when the single story was released as two films (known as Part I and Part II) in separated periods (Part I was released on 21 January 1995 while Part II was released on 4 February 1995). This strategic separated release seemed new to the recent Hong Kong cinema in 1980s and 1990s but it was in fact commonly found in the old Cantonese cinema during the 1960s. The narrative incompleteness in Part I is on one hand challenging the festive belief of unity and wholeness during the Chinese New Year (although this is a beneficial way of profit-making by requiring the audience to pay twice); while on the other hand, the delayed release of the tragic Part II is considered a prevention to upset the festive mood of the audiences.

From these two cinematic responses to Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, Jeff Lau has imposed a challenge to the stereotypical Chinese New Year films by pushing the ‘assumed’ generic elements (which refers to the stereotypical assumption of comedies with family motifs or action spectacles) to the extremes──he either introduces a melancholic narrative as in A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II, or he over-exaggerates the carnival excessiveness and grotesque expressions in The Eagle Shooting Heroes. At the same time, the notion of home is often expressed through a process of homecoming, a process that begins by leaving home, or a process in which the home is disappearing, so that the physical image of home is in constant transformation. But what is more important is that home is not only a physical space, it actually refers to the articulation of an affective relation among those who belongs to this space. In fact, these protagonists are either looking for or escaping from a space in which they can establish a milieu of affectivity or a sphere of familiarity. The unrequited, one-way love and narcissistic desire of the characters can never find an affective exit in Wong’s films but Lau’s re-interpretations provide a parodic setback and encourage the characters to make bold attempt to overcome these unanswered love or fear of love. For example, the Monkey King always uncontrollably returns to the cave (symbol of home) so that he is forced to resolve the affective problems throughout a span of 500 years in A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II. On the other hand, after experiencing the failed love, Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time claims that as an orphan he learns that the best way to protect oneself and avoid rejection is to reject others first and thus he never returns to the White Camel Mountain. This active passivity of the monologic self is reversed as the submissive assertion of the Monkey King who always returns home in an uncontrollable way. The image of home is always kept at a distance; it is never clearly defined in Ashes of Time. It is represented by a failed affective relationship or through the metaphor of the peach blossom, which is not only the name of the Blind Swordsman’s wife (Carina Lau), but also the favourite flower of Huang Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng’s beloved woman (Maggie Cheung). While Maggie Cheung exclaims by the end of Ashes of Time that she wishes time would restart again so that she would make another decision, this desire of recyclable time is repeatedly practised in A Chinese Odyssey Part I in which the Moonlight Magic Box (or Pandora’s Box suggested by the title) is able to bring Joker back in time so as to save his lover, Jing Jing.

There are more examples, and such intertextual references are so intensively interwoven into various new texts so that new possibilities are opened up both as a response to the old text’s unresolved melancholia and an invitation to a new perspective. After all, parodies and comic relieves do not only exert laughter or temporary enjoyments, they are also the strategies in overcoming deadlocks, crises and emotional setbacks, and thus reaching a point of redemption. The lack of confidence is always caused by an inability to laugh and this optimism is better suited in the festive Chinese New Year, a time in which everybody is expecting a new beginning. While Wong Kar-wai’s films suggest a creative space of negativity, Lau’s films propose a creative space of comic liberation, of letting go and see bravely what is beyond by taking a subversive turn. In fact, Wong and Lau are the both sides of the same coin in their allegorical challenge to defining Hong Kong culture, as both of them propose two ways to look at things from an equally alternative and rebellious perspective── one melancholic and the other mischievous.

** This paper is a revised version extracted from my doctoral thesis titled On Time and Festivity: A Study of Chinese New Year Films (HKU, 2007). The current paper is presented in 2008 Shanghai International Film Forum, “Locality, Translocality, and De-Locality: Cultural, Aesthetic, and Industry of Chinese-Language Cinema”, organized by Shanghai University, 12-13 July, 2008.

[1] Unpublished paper titled “More than a Laughing Scene: What is Seen in Chinese New Year Films?” presented in The Film Scene: Cinema, the Arts, and Social Change. The conference was organized by the Department of Comparative Literature, the Department of Music, and the Centre of Asian Studies, The University of Hong Kong, April 21-22, 2006.
[2] Interview, City Entertainment 411 (12 January 1995), 44-46.
[3] In fact, Jeffrey Lau has involved in the production of Wong Kar-wai’s films in terms of financial control and textual content through personal exchange, for example, he is the producer of Chungking Express and had helped in the script-writing of Days of Being Wild; while Wong also acts as producer for Lau’s films like The Eagle Shooting Heroes: Dong Chen Xi Jiu and Chinese Odyssey 2002. See Interview, “Jeff Lau, Time-Space Rebel,” in Hong Kong Panorama 2002-2003, The 27th International Film Festival (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, 2003), 94-108.
[4] Original text: "曾經有一份至真的愛情放在我面前, 我沒有珍惜, 等我失去的時候, 我才後悔莫及, 塵世間最痛苦的事莫過於此 . . . 如果上天能夠給我一個再來一次機會的話, 我會對那個女孩子說三個字 – 我愛你, 如果非要在這份愛上面加一個期限, 我希望是一萬年."
[5] See Interview, "Jeff Lau, Time-Space Rebel."
[6] Interview, City Entertainment 361 (11 January, 1993), 52-57; Interview, City Entertainment 596 (14 February, 2002), 36-37.
[7] It is also pointed out that in fact it is co-directed by Lau and Wong for the tight production schedule although Wong is entitled as producer, see Interview, ibid.
[8] In fact, Leslie Cheung was originally acting as the Sinister East at the beginning of shooting Ashes of Time.
[9] Joey Wong, whose parts are entirely cut out in Ashes of Time, is also playing a role in The Eagle Shooting Heroes.
[10] Written by Wu Cheng-en in the 16th century (Ming Dynasty), this novel is one of the most renowned classical Chinese novels in history. It is based on the real journey of a famous monk Xuan Zang who went to India (the west) and bring the Sutra to China (which was Tang Dynasty at that time, circa. AD 618–907). This novel describes not only the origin of the Monkey King but the pseudo-historical journey and adventures of Xuan Zang and his disciples (the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy) in seeking the Sutra.
[11] In the original novel, the Monkey King was under the order of the Buddha to wear the Golden Band── a spellbound band around his forehead. Whenever the Monkey King was found being disobedient and losing his mind, Xuan Zang will recite the spell and the band will get tightened until the Monkey King cannot bear the extreme pain and resume a controlled mind. In the film, this Golden Band represents the abandonment of human desire, an acestic religious idealism and the individual responsibility.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. London: Fontana Press, 1992.
George, Rosemary Marangoly. The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. London and New York: Continuum, 2005.
Law, Yuk-wa Fiona. On Time and Festivity: A Study of Chinese New Year Films. Thesis (Ph.D.) Hong Kong: The University of Hong Kong, 2007.
Morley, David. “Bounded Realms: Household, Family, Community and Nation.” Ed. Hamid Naficy. Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Peters, John Durham. “Exile, Nomadism, and Diaspora: the Stakes of Mobility in the Western Canon.” Ed. Hamid Naficy. Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Dr. Fiona Yuk-wa Law 羅玉華 B.A., MPhil, Ph.D. (HKU) completed her Ph.D. in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong in 2007. Her doctoral thesis is a cultural study of Chinese New Year films made in Hong Kong and the PRC from 1950s to the present. Her research interests include film studies (Chinese-language cinemas, Asian cinema in the context of globalization and the modernist tradition in European cinema), film theories, visual cultures and Hong Kong cultural studies. She published an article on Center Stage and Rouge in In Critical Proximity: The Visual Memories of Stanley Kwan (in Chinese, Joint Publishing). Currently, she is working on a book project about Chinese New Year films.

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