Kaiju Shakedown: Eileen Chang
Where are the women in Hong Kong movies? According to conventional wisdom, if you want to make a blockbuster these days, you need to get a Mainland actress and a Hong Kong actor. Hong Kong had its divas in the Eighties and Nineties (Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Michelle Yeoh) but today actresses from Mainland China wield all the superstar power. I love Sammi Cheng and Miriam Yeung, but they can’t come even close to the box-office clout of Gong Li (Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha), Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tang Wei (Lust, Caution, Blackhat), Zhou Xun (Cloud Atlas), Li Bingbing (Forbidden Kingdom, Resident Evil), and Fan Bingbing (Lost in Thailand, Iron Man 3).
Echoes of the Rainbow
After actors, the next person on the attention-grabbing totem pole is the director, and that’s where Hong Kong women are doing even worse. Ann Hui is the only major female director in the industry. Sylvia Chang is a big deal, but since 1997 she’s only made five films to Hui’s 11. Clara Law was a major arthouse force in Hong Kong film, but her career has slowed down since her heyday in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The same could be said of Mabel Cheung, despite her success as a producer with Echoes of the Rainbow (10). Barbara Wong and Heiward Mak are sometimes talked about, but neither seems to be making a huge impact right now. It’s a strange situation, especially when one realizes that three of the most powerful figures in the history of Hong Kong film were women: Mona Fong, who ran Shaw Brothers with her husband Sir Run Run Shaw; Nansun Shi who founded and ran Film Workshop with her husband Tsui Hark (and who has a major career as a producer); and Selina Chow who ran CTV and gave jobs to a whole new generation of filmmakers, from Tsui Hark to Ann Hui, back in the Eighties.
You have to go outside the spotlight to find more women in Hong Kong film today, and specifically, you have to look back into the darkest, dustiest rooms where they’ve been working as writers. Because writers don’t occupy center stage, and because many Hong Kong writers don’t have their work translated into English, they’re easy to ignore. But female screenwriters and novelists have had a huge impact on Hong Kong film, and one of the first, and biggest, was Eileen Chang. Her most famous books and stories were written in Shanghai between 1941 and 1945, and dealt with women living in China after the Republican era but before the rise of Communism. She focused on the “uneventful” moments in people’s lives, and was later criticized for the lack of politics in her writing. That’s not to say that she was boring. As she wrote in a movie review in 1944, the biggest problem for women in China was “…how to live a fulfilling life of a virtuous woman in the face of a polygamous husband who made up the majority of Chinese men.”
Long Live the Wife
She should know. As P.G. Wodehouse discovered, trying to stay neutral in an occupied country is impossible, and Chang’s three-year marriage to Hu Lancheng, a low-level Chinese official in the Japanese Occupation government, tarred her as a collaborator, even after he left her for his mistress. She tried to defend herself against this charge, but it was impossible to stop the hate. When writer Ke Ling, whom Chang had rescued from a Japanese prison, announced he was reprinting one of her wartime collections, he was viciously harassed. One critic denounced Chang as “a walking corpse from the Occupation period” accusing her of encouraging “the audience to continue indulging in their familiar xiao shimin [petty urbanite] world of stupor and misery.” In 1950 she realized she had no future in China and moved to Hong Kong. Then, in 1955 she moved to the United States and remained there for the rest of her life, denounced in Communist China as a pro-U.S. nationalist. She became something of a recluse, and when she died in Los Angeles in 1995, it took several days before anyone discovered her body. Yet interest in her writing experienced a renaissance in the late Sixties and Seventies, and, when she died, a final unpublished book found in her apartment sold out its 300,000-copy print run even before its official publication date. A second run of 100,000 had to be added just to have books available on the day of release.
Chang wrote Mandarin-language movies while she lived in Shanghai, and her screenplays for Love Without End (47) and Long Live the Wife (47) were big hits. She kept writing movies when she moved to Hong Kong, mostly for Cathay (then called MP&GI), but her lack of familiarity with Hong Kong culture was an impossible handicap for a woman who wrote comedies of manners. Other writers had to be brought in to fix the scripts of the great author, and directors found themselves having to work around the way she had staged scenes on the page. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone with nice things to say about her screenplays today, so it’s her novels and stories that have had a greater impact on Hong Kong cinema than her screenplays.
Love in a Fallen City
Ann Hui has adapted two of Chang’s works into films, Love in a Fallen City (84) and Eighteen Springs (97), the second of which was a serialized novel Chang wrote under a pseudonym after falling out of favor on the Mainland. Love in a Fallen City, one of 14 novellas she published in 1943, is about a divorced woman falling in love with a playboy on the eve of World War II (Chang later put on a stage version of the story). Stanley Kwan based his Red Rose, White Rose (94) on another of her short stories (and had to smuggle the film print out of China, resulting in his being banned from shooting in China for several years). Most famously, Ang Lee adapted one of her few stories dealing directly with politics, Lust, Caution (77), and turned it into the award-winning 2007 film starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai that got lead actress Tang Wei blacklisted in Mainland China. If ever a blacklisting could be considered ironic, it was that one. More than any of her main characters, critics believe that Wang Chia-chih, the character played by Tang Wei, was based on Chang’s own life, and the painful awakening of the naive Wang mirrored Chang’s own disillusionment (and ultimate exile from her beloved Shanghai) thanks to her first husband.
Today, Chang has an exalted status in Hong Kong, even though her refusal to engage in politics (going so far as to not publicly declare her political leanings, which was practically required at the time), and her desire to write about domesticity and events that were, by her own account, “placid and static” landed her in trouble when she was first writing, misinterpreted as signs of political cowardice. But Chang’s not the only female novelist to inhabit an exalted spot in Hong Kong film. Her modern-day equivalent is Lilian Lee whose books provided the stories for Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (88), Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (93), Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (93), and Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (04). She also wrote the screenplays for Ching Siu-tung’s Terracotta Warrior (89), Clara Law’s Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (89), Eddie Fong’s Kawashima Yoshiko (90), and Andrew Kam’s Red and Black (91). Lee is as reclusive as Eileen Chang, preferring not to be photographed, and like Chang she also wrote her own screenplays, for Farewell My Concubine, Dumplings, and Green Snake among others.
After these two novelists and scriptwriters comes a legion of female screenwriters, responsible for some of the most iconic Hong Kong movies. Besides Lilian Lee, numerous women have written for Tsui Hark, whether they come from his early team of writers known as B Boss (Elsa Tang, Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman 2, Iron Monkey, as well as the non-Tsui Bride with White Hair), or whether they came on board later in his career like Sharon Hui who wrote The Lovers, Love in the Time of Twilight, and Once Upon a Time in China and America. Peter Chan’s UFO production company (and his later Applause Pictures) was a hotbed of female talent, like Jojo Hui who wrote He’s a Woman, She’s A Man among many others, the famous Ivy Ho (Comrades, Almost a Love Story) and Aubrey Lam (Age of Miracles, Golden Chicken 2, as well as Perhaps Love and Wu Xia for Chan’s Applause Pictures). Even macho movies, like those from Milkyway Image, home of Johnnie To’s tough-minded crime thrillers, include a woman on its writing team. Milkyway’s movies are usually written by a collective of writers who sometimes take a joint credit, one of whom is Au Kin-yee, responsible for movies all the way back to 2001, like PTU, Mad Detective, and Life Without Principle.
That’s not even mentioning screenwriter GC Goo-bi (Merry-Go-Round, Exodus), writer-director Sylvia Chang (Tempting Heart, Princess D), blockbuster writer Susan Chan (Big Bullet, Who Am I?, Tokyo Raiders, A Simple Life), and many more. Why do so many women write Hong Kong movies? The glass-half-empty way to look at it is that the screenwriter is the lowest person on a film, and even lower in Hong Kong where they are further devalued by the common practice of “flying paper” (new pages written on the set as a scene is about to be shot) and “lip rape” (where completely different dialogue is dubbed over actors in the editing room). But another way of looking at it is that women are under-represented in crew positions in every film industry, and the predominance of female screenwriters in Hong Kong is a fabulous anomaly.
The Golden Era
Also, no matter how badly they’re treated in reality, writers are exalted as characters in Hong Kong films whereas directors and producers are often depicted as hacks. From Yim Ho’s Red Dust (90) to Wai Ka-fai’s Written By (09) writers are portrayed as tormented geniuses, whereas directors are shown to be opportunistic bottom feeders in too many films to mention, but start with Viva Erotica (96) or Vulgaria (12). The tradition continues right up until the present as director Ann Hui immortalizes another Chinese writer, Xiao Hong, onscreen in her newest film The Golden Era, which is set to close the Venice Film Festival before playing Toronto. Expect lots of torment, passion, and fevered bouts of inspiration as Xiao Hong clacks away at her typewriter like some kind of Mozart. It’s a reverence you don’t see when Ann Hui makes a movie about a movie producer, like A Simple Life, where the poor guy gets yelled at in meetings, eats dinner alone, and hangs around an old folks home.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Story of a Discharged Prisoner
… On September 1, around noon, director Patrick Lung Kong passed away. One of Hong Kong’s great directors, his 1967 movie, Story of a Discharged Prisoner, was remade by John Woo and Tsui Hark as A Better Tomorrow in 1986. A legendary actor and director, Lung Kong breathed new life into Cantonese films just when they needed it most. He often ran afoul of political forces who sought to block, ban, or censor his movies, and eventually he retired to New York City. A little over two weeks ago he received a lifetime achievement award and a tribute to his films at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Tsui Hark was on hand to present the award, and the house was packed with appreciative fans. I’ve written about Lung Kong before, but just wanted to take a moment to say that he was a true artist, and one of the kindest people it’s been my pleasure to meet. The world is a poorer place without him.
… Eric Khoo is shooting In the Room, probably the first mainstream sex film ever made in conservative Singapore. Set in one hotel room, following six couples starting in the 1940’s, the $1 million movie is produced by Film Workshop’s Nansun Shi.
… Lu Chuan, Mainland Chinese director of muscular movies like Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, shot in some of the harshest territory on the planet, and the epic WWII movie City of Life and Death, has teamed up with VFX house Prime Focus (Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, Gravity) to make his next movie: a massively-budgeted sci-fi action flick shot in Mainland China. Despite having always made large-scale movies before, Lu Chuan’s always fallen more towards the artsier end of the spectrum, but this time he promises full-blown mainstream action movie mayhem.
… Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) has confirmed that his next feature will be an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Victorian-set book Fingersmith, a revisionist 2002 take on the gothic novel. Park plans to set his version in Japanese-occupied Korea. The working title is A-Ga-Ci.
… You may not know who Mr. Van is, but he’s a big deal in Thailand. A legendary film pirate, Mr. Van sold and rented illegally copied VHS from his shop, mostly of movies that were impossible to find in Thailand, like the films of Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano. Film critics and directors were shaped by what he stocked on his shelves, and now Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (13) director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit is raising funds to make a documentary about him called The Master.
… Mark Schilling has been writing about Japanese film for the Japan Times for 25 years. That’s slightly over one million words on Japanese movies. In his most recent column, he looks back on his career and the changes in the Japanese film industry since he started in 1989.