21 February 2017

[Film Critic] When Hong Kong Laughed at China

[Film Critic] When Hong Kong Laughed at China
Written by Sean Tierney

I recently re-watched Her Fatal Ways, the 1990 comedy starring Carol ‘Dodo’ Cheng as Sister Cheng, a mainland security officer sent to Hong Kong with her cousin, played by writer/director Alfred Cheung, on official police business. Watching the movie now, more than 25 years later, it’s interesting to see the way China and Chinese people from the mainland were, and were portrayed. In 1990, Hong Kong was certainly far ahead of China in many ways. It was easy to look down on mainlanders as uncouth bumpkins, or at least to be benevolently patronizing. Today, the difference gap has closed in many ways.

Her Fatal Ways opens with Sister Cheng and Cousin Shing arriving in Hong Kong by bus. Our first glimpse of Sister Cheng is of her hand, which holds a cigarette. She smokes while singing a patriotic song. A fellow passenger spits on the floor, hitting Cousin Shing’s foot. He responds with profanity. Sister Cheng then chimes in with a brief lesson on the etiquette of spitting, which ends no better than the first incident. In the span of less than a minute, the film has illustrated its protagonists using the stereotypes of the day.  

While simple, bludgeoning parody would have been the easy way out, Albert Cheung (who appears in the film as Cheng’s cousin) lampoons virtually all sides of the political and cultural sphere. Sister Cheng’s Hong Kong professional counterpart is Inspector Wu, played by ‘Big’ Tony Leung (Leung Kar Fai). He’s a young, urbane police detective who dresses stylishly (for the time). It turns out that Wu’s father is an unrepentant Nationalist. Sparks inevitably fly, but so do laughs and the discovery of common ground.
Hong Kong has always been a dynamic city that changes with breathtaking speed. But no one could have foreseen the scope and speed of social and cultural change in China. Sister Cheng seems like the ghost of another age, and indeed she is. I remember meeting people from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and they were in many ways just like her; marveling at many of the things around them while steadfastly holding to the ideology that told them how wrong it all was. A young person from today’s China would understandably find Her Fatal Ways offensive. They might find the characterization insulting, overblown, or inaccurate. But for people who remember that time, the portrayal is remarkably astute and, in many ways, sympathetic without being patronizing. 

Hong Kong and China shared a common past, a common ethnicity, and in some ways a common culture. But the recent history of the PRC, as well as it’s closed nature for much of its first decades, helped create a large culture gap that language (and food) alone couldn’t reconcile. Today, Hong Kong and China seem in many ways interchangeable, in financial, technological and cultural terms. In other ways, the roles have reversed; Hong Kong cinema now relies on the beneficence of mainland co-productions. And in still other ways, the differences that remain have become markedly acute. Whereas Sister Cheng’s occasional breaches of professional behavior during interrogations were seen as funny or utilitarian, the reality of mainland security officers operating in Hong Kong is now seen as a much more menacing problem. 

In 1990 people could fall back on a belief in One Country Two Systems and thus keep some of the thornier implications of Her Fatal Ways at arms’ length. But that risk is much more prevalent now than it was in 1990. In 2017, a movie about public security running roughshod through the streets of Hong Kong would not be greeted so airily. 

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