The global and local in Hong Kong cinema-part 05

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By 2017-08-13

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

'How did you know? In general I like the story about the assassins. Especially in the ancient time of china, there were four very famous assassins. They have a great story, and it is the character of the killer. You can say that the character of the killer and better tomorrow are all based on the ancient Chinese assassin story.

The movie, the last hurrah for chivalry' was influenced by my master, Chang Cheh.' Kenneth E. Hall claims that a dominant facet of Woo's romantic perspective is his long-standing interest in chivalric legends associated with Chinese literature and history. Despite Woo's fascination with western films, he draws significantly from his Chinese heritage. Hall is of the opinion that some critics have either overlooked or have not paid adequate attention to it. This yearning for romanticism and chivalry is closely linked to nostalgia. Certain critics have asserted that John Woo's focus on male-bonding, emphasis on loyalty, emphasis on emotionalism and exuberance of gesture can be traced to his interest in Chinese historical romances.

This predilection, once again, connects with his sense of nostalgia
Nostalgia is indeed a concept that has stirred a many-sided interest among cultural historian in recent times. The word nostalgia is derived from a Greek word meaning homesickness. This word was put into circulation by a Swiss doctor who employed it to signify a medical condition of soldiers who were desperately longing to return home. However, today, this term has moved beyond its original circumference of meaning. In medical discourse and has enter the discursive domains of cultural theorists where it occupies an ambivalent space flanked by contradictory ideas of homesickness and being sick of home.

Nostalgia signifies both a longing for lost space and longing for lost time. The recognition of irreversibility of time is a factor that sets in motion the idea of nostalgia. Svetlana Boym, who in my judgment, has written one of the most prescient books on nostalgia titled The Future of Nostalgia, says that, 'at first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time.- the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broad sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress.'

There is a very complex relationship between nostalgia and modernity – this is something that is clearly present in the cinematic works of John Woo. It seems to me that there is a natural pairing of the idea of nostalgia with the idea of modernity. At one level, nostalgia is the polar opposite of modernity. But at another level, perhaps a deeper one, nostalgia and modernity are closely intertwined and nostalgia becomes a defining feature of modernity. If we pause to explore the writings of the French poet Baudelaire, the originator of the modern idea of modernity, we see that there is a curious juxtaposition of modernity and nostalgia, one feeding the other. The concept of nostalgia has made its presence in contemporary film theory. Some film scholars have been quick to identify a film genre termed heritage films. Heritage films are largely British productions which seek to depict in glowing terms the glorious past of England and hence their uncontrollable interest in Shakespeare and Jane Austen. These films, which look nostalgically at the past splendors of England, focus more on the idea of place and spectacle than in the dynamics of narrative and the complexities of human psychology.

There is a very interesting connection between nostalgia and utopia. Utopia is the idealization of the future and nostalgia is the idealization of the past. However, at a deeper level of social comprehension, the idealization of the past becomes a projection of the future. The social commentator Michael Ignatieff says that, 'political utopias are a form of nostalgia for an imagined past projected onto the future as a wish. Whenever I try to imagine a future other than that one towards which we seem to be hurtling, I find myself dreaming a dream of the past.'. This line of thinking has much to offer to our understanding of the way nostalgia occurs in Woo's films. What we find inscribed in his film texts is a form of critical nostalgia. Nostalgia, to my mind, can be usefully divided into two main categories, the idealized nostalgia and critical nostalgia. What we find in the available critical literature, by and large, is a form of idealized, essentialized, nostalgia. The essentialized nostalgia is an attempt to return to a pure moment, a space of idealization; it is a norm against which the present is measured and the future is productively re-constituted. Indeed, it is a place of the mind than a place on earth.

However, there is another form of nostalgia which I have termed critical nostalgia. What one finds here is not a desire to return to a pure and impossible space but one that encourages us to observe complex commingling of the past and the present. It is indeed this form of nostalgia that we discern in the films of John Woo. He sees the past not as a space of refuge, a topographical imaginary, but one that is full of possibilities for the future if only we are able to exercise our critical faculties. As I stated earlier John Woo is mainly an author of modern action/gangster films. At the same time he has drawn on traditional Chinese narratives, representational strategies, styles and techniques as a way of creating his own distinctive cinema. Here we observe nostalgia at work; it is not the idealized nostalgia but a critical nostalgia hat we see in his work. I have discussed at some length the idea of nostalgia because it seems to me, that it is a very significant dimension of his work and one that critics often give less than adequate attention to.

Ninth the way that John Woo creates a moral universe in his films such as A Better Tomorrow and the Killer is important. This effort is vitally connected to his predilections for sentimentality, melodrama and the focus of suffering. It is his intention to bring into life a legible moral universe. The idea of a moral consciousness is not absent from Western action films either. However, it is the way in which Woo that fashions his moral universe that lends it specificity. This again is an aspect of his filmmaking that sheds light on the interplay between de-territorialization and re-territorialization. For example, in the killer the way he reconfigures the lives and sentiments of the lonely killer, the unfortunate woman and the police offer who is subject to inner tension point to the dominant contours of Woo's moral universe. Jeff is seeking to flee from the pursuing police; at the same time he sees the young and innocent girl seriously injured in the cross-fire. He immediately rushes to save her, taking her to the hospital at the risk of his life. Here the filmmaker highlights the moral imagination that animates Jeff, the lonely assassin.

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