The Hong Kong Gangster Movie

A Sample Lesson Plan

This article is a sample lesson plan for a college film course, specifically on Hong Kong gangster films. The first thing to decide when teaching such a course is to determine which of the readings should be assigned to undergraduates, and which ones will be used for class discussion.

For this sample lesson plan, we will use “The Hong Kong Gangster Movie,” an article by Tony Williams in Silver and Ursini’s Gangster Film Reader, which is a good overview of the various subgenres of gangster movies that have been produced in Hong Kong. It may be difficult to get undergraduates to complete assigned readings without some sort of points incentive, so for this reading, one of two written assignments may be assigned. A student could potentially prepare to complete a brief in-class quiz about the hierarchy of Triad gangs (the 49s, Red Pole officials, White Paper Fans, etc.). Alternatively, a student could write briefly on which subgenre of Hong Kong gangster films they find most appealing and why. Examples of these subgenres include “Big Timer” pictures, “young rascal” or “Triad recruitment films” (in the words of Tsui Hark), prison movies, undercover agent movies, or gangster parodies.

Hopefully, either one of those assignments would prepare undergraduate students for a general discussion of the recurring themes in Hong Kong gangster movies, and how they compare/contrast with their American counterparts. For example, Williams quotes Martin Booth’s argument that the Triad gangs in Hong Kong rose to power as a reaction to invading forces, in contrast to the Sicilian Mafia’s small group of families in conflict with each other. Triad gangs are also noted for “[ting] into the long tradition of self-preservation through unity and patriotism...” Is this assessment incompatible with the portrayal of Italian American gangsters by Hollywood, or are they also capable of being seen as patriotic, self-preserving figures?

Another one of the big points for discussion from Williams’ article is the permeability of locales for gangsters in both Hong Kong and American cinema. In Hong Kong, these locales are frequently Hong Kong itself, mainland China, and Taiwan. In America, gangsters seem to migrate to the locations of New York, Sicily, Las Vegas, and Cuba. It would be interesting to draw comparisons between all of these locales, but also note how it is difficult, if not impossible, to make them serve as interchangeable thematic analogs.

The other reading in Silver and Ursini, da Silva’s “Fukasaku and Scorsese: Yakuzas and Gangsters” is mildly useful for discussion, particularly for Schatz’s quotes and some terminology. However, assigning it potentially conflates Japanese and Hong Kong cinema in the minds of students, so it is best to leave it out, except potentially for the quotes from Thomas Schatz. Most importantly, Schatz notes that a gangster’s efforts to realign a balance between self-serving notions and communal instincts so as to suit his own ends is an effort destined to failure.  Also, the conflict of giri-ninjo (social obligation versus personal inclination) is relevant, but again, it seems confusing to draw attention to a Japanese concept in a discussion of Chinese films.

Selections from R. Altman's book Film/Genre are also useful, including information on the semantic/syntactic approach to genre (from the chapter “Where Are Genres Located?”) as a tool for discussing how Hollywood and Martin Scorsese remade the three Infernal Affairs films as The Departed. More than just the syntactic elements common to most gangster films are thus present; The Departed, as a remake, must necessarily share many semantic elements with Infernal Affairs. Identifying just what those semantic/syntactic elements are would be a goal of class discussion.

Sample Films

Infernal Affairs and The Killer

Obviously, several films should be used as examples of the subgenre in question. For Hong Kong gangster movies, this lesson plan uses Infernal Affairs and John Woo's The Killer.

In Infernal Affairs, the changes made from this film to the American version should be noted, as well as the fact that there was a different ending for the film depending on where it was released in mainland China. This alternate ending scene was shot because the Chinese Censorship of Publications Board wanted the undercover criminal Lau Kin Ming to be punished. However, if we only consider the original ending (which was also the ending in continuity for the film’s two sequels), there is a stark contrast to the ending for The Departed, where the undercover criminal is not metaphorically or spiritually punished for his misdeeds, but is instead shot in the head.

Whichever punishment Lau Kin Ming suffers, it is made clear for the audience who the heroes and villains in Infernal Affairs are, and we are not meant to root for Ming, although we may empathize with his struggle. However, in John Woo’s 1989 film The Killer, the titular character (also known as Ah Jong, Jeffrey, or Mickey Mouse) is guilty of violating both ethical and legal strictures, yet the audience is clearly meant to root for him. Even his counterpart on the police, Inspector Li, immediately respects Ah Jong for the human qualities he instinctively perceives in him.

Some of these positive qualities are the kindness, loyalty, and yearning for tranquility that Ah Jong expresses. He is also committed to care for innocents, such as the little girl he rescues on the beach, or (more prominently) the canto-pop singer Jennie. When Ah Jong accidently blinds Jennie in a shoot-out early in The Killer, he takes it on himself to develop a relationship with her and help her secure a surgery that will restore her vision. This foregrounds and literalizes the familiar trope of a gangster’s wife or girlfriend turning a “blind eye” to her paramour’s illegal activities.

Ah Jong’s human qualities exist in relief to his more superhuman presentation as a hired killer. There are numerous scenes throughout the movie that feature Ah Jong’s superhuman-like ability to gun down any attacker, until the end of the movie when the plot requires that he finally be fatally wounded himself. At that point, Ah Jong joins the canto-pop singer Jennie in blindness, and dies soon thereafter. Again, until that point, Ah Jong’s propensity for violence is unparalleled by his enemies, which certainly invites a variety of discussion questions for a class on Hong Kong gangster movies.

Discussion Questions

Plus Anticipated Issues

Specific discussion questions that can be used for class include issues about the amount of violence on-screen. In regards to The Killer, and specifically it’s depiction of violence, it is relevant to ask students if they thought the fantastical glorification of violence either detracts from or enhances the film. After all, it is possible to see the more realistic character moments, such as Inspector Li’s strange friendship with Ah Jong, as no more than superficial add-ons to a film that wants to first and foremost revel in impossible acts of gunplay.

And it will likely come up anyway in such a class, so it is a good idea to ask students how they thought Infernal Affairs compared to The Departed. Is it potentially easier or more difficult to understand/enjoy Infernal Affairs if one had never seen The Departed?

Also, be prepared for students who might want to talk about potentially cheesy elements in both Infernal Affairs and The Killer that are a byproduct of their age and cultural origins. Some of these elements in The Killer include Ah Jong’s almost superhuman ability to dispatch his enemies and the casual way that space is traversed when a character is required in another locale. Also, both of these Hong Kong gangster films feature canto-pop style music, which most American viewers are likely to find distracting at best, and completely out of place with the violent subject matter on screen.

Other minor technical elements may also disrupt the enjoyment of an American audience watching these movies. For example, John Woo often uses a technique of freezing the frame to linger on a particular shot, and this may be seen as needlessly distracting by some students.

If you keep all of these elements in mind, you should have no trouble putting together your own lesson plan for undergraduate students studying Hong Kong gangster films.