Changing Identities

Historical Precedents in China

Identity is a mutable concept. While many people may believe their own identity exists in a singular, consistent form, the truth is that such perceptions are subject to internal and external forces. And in a society that has experienced massive political changes, such as Hong Kong did at the turn of the last century, art and the public forum should be expected to draw attention to the potential for personal identity to radically change as well. This article will explore how gangster films’ characters layered identities influenced and are influenced by the existential anxiety of the films’ audience.

In the years leading up to and following the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Hong Kong filmmakers used several genres and subgenres of films to define a heterotopic space that aided Hong Kong audiences in grappling with issues of a transitional national identity. One of the most popular of these genres was and continues to be the gangster film, with particular attention given to the subgenre of undercover agent films. The “collaborative colonialism” of British and Chinese rule aided in making Hong Kong a state full of conspiracy, betrayal, and mistrust, and also contributed to the massive popularity of ‘undercover’ figures in Hong Kong movies.[1] Critically and commercially successful films like Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) and John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) feature undercover agent characters who reject identification with an organizational or national identity, and instead attempt to secure personal power and forge an individual identity that is not hampered by hegemonic oppression. But unlike American gangsters, who generally expect the structure of the hegemony to remain the same, Hong Kong gangsters would more likely suffer from a “floating identity,” in the sense that nationality was impermanent in the face of the forthcoming British Handover of Hong Kong to China.

The state, for its part, would much rather push the political reality that national identity and sacrifices to group loyalty are the preferred form of patriotism, and the state is adequate for fixing an individual’s perception of territoriality, sovereignty, and nationality. However, at the time of the 1997 handover, the pre-colonial past of Hong Kong was somewhat irrelevant both to its citizens and to its modern history, so the handover marks a moment of transition to a form of governance with no historical precedents for the people of Hong Kong. For those Hong Kongers who had spent the previous generation developing an idiosyncratic ethnic identity combining British and Chinese traditions, it was the capitalist city-state’s own citizens that knew better than any external government.

This was exemplified in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991), which Stephen Teo describes as a “vision of a mythical China, where heroic citizens possess extraordinary powers and self sufficiency. [It] is based on the realisation that it is a country the potential strength of which remains curbed by tradition and the refusal of talented individuals to come to terms with a new world.”[2] The protagonist Huang Fei Hung (Jet Li) is a noble warrior who represents a Cantonese-speaking Southern corner of a "mythical China" (an idealized Hong Kong) that has "extraordinary powers and self-sufficiency," which the Chinese mainland would do well to mimic as a model of success. Taking such an interpretation of Hong Kong’s stature into account, it is possible to see how some Hong Kongers would perceive the actual postcolonial handover as less a decolonization than a recolonization of the capitalist Cantonese city by the “mainland Mandarin master.”[3]

It is no surprise that some citizens of Hong Kong would suffer from existential concerns about political identity, and therefore use genre films to offer ideas about repeated unanswered questions regarding society. And while fantasy genre films like the Once Upon a Time in China series provide one interpretation for a possible Hong Kong ethnic identity, the gangster film genre and its related sub-genres, such as the undercover agent movies, create an even more explicit demarcation between alienated individuals and the boundaries they cross, using violent tropes common to action films. The notions of boundaries and borders, personal and societal, are prevalent in Triad gangster films, and ethnicity organizes these liminal states of identity that would be well-known to native Hong Kongers at the time of the handover. So, while a portion of the Hong Kong audience might identify with gangster characters because they are independent from or indifferent to the society with which they interact, others would see the environment as irrevocably shaping the protagonist(s). Even a personal identity is not formed in a vacuum, but within the context of a society, whether that is an official institution such as a nation, or the illegal subculture of a Triad gang. Gangsters characters in Hong Kong cinema, although their actions may be deemed socially unacceptable, even illegal, by current government regimes, represent Hong Konger ethnicity just as well as unsullied heroes like Huang Fei Hung. This is because gangsters have a deep-rooted history dating back hundreds of years, and connected by a “...familial-structured that adheres to secret rituals, languages and traditional codes of loyalty and honour different from those of mainstream society.”[4]

Still From John Woo's The Killer

The Code of Yi

Brotherhood, Honor, and Justice

Gangster characters in Hong Kong films, such as Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) from John Woo’s The Killer, subscribe to a social code that outranks the legal scriptures of state code. This is the code of yi, which advocates a system of brotherhood, honor, and justice, binding members of both legal and criminal organizations. With the code of yi, it is possible to see in better focus the similarities between the common themes of Hong Kong gangster films and the political reality of Hong Kong’s return to a Chinese government, which was felt by filmmakers and audiences even a decade before the actual handover. As David Bordwell states in his description of A Better Tomorrow (1986), another action film from John Woo and Chow Yun-fat: “John Woo came out of Taiwanese exile to make a film that revived the Chang Cheh spirit of brotherhood, made even more romantically doomed by the idea that HK was living on borrowed time.”[5] For characters such as Ah Jong, or Lau Kin Ming in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, who ostensibly work for Triad gangs, the organization within which they interact may be doomed, and their own lives may also similarly be forfeit. However, their true master, a loyalty to strictures for right action, such as the code of yi, remain eternal. Similarly, the people of HK were officially ruled by Britain, then China, but neither government could ultimately determine an individual’s identity, nor maintain an everlasting authority. Still, the wave of popularity for undercover agent films during the 90s and 2000s, suggests that one reason for the popularity of undercover films is their reflection of anxiety about cultural identity after the handover.