8 November 2008 | sccoverton
Minor Treasure of Hong Kong Cinema Misconstrued as Erotic Drama
Hong Kong Hong Kong (or "Man and Woman" as it literally translates) is the story of a young woman, Man Si Sun, who has arrived illegally in Hong Kong from mainland China, and Kong Yuen Sang, a young man who is a gambler and wannabe boxing champion.
This film doesn't exactly sell itself. It was released in 1983, the same year as Shaw Brothers decided to discontinue their film production, making this one of their final releases. The early 80s was also a time when local Hong Kong cinema had taken off in its own right, and Shaw's brands of cheap and cheerful Mandarin-language kung fu films, melodramas and occasional erotica were looking out-dated and irrelevant. Furthermore it is classed (by DVD distributor Celestial Pictures) as an erotic film, which brings to mind slow-motion, saxophones and soap opera acting.
If one were to read the script before watching the film, one would probably remark that, without the sex scenes it would make a fairly respectable drama with some keen-edged social commentary. It is a credit to the director, Clifford Tsai Kai Kwong, that the sex scenes are, for the most part, in no way gratuitous and actually contribute a great deal to the story and the development of the characters. It would be pertinent to note here that the director received the award for Best Original Screenplay at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival that year. To class the film as 'erotic' is really to do the director and his film a disservice.
The story begins with some priceless shots of early-80s Hong Kong - a city that metamorphoses every half-decade - executed like a tribute to the French Nouvelle Vague. It moves to a shanty town, where illegal immigrants live cheek by jowl in squalid shacks, and where Si Sun (played by Cherie Chung Cho Hung) occasionally obliges her male associates with joyless sexual favours. From their we meet the arrogant but charismatic Kong (Alex Man Chi Leung), who becomes a boxer in a protest against the corruption inherent in the sport, only to become embroiled in similar problems himself. The two meet, and begin an uneasy love affair, which is frustrated by Si Sun's would-be marriage of convenience to a local carpenter, Kwai. Later, we are treated to an excellent homage to Raging Bull - released some three years prior - with editing and effects that would make even Scorsese smile.
In following this triangular relationship through its course, the director presents us with some uncomfortable, and often ugly truths about Hong Kong and the world, which unfortunately are still applicable today. Despite the clunky 80s mise-en-scene, the film has aged extremely well and continues to be relevant and engaging. The intimate scenes are cramped and sweaty and loaded with subtext and the tragedy reaches a brutal climax for all three protagonists. One can imagine a young(ish) Fruit Chan being influenced by this film.
With different marketing this film could really be a minor treasure for Hong Kong cinema. As it is, it's likely to be overlooked. While it is far from being excellent film-making, it certainly comes with this reviewer's recommendation, especially for those with some insight into Hong Kong culture beneath the fairy tales of John Woo and Johnny To.