Monday, 2 December 2013

Chang Cheh via Baudrillard

Jimmy Wang Yu's sacrificial suicide in The Assassin (Chang Cheh, 1967). Entering a "symbolic" economy beyond the logic of rational exchange and accumulation. 

From the end of the first chapter of Jean Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death:

"Since it [the system of contemporary society] thrives on my slow death [in labour], I will oppose it with my violent death. and it is because we are living with slow death that we dream of a violent death. Even this dream is unbearable to power." (p.43)

Baudrillard isn't the most trendy philosopher any more, but the passage could be a way of interpreting the "dream of a violent death" proffered in, above all, Chang Cheh films. What matters in these, much more than beating the bad guy, or even winning history, is achieving a glorious death. And it is in such embrace of sacrifice that the films imagine the heroes – often class outsiders – as wresting back their subjectivity. It is also in such gestures that they keep alive the potential to reclaim the future from subjugation and domination. 

Here we are back, of course, in the logic of sacrificial expenditure in the mould of Marcel Mauss, set against the accumulative logic of the acquisitive villains of the movies. The gift economy is set against the economy of calculation. Kung fu training as Bataille-esque expenditure.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Kowloon Walled City

Photo from Greg Girard and Ian Lambot's series of images of Kowloon Walled city. 

Andrew Osborne recently pointed me to the following link about Kowloon Walled City.

Kowloon walled city grew up in the no-man's land between the People's republic of China and Hong Kong. It started as a walled fort built by the British, but, abandoned, it was taken over by thousands of the poorest of Hong Kong, and grew into one of the densest slums anywhere in the world. It constituted 500 buiudings, built into 2.7 hectares, and at its height by 1990, it had 50,000 inhabitants - a population density of 1.9 million people per square kilometer - putting Hong Kong's overall figure of 6,700 people/sq. km to shame, and even out-doing Mongkok's 130,000 per sq. km figure by a factor of over 10.

Outside the operation of the legal system, KWC was rife with drug-dealing and prostitution, and was dominated by armed gangs. Its streets mixed markets with unlicensed doctors and dentists. There were no organised refuse or sanitation systems. The building towered up, beyond architectural control, so that aircraft landing at Kai Tak airport had to alter their flight paths to avoid it. But in site of its lawlessness, according to a recent article in the South China Morning Post, marking the 20th anniversary of its demolition in 1993, "many of Kowloon Walled City's former residents remember it fondly. It may have been a City of Darkness to outsiders, but to thousands who called it home, it was a friendly, tight-knit community that was poor but generally happy."

The article (and that little sentence in particular) remind me of the "Tenement Film" genre in Hong Kong cinema, which celebrated the humour, solidarity and resourcefulness of slum communities. Most famously, of course, House of 72 Tenants, both Chor Yuen's film of 1973 (which kept Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon off the top spot at the box office that year), and the original of which it was a remake ten years earlier.

Here's a trailer for House of 72 Tenants.

Of course, this in its turn is the basis for "Pig Sty Alley" in Steven Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004):

"In a time of social unrest and disorder the gangs have moved in to consolidate their power. The most feared of them all is the Axe Gang. Only in the poorest districts, which hold no interest for the gangs  can people live in peace ... PIG STY ALLEY"

I also spotted this rather interesting page discussing the Tenement Film and its influence on Kung Fu Hustle:

And Scott Spencer also shared this fascinating link about KWC:

It includes a link to a rather interesting documentary:

Monday, 27 May 2013

Diego Rivera, The Agitator, 1926. Fresco, 8 ft x 18 ft. Autonomous University of Chapingo.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Kung fu, Vampire and Capital (Part 1)

Still from Mr Vampire (dir. Ricky Lau, HK, 1985)

I have of late been reading David McNally's book, Monsters of the Market, a fascinating - if not methodologically unproblematic - exploration of the figures of the zombie and the vampire since early modernity, read in the light of the growth of capital. In McNally's reading, under conditions of capitalism, labourers are treated (and thus imagined in capitalist culture) as objectified, living-dead bodies, placed into a mindless, zombie-like regime of wage-slavery (or, in more recent days, consumption). Rather than such a figure of the zombie, other literature (and the literary texture of Marx's work in particular) registers and displaces the vampire-like qualities of capital, as dead labour dominating and sucking the life out of its subjects.

The rather unstable figure of the monster runs throughout the book, uniting these two figures of the undead – the vampire and the zombie – each forming an opposing pole of a single cultural complex. For McNally (at least as far as I understand the drive of his book), the 'monstrous' is an ambivalent category in modern culture, signifying on the one hand the monstrous and disordering powers of capital itself, but also projecting these onto the labouring classes as a formless, dangerous mass that threatens the law and the metaphysical order of the Universe and the social fabric. The monstrous body of the modern poor is a disordered, disarticulated, chaotic body, decomposing into its constituent parts. It's the body, of course, of Frankenstein's monster in Mary Shelley's famous book. Shelley's creature is itself a body – McNally's book insists – composed from the grave-robbed, undead, reanimated bodies of the criminalised working classes, subject as they were in the eighteenth century to being dismembered after death and set to work as objects of knowledge (and moral examples) at the hands of dissectors. Working class bodies were, furthermore, of course, already bodies 'dissected' and 'decomposed' into their constituent parts, by the processes of disciplined labour (the worker as a 'hand'), and by the processes of abstraction which robbed them of any organic unity.  

In the last and most interesting chapter of McNally's book he turns away from European history to consider the contemporary phenomenon of an explosion of zombie myths in Sub-Saharan Africa. These, McNally insists, cannot be understood simply as some form of pre-modern throwback, a survival of old modes of superstition. In fact, McNally discusses the ways that contemporary narratives of witchcraft in Africa are radically discontinuous with older varieties of this, and whatever superficial similarities there may be between old and new iconographies, the meaning of such stories is now something quite different. McNally proposes that modern witchcraft and zombie stories should be read as an attempt to figure – in however a transformed guise – the horrors of globalised, neoliberal economics, as this reconfigures African cultures and societies. As such a figuration, there is a certain resistant value in vampire myth, as it makes uncanny that logic which capitalism would like to make normal, and which it has succeeded in the West as normalising to a far greater degree.

File:Slaves in chains (grayscale).png
Slaves in East Africa, c.1900
The zombie, in fact, he suggests is not an old figure in many of the cultures where it appears. Instead, it is a figure which arrives in the contemporary African vernacular primarily through Hollywood, and, in the longer run through histories of slavery in the West Indies (the slave as zombie - as a person without will or soul, reduced only to primary functions of work). What emeges in recent years in Africa are myths, urban rumours and popular literature or cinema about (poor) victims being resurrected by demonic (rich) sorcerers in order to be put to work, with the zombie-master accumulating all the wages earned by the possessed body. Other stories tell of enchanted bodies who open their mouths to vomit out coins, and are thus turned into "human cash machines" whose very material substance can be transformed into ready cash. For McNally, of course, these are to be read as allegories, metaphors or displaced expressions of fears about the exploitative nature of capitalism.

One of the questions that interests me is how McNally's schema might help us think about the rather different zombie/vampire bodies that became so popular in Hong Kong cinema during the late 1980s (and, I suppose, in the run-up to reunification with the mainland).

There are, of course, some small commonalities and some huge differences between Hong Kong in the 80s and twenty-first century Africa. The legacy of Western colonial and Imperial domination serving to form, to a certain degree, a baseline of shared experience, however different this historical trajectory has been in China and Africa. We might also note the 'belated' modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation of both societies, with a significant load of cultural material being brought to Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s by its massive influx of immigrants, largely from still relatively 'traditional' rural societies. In both cases, and though at somewhat different moments, and with different effects, we are also dealing with the absorption of the culture in question with processes of globalisation and neoliberal accumulation. Hong Kong was an early 'globaliser', starting as it did as a colonial trading hub, and only then diversifying in the 60s and 70s as a manufacturing base. Hong Kong – even its poor inhabitants – also rapidly drew a large amount of wealth from its insertion into global markets, and by the 1980s was looking a quite different economic and social reality from the societies we would usually tend to imagine as 'Third World'... In this regard, the growth of cinematic stories of the supernatural in the eighties is interesting precisely with regard to this being a moment where a decisive distance is marked from 'traditional' culture, and (with a population largely born and raised on the island, quite probably for most people already at a generation's distance from mainland origins) in which Hong Kong's self-image is distictively 'urban', independent and autocthonous.

What to make, then of the films? Perhaps the place to start is with some more basic description of the genre in question - the 'hopping corpse' or 殭屍 (jiangshi in Mandarin / geongsi in Cantonese) movie. Jiangshi is usually translated into English as '(Chinese) vampire', or, somewhat less commonly, as '(Chinese) zombie'. The word, however, literally means 'stiff corpse' - and it is this stiffness (a rigor mortis that survives the reanimation of the dead) that determines the distinctive gait of the jiangshi, as it makes ungainly two-legged hops, hands rigidly outstretched in front of it - in pursuit of its victims.

Interestingly enough given McNally's typology, the jiangshi shares certain properties of both vampire and zombie, or exists within a continuum somewhere between the two poles of the figure of the monster. If the zombie is a will-less body controlled by another (or just rambling around without a master), and the vampire marks a kind of undead and absolute, demonic will, the jiangshi is both and neither. Uncontrolled, the jiangshi may be a kind of a terrible and monstrous demon; controlled it becomes a comic and ultimately pathetic tool, and the jiangshi switches easily from state to state (by applying or detaching a spell written on a sheet of paper to its forehead, for example). In this regard, it may at first sight seem to fit quite badly with a figure either of worker's body or the horrors of capital.

Jiangshi in Mr Vampire – the undead transformed into an army of docile, controlled bodies

In relation to the question of the particular moment in which the vampire films appeared, described above as one at which the relation to the past was being released, at which Hong Kong identity was being set up as modern and Western in opposition to an imagined 'backward' mainland, and at a moment of the dim rise of anxieties about reunification with Communist China, it's interesting that the hopping vampire – usually clothed in the archaic funeral clothes of a Qing-dynasty official – seems to mark a complex and ambivalent relation to a past that is at once desired and hated, owned and disavowed. In this much it's interesting that the Chinese title of the most popular and genre-defining of the Vampire films of the 80s, which is translated into English by its distributors as Mr Vampire, is in fact better translated literally as Uncle Vampire (僵屍先生). This is a genre of film, then, which is profoundly about a relation to patriarchy and tradition.

Indeed, the first of the Mr Vampire films (it was a film so popular it spawned a series of sequels as well as a flood of imitations) is clearly set around problems of descent and the relation to ancestors (not to mention land and money). The heroes of the film are a long-suffering Taoist priest, Master Kao (played by one of my favourite actors and martial arts performers, Lam Ching-ying), and his rather unruly apprentices. He is called by a client, a rich businessman who is having problems with his business, to examine the burial of his father. On examination of the grave, Kao comes to the conclusion that the businessman's father had been given very bad advice in laying out the feng shui for his chosen burial site and that this is causing a problem. When he probes the matter, Kao discovers that the land for the grave had been bought from the same fortune-teller who had advised on the burial – and that underhand financial means had been applied to force him to sell the land cheaply. The bad advice on burying the body was the fortune-teller's revenge, and it is this that causes the dead patriarch to return from the dead to pursue his own descendants - killing and making a vampire first of his son, and then pursuing his niece (who the film's heroes endeavour to rescue), hence becoming the 'Uncle Vampire' of the original Cantonese title. What we have, then is a relationship to the past, to ancestors, and to a legacy (one which is both financial and familial, magical and cultural) that has become unnatural and toxic through the intervention of the distorting powers of money. In this regard, we are very close to many of the metaphors which McNally values so much in Marx (and which Marx in turn seems to draw from Shalespeare and from a Gothic tradition of literature), whereby money makes live things into dead ones, and animates the inanimate; where traditions are destroyed; where hierarchies are inverted; and order made basely disorderly.

Lam Ching-ying strikes a pose as the Taoist priest in Mr Vampire

What perhaps complicates the picture here, however, is the relation to the 'mainland' and to traditional Chinese culture which seems to be set up. The Qing-dynasty costume of the undead seems to hint on the one hand at a history of colonial rule and foreign domination. The vampire in this sense is something 'alien'. However, it seems also to hint at an alienness which is intimately 'homely'. Might this remind us of  Freud's discussion of the odd collapse of the difference between the Heimlich and the Unheimlich – whereby what is most terrible and alien turns out to have at its core something repressed that comes from within, and from the most private, primal and forgotten parts of the self which have only become so emphatically foreign because we cannot, on the most terrible pain, admit them into consciousness as a core of the self and its formative history. The Qing-era costumes of the vampire – and all the evocation of even older ancient myth and superstition that surrounds the vampire – seem to evoke a more diffuse sense of Chinese tradition – a set of beliefs that have been left behind (certainly enough to make them an entertainingly comedic spectacle) but which still haunt to the degree that unease can amplify the power of laughter. What, I wonder is the relation of the mainland to this figure – I cannot also help reading in these films the presence of China itself (in the guise of the PRC) as a land of forefathers for the Hong Kong people that also threatens to swallow up and suck the life from the 'young' and 'modern' (and capitalistic) island-city. But how would this square with a reading of the unease figured in the film, too about what I take as capitalist values?

Wrestling with the Patriarch? Still from Mr Vampire

Any thoughts from anyone reading this would be gratefully received! Either pop them in the comments below or email me! Thanks!

(To be continued...)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Fashioning the Kung Fu Revolution? Flowing Robes, Zhongshan Suits and the "Army in Black Pyjamas"

This evening I attended a very interesting talk at Middlesex University (where I work), by Fashion Theorist / Design Historian Jane Tynan, whose research has mainly investigated military dress. Her talk was about the ways that the Irish revolutionaries of the abortive 1916 Easter Rising set out to create an identity for themselves through uniform. Though many of the leaders of the movement clearly had quite grand ambitions for fashioning their troops as a modern, disciplined force, in practice for activists on the ground uniform was necessarily a matter of sporadic, bricolaged elements, and the images that ended coming out of the rising were of a rather ragtag, motley, anarchic anti-colonial force.

The talk made me think of a paragraph that ended up on the "cutting room floor" of an article I've recently submitted to a journal. The paragraph was about the ways that dress in Hong Kong kung fu films, in the late 60s and early 70s, increasingly moved away from the flowing, aristocratic robes of the earlier wuxia films towards the peasant "black pyjamas" of Bruce Lee.  Vijay Prashad has suggested in his fascinating book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, that in the context of the anti-colonial unrest of the era, Lee's outfit was powerfully loaded in terms of class and anti-colonial identity – for Prashad (who was himself at the time of the release of Lee's films a teenager starting to become involved in an Indian Marxism profoundly influenced by Maoism), Lee's attire could hardly but remind a viewer of the Vietnamese "army in black pyjamas" that also repeatedly graced the screens of the era with images of Asian underdogs kicking US imperialist butt...

(Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury, 1972 - kicking imperialist butt whilst wearing black pyjamas, the uniform of Asian anti-colonial resistance...)

This is also a kind of an imagining – or at least a re-imagining – of  the "fashioning" of early twentieth-century revolt...

A further sartorial figure within this 1970s Hong-Kong attempt to imagine – and re-enact – the style of revolution was, of course, the Zhongshan suit that was worn so stylishly by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972).  Lee's Zhongshan is white, which, of course, in China, is the colour of mourning. This, though, in the context of Lee's character's fury against the murder of his teacher by a foreign occupying power, is a peculiarly politicised, nationalist, anti-colonial kind of mourning.

(Bruce Lee's white Zhongshan in Fist of Fury)

The Zhongshan must have been  a profoundly loaded piece of clothing in the early 70s. The Zhongshan suit, in fact, is named after the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, whose most popular name amongst Chinese is in fact Sun Zhongshan (zhong means centre, and shan means mountain). The Zhongshan was a suit designed by the nationalist revolutionaries to express their political values immediately after the revolution of 1912. (Sun himself is said to have had a hand in its design.) It was, first and most obviously, a rejection of the Manchurian styles of dress of the Qing Dynasty, which had been used very much as a form of social control. The style of the Zhongshan seemed to borrow much from the Western suit, but clearly gave it an oriental twist, both making a claim for modernity, but also marking a difference to the hated Western powers which had beset China over the preceding centuries. In fact, the suit made a clear reference to contemporary Japanese military cadet uniforms, which Sun would have seen during the years of his exile there, with Japan also serving as the model of a successfully modernising East Asian nation. (I can hardly but make a nod here to Jane Tynan's discussion this evening of the militarisation which must have pervaded Irish society at exactly this point in time, with the development of the militias who she discussed in her talk, and who went on to take part in the 1916 uprising. The zhongshan was also a means to bring a military iconography into the everyday.)

The Zhongshan, however, is better known in the West now as the "Mao suit" – the Chinese communists took up the style during their alliance with Sun Yat-sen's nationalist party, and the fashion stuck with them. One wonders quite how Bruce Lee's (super-sylish, minimal and perfectly tailored) Zhongshan would have been read at what was still the height of the Cultural Revolution, where the Maoist Zhongshan (rather less fashionable though this version may have been!) was very much the uniform of the day for mainland males, made to symbolise the unity of the Chinese proletariat. In the wake, still, of the 1967 disturbances, and in the shadow of a continuing student movement, how would this clothing have made sense in Hong Kong in 1972?

(Both Mao and Chang Kai Shek are pictured here wearing the Zhongshan.)

Interestingly, director Chang Cheh (discussed elsewhere on this blog, with regards to the ways that his work was intertwined with the 1967 Hong Kong riots, and the ways his films are haunted by this radical moment) has claimed that Lee took these suits from his own prior film, Vengeance! (1970)Indeed, in this, David Chiang also wears both black and white suits that Lee's own are very close to in style, and Chiang even perhaps outdoes Lee in looking dapper and stylish, the white Zhongshan, in Vengeance!, serving as a canvas for Chang's signature motif of a drenching in lurid red blood, the glamour of the garment gaining from Chang's tragic heroism.

(David Chiang's black Zhongshan in Vengeance!, 1970)

It's interesting that when Chang discusses the suit he (or at the very least his translator) calls it a "white student uniform (or Zhongshan suit)" [The Making of Martial Arts Films, p.22] - making a connection to student movements. In this regard (and in particular in the light of Chang's attempt earlier in the same essay to link his films to the student movements of the 60s), Vengeance! starts to become legible as a kind of a political allegory, with David Chiang's youthful hero figuring as a terrible force of retribution. His individual struggle against the corrupt system of power, wealth and authority that has murdered his brother and attempted to cover up the crime starts to signify a larger failure of established hierarchies, and a youthful, iconoclastic revolt against these.

(When David Chiang wears white, you know things are about to turn sour for all involved...)

(David, you'll never get the stains out of that!)

(Is anyone going to be left alive at the end of this film???)

Of course, Jane's talk sent me back to look at other images I've come across – the old photos of the "Boxers" of the Yihetuan (Righteous Harmony Society) that shocked the West at the very start of the twentieth century.

(images of the Boxer Rebellion, from Wikipedia)

Or the attempts in kung fu cinema to imagine the anti-Qing "Shaolin" rebels in the Shaolin cycle.
(lay students survive the burning of the Shaolin Temple, and prepare to spread out to start anti-Qing rebellion across China in Chang Cheh's Shaolin Temple, 1976.)

How do such films attempt to (re)imagine a past of revolution through costume, and how does this relate to the actual attempts of past radicals to figure themselves through dress? There could be a whole research project here...