Hong Kong Connections by Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li, Stephen Chan Ching-kiu (editors)

“This is not a book about Hong Kong cinema,” asserts Meaghan Morris in her introduction to Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema. Morris, one of the book’s three editors, spends 18 pages trying to explain what Hong Kong Connections is about, without much success. To be fair, it is difficult to sum up the many facets of Hong Kong cinema and its connections to other Asian and world cultures explored in the book’s 300-plus pages.

Morris’ introduction finally presents us with two theses: first, “that action cinema works as a generic zone in which cross-cultural logics of contact and connection … are acted and tested out”; and secondly:

[T]hat a Hong Kong-based … account of these logics can contribute to cinema studies a cosmopolitan model of how to understand global cinema from local contexts that are neither “centred” by Hollywood nor exclude or disavow its influence.

While Morris’ wordy theses can daunt the reader, the excellent essays (which Morris, along with Siu Leung Li and Stephen Chan Ching-kiu have selected) that comprise Hong Kong Connections are fairly easy to grasp, despite their academic nature, and make sense of the dense introduction. Hong Kong cinema, with its commitment to entertainment, flexible/confused national identity, and influence over (as well influence from) world film, transcends its locality and speaks in a language that is universally understood.

This universality explains why these theoretical essays read so smoothly. As long as you’ve seen a Jackie Chan vehicle, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or even Kill Bill, you can understand the ideas in Hong Kong Connections. Not to say that all Hong Kong films are the same, or that they’re simple, but that the various film scholars expounding on them can articulate with precision how these films tap into a universal consciousness.

For example, Nicole Brenez explores the influence of Asian commercial cinema on three French experimental films in her essay “The Secrets of Movement.” While there may be no two cinemas more disparate, contemporary French avant-garde filmmakers are not only influenced by Hong Kong film, they directly quote it. Johanna Vaude’s short film Samourai, for example, is solely comprised of images from iconic Japanese and Hong Kong films (including several of Kurasawa’s samurai epics and Tsui Hark’s kung fu extravaganza The Blade). While the end result doesn’t look like a Hong Kong action film, Brenez argues it emulates the “Hong Kong style” — a reference coined by Adrian Martin, whose essay “At the Edge of the Cut” also appears in this volume. The editing is dictated by impulse, rather than narrative or form, thus creating a “controlled chaos”: this is certainly true of Samourai, which has no narrative whatsoever, but is concerned with creating a kinetic motion through the rhythmic juxtaposition and cutting of images. Hong Kong films achieve this chaos through violating certain norms of shooting and editing, such as letting the camera rotate 180 degrees (making images appear on opposite sides) and intercutting not only between two scenes, but between two scenes in two different time periods. Vaude cuts Samourai in a similar way, further pushing the boundaries of time and space by intercutting several different films.

Brenez’s and Martin’s essays are among the more formalistic in the collection. Certain essays deal with history — such as Ying Sai-Sing’s, which draws connections between Chinese opera and action cinema — while others deal with cultural issues, such as Laleen Jayamanne’s “Let’s Miscegenate,” which deconstructs Jackie Chan’s on-screen relationships with African-Americans. Hong Kong’s cinematic relationships span across the globe, from neighboring Korea to Australia to the US. The multi-ethnic assortment of writers — who hail from Asia, India, Australia, France, the US, and the United Kingdom — demonstrate just how far Hong Kong’s influence reaches.

It makes sense that Hong Kong — a region with a confused identity — would produce cinema both local and universal. It’s not really a nation, yet it operates as one. Both China and England have “owned” it. It is both East and West. It has been the victim of imperialism, has thrived as a capitalist state, and has had ties with communism. It’s pending future is also uncertain: China’s slogan for Hong Kong, “One nation, two systems until 2047,” is disquietingly vague and gives Hong Kong no real indication of what that date may bring. It’s this identity crisis, however, that both identifies Hong Kong, makes it this strange amalgamation of uber-capitalism and conservative Eastern values. This explains Hong Kong’s action cinema’s ability to connect with filmmakers and enthusiasts all over the world and why it has inspired such disparate films as True Lies, Jean-Pierre Melville’s New Wave classic Le Samourai, and even mainland China’s recent House of Flying Daggers.

Hong Kong Connections, in the end, supports its editors’ projected theses. Its length and formal layout may intimidate the kung fu fan with little knowledge of film theory, but this volume of essays offer something for everyone: from the fanboy to the scholar and even to those who have ever swooned while watching Chow Yun-Fat or Michelle Yeo kick some butt.