[Review] Karen Fang’s Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film

{Written by Abraham Overbeeke, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Karen Fang, Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film, Stanford University Press, 2017. 240 pgs.

Arresting CinemaAs public debates around net neutrality legislation in the US or China’s strict monitoring of social media platforms such as WeChat show, surveillance culture and attitudes towards different forms of monitoring are becoming increasingly relevant objects of study. Hong Kong cinema is well-known for its surveillance-themed police thrillers such as Infernal Affairs (2002), and this phenomenon has been widely studied in regards to the city’s postcolonial geopolitical situation. However, a connection between this cinema’s specific surveillance tropes within the larger field of surveillance culture (that often focuses on Europe and the US) seems missing, as well as a broader look at the other genres in Hong Kong cinema that can be read in light of this theme. Arresting Cinema by University of Houston professor Karen Fang aims to close these gaps by revisiting several key genres and films, including unlikely sources such as gambling comedies or big-budget wuxia films. Through this wide range of analyses, the book succeeds in demonstrating, first, that Hong Kong cinema prefigures global surveillance trends and thereby cements its status as a key cultural force in the global cinemascape. Second, and more importantly, the book shows that Hong Kong cinema offers alternatives to the conventional condemnatory views on monitoring practices found in many canonical surveillance texts, by also displaying the opportunities, benefits and strategic advantages that both individuals in Hong Kong, and the city as a semi-autonomous entity within China, can gain through monitoring practices.

The book takes a roughly chronological journey through several historically contingent genres of Hong Kong surveillance cinema, starting in the introduction with an overview of surveillance-aesthetic gambling films, and with the genre of “tenement films” that display forms of social control in Hong Kong’s tight living spaces. Through the surveillance comedies of director and comedic star Michael Hui, the first chapter then continues to show how social and technological monitoring form a long tradition in Hong Kong cinema. An interesting observation here is the contrasting of two forms of observation in a scene of Games Gamblers Play (1974), where an unlucky gambler’s observational awareness pays off when he notices and subsequently takes advantage of the fact that one of the dealers is stealing chips. This opportunistic monitoring is contrasted by the film through aesthetic means such as spying fish-eye lens shots and the presence of a security manager wearing comically oversized glasses—visuals that invoke authoritarian or institutional surveillance. Fang notes thus that Hui “uses the multilayered gags of traditional physical comedy to playfully illustrate [his] vision of Hong Kong as an intensely surveilled society.”

The second chapter focuses on action and crime films from the era around Hong Kong’s reunification with China in 1997, a body of cinema that Fang acknowledges to be widely studied with regards to its surveillance themes. The chapter engages with this scholarship by raising the question of reflectionism, i.e. the tendency for analyses of these films to read them reductively as allegories or even (unmediated) reflections of the tensions within Hong Kong society. Referring to critiques voiced by Shu-mei Shih and Daniel Vukovich, Fang notes that many analyses of Hong Kong action and crime films from the era “exhibited top-down, Western-centric interpretations that focused primarily on China’s perceived threat and capacity for violence, while registering little knowledge of the genres and traditions of previous decades of Hong Kong cinema.” However, Fang also points out that accusing such analyses of presenting a Sinophobic “Cold War-inflected discourse” disregards the fact that Hong Kong’s cinematic traditions are indeed steeped in Cold War discourses around surveillance, rooted in the city’s precarious position between spying superpowers in that era. Fang’s nuanced position brings out interesting analyses of films like Cageman (1992), in which she recognises motifs of being “caged” in relation to Hong Kong’s handover crisis, but in which she also traces many intertextual references to earlier tenement-movie traditions. Both the film itself, and the earlier cinematic tendencies it makes reference to, “[use] the territory’s poignant cage dwellers both as emblems of Hong Kong’s helplessness within the impending political transition and, more hopefully, as symbols of the city’s ability to find agency within highly straitened circumstances.”

In the third chapter, Fang investigates the development of the (cinematic) representation of the Hong Kong Police (HKP) in relation to the HKP’s strategies of self-representation and its links to media industries in Hong Kong. An interesting issue raised in this chapter is the emergence of Mainland-Hong Kong cinematic co-productions (or “joint venture cinema”) which lead to shifting representations of both local and Mainland authorities.

The fourth chapter continues this investigation of contemporary Hong Kong cinema by examining how it positions itself vis-à-vis the Mainland by making strategic use of surveillance elements. An interesting analysis here is that of Drug War (2012), which was director Johnnie To’s first Chinese-Hong Kong co-production. While the film is in some ways a reversal of reunification-era Hong Kong crime films (the police are from the Mainland, and the “bad guys” from Hong Kong, rather than the other way around), and thereby seems to surrender to Mainland dominance, Fang argues that the film’s “ambivalent and chameleonic undercover hero … is clearly a surrogate for To and for Hong Kong film in general.” This interesting metaphorical connection of Hong Kong cinema itself “going undercover” has been made before[i], yet through analyses of recent films like Drug War, Fang is able to show how Hong Kong cinema is able to resist Chinese dominance by building on its own surveillance tropes even in co-productions, and able to preserve its global influence by positioning itself between Hollywood (adapting its “universal” aesthetics to appear neutral), the Mainland and its own genre traditions.

Some of the book’s strongest arguments come from its inclusion of many different genres and its broad historical scope, which are highlighted by a well-structured chapter division that brings together both thematic issues and historical eras, and convincingly traces “surveillance” as a key theme from pre-unification comedies to contemporary big-budget co-productions. Although the analyses of specific genres or films can be short, due to the inclusion of so many titles, they still offer convincing arguments through analysis of surveillance-aesthetic techniques such as freeze frames, screens in screens and fish-eye lenses. The (comparative) use of film stills throughout the book supports these arguments well, an excellent example being the juxtaposition of a still of the abovementioned Cageman with a political cartoon that depicts handover-era Hong Kong as a duck being transferred from one cage (Britain) to another (the PRC). The book also brings together several existing analyses of key films that work well to illustrate Hong Kong’s more optimistic views on surveillance, such as the recurring shots from the point-of-view of an ATM machine in Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) that articulate the protagonists’ hopefulness in Hong Kong’s capitalist society.

Due to the wide selection of films and types of monitoring included in this book, the term “surveillance” does at times become quite broad, to a point where any appearance of communication technologies, or form of visual registration (from journalism to cinema itself), can be read as a reflection on (or as a form of) surveillance. As mentioned, however, the book does convincingly lay out the dominance of this theme in Hong Kong cinema. Arresting Cinema also misses out (inevitably, as it cannot be all-inclusive) on some possibly valuable comparative analyses—while Michael Hui’s comedies are for example fruitfully contrasted to the Chaplin films they are partially inspired by, comparisons could have been made to other contemporaneous American and European “spy comedies” that show similar attitudes towards surveillance, as well as with the surveillance-themed gags of Jacques Tati (which seem to raise very similar issues and questions).

Nonetheless, Arresting Cinema is a highly relevant book that not only shows how surveillance manifests itself as a central theme in Hong Kong cinema, but also how it forms a key part of this cinema’s continued relevance in the contemporary global cinematic landscape. Accessibly written but with eye for detail and both historical and conceptual depth, the book successfully complicates the study of surveillance cinema by taking it out of the dominant context of European and American cinema and examining it in the timely context of Hong Kong’s changing and unpredictable geopolitical position. Both for readers who are familiar with many of the films discussed, as well as those who are new to Hong Kong cinema, this book can bring exciting new perspectives on the ways surveillance is experienced, represented and lived, both in Hong Kong and in the rest of the world, and in recent history and in currently developing political situations.

[i] See for example Law, Wing-Sang. “Hong Kong Undercover: An Approach to ‘Collaborative Colonialism.'” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 2008, pp. 522–542.


Abraham Overbeeke

Abraham Overbeeke is a researcher in film and cultural studies, with a focus on Chinese, Korean and Japanese cinemas. As a PhD student at the department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, he works on non-chronological and otherwise alternative uses of time in contemporary East Asian cinemas, analysing how films such as Kaili Blues, 2046, and Peppermint Candy explore changing perceptions of time and space in fast-changing globalising environments. Earlier, he completed a research Master’s in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, with a thesis on the cinema of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke.

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