Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Yau Ching

Xingbie guangying:
Xianggang dianying zhong de xing yu xingbie wenhua yanjiu
[Sexing Shadows: Genders and Sexualities in Hong Kong Cinema]

Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Critics Society, 2005, 202 pp;
ISBN: 9628271628 (paper); price: HK$60.

reviewed by Helen Hok-Sze Leung

  1. Yau Ching's new book brilliantly explores three themes—early female filmmakers, queer politics and sex work—that have never received the amount or quality of critical attention that they deserve in Hong Kong film criticism, especially amongst works written in Chinese. Yau is uniquely qualified to write on these issues: her critical lens encompasses the perspectives of a practicing filmmaker, a committed feminist and queer activist, as well as a spectator who loves the cinema. From these not-always-seamless locations, Yau crafts complex and nuanced critical approaches to cast new light (and shadow) on both the aesthetics and politics of Hong Kong cinema.
  2. The book begins with a tribute to Esther Eng (1922-1973) and Tang Shu-shuen (1941-), two pioneering female filmmakers who have remained largely forgotten or ignored in Hong Kong cinema scholarship. Yau advocates a reconsideration of these filmmakers as auteurs in a way that challenges, rather than reconsolidates, auteur theory. Yau understands auteur not in its traditional sense of individual genius and artistic mastery, but as a subject-position that is historically and discursively produced, and constrained by the ideological limits (and possibilities) of a given time/space. Yau exposes the masculinist bias that structures the originary conception of auteur, which privileges the coherence of a 'signature' style as a unique expression of a master director. Neither Eng nor Tang have been considered auteurs because the stylistic hybridity of their films go against this conception of individualist brilliance. Drawing from Kristeva's notion of 'women's time,' yet taking care to approach it not as an essential category but rather a 'discursive effect,' Yau calls attention to the disjointed and non-linear temporalities in Eng's and Tang's films and their bold departure from the narrative of classical cinema long before such departures become fashionable. Misrecognised by critics and contemporary audience alike as stylistic weaknesses, these experimentations, along with the filmmakers who dared to make them, have been relegated to the ghostly margins of the (apparently cohesive and linear) narrative of Hong Kong's film history. By reclaiming Eng's and Tang's place on the 'pantheon' of auteurs while exposing the problematic construction of film history through so-called master works, Yau is at once politicising auteur theory and at the same time restructuring the historical narrative of Hong Kong cinema. Furthermore, writing as one of only a handful of Hong Kong female filmmakers working today, in an industry so obsessed with following trends that it scarcely allows any pause for reflections, Yau's loving backward glance at these forgotten trailblazers constitutes its own temporal interruption of a cinema hell-bent on always going at full speed.
  3. In the second section of the book, Yau turns to a complicated phenomenon in Hong Kong cinema: a wave of mainstream films produced between 1970 and 1990 that tackle queer themes such as cross-dressing, gender ambiguity and same-sex desire. Most of these films were made by straight filmmakers (Stanley Kwan being the notable exception) catering to a mainstream audience. Yet, despite their clear ideological limitations, many of these films have also been embraced by audiences in queer communities, who often manage to read against the grain to appropriate surprisingly rich spectatorial pleasure for themselves. In contrast to the critical silence surrounding the films of early female filmmakers, there is considerably more attention—from local and overseas films scholars and critics as well as queer activists—bestowed on these films, especially box-office hits like Swordsman 2[1] and He's the Woman She's the Man[2] or festival favourites like Happy Together[3] and Hold You Tight.[4] Yau offers lively analysis of individual films while engaging with this larger, multi-faceted critical conversation.
  4. Yau's insights in this section of the book are far too numerous to elaborate within the space of this review, so I will simply offer some highlights. In her witty analysis of the comedy You Were Meant for Me,[5] in which the female protagonist cross-dresses as a man to prove that she can win over women quite as successfully as her male counterparts, Yau observes that the film does not even entertain the possibility of queer desire beneath the provocative cross-dressing plot. One glance at the wonderful image from this film that appears on the cover of Yau's book would remind us that such heteronormative 'innocence' is unimaginable today. Yau contrasts this comedy with what she calls the 'bent-becoming-straight' genre: a wave of films made in the 1990s in which a cross-dressing plot is always accompanied by overt anxiety over homosexuality, which is in turn resolved with an ending in which heterosexuality is restored. This development may be attributed in part to the rising visibility of queer activism following the decriminalisation of consensual male homosexuality in 1991, which has brought the debates on same-sex desire and various forms of queer identities into mainstream consciousness. This new-found public consciousness, which has led to increased queer content in the cinema, has ironically also fueled the counter-impulse to 'resolve' such content with safe heteronormative endings. By contrast, the 'ignorance' evident in earlier films paradoxically leaves its audience more interpretive freedom.
  5. Yau also points out an interesting divergence between, on the one hand, overseas queer scholars' interest in reading against the grain of these ambivalent films to mine their radical potential and, on the other hand, Hong Kong-based scholars and activists who are more invested in exposing the films' ideological limits and their veiled homophobia. Being myself an overseas scholar often implicated in the former position, Yau's astute observation has led me to reflect on the different pressures that produce the motivations behind these divergent critical positions. Queer diasporic critics, especially those living in North America and Europe, must negotiate the pressure of the 'global gay' narrative that assimilates non-Western queer expressions into its own trajectory and image. Most of the films Yau analyzes in the book would appear in this narrative to be backward, pre-identitarian expressions, still playing catch-up with gay cinema in the West. The imperative of the queer diasporic critic to resist such a model of analysis thus leads to reading practices that look for openings and possibilities in these films, in order to tap a different kind of queer potential and spectatorial pleasure than what is anticipated by the 'global gay' model. For the queer critic working in Hong Kong, the day-to-day struggle against heteronormative pressures in the city at large, and in the film industry in particular, gives rise to a far more cautionary attitude towards the ideological limits and potentially injurious effects of these films. As she describes her own critical tendency, Yau strives to 'wander between' both of these positions. While her analyses convey the urgency of a strong ideological critique of the specific heteronormative environment of Hong Kong, they also give great credence to the agency of spectatorial appropriations, as well as the pleasure of ambiguity over the didacticism of 'positive' images.
  6. The last section of the book discusses the ubiquitous, yet hitherto little-examined, presence of sex workers in Hong Kong cinema. Yau analyses representative films from the 1960s to the 1990s and examines the changes in how sex work is conceptualised on screen. Using as her blueprint Ruan Lingyu's iconic role as a prostitute driven by oppressive social conditions to her plight in the leftist film The Goddess,[6] Yau shows the persistent tendency in Hong Kong cinema to portray sex workers as little more than a symbol of victimhood. Even in films where women engaged in sex work manage to rise above their plight as victims to act with agency or experience pleasure, like Ti Na's character in the comedy The Lucky Seven,[7] or Lily Ho's character in the period drama Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan,[8] the plots ultimately privilege male rationality over female sensuality, and the heroines are inevitably tamed in heteronormative resolutions. By the 1980s to the 1990s, films like the urban drama Girls Without Tomorrow,[9] begin to present more diverse visions of sex work and more complex subject-positions for characters engaged in sex work.
  7. Yau's exposition of this relatively unexplored theme exposes another irony: while Hong Kong films are saturated with portrayals of the sex trade, Hong Kong cinema criticism is afflicted with an anti-sex propriety that dares not scratch beneath the surface of this rich and provocative theme. Not only is the figure of the sex worker ubiquitous in Hong Kong films, it is sometimes presented as a quintessential symbol of Hong Kong identity itself, as exemplified most recently by the enormously popular Golden Chicken[10] and its sequel Golden Chicken 2.[11] Moreover, porn films, as well as films that straddle between soft porn and mainstream drama, make up a sizable part of Hong Kong cinema but they hardly receive any serious critical attention. As lovingly depicted in Derek Yee's 1996 film, Viva Erotica,[12] the porn film industry often serves to provide work and shelter for those who, for one reason or another, have been left on the margins of the mainstream film industry. Far from being only a stock plot device or a shady underside to Hong Kong cinema, the theme of sex work may be key to our understanding of some fundamental issues in Hong Kong's film industry, indeed in Hong Kong society itself. Yau's refreshing analysis in this book has revealed only the tip of the iceberg. I hope it will herald further work from her, as well as initiate the rest of us who care about Hong Kong cinema to enter into dialogue on this most timely topic.


    [1] Swordsman 2 [Xiao'ao jianghu 2 zhi dongfang bubai], directed by Ching Siu-Tung, 1993.

    [2] He's The Woman She's The Man [Jinzhi yuye], directed by Peter Chan, 1994.

    [3] Happy Together [Chunguang zhaxian], directed by Wong Kar-Wai, 1997.

    [4] Hold You Tight [Yui kuaile yui duoluo], directed by Stanley Kwan, 1998.

    [5] You Were Meant For Me [Youxi Renjian], directed by Wong Tin-Lam, 1961.

    [6] The Goddess [Shennü], directed by Wu Yonggang, 1934.

    [7] The Lucky Seven [Qiqin qizong qiselang], directed by Yang Quan, 1970.

    [8] Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan [Ainu], directed by Chor Yuan, 1972.

    [9] Girls Without Tomorrow [Yingzhao nülang 1988], directed by David Lam, 1992.

    [10] Golden Chicken 1 [Jinji 1], directed by Samson Chiu, 2002.

    [11] Golden Chicken 2 [Jinji 2], directed by Samson Chiu, 2003.

    [12] Viva Erotica [Seqing nannü], directed by Derek Yee, 1996.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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