Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 3, January 2000

Dir. Wayne Wang

Chinese Box - Camera Box

starring Jeremy Irons, Li Gong,
and Maggie Cheung, 1997.

reviewed by Yiman Wang

    Introduction - Leading Questions
  1. Wayne Wang's 1997 film, Chinese Box, portrays Hong Kong immediately before its take-over by the People's Republic of China. The diegetic time of the film spans the last half a year of Hong Kong as a British colony - from New Year's Eve, 1997, to the take-over ceremony on 1 July. The central plot contains two intertwining narrative lines. The first is John as an English man harbouring an unrequited love for Vivian, a bar maid from the Mainland who is anxious to get married with a HK business man so as to obtain a legal residence certificate. The second is John as an English photojournalist stationed in Hong Kong prowling the streets, seeking to catch the last trace of HK before its 'repatriation.' Significantly, Hong Kong's impending 'death' is analogised with John's discovery at the beginning of the film that he is suffering from a rare leukaemia. His question 'who is going to disappear first, Hong Kong or me' suggests that what matters is not the order of death, but the fact of inevitable death. More importantly, death is both literal and metaphorical, and it falls to both the coloniser and colonised. Therefore it is symbolic that John dies the day after the HK take-over. Having tried every way to document the dying HK, his own image is now permanently recorded on his camcorder screen: he, lying in a fish boat, resting against its side, dead. John's video documentation is therefore the closing chapter of his autobiography and of Hong Kong's pre-postcolonial history as well.
  2. This common death shared by a man from the colonial country and the colony leads to an important issue, namely, the ethical relationship between master and slave, between journalist and its subject, and between a English man and a Chinese woman. How stable is their hierarchical relationship. Do they ultimately share the same fate as that meted out by an ironic history? How are they related to the images that they both create and are entangled in? The last question is the central issue in this paper. My discussion will show that image-making is directly related to fantasising, which in turn links up the three main characters and the special geo-cultural space of HK.
  3. As mentioned above, one key narrative strand is John as an English journalist. With his digital video camera, he captures various street scenes, from big events such as HK people protesting against the totalitarian Chinese government to bloody scenes such as chicken and fish being killed in free markets, to everyday events such as children eating and an old man yawning. But the single 'object' he captures that makes him feel in touch with HK is a proto-hippie girl named Jean. All these video 'documentation' scenes are characteristically jerky, grainy and contingent. Since Jean is consistently associated with documentary mode of representation, whereas Vivian is consistently coded according to classical Hollywood feature film conventions, I shall refer to the video-documented scenes and the camera filmed scenes respectively as the 'Jean section' and the 'Vivian section.' My structural question is how the two modes of representation compare and contrast with each other and how the two women are related to John. In other words, why does John insist on approaching Jean with a video camera, but only 'gaze' at Vivian in photos and in person? How should we understand the whole film - a combination of the Vivian section and the Jean section? Although John dies toward the end, his voice-over still runs through the entire film, narrating retrospectively, complementing his voice within the diegetic frame. Where should we locate this voice? What does this tell about the authorship of the film itself?
  4. To address these interrelated questions, I focus on two cinematic sequences, one from the Jean section - Jean's auto-documentary geared toward John; the other being from the Vivian section - with Vivian being caught imitating a black-and-white, American classic film. In these two successive sequences, both women take advantage of the moving images and fantasise themselves as in a distant or alien scenario.

    Ethics of Documentary Representation
  5. John's interest in Jean starts with his accidental capturing of Jean aggressively selling her 'pretty women' on the streets. Half of her face is hidden in her heavy shawl. This encounter can be termed in Bill Nichols words the camera's 'accidental gaze.'[1] According to Nichols, 'gaze' in documentary is characterised by 'contingency and vulnerability ... chaotic framing, blurred focus, poor sound quality ... the sudden use of zoom lens, jerky camera movements, the inability to foreshadow or pursue the most pivotal events, and a subject-camera distance that may seem too distant or too close on either aesthetic or informational grounds.'[2] Most of these features are displayed in John's random 'street' actuality documentary. One difference is that John is able to discern immediately his subject/object of interest, and subsequently tries every way to 'narrativise' his apparently accidental 'gaze.' The driving force or 'ethic' of John's 'accidental gaze,' as Nichols theorises, is a curiosity that grows into a desire for knowledge, or 'epistophilic voyeurism.'[3] This leads to ethical problems. When John's zooming on Jean causes her to strike back right at his face, the filmmaker's ethic stance is brought into question. Jean's hostility can be understood in terms of the unequal relationships between male and female, between the coloniser and the colonised. For a man from the colonial country to aim a video camera at a woman in the colony (no matter how complex her identity can be), it is no less than yet another act of intrusion and exploitation.
  6. When John runs into Jean the second time at a café, the politics of gaze become more explicit. Approaching (or stalking) Jean reading over a cup of coffee - her face still mostly hidden and the exposed part all muffled by a headphone - John finds himself again challenged. 'Why do you stare at me?' asks Jean. 'Not staring, looking,' answers John. 'Very funny,' retorts Jean. The debate on 'stare' and 'look' highlights the issue of the relative ethical positions and the embedded power hierarchy. Such inequality causes John's alienation from Jean's situation and concerns. This is clearly indicated in John's first question to Jean, 'What do you think about HK after take-over? Will you still be free?' Jean's retort is precisely a challenge to his Western, distanced stance. 'What is free? If you pay for my coffee, it is free.' Having lured John into paying for the coffee, she strides away. All that John can retain within camera screen is her receding back.
  7. When Jean finally agrees to give John her story in exchange for a huge sum of money, she insists that John relinquish his camera to her so that she can make her own documentary. When John still tries to ask her questions, because 'I ask and you answer - that's what an interview is,' Jean argues that 'That is not the way to get the best story.' By so saying, she dismantles the interview as the key channel of journalism. In other words, like Nichols, she sees the interview as 'an overdetermined structure.... Most basically, the interview testifies to a power relation in which institutional hierarchy and regulation pertain to speech itself.'[4] Due to its inherent nature of transgression and exploitation, the interview is structurally depriving and distorting. Not only the specific form of interview, but also representation in general is problematic. Louis Marin describes this process as

      one by which a subject inscribes himself as the center of the world and transforms himself into things by transforming things into his representations. Such a subject has the right to possess things legitimately because he has substituted for things his signs, which represent them adequately - that is, in such a way that reality is exactly equivalent to his discourse.[5]

  8. This shows the isomorphic structure between representation, appropriation and property. John's epistophilia is unethical in the sense that he assumes that 'knowledge' of the other can be obtained simply by documenting the 'contingent' external signs. He ignores the mediating process through the apparatus of the video camera and the materiality of his subjects. What can be achieved by 'boxing' HK street scenes (with the climax of a 'strange funny girl') into his video camera is not HK per se, but only reels of images (signs) that he can possess as his property. Jean's struggle for the camera is in a sense a struggle for the right of representation, or at least a disruption of the self-conceited Western epistophilia for the Orient. It therefore crystallises several layers of tensions concerning ethic, ethnic, gender and colonial politics. By 'usurping' John's camera and by creating her 'auto-documentary,' Jean becomes at once the agent and the object. Although this identification removes the problem of ethical and political duplicity, it is not certain that Jean's 'auto-documentary'[6] will be more transparent, - meaning 'authentic' and 'indexical.' The reason is that auto-documentary is still a mediated self-presentation, a negotiation with one's self as a stranger through the material (and often-times ideological apparatus of a video camera).
  9. In the subsequent part of the film, Jean is alone, presumably at her home (its location and environment are not defined), toying with the camera. At first, she holds up the camera screen, looking into it to view the image of her own face from various angles. The strained facial muscles and the constant repositioning of the face in the screen, as well as the focus on a scar (which attracts John's attention), suggest that she is eager to better situate and image herself. In a sense, to look (or stare) at her own reflection as a strange 'other' is to confront herself, and is therefore a first step toward self-understanding. After the initial fumbling with the positioning of her 'miniaturized' image[7] and its relationship with the new 'mirroring' device, she turns the screen to various miscellaneous objects randomly scattered in the shack room: a few magazines, a pair of slippers, several drying underwear, a TV.... Watching all these dizzyingly shifting images, the audience finds only one thing steady, - her rueful voice narrating her childhood migration to HK with her dysfunctional family. When she finally focuses her face in the middle of the screen, looking directly into the camera and the audience' space, she comes to the most traumatic part - being raped by her drunken father. The matching of her face and her voice at this moment seems to suggest that violence like this must be located and inscribed in a recognisable face that implies a physically, vulnerable body.
  10. When Jean's auto-documented image is seen again, it is being examined by its intended audience/buyer, John and his photographer friend. Again we see the hesitancy as to where to position her amorphous image. John is seen holding a projector aiming at one wall first, then quickly across the ceiling and down the opposite wall, finally stopping when the image covers his stacks of crowded shelves. Meanwhile, his photographer friend is holding a camera, chasing the gliding, jerky, talking image. The attempt to photograph a projected digital image is bizarre. Is he trying to duplicate the image or to appropriate and re-arrange it into something of his own? The image, however, is not the only story. After all, what is represented is no more than Jean's face looking directly at the camera - and the audience - in an apparently confessional mode. The real attraction is what and how she confesses to the camera/audience. This is the story after the rape: she becomes a prostitute, scaring away the men with her scar without losing the money that they have paid, until one day a cop becomes so brutal that she cuts his dick. At this note, the two viewers freeze the image of her blown-up face. The photographer observes, 'There's the vanishing image of Hong Kong for you.' If the threatening castration story can be dismissed as a joke, the face stays on the wall. It confronts as well as accosts the viewer, the scar fully exposed, gaping, rather than covered with a heavy shawl as in the 'accidental gaze.' Half blurred into Jean's face is another mystic red face in the background -- a 'face map,' a 'map of life' that registers a person's future. The next moment, John is pressed against Jean's face, totally frustrated for not being able to detect 'what makes this thing tick,' let alone how to get in touch with Hong Kong. John describes his extremely limited knowledge about his 'object' this way, 'I don't know where she lives, where to find her. All I have is this story, and even this, I don't know whether to believe?' This acknowledgement provokes him to further reflect on the documentary journalism he has done in HK. 'Everyday I write about Hong Kong. I write about its economics, its politics. But I understand nothing about it.' Jean's bewildering confession therefore leads to John's confession of the inadequacy of his representation, which again points up the cultural and spatial alienation of the journalist from his subject. Such alienation results in the paradox - the more he is driven by the epistophilia, the more exploitative he is and the less he can learn.
  11. In the next part, Jean comes to 'What you [John] really wanted to know. Where did I get my scar? Here is what I want to say - NOTHING!' The answer turns out to be a non-answer, or an anti-answer. John barely learns anything from this auto-documentary - the so-called 'better story.' Just as 'scopophilia' is fixated on an 'imaginary signifier' (to borrow Christian Metz' term scopophilia,[8] John's 'epistophilia' actually feeds on the 'absent message.' Nonetheless, the following images parody the subject/object tension to the point of collapsing them into each other. When John is motionlessly pressed against the wall on which Jean's face is projected, the photographer suddenly adjusts the projector, so that Jean's face is superimposed upon John's, and what Jean says (including the anti-answer) seems to also come from John's mouth. This suggests that the subject-object opposition is not absolute after all. This merger is also played out on the diegetic level, with John's impending death paralleling HK's unpredictable fate after being taken over by mainland China. To the extent that the scarred Jean figures Hong Kong the colony, John represents Britain the coloniser. The formal overlapping of Jean and John's faces, combined with the parallel fates of John and HK, suggests the eventual symbiosis, even convergence, of the 'male' coloniser and the 'female' colonised at a particular ironic historical moment, although unequal power distribution still exists.
  12. The unpredictable fate points to death. The convergence of the literal death and symbolic death (the cessation of the colonial life) is what makes the pre-postcolonial moment especially poignant. More significantly, both occasions are captured in documentary imagery, which enhances cinematic and thematic import of the Jean section. John's death takes place in a boat the day after the HK take-over, his camera still on, freeze-framing nothing other than himself tranquilly leaning against the side of the boat. In a way, his 'swan song' is not his documentary on HK, but his self-documentation. The HK take-over is also represented in documentary, albeit the official version. On the one hand, guards are lowering the Union Jack flag, Prince Charles lowering his head, soldiers perfectly lined up and departing the land, the ship plowing away in the rain. On the other hand, the tanks of the People's Liberation Army are rolling in, welcomed by local HK people waving little HK flags. Both John's and the official documentaries look grainy and unsteady. Yet they exist on different levels. Whereas the official documentary is a separate production representing a historical event and is cut into this film, the documentary of John's death is framed within the feature film and has no external reference. In other words, the two video representations of death (literal and symbolic) both converge and diverge. The private history mirrors the international 'history,' and parodies it at the same time. Another important 'meta-death scene' that mirrors and visually comments on both John and HK's fates is the disembowelled fish in the free market, which is documented by John at the beginning of the film and is revisited by Vivian at the end. The persistent heart beat, the bloody carcass and the intensifying thud-thud sound contrast with John's tranquil death on the one hand, and mimic the sensational take-over spectacle on the other.
  13. All these video footages present powerful yet unfathomable images of death. The freeze framing on John and the fish apparently suggests death. Yet, John's posture of resting and the fish's persistent beating heart suggest on-going life. Indeed, when the fish scene reappears at the end, such a strong sense of life seems to propel Vivian to start anew no matter what happens in the 'postcolonial' era. (I shall come back to this in the context of Vivian's representation in the film.) The take-over scene is equally ambiguous, although in an opposite way. The 'invasion' image of tank (easily associated with the tank at June 4th Event) contrasts sharply with the regret on Prince's Charles' face and immediately throws HK's future into question. The film juxtaposes these images without providing an explicit interpretative frame. Contradictory meanings are entertained. Such polysemy caused by excessive visuality, according to Vivian Sobchack, is what characterises documented death in contrast to death in a feature film.[9] In an essay titled 'Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,' she argues that 'while death is generally experienced in fiction film as representable and often excessively visible, in documentary film it is experienced as confounding representation, as exceeding visibility.'[10] Nichols explains the sense of excess this way:

      We witness what exceeds our sight and grasp. The camera gazes. It presents evidence destined to disturb. This evidence cries out for argument, some interpretive frame within which to comprehend it. Nowhere is this need more acutely felt than in a film that refuses to provide any explanatory commentary lwhatsoever (though it does have a perspective and style).[11]

  14. Despite all these ambiguities, one meaning is basic. John's photographer friend significantly remarks that he 'can't photograph social crisis until someone dies.' In other words, death is a vehicle, a metaphor for representing a social crisis - 'the end of an era.' More so than photography, document conveys the closing of a historical era through representing an individual death. It is at the moment of death, or the limbo moment, that Jean and John, Hong Kong and Britain converge, with consequences both excessively visible and exceeding visibility.

    Auto (faux) - Documentary and Subaltern Imaging
  15. Having explained the Jean sequence and related documentary footages, I now focus on the issue of ethics involved in Jean's auto-documentary. I have shown that Jean usurps the right of representation, but is not at all concerned with telling a true story. On the contrary, she fabricates the whole thing simply to get the sum of money that she has forced John to agree to. Her 'abuse' of the video camera highlights its materiality as a mediating apparatus, and demystifies the 'indexicality' and 'objectiveness' of documentary. In other words, she problematises the documentary mode of representation as a means of epistemology.
  16. According to Dean MacCannell, conventional documentary is driven by a desire for 'back region' information.[12] 'Back region' knowledge in John's case seems to include whatever comes into his purview, from the students' demonstration to fish and chicken killed in the market. All these street scenes are seen on his camcorder screen, which overlaps completely with the film screen. Although John and Jean are played by an actors, the overlapping screens suggest that the video recorded sequences function as a virtual documentary, which is supposed to carry more indexical value than does the film part. The indexical referent is apparently HK land at its transition from a colony to a post-colony. Such an epistophilia, as indicated above, is not pure, but is implicated with the moral issue. Trinh T. Minh-ha criticises information-extraction in this manner as a way of obtaining 'the currency of exchange for anthropologists.'[13] Nichols also criticises 'the hunger for the new, fueled by those events and institutions that provide the commodities that imperfectly and temporarily satisfy it' as also producing 'a distinct type of consumer and a historically specific sense of self.' He adds that 'We seek out that which might transform us, often within an arena devoted to perpetuating this very search indefinitely.'[14] John's uncritical assumption about the indexical value of documentary marks him as precisely a gullible consumer of images 'randomly' captured on HK streets.
  17. When Jean usurps his tool, using it to make a faux documentary (a sensational fantasy), she not only frustrates John's exploration of her as part of the 'back region,' but also problematises the rationale of documentary. The camcorder is exposed as no more than a portable digital medium that does not record objectively or comprehensively, but is subject to the operator's manipulation. What Jean does is to assemble a cluster of stereotypical Western news stories (dysfunctional family, incest, rape, prostitution, castration and scam), and then tinker with them in her self-narrative. This woman's 'self-representation' with a borrowed (or usurped) tool turns out to be an anomaly that the tool-owner do not know how to make sense of it, or even whether to believe it. Such demystification becomes even more poignant in comparison with Sol Worth and John Adair's project. In their work titled Through Navajo Eyes (1972), they describe 'their extensive field world which led them to explore the question of the universality of the image ... with Navajo Indians.'[15] As Jacques Aumont has explained, out of 'honesty and mutual respect,' the two anthropologists 'simply gave them [Navajo people] technical instructions about the camera equipment so that they could make and edit a 16mm film about whatever subjects they wanted.'[16] The scenario is similar to John teaching Jean how to operate the camcorder before relinquishing it to her. The results, however, are just the opposite. Although trying not to over-interpret the 'native' material, the two anthropologist still analyse it closely by differentiating two semiological entities: cademe (the view taken through the camera during shooting) and edeme (the view in the film after editing). They conclude that 'film images are appropriated differently in different cultures, differences which can be tracked in the deep structures of the image rather than in its contents.'[17] The Navajo life is therefore seen as decodable according to certain deep cultural structures as conceived by the Western scholars. More importantly, a foreign culture is considered as unproblematically representable through the Western medium of the video-recorder. As if once the natives learn how to use the new technique - or, to acquire a new language, they can easily make their culture and themselves transparent to strangers.
  18. Jean also produces her auto-(faux) documentary with the tool of the empowered and the 'knowledgeable.' Yet, contrary to the Navajo project that confirms the neutrality of the tool, she problematises it by mimicking stereotypical Western stories. Such an act of mimicking de-naturalises these stories and disrupts sense-making because of her enigmatic face and her eyes that directly gaze at the audience. Jean's first reaction to John's camera-armed intrusion is to look back and to strike back right at his face which is hidden behind the lens. This 'gazing back' becomes more disturbing in her auto-documentary in which she directly addresses her audience, challenging their moral stance and masculinity. Her conscious gazing back resembles what Paul Willeman calls 'the fourth look.'[18] Other than the three kinds of looks that characterise a classic Hollywood film (as Laura Mulvey argues),[19] Willeman contends that there is a fourth look, defined by Lacan as 'not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other,' the look that 'surprises [me] in the function of voyeur, disturbs [me] and reduces [me] to a feeling of shame.'[20] Through the 'fourth look' of the figure on the screen, the 'to-be-looked-at' becomes the looker, whereas the looker becomes the 'to-be-looked-at.' Jean's 'de-centering of the camera's look,' however, arouses more bewilderment than shame or guilt for John and his friend. The reason is that their interest in Jean is not driven by scopophilia for her image per se, but by an epistophilia for what her scarred face means. Whereas voyeurism becomes shameful when detected, epistophilia, justified in the name of 'knowledge,' becomes even more intensified when frustrated. Jean's manipulation shows that no matter how democratising a camcorder can be, compared to a film camera, it remains a mechanical eye that both mediates and blocks 'reality.' (Just consider how the daily street scenes are de-naturalised when isolated, zoomed on, and sensationalised on John's camcorder screen.)
  19. As suggested above, Jean defamiliarises and problematises the neutrality of documentary through her face and gaze. These signal her 'excess,' in contrast to 'lack' - a feature often assumed to characterise a colony native and woman. Her scar (extra to her face), her heavy coat and shawl (too heavy to be necessary) and her self-narrative (too stereotypically horrendous to be reasonable or believable) - all these demonstrate her 'excessive visibility' (to transplant Sobchack's term)[21] and alienness to the horizon with which John is familiar. More importantly, she is also excessively similar to John. She speaks his language and is familiar with his culture due to her colonial background. She also learns how to operate the 'master's' tool quickly. This 'inside knowledge' enables her to create false traces that enhance her impenetrability and John's limitations. A China expert phrases the awkward phenomenon of 'strange familiarity' as follows:

      It's very difficult researching in Hong Kong; people there read books, in English; they know what you are getting at when you ask them questions; therefore, there is no truth value to their statements; basically, they are as intelligent as you or I .[22]

  20. Although fraught with the assumption that the subject of research must be intellectually inferior to researchers (again an ethical problem in representation), the statement accurately describes the embarrassing situation in which the subject and the researcher are so similar that the researcher is ironically outwitted, de-authorised, even objectified.
  21. Jean's wit and sophistication leads to another important aspect of the issue of representation, namely, self-camouflage which is sometimes more strategic than self-representation. Her faux documentary shows that she does not care to give herself a 'voice,' or to tell her 'own true' story, not to John at least. The question here is not that 'because they cannot speak for themselves; we must do it for them,' nor that 'because they have not been heard; we must listen,' as Rabinowitz argues in her They Must Be Represented.[23] Rather, as Chow Rey frames it in the context of contemporary Chinese popular music, the question is, 'What are the forms of surplus? How does surplus inhabit the emotions? What is the relationship between surplus, the emotions, and the portability of the oppression? What plays?' Chow abandons a rhetorical question like 'Who speaks?' because it 'is still trying to understand the world in the form of a coherent narrative grammar, with an identifiable (anthropomorphic) subject for every sentence.'[24] Contrary to the subaltern struggling for their own voices to be heard, Chow suggests, in relation to popular Chinese music, that 'much of this music, which often blends lurid commodified feelings such as 'love' with a clichéd mockery of both capitalism and communism, is about the inability or the refusal to articulate or to talk' and that 'inarticulateness is a way of combating the talking function of the state, the most articulate organ that speaks for everyone.'[25] Chow's discussion is based on the situations in Asian cities like Hong Kong. In connection with Jean's mystical auto-documentary, one can conclude that resistance to the Western viewer's gaze and appropriation does not always take the form of competing for the right to speak. Rather, it can also manifest in a refusal to articulate or a faux articulation on the part of the colonised woman. This act serves to undermine the fundamental rationale of documentary and exposes its a-ethical implications as well.

    Fiction - Erotica in Representation
  22. Now I turn to the Vivian section, focusing on her self-dramatising as a comparison with Jean's auto-documentary. The Vivian section and the Jean section are intercut with each other. The sequence of Jean's auto-documentary is immediately followed by the scene of Vivian's self-fantasy. The image of Jean's blown-up face on the wall cuts to a black-and-white image of a singing Marlene Dietriech on a TV screen. Shortly after, we see a hand (a cigar between two fingers) imitating each gesture of the American movie star. The hand turns out to be Vivian's. Alone in the bar on a night, Vivian is completely intoxicated with the classic Western glamour. Contrary to Jean's self-image as a victim, Vivian projects herself onto an American icon. Since Jean's sole purpose is to sell her documented image and narrative while frustrating an outsider's gaze, I call her auto (faux)-documentary a 'self-profiting fantasy.' On the contrary, Vivian's can be called a 'self-intoxicating fantasy.' A mainland young woman landing at HK, forced into prostitution and rescued by a HK businessman who cannot marry her due to her past stigma, Vivian finds herself stranded in a bar, being forced to smile and to serve, while being insulted. Marlene Dietriech on the screen therefore represents the peak of glamour that Vivian can only dream about. The only way to attain that is through imitation and fantasy.
  23. The contrast between Jean's section and Vivian's section can be summarised as a contrast between the epistophilia and the scopophilia that drive John's gaze. If we associate these two gazes to their corresponding modes of representation (i.e., documentary and fiction), we can basically agree with Nichols' statement that 'the difference ... between fiction and documentary is akin to the difference between erotics and an ethics, a difference that continues to mark out the movement of the ideological through the aesthetic.'[26] The ethical issue involved in Jean's representation is discussed above. I shall return to some key points only when necessary. In this part, I focus on the issue of erotics in the representation of Vivian. I argue that although the Jean and Vivian sections are respectively related to ethics and erotics, the two sides are not mutually exclusive. Framed within a particular historical background provided in this film, they eventually converge with each other, rather than remain separated.
  24. An important difference between the two fantasies lies in the ways that John relates to them. As shown previously, John's epistophilia proves useless in approaching Jean. Furthermore, by depriving John of the right of video-recording, Jean reduces John the author to John the viewer/reader, both mesmerised and frustrated in face of her auto-documentary. In a sense, Jean's fantasy is not for herself, but for John, who assumes it to be a key to the myth of HK - the permanent fantasy world. When he finally acknowledges that 'I used to write about Hong Kong's future as if it were predictable. But everything keeps changing. Maybe I wasn't meant to figure you out,' he actually points up the fantastic nature of the metropolis - always to be puzzled about, but never seen through, or possessed. The non-accessibility is essential to 'fantasy.' It involves both the irretrievable loss and the endless deferral of the desired object. I shall come back to this in the next part.
  25. Contrary to the persistent camcording of Jean, John approaches Vivian only in person. Instead of a camera eye, he watches her with his own eyes. This apparently more intimate relationship, however, does not necessarily mean more interactions. In fact, John is always the looker, whereas Vivian is always the to-be-looked-at. John plays not only the devoted lover but also the omniscient controller. Whereas he fails to penetrate Jean's fantasy, he can easily exercise surveillance and intrude upon Vivian's imagination. The unequal distribution of power and knowledge is revealed at a key moment in the sequence outlined above: a smoking Vivian in the foreground sandwiched between the black-and-white TV screen beside her and the stalking John in the background. While Vivian gazes at and follows each gesture of Marlene, John gazes at her from behind without being seen. When Vivian suddenly realises John's look, she immediately mutes the TV and stops her fantasy. John then walks closer and tells her that when Marlene met Gary Cooper for the first time, she said 'Dad, will you get me that man!' His ability to inform Vivian on her fantasy (which she desires but does not understand) forms a sharp contrast with his utter disability in face of Jean's 'fantasy.' His knowledge not only contains Vivian's fantasy world, but her real world as well. He excavates Vivian's past by possessing a photograph of Vivian amidst other prostitutes. Significantly, rather than asking for Vivian's 'version,' as he does with Jean, he publicises the picture at a party and broadcasts 'this woman's past' with a loudspeaker that he has forcefully grabbed.
  26. Even his apology indicates his status as the knower and the teacher. 'I'm here to teach you some English words like "I'm sorry. I behaved -- like a jerk."' (My italics) The word 'teach' may well be a joke on himself. But the implication is that Vivian always needs to be taught although she deserves apology in this particular case. The inequality suggested by this word increases in the context of an Oriental woman encountering a Western man. The film M. Butterfly offers us a comparable example.[27] The Chinese 'M. Butterfly' sees through the orientalism that informs the Frenchman's aesthetic taste, and therefore insists on teaching this foreigner about something really Chinese - Peking opera. Ironically, despite her critical consciousness, she inevitably falls in love with the Occidental man, as dictated by the fictional (fantastic) plot of this film. More ironically, the devoted French lover does not realise until twenty years later that his 'M. Butterfly' is really biologically male, not female. This absurd misrecognition is caused by his lack of knowledge about the Peking Opera convention, namely, female characters are played by males. Upon the discovery, the Frenchman dons M. Butterfly's dress and make-up and then commits suicide, while the Chinese 'M. Butterfly' boards a plane and leaves, tears in his eyes. Finally, the Western man is taught by being brought to encounter something about which he has no knowledge at all. His assumption is finally disclosed as a mis-recognition, or non-knowledge. Similarly, Jean also teaches John by confronting him with an enigmatic world and hence forcing him to acknowledge his limitations.
  27. In the Vivian sequence, the word 'teach' implies a power structure as crucial as in M. Butterfly. It suggests John's self-assumed superiority, which in turn points to an ethical issue quite different from that in the Jean section. That is: linguistic inadequacy renders Vivian into a half mute exotic other who has no means of encountering her gazer. In contrast to Jean (played by Maggie Chung, who once studied in Britain) who speaks fluent British English and speaks her local Cantonese dialect only once when stalked by John in her community, Vivian (played by Gong Li, the contemporary mainland movie star) speaks broken English with heavy accent, and only occasionally. If Jean's proficient language skill constitutes one of her 'excesses,' Vivian's linguistic insufficiency in an international cosmopolis like HK marks her as sheer 'lack.' To teach her simple English like 'I'm sorry' is therefore not simply John's self-irony, but also a reminder of her inferiority (to Jean as well as John) despite the mainland actors' movie queen title. If her fantasy of acting like Marlene indicates her attempt to 'look' Western, John's teaching her English is a companion effort to make her 'sound' Western. In both cases, she 'lacks' something very important, and is therefore only a beautiful, exotic object to be looked at. Her fantasy is characterised by a concern about superficial 'symbolic capital,' which is totally different from Jean's 'sly' (to borrow Homi Bhabha's term[28]) appropriations of the Western technique and stories. To rephrase Chow Rey, the way John (and the film) represents Vivian is inherently violent, in that 'he inscribes her with ... implicitly masculine idea of order' and that 'there is interest in representation only when what is represented can in some way be seen as lacking.'[29]
  28. The violence effected through Vivian's representation is more signally registered in the discourse of erotica. Mirroring Marlene's visual coding in a classical Hollywood movie, Vivian's own portrayal in the film demonstrates the following camera features: close up on her face and body parts, meticulously sucking in her make-up details, framing her image in the centre, either sumptuously dressed or in close-fitting jeans, tracking along, caressing her body, literally from top to toe in a fetishistic mode. These camera angles and camera movements fully display Vivian's curvy body, in contrast to the Jean section (including her auto-documentary), where Jean's body always escapes from the frame, or codes itself in an incomprehensibly excessive manner. Here, I look specifically at such two scenes.
  29. Towards the end of the film, we first see documentary footage showing the British national flag lowered, the army leaving, a ship sailing away, intercutting with John looking on. It then cuts to the PLA (People's Liberation Army) tanks rolling into HK, accompanied by welcoming HK people waving new HK flags and the sonorous 'March of the Volunteers' sound track. The sensational and loud spectacle then suddenly cuts to Vivian sleeping on her side. The camera tracks from her tranquil face, eyes closed, along her bare arm outside the sheet, down her legs toward the ankle, the arch of her bare foot, to the very tip of her toes. Then almost continuously, the camera glides from the tips of the toes to a hand writing on a desk. It then cuts to John's face. Having finished writing, John kneels, pauses, and stands up to leave in the background, all the time with Vivian in the foreground, her entire curvaceous body reclining across the camera lens, motionless. The sudden cutting from the jerky, grainy documentary images and the various loud noises to such a slow, quiet, gliding caressing camera movement demands explanation. The two distinct cinematic styles fit their respective themes: one being a public, historical event whose impacts are uncertain; the other being a private, intimate moment that encapsulates the whole discourse of erotica in the film. The excessive display of Vivian's (Gong Li) body with a 'prosthetic' camera, to the extent of creating a textile sense, is strongly informed by the whole repertoire of classic Hollywood cinematography.
  30. In the closing scene of the film, such excessive fetishisation appears again, with the significant difference that John is now dead, so the viewing position cannot be his, but that of all viewers. Having read John's note, Vivian walks out in close-fitting T-shirt and jeans. The camera follows her, the audiences' eyeline matched to her bottom, with her voice-over sound track: 'You may not understand much when you lose a person. But DEATH really tests your love. I wholeheartedly thank John for giving me the courage to start all over again.' This is the only time Vivian is allowed to express in Chinese a serious opinion in a complete paragraph, rather than simply responses in short, broken English phrases. Nevertheless, even this self-conscious message is somewhat problematised by her fetishistic portrayal.
  31. Her 'courageous' charging forward is all of a sudden arrested. The camera moves to the front, rests on her face. We see her removing her sunglasses, her eyes looking down, as if at something astounding. The camera moves down across her breasts under the tight T-shirt, her pelvis, down her round legs in jeans, then backing slightly, (the theme song slowly gathering, together with a mysterious, repetitive heavy thud) across a blood-stained disembowelled fish body, till it rests on the small niche, in which the bloody heart is beating, thud, thud, on and on. The thud and the theme song then become increasingly louder till the image finally disappears into the long list of credits.
  32. The camera fetishisation of Vivian's body is apparently justified by John's love for her - the erotic discourse. Not accidentally, Vivian revisits the disembowelled fish, which John captures with his camcorder, and later fantasises that its bloody heart changes into his own heart (signifying his impending death and his unrequited love). The revisiting of the image points to her bond with John. Nevertheless, the tense moment of love, death and life contradict with such meticulously tracing of the feminine body (already iconic to many cinephiles). The repetitive use of 'prosthetic' camera movement singles out Vivian's body as something incongruous to the plot. Although the body registers the plot to a degree, the very freezing of it as a sheer beautiful object stops the flow and turns her into a character in a classic Hollywood-style melodrama. In other words, the camera fetishisation does not only result from John's love, but more importantly, it is used to lure all viewers (female as well as male) to gaze at her voyeuristically. She is excessively 'visualised' because she lacks in all other respects. Contrary to Jean who answers back in English, Vivian can only flirt or pout in broken English. Contrary to Jean whose 'fourth look' dismantles documentary as a means of epistemology, Vivian never looks back at the camera. Having displaced all strengths onto Jean the HK woman, the film makes the mainland woman Vivian into a pure fetish that every man can desire without any castration anxiety. The difference between Jean and Vivian is that between an 'interesting subject' (in the photographer's words) and a 'beautiful object.'
  33. If the 'interesting subject' both invites documentation and problematises it (in terms of its ethic and its truth-value), the 'beautiful object' remains a photogenic centre and prisoner in the melodramatic frame. Both of them, however, are brought to confront the common historical event of Hong Kong take-over. As third world women in the pre-post-colonial moment, they both experience love gained and lost, and motherland lost and gained. Interestingly, both of them deal with these emotional problems by creating scenarios, or fantasies.

    Coda - Fantasy
  34. Vivian's fantasy, as argued above, is basically a fixation on a Western icon and is easily contained within the Western frame. Jean's fantasy, however, is more complicated. I have described her auto-documentary as a 'self-profiting fantasy,' which is in a sense more for John than for herself. Now I focus on the fantasy nature of her second 'version' - her love for an English boy, William, and the love interrupted due to his family's objection. When John finally brings Jean and William together, William is already engaged, and does not even recognise Jean. Can it be possible that he has forgotten this so completely? Or can it be that Jean's second story to John is yet another fiction? Lacking evidence to judge either way, all one can say is that the 'true' story is irretrievable, a myth in itself, regardless of the way that it (and its narrator) is approached. In Rabinowitz' words, there is always 'one more thing,' which undoes all 'truth claim' in a representation, especially in an ostensibly indexical representation like documentary.[30] This is exactly what happens at the end of Jill Godmilow's non-fiction film titled Far from Poland (1984).[31] The inevitable failure to reveal truth potentially turns all documentary attempts into 'counter-documentary.'[32] Or in Bill Nichols' words, 'the real story' is an unending tale, told, perhaps, with sound and fury, but, signifying, in various, contending ways, all that can be signified about the reality to which it refers.'[33] Jean's 'true life' is not only her own 'version,' but also her own 'versions' that are constantly reconstructed according to her desire. Both her versions are 'in the present, as that space between past and future, with its infinity of possibilities.' In that sense, they are equally fictional. To paraphrase the Iranian director Alizera Davudnezhad, she creates 'the atmosphere and the space for herself to take over,' and also records all that happens continently in this space.[34]
  35. Jean's fantasies can be further understood in reference to Elizabeth Cowie's conception. Cowie argues that 'fantasy involves, [and] is characterised by, not the achievement of desired objects, but the arranging of, a setting of, desire; a veritable mise en scene of desire' and that such a mise en scène is 'more a setting our of lack, of what is absent, than a representation of a having, a being present.'[35] This means that fantasy is neither real, nor non-real, but a 'privileged terrain on which social reality and the unconscious are engaged in a figuring which intertwines them both.'[36] Jean's two stories are very different, yet they share a basic common 'scenario,' in that the lower-position female is betrayed, even violated by the high-position male. Jean's revenge story and her love story therefore turn out to be the two sides of one coin - her negotiations with her subaltern situation. The father-violator and lover-traitor in her scenarios suggest the ambiguity of the Other: at once desirable and damnable. This is precisely the characteristic nature of fantasy.
  36. Jean's shifting positions vis-à-vis the different yet similar males link her up with Hong Kong's positioning in relation to mainland China and Britain. In a way, Jean becomes an analogy with Hong Kong at the historical moment of sovereignty transferral. More than one hundred years ago, Hong Kong was betrayed by the Chinese government and became a British colony. Now Hong Kong has learned to adopt her British master/lover only to be betrayed again - back to her previous traitor, now turned into a tyrant in addition.[37] Lover, traitor and violator are collapsed together. Hong Kong's 'true' story, like Jean's 'true' story, becomes sheer 'fantasy' - the successive settings being no more than various scenarios of a 'stubborn drive.' Or, as the title and the credits section indicate, HK is a 'Chinese box' - the unpacking of box after box does not lead to revelation; rather, what is assumed to be at the core is endlessly deferred.
  37. Not only do Vivian and Jean deal with the transitory Hong Kong through fantasising with images (stereotypical or self-created), John's attempt to record the last trace of HK signifies yet another fantasy, albeit on a more technically advanced level. His voice-over that runs through the film suggests that the entire work is his auto-documentary. To push it further, the film is his fantasy about love and hate at this historical moment. The Jean section, the Vivian section, and the entire film therefore become interconnected as three facets (fantasies) about a pre-postcolonial colony.


    The image depicting the film was taken from the Chinese Box website. The same image can be located at:

    [1] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 82.

    [2] Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 82.

    [3] Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 98.

    [4] Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 50, (my italics).

    [5] See Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson et al., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 104, (my italics).

    [6] In They Must Be Represented, Rabinowitz devotes a chapter to feminist counter-documentaries. In Jean's case, however, there is no clear agenda, only intense reactions. Therefore, instead of the more self-consciously resistant 'counter-' term, I use the more neutral 'auto-' term. See Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary, London: Verso, 1994.

    [7] I borrow the term of 'miniaturized' from Rey Chow's Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. See the chapter titled 'Listening Otherwise, Music Miniaturized: A Different Type of Question about Revolution.' She uses 'Walkman' as an epitome of 'miniaturized,' 'portable' music that belongs to contemporary anti-establishment Chinese youths, in contrast to the 'loudspeaker' and its 'gigantic' voice that belongs to the CCPress government. Likely, documentary image is also miniaturized and portable and much easier to produce, compared with a film image. Jean's (female colonised) usurping of John's (male coloniser) video camera therefore indicates a struggle for the right of self-imaging. It also suggests that documentary is potentially more conducive to subaltern speech than feature film.

    [8] For Christian Metz' term scopophilia, see Metz's 'Imaginary Signifier,' in his The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.

    [9] Sobchack, cited in Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 80, note 12.

    [10] Sobchack, 'Inscribing Ethical Space,' in Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 9, no. 4 (1984): 283-300, cited in Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 80, (my italics).

    [11] Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 81, (my italics).

    [12] Dean MacCannell, cited in Nichols, 'Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit,' in Film Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 16-30, p. 2.

    [13] Trinh T. Minh-ha, cited in Nichols, 'Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning,' note 14, pp. 9 - 10.

    [14] Nichols, 'Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning,' p. 21, (my italics).

    [15] Sol Worth and John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology, Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972, cited in Jacques Aumont, The Image, trans. Claire Pajackowska, London: BFI, 1997, p. 94.

    [16] Aumont, The Image, p. 94.

    [17] Worth and Adair, Through Navajo Eyes, cited in Aumont, The Image, p. 95.

    [18] Paul Willeman, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 107.

    [19] As Laura Mulvey argues, there are three gazes characteristic of classical Hollywood film. They are: male characters gazing at the female protagonist, male spectators gazing at the female protagonist, female spectators gazing at the female protagonist. See her Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

    [20] Willeman, Looks and Frictions, p. 107.

    [21] Sobchack, 'Inscribing Ethical Space,' cited in Nichols, Representing Reality, p. 80.

    [22] See Rozanna Lilley, Staging Hong Kong: Gender and Performance in Transition,, Honolulu: University of Hawaii P, 1998, pp. 186-87.

    [23] Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented, p. 218.

    [24] Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, p. 146, (italics original).

    [25] Chow, Writing Diaspora, p. 147, (italics partially mine).

    [26] See Nichols, Representing Reality, p.76.

    [27] M. Butterfly, dir. David Cronenberg, 1993.

    [28] Homi Bhabha's discussion of 'sly' tactics in The Location of Culture, New York: Routedge, 1994.

    [29] Chow, Writing Diaspora, p. 15, (italics original).

    [30] Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary, London: Verso, 1994, p. 218.

    [31] Jill Godmilow, Far from Poland (1984). At the end of the fiction documentary, it turns out that Godmilow never went to Poland to document the union movement which is the subject in the documentary. Rather, she has conjured it up as fiction.

    [32] Godmilow argues against using the term 'documentary' due to its presumed truth value and self-complacency. Instead, she chooses to use terms like 'films of edification' or 'edifiers.' See her interview with Ann-Lousie Shapiro, titled 'How Real is the Reality in Documentary Film,' in History and Theory, vol. 36, no. 4 (Dec. 1997): 80-101.

    [33] Nichols, 'Image and Reality: the Real Story,' Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 16, no. 2 (June 1996): 267-68, (my italics).

    [34] Alizera Davudnezhad, cited in Nichols, 'Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning,' pp. 16-30.

    [35] Elizabeth Cowie, Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 133, (my italics).

    [36] Cowie, Representing the Woman, p. 139.

    [37] For some Hong Kong people's fear and hostility to the mainland CCPress government, see a recent documentary titled 'In the Eye of the Storm,' which focuses on anti-CCPress activists. It would be interesting to compare this documentary with Wayne Wang's dramatic and more nuanced representation of Hong Kong take-over. For lack of space, such a comparison will not be undertaken here.


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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