People are always asking me why I started to study Cantonese. Two words: the movies. My life for the last six years, my friends in Hong Kong, this blog–none of it would have come to pass if it were not for John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Peter Chan, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Big and Little Tony, Wong Jing, Simon Yam Tat Wah, and of course the main man, Wong Ka Wai. Such was the amazing ripple effect of Hong Kong’s great pre-1997 cultural boom. A journalist in Brooklyn watches one movie, then spends her next six years tackling Chinese language. Such is the power of popular culture.
On my very first trip to Hong Kong I spent most of my days wandering the streets, trying to find the Hong Kong that already existed on the screen in my head. And I spent my nights scouring little shops in Mongkok on a street named after a vegetable, where you could buy obscure DVDs of HK flicks at cheapo prices, three for $25. It was on one of these adventures that I noticed I wasn’t, as usual, the only Westerner grabbing dusty Lau Ching Wan B movies from the shelf. Two other foreigners, speaking French, had squeezed into the space beside me.
I don’t know why, but I introduced myself. And, to my delight, it turned out they were no ordinary Frenchmen–they were Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud, the Western screenwriters who were working with Hong Kong director Johnny To! How cool. We talked fan talk for a while.
Then Laurent asked me a question: What was the film? What was the one movie that made me dive into Hong Kong and Cantonese with such a passion?
I’d never thought about this before. But it took me only a second to come up with the answer:
Dip Hyut Gaai Tauh. A Bullet in the Head, by John Woo.
Very few Hong Kong film titles are the same in Chinese and English–filmmakers generally write different Chinese and English titles, because direct translation will almost never work. I think Chinese characters have an advantage over English words when you’re trying to create an evocative title. With characters you can pack more poetic resonance into a compact package. The title of this John Woo film, in literal Cantonese means Flowing Blood on the Street (or crossroad). But there’s a pun lurking in there, too–the 頭 or “tauh” character also means “head”. If you’ve seen this terrific flick, you’ll understand why Woo wanted to have an echo of “head” in the title.
Dip Hyut Gaai Tauh is, on one level, a Hong Kong version of The Deer Hunter–it’s the great HK film about the Vietnam War. It tracks, as well, the experience of a generation of Hong Kongers who came of age in the Seventies, as Hong Kong was making its transition from colonial backwater to economic powerhouse.
It is also one of the most violent and disturbing films that has ever come out of the city.
I had never been much of a fan of blood-soaked action films before I plunged into HK movies. America, and particularly New York, where I’ve lived most of my life, is a violent enough place. As an American Studies major, I’d learned enough about my country to know that America’s taste for the kill is centuries-old, as established a part of the culture as the Constitution. Violence here is for real, and you can feel it on any gaai tauh. To spend my free time watching representations of it on the screen makes me uneasy. It seemed twisted, almost pornographic.
But the violence in Asian films didn’t, and doesn’t, distub me. I thought long and hard about why, and decided that it was because it didn’t reflect Hong Kong’s reality. Hong Kong isn’t a city that sees much large scale violence (and when small-scale violence happens, like the chopping of the little boy last year, or the verbal explosion of Bus Uncle, it is so novel that the papers dote on it for days on end).
The purpose of the flamboyant, theatrical, over-the-top violence in HK movies seemed cathartic to me–it was there in order to provoke deep emotions from people in a culture which practices the habit of bottling things up inside. Emotions of pain, guilt, even love so strong that they could only be set loose–in fact needed to be released–via the medium that Cantonese call dihn ying, electric shadows. With technicolor rivers of blood, and slow-motion bullets in the head.
When I read this morning that Cho Seung Hui, the young Korean shooter, modeled his Virginia Tech killing spree on the protagonist in director Park Chan-wook’s John Woo-style Korean movie, Oldboy, it made me stop and think once again about these two different cultures of violence, one real, one cinematic. I’m not so tone deaf as to believe, like a lot of anti-pop culture crusaders in America and elsewhere, that violent films beget violent behavior. If that were true, then John Woo and Johnnie To would have made it impossible for me to walk Hong Kong streets after 2am without a Kevlar vest.
But there is some kind of connection, some kind of link happening here. It’s like a perfect storm of two cultures. Or the English rabbits that ran amok when imported into Australia. Transplant the ritualized, mannered and cathartic violence of an Asian film into a nation with guns in its blood (and, too conveniently, in its stores), add one alienated and emotionally disturbed immigrant young man. Bang! Dip Hyut Gaai Tauh.
It is a strange, dislocating feeling, especially after just landing in New York from Hong Kong, to turn on the television and see, nearly 24/7, pictures and videos of an Asian guy posing with knives and guns. Along with his victims, Cho Seung Hui has killed the stereotype of the “Asian student” forever. It is a bizarre plot twist that’s never happened here before: in the U.S., mass murderers are supposed to be psycho white guys. But that’s in the Hollywood version. Cho Seung Hui was watching a different movie.