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FIGURES OF HOPE AND THE FILMIC IMAGINARY OF JIANGHU IN
CONTEMPORARY HONG KONG CINEMA
Stephen Ching-Kiu Chan
To cite this Article Chan, Stephen Ching-Kiu(2001) 'FIGURES OF HOPE AND THE FILMIC IMAGINARY OF JIANGHU
IN CONTEMPORARY HONG KONG CINEMA', Cultural Studies, 15: 3, 486 514
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/095023800110046678
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/095023800110046678
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Abstract
Through an extensive allegorical reading of lms, this paper attempts to
capture a certain cultural form of imagination in Hong Kong during the
transitional period leading up to the historical handover of power in 1997.
Dwelling on the world of signication conjured up through what I call the
jianghu lmic imaginary, the analysis focuses on the ideological and utopian
impulses registered in relation to a whole emotional complex of anxiety,
bewilderment and despair in the works of some highly creative local lm-
makers of the genre: Ching Siu-Tong, Ann Hui, Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-
Wai. The study draws theoretically from Castoriadiss notion of the social
imaginary and Blochs aesthetics of hope, to focus on the textual and con-
textual re-constructions of a number of very unconventional martial arts
swordplay (wuxia) lms made in Hong Kong in the last two decades:
namely, Tsuis Buttery Murders (1979), Huis Romance of Book and Sword
(1987), Ching/Tsuis Swordsman II (1992), and Wongs Ashes of Time (1994).
By identifying the ideological and affective moments in the lmic imagin-
ary, I want to trace what has been left in a ruined culture for utopian long-
ings, and point to the presence/absence of hope as the cultural
imagination for an unknown and unknowable future (beyond 1997). It is
my contention that an understanding of that peculiar form of popular
imaginary at the unusual juncture of Hong Kongs history can begin with a
critical attempt to cope with this subtle practice of hope, so as to recognize
Stephen Ching-kiu Chan
FIGURES OF HOPE AND THE FILMIC
IMAGINARY OF JIANGHU IN
CONTEMPORARY HONG KONG
CINEMA
CULTURAL STUDI ES 15 ( 3/ 4) 2001 , 4 865 14
Cultural Studies ISSN 0950-2386 print/ISSN 1466-4348 online 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/095023800110046678
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(or reject) it as mediation in the process of our collective cultural crisis,
anticipation and identication.
Keywords
affect; allegory; lmic imaginary; Hong Kong cinema; hope; 1997; jianghu;
martial hero; wuxia lms
T
HE F ORMAT I ON of a collective world of signication has been called the
social imaginary, or the imaginary institution of society (Castoriadis,
1987). For our purpose, it could be understood here as the irreducible social
potentialities rooted in us, as postcolonials, for resolving real cultural problems
(such as those of anxiety, memory, desire and hope) through the invocation and
formation of images that connote our common destiny as a community. Such
images are not necessarily organized into coherent wholes, for, as we shall see,
fragmentary representations of meaningful signs, ideological as they may be in a
post-colony, are equally capable of registering the root problems of any criti-
cal chaos or enigma of a cultural-political dimension.
Castoriadis has theorized at length the intricate relationship between what
he calls institution on the one hand and the social imaginary on the other. Briey,
institutions have drawn their source from the social imaginary, but the latter is
tied inseparably to the symbolic, without which society could not have come
together (Castoriadis, 1987: 131). By invoking the contemporary Hong Kong
cultural imaginary in an attempt to understand and capture our unique collec-
tive fate, I shall therefore point to the ensemble of socially created and shared
images that often speak guratively of the way the people of Hong Kong have
managed to perceive and live out their (transitory) existence as (real) life. In
other words, I shall read the symbolic dimension of our sociocultural world
through a critical-hermeneutic process of meaning reconstruction. But I shall
insist that:
What holds a society together is the holding together of its world of sig-
nication.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 359)
Every society up to now has attempted to give an answer to a few funda-
mental questions: Who are we as a collectivity? What are we for one
another? Where and in what are we? What do we want; what do we desire;
what are we lacking? Society must dene its identity, its articulation, the
world, its relationships to the world and to the objects it contains, its needs
and its desires. Without the answer to these questions . . . there can be
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no human world, no society, no culture for everything would be an undif-
ferentiated chaos. The role of imaginary signications is to provide an
answer to these questions, an answer that, obviously, neither reality, nor
rationality can provide.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 14647)
My aim is to trace the gures of identication in the Hong Kong imaginary
specic to the lived cultural problems and sociohistorical conditions of the tran-
sitional period (19841997) that preceded the establishment of the Hong Kong
Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) on 1 July 1997. By analysing some of
these meaning-producing forms of cultural signications, we shall be able to
speak more assuredly of the shared world of postcolonial imaginary prevailing in
the dominant mode of cultural production outside of which both the socio-
symbolic signs and economic-functional values of our time would remain ineffec-
tive, if not incomprehensible, fragments of discourse.
In his 1961 lecture Can hope be disappointed? the philosopher of utopian
resistance Ernst Bloch (18851977) suggested:
In fact, hope never guarantees anything. It can only be daring and must
point to possibilities that will in part depend on chance for their fulll-
ment. Thus, hope can be frustrated, but out of that frustration and dis-
appointment, it can learn to estimate the tendencies of countervailing
processes. Hope can learn through damaging experiences, but it can never
be driven off course.
(Bloch, 1988: xxv)
Hope, for Bloch, generates the concrete effect of anticipatory expectation, which
not only occurs as an emotion that merely exists by itself, but is conscious and
known as the utopian function (Bloch, 1988: 105). This hopeful presentiment,
as an activity of expectation, keeps the alliance with everything dawning in the
world (Bloch, 1988: 107). Active and forceful, hope as a strong will carries the
most unpresentable historical substance in its course (Bloch, 1988: 108). In
short, the content of hope represents itself most fundamentally in the imagin-
ation (Bloch, 1988: 105).
In view of the dramatic course of Hong Kongs historical trajectory, in which
subjects of postcolonial cultural imagination have been brought to realize the
contingency, even impossibility, of hope as a category of life experience, my criti-
cal point of intervention is the following problem. Any attempt to account for
the miracle of Hong Kong as a success story reveals the inscription of a socio-
historical meta-narrative. In the process of their being driven into the post-
colonial phase of history, Hong Kong people have lived to interpret the meaning
of success in very ambivalent contextual terms. As we know, in the decade prior
to 1997, this well-disseminated success story had meant the institution of
C ULT UR AL S T UDI E S 48 8
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various kinds of sociopolitical guarantees (one-country, two systems, Hong
Kong people ruling Hong Kong,horse-racing as usual, etc.) for the creation of
a sociopolitical reality that was as yet unknown in history. After the Sino-British
Joint Declaration on Hong Kongs future was signed in 1984, the world watched
to see if these guarantees could deliver, as Hong Kong would become de-colon-
ized into a Special Administrative Region under the Peoples Republic of China.
1
(Now that four years have lapsed since the historical transition, everyone is still
watchful for signs of a future postcolonial Chinese society, for signs of success or
failure under the still transitory condition of historical transformations.) As the
long-term socioeconomic impacts of the recent Asian nancial crisis are yet to
be fully absorbed, the condition of hope in Hong Kong remains something
nobody can rationally ascertain. If guarantees had existed when we had to bring
ourselves across the threshold of 1997, they did seem to look increasingly limit-
ing, as witnessed by the simmering sense of indifference toward that nearing
future experienced by people in their everyday life during the nal stage of the
colonial period. Or does it amount to falling back tacitly on a future secured with
relatively reliable sources of return opened before the ofcial end of colonial
capitalism in this always-already colonized place, a future that will never disap-
point us, because won in the connes of possibilities promised by the here-and-
now? What is important here, as Bloch would put it, is the imaginative gaze of
the utopian function, loaded with hope, a gaze which alone may penetrate what
is real in the anticipation itself (Bloch, 1988: 106).
Let us now admit this: to the extent that we can solve, or appear to have
solved, some of our critical cultural problems of the kind that engage our
deepest anxiety, memory, desire and hope, among others we do so by virtue
of the capacity of our collective imaginary to create, share, and re-create. But the
cultural imaginary, let me stress, cannot be understood in the absence of socially
instituted limits and constraints, of which it is always a constituent dimension. It
seems to me that the cultural problems we are concerned with here are to be
resolved ultimately in the order of the imaginary, with individual and collective
efforts conditioned within the real social limits and concrete institutional con-
straints it has in turn made possible. Cultural mediation is crucial in this context
precisely because it is recognized as a concrete socio-symbolic process whereby
individuals live their imaginary relationship to the real conditions of existence.
2
What follows is therefore an attempt to investigate the gures of hope in our
cultural imaginary by reading a few contemporary Hong Kong lms in the
popular genre of wuxia (literally, the martial hero, or for our purpose here,
simply the swordsman (sic)).
3
They are based loosely on the popular works of
the modern wuxia ction written by Hong Kong author Jin Yong, providing us
in their fantastic lmic re-constructions with suggestive examples of deviation
from the major norms in the generic convention. The lms to be considered are:
The Buttery Murders (Die bian, Seasonal Films, 1979) directed by Tsui Hark (Xu
Ke); Swordsman II (Dongfang bubai, Film Workshop, 1992) by Ching Siu-tong
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(Cheng Xiaodong, director) and Tsui Hark (screenplay and producer); The
Romance of Book and Sword (Shujian enchou lu, Sil-Metropole, 1987) by Ann Hui
(Xu Anhua, director and screenplay); and Ashes of Time (Dongxie xidu, Scholar
Films, 1994) by Wong Kar-wai (Wang Jiawei, director and screenplay).
My analysis will be taken up along two interrelated lines of pursuit: namely:
(1) the ideological signication of jianghu as a cultural imaginary (literally,rivers
and lakes, which often connotes the world out there) where the activities of
wuxia are supposed to take place; and (2) the gurative treatment and symbolic
representation of wugong (the martial art proper, a generic term covering but
not limited to such forms of military art as sword-play, st-play, and a range of
other related skills).
4
My purpose is to examine what remains in our cultural
anticipation imagination that tends toward a livable future following the dis-
courses on hope put forth by Bloch (1986, 1988). Through reading the ideo-
logical tendencies in our culture of disillusionment, frustration and cynicism
registered in the world of lmic signication of jianghu and wugong, I intend to
estimate the sociohistorical potentialities for resolving our core cultural prob-
lems by working through gures of hope in the lmic imaginary, which allows us
to see one image, or better read one narrative as another.
Often lled with stories of fulllment and frustration, the martial arts world
has for a long time been recognized as a key to understanding the Chinese popular
imagination. Not only had martial artists been in great demand in real life since
early colonial Hong Kong by workers who were often harassed by the local
bandits and gangsters (Yang, 1995: 94), they were always admired as the sole
heroes of the imaginary world of jianghu, where the richest cultural meanings
always converge (Chen, 1992: 131). Though emerging at times as contradictory
and inconsistent, the allegorical world of jianghu serve to engender a critical
landscape on which to map the collective experiences of success, failure, hope
and despair, which still hold us at the root of our cultural imagination today.
At the core of the collective imagination is perhaps what Jameson (1981) has
called the political unconscious of social text. Castoriadis offers an alternative
conceptualization in terms of the so-called radical imaginary, which exists in and
through the positing-creating of gures (1987: 369). With the creation of images
and the image-world, the radical imaginary emerges as otherness and as the per-
petual orientation of otherness, which gures and gures itself, exist in guring
and in guring itself (Castoriadis, 1987: 369). But how could we expect to get
at the meaning meaning as always gured/represented (Castoriadis, 1987:
369) of the kind of gurations we intend to analyse here? Castoriadis writes:
In order to know, one must enter the labyrinths of the symbolic elabora-
tion of the imaginary in the unconscious. What is at the end of it? Some-
thing that is not there to represent something else; something that is instead
the operative condition for every subsequent representation, that already
itself exists in the mode of representation: the fundamental phantasy of the
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subject, his or her nuclear (and not primitive) scene, where that which
constitutes the subject in his or her singularity exists.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 142)
Through a close look at the mode of representation, I shall be taking lm as
cultural mediation, specically a socio-symbolic process whereby we are given a
time and a space (material as well as symbolic) to realize ourselves as part of the
imaginary collective, via the fantastic nuclear scene, as it were. Cultural criti-
cism becomes in turn the symbolic process for registering our (limited) per-
spective on the operative possibilities and limits of that cultural anticipation
invoked through the lmic imaginary. From all utopian thinking a certain
surplus of culture must be carried over into the future.
5
Having experienced
the crisis of culture/identity in the late 1990s, we all want anxiously to cope with
those fundamental problems in which we are bound together as a political com-
munity today. Let us pause to see the possibility of criticism itself as an open and
evolving process, and understand through its practice our own limitations for the
political task of humanizing the world.
6
JIANGHU: an imaginary world of signication
In the lmic world of signication, jianghu is a gure for the world at large, the
world out there, as distinguished perhaps most usefully from home.
7
The
popular Chinese idiom of renzai jianghu shenbu youji helps to depict the uid
condition of human existence caught in the sheer immensity of this chaotic world
at large; the saying literally reads: when a person (i.e. the xiake) is in the world
of jianghu, it is not up to him to control his own body (disposition) . That the
lmic imaginary of the martial arts world captures this portrait of the individual
as a lone ghter has been well recognized by scholarships on the genre.
8
The
generic convention is known to have required that the world of the wuxia
vagrants or wanderers be ruled by its own set of laws, its own code of ethics,
and its own social structure (Ng, 1981: 74); in short, that it be subject to a social
order quite distinct from those of the ordinary world found at home. According
to the literary imagination of wuxia ction, jianghu is also crucially distinguished
as the arena for social combats; it is in the reckless and anarchic world there that
everyone wants to perform and excel (Ng, 1981: 84; Chen, 1992: 146). As a dis-
cursive world jianghu has come to symbolize the race for excellence and power;
it provides in turn the symbolic context necessary for the material circulation of
an imaginary of human desires conducive to the search for excellence and power.
This popular imaginary, when visualized through the most suggestive lmic rep-
resentations, often results in renewed imagings of the lone swordsman (sic.) in
search of the (unknowable) key to the enigma of life.
According to Lin Nien-tung, the martial arts lms have in their evolution
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moved away from a heavy reliance on magical feats, and within this process of
secularization, arrived at a realistic portrayal of martial skills and an adhesion to
martial ideals (Lin, 1981: 12). Lin identies three major phases in the develop-
ment of the hero image in post-war Hong Kong wuxia pian (martial arts lms).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, drawing spirits from various sources of exotic
powers, the martial hero was the masterful body of transformation that roamed
jianghu with his supernatural feats. When King Hu and Zhang Che came onto
the scene of martial arts lmmaking in the mid 1960s, the new style wuxia heroes
were still capable of fantastic stunts (like the classic weightless leap), but they
have generally appeared distinctly as righteous-minded commoners committed
to the cause of justice (xiayi), either as part of their personal ambition (Zhang
Che) or as an outshoot of their patriotic and political ideals (King Hu). Finally,
a change in lm language resulted in the denial of the older forms of wuxia rep-
resentation and a scepticism toward the ideals of traditional chivalry in martial
arts lms produced after 1968 (Lin, 1981: 79, 124). Another veteran critic
Law Kar (1997: 112) has a slightly different periodization to make but agrees
with Lin on the effects of secularization found in the martial hero image, adding
that the turn to some new-wave and high-tech special effects have come to domi-
nate the rapid development and transformation of wuxia pian in Hong Kong since
the early 1990s.
However, the transition to this current stage in the transformation of the
wuxia world imaginary had started more than a decade earlier. One of the most
creative and energetic among the well-known new wave lmmakers of Hong
Kong who have brought fresh new imagination to the local cinema during the
late 1970s and early 1980s is Tsui Hark. He offers in his debut work The Butter-
y Murders, one of the most original new-wave wuxia pian, a contemporary per-
spective on the representation of the jianghu enigma in the world of changing
values. As the critic Stephen Teo points out, Tsui depicts here the mythic world
of the martial arts as a time when Chinas sciences and inventions were at their
peak; and this notion of Chinese science and military prowess, combined with
the popular mythologizing of the martial arts, form the substance of Tsuis
(essentially pessimistic) nationalist theme (1997: 163).
The plot focuses on the investigation of the killer butteries at a mysterious,
almost futuristic medieval castle by a number of martial arts experts, who all try
to answer the key question Who is the Buttery Killer? For us, aside from the
new wave martial art special effects, the most interesting and unconventional
approach taken by Tsui involves framing the lmic narrative of mystery-solving
within the viewpoint and discourse of the lone, mysterious pseudo-swordsman.
This peculiar swordsman, however, appears to be roaming jianghu not with a
sword to resolve the real problems of that imaginary world, but with a pen to
record the logic of its happening, asking How to write this history (of The Butter-
y Murders)? Now writer Fang Hongye, from whose subjective stance the riddle
of the buttery murders is represented (if never fully resolved), plays the peculiar
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role of an insider-outsider to the history of wulin (used loosely here as a substi-
tute term for jianghu). This buttery historian of jianghu is depicted by Tsui as
the solitary, wandering author of various fragmentary discourses on jianghu
enyuan (the loves and hates of jianghu). He has a reputation of being the authori-
tative witness to its ruthlessness. Tsuis insight here consists in juxtaposing the
enigma of the unknown butteries with the even more unapproachable mystery
of the alien loner in jianghu, who is supposed to be the denitive author of its
history. Caught in the unfamiliar mise-en-scene of a chaotic and hybrid jianghu,
viewers are driven by Tsuis acute lmic articulation to question the authenticity
of this particular rendition of jianghu. Overwhelmed by the beautiful visual
mystery, they are left with no choice but to accept that the horric logic of the
signied world of jianghu remains the privileged reconstruction of a wandering
intellectual, whose real stakes in life (through his masterful inscription of the
jianghu enyuan) they have no way of knowing.
Hence, as gures, the represented butteries conjure up a modern aesthetic
order of mythical imagination, underlining the creation of a hybridized version
of the martial arts hero as suggested in his three phases of development through-
out post-war Hong Kong lm history (Lin, 1981). By the same token, the lmic
discourse rendered in the subdued viewpoint and voice of the solitary storyteller
(analogous to those of the lmmaker?) underlines the problem of mythmaking
more than sharing a particular perspective of historical vision. Through such an
imaginary representation, jianghu is invoked as a place with a strong sense of ahis-
torical, mythical time, in which worldly enyuan (love-hate relationships) are
bound to return in repeated cycles of terror and retribution.
This conception takes a similar form in Swordsman II, one of the most popular
lms made by Tsuis Film Workshop in the early 1990s, where the imaginary
world of signication is revealed to be once again driven by the logic of power
and chaos, Hong Kong style. Despite its setting in the Ming Dynasty, the lm
allows us to imagine an order where time counts little clearly, one day in
jianghu is much the same as another, one epoch but a repetition of another
except when you should be concerned with the problem of nishing off an oppo-
nent before you are made away with by another. So what is invoked is yet another
signifying space for ruthless undertakings, in which the sense of time is usually
de-historicized. Indeed, it comes close to what Foucault calls crisis heterotopia,
(1986: 24) an extraordinary cultural space delimited within privileged places
where individuals nd themselves living perpetually in a state of crisis con-
ditioned by the human environment in which they dwell.
Now, with regard to the imaginary world of signication in wuxia lms,
there are basically two opposed sets of value adopted respectively by two differ-
ent types of people gured in jianghu: those held by: (1) a community of xiake,
or righteous swordsmen; and those held by: (2) people who continue to partake
in the vanity and excitement of the privileged world without regard to any norm
of righteousness (xiayi). The former are values that the smart, mysterious
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sword/power-play in The Buttery Murders has effectively done away with; these
same values are nonetheless well manifested in the no-less technologically
sophisticated ghting style of Ling Huchong and his Huashan fraternity in Swords-
man II. In contrast, the latter are captured in full by Ching Tsuis spectacular
portrait of Asia-the-Invincible (or Dongfang bubai, the East-never-loses, played
by the awless Lin Qingxia), and his quasi-supernatural Sun-Moon Sect.
What could then be added to this stereotyped dichotomy is: (3) a third type
of people, sometimes called jianghu yinshi (hermits), who are usually desperate
loners willing to retire to the tranquility of life. In Swordsman II, we see Ling
Huchong and his rank constantly caught in a rather deceptive self-rationalizing
process of wanting to relinquish their jianghu status of xiake. But they must, in
the manner of good swordsmanship, rst settle everything they are still tied to
before they can take their noble leave. Ling, for one, has never been ready to
leave the loves and hates of the troublesome world behind for the peacefulness
of some place beyond until the very last moment, after the total (self-)destruc-
tion of Asia, when his nal resolution to retreat with fellow Huashan followers
to Japan (presumably, one wild place far away from the central plains of China)
turns out to be pathetically unconvincing.
The crisis situation for xiake Ling and his Huashan fraternity (whose domi-
nant Han ethnicity is everywhere emphasized in the lm) has been typically rep-
resented in an analogue to his encounter with various female gures in jianghu.
His having to choose among the different loves, even between the two sexes,
before making his symbolic way out of this world, is an act carefully calculated
within a matrix of character types: (1) Yue Lingshan, a Huashan sister charac-
terized as somewhat tomboyish and showing healthy affection for brother Ling;
(2) his beloved Ren Yingying, the loyal and kind-hearted Miao chieftain and
daughter of the sacked former head of Sun-Moon Sect, whose ethnic difference
is all too explicitly shown in the non-standard dialect she speaks, and who has to
cut short her long-standing relationship with Ling so as to stay behind to witness
the future fate of her clan (such is Tsui Harks less than subtle allegorical ren-
dition of one pro-nationalistic approach to the Hong Kong situation in the pre-
1997 decade); (3) Asia-the-Invincible, the all-powerful bi-gendered leader of
Sun-Moon Sect on his/her way to usurping the championship of jianghu, for
whom Lings affective ties offer rare relief and the only lead to escape from the
cruel rules of game, in which he is by now the most ruthless player; and nally;
and (5) Asias concubine Yang Shishi, on whose robe the beloved tyrant inscribes
the entire secret text of wulin for fear of being disclosed by others, with whom
Ling consummates a romantic relationship one evening on the assumption that
she is indeed the Asia he loves (whose real (split) identity he only realizes later
to be something totally unacceptable).
9
Traditionally, swordsmen of the xiake type are expected to live and cope
with a world full of problems and opportunities; these offer them room for
reconsidering the possible gains and losses resulting from the collective plight of
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jianghu, before they would decide on their future amid opposing alternatives
during critical moments of decision. Such moments are what we typically
understand today as crisis of culture.
10
In the generic context of jianghu, a series
of fundamental values would normally be reinforced, values which often revolve
around the idea of moral application of the self (hence the proper use of
wugong) toward universal benevolence in the chaotic world of struggle for wulin
championship. In the ctional world of wuxia, according to the literary historian
Pingyuan Chen, crisis is more often than not an indication of opportunities for
change, rather than the promise of a narrative closure. The human capacity of a
xiake would be put to the most authentic test if he is seen to be trapped in the
severest situation. By the end of the test, the immense power of his wugong
would be fully revealed and realized in discursive visibility. Signicantly, there-
fore, at the crux of the generic imaginary of the wuxia hero in crisis is such an
opportunity for human potentials to be explored and developed to their utmost
extremes (Chen, 1992: 155).
In other words, only at the limits of jianghu may a real hero emerge as the
xiake fully in command of his wugong. In Swordsman II, as we may see, the generic
chaos of jianghu seems to have instituted itself into a ruling, rather than excep-
tional, logic of jianghu. And the resultant crisis situation seems to suggest that,
in this chaotic world of power-play, whatever the root cause of our collective
problems may be, order is held only by the winning hands and may only be
restored through maximal demonstration of violence subsequently authorized in
the name of legitimacy, retribution, or justice (or law and order and stability and
prosperity, etc., insofar as the rhetoric of the dominant Hong Kong discourse
goes).
As for the lmic imaginary, what then are the limits of the xiakes jianghu,
out there in the realm where it is normally not possible for the communal home
to be located? (To be sure, one leaves home for jianghu, which in this sense is the
very antithesis of home.) In such a world, the extent of cultural identication is
usually stretched across a signied spectrum of enyuan the loves-hates or
rewards-retributions of life as represented in the jianghu imaginary of Swordsman
II which may end only where the network of social relationships stops in our
represented real world. Under the mythopoeic perspective of Tsui Hark, the
complexity of human enyuan has to be understood in specic historical context,
something that the spectacular action scenes of jianghu enyuan tend to over-
shadow. Hence, it is not surprising, as Tsui also admitted, that non-Chinese audi-
ence would have great difculty in decoding the historical subtext of his wuxia
lms (Law et al., 1997: 56).
If the spectrum of human relationships typically manifests itself in the
antagonism between East and West in Tsui Harks jianghu lms, the approach to
enyuan is given a more subtle political treatment under the historico-allegorical
perspective on jianghu adopted by Ann Hui in The Romance of Book and Sword.
Both lms show that as power corrupts, it alienates the individuals concerned
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caught in power-play (Asia-the-Invincible on the one hand, Emperor Qianlong
(17361795) on the other). Values seem to have been fading away in jianghu,
with xiake like Ling Huchong (Swordsman II) or Chen Jialuo (Romance) hardly
capable of resisting their erosion. Their total collapse, now recognized almost as
a fact of life (in jianghu as in colonized Hong Kong), is saved only by being kept
negatively intact, as it were, in our imaginary dimension, by the xiakes often
non-violent acts of resisting the hegemony of success as of power.
But Ling Huchongs symbolic escape from jianghu after the elimination of
Asia-the-Invincible can only be read as a passively compromising act of keeping
oneself aloft of (the rewards of) success. In Romance, Chen Jialuos equally sym-
bolic retreat, on the other hand, may be recognized as a tragic act of deep affec-
tion all its own, taken in powerful deance of the appalling waste people would
make of life. Characters capable of the kind of waste are highlighted in the lm:
Qianlong, for sure, but also the legendary Mamia who dies for higher than
worldly values. An exception may be the Wei princess Xianxian, whose suicide
in resistance to Qianlongs sexual proposal looks more like a hopelessly con-
servative step taken in vain. Obliged to recognize Chen Jialuo as his own brother,
Qianlong took no chance by killing all the rioters of the formers counter-revol-
utionary Red-Flower Society. Chen eventually withholds from taking the wasted
life of his brother Emperor: instead, he resolves to walk away from it all, not in
order to retire to some faraway land outside of jianghu, but in silent anticipation
of perhaps something better something missing.
11
(Were I to kill you, some-
body worse than you would have been there to succeed you as Emperor, Chen
tells his brother Qianlong as he takes his sword off the latters throat, and walks
away disappointedly into the distant future.) Such an approach to future is, I
imagine, substantially different from the one as adopted in Swordsman II; for, as a
radical imaginary, it resorts to a historicized allegorical perspective on under-
standing the real (constraints of) worldly possibilities we face here and now.
As we know, unication of all sects of wulin swordsmen through the art and
power of wugong is a common theme governing the imaginary signication of
jianghu. Amid the violent struggle for the legitimacy of ones ruling art/power,
hegemony is won (rst by force, then by consent) along with the nal usurpa-
tion of a certain holistic value system, the denial of which can only be made nega-
tively possible (i.e. allegorically representable) on the basis of its very positive
assertion. The wuxia world of Tsui Hark is a fantastic demonstration of this logic.
In Swordsman II, this is revealed in a series of mutual negations between Asia-the-
Invincible and Ling Huchong (sweepingly destructive power vs noncommittal
procreative force), between Ling and Ren Yingying (leaver vs stayer), and
between Ren and her father (the simple good vs the simple evil), who is in turn
a predictable repetition of Asias oriental success story before the latters rise
to full perfection of power through subsequent self-castration (in acquisition of
the ultimate wugong). Now if the search for unication is a recurrent motif, then
in Tsui Chings jianghu it compels us to look beyond its cohesive tendency,
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fostering traditional values of swordsmanship. In this way, we are able to bypass
some of the contradictions invoked (such as the dichotomies of male/female,
power/affection, success/failure, etc.). This, ironically, leaves the dominating
logic of (a typically anti-utopian) imagination intact, since one has no room to
imagine otherwise as long as one is kept within such limits of juanghu. Stay and
corrupt, or leave at your own risk, was the historic logic at the threshold of the
1997 social imaginary.
However, the value of coherence and the urge for unication are treated with
signicant difference by Huis The Romance of Book and Sword and Wong Kar-wais
Ashes of Time. Both attempt to re-afrm life at the darkest moments of its crisis.
In Romance, the lmmaker possibly shares Chen Jialuos evolving critical per-
spective on the problem of cultural-political identity, thus conceived: Which is
the more desirable approach to the undertakings in jianghu, yong jian (the use of
sword), or yong qing (the use of feeling)? Huis answer comes out strongly in
favour of the latter, which, when re-imagined in the context of the Han-centred
re-unication, brings us beyond the problematic of power reconguration to the
key question of cultural anticipation: the question of hope.
The imaging of jianghu is presented by Hui through an aesthetics of contrast.
Memorable imagery in the lm generates striking visual effect and emotional
impact in, for instance, the towering waves that attack a limitless gray horizon
on which the loner stands; or, the labyrinth of one strange desert, etc. (Drawn
away by the grand emptiness of nature, Emperor Qianlong laments: What is the
history of thousands of years of empire but waves splitting against this shoreline
. . .) Through an evolving sequence of gurative moves, Huis allegorical vision
is creatively and productively made, resulting in the imaging of a series of natural
contrasts turned historical oppositions (desert/ocean, winds/waves,
sword/book, qian/qing, betrayal/hope). And thus a very different version of
jianghu enyuan is mapped onto the cultural imaginary.
If one cannot help but feel desperate and alienated by Huis allegorical rep-
resentation of jianghu, one must admit that the tragic sense of tension invoked
in its cultural space does have an unmistakably clear ethico-political dimension
to it. Teo offers a succinct summary of the heroic action portrayed in Huis re-
imagined jianghu:
Based on a novel by martial arts writer Jin Yong, the lm proposes that the
Emperor Qianlong, one of the Manchu Qing Dynastys most successful
emperors who reigned between 17351796, was a Han Chinese and not
of Manchu stock. The Red Flower Society, headed by a young Han named
Chen Jialuo, captures the emperor and tries to persuade him to re-estab-
lish Han rule under a restored Ming Dynasty. To convince Qianlong that
he is really a Han, Chen Jialuo disclosed that he is his brother, offering proof
in the shape of a letter written by their natural mother just before her
death. Together, they discuss the premise of a Chinese society prospering
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under Manchu rule and the possibility that it might be foolhardy for the
emperor to overthrow his own government to make way for the Hans.
Chen Jialuo appears to agree, but a commitment to Han rule overpowers
him and his Red Flower Society members. The theme of Han discontent
brings up the issue of ethnic purity which lies behind Huis treatment of
history. She questions the thesis that Chins historical tragedy for three
hundred years stemmed from the Hans loss of power and offers the
counter-thesis of a greater China, one encompassing different ethnic
groups and cultures living together.
(Teo, 1997: 151)
By framing the activities of xiake like Chen Jialuo and his Red-Flower Society in
an (imagined) historical context, Hui offers a controlled treatment of a critical-
hermeneutic re-understanding of the Han-national cause: under the gurative,
historical guise of fan-Qing fu-Ming, this is read as the anti-Manchurian struggle
by the Han Chinese for the restoration of the Ming Dynasty during the very suc-
cessful reign of Qianlong. While it is obvious that the lm deals explicitly with
the theme of China engulfed by discontent among its majority citizens of the Han
ethnic variety (Teo, 1997: 151), the kind of cultural-political questions it con-
jures up through the particular imaginary of jianghu enyuan for the Hong Kong
audience remains to be specied. Where will success lead us to in the end?
Questions we are compelled to consider anew under Huis critical and his-
torical re-vision, in an allegorical mode of reception, would include, for in-
stance:
12
who are our enemies? (or rather, what are our enemies?) what do we
struggle against? (e.g. the Qing regime, its Han Emperor Qianlong, or the entire
Manchu people?) what are we ghting for? (national integrity? ethnic identity?
or cultural pride?) what is the nature of our cultural crisis? (one of legitimacy?
sovereign power or identity?). But what is in an identity, or in power? and how
could all these (our own jianghu enyuan, as it were) be conceived, resolved, and
historically imagined? in what perspectives? with reference to what meaning,
feeling, and hope?
In her subtle but ambitious allegorical vision, Hui invites her viewers to see
such questions (posed perhaps far too explicitly here) as highly relevant to the
enigma of life on encounters in jianghu, and to ask their own versions of such
questions from the imagined perspective of a marginalized position such as that
of their Hong Kong. Indeed, one critic has pointed out that, despite their differ-
ent subject matters and sociohistorical settings, most of Huis works have been
allegorical readings of the Hong Kong situation (Shu, 1988). In other words,
Huis questions are asked, and imagined, from within the historical perspective
of Hong Kong, which have necessarily been constrained by and limited to the
social and ideological contradictions as we experience them in what we call the
Hong Kong imaginary on the verge of our unique encounter with postcolonial-
ity. As critics of this imaginary, we need to try to understand and describe the
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cultural logic of that necessity and attempt to grasp its historical roots before one
can fruitfully mean, feel, and hope for anything.
13
Hence, if Red-Flower Society can align with the Wei people in its struggle
against the Manchus, why should the Han people not wear their bianzhi
(Manchurian braids) and mingle freely with the ruling Manchus? Why must the
ordinary people wake up from their dream of a peaceful and prosperous social
order under the Qing Dynasty to recognize that the Manchurians were indeed
usurpers of the Han power and must therefore be thrown out of their rank? Why,
in short, must there be revolutionary acts of subversions (zhaofan yundong), or
any movements of cultural and political resistance at all? The irony here is that
one instance of ethnic harmony (the Han-Wei alliance through friendship and
courtship) must be consolidated on the basis of another, in which, as the lm
reveals, ethnic conict (Han vs zei, or thieves) is to be recognized as part of a
more complex case of cultural-political antagonism. An attempt to understand
the latter would then lead, not to a simplistic move to retreat from jianghu, but
to Chens nal moment of more lasting realization, which might end up in
stronger deance of the ruling logic.
A further set of questions would hopefully be opened in the course of that
realization, asking: are the Han Chinese all as non-statist and anti-establishment
as Chen? With what legitimation can the Red-Flower Society and its anti-
Manchurian resistance movement justify its claim to represent the perspective of
the ordinary people, whose readiness to indulge in the stability and prosperity
of life one can hardly doubt? And as Chen leads the zhaofan campaign through
secret subversive acts to apply and move qian in the perspective of qing, one
wonders if political alliance and alignment obviously a strategy of modern
swordplay are a necessary source or precondition of (ethnic) friendship, love
and affection (the cornerstone of qing). All these were no doubt gurative prob-
lems of the kind of jianghu enyuan saturated in real contradictions of our own
colonial society. Such points of intervention are still articulated in vaguely
ambivalent tones in Huis Romance, but they do open up slowly to more histori-
cized approaches to imagining the dual issues of nationhood and livelihood in the
context of the crisis of culture we experience today, at the new historical junc-
ture where all social and political changes are related to articulating the collec-
tive imaginary for a new postcolonial identity.
The slowly evolving tensions in Huis subdued lmic imaginary could well
be sources of our own articulation of tension experienced in living, presently,
the cultural politics of identity via an imminent critique of nationhood. In
relation to that, amid the political fanfare during the current extended process
of transition, we might also want to draw on such a rare set of problematics for
rethinking the cultural politics of daily life through which a hopefully more
productive and just mapping of our collective livelihood could be silently accom-
plished. Like a good traditional Chinese swordsman, Chen has promised, through
Huis utopian imagination, that he would go on with his life using qing to forge
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his own way of becoming a genuinely worthwhile qian-ke (a proper gure of
swordsman). As he tries to cope (through allegory) with a world full of histori-
cally woven human contradictions, one hopes that time would be with us amid
the disguised danger of our own state of existence; and that our remaining qing
could still be forged as a function of qian, so as to allow one to make real an affec-
tive politics out of the dusty and muddy power-play of life prior to the launch of
the new institution of society signied by the birth of the HKSAR.
And yet ones hope cannot be xed, much less secured, but only overdeter-
mined in the changing ux of time and in the context of its condition of possi-
bilities for realization as for disappointment .
From power to affect: the imagined thrust of wugong
So, will hope be disappointed? The answer one gets from Wong Kar-wai in Ashes
of Time is also afrmative, with history (or is it destiny?) offering those distorted
minor people of jianghu there not so much the gloomy and (almost always)
unrealizable political opportunities, as uncompromizing patches of a sort of
cinematic breathing space for anyone who cares to experience anew what cul-
tural disappointment might amount to this time.
Despite the popularity of a certain thoroughly patriarchal trend of gangster-
heroism in the local lm industry during mid- to late-1980s, there has been little
room for more sustained reection on the contemporary relevance of tragic
heroism in Hong Kong popular culture. (Hence the signicance of such a rare
attempt to investigate the historical limits and necessities of the human will as
made by Ann Hui in her un-heroic version of The Romance of Book and Sword.)
With Ashes of Time we are thrown into a world not of generic heroism, but one
where the erosion of all heroic values had just completed its transitional historical
course; in this jianghu we have all tacitly accepted that neither the urge for uni-
cation nor the value of coherence can be realized. Indeed neither of them is
granted any chance for negative afrmation: hope not given a single critical
moment for it to be disappointed. The world out there is no longer the moral,
teleological or counter-hegemonic jianghu we used to imagine, framed in spec-
tacles packed and packaged with bloody tensions and melodramatic conicts.
Instead, everywhere we see patches of gloomy, fragmentary brownishness, where
one may pause only to let a passing doubt go, to rest on no totalizing sense of
certainty. And the limits of our tolerance are at times caught glittering in the
stark indifference of the killing desert heat, or, as in the opening scene of the
lm, when the limitless expanse of ocean allows us to cast a distant view into its
passionless world where no gaze is readily fathomed.
For this is a world of still signication, and stillness in its absolute form is
now visualized without ready-made objective correlatives, conventionally
acceptable goals, or organized human motivations. It is the symbolic signication
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of a world of ambivalent tolerance, where any objects of desire in life are cap-
tured in the institutional function of indifference. There seem to be neither myth-
ical nor historical projections of the use of power here, and hence no human
conicts. With Ashes of Time Wong Kar-wai dares us to rest in a world that cannot
endure through his unique vision of jianghu, a world of uniformity without
(lasting) meaning, of sameness without (valuable) identity, where any meaning-
ful differences (or relationships) among individuals are efciently ironed out and
forgotten in its intertwined but controlled cinematic ow and logic bordering
by the limits of worldly tolerance.
There is no doubt that Wong has not been fully successful in providing life
in his world of jianghu with the most accessible and effective details. He has indi-
cated that this want for concrete details in the desert life of West had been caused
in part by budgetary constraint (Ngai, 1995: 200). The cinematic logic of jianghu
in Ashes of Time though is that one cannot rest assured where the concrete home
is not. Where does one want to settle? And for what cause? Such doubts have
indeed been the key point of departure for imagining the lmic world of jianghu.
By the same logic, it would be the function of swordplay or wugong to point to
and open up ways for the xiake to cope with restlessness in full lmic materi-
ality. Now Wong Kar-wai is not interested in doing yet another lmic version of
Jin Yongs famous modern wuxia novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes (Shediao ying-
xiong zhuan). Rather, he takes the point of departure seriously in his radical
representation of the degenerated world of xiake and jianghu, but pushes it so
far against its own limits as to twist its basic logic. For there are virtually no xiake
in the jianghu of Ashes of Time. Most swordsmen are professional killers working
with Ouyang Feng (Xi Du, or the Malicious West, played by Leslie Cheung Kwok-
wing) as their agent; as a result, there is no value attached to swordplay beyond
its function in getting the practical job done (in Wests words, jiejue mafan,
getting rid of your troubles or solving your problems). In short, wugong
becomes totally instrumental in this changed world of jianghu. It is now, to say
the least, incapable of releasing either meaning (as in Swordsman II) or feeling (as
in The Romance of Book and Sword), and may in the end subject only to the aesthetic
power of pure cinematic stylization for its coherent and signicant represen-
tation. In other words, it might well be true that one can no longer rely on under-
standing the represented wugong as the means toward resolving the cultural
crisis of a chaotic jianghu. For signifying neither power (qian) nor affect (qing),
wugong now provides no material outlet for one to deal with the root problems
of human enyuan. I believe this total denial of familiarity in the wuxia genre is at
the core of the lms radical nature as a lmic gure of hope: hence its immedi-
ate controversy and apparent inaccessibility.
14
Though not entirely useless, wugong is restricted to its utilitarian value. In
limited signication, carrying a sword on ones shoulder is no longer even
powerful by default; there is no longer cultural conicts (East vs West) or
ethnic conicts (Han vs Manchu) to be dealt with. Neither can differences
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between good and evil be usefully resolved by the sword, which now faces no
serious crisis of legitimation, and therefore will guarantee no chance, because
there being no need for resistance of any sort. Still, the difcult links between
home (past) and jianghu (present) remain a crucial problem for Kar-Wai Wong.
In Ashes of Time, everyone (except Hong Qi, the Beggar Swordsman) leaves
behind something (something missing) which comes back perpetually from
memory to haunt the present. As a result, the unsettling human enyuan end up
in fragments after fragments of recurrent experiences driven by pride, envy and
despair. These are carried in images of the desert, sand, heat, mountain, bird-
cage, etc., which are punctuated by motifs of the horse, stream, wine, towel,
etc. as if invoked in a sort of perpetual compensation. We see in this world what
prevails is not so much human evil as human vulnerability: ones tendency to feel
proud, too proud of oneself; ones readiness to envy others, in narcissistic
admiration/alienation of the self; and ones inescapable fate to suffer deeply in
life. Such are the fragmentary traces of human enyuan that trouble us in jianghu
when the resting place (home) is only imaged in moments of lost tranquility,
stillness, and rootlessness.
In what way could human beings be tested pragmatically by their own
desires, against the limits of their very captivity in themselves? Under the status
quo of such a signifying world, it seems that one is out there merely to test the
limits of ones anxiety, memory, as well as hope. With the resolution of enyuan
in the disguise of business or even professionalism, jianghu is now a privileged
place for transaction only. In this world, albeit marked still by the ruthlessness of
its undertakings (though of a very different nature now), success leads not to
happiness but to the indifferent want for further success. As professional killers
take the place of xiake, (monetary) interests take the place of (cultural) values.
Consequently, there is now no place for that missing something where Bloch
locates the source of hope. For evaluation (the representation of values) is here
based exclusively on the logic of pure exchange relations, of swordplay as busi-
ness, and power play as being redened in terms of an entirely different set of
human interest. By solving problems for you, the professionals employ their
expertise (mere swordplay here) to take care of the troubles, which you do not
consider worthy of your own life to deal with.
But then of course there are other troubles feeling, anxiety, memory,
desire, hope that invest in the other, affective eld of the signied jianghu,
which constitutes its invisible cultural dimension.
15
In the absence of the funda-
mental values promised by traditional swordsmanship, cultural anticipation must
now be reoriented. Beyond its functional task as dened in the practice of pro-
fessionalism, wugong does not seem to have any other intrinsic or extrinsic
values. Accordingly, scenes of swordplay are also represented in an unusual
manner. Its instrumentality is not lmed in a realistic mode, but impressionisti c
one. In Teos analysis, Christopher Doyles grainy colour photography imparts
an impressionist quality, while the pastel lighting recalls motifs from Chinese
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painting, pointed up appropriately by the desert location and other more tem-
perate landscapes (creeks, ponds). The slow-motion action scenes convey a
feeling of an artist daubing paint freely on a canvas, Using a Chinese phrase, the
genre is a heavenly steed soaring across the skies (tianma xingkong) and Wong
has goaded it to a distant heaven, which explains why the lm, for all its cohesive-
ness, is emotionally rather distant from its audience (Wong, 1997: 199).
Distance, however, is not a matter of psychological measure in Ashes of Time,
but of aesthetic guration and symbolic signication. Thus the synchronization
of sound and image is deliberately avoided in many swordplay scenes so as to
invest in jianghu a peculiar sense of chaos as routine. We must now hear the
movement of swords playing against words, but they all add up to a kind back-
ground music all its own, which does not fully depict the real complexity of
human actions we see in play. This is how you get in Wongs work the stylized
play of lmic patches of sound and shadows, of narrative and camera move-
ments giving the viewer a truly different look at the way cinema has grown
professionally in Hong Kong.
So with a sword in hand, you kill only for cash, not for passion, not for power,
not for dealing with any human contradictions of a cultural-political nature. In
fact West never appears to kill at all, though he talks about killing as a matter of
course in his role as a trouble-shooting agent. The whole thing involves no value
judgement, as swordplay is now transformed into the sophisticated application
of skills for the end of successful elimination of what one wants not to be remem-
bered, in full indifference. Thus, as an agent responsible functionally for the
elimination of others memory, West is most disturbed by his own sense of pride,
his own inability to forget what the self wants most, which fully explains his
nature as the (professionally) malicious one. Indeed, not only is West the tyrant
of his own self, but everyone else is also subject to the terror of ones very blind-
ness to the desiring productions of others, including the viewer/narratee (often
addressed directly as you in the lm) who might from time to time need to
resort to professional service of one kind or another to take care of some
unwanted troubles in everyday life.
In dealing with the troubling problem of selfhood, Benjamin points specic-
ally to the ways the individual forms an image of the self, and reminds us to con-
sider how that imaging process, as I call it here, is one that makes possible the
returning of the present to the past, the re-unication of anxiety with memory;
under such a view, the crux of our cultural problem could be re-understood in
the mediation through which memory forges the chain of tradition that passes
events on from generation to generation.
16
What drives the present self to look
back to the past is the realization in him/her of a fundamental lack, now experi-
enced as fragments (ruins) of some already lost totality that can no longer be fully
re-presented, even with the most vigorous imagination or creativity. One wants
to be reunited with oneself, as it were, through the re-articulation of the experi-
ence or anxiety derived from ones sense of incompleteness of the present (self),
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with the problem of memory, rooted in the fragmentary ruins discovered sud-
denly to be part of a forever lost collectivity.
Let us now consider the ways in which individuals in Wongs signied world
of jianghu form their images of self. First it is interesting to see how the lmic
imaginary enables the present self (such as that of the male Murong Yan) to dis-
cover a lost part of itself (in the other, female, Murong Yan) via the mediation of
another (here, through the supposedly neutral service offered by Malicious
West). In relation to the changed function of wugong discussed above, we may
recognize in the ultimate split-identity transformation of Murong Yan, whose
bisexuality is by now a popular motif, a typical case of the reunication of anxiety
with memory with anxiety experienced as the loss of value in sexual identi-
cation, and memory embodied in the imagined ways in which one deals with
ones split identity. The end result in this particular process of self-imaging is the
making (as announced by West in his role as narrative agent) of the unique
swordsperson who would years later have come to call him/herself Loner/Self-
in-search-of-Defeat/Failure (Dugu qiubai), as established identity in jianghu now
famous for practicing swordplay with his/her own shadow (self) in the water.
What is anticipated here, in the split imagining of a swordplay personality, is the
tyrannical gure of self we are going to nd in the spectrum of jianghu charac-
ters ranging from Evil East (Dong Xie) to Malicious West in this lm called
Dongxie Xidu.
How does one manage to terrorize oneself? In the case at issue, the event
involves the schizophrenic Murong Yan (played also by Brigitte Lin Qingxia who
is by now renowned for her role as Asia-the-Invincible in Swordsman II) and the
sexual contradiction he/she experiences within the self through the mediation
of the common object of desire. Murong Yan the sister wants to consummate her
love for Huang Yaoshi (Evil East, played by Tony Leung Kar-fai), but her double,
Murong Yan the brother would not let her (for reasons that are ambivalent Is
his hatred for her rooted equally in desire? Or is it a result of envy, because he
also wants East?) West comes in here as the killer-mediator, presumably to offer
an outlet for their problem through his professional expertise. We are reminded
of that key question in the imagined world of jianghu enyuan: Can the thrust of
the sword help solve the problems (and cut the pain) caused by the human affect
problems of love, desire, hope and betrayal? But there is no real need to turn
to swordplay here, though its function to terminate is often routinely invoked.
In a sequence of talks (negotiations), rather than ghts (confrontations), we learn
that Yan the brother rst wants West to kill East, and then Yan the sister wants
West to kill her brother (her other-self), etc. Through the narrative/professional
agency of West, we also learn that the weakness of the one (manhood) is fully
embodied in the existence of the other (womanhood), and vice versa.
As the present self, with a rather useless sword still in hand, turns to look
into the watery image of the past (or shadow of the future), we see that he/she
is beginning to accept and/or regret in any case recognize in her/him a
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fundamental lack or twist of something already missing (as suggested in Ben-
jamins ruins). Something, that is, always experienced now as the displaced frag-
ments of an absent totality that can never be fully reconstructed, except in a
perpetual process of re-reading the here-and-now as a story that belongs else-
where, of re-experiencing the present as something that feels otherwise. Surely
one wants to be re-united with oneself, if only allegorically. One would there-
fore be prepared now to see the split-identity formation as derived, rst and fore-
most, from the sense of incompleteness one feels about the present, and
represented subsequently in the fragmentary ruins of life which one discovers
suddenly to be part of a forever lost experience of collectivity.
This sense of loss can be re-articulated with the experience of personal
anxiety and its related problem of collective amnesia identiable in the Hong
Kong imaginary today, thus resulting in the recognition of our total incapacity to
accept any radical form of cultural anticipation. Let us take as gure of this lack
Malicious Wests own identity as the incompetent swordsman. Two remarks are
in order here: (1) on the swordsmans professionalism; we realize that, though
supposed to kill, West has not done a thing throughout his encounter with
Murong Yan except to listen (to witness someone elses painful experience in
stark objectivity); as it turns out, he even refuses to take the job on the appar-
ent ground that he would not be able to collect his professional fee, since both
the murderer and murdered will have been nished off in one; and (ii) on his
capacity to feel otherwise; being, as we can see, fully capable of reading anothers
story as part of his own (which he has yet to nd a way to cope with), West must
turn to the ruthless undertakings of an indifferent killer-professional by repress-
ing every single desire of his own, which results in a totally detached view on life
adopted with no sense of regret, and driven by no will to hope. The irony, of
course, consists in the lmic impact that even the waving of the sword is rarely
highlighted during his professional encounters with others. One might even be
led to ask whether there is any true sign of the presence of his wugong. What we
are left to see, in any case, is someone deprived in every sense of his signicance
as a functioning swordsman. Indeed, according to the critic Jimmy Ngai, West is
the prototype of a living corpse roaming the desert of life: He who roams the
desert world is no Malicious West Ouyang Feng, but Living Corpse Ouyang
Feng. To win, he cannot die; he has to live like a walking corpse, so as to allow
Huang Yaoshi (his drinking partner) to see him exactly like that during the latters
annual visits and to bring the news of this walking corpse to the woman (West
loves) (Ngai, 1995: 93; my translation). In other words, to win, West must
avenge his loss of love by killing the womans best love by denying himself as a
functioning xia swordsman. And as he kills the xia in himself, he denies the possi-
bility of swordsmanship in our jianghu and turns us around to face a desert of
passion, marked allegorically as the imaginary status quo everyone has had desires
for.
That West the professional leads a life of perpetual self-imprisonment is
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suggested beautifully in a number of images and motifs. The revolving cage that
separates him and Murong Yan is one such readily received image; its recurrent
motif of trap brings us eventually to the realization that the worst enemy one has
to guard against is self. Wests sense of identity is split between a lost passionate
past and a dreadfully untouchable present. Through a seemingly never-ending
voice-over monologue, he takes some pride in telling us, and reminding himself,
that (in contrast to innocent Hong Qi, played by Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) he has
no desire whatsoever to see what might be there for one to explore beyond the
limits of the mountain in view. As one listens to the uniquely endless and gura-
tive off-screen narration in the lm, one cannot but wonder whether irony, cyni-
cism or pure aesthetic indifference is at the core of the human voice. In this regard,
West resembles not so much the self-reexive Murong Yan as the self-deceptive
Blind Swordsman, whose future seems to have stood still in a void, trapped forever
by the blinding light of the pragmatic here-and-now. If one is to assure oneself that
behind the mountain standing ahead of us is only another much like the one you
have before you, then one might as well turn to blindness. Turning blind that
appears now to be one function of the decadent swordsman, imaginable perhaps
today as the harmless intellectual pillar of the ruling, phantasmagoric status quo.
Wong begins with a clich in Ashes of Time: you suffer most when you cannot
be united with your best love; and turns us away with an enigma: if you may dis-
cover your deepest affection only as you betray it, is there anything left for one
to look forward to, except the deepest disappointment? Maybe everyone should
accept being trapped hopelessly in a cage of self, for it seems that only in betrayal
can one seek to invoke hope, a typically altruist imagination. And yet none of us
can take qing too seriously today. At its root, this question of hope rests on the
issue of an affective identity. The question is frequently repeated in this world of
fading values: Who are you? Whom do you love most? The answer can only come
in a lovers discourse that does not commit: tell a lie, relate a story, (mis)recog-
nize a handkerchief, a gaze, or a hand, or drink up the wine of forgetfulness and
play the joke. (Murong takes West for East, asking him to utter a word of love;
West takes Murong for another woman back home who seemed to have asked
the same. In dream, the caressing hand tells its own tale, with Murongs drunken
hand touching East (in the guise of West) becoming another hand caressing him
at another time, a time that seems to have gone into ashes just now, before your
own eyes). And the outcome looks most unbecoming: hysterical Murong slaying
his/her own shadow, Blind Swordsman screaming to look for a way out of his
daily struggle to survive another slice of empty life in the absence of hope and
affection, and Malicious West bargaining now and then for business as usual, a
professional routine which (because so safe) shall never again put him in the role
of the betrayed and defeated.
Ironically, as it can no longer involve any element of risk, wugong settles into
a gure of self-alienation, self-defeat, and self-betrayal. Swordplay signies not
anymore the legitimate way out of the complexities of jianghu enyuan. Rather,
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it has now become that which gives you the only excuse to be out there, allow-
ing you to tell yourself: be a swordsman, stay where you would still be identied
as one; or, perhaps with equal relevance: be a viewer, lest this movie about wuxia
and jianghu be forgotten in the culture industry where power as norm alone
counts. Would one be disappointed, and be thus deeply affected? But then, seri-
ously, what is left to be betrayed in us, except this utopian trap for something
missing that might still be open to hope.
If human beings are caught in the affective drives of evil and malice, nothing
can escape their inward turn to cultivate envy and jealousy in everything they
see. Now the Blind Swordsman, whom West recruits for his professional project,
is constantly being haunted by a past that betrays him, or rather, one that he has
betrayed by not seeing that invisible something of it from the limiting perspec-
tive of his own vision of life. He thinks he can absorb and redress all the pain
caused by the wearing away of love. But turning blind will not change the situ-
ation; not wanting to forget (unlike West who rejects memory), he remains to
the end a victim of blind memory. Hence, he can never see and deal with the
complexities of human enyuan (beyond the dashing burst of his own blood he
imagines he sees at his dying moment). Fed in envy and jealousy, this swordsman
is an obvious loser whose apparent ties to home are revealed to be less utopian
than ideological. For there is no peach blossom back home, only a woman by that
vain name (Peach Blossom, or Taohua, played by Lau Ka-ling) who has a strong
tendency to long for something more unpredictable (such as Evil East, who will
years later come to settle down in his own world of Peach Blossom Island). One
wonders whom the woman has been waiting to return from the wild world of
jianghu? One is then shown, in memorable slow motion, the blinded swords-
mans last fatal struggle in life (his professional assignment to kill a gang of horse-
thieves single-handedly), which registers his painful desire to be taken away from
it all to retreat from jianghu by giving oneself to its predictably ruthless way
of life. Another story of self-betrayal thus comes to an end.
But, for sure, our jianghu enyuan will return and repeat themselves through
fragments after fragments of life remembered. The lost, rootless, and self-defeat-
ing swordsman offers thus a peculiar perspective on this jianghu of ours. You see
the eyes blink, or hear the wind whistle as you take your last breath of life! But
this is a view, or better, a feel of life activated by none other than the voice and
perspective of the impossible narrator (in the narrative stance of one dying blind
swordsman).
17
We remember from the Murong case that you kill someone most
ruthlessly by taking away the most loved. During the Blind Swordsmans last
swordplay, memory of Peach Blossom waiting by the stream returns from the
past in brief cuts, when, howling in pain, the mans last play of sword is inter-
rupted suddenly by the silent scene of Poor Girl (Huansha, played by Yeung Choi-
Nei) waiting persistently for something unknown to turn up that will help her
avenge his brother. Such moments of betrayal haunt this particular swordsman.
His wugong now becomes the signication of his very state of captivity: neither
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has he been able to turn back home (leaving this jianghu) to rediscover the truth
of his past love, nor can he lift himself from the mud and dust of the here-and-
now (and stay) to help Poor Girl ght for the liberation of her future (being tied
at the moment to the total of her life-investment in a donkey and a basket of
eggs).
Hence, it is possible to see, in a sort of Benjaminian projection of memory
as chaos, that the identity of the dispassionate agent of swordplay (as of its narra-
tive) is running toward complete disintegration. West turns a blind eye to life as
well, having resolved to withdraw himself from any affective commitment long
since he has left home for jianghu; unlike Murong and Poor Girl, however, he
knows he cannot resort to any professional agent for help. Thus, Malicious West
becomes the prototype of the cynically self-defeating swordsman, who feels it all
too deeply in his guts that he himself is the sole agent for any possible change,
but, for reasons yet to be fully recognized, will not put himself together for any
single radical move!
What now can he rely on outside of his plain, powerless professional sword?
If it can be said that jianghu is for Wong Kar-wais swordsman such an imaginary
space of cultural erosion, one may now see that we are really plunged into an
exceptional crisis of the kind appropriate to our captivated state of existence at
this particular historical juncture of time, when crisis connotes something very
exceptional indeed: a protracted period of wear and tear, of corrosion of the
world of imaginary signication which animate societys institutions and which
hold society together (Castoriadis, 1991: 221). As ones personal sense of
enyuan may have eroded along with our collective sense of cultural judgment
(our sense of shifei, or the difference between right and wrong), there seems to
be little left for us to carry through the current state of transition.
Poor Girl in Ashes of Time who waits persistently for something missing
(something hopeful) to turn up offers a test case for us to re-assess the function
and value of wugong and of those who must live by it. West makes the telling
remark that Poor Girl, like everybody else, seems to be striving for something
very basic in life that others can never fully comprehend. She asks the Blind
Swordsman why he has left his wife at home, and seems to insist on believing
that someone would somehow turn around and lend her the help the affection
she needs. Poor Girl does remind the Blind Swordsman of his wife Peach
Blossom (who wants to be in love with East); she also reminds West of his
beloved back home (who is now a sister-in-law). Both women seem to be per-
petually waiting for something to happen. The Blind Swordsman, before his last
ght, asks West to look for East in case he would not return from his job, and
tells the latter that someone is waiting for him back home. East, in turn, is
making frequent visits to Wests hometown, wanting to see Wests sister-in-law
(played by actress Maggie Cheung (Zhang Manyu)). But unlike Poor Girl, their
desires are rooted in a place they still call home, respectively, while what they
long for tends to be drifting aimlessly in jianghu. Only Poor Girl takes her case
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out there, right in the middle of mens jianghu, as it were. There, she insists on
getting an answer to her totally irregular request (Nobody would dare touch
the government ofcers (murderers of her brother) for the price of one donkey
and a basket of eggs, she is told by agent West). Rejected by West, she eventu-
ally acquires the assistance of Hong Qi, the Beggar Swordsman who is the only
person to roam jianghu with his wife, some rare creature still interested in
nding out whether the desert behind that mountain would look different from
the one over here. In between the two extremes, it is interesting to note the
response of someone like Blind Swordsman, whose obsession with an irretriev-
able past we have already discussed. He resolves to give no help to Poor Girl
(even if we would accept that his sword is still instrumental for the job), but
would rather step knowingly into an assignment that brings him the omen of fate.
Before he goes, he cannot help himself from pressing his lips onto those of Poor
Girl (only to say sorry after the fact), before walking helplessly into the ever so
suffocating dust of our jianghu.
One is tempted to conclude that such anxious crushing of history into ashes,
such corrosion of time in empty anticipation of something to turn up with
ground-breaking freshness, might have already pointed to what Castoriadis char-
acterizes as the deterioration of a societys capacities for self-repair (1991: 221).
In Ashes of Time Wong has forged a totally unfamiliar world of jianghu with what
Teo characterizes as a freestyle approach that works against Hong Kong cinemas
wholly commercialized styles which demand conventional narratives; this is
indeed what conrms Wong as an uncompromising artist who is nevertheless
able to command respect in the industry, as is evident from the directors ability
to assemble all-star casts for his lm and to command big budgets (Teo, 1997:
198). Outside the cinema, where others may speak of lack, many in Hong Kong
would indeed prefer to joke complacently or lament with a sense of nostalgia
about that extra something they thought they had been able to secure in life in
the decades leading up to days of 1997.
In this very sense the lmic imaginary of jianghu we invoke here helps to
undermine that extra dimension of culture where intense negotiations are
revealed to be under way, allowing viewers to see what it is that they want to live
for and live with. Is there no crisis? What is the nature of our crisis? Wherein
lies our radical chance? How would we deal with the jianghu enyuan in our
society, a community where the value and power of wugong have of late been
wearing away? There are still much traces of despair and disappointment at a time
when the future is deantly standing in front of you unknowable, though not
unapproachable. Should despair and disappointment be piled up to the height of
hope, one wonders if it might not still be possible to resist time with the utopian
vision to lift oneself up from the mud and dust of the here-and-now. One
wonders, indeed, if the worn affective edge of our wugong could still be sharp-
ened, and activated, so as to allow us to stay on to re-imagine our past, present,
and future in what Bloch would call a landscape of hope (Bloch, 1988: 717),
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that invisible dimension of culture which we may still anticipate to be realized as
our cultural imaginary in transit.
For a politics of promise is so much more pragmatic than a politics of hope
that when we are used to feeling indifferent toward the one, we tend to forget
that rigorous engagement with the other can still make a difference.
In this paper I have tried to analyse the utopian will to imagination for a
livable future as bound in the gured time and space of the Hong Kong cultural
imaginary of jianghu in the last phase of its colonial era. Through an extensive
allegorical reading of lms, we have been looking at the world of lmic signi-
cation conjured up through what I call the jianghu imaginary. My analysis traces
the ideological and utopian impulses captured in relation to a whole emotional
complex of anxiety, bewilderment and despair by some of the most creative local
lmmakers: Ching, Hui, Tsui and Wong. In this way, I have attempted to outline
the form and problematic of the cultural imaginary of Hong Kong in the tran-
sitional years leading up to the historical handover of power in 1997. I have drawn
theoretically from Castoriadiss notion of the social imaginary and Blochs aes-
thetics of hope to focus on the textual and contextual re-constructions of the
wuxia world. I have read allegorically a number of very unconventional martial
arts swordplay lms made by and for Hong Kong in the last two decades, and
identied different images/moments of the gurative martial hero in the
genres imaginary signication of the swordsman: the mysterious and ambivalent
pop-cultural historian in Tsuis dark Buttery Murders (1979), the disillusioned
benevolent intellectual and the heartless, anti-nationalistic emperor in Huis
deeply pessimistic Romance of Book and Sword (1987), the pragmatic hermit and
the schizophrenic power-seeker in Ching/Tsuis euphoric Swordsman II (1992),
and, nally the whole spectrum of heart-broken professionals, pseudo-
professionals and anti-professionals in Wongs non-systemic Ashes of Time (1994).
Pointing to the very uid ideological and affective moments in the lmic imagin-
ary world, this range of wuxia gures have enabled us to estimate what has been
left in a ruined culture for any utopian functions that remain. It allows us to
immerse ourselves in deep, perhaps hopeful longings that tend toward the cul-
tural anticipation for an unknown and unknowable future through and beyond
1997. It is my contention that the understanding of the popular imaginary at that
unusual juncture of Hong Kongs history could begin with such an attempt to
cope with this non-rewarding practice of hope. For we might indeed be able to
recognize (or reject) it as a strangely subtle mediation in the process of our sur-
vival through that collective crisis in our history shaped by so many unsettling
forms of cultural anticipation and (mis)identication.
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Notes
1 For discussions of the impacts on the cultural imagination of Hong Kong, see
Chan (1995, 1997a, b).
2 This, of course, is the function of ideology as proposed by Althusser in Ideol-
ogy and ideological state apparatuses. See Althusser (1971: 162).
3 The distinction between wuxia and kungfu is usefully summarized by Teo
(1997: 98). The difference in ghting style is crucial: sword-ghting is domi-
nant in wuxia lms while st-ghting is almost exclusively for kungfu lms.
Though the northern style wuxia and the southern style kungfu can be con-
sidered two sides of the same coin, in the 1960s cinema audiences saw these
action pictures as markedly different formats and action styles. Kungfu and
sword-ghting wuxia pictures were clearly delineated (Teo, 1997: 98). By the
early 1970s, the wuxia trend was already giving way to kungfu (Teo, 1997:
102), with the emergence later of such mega-stars as Bruce Lee and Jackie
Chan. However, only the wuxia, set usually in fantastic medieval worlds, is the
concern for this paper. For a detailed treatment of the kungfu genre, see Siu
Leung Lis article in this issue.
4 The source of the martial world is the traditional wuxia ction, in which
jianghu is often located beyond the reach of the government and its sphere of
inuence. Jianghu and xiake are almost always inter-related; hence, the martial
artist is supposed to lead a wandering life in jianghu, often as a result of deep
disillusionment with the ofcial culture or civil service. In the imaginary world
of wuxia, thus, the xiake can only excel when situated in jianghu. See Chen
(1992: 1301).
5 Bloch (1988: 11):Without the utopian function it is impossible to explain the
intellectual surplus that went beyond the status quo, because all anticipation
must prove itself to the utopian function, the latter seizing all possible surplus
content of the anticipation.
6 It must be emphasized that Bloch understands the utopian function not as a
means for achieving an impossible ideal, but as the imagination for a real and
concrete nal state that must be struggled for politically. See Plaice et al.
(1986: xxviixxviii).
7 The lmic world of jianghu draws naturally from the tradition of wuxia ction
since the Tang dynasty, when the typical xiake was returned to jianghu to prac-
tise his heroic martial arts. For a historical trajectory of the imaginary of
jianghu in the literary world of wuxia, see Chen (1992: 13061). Chen points
out that the ctional world of jianghu is one of the basic generic features to
mark the identity of the wuxia xiaoshuo (the wuxia novel). According to the
literary tradition, this imaginary world of jianghu is cut off distinctly from
the real world (where home belongs to), thereby providing the proper
environment for the symbolic emergence of a proletariat da-xia (the master
of xia), who would then perform his extraordinary deeds (realized discursively
in formulaic conventions) in jianghu to save the world (Chen, 1992: 140).
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8 See, for example, Chen (1992), Law et al. (1997), Lin (1981), and Liu (1967).
9 For a discussion of the patriarchal representation of women in the tradition of
wuxia lms, see Koo (1981). For a reading of the sexual politics in Swordsman
II, see Yau (1995).
10 See Castoriadis (1991: 220).
11 To borrow from Blochs phrase to capture the possible content of hope. In
Bloch and Adorno (1964).
12 According to Benjamin,Allegories are in the realm of thought what ruins are
in the realm of things . . . In other words, the object is henceforth incapable
of projecting any meaning on its own it can only take on that meaning which
the allegorist wishes to lend it; as cited in Jameson (1971: 71).
13 See Chan (1995) and Wong et al. (1997).
14 When it opened two months after Chungking Express, it was both condemned
and praised in equal measure for its apparent inaccessibility (Teo, 1997:
197).
15 Culture is in this light taken to be the register of whatever goes beyond the
merely instrumental or functional in a given institution of a society . . . and
that which presents an invisible dimension cathected or invested positively as
such by the individuals in the given society. See Castoriadis (1991: 220).
16 As cited in Jameson (1971: 62), where he writes of the Benjaminian approach
to memory, thus:Psychologically, the drive toward unity takes the form of an
obsession with the past and with memory.
17 The aesthetic strategy of this activation is what Bloch calls anticipatory illumi-
nation. Due to this anticipatory illumination, art is not at all a totality, but
rather only a perspective about something, an elaborated perspective of the
portrayed objects themselves in regard to the immanent completion of these
objects (emphasis added); see Bloch, Wish-landscape perspective in aes-
thetics, in Bloch (1988: 70).
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