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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 423-447

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Queerscapes in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema

Helen Hok-sze Leung

A Queer Undercurrent

What use is there for me to go on treasuring you?
Even if I hold you tight this time
Would it not be yet another empty embrace?

—Lin Xi, “Undercurrent” [“An yong”] (1997)

If you were in Hong Kong during 1997, you might have noticed someone humming the above song. Stanley Kwan depicts this trivial fact of life several times in the film Hold You Tight [Yu huale yu duoluo] (1998), whose title refers to the futile yet intensely desired gesture in “Undercurrent.” This popular song was animated by an undercurrent of anxiety that pervaded Hong Kong since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The year 1997, when sovereignty over the territory was to be transferred from British to Chinese hands, became a cultural symbol of fear and apprehension. [End Page 423] The feeling that nothing could be “held tight” characterized the political as well as the cultural imaginary of this period of transition. Yet Hong Kong cinema responded to this pervasive milieu of change and uncertainty in a uniquely indirect manner. In the most innovative films of this period, the postcolonial predicament appears at most as an undercurrent, a not-quite-visible force that nonetheless animates what is amply visible on-screen: sex, romance, family conflicts, underworld heroism, teenage gangsters, period drama, martial arts legends, and absurdist humor. It is perhaps appropriate that the anxiety of displacement should itself be endlessly displaced onto an ever-proliferating range of concerns that are contiguous, yet never identical or reducible, to the postcolonial predicament. One of the richest sites of this displacement is that of queer sexuality.

During the past decade, there has been a small explosion of films that, in various ways and to different degrees, challenge the heteronormative understanding of sexuality: Swordsmen II [Xiao ao jianghu zhi dongfang bubai] (1992); Swordsmen III: East Is Red [Dongfang bubai zhi fengyun cai qi] (1993); Oh! My Three Guys [San ge xiang'ai de shaonian] (1994); He's a Woman, She's a Man [Jinzhi yuye] (1994); Who's the Woman, Who's the Man [Jinzhi yuye 2] (1996); Love and Sex among the Ruins [Renjian sexiang] (1996); Boys? [Jia nan jia nu] (1996); Hu-Du-Men [Hudumen] (1996); The Intimates [Zishu] (1997); Happy Together [Chun'guang zhaxie] (1997); Hold You Tight [Yu huale yu duoluo] (1998); A Queer Story [Jilao sishi] (1998); Portland Street Blues [Hongxing shisanmei] (1998); and Bishonen [Mei shaonian zhi lian] (1999). Reviewers typically refer to these films as “gay films,” a label that is, theoretically speaking, a misnomer. From the perspective of a gay and lesbian identity politics, many of these films appear suspiciously ambiguous in their portrayal of same-sex desire. They are structured by an “epistemology of the fence,” which Maria Pramaggiore theorizes in relation to bisexuality:

The fence, in its nominal form, identifies a place of in-betweenness and indecision. Often precariously perched atop a structure that divides and demarcates, bisexual epistemologies have the capacity to reframe regimes and regions of desire by deframing and/or reframing in porous, nonexclusive ways…. Bisexual epistemologies—ways of apprehending, organizing, and intervening in the world that refuses one-to-one [End Page 424] correspondences between sex acts and identity, between erotic objects and sexualities, between identification and desire—acknowledge fluid desires and their continual construction and deconstruction of the desiring subject.1

Although bisexuality is by no means the only way to understand these new expressions of sexuality in Hong Kong cinema, the metaphor of the fence is especially appropriate for describing the ways in which desire appears in these films. Such fence-sitting impulses are understandably troubling to critics who are concerned with misrepresentations of minority groups. For example, Chau Wah-san devotes two chapters in his introductory work on queer theory to a critique of Hong Kong films that (mis)represent sexual minorities. Chau's work has been instrumental in popularizing the term tongzhi (comrade), a sly appropriation...


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