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Asian Shakespearean cinema is an oft-neglected area of Shakespeare criticism, owing to the field's focus on English-language productions on film and stage productions in Asia. Hong Kong cinema in particular has been derided as "not exactly Shakespeare". However, the situation is more complex than this: several filmmakers in the former colony have paid homage to Shakespeare's works, while simultaneously subverting the British cultural hegemony they represent. This essay examines two Hong Kong films based on Romeo and Juliet, and the ways in which they adapt the play to highlight the social, political and cultural divides of the city in the 20th century. Lo Wei's Crocodile River (1965) uses its warring families as analogues of Hong Kong and mainland China, torn apart by an interloping industrialist and physically separated by a river, which is finally bridged after the film's lovers drown. Michihko Obimori's Young Lovers (1978), meanwhile, places its families at opposite ends of Hong Kong's social spectrum, polarised by the economic boom. Here, the lovers' deaths accomplish nothing, arguably representing the powerlessness of Hong Kong's people, denied a political voice for over 150years.
This article discusses the fascinating, but largely neglected phenomenon of Shakespeare on film in Hong Kong. First exploring some of the reasons for this neglect, it offers an analysis of two filmic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet: Lo Wei’s Crocodile River (Ngoh Yu Ho, 1965) and Michihko Obimori’s Young Lovers (Ching Chuen Chi Luen, 1978). Through radical reworking, these films accommodate the original plays to the beliefs, interests and concerns of the host culture. Using the conflict between parent and child as an analogy of the relationship between Mainland China, often referred to as the “Motherland,” and Hong Kong—the Mainland’s “fat baby”—they address politically sensitive issues under the guise of the domestic (perhaps as a means of avoiding government censorship). And, since both films were produced in the decades not only prior to, but pivotal to Hong Kong’s reunification with the People’s Republic of China in 1997, these versions of Romeo and Juliet reflect the hopes and fears of the Chinese in the run up to the so-called “handover.” What is particularly interesting about these films, however, is the ways in which they use Shakespeare, once an important ideological tool in establishing the authority of the colonial administration in Hong Kong, as the medium through which to interrogate and challenge British cultural imperialism, while simultaneously expressing a residual reverence for the playwright and the culture he represents. Thus, these films could be said to reveal a Franz Fanon/Homi Bhabha-style ambivalence towards the colonial other, which, given the politically, economically, and socially hybrid nature of Hong Kong, is not surprising.
Crocodile River,Young Lovers,Lo Wei,Michihko Obimori,John Woo,Postcolonialism,Adaptation,Hegemony,Appropriation