- Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film by Karen Fang
From the 2013 Edward Snowden intelligence leaks to recent reports about "a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control" in China, surveillance has become a common concern across both democratic and authoritarian worlds.1 With the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) in China and closed-circuit television (also CCTV) security cameras throughout Hong Kong and all major cities, CCTVs have dominated people's daily lives everywhere from policing to voyeurism. In such condition, Karen Fang's Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film appears timely. A thorough research on Hong Kong cinema, the work covers nearly two hundred Hong Kong and Sinophone films and TV series in a wide variety of genres from the 1950s to the 2010s. Against the common sense that data monitoring is repressive and intrusive, the author sees surveillance as spectacle and subversion, that is, spectatorial pleasures and subversive resistance to Chinese soft power at the same time.
The book comprises four chapters plus a preface, introduction, and conclusion. In the introduction, Fang sets off to broadly define surveillance "as any technology or practice engaged in social, spatial, and data monitoring … simultaneously influencing the [movie] medium's visual aesthetics and providing a compelling subject of narrative representation" (p. 1). Approaching the motif as both a ubiquitous aspect of and a distinct subgenre in world cinema, the author points out the bias of current film studies that limits surveillance to Western modernity. A shift of focus from American hegemony to Asian inventions, the book begins with gambling and tenement films made in Hong Kong that, in contrast to the Hollywood convention of aggressive [End Page 250] surveillance, transform "surveillance into opportunity, benefit, and pleasure" (p. 25). The author explains that the word "arresting" in her book title is used as an adjective to conflate criminal narratives and cinematic aesthetics, such as the cinematography of freeze frame.2 It is also boldly suggested that Hong Kong surveillance films are forecasts of world surveillance trends.
The first chapter focuses on the comedian Michael Hui's optimistic, affirmative works of surveillance, including his box-office hits The Private Eyes and Aces Go Places that feature his pop singer brother Sam Hui, and argues that surveillance, like in Charlie Chaplin's movies, can be portrayed with humor. It is interesting to read that surveillance comedies in Hong Kong are for individual economic profit rather than top-down political control, and that Hui's comic lingua franca is not only "infused with class compassion and social commentary" of an urban, capitalist society but also "metacinematic and reflexive" about "the conditions of cinematic production and spectatorship" (pp. 47, 55). As such, surveillance is playful and hilarious.
Proceeding chronologically, chapter 2 investigates action and crime films before the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China in 1997. The author goes beyond the allegorical reflectionism of "Sinophobic anticommunist hysteria about repressive surveillance" (p. 62) under the post-Tiananmen anxiety to the potential use of surveillance technology for self-protection of local autonomy and democracy. Beside the action genre, romances such as "Comrades, Almost a Love Story uphold Hong Kong surveillance as a seductive and often rewarding way of life" on the city's liberal, capitalist agenda (p. 80). Furthermore, tenement films like Cageman continue to provide the community with an alternative, "affectionate surveillance" in the reunification era (p. 84).
Chapter 3 traces the often-overlooked productive collusions between cop movies and the police force. The joint ventures represent an alignment of police reforms and commercial interests. As exemplified by Philip Chan and Jackie Chan, this police-media symbiosis yields high outputs for the film industry and positive images of the Hong Kong Police as well as mainland authority. The picture, however, would be more complete if Fang also surveyed the criminal organization Triad's consistent investment and active engagement...