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Blurry Images Coming Clear: Hong Kong Cinema, Censorship and Me

Carol Borden
Posted April 24, 2014

nocth thumbEvery April, we like to switch things up at the Gutter, with the editors writing about something outside their domains. This week, Comics Editor Carol writes about subtitles, censorship and Hong Kong cinema.

I don’t remember the first kung fu movie I ever watched. I am terrible at remembering “firsts.”  But I do remember the first kung fu movie that made a strong impression on me. It was about a blind girl who could only fight when she was drunk and I watched it with my sister in her University of Michigan dorm room. It’s hard to remember too clearly because of the blurry and cropped nature of the film, but I think it was a Chia Ling / Judy Lee film, No One Can Touch Her (1979). I have a strong memory of the darts in the eyes of the girl, who subsequently became the blind girl who could only fight when she was drunk.

It was probably televised by a late night kung fu theater dedicated to poorly dubbed, blurry and brutally cropped kung fu movies. A movie the studio transferred from tape to tape too many times. The sides were cropped to fit television aspect ratios and whenever someone leaped, which is common in kung fu movies, they might as well have jumped out of the film. The bottom was also cropped, decaptitating or, sometimes, merely trepanning characters. It’s exactly the kind of movie that makes me prefer subtitles to dubbing.

And it turns out that the particular indignity of decapitated and blurry heroes has everything to do with subtitles. Back before Hong Kong’s ninety-nine year lease was up, movies intended for the Hong Kong market had English and Chinese subtitles burned directly onto the film. In formatting movies for television, editors cropped off subtitles. Then the image was blown up so that it would fill the screen, which is why these movies often look so fuzzy. In the case of No One Can Touch Her, the film was a Cantonese-language film made in Taiwan, but intended for a Hong Kong audience.

No One Can Touch Her

Thai poster for No One Can Touch Her via Kung Fu Movie Posters.

Other cinemas dub in dialog and sound afterward to handle his kind of linguistic business. Filmmakers can use different language dubs for the same film. In fact, even subtitled Hong Kong movies add sound afterwards—and even have Mandarin and Cantonese dubs. So, when I started watching Hong Kong movies (projected in their correct aspect ratios and with no unintentional decapitations), I started wondering why they came pre-subtitled. Chinese subtitles do automatically expand the market for Cantonese films beyond Cantonese-speaking communities. And English subtitles were nice for me. But it turns out that British colonial authorities wanted to keep an eye on Chinese film. In 1963, the Hong Kong Legislative Council passed a law requiring that all films be subtitled in English. (Stokes & Hoover, 25). The British had been concerned with the possiblity of film fomenting dissent and hostility towards Europeans since the beginning of the Chinese film industry, but between 1919 and 1963, Hong Kong censors had examined, cut, and banned thousands of films without necessarily understanding Cantonese or Mandarin.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang in The Untold Story.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang in The Untold Story.

American and Canadian audiences are accustomed to censorship as an issue of rating films for violence and nudity, and so discussions of censorship in Hong Kong have usually focused on Category III films, a film category developed in 1988 covering films depicting sex, nudity and violence. People under 18 can’t be admitted to or rent Category III films. But censorship on Hong Kong has been more about political and social content than sex and violence even before the handover in 1997. (Stokes & Hoover, ). So Herman Yau’s serial-killing restauranteur story, The Untold Story: Human Meat Pork Buns (1993); the nearly indescribable, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), and Wong Jing’s Raped By An Angel 4: Raper’s Union (1999) (which I single out mostly for its commitment to the word “rape”) are out there. In fact, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work in The Untold Story. Carrie Ng won Best Actress in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival for the Category III film, Remains of a Woman (1993). But Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind (1980) was initially banned as “an unrelentingly violent urban realist, anti-colonial rant” (35).

David Newman writes about the development of British colonial censorship:

In the [British Board of Film Censors] guidelines, there was reference to ‘antagonistic or strained rela-tions between white men and the coloured population of the British Empire’….In Hong Kong, the definitions in this area included ‘showing the white man in a degrading or villainous light,’ ‘imperialistic’ behavior: i.e. armed conflict between the Chinese and the white man,’ and ‘racial’ questions, especially the intermarriage of white persons with those of other races….[C]orrespondence from the US consulate in Hong Kong in 1926 suggested that films ‘reflecting badly on the natives of India’ were banned as a significant portion of the Hong Kong Police were of Indian ethnicity…. Although the BBFC set out the general contours of the censorship guidelines, their application in colonial situations resulted in more focused and explicit definitions suitable for the local environment (176).

In case you were in any doubt, there was concern about European women having relationships with or marrying Chinese men behind the most pith-helmeted, jodhpurs and smelling salts of euphemisms: “white slavery” (176-7)

Of course, dissent is best hidden where people in power don’t think to look. So there are rarely Hong Kong films that explicitly denounce colonialism or express explicitly ambivalence about being caught between the British and China, whether under Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang or the Chinese Communist Party. There were certainly overtly political films made in Hong Kong, particularly in the 1930s. (Stokes & Hoover, 19-21). But social-realist film is pretty easy to spot and it looks very different than the Chinese Opera, wuxia (aka, swordsmen, martial arts fantasy, “wire-fu”), kung fu and period piece films that were popular with Cantonese audiences even at the start of Chinese film. After just over fifty years of dealing with the British, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong filmmakers had gotten pretty good at looking innocent. Dissent, patriotism, political criticism are evident in Hong Kong film, it’s just that they used history, folk hereos and popular wuxia novels by writers like Louis Cha/Jin Yong, Ni Kuang and Gu Long, without seeming to engage in anything beyond escapist fantasy, let alone any kind of allegory. Which is a pretty neat trick.

hopping vampires

Hopping vampires in Qing robes.

If you’ve watched kung fu movies, you’ve probably noticed that poor but honest peasants frequently suffer from the predations of corrupt Imperial officials and a young man or woman is drawn into greater affairs when they avenge their family/sifu/village. In wuxia, heroes with amazing powers vow to protect the people. Sometimes they form secret societies and are pursued as rebels. Other times, they retire from the world but are pulled back for one last fight. The corrupt officials are often from the Qing Dynasty and everyone—British, Kuomintang, People’s Republic of China—can get behind criticizing the Qing. (Even hopping vampires wear Qing robes). Sometimes the stories are set during the Song Dynasties, with heroes tragically and patriotically opposing the Jin and the Mongols, which certainly might capture the sentiments of people living Southern China, while the British might be distracted into thinking that the illegitimate Northern government is a condemnation of the PRC, which it might be. Sometimes everyone unites against the Japanese. In Fist of Fury (1972), Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen is an angry young man who fights back not just against the Japanese, but against all the indignities heaped on Chinese people, Chinese men in particular. He is defiant even as he is executed by the Shanghai police.

Cave of the Silken Web

Cave of the Silken Web (1927) via The Chinese Mirror

But the Republic of China saw it as more than escapist fantasy. In 1931, The Film Censorship Act cracked down on wuxia films. According to Jean Lukitsch, “Both Communist intellectuals and the Nationalist government condemned wuxia films for their superstitious and feudal attitudes” (196). It had only been thirty years since the Boxer Rebellion, when the boxers, possessed by the gods and heroes of Chinese Opera, tried to cleanse China of foreign influence. Wuxia films and audience response to them gave the Nationalist government flashbacks (196). It’s possible that Tianyi Studios’ 1927 Cave Of The Silken Web and its 1929 sequel were the silky strands that caused the crackdown on wuxia films. (Lukitsch,notes; The Chinese Mirror). In response, Runje Shaw moved Tianyi Studios to Hong Kong, where he and his brothers ultimately formed Shaw Bros. Studios and continued making fine wuxia films.

You can trace a line from the 1924 founding of Tianyi Studios to preserve “authentic Chinese cuture” (Yang, 11) through Shaw Bros. golden age and to the current massive battlefield epics and historical dramas. The current Chinese government understands how folk heroes and historical stories appeal to patriotism. In fact, period pieces might be Hong Kong filmmakers’ safest way of attracting Mainland funding and audiences—as long as there is no moral ambiguity or ambivalence tacitly expressed about the Communist party leaders as corrupt officials or warlords. According to a diplomatic report, President Xi Jinping enjoys movies but not moral ambiguity.

23. (C) The Ambassador also asked…Xi about his recent movie viewing, recalling that Xi had told him…that he had recently seen and tremendously enjoyed Saving Private Ryan. Had…Xi seen other recent American movies that he had enjoyed? Xi replied that he already owns the Flags of Our Fathers DVD….Xi said he particularly likes Hollywood movies about World War II….Hollywood makes those movies well, and such Hollywood movies are grand and truthful. Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. In American movies, good usually prevails. In contrast, Curse of the Golden Flower…had been confusing to Xi. Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.

23. (C) [Xi] criticized Zhang Yimou by name as well as the kungfu action movie genre. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Wu Ji and imperial palace intrigues—all are the same, talking about bad things in imperial palaces. Most are not nominated for Oscars or other awards, so to some extent it can be said that such movies are not worth very much.

I’m not surprised that Xi does not enjoy films about palace intrigues, what with all the intriguing in the Chinese government. I doubt it’s coincidental that Xi likes films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and now there’s the glut of battlefield epics and inspirational, legendary heroes. So many that I have lost interest in genres I once enjoyed. Donnie Yen is playing Ip Man, Chen Zhen* and Guan Yu. Even drunken master, Beggar So, has a film, True Legend (2010), in which Chinese men are forced to fight to entertain foreigners**. They are much less nuanced than the pretty patriotic Wong Fei-Hung movies, who was once a drunken master, too. I enjoy Kwan Tak-Hing’s Wong Fei-Hung in the 1950s series and Jet Li’s in the 1990s Once Upon A Time In China movies, but I dread what he might look like now. I dread one day discovering that Donnie Yen will play Wong Fei-Hung with perfect form and little charm.

Wong Fei-Hung's Battle with Five Tigers. via Kung Fu Cinema.

Wong Fei-Hung’s Battle with Five Tigers. via Kung Fu Cinema.

I don’t enjoy these films precisely because they “have a clear outlook on values” and “demarcate between good and evil.” I like them because they have blurry outlook on values. I like moral ambiguity and conflicting loyalties. I like complicated characters—the sympathetic villain who is capable of some kindness and the righteous but rigid hero who accidentally wrongs others. I enjoyed watching the 1983 tv-show Legend of the Condor Heroes and asking one of the villains, “Oh, Yang Kang, what are you doing?” Or feeling bad for characters even as they make terrible choices. I can be critical of the heroes, whose righteousness sometimes blinds them to their own cruelty. I like complexity. In Legend of Condor Heroes (1982), the hero and his mother are taken in by Genghis Khan himself. In Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) Jet Li’s righteous hero is alternately thwarted and aided by a Mongol princess. In Fist of Legend (1994), a loose remake of Fist of Fury, Jet Li’s Chen Zhen is trapped between worlds. He has Japanese friends who stand up for him and one who dies for him and he, in turn, stands by a Japanese woman in pre-war Shanghai.

But censors always have strange blindspots and dissent seems to have creeped into crime films. And so, next month, I’ll be talking about some Johnnie To films. In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy the fact that British colonial fears of uprisings made Hong Kong movies accessible to a teenage girl sitting in a dorm room in Michigan, even if she found better prints later on.

*Aside from taking on all Bruce Lee duties, Donnie Yen had portrayed Chen Zhen in a 1995 ATV television series, Fist of Fury.

**In his final role, David Carradine played the fight club ringmaster.



Some day, Carol Borden will leave her seclusion in the Cave of the Silken Web and finally write the article she’s been training for all these years–the one about Louis Cha / Jin Yong.


Jean Lukitsch. Electric Shadows: the Secret History of Kung Fu Movies. (Red Lantern Productions, 2013) electronic edition.

David Newman. “British Colonial Censorship Regimes: Hong Kong, Straits Settlements, and Shanghai International Settlement, 1916-1941”

Lisa Odham Stokes & Michael Hoover. City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. (New York, Verso: 1999)

Jeff Yang. Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese Cinema. (Atria, 2003)

The Chinese Mirror. “The Future of Chinese Cinema: A Roundtable Discussion.” (Originally posted at Xinmin Weekly)



2 Responses to “Blurry Images Coming Clear: Hong Kong Cinema, Censorship and Me”

  1. Ushering In A New Regime: Johnnie To, Crime Films and Dissent : The Cultural Gutter
    May 22nd, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

    […] Blurry Images Coming Clear: Hong Kong Cinema, Censorship and Me […]

  2. Ushering In A New Regime: Johnnie To, Crime Films and Dissent | Monstrous Industry
    May 27th, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

    […] Last month, I wrote about British (and a little pre-People’s Republic Chinese) censorship of Hong Kong movies and the ways that wuxia and kung fu movies in particular got around British control of political speech. And now, with wuxia and kung fu movies seemingly all nationalistic, dissent has creeped into the crime films, so this month I’m going to talk about the films of Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai and their production company, Milkyway Image. Since 1997, Hong Kong crime films have been set in pre-Handover Hong Kong (or pre-1999 Macao) because doing otherwise would imply that there are crime problems after the Handover or in China. As if anything set before 1997 were only about 1997. […]

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