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Pak Tong Cheuk's very good Chinese-language study of the Hong Kong New Wave becomes a welcome, though far from perfect, English edition from Intellect Books.
Who is this book published for?
And I mean "published," not "written." Professor Pak Tong Cheuk originally wrote the book in Chinese through a Hong Kong publisher. As one of the few single-authored books to give a well-researched, historical overview of the famed Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 90s, Cheuk's book held a special position amongst Chinese-literate academics who needed a reference for directors like Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, Allen Fong, and others. Though it's relatively free of academic jargon and references to critical theory, the book is structured and argued as a systematic study of a film movement, and is certainly not for the everyday reader.
But Britain-based Intellect Books' new translation of Cheuk's book is confused about what it wants to be. First, the translation cuts out some introductory remarks from Cheuk's original, in which he lays out the theoretical framework of his study, particularly his use of auteur and genre theory. Though I wouldn't say there's anything overwhelmingly original about Cheuk's approach, the preface provides a framework from which we can understand why he proceeds the way he does. But the Intellect version strikes that section out, as if to appeal to a reader who would rather not deal with the theoretical throat-clearing.
Second, the Intellect version does not have an index. Chinese-language scholarly books rarely have indices, but English ones do, and we've come to expect them from any serious academic book. The scholar or student in Britain or the U.S. will be disappointed to discover that they are unable to quickly flip to, say, every reference to Cinema City or Rediffusion Cable (as there are many, and all interesting).
Third, the new version is not updated. Originally published in 2002, the Chinese version brought the reader to the present. Not so with the English version, which lazily stops where the original did. The reader is left wondering what Cheuk would say about Patrick Tam's recent comeback, or the shifting role of mainland China in the careers of directors like Ann Hui.
Perhaps the new version is meant simply to "fill a gap" in the knowledge. For all that's been written about the New Wave in English, there is no single-authored book in English which focuses on the movement. So for that reason, Intellect's translation is useful. But if (according to their website) Intellect's goal is "to provide a vital space for widening critical debate in new and emerging subject areas," then their translation -- with its omission of Cheuk's theoretical framework, its unfriendly layout, and its datedness -- cannot be called a success. There are also editing errors throughout (did Cheuk really just claim that Godard and Antonioni "opposed the anti-capitalist class" on page 124?). Cheuk's work deserves better.
After all, Cheuk's book remains one of the best studies of the (pre)history of the movement, namely its roots in the television industry. Much of Cheuk's work on what he calls the "blood ties" between 1970s TV and 1980s cinema has been published in English-language articles elsewhere, but the book allows the reader to trace the directors' ideological, aesthetic, and personal development from television to film across two decades. These connections are extraordinarily important because it accounts not just for the directors' stylistic and thematic preoccupations, but also gives a sense of the social and economic context of filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s. I only wish the English translation was updated to 2008 so I can know what Cheuk thinks about recent forays into television by New Wave and Second Wave Hong Kong directors like Yim Ho (who made the 2006 bio-drama Zhou Xuan) and Stanley Kwan (who made the ravishing Painting Soul in 2003). As in the late 1970s, the convergence between TV and cinema today has social and economic determinants. From a historical perspective then, what can we say about the New Wave in light of these recent industrial changes? Unfortunately, Cheuk will have to answer these questions in a future book.
Fascinating (and worthy of further study) is Cheuk's observation that nearly all of these directors studied filmmaking abroad. In fact, as Cheuk notes, directors like Patrick Tam were actually sent overseas by TV studios seeking a more global perspective to production. Cheuk doesn't draw out the larger implications of this historical fact, but it does inform the way we think of how "the local" is articulated in the 1970s and 80s.
Also excellent (and innovative) is Cheuk's discussion of censorship battles; for example, the one over Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounters -- First Kind. These are not mere mentions of controversies; they elucidate the ways in which the New Wave was publicly defined, protected, and criticized. Elsewhere Cheuk provides what he takes to be the stylistic and thematic properties of the New Wave, but in the discussions of censorship, he makes the more sophisticated argument that the New Wave movement was created discursively: through arguments, letters, editorials, censors. Cheuk is able to make these arguments because of his familiarity with the important film magazine City Entertainment, which provided a public forum for a discussion of local cinema. This historical research of print culture allows him to look at style and content from the perspective of public culture, not just from the obsession with artistic impulse which is as the center of traditional auteurist studies.
Luckily, Cheuk's appendices are retained in the Intellect version. Especially useful are the filmographies of the directors. Beyond what you get on IMDB or HKMDB are listings of the directors' TV work, which Cheuk rightly integrates into the "film"ography, since, as he argues throughout the book, film and television should not be seen as opposites, but as mutually constituting. And despite not having an index, the book is easy to navigate. If you're looking for information about Ann Hui's Boat People or Patrick Tam's use of color, it's fairly easy to find them since the chapters are organized straightforwardly by director. His English and Chinese-language bibliographies are also useful, but unfortunately are six years out of date -- a critical oversight because the field of Chinese cinema studies has matured significantly since 2002.
Ultimately, Intellect's edition is not so much a scholarly intervention in a "widening critical debate" as much as it is a resource for curious film buffs who want to gain some background knowledge. For the English-reader who's just seen Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders and is scratching his head and in need of guidance, this translation is the best guide. Unfortunately, most English-readers do not have access to (or memory of) the old TV dramas or the films never released commercially in the U.S. or Europe (which is most of them). Which brings me back to the question of who this translation has been published for. Given the strengths of Cheuk's study, I'm grateful that Intellect has brought an English-language version Hong Kong New Wave Cinema to bookshelves. But given the book's potential for actually making a dent in the "critical debate," Intellect's edition is somewhat disappointing.
Pak Tong Cheuk, Hong Kong New Wave Cinema: 1978-2000, Intellect Books, 2008
Date Posted: 10/3/2008