Historical avenues to
critical border thinking

Review by Kin-Yan Szeto

Tony Williams, ed., Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015. Two DVDs, 200 pg. Distributed by Columbia University Press, $79.

Tony Williams’ edited volume, Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan, provides a survey of this influential art cinema filmmaker’s work. Hong-Kong-born Chan is a New-York-based author, filmmaker, and playwright whose works crisscross cultural, disciplinary, and socio-political borders. Seven scholars provide essays on Chan’s documentary and feature films and deal with his oeuvre with diverse critical perspectives. The book concludes with an interview with Chan and contains two DVDs including five of his most important works. In this collection of essays, the contributors manifest the important links between Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the United States in Evans Chan’s films. Blending melodrama and minor cinema alongside with documentary and fiction, many of Chan’s films display, assess and reflect on modern/contemporary Chinese history, in particular Hong Kong’s political transformation before and after 1997. I met Evans Chan several years ago at an academic film conference. We share Hong Kong’s transitional recent history and the cosmopolitical experience of living in the United States.

Chan’s films usually document a more complex public history through the lens of individuals. In his well-regarded 1992 feature To Liv(e), for example, Chan shows how Hong Kong’s geopolitical position was greatly affected by the changing global and regional political orders—a fact that is still very pertinent to Hong Kong today. The punning title takes the incident of Swedish actress Liv Ullmann taking the occasion of a visit to Hong Kong to criticize the local administration’s deporting of Vietnamese boat people. Set between the 1989 Tiananmen Square events and the impending 1997 Handover, Chan creates a family melodrama set in a global span of countries.

Chan’s more recent feature docu-drama, Datong: The Great Society (2011), presents a powerful and challenging perspective in understanding Chinese politics and history with the case of Kang Youwei an artist/philosopher/intellectual who tried to revive the Confucian utopia as a way of modernizing the imperial monarchy at the turn of the 20th century.

In the introductory article, editor Williams points out how Chan brings together Eastern and Western sensibilities in what Hamid Naficy has defined as “accented cinema” (11). The introduction delineates how Chan’s films display an unconventional approach to Hong Kong cinema that is difficult to classify within the confines of its popular and highly recognizable commercial genres. Particularly, Chan’s films work on many layers that navigate discourses of post-socialism, post-colonialism, diaspora, international New Wave, and accented cinema, among others.

In chapter two of the volume, Amy Lee analyzes To Liv(e) and deliberates the controversial issue of the Hong Kong government’s deportation of Vietnamese boat people seeking political asylum. The film demonstrates the contradictory nature of being Hong Kong people, especially when they are doubly marginalized by the hegemonic British and Chinese national discourses before the 1997 handover. Lee argues that the film should not be understood as a political, ideological or aesthetic statement, but rather as a gateway to enter into a dialogue with the director, the film, and its themes.

Mo-yung (Anita Yuen Wing Yee) and Benny (Simon Yam Tat Wah) in Crossings


"Inspired by an interracial murder in a New York City subway station during the mid-80's, this unique merging of HK cinema and New York independent film is a worthy follow-up to director Evans Chan's justly celebrated debut. [...] Instead of following the wishes of her parents and flying to Toronto, Mo-yung (Anita Yuen) journeys instead to NYC, in hope of finding Benny (Simon Yam), a mysterious photographer who has attracted her. There, she meets Rubie, a sympathetic clinic worker who helps her to settle in the city. [...] However, both women's lives are destined to be shattered by the actions of Joey (Ted Brunetti), a dangerously violent and schizophrenic teacher, who has stopped taking his medication and is now stalking Rubie. [...] Yuen is superb, making the most of a rare chance to display the full range of her talents, and Lindzay Chan gives a genuine, touching performance, projecting very real intelligence and compassion. The drama is further aided by Kung Chi Shing's moody and varied soundtrack."— John Charles, Video Watchdog

In chapter three, viewing Crossings in light of the immigrant experience such as dislocation and loss in New York, Tony Williams looks at how the film combines “neo noir” in visual style and merges documentary and fiction (27). By examining how the narrative blurs boundaries in cultural, ethnic, geographical, historical, and temporal aspects, Williams reveals the collapse of national boundaries in the nature of East-West and international cultural dynamics at the end of the twentieth century.

Continuing the discussion, Hector Rodriguez takes a different approach to Chan’s cinema by tackling the motif of memory that is closely tied to the themes of exiles, homelessness, and displacements, a tradition in Hong Kong cinema exemplified by Ann Hui and Wong Kar-wai. This essay critically explores Chan’s The Map of Sex and Love and the ways in which the director uses self-conscious emotional and geographic distancing as a device in art melodrama to express the life of the people inhabiting in the diaspora. In the next chapter, also looking at The Map of Sex and Love, Kenneth Chan shows that the major characters’ pasts become a kind of cosmopolitan memory that sustains attachment through knowledge of interconnections between places, peoples, and histories. In both cases, the authors analyze how the personal is political by showing political minorities who live in the borderlines of nation-states.

The Map of Sex and Love explores history past and present, and love gay and straight through three interrelated stories: Rubber Band, Belgrade, and Nazi Gold. In Rubber Band, a gay dancer is advised to heal his perversity by snapping a rubber band against his wrist. In Belgrade, a girl has a traumatic revelation while travelling in Eastern Europe; and in Nazi Gold, a filmmaker has an eerie encounter with an aftermath of the Third Reich in Macau. The film begins as Wei Ming, an expatriate Chinese filmmaker, returns from New York to Hong Kong. He meets Mimi, a frightened girl concealing an incident that occurred during her travels through Eastern Europe; and Larry, a gay dancer haunted by his own secret, a violent event involving his coming-out. The trio makes a trip to Macau, Wei Ming's childhood home to fathom allegations of Nazi gold being funnelled through the former Portuguese colony.

Tony Williams also looks into Chan’s films alongside issues of de-colonization, sexuality, forms of artistic representations, and geographical and personal confluences, mainly in films such as To Liv(e) and Bauhinia. His analysis brings together Chan’s two films Journey to Beijing and Adeus Macau that deal with Hong Kong’s and Macau’s reunification with Mainland China respectively. In her chapter, Gina Marchetti considers how The Life and Times of Wu Zhong Xian has employed Brechtian techniques of distancing for literary simulation and intertextual reference. Activist Wu struggled for independence from Britain for the Crown colony in the 1970s, but also for a better future as the Mainland dramatically changed in the following decades. Furthermore, Marchetti explains the ways that the film uses Wu’s life to comment on the political present of Hong Kong through its radical past.

In a different perspective, in chapter eight, highlighting the artistry of the music artist Margaret Leng Tan, Michael Ingham evaluates the formal qualities of Chan’s cinematic art, specifically how the director investigates both film and music as inventive expressions, demonstrating the complementary intermediality of his cinematic vision and Tan’s musicality. Stacilee Ford’s chapter thoughtfully examines teaching Chan’s film Bauhinia both in Hong Kong and the United States. Ford draws attention to how the film deals exclusively with the Chinese/ Hong Kong diasporic subjects in New York City soon after the September 11th, 2001 catastrophe. Ford looks at the cross-cultural and critical differences in considering the intricate topics of gender, diaspora and politics.  In the last chapter, Tony Williams provides a comprehensive interview with the director. In this interview, director Chan talks about his films, the filmmakers and intellectuals that have influenced him, including Jean-Luc Godard and Susan Sontag (he has translated some of Sontag’s work into Chinese), and his frequent collaborations with the actress Lindzay Chan.

Incontrovertibly, essays in this collection concentrate on the development and evolution in Chan’s creative concerns. The book’s purpose is to trace out the themes, film forms, visual perspectives, and private/public/temporal geographies in Chan’s works. This edited volume showcases Chan’s films and thematic issues that usually are marginalized in the mainstream media of Hong Kong and the United States. As a matter of fact, as an artist, intellectual, and playwright, Chan demands a critical border thinking that merges perspectives beyond the scope of traditional film studies. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has argued, the history of the modern, colonial, patriarchal and capitalist world system has favored the knowledge, culture, and epistemology produced by the West. It is from the geopolitics of knowledge of “peripherality” that critical “border thinking” emerges as a critique of modernity/coloniality towards pluriversality (Mignolo 329-31).

Chan’s films touch upon socio-political issues that are still highly relevant and timely today. In this vein, the volume could have benefited much more from historical insights and perspectives by situating Chan within the transnational development of Hong Kong, Chinese, and U.S. cinema. With more historical insights and perspectives, this book could have further bridged the gaps in local/global sensibilities and the socio-political changes encountered by Hong Kong/Chinese diasporic subjects and their film industries since the 1980s. In addition, whether it was the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 (setting up the 1997 Handover) or the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, even for commercial genres, many of the Hong Kong films have actively engaged with and are affected by the political and social ambience of the city, evident in the work of filmmakers ranging from Johnnie To, Benny Chan, Roy Chow, and Herman Yau. In fact, Chan’s unique branch of transnational cinema would be worth examining in this regard, thus demonstrating not only critical border thinking in the mainstream media of Hong Kong and the United States, but also restoring historical avenues by appropriately contextualizing his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors in minor and/or political cinemas.

Several of the essays in this book such as those by Marchetti and Ingham have brought together the fields of theater, film and music. What the volume needs are more essays that—like these authors do—provide more engaging and rigorous approaches to “unthink” Chan’s multiple critical and artistic experiences beyond disciplinary knowledge. This would offer the readers with extremely valuable and insightful perspectives, mostly because Chan’s cinematic vision, artistic pursuit and intellectual inquiries have already transcended disciplinary boundaries as well as monotopic, global and universal purposes, and methodologies.