Check out my book “Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan”

Over a decade in the making, my book Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan is now available from Edinburgh University Press. The book examines the role that cinema played in imagining Hong Kong and Taiwan’s place in the world from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Here’s the official book jacket description:

How does cinema imagine our place in the world? This book looks at the studios, films and policies that charted the transnational vision of Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places with an uneasy relationship to the idea of nationhood.

Examining the cultural, political and industrial overlaps between these cinemas – as well as the areas where they uniquely parallel each other – author Brian Hu brings together perspectives from cinema studies, Chinese studies and Asian American studies to show how culture is produced in the spaces between empires. With case studies of popular stars like Linda Lin Dai and Edison Chen, and spectacular genres like the Shaolin Temple cycle of martial arts films and the romantic melodramas of 1970s Taiwan, this book explores what it meant to be both cosmopolitan and Chinese in the second half of the twentieth century.

The greatest joy of writing the book was the archival research — delving into the dusty movie magazines at the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, watching VCDs of old melodramas and Shaolin films, re-discovering two generations of pop music — and discovering how outwardly thinking Hong Kong and Taiwan popular culture has always been. My argument that cosmopolitanism has been a dominant structure of feeling in Hong Kong and Taiwan during these decades breaks from other studies that have highlighted their local uniqueness and sovereignty, positions that are essential, especially given the specter of China. But what if we looked at Hong Kong and Taiwan together, separately from China in the usual “three Chinas” configuration of transnational Chinese cinema? What might we gather from the Sinophone sentiments of worldly desires that captured the imagination of post-war generations and those of their children?

Writing this book became, inevitably, a personal journey, one that maps my own family’s trajectory from Taiwan to America to something slipperier altogether, but held together by aspirations, anxieties, romances, awkwardness, and an excitement over the unknown.

Please tell your local library to order a copy! U.S. libraries can order from Oxford University Press. Non-U.S. libraries and universities can go directly to Edinburgh University Press. Or find it at Amazon. The book is currently only available in hardback and electronic editions.

Pop Music and Wong Kar-wai

In 2005, I took a graduate seminar with Janet Bergstrom on the “DVD essay,” now of course known as the “video essay.” My final project was entitled “Pop Music and Wong Kar-wai,” a 19-minute piece turned in on a DVD with menus and subtitles. In 2011, the video was published in the UCLA online journal Mediascape, which, no doubt influenced by Bergstrom’s class at UCLA, became one of the first journals to regularly spotlight video essays online. Unbeknownst to me, in 2016, the Harvard Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures found a ripped version of the video and uploaded it to their Vimeo channel. Since Mediascape no longer exists, I’m grateful for their piracy! Below is the video essay, embedded from the EALC Vimeo, followed by the complementary essay I wrote for Mediascape in 2011.

Brian Hu on Wong Kar-wai from Harvard EALC on Vimeo.

The impetus for this DVD essay was to answer the question: what makes the use of popular music in Wong Kar-wai’s films different? Is there a musical “signature” that defines Wong’s specific way of spinning familiar (and de-familiarized) tunes into a film narrative? The question of authorial specificity led, perhaps inevitably, to a consideration of industrial and cultural specificities – namely if there was something about Hong Kong’s star system, music landscape, and (post-)colonial ethos that could feed the audio-visual imagination of a wizard like Wong Kar-wai. I continued to pursue this latter question, which led my project to utilize tools from cultural studies (such as a consideration of stars, intertexual materials, emergent cultural practices) rather than approach the topic from purely formal considerations (such as Wong’s use of pacing, volume, juxtaposition, etc.). And yet, because I was working in the DVD medium, formal attributes became exceedingly hard to ignore, such as Wong’s use of music video devices and his famous repetition of songs.
This DVD essay was produced five years ago, in 2005, and is here reproduced in linear video format. The original DVD experimented, however feebly, with the use of the optional subtitle track as a “footnote” track.1 However, to minimize the amount of text on the screen, the video is presented here without the “footnotes.” As it was completed in early 2005, the DVD does not address Wong’s films made after 2004, though I do feel that the repetition of “The Christmas Song” in 2046, the 1930s Shanghai tunes in The Hand, and the use of Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights reverberate with the discourses of colonialism, nostalgia, and stardom of Wong’s earlier films.
Re-viewing this DVD essay now, I can’t help but wish I had benefitted from the terrific recent scholarship on Chinese film stars.2 I realized then that I lacked a model for thinking about stardom within a specific cultural and industrial context, and were I to revisit this project today, I would take a better articulated theoretical position on Faye Wong and Andy Lau, given the developments in the field. Then, as now, I consider stardom to be one of the most important and most understudied aspects of Chinese cinema and pan-Asian media culture more generally, and it strikes me as an important maturation of the field that scholars are beginning to frame their studies within the circuits of desire embodied by stars.
I wish I could say the same about the study of music in Chinese cinema, a gaping absence also noted by Yingjin Zhang in his essay on the state of the field.3 Music permeates nearly every axis of inquiry in Chinese cinema: reception, marketing, stardom, industrial organization, sound/dubbing, dialect, genre, narrative, gender, sexuality, cross-cultural circulation, historiography, the nation. And yet, aside from the work of Emilie Yeh Yueh-yu4 and Sue Tuohy5, there is little sustained attention to music, popular or otherwise. Is it really possible to conceive of a study of Jia Zhang-ke without attention to popular music? Or of the nightclub film genre? Or of practically any Hong Kong star since the 1980s?
I tackle this last question in my article, “The KTV Aesthetic: Popular Music Culture and Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema,” which I see as a companion piece to the DVD essay, which focuses exclusively on Wong Kar-wai.6 Readers seeking a more contextual (and less visually and aurally enticing) approach should refer to the print article.
1. The multi-linearity of the DVD medium is a topic that particularly preoccupied me at the time, and is elaborated further in my essay, “DVD Deleted Scenes and the Recovery of the Invisible,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20.4 (December 2006): 499-508.
2. Some examples include Farquhar, Mary and Yingjin Zhang, eds. Chinese Film Stars. London: Routledge, 2010.; Hudson, Dale. “Just Play Yourself, ‘Maggie Cheung’: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas.” Screen
47.2 (2006): 213-32; Horng, Menghsin C. “Domestic Dislocations: Healthy Realism, Stardom, and the Cinematic Projection of Ho
me in Postwar Taiwan.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 4.1 (March 2010): 27-43; Meyer, Richard J. Ruan Ling-yu: The Goddess of Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005; Edwards, Louise and Elaine Jeffreys, eds. Celebrity in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
3. Zhang, Yingjin. “Comparative Film Studies, Transnational Film Studies: Interdisciplinarity, Crossmediality, and Transcultural Visuality in Chinese Cinema.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.1 (January 2007): 36.
4. Yueh-yu Yeh, Emilie. “Elvis, Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: American Music and Neocolonialism in Taiwan Cinema.”
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 15.1 (2003): 1-28; Yueh-yu, Yeh. Phantom of the Music: Song Narration in Chinese-Language Cinema. Taipei: Yuan-liou, 2000; Yueh-yu Yeh, Emilie and Lake Wong Hu. “Transcultural Sounds: Music, Identity,
and the Cinema of Wong Kar-wai.” Asian Cinema 19.1 (Spring/Summer 2009): 32-46.
5. Tuohy, Sue. “Metropolitan Sounds: Music in Chinese Films of the 1930s.” Yingjin Zhang, ed. Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999) 200-21; Tuohy, Sue M.C. “Reflexive Cinema: Reflecting on and Representing the Worlds of Chinese Film and Music.” Mark Slobin, ed. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 177-213.
6. Hu, Brian. “The KTV Aesthetic: Popular Music Culture and Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema.” Screen 47.4 (Winter 2006): 407-24.

Linda Lin Dai at Shaw Brothers

This essay was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for the impressive Linda Lin Dai retrospective they mounted in 2011. The essay can also be found at the ACMI website here.

With the impact of Communist ideology on Chinese cinema after 1949, “the star” being replaced with “the film worker”, it was up to the overseas Chinese to continue the glamour and celebrity of 1930′s Shanghai. Singapore and Hong Kong-based studios like Hsin Hwa, MP&GI, and Shaw Brothers had their own training schools and publicity teams to develop stars with the flair and charisma of the pre-revolution generation. Amidst the prima-donnas and the girls-next-door, one star shone brightest: Linda Lin Dai.

Born Cheng Yueru in Guangxi, but renamed Lin Dai in Hong Kong, the star known throughout Asia and beyond as Linda was the goddess of the Mandarin-speaking world. In Taipei, perhaps the biggest market for Chinese cinema, Lin Dai had a film amongst the top ten money-makers every year between 1956 and 1966 – including four of the top ten films in 1957, and three in 1961.

Even after her tragic suicide at the age of 29, Lin Dai continued to cast her spell and score big box office returns with posthumously-released films. She was critically acclaimed too. In a span of six years, she won four best actress awards at the Asian Film Festival, a feat that earned her the nickname “Movie Queen of Asia.”

When Shaw Brothers attempted to break into the western market, Lin Dai’s films were the ones chosen for export. When co-producers around the world asked MP&GI to borrow an actress for overseas work, studio boss Loke Wan Tho picked Lin Dai. And when Shaw Brothers needed a face for the inaugural issue of their fan magazine Southern Screen, of course it was Lin Dai’s. In fact, she graced four of the first 15 covers of the widely-circulated magazine.

Off screen, Lin Dai was known for getting her way in the industry at a time when actors were considered the property of individual studios. On screen she was a softer, sexier, and more effortless version of that same persona, her characters ranging from plucky heroines with a verve for life, to tragic figures undone by their own ambitions.

Whether in comedy, opera, romance, or thriller, Lin Dai was the feisty one: the troublemaker in a chaste world, a firecracker when everyone else was a cardboard cutout. She excelled at comedies, especially the ones she did for MP&GI. But today, Lin Dai is best remembered for her work with Shaw Brothers, thanks in large part to Celestial Pictures’ recent digital restorations.

At Shaw Brothers, Lin Dai was queen. In Southern Screen profiles of younger actresses, Lin Dai was consistently mentioned as a role model, mentor, and standard of beauty. Her name, which conjures feminine beauty and classical literature, was synonymous with the studio and its growing stature in the greater Chinese market. Lin Dai’s celebrity was so great that in Shaws’ The Fair Sex (1961), she had a cameo as herself: the biggest movie star of them all. She was also cast in many of Shaw Brothers prestige pictures, such as their first foray into color, Diau Charn (1958), and Les Belles (1961). When Shaw Brothers wanted to revolutionize Chinese cinema, they relied on Lin Dai to be the face of the revolution.

In the late 1950s, Lin Dai was one of the few actresses in Hong Kong who could simultaneously work for multiple studios. For Shaw Brothers, MP&GI, and Yung Hwa, she made a number of rustic pictures starring as fishermen’s daughters or rural ingénues. However, by 1961, she found Shaw Brothers to be an ideal fit, and it was with that rapidly-rising, ambitious, and well-connected studio that she made her biggest films.

Linda Lin Dai The Kingdom And The Beauty

The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959)

The record-breaking success of Diau Charn and The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) helped launch the extraordinarily popular huangmei opera cycle in Mandarin films. The latter film is perhaps the best of the bunch, thanks to Lin Dai’s award-winning performance, clever songs, and Li Han-hsiang’s deft direction. The regal but girlish Lin Dai fit Han-hsiang’s opulent, even excessive, vision of classical Chinese court life perfectly, and when he launched a project to make films about the “four great beauties” of Chinese history, he cast Lin Dai as two of them. In one of these films, Diau Charn, Lin Dai plays a maid who learns the power of her beauty. In the other, Beyond the Great Wall (1964), Lin Dai plays a concubine whose looks and musical ability drive men to war.

Throughout her career, Lin Dai also made a number of costume pictures for Griffith Yueh Feng, the best of which is the sublimely romantic huangmei opera, Madame White Snake (1962), which also features some of Shaw Brothers’ early experiments with special effects.

Linda Lin Dai Les Belles

Les Belles (1961)

Lin Dai excelled at another type of costume picture as well: the fashion extravaganza. In Les Belles, she sported costumes from around the world; most famously, and most daringly, a leggy can-can outfit. In Love Parade (1963), Lin Dai is a gynecologist who butts heads with her fashion designer boyfriend, before – as a prudish woman in a musical comedy must! – discovering her true talents as a runway model. Lin Dai was associated with cutting-edge fashion to such a degree that she was even credited as the costume designer of the picture. These two films, featuring Lin Dai’s liveliest performances for Shaw Brothers, showcased the comic actress at her prime. The near-silent comedy of missed connections which closes Les Belles is the pinnacle of joy in pre-martial arts Shaw Brothers films.

Today, the name Lin Dai not only conjures up extravagant images of silver-screen glamour, but also song. Long associated with musical films, Lin Dai, with uncredited dubbing by Tsin Ting, starred in two of the most memorable songstress films later in her career. One of Shanghai cinema’s most important legacies in Hong Kong popular culture, songstress films were melodramas about women risking romance and reputation to belt out torch songs in nightclubs. Lin Dai, so adept at capturing a woman’s anguish, so convincing as a character who balances innocence, sacrifice, modesty, and depravity, all while maintaining an audience’s sympathy, took the genre by storm.

With the two-part Blue and the Black (1966), Lin Dai took on one of her most memorable characters: a stubborn romantic who also serves up one of Chinese cinema’s most heartfelt ballads. Unfortunately, Lin Dai committed suicide before the film was completed and Shaw Brothers had to find a stand-in to “hide” her way through the picture, Game of Death-style. Predictably, the Lin Dai replacement had the star’s diminutive frame but not her explosive emotional charge. Though the two-parter was completed, the film remains, for Lin Dai fans, unfinished.

Perhaps a better way to remember Lin Dai is through the songstress film Love Without End (1961). As she sings the title song onstage for the last time, the audience is completely still. When the camera tracks back to reveal her husband’s face, we can’t help but feel his fear that even though the song sings of love’s immortality, this may be the last time we get to hear the tearful ballad in the flesh. “Forget not your tears, forget not your laughter. Forget not the sorrow of leaving…”