World film is rife with surveillance motifs, but the current canon of surveillance cinema is, like surveillance theory, overly Western-centric. The Introduction exposes and amends this problem by presenting Hong Kong cinema's rich tradition of surveillance motifs. Exploring local film traditions such as gambling and tenement movies, this chapter shows how and why Hong Kong cinema often depicts surveillance with a tolerance and enthusiasm very different from that of the best-known Western movies on the same subject. Using fascinating local films such as a 1955 Hong Kong remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window, this chapter tracks surveillance's shaping role in the aesthetics and narratives of one of the world's most vibrant cinemas outside Hollywood.
Comedy is as underrepresented in surveillance cinema as are non-Western movies, facts that underscore the films of beloved Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui. His chart-topping hits like Games Gamblers Play (1974), The Private Eyes (1976), and Security Unlimited (1982) display an unusually lighthearted view of surveillance and were popular throughout Asia and Europe. Providing one of the most-focused studies in Western writing on Hui's film oeuvre, this chapter claims that what appears to be a specifically Hong Kong emphasis on enabling surveillance was instrumental to the comedian's international success. Recalling Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) in their ability to fashion comedy from industrial and capitalist surveillance, Hui's films exemplify the "vernacular modernism" of early American silent comedy and present the star himself as the preeminent example of Hong Kong cinema's frequent emphasis on surveillance's economic and professional opportunities.
The action and crime films at the industry's height in the 1980s and early 1990s are perhaps the best-known examples of Hong Kong film and provide an obvious site of local cinema's surveillance imagery. Although rarely noted as surveillance per se, its resonance with Hong Kong's impending 1997 reunification with China was often the focus of critical interest in the genre, which exhibited an anticommunist Sinophobia subsequently rejected by an alternative critical emphasis on other genres and local contexts. This chapter revisits these films and critical debate by showing how the original interest in surveillance was correct in intuitively recognizing surveillance themes present in local culture and cinema since the Cold War. Tracing contrasting surveillance regimes both in action and crime movies and in other prominent nonaction films from the era, this chapter argues that reunification intensified surveillance themes long central to Hong Kong and Hong Kong film.
Although police plots and cop images are global film conventions, as a form of surveillance cinema their intersections with actual police practice are little documented. Hong Kong, however, has long harbored a Dragnet-type police-media symbiosis, as this chapter shows by tracking diverse official and commercial media such as Jackie Chan action movies, a mid-1970s-era police recruitment film, and a cycle of reunification-era movies about collaborations between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese police. Exploring this well-known but undertheorized history of Hong Kong's mutually beneficial relationship between police and entertainment, this chapter shows how Hong Kong's cinematic police images are themselves symptoms of the force's success in normalizing surveillance into daily life.
Recent studies of Hong Kong cinema's fate in the face of China's emergence as the world's largest film market emphasize a dialectical choice between collaborative dapian (big movie) that promote Greater China or much smaller movies targeted only at local Hong Kong audiences. Such accounts, however, overlook local cinema's tradition of globally accessible but locally resonant undercover-cop movies, which since Infernal Affairs continue to be a lucrative subgenre. This chapter explores recent Hong Kong undercover movies such as Overheard and Drug War and an as-yet-unremarked subgenre dubbed "period undercover" to show how the cinema subverts current Chinese political and economic ascendancy. Tracking how recent Hong Kong undercover movies fuse highly local content with a Hollywoodized accessibility, this chapter claims that despite the industry's initial decline and subsequent retraction Hong Kong film continues to be at the forefront of global cinema and surveillance trends.
Hong Kong cinema exemplifies the insights that arise when the existing surveillance cinema canon is expanded to encompass the full range of world film. Although few film industries outside Hollywood can match Hong Kong's in its productivity and global influence, film cycles and subgenres throughout a variety of cinemas in Spain, South Korea, and Bombay show how surveillance ethics and aesthetics are experienced in spaces outside a dominant culture. The Conclusion reviews the prescience by which Hong Kong's seemingly idiosyncratic surveillance cinema engages global surveillance culture. Touching on a 2010 film, 72 Tenants of Prosperity, and connecting it to both the 2014 Umbrella movement and Edward Snowden's 2013 flight to Hong Kong, the Conclusion uses Hong Kong to advocate for a more diverse canon of world surveillance cinema.