Written by Alvin K. Wong
Hong Kong cinema has often been equated with speed, mobility, and globalisation. Hong Kong film scholar Esther Yau’s classic description of Hong Kong movies as ‘small speedboats breaking the waves alongside a daunting fleet of Hollywood Titanics’ comes to mind (Yau 2001, 2). Ackbar Abbas similarly emphasises the cultural politics of disappearance and the feeling of déjà disparu, namely what is new and unique about the cultural space of Hong Kong is always at the brink of disappearance due to the speed of globalisation and the ‘love at last sight’ mentality that characterised the 1997 handover (Abbas 1997). Fast forward to the year of 2021 and halfway into the fifty-year promise of economic prosperity and political stability stipulated under the One Country, Two Systems doctrine, are speed and cultural disappearance still the most salient markers of Sinophone Hong Kong cinema? I follow Shu-mei Shih’s definition of the Sinophone as ‘a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness’ (Shih 2007, 4), with the disclaimer that Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region that has been part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since July 1st, 1997 but whose Sinophone cultures might express alternative forms of cultural identities not always in sync with the dominant logics of nationalism, global capitalism, and Sinocentrism.
A recent film by the award-winning director Jun Li showcases the protean force of Sinophone visuality through cinematic representations of homelessness and economic precarity in a post-2019 Hong Kong that is still wrestling with the aftermath of social upheavals, political uncertainty, and the global pandemic. Li’s 2021 film Drifting (Zhuoshui piaoliu 濁水漂流) recently won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 58th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. The film centres on the story of the protagonist Ho Kei-fai, played by veteran actor Francis Ng. In the film, Ho is often referred to as Brother Fai as he is a well-known homeless man who lives on Tung Chau Street in Sham Shui Po, one of the most densely populated working-class neighbourhoods on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Just when Brother Fai is released from prison, his belongings, including a much-treasured photograph of his dead son, are suddenly confiscated by the police and cleaners from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD). His fellow rough sleepers Master (one of the most respected Vietnamese refugee homeless men in the area), Chan Mui (a former female club dancer and sex worker), Dai Shing, and others decided to file a lawsuit with the help of the social worker Miss Ho (Cecilia Choi). When the government and FEHD agree to settle the case with an individual payment of HK$2000 to each plaintiff, Brother Fai refuses to accept the payment and demands a formal apology from the government. Throughout the course of the film, Brother Fai also befriends a young man named Muk. Muk seems to have a speech disorder and mental health issues, both of which the film suggests are linked to the years he spent separated from his mother. Fai forms a genuine bond with Muk and treats the young boy almost like his own son. By the end of the film, Fai’s temporary home is set on fire during a particularly cold and dry winter.
While some initial film criticism and journalistic commentaries praise Jun Li’s film for its simplicity and cinematic realism in portraying poverty, gentrification, and homelessness in a matter-of-fact manner, I prefer to take a slightly different approach by pointing to the ways that the filmmaker visualizes homelessness through a cinematic appraisal of the dehumanizing effects of neoliberal capitalism and gentrification. The film debunks the myth of individualism and the dominant Hong Kong economic ideology of hard work and self-sufficiency (otherwise known as the Lion Rock spirit) by showing how gentrification and ‘urban redevelopment’ in Sham Shui Po also lead to the further marginalization of homeless people, beggars, drug addicts, and sex workers, all of whom are considered a surplus population destined for necropolitical expulsion. The visualization of gentrification emerges early in the film narrative. In the establishing shot, the camera pans from the cityscape of Kowloon through a kaleidoscopic scanning of the newly built high-rise residential buildings. Immediately following this shot, the camera adjusts to a low-angle shot that positions the protagonist Brother Fai and the older Vietnamese man Master at the centre of the frame. Master offers to ‘treat’ Fai with a needle drug injection after Fai has just been released from the prison. The next scene shows the police and FEHD officers ordering Fai and the homeless gang to stand aside for regular street cleaning. As the officers indiscriminately clear all of Fai’s belongings (including his family photo and Hong Kong identification card), Fai can only put up a fight by verbally cursing the officers. While this scene depicts how the police officers and government workers clear the belongings and home of homeless people in Hong Kong without prior notice, it also symbolically alludes to the very dehumanization of the personhood of homeless folks like Brother Fai, Master, Chan Mui, and Dai Shing. In fact, the very acts of Fai verbally assaulting the officers and rescuing his only photograph of his son from them both serve as a reminder that he is not simply a piece of rubbish that can be easily discarded.
The film critiques the violence of neoliberalism and gentrification not by re-conferring liberal humanism on Brother Fai and his friends. Alternatively, Jun Li shows the possibility for horizontal solidarity and intimacy among homeless subjects and those who experience mental health issues who are otherwise made invisible by ‘normal’ Hong Kong citizens and government. This horizontal intimacy is most evident in the father-son like relationship between Brother Fai and Muk, the street kid with a speech disorder. Muk first offers to carry the bed frame with Brother Fai when he sees him dragging the heavy item across the street. The Fai-Muk kinship bond also offers a sarcastic critique of real-estate hegemony and capitalism in contemporary Hong Kong. Specifically, as Brother Fai suffers from chronic foot pain, Miss Ho convinces him to stay hospitalised. One night, Fai escapes the hospital with the help of Muk, and the young boy even secretly infiltrates a construction site, operates the crane, and elevates Fai all the way to see an ariel view of Shum Shui Po at night. From very there, Fai pisses onto the ground. When the police officers find out that someone is pissing from above, Muk helps Fai escape by running around and evading the police’s chase. This scene visualises what Michel de Certeau calls the power of the weak through tactical intervention by the powerless, who must ‘seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment’ (de Certeau 1984, 37). If real-estate hegemony is rooted in and powered by a capitalist system that is characterised by verticality and elevation, Brother Fai’s momentary elevated vision positions him as a perverse urban parasite that suspends the regime of neoliberal dehumanisation of homeless subjects.
The closing credits of the film state that the screenplay is based on an actual legal dispute between the homeless community in Sham Shui Po and the government in 2012. Tragically, two homeless men died before the government issued any formal apology. The opening sequence also quotes from the feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler’s writing: ‘Such bodies both perform the conditions of life in public—sleeping and living there, taking care of the environment and each other—and exemplify relations of equality that are precisely those that are lacking in the economic and political domain’ (Butler and Athanasiou 2013, 102). In its manifold visualisations of homelessness and the brutal processes of neoliberal dehumanisation in Hong Kong, Li’s Drifting offers a trenchant cinematic diagnosis of dispossession and Sinophone resistance.
Alvin K. Wong is Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Hong Kong culture, Chinese cultural studies, Sinophone studies, and queer theory. Wong is writing a book titled Queer Hong Kong as Method. He has published in journals such as Gender, Place & Culture, Culture, Theory, and Critique, Concentric, Cultural Dynamics, Continuum, and Interventions and in edited volumes such as Transgender China, Queer Sinophone Cultures, and Fredric Jameson and Film Theory. He also coedited the volume Keywords in Queer Sinophone Studies (Routledge, 2020). Featured image: a still from the film showing Brother Fai and Muk playing a chess game like father and son.