Watching Hong Kong Cop Movies After 10 Months of Tear Gas

Watching Hong Kong Cop Movies After 10 Months of Tear Gas

Watching Hong Kong Cop Movies After 10 Months of Tear Gas

The genre that propelled Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat to stardom has been tainted by real-life police brutality during protests.

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I don’t think I will be able to stomach Chungking Express for a long time,” wrote one user last September on LIHKG, a popular Hong Kong forum. In Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film, a cop played by Tony Leung falls in love with a manic pixie snack shop girl played by Faye Wong; the forum post included a meme from a scene in which Leung asks Wong to turn down the radio, as the song “California Dreamin’” plays. A speech bubble emerging from Wong’s mouth says: “Get the fuck out of here, you fucking black cop! Don’t get in the fucking way of me dreaming!”

Since the protests against the extradition bill began in Hong Kong last June, the word “dreaming” has taken on new meaning as a code word for protest actions, with Hong Kongers posting on social media or texting each other about their plans to “dream.” Rallying to create a spontaneous human chain outside a mall? Dreaming. Making a pro-democracy business directory app? Dreaming. Purchasing city maps of underground drainage plans in order to devise an escape route for students trapped in a university under police siege (as one friend of mine did)? Definitely #dreaming.

The police have taken on new meaning, too. Chungking Express once embodied the moods of urban solitude and romantic yearning, but real life has discolored Leung’s emo heartthrob. The Hong Kong Police Force have violently suppressed protests throughout the current movement, drastically reconfiguring its relationship with Hong Kongers. Despite a mounting list of allegations (and evidence) of misconduct—including excessive use of tear gas, guns fired at journalists and students, arbitrary arrests, suspected collusion with triads, and sexual assault of detainees—the Hong Kong government has not held the police accountable. By the end of last summer, some Hong Kongers were calling for the abolishment of the HKPF. A November poll found the police’s approval rating was only 35.5 percent—with 40 percent of respondents giving them a zero.

There have been few protest activities in the city since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Hong Kong in late January. Nonetheless, on two occasions when protesters have congregated recently—to commemorate a day when police were rumored to have killed several protesters, and at a memorial for a student who fell to his death while reportedly fleeing tear gas—both gatherings ended in stand-offs between protesters and riot police.

The HKPF’s fall from grace has put one of Hong Kong’s biggest cultural achievements into an awkward position: the local film industry’s canon of crime thrillers and action movies.

For decades, Hong Kong movies and TV shows have enforced the image of a handsome task force whose relentless professionalism keeps the city safe from triads, terrorists, drug rings, and corruption. This cinematic tradition is not only popular in Asia—it has also influenced Western filmmakers since at least the early 1990s, when John Woo’s 1989 film The Killer became a critical hit in the United States. Quentin Tarantino owes the final 20 minutes of his career-making Reservoir Dogs (1992) to Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987). Infernal Affairs (2002), the landmark crime thriller by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 remake The Departed.

The Hong Kong police officer has long been depicted in films and TV shows as either a near-mythical hero, or as a relatable everyman (or woman). The job is more like a hobby for the emotional dilettantes in Wong Kar-wai films. Police are the misunderstood wisecrackers in comedies, the face of modern law-and-order in megawatt action movies. Police departments in mainland China have even created propaganda in the style of Hong Kong crime thriller posters.

The entanglements between the police and the entertainment industry complicate the separation of reality and performance, ethical fandom and tacit approval. (Not only that, but film financing has long had ties with triad activities too.) In February, videos leaked showing a private dinner banquet where Hong Kong police officers sang karaoke with pro-establishment soccer players and actors such as Jackie Chan, who made a career out of playing cops. Police chief Chris Tang was caught joking that he hadn’t known how to be a cop, and only learned how to act like one from actors like Chan.

The event was criticized by lawmakers and other Hong Kongers, both because the attendees weren’t wearing masks and because Tang’s behavior was seen as unprofessional. But maybe we should take Tang’s words at face value. Why did anyone expect so much from the police to begin with? And to what extend have Hong Kong audiences been complicit in the myth-making?

Under colonial rule, many Hong Kongers saw what was then called the Royal Hong Kong Police Force as corrupt and incompetent. (“Good boys don’t become cops” was a common Cantonese saying at the time.) Low pay across the board motivated all ranks and ethnicities to take bribes or side hustles where possible. As Kam C. Wong writes in the 2015 book Policing in Hong Kong: History and Reform, corruption was “systemized, organized and rule-bound,” and many police were deeply entrenched in the gambling, prostitution, and drug industries.

The lawless excess reached its height during a period of economic uncertainty, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Then, in 1974, the colony’s then-governor formed the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), an independent investigative body that answers directly to the head of the Hong Kong government. ICAC investigations led to prosecutions in the police force—one of its first targets was a former chief superintendent—as well as government officials, banks, and other institutions. (The history of the commission’s formation was later dramatized in Wong Jing’s 2009 film I Corrupt All Cops.)

The police force also reformed its pay scale, with substantial increases tied to qualifications and rank, in order to attract serious, career-minded youth. By the 1980s, the anti-corruption campaign and the bureaucratization of the police force had helped to refashion the image of the Hong Kong police into “Asia’s Finest”—a term coined by a police-friendly South China Morning Post journalist, then co-opted by the force itself.

At the local cinema, the character of the lone-wolf police hero proliferated. Playing these loyalty-governed characters propelled the careers of actors such as Chow Yun Fat, in A Better Tomorrow (1986), and Jackie Chan, in Police Story (1985). Some critics saw their popularity as a form of resistance against the impending handover in 1997, when Hong Kong would be transferred from the British colonial government to a new (old) master, China.

The city was in transition: from industrializing outpost in the 1960s and ’70s, to international trade and finance center in the 1980s and ’90s. By the 2000s, the hot-blooded, lone-wolf archetype was replaced in films by the trope of the competent squad. (As one character complains in 1987’s City on Fire: “I have been a cop for more than 30 years. I got to my position today by fighting with my life, unlike [the next generation], who get promoted by taking exams.”)

The HKPF had acquired an aura of efficient professionalism, as crisp and ironed as their blue uniform shirts. That reputation was burnished by directors such as Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, Gordon Chan, and Derek Yee, in films set against the city’s growing backdrop of glass-walled offices and skyscrapers. Sunny Luk and Longman Leung’s 2012 film Cold War depicts a system running at optimal performance: In it, police officers take advantage of the entire bureaucracy of law enforcement—including the ICAC—as a well-oiled machine to defeat criminals.

Meanwhile, the crime rate was in decline, and the average citizen may not have seen many reasons to distrust cops. A University of Hong Kong survey conducted in 2007 found that 80 percent of respondents had a “very positive” or “quite positive” view of the police.

The Hong Kong cop comedies that grew out of the slapstick mo lei tau tradition amplified the police’s relatability. Cop characters started to be portrayed as young professionals, in films that featured fresh-faced actors with big first-real-job-as-an-adult energy: The Sunshine Cops (1999), Crazy N’ the City (2005). The pseudo-feminist Love Undercover (2002) and its young, urban woman cop protagonist spun the clichéd “triad boss vs. inspector” plot into a love triangle—in which both triad boss and inspector vied for the protagonist’s attention. Miriam Yeung’s overeager rookie character is a relatable twentysomething who harbors some naïve ambitions, but mostly just wants to make the best of things and live a simple, happy life. Many in the generation that came of age post-1997 might’ve seen their own prospects the same way: The most they could aspire to was a stable career and traditional coupledom, with occasional comedic relief.

Such proto-bourgeois values were realized on television by leading local broadcaster TVB, in a slate of prime-time dramas featuring police officers alongside white-collar professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Life could not be more aspirational for the petit-bourgeois characters of these shows: happy hours at smooth jazz lounges, dramatic but pure-at-heart romantic interests, minimally invasive parental pressure. These shows’ story arcs communicated that you could be respected for what you did at work, and loved for who you were after work. More importantly, these lifestyles felt within reach: All you had to do is study hard and pass some exams.

TVB—which has a virtual monopoly on local free TV—has also sometimes served as an unofficial public relations branch of the HKPF. In collaboration with the police force, it has created, distributed, and co-produced special programs and prime-time drama series about the HKPF’s various task forces. These shows often display an pedantic obsession with  procedural details (at the expense of narrative artistry), but their high ratings and the popularity of the actors suggest that audiences enjoyed them nonetheless. One of the first TV drama series to be shot on color film in Hong Kong was the crime show Stray, a 1972 collaboration with the Royal Hong Kong Police that aimed to “further public understanding about crimes in Hong Kong and the best practices to cooperate with the police force in order to prevent crime,” as one local newspaper wrote at the time. The portrayal was so successful that a RHKPF officer tried to convince the show’s leading man, Hui Shiu-hung, to join the Criminal Investigation Department because he “looked like an inspector.”

TVB police procedurals and crime thrillers are often the spotlight presentations of the year, with heavyweight actors and high production values. The broadcaster’s close partnership with the HKPF peaked in early 2019 with the mini-series PTU 2019, which promoted the Police Tactical Unit in celebration of the HKPF’s 175th anniversary and featured real police officers, using real gear. The show debuted in May—one month before the anti–extradition bill protests began.

These productions have had a palpable impact on Hong Kong’s media landscape, and on the lives of some viewers. Police recruits still say they were inspired to sign up by watching the 2005 drama series The Academy, which followed a group of rookies as they went through training at the police academy, as well as its three sequels and other police dramas. According to one former TVB executive, a police chief reprimanded him in the 1980s because the force had a low number of recruits that year—which the chief attributed to the negative portrayal of police in a recent series.

Compared to some other middle-class professions, and despite the hyper-competent ideal shown in movies and TV, there is low barrier of entry to becoming a police officer. Applicants only need to pass five subjects in Hong Kong’s equivalent of high school graduation exams, or obtain a kind of technical school certificate called a Yi Jin Programme Disciplinary Forces Practice diploma. (Hence a local pejorative for cops: “Yi Jin Boys.”) In a society obsessed with education and professional qualifications as means to upward mobility, police work is an appealing alternative. And it pays well: In 2019, the starting monthly salary for cadets ranged from HKD 24,110 to HKD 38,580 ($3,100 to $3,680)—a higher salary than the ones earned at other, similar public servant jobs. In comparison, the average starting monthly salary for university graduates, one survey found, was about HKD 17,000 ($2,200).

The police were also comfortably compensated for their activities during demonstrations last year: Because of the mass police presence at protests, taxpayers paid an average of more than HKD 86,000 ($11,100) in overtime per police officer.

Apart from economic considerations or aestheticization in film and TV, recent protest movements have reinforced that the Hong Kong police are instruments of state violence. In 2014’s Umbrella Movement, protests against a new election law led to a 79-day peaceful occupation of the city’s central districts by Hong Kongers who demanded universal suffrage. Police inundated the crowds with pepper spray and tear gas—the latter for the first time since the handover—and made mass arrests. These brutal tactics marked a turning point for both resistance against pro-Beijing governance and increasing distrust in law enforcement. At the end of that year, the sequel for 2005’s buddy cop comedy Crazy N’ the City was axed—even with top-billing Cantopop stars Eason Chan and Joey Yung on board—because the director didn’t see a way around depicting the city realistically without protest scenes, and without controversy.

The reports of police misconduct that have come out since last June far overshadow what happened in 2014. In response to local unrest—and perhaps because of Hong Kongers’ changing attitudes—film and TV productions with police protagonists were either pulled or performed poorly at the box office in the second half of 2019.

In June, TVB halted production on another planned joint production with the HKPF, intended as a follow-up to PTU 2019. (The show’s producer denied the decision was connected to deteriorating police-public relations.) In November, several pro-democracy restaurants boycotted TVB’s programs in criticism of the pro-Beijing bias in its news reporting on the protests. Fans have boycotted the station, its actors, and their businesses after they appeared at events in support of the HKPF. As ratings dropped and advertisers pulled out, TVB reportedly laid off a tenth of its staff at the end of last December.

Nonetheless, before the pandemic disrupted screening schedules, there were still several domestic films about police slated for release in Hong Kong this year. TVB still planned to release more TV dramas featuring the police force. One has to wonder if a more politically minded entertainment industry could have boycotted police roles and productions altogether. Meanwhile, though, TVB seems to have found new inspiration for its villains: local protesters. In the TVB drama series Forensics Heroes IV, which aired earlier this year, the character of a psychotic killer was dressed in the unmistakable look of frontline black bloc protesters: black hoodie, leggings under shorts, 3M respirator. (Even though the character’s story line had nothing to do with the protests.)

“There remains the faith that at a higher court of appeal, the criminality of the rogue states that govern us can be brought to justice and punished, in the name of elemental, natural rights that have been violated in the full light of day,” wrote a Hong Kong anarchist collective for CrimethInc last September. “Somewhere, we believe, even if only in the hearts of decent, right-thinking people everywhere, there is a sense of solidarity with this primordial and transcendent law, and justice will be done, justice will descend from the skies…. The failings of the local police do nothing to discredit the Idea of the Police, who will arrive on some messianic day.”

There is a moment in Infernal Affairs when Andy Lau (playing a triad member who poses as a police officer) confronts Tony Leung (playing an undercover police officer posing as a triad member) on a rooftop. With the last line changed, the scene has become a popular meme on Hong Kong social media, reflecting the real-life cops who have refused to show identification while cracking down on protests:

Leung (real cop): “Sorry, I am a cop.”

Lau (fake cop): “Can anyone confirm that?”

Leung: “No one can tell. If I say I am a cop, I am a cop. You can say you are a cop, too, if you want.”

It was easier to believe in Hong Kong’s cop protagonists when they were a vessel for middle-class aspiration and professionalism, when they stood in opposition to an amoral abstraction. Ten months after the protests began, the police is now the enemy of Hong Kongers. When the enemy could be anyone’s friends, families, or neighbors, it may be time to ask: Who will take the place of the police in the popular imagination? Who will Hong Kongers want to become next?

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