After just finishing a module in Hong Kong cinema, with brilliant academic Gary Bettinson (who’s literature I recommend) I came to notice a strong, resounding revelation – male bonding in Hong Kong cinema is poetically fantastic, and virtually non-transnational.
The problem I mean is that us, the western audience, find it hard (due to the Hollywood “Men-don’t-cry” sense of masculinity) to believe two men could have a close, intimate on screen relationship without actually being gay. The film A Better Tomorrow is a Hong Kong (and I stress Hong Kong, due to their independent cinema from mainland China) has two male characters who lead the plot. A duo of expert criminals, assassins and smugglers. Over the course of the plot, not wanting to spoil it for you, the two become further apart from one another as one of the real brothers of a main character enters the story, distracting our hero from his best friend (who in a sense was his brother through friendship). The jealousy of his friend is clear, like a scorned ex girlfriend (or boyfriend) in the school playground.
These two aren’t actually gay, and for not one minute would the Hong Kong audience even think it. Very few would notice the connotations of their relationship, no sniggering in the back row – nothing. What is one of the first things I thought? “wow, these guys..well I’m very happy for them”.
Take Brokeback Mountain. A story of two cowboys who actually are gay, and actually do fall in love and actually do make love. The director? Ang Lee – A Hong Kong director. Now even though he knew it was a story about two men who are gay, he directed much of their relationship like he would his own Cantonese films. For us Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had to be gay, explicitly. Imagine the whole film never actually admitting they were gay, say they didn’t have sex or kiss but the tension was still there. Wouldn’t you think – this is a bit gay? I would. Hong Kong wouldn’t.
It just goes to show how different our interpretations can be of themes in film and in gender. And though thankfully much of the western world is liberally accepting, thanks to Hollywood’s self created image of what the ideal man should be, masculinity in western cinema will seemingly always be – at its core – straight as a ruler.