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Hong Kong Film  
 
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When it comes to subjects, Hong Kong cinema has enjoyed, and perhaps has suffered from, a special historical and political position. On the one hand, Hong Kong is the inheritor of the traditional Chinese aesthetics of theatrical transvestism and . On the other hand, a Westernized, colonial Hong Kong had adopted both the of European culture and the only slightly lesser homophobia of neo-Confucianism.

As these various cultural and historical strands continued to intertwine in light of the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1991 and Hong Kong's reversion to China in 1997, filmmaking in Hong Kong eventually came to terms with, exploited, and often blurred the lines between Chinese traditions of gender ambiguity and Westernized "out" politics.

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The Opera-film

First, the tradition of the opera-film, a dominant genre of Hong Kong cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, had established a cinematic tradition of cross-dressing arguably more transgressive than any of the "out" queer films that came decades later.

Opera actresses such as Yam Kim-fai and Ivy Ling-boh starred in hundreds of stagey film versions of traditional operas such as The Purple Hairpin and Lady General Hua-Mulan, where they performed cross-dressed in heroic male roles.

Unlike the parody of a drag show, the Chinese opera audience is supposed fantastically to suspend its disbelief and accept whatever gender is being performed, suggesting that the "performativity" espoused by Western queer theory is not such a novel idea.

Years later, director Shu Kei's "out" lesbian film Hu-du-Men (1996) would provide a rich account of a Cantonese opera actress coping with her lesbian daughter, joining traditional and modern notions of Chinese queerness in the same family.

The New-Wave Period

The peak of Hong Kong's cinematic artistry is usually considered to be its new-wave period--from about 1977 to the early 1990s--when Western-schooled directors infused Hong Kong cinema with cosmopolitan technology and an eye for naturalism. Two basic trends during this era were the social realism exemplified by directors such as Ann Hui and Allen Fong and the wild, kaleidoscopic fantasies practiced by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung.

Neither of these trends, however, managed to engage queer subjects seriously, and when homosexuality did rear its head, it was framed within terms as homophobic as those of Hollywood during the same period, even in an "important" film such as Tsui Hark's political allegory Don't Play with Fire (1980).

Apart from the male bonding of the John Woo-style gangster film, the only legitimate appeals to queerness in the 1980s were references to homosexual patronage in films set in the world of Chinese opera, such as Sammo Hung's The Prodigal Son (1981), Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues (1986), and Jacob Cheung's Lai Shi: China's Last Eunuch (1988).

The one notable exception here is the work of Clarence Fok (aka Clarence Ford), whose On Trial (1980) stars a young Leslie Cheung in a blatantly homoerotic story of unrequited schoolboy longing, and whose seedy Before Dawn (1984) portrays the lethal relationship between an awkward young man and a gay killer.

In later, more liberated years, Fok would emerge as a cult director with the erotic lesbian thriller Naked Killer (1992), as well as Cheap Killers (1998), a rare genre film that positively portrays openly gay action heroes.

The 1990s Period Costume Film

In the early 1990s, producer-director Tsui Hark's obsession for commedia-dell'arte-style comedies of disguise would make cross-gender disguise and intrigue a standard part of the reinvented period costume film. Unlike the "permanent" cross-dressing of the traditional opera film, however, this new costume film would only involve diegetic cross-dressing, where we are fully aware that a character only cross-dresses to fulfill some purpose in the plot.

Usually, this involves a girl in disguise for reasons of self-interest (as in Shakespeare) in films such as Dragon Inn (1992), Magic Crane (1993), The Lovers (1994), and the Swordsman trilogy (1990-1993), which adds a supernaturally transgendered anti-hero(ine) to the mix.

Yet Tsui's treatment of his latently queer material is often coy, and many of the period martial arts films influenced by Tsui are more open about their transgressive possibilities. For example, frankly lesbian complications ensue between a disguised Josephine Siao and the woman who falls in love with her/him in Yuen Kwai's Fong Sai Yuk (1993), and campy homosexual kisses between top male stars highlight costume farces such as Wong Jing's Flying Dagger (1992) and Jeff Lau's Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993).

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