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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Made in Hong Kong

It seems the BBC loved TV Hell so much they couldn't bear to finish it. Their current drama output is Trainer, Eldorado, House of Elliot and Eastenders. A whole season in hell. Spare a thought for the TV critic who can't find anything to watch. At least not in this country. In Hong Kong, it is a different matter.

The capital of Capital is glued to a series of late-night films called The Mysteries of Hong Kong. The format is loosely that of the old Twilight Zone; the production values are low - a lot of hand-held video, synthesiser music and actors bawling their lines, but the stories have emptied the busiest streets in the world, night after night.

Sometimes, of course, low production values can be a plus. One episode - 'Welcome to the House of Fun'--looks and sounds like it was shot on a domestic camcorder. It opens with the comic image of lots of dads ushering their children into a theme park while videoing them, getting them to act out their pleasure at arriving, to look frightened in front of the plaster cast of Godzilla and so on.

The camera pays special attention to one child and we deduce that we are seeing the video playback of one of these dads. The only dialogue is his comically loud muttering about the condition of his batteries and the instructions he gives his child. There is then a scene inside an adventure playground where the father is shouting to the child to come down the slide, into shot. The child does not appear. The camera goes off for a while. Then comes back up on a similar scene. The child has still not appeared.

Gradually you become aware of the fact that the adventure playground is full of fathers shouting for their children and that none of the children is appearing. The picture is inverted as our cameraman runs round looking for his kid, forgetting to turn the monitor off. From this bizarre point of view we (but not he) see a child in a ball pool screaming first with pleasure, then with fear as it is dragged down by an unseen assailant.

The story is a straight retelling of a modern urban myth - the story of the systematic kidnapping of children from Disneyland. But the camcorder technique gives it visceral urgency something like the inserts in British true crime programmes. It makes it look real, which is the point of an urban myth - the teller always insists that it happened to their aunty Lou.

The interesting thing about this story is the emphasis it puts on the uselessness of the fathers. They are too preoccupied with their toy camcorders (which they don't even use that well) to look after their children properly and so their children disappear. Of course, people in horror films often act in a stupid way (I think there's a prowler in the cellar: I'll just go down there with a candle in my nightie, to be on the safe side), but here stupidity and uselessness is not just a device for getting the characters into danger. It is almost the subject of the film. The moment where we see the child disappear but the hero does not is one of exquisitely painful impotence for the audience. We know that the person with whom we are being asked to identify ourselves will never unravel the mystery. It makes you want to get up on the screen yourself. The painful pleasure of 'society as spectacle' is never more apparent than when you find yourself shouting 'he's behind you!' at someone who cannot hear.

Like all urban myths, the disappearing child expresses and exploits real anxieties and guilts. And Hong Kong has got plenty to be anxious and guilty about. When the rest of the communist world has gone capitalist, this jewel in the capitalist crown is about to go communist. While worrying loudly about Chinese civil liberties, it is itself keeping people penned up in prison camps and pushing refugees out to sea. It's not surprising therefore that most episodes of The Mysteries of Hong Kong deal with conspiracies and invasions and dramatise a sense of panicky impotence.

The most extraordinary example of this is the wonderful 'Zombie Chicken Eaters'. This deals with the Hong Kong equivalent of a new man, who, in response to a TV documentary, decides to go demi-veg. He starts to eat a lot of chicken, no red meat and no fish. He was already pretty gentle but now he becomes positively feminine, becoming the chief cook and carer in the house, to the unease of his wife. She shares her anxieties at the hairdressers and we learn that half the population of Hong Kong is having the same curious experience. When she gets home, her husband has developed a pair of breasts. As have all the other men in Hong Kong.

A government scientist discovers that the cause of all this is the high dosage of oestrogen in the (factory-farmed) chickens. It is assumed that this is an accident but it turns out to be the result of a conspiracy led by a kind of evil Bernard Matthews who seeks to destroy the world by turning all the men into women. His assistants are all female. He will be the only source of human sperm left on the whole planet, a good monopoly to have. Apparently sales of chicken plummeted when this episode went out, and Chris Patten found himself once again in an administration threatened by the condition of chickens. Once again the main theme of food anxiety is the feeling of impotence. In the consumer society, individuals have choice but no control, even over something as fundamental as the contents of the food they put in their mouths.

In all of the stories, Hong Kong is seen as a mesmerised victim. There are no heroes and few solutions. It is interesting how often these broad fears are linked with sexual insecurity. The case of 'The Zombie Chicken Eaters' is an obvious example. Another comes in the bizarre 'Exposure of the 50-Foot Bastard'. This is about a man who beats up his wife. She works in a chemical factory. She steals some growth hormone, meaning to make herself strong enough to hit back. He eats it by mistake and becomes a colossus.

The story has a gruesome, Swiftian wit. The huge man is constantly hungry and thus becomes grotesquely dependant on his wife. His secret crime is exposed to a respectable neighbourhood and he is disgraced. The other thing that is exposed, however, is his genitalia. There are no clothes that will fit him and it thus becomes clear to all that, even now that they have grown, they are disproportionately small. The film suggests that this is the root of his trouble. In a scene of vicious tragi-comedy, he is laughed out of rage and into submission by a crowd of female neighbours. It's the bluntest, frankest and most disturbing expression of the most basic male anxiety I have ever seen. The Mysteries of Hong Kong uses B-movie material to explore and exorcise a whole range of shared nightmares in a way that makes most British TV 'realism' look like compensatory fantasy.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992

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