This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Sarah Perks following her introduction to Portland Street Blues at HOME on April 7th, 2016.
Portland Street Blues was released in 1998, just after the handing back (or handover as it’s known) of British rule to Chinese in July 1997. By the end of the 1990s however the film industry is not a healthy one, it’s been in steady decline since the ‘golden years’ of the 1980s. Piracy, an uncertain future and the increasing mainland China industry were some of the largest factors behind the bust, with only a few keys films and auteurs standing out in the 1990s – mostly those dealing with the handover such as Wong Kar-wai and Fruit Chan. It might be argued in difficult times – both financially and politically – an industry will stick to its tried and tested formulas – one of those being crime thriller in Hong Kong.
Another tried and tested formula for the Hong Kong industry is the series, or many sequels and then some prequels, they don’t even have to be related narratively. Portland Street Blues is an official spin-off from Young and Dangerous, but it benefits the film that it has its own name, and you won’t miss anything by not having seen any of the other twelve Young and Dangerous films or spin offs.
The superbly titled Young and Dangerous (Y&D) cycle – originally a comic book strip – were hugely popular in Hong Kong from the first edition in 1995, recycling the triad genre for the post-modern generation X. Whereas art films focused on achingly slow beautiful scenes with heavyweight actors to explore the political changes, popular cinema like Young and Dangerous (Y&D) quickly chucked together a group of heart-throb model/cantopop stars and had them machete each other down a dark and doomed Mongkok side street (Portland Street of course is in Mongkok). One of the superstars made by the series, long-haired lovely Ekin Cheng pops back up towards the end of Portland, this was the BIG SURPRISE when people originally watched it but I’m really not plot spoiling here. Sandra Ng’s character Sister Thirteen appears briefly in the series, giving the Y&D creators this idea.
An uncredited entry on Wikipedia even states, “And because of its incredible success [Y&D], it is said to have made many youngsters at that time fond of the triad life, thus making teens throughout Asia join the triads”
Household name Sandra Ng stars as Sister Thirteen – a veteran of over 30 years and over 100 films – is better known to audiences for comedy, most recent the Golden Chickens series (2012 onwards). Portland Street Blues was pivotal to her career, changing audiences’ minds about her just being a comedy actress enabling her to become respected for dramas such as Echoes of the Rainbow. Sandra Ng is also the long-term partner of well-known Hong Kong film director Peter Chan, another figure who moves between popular and independent filmmaking. There’s a strong cast of well-known actors in this film including actress Shu Qi from The Assassin.
In ‘Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade’, academic Andrew Grossman discusses the representation of homosexuality in film: “The archetypally butch/femme characterisations of Portland’s female characters posit this film somewhere between martial genres and Eurocentric performative theory/constructions.” However, this could probably be true of much Hong Kong cinema and its obvious tension between conventions of East and West. Sister Thirteen is the only gay character in the Y&D series, and of course, she is adopting traditionally masculine modes of appearance to rise to the top of the near-exclusively male gangster world (might she have had to become a man regardless of her sexuality? Is this possibly a performance?).
With this being a Hong Kong Crime film I suspect it might not even matter, but what is interesting is a homosexual character – or bisexual (hinted at in the film) –in the lead role of a popular mainstream triad film in a fairly conservative society such as Hong Kong. Whilst cinema there has legendary ‘sex and violence’ category 3 films, those films tend to actually be very socio-politically traditional in their values and of course, in their gender roles. The year before this film came out Wong Kar-wai made the celebrated Happy Together – with Leslie Cheung and Tong Leung as the lead gay couple – though this wasn’t actually widely seen in the territory, it was more of a darling of the international art house circuit and festivals.
To return to Andrew Grossman’s quote about the film and the performance of her sexuality – ignoring the East/West opposition – there are some questionable plot devices, particularly in the flashbacks parts of the story and at the end. At best this could be complex characterisation, at worst the suggestion of performing a butch lesbian to be able to be a gang leader.
A few raised eyebrow moments aside, this is a very engaging crime film with a strong female lead, and fairly fresh in terms of representation of homosexuality (remember gay marriage is still not legal in Hong Kong, though it’s actually a fairly gay friendly society) and there’s never enough female gangster-leads on screen so we should applaud that this is standing up to the test of time. If nothing else, it’s the visual pleasure of seeing a strong woman against some ineffectual, misogynistic, homophobic gangsters.