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An essay by Professor of English Sidney Sondergard and Will Collins '05 will be published in an issue of the journal Studies in the Humanities later in 2006.

The essay, titled "Young and Dangerous(ly Traditional): Reading Guangong and the Act of Obeisance in Hong Kong Films Since 1986," resulted from research on the figure of Guangong conducted by Sondergard, Collins and Lucas Buckingham '04 during field work in China - supported by a Freeman Foundation grant - in June of 2004.

An excerpt from the essay follows:

"The cycle of Triad/gangster films that began with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986), a cycle with roots in the literary tradition of the sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and the shui hu zhuan (The Water Margins) as well as in the reality of Triad presence in the business end of the Hong Kong cinema industry, has since expanded into a discrete cinema genre sometimes characterized as 'Triad Boyz or rascal movies' (Stokes and Hoover 86). The genre paradoxically portrays the criminality of young men and women who are simultaneously presented as essentially Confucian in their affirmation of filial piety, justice for the vulnerable, and exemplary leadership. Yet the ubiquitous visual cue of righteousness and traditional values within this genre - that also celebrates rebellion and independence regardless of the legality of characters' actions - as the iconic act of obeisance to the deified Guan Yu (166-220 C.E.). This image figures prominently at the site of on-screen shrines, public and private, in Hong Kong films as the cultural product of semiotic coding that conflates values associated with all four facets of Guan as a cultural sign. Guan Yu is the historical general who served Liu Bei and the political aims of the kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 C.E.); Guan Yunchang (Guan Yu's style name, reserved for use by intimate friends), the oath brother of Liu Bei (Xuande) and Zhang Fei (Yide), is the literary figure glorified in Luo Guangzhong's sanguo yanyi as an exemplar of loyalty and of warrior skill; Guandi is the imperial title conferred on Guan Yu by Ming emperor Wanli in 1614, also designating him a deified figure, the god of war, though Guandi is now frequently conflated with Caishen, the god of cash; and Guangong ('Lord Guan'), who is a synthesis of the other three, an apotheosis of the moral and martial ideals modeled in the sanguo yanyi.

"In the following essay, we will explicate this dual nature of the Guangong icon and its implications as an adaptive cultural signifier in Hong Kong Triad and gangster films. Showing it to be multivalent in its potential for communicating non-verbally to audiences the qualities of police officers and of conventionally 'good' characters, as well as the values of Triad members and other associates of the criminal underworld, we will demonstrate that its narrative function is essentially metaphorical rather than merely iconographical. The presence of Guangong effigies and shrines in Hong Kong films is less an endorsement of the values associated with Guan Yu per se than an index of how individual characters who do obeisance to Guangong - or who feign obeisance - are to be interpreted within their discrete film narratives. The appearance of the Guan icon, no matter how fleeting, always functions as a cultural referent that cues the audience how to decode particular character motives. Long before a film's final delivery of exposition or of plot denouement, its network of character interactions with, or juxtaposed with, Guan images (e.g., in terms of proxemics as well as of specific contact/rejection) provides the interpretive key to audience members wishing to read the hearts of protagonists and antagonists."

Posted: March 1, 2006

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