The other night I watched a decent Hong Kong police film called Mad Detective, directed by Johnnie To and his frequent collaborator, Wai Ka Fai (I have not seen any of Wai’s other films, or other To-Wai collaborations, but Mad Detective seemed to be lacking in the rich sense of place that one finds in To masterpieces like Election and Vengeance). Now, the plot of Mad Detective is ridiculously convoluted (perhaps even… maddening?! No, not really, but it’s not our concern here), but it includes an Indian who has a series of run-ins with the Hong Kong police. All the Hong Kong cops just call him “the Indian,” although we briefly get to see his name—Something Sharma—on a police report. But he doesn’t get to be a real person. He’s only there so that the Hong Kong police force has something to shoot at.
This reminded me of the gangster sequences in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express (1994) and its companion film, Fallen Angels (1995), where a remarkable number of Indians get slaughtered in cavalier fashion by Wong’s cool, Delonesque hit(wo)men. And it occurred to me: My God, Indians in Hong Kong movies are like black people in Hollywood movies. Hong Kong’s Indians are like Samuel L. Jackson in 1989’s Sea of Love, which is now remembered exclusively for its end titles, where Jackson is credited as “Black Guy.” Now, granted, my sample size of Hong Kong movies where Indians get killed is currently three (the To-Wai movie and the two Wong movies), so I don’t know if Hong Kong’s history of cinematic Indiocide is as extensive as Hollywood’s slaughter of black people. But Hollywood, for all its faults (which I like to reference from time to time in this blog) has at least evolved enough to occasionally give black people real roles, where their characters actually get names.
The casual racism of these Hong Kong movies (and much though I admire Wong and To, that’s what it is) contrasts instructively with the depiction of Bangladeshis in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) (and I know that Indians and Bangladeshis are from different countries, but they’re sister countries, and Partition was a bad idea anyway, but that’s a different topic). Tsai’s film depicts his recurring character Xiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) darkly drifting through a rain-soaked Kuala Lumpur (Tsai was born and raised in Malaysia before his family immigrated to Taiwan). Xiao-Kang ends up getting beaten up and left for dead by gangsters, but he is rescued by a group of Bangladeshi migrant workers, one of whom (Norman Atun) takes it upon himself to nurse Xiao-Kang back to health and develops an intense, wordless relationship with him. Now, admittedly, the Bangladeshi doesn’t get a name, but this is a Tsai Ming-liang movie, so people rarely have names, and even when they do, those names rarely get spoken. I don’t think Lee’s character actually gets called Xiao-Kang in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (I know that he never speaks in the film) but because Lee basically plays the same characters in every Tsai movie, and because we know that that character has previously been known as Xiao-Kang, it is safe to assume that this character is Xiao-Kang, and that he’s ended up in Malaysia somehow. But anyway, nameless or not, the Bangladeshi saves Xiao-Kang’s life, and then gets to have a homoerotic flirtation with him.
So when Tsai came to an ethnically diverse country like Malaysia, he saw in its diversity an opportunity for rich interpersonal exchanges, in which people’s common humanity transcended the trivial distinctions of nationality and ethnicity (typically foisted upon individuals by demagogues anyway). Hopefully the Hong Kong filmmakers can come to see a similar opportunity in Hong Kong’s Indian minority population.
Post-Script: Like I said, my sample size here is three. If someone knows of a Hong Kong film that depicts Indians as complex human beings, please let me know in the comments.