In my previous blog I discussed how Black Mask referenced several film styles including film noir, cops and robbers action, war films, science fiction, and horror as well as giving a nod in the direction of erotica (while keeping firmly on the right side of a middle of the road film classification all the while).
All of these genres could be described as being tough and looking at the darker side of life in one way or the other. This is interesting as set alongside the sleazier or more brutalizing images in the film are scenes depicting innocence and vulnerability. The film’s main theme is centred on what it means to have feeling, in a physical and emotional sense. In essence, the film seems to be asking what it means to be human.
In a film that explores humanity and feeling, the depiction of relationships becomes especially important. The main protagonist of the film, Tsui Chik (played by Jet Li) is a nerdy librarian, shy and aloof and described as “that piece of wood” by another character. However, Tsui Chik, robbed of the ability to feel physical sensation and pain in the same freak science experiment that created the film’s villains, Squad 701, moonlights as superhero Black Mask. We are shown Tsui Chik involved in 3 relationships in the film – his friendship with Inspector Shek (Lau Ching Wan), his friendship with (perhaps potential love interest) Tracy (Karen Mok), and his comradeship with Squad 701 member (and his former student) Leuk Yan (Francoise Yip). Tsui Chik is able to experience different emotional pulls and levels of intimacy with these 3 people and this helps to show the film’s audience the complexity of his situation.
Having left Squad 701, Tsui Chik is determined to find a way to heal his cauterized nerves and to take his place in the ‘normal’ world as a feeling adult. Robbed by any sense of danger because of his inability to feel physical pain, he finds himself disconnected from the human condition. Tsui Chik is shown gingerly groping his way through even rudimentary interactions – socially he is a novice or a child in a man’s body. His friend, he-man Inspector Shek, gives him lots of pep talks and the odd punch (it’s a guy thing, I suppose) in order to make Tsui Chik grow up and toughen up. I get the impression that Shek finds Tsui Chik to be curiously underdeveloped in some ways, and he has obviously instinctively picked up on Tsui Chik’s sense of disconnection from the ‘real’ world inhabited by Shek. For all that there are hints of romantic attraction between Tsui Chik and the 2 main female characters, the most fleshed out relationship in this film is between Tsui Chik and Shek. Early in the film there is a little moment of humour when Tsui Chik’s fellow librarians assume that he and Shek are gay lovers (I suppose they perceive the brutish looking Shek as Bear Daddy to the preppy Tsui Chik). But a series of good dialogue scenes throughout the movie add up to a depiction of genuine platonic affection between these 2 men. Although he has a lot of secrets to keep from Shek, this is one character that Tsui Chik has managed a sense of connection with.
Unaware that his friend is really the action supremo Black Mask, Shek views his friend as an innocent at risk in a tough world. Another innocent in the movie is the librarian Tracy, a serial dater who is toying with the idea of making a play for her shy colleague Tsui Chik. Tracy is depicted as being a sort of child woman. She sports Shirley Temple curls, is girlishly thin and some of her body language and movement is gawky and unsophisticated. Her child like status is confirmed by her failures to become involved in a romantic relationship, her botched attempts at cooking, her delight in playing video games, and her treating violence as a game when she is shown shooting at bottles with a nail gun. Unfortunately, this childishness is also signaled by Karen Mok’s irritatingly whining, squealing delivery of Tracy’s dialogue. Tracy’s response to Tsui Chik is a response to the softer, more innocent and emotionally vulnerable side of this divided man. She sees him as a socially naïve geek to be corralled into a dating relationship through giggling overtures in the library aisles and the presentation of a birthday cake in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Tsui Chik is determined to keep distance between himself and his colleagues at the library. He knows that any relationship with him will bring his colleagues into proximity with Squad 701. Cruelly, therefore, on an emotional level, Tsui Chik has learnt that friendship and intimacy with him is dangerous and inadvisable. However, fate decrees that Black Mask must step in to carry Tracy away from the clutches of Squad 701 and house her in his hideaway. Lack of awareness of the larger situation makes Tracy a reluctant guest and Black Mask ends up shackling her. The strong man dominating the little lady, all for her own good, was a hoary old romantic cliché by the time even Barbara Cartland got to it. The twist is that although Black Mask has physically imposed himself on Tracy, she ends up imposing intimacy on him. Tracy helps heal Black Mask’s injuries at one stage and ends up winning his trust to the extent that he reveals his true identity to her. The very final scene of the film shows Tsui Chik bidding farewell to Shek and Tracy, who, by this stage, know that he is Black Mask. Black Mask’s victory is that he has defeated Squad 701. Tsui Chik’s victory is that he has been able to trust 2 friends with his greatest secret.
If Tracy is one side of the ledger, on the other is Leuk Yan, who could be said to be a portrait of innocence lost. This Squad 701 member has, like the rest of her Squad, responded to her unnatural physicality by giving herself over to criminality, violence and sleaze. She attempts to recruit Tsui Chik to Squad 701’s cause, and she represents what Tsui Chik could easily let himself be if he abandons his moral compass. One of Leuk Yan and Tsui Chik’s dialogue scenes together takes place with them watching a school yard full of children playing. Leuk Yan reminds Tsui Chik that he encouraged her to be a warrior and that they both can never return to living a normal life due to their experiences as members of Squad 701. Tsui Chik’s face as he talks to Leuk Yan and watches the children is infinitely sad. The children represent a state of innocence that he is now forever excluded from.
A signature image depicting the past relationship between Leuk Yan and Tsui Chik, when Leuk Yan was a soldier in training and Tsui Chik her coach, shows them dangling in mid-air during a training exercise gone wrong, with Tsui Chik preventing Leuk Yan from falling by grasping her hand. Tsui Chik has saved Leuk Yan’s life, and during the movie he is shown trying to save her moral life. The footage of Tsui Chik grasping a falling Leuk Yan’s hand is a symbol of his determination not to let her fall into the abyss, either physically or spiritually. Tragically, he fails and Leuk Yan unwaveringly follows the course set out for her by Squad 701’s commander (Patrick Lung Kong). This commander is ultimately responsible for her death, shooting her when she disobeys an order. She falls to her death after the shot, and a grasping Tsui Chik cannot reach her to save her this time. Her corrupt Commander has already played his part in facilitating her fall from moral grace, and he has no compunction in shooting her and sending her body toppling to her death. The order that Leuk Yan disobeys is to shoot Tsui Chik. At the last moment she relents and remembers his loyalty to her and rediscovers a little humanity. Both Leuk Yan and Tsui Chik have been damaged by their participation in soldiery, but some small sense of human connection prevails and stays Leuk Yan’s trigger finger when she has Tsui Chik in her sights. This is evidence that the disconnected Tsui Chik is capable of connecting meaningfully and lastingly with other people.
A theme that connects the characters of Tsui Chik, Shek, Tracy and Leuk Yan is that of rescue. These characters are often seen rescuing each other, and who is being rescued by who swaps around. Shek takes it on himself to rescue his nerdy little friend Tsui Chik by beating up thugs who threaten him and taking on the big brother role of trying to toughen him up. Black Mask spends the film aiding the police force and Inspector Shek’s cause, and at the end saves Shek from being blown up. Black Mask rescues Tracy from Squad 701, and then Tracy steals blood from the hospital to help heal an injured Black Mask. Tsui Chik saves Leuk Yan’s life during their training exercise in Squad 701 and intervenes on her behalf with the police. After a betrayal, Leuk Yan relents and chooses not to kill Black Mask when she could easily do so. As these characters swap the role of rescuer and ‘rescuee’, so too do they experience shifts in levels of dependency and vulnerability. The actions taken by these characters allow them to develop bonds in ways the dialogue does not articulate.
Black Mask / Tsui Chik is, physically, exactly the same as Squad 701but morally they are worlds apart. 701 have responded to their abnormal physicality with a sense of nihilism and have collapsed into their outsider status. As fighters, they have been physically enhanced but they are morally and psychologically disabled. The level of brutality they operate at, just because they can, has made them inhuman. Tsui Chik clings onto his humanity. The Black Mask comes across as a cartoon figure perpetrating outlandish cartoon violence, but his response to his freak physicality is to consciously and determinedly seek re-entry into a world of pain. He knows that this is necessary if he is to reconnect with normal humanity, and this is actually a very adult response coming from this cartoon hero.
To be human is to be to be vulnerable, to open yourself up to intimacy, to risk being hurt. Once you lose your innocence you harden, you lose your feeling, and potentially with this you lose the capacity to be affected (even hurt) by the world around you. The loss of emotional innocence and feeling is conflated with the loss of physical feeling in this film. Squad 701 have had their nerves cauterised in order to turn them into fighters with extra endurance and ruthlessness in a combat situation. But this makes them monstrous – reckless with their own safety they disregard the physical wellbeing of others and are capable of especially brutal actions during their missions. In one scene, we see their commander looking through a book of renaissance art while he is chatting with the members of his squad after euthanizing a disabled soldier. The Commander rips out a page showing a pieta image and drops it into a pool of water. Is this a rejection of traditional nurturing values, or the values of a civilised society? Squad 701 have responded to their outsider status by exploiting their unusual physical state by becoming arch criminals. Tsui Chik, alone, resists the pull to do this. He responds to his unnatural outsider status by becoming Black Mask some of the time, and a mild mannered librarian the rest. His heroic status is confirmed by Black Mask’s campaign against Squad 701. In the very final fight scene, Black Mask finally removes his mask and reveals Tsui Chik’s face. This divided character becomes whole again, briefly, when he comes face to face with his nemesis, the vampiric Commander Hung. Is it too much to assume that Black Mask / Tsui Chik has chosen to face up to, and refute, the shadow side of his peculiar physical state by choosing to fight the immoral Squad 701 face to face?
In a more mature and considered light perhaps Tsui Chik’s quieter moral heroism extends to the fact that he chooses to live his life in confusion for a while. He opens himself up to the uncertainties and discomforts of his situation, doing the best he can by compartmentalising different sides of his personality into 2 different alter egos while he muddles through his researches into finding a way of curing himself. And the success of his cure? Ironically it will be manifested when he can feel pain. Tsui Chik’s increase in physical vulnerability will signal an increase in emotional feeling. He will be able to re-join the human race and participate fully.