Posted: 10/14/2007


Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong

by Martha P. Nochimson

Reviewed by Del Harvey

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Among the many books on gangster and crime films can be added the title Dying to Belong by Martha P. Nochimson. Ms. Nochimson’s book presents an interesting take on the subject as she looks not only at the genre within American film, but also within other cultures, most notably the Asian film. She delves into the recent reflections visible in the works of Asian directors from so many years of American influence. Of course, the greatest connection between our films and theirs are in the genre of crime and action, as shown in the popularity of such American remakes of Asian films including Infernal Affairs, which was remade here in the U.S. as The Departed.

Dying to Belong offers a unique look at the complex and fascinating genre of the gangster movie. Across the world, gangster films are often mistakenly viewed as an inferior and immoral—even dangerous—type of entertainment. By examining a broad range of films spanning several decades, Martha Nochimson deftly illustrates the darker, more substantial themes of dislocation and disorientation which define true gangster films. From Little Caesar and The Godfather to The Sopranos, the gangster’s tale is that of an immigrant outsider looking in. The shock the gangster film delivers is not just in its physical violence, but in its perspective on the confusing and illusory promises of upward social mobility given to newcomers in Hollywood and Hong Kong. Here, classic screen traditions are explored using a new definition of the gangster genre. Offering no excuses for gangster behavior, Dying to Belong nevertheless highlights the disturbing resemblances of these “wild, bad men” to the straight citizens of two immigrant nations, in what is sure to be a controversial analysis of films that have historically been dismissed as part of a frivolous action genre.

The author is Associate Editor of Cineaste Magazine, and the author of the books No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject (1993), The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997), and Screen Couple Chemistry: the Power of 2 (2002).

Ms. Nochimson’s book begins with a new definition of the gangster film and a challenging exploration of the Hong Kong and Hollywood screen traditions. Her work challenges existing definitions of Hong Kong and Hollywood gangster genres and illuminates the way gangster films deal with the ambiguities of modern life, correcting the notion that the genre is inconsequential sensationalism. Her work also contends that both American and Hong Kong gangster films are against-the-grain reactions to the central fable of modern democracies that promise immigrant, and other, outsiders that they can become social insiders. In presenting her case, she draws upon a range of American films, ranging from Public Enemy and Scarface to Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, and The Godfather. Ms. Nochimson also explores a number of Hong Kong’s 21st century gangster films, including Andrew Lau’s great trilogy, Infernal Affairs, and Election and Election 2, directed by Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To. The book concludes with an exclusive interview with The Sopranos’ creator, David Chase, at a most advantageous time, as the series draws its final breath on the small screen.

For fans of the gangster and crime film, whether Asian or American, Dying to Belong is an absorbing study into the history and movement of the genre, as well as an attempt to better understand the attraction and appeal of these films across cultures. Recommended.

From Blackwell Publishing Limited and available for purchase here.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a screenwriter and filmmaker, and currently teaches film and video at Columbia College Chicago.

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