To coincide with the launch of the video commission project Hong Kong as Mise-en-scène, we asked Edmund Lee, film critic and journalist, to explore the essence of the term and what it means to filmmakers, critics, and audiences.
What do people mean when they talk about ‘mise-en-scène’?
Of the three Hong Kong filmmakers I have approached to chat briefly about this foundational notion in film and theatre studies for this introductory article, two began by volunteering, without prompting, to share their personal memories about the first time they had come across it instead: Kearen Pang (Mama’s Affair, 2022) in a French language class; Sunny Chan (Table for Six, 2022) during his school days at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Derived from French, where it means ‘to put on stage’ or ‘to put into the scene’, mise-en-scène has been used in English since the early 19th century to discuss visual style on stage and also, about a century later, in film. In theatre, it refers to the contents of the stage and their arrangement. In film, mise-en-scene covers the elements that we see in the frame and the way they are organised and in which we’re encouraged to perceive them. The audience is thus not only paying attention to the actors’ performances and the setting they’re in but also décor, props, lighting, costumes, and makeup.
The mise-en-scene in film differs from that in theatre as framing as well as the the camera’s position, and its movement, also dictate what viewers get to see.
What does mise-en-scène mean to critics?
Mise-en-scène has been made an indispensible part of serious film criticism since the 1950s, when critics such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer writing in French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma argued that the director, rather than the scriptwriter, is the true artist—or auteur—behind a film. A similar trend took place in Britain at the journal Movie in the 60s.
Treating the screenplay and dialogue as mere components of a film, these critics played up the directors’ role in realising their visions for the literary texts and giving expression to everything that is ultimately seen on screen. In this way, even genre films with relatively unremarkable stories, such as Howard Hawks’s Western Rio Bravo (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock’s horror thriller Psycho (1960), could be considered profound works of art if they displayed a mastery of mise-en-scène.
While it is no longer fashionable to insist on the director’s supreme role in shaping a film’s mise-en-scène the way the Cahiers writers did—in fact, cinematographers and production designers tend to have a big say on things—no self-respecting critic can afford to be oblivious to the concept’s importance in bridging a film’s visual style and meaning.
What does mise-en-scène mean to the audience?
It may seem like a daunting task for the uninitiated to comprehend mise-en-scène, a concept that appears to cover everything and yet nothing specific. Nevertheless, a basic understanding of it in relation to stage direction or filmmaking, as well as an interest in contemplating the relationship between all the elements that we see on stage or screen, serves as a fantastic starting point to rethink what, how, and sometimes even why we’re watching what we watch.
Viewers can approach a film or theatre work by trying to break it down to its elements, suggested Kearen Pang, a theatre actress and playwright who made her film-directing debut in 2017 with 29+1, a big-screen adaptation of her popular one-woman play. ‘It’s like when a gourmet cook can tell what’s in the food they’re having. Whereas a layperson can tell if they like their food, and whether it’s sweet or spicy, the gourmet knows the ingredients that combine to give it that particular taste,’ she said, explaining that, in a similar way, people who understand mise-en-scène ‘can put the focus on the backstage staff and how they produced the art piece’.
An example is Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (1997). Casual viewers may see a story about the plight of those at the grass-roots level living in and around a public housing estate, but students of mise-en-scène may simultaneously notice the cage-like blocking that is repeatedly employed in the film’s décor and camera placement to reflect its protagonists’ pervading sense of entrapment within a rapidly changing city.
Even seemingly cosmetic elements of mise-en-scène, like costume and makeup, can shape our perception of a film. The unnaturally bright costumes that the young single mother played by Angela Yuen wears in The Narrow Road (2022) provide sharp contrasts to the debt-ridden character’s drab everyday existence. Meanwhile, Nick Cheung’s prosthetic nose in the science-fiction blockbuster Warriors of Future (2022) immediately calls our attention to his character’s duplicitous nature.
Plenty of filmmakers like to offer visual motifs and cues as points of entry for the audience to understand their works on a deeper level. The excitement that comes with mise-en-scène analysis lies in the possibilities it entails: everyone is looking at the same screen, but a cineliterate person may have a better awareness of how the film is guiding their eyes to predetermined points of interest with its arrangement of lighting, staging, props, and so on, from shot to shot and from scene to scene.
What does mise-en-scène mean to filmmakers?
The Hong Kong film industry has come up with its fair share of distinctive uses of mise-en-scène over the decades, with Wong Kar Wai’s beautifully crafted romance dramas, Stephen Chow’s inventive martial arts comedies and Johnnie To’s deceptively straightforward crime thrillers being some examples.
It is, however, difficult to compare the output of modern-day Hong Kong cinema with textbook cases of mise-en-scène that people may have learned in film school, said Sunny Chan, a screenwriter who has recently become a top-grossing film director (Chan has also tried his hand at playwriting with the stage shows Table for Six and Yat-sen). He cited the childhood-flashback scene in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), a landmark example of depth of space, as a meticulously staged showcase of mise-en-scène that is rarely attempted by local filmmakers.
‘The awkward thing about Hong Kong films is that we don’t have [much] money for production. There’s never been much of a budget,’ he lamented with a chuckle. ‘So I’m having a hard time finding [local] examples of mise-en-scène that involve [elaborate] art design for both the foreground and background and that actually realises the full artistic potential of mise-en-scène in its various aspects. Even for someone as established as Johnnie To, he has to rely on actors, movement, and camera, while often shooting on the streets, [to achieve his desired results].’
Incidentally, it is the streets – as well as many other types of authentic, existing spaces in this city – that have gradually become the stars of Hong Kong cinema in recent years.
Hong Kong as mise-en-scène
While the locales of a film’s plot may not be intrinsically tied to their shooting locations, filmmakers in Hong Kong are becoming increasingly conscious of the link between mise-en-scène and the cultural identity of their home city.
Some directors, such as Soi Cheang in Limbo (2021), deliberately seek to capture the sights of soon-to-be-demolished architectures as unorthodox forms of historical preservation. Other filmmakers are finding ever more sentimental ways to write love letters to the city’s disappearing traditions, as the films Anita (2021) and A Light Never Goes Out (2022) did for Hong Kong’s once-iconic neon signs.
A litany of emerging filmmakers, meanwhile, have trained their cameras on modest neighbourhoods that were typically hidden away from the tourist gaze: Tuen Mun in Beyond the Dream (2019), Prince Edward in My Prince Edward (2019), Sham Shui Po in Drifting (2021), and Kam Tin in Lost Love (2022), just to name a few.
And as Hong Kong cinema slowly moves away from its long-held fixation on period martial arts spectacles and explosive crime thrillers to focus more on socially conscious human dramas, artificially constructed settings presented with handheld camerawork and frenetic editing are giving way to more serene and genuine observations of the look and feel of our cityscape.
Indeed, many of the so-called ‘non-places’—nondescript structures such as rooftops, footbridges, back alleys, tunnels, and elevators—have proven to be integral elements of the mise-en-scène of many recent local hits.
As the influential French critic André Bazin pointed out decades earlier, the different roles that mise-en-scène play in theatre and film are most noticeable in the way cinema can function without actors and hone in on the setting alone. It is, in a way, what Hong Kong filmmakers have been getting at when they seek to capture the urban textures of a city that is fast becoming unrecognisable, not just politically but also in its social and cultural fabrics.
For filmmaker Jessey Tsang, who has repeatedly turned her camera on her home village of Ho Chung in Sai Kung, this way of conceptualising mise-en-scène via one’s own feelings for a place comes naturally.
‘There’s a public square below a big tree in the village where I have lived for many years. As a villager and filmmaker, [I find] the mise-en-scène of that place through different eras is just the best there is,’ said Tsang, who has worked in both narrative and documentary films, including the newly premiered Winter Chants, as well as new media works, such as virtual reality installations.
The square in her village used to be frequented by elderly women when Tsang was a child, and chickens were raised right on the field, she recalled. The place has since turned into a playground for children, particularly while schools were shut during the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Same space, different times—that constantly changing mise-en-scène is a film in itself, a drama in itself,’ Tsang added.
Mise-en-scène, for all its complicated interpretations and critical baggage, can sometimes be as simple as that.
M+ is proud to present Hong Kong as Mise-en-scène, a video commission project that invites local artists to showcase their creative visions by exploring Hong Kong through an experimental, cinematic lens. The result is a series of thought-provoking videos that capture the complexities and rich visual texture of Hong Kong.
Image at top: Still from Lo Chun-yip's Lifting. Commissioned by M+, 2023