Hues on a Shell: Cyber-Dystopia and the Hong Kong Façade in the Cinematic City

Sze Hang Kwok, Anneke Coppoolse

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


This article considers the (re)production of Hong Kong’s urban space in cyberpunk cinema, specifically in the American interpretation (2017) of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995). How Chinatowns and Asian cities have inspired cyberpunk environments in both literature (e.g. Neuromancer 1984, Snow Crash 1992) and film (e.g. Blade Runner 1982, Ghost in the Shell 1995) has been extensively explored (e.g. Bruno 1987, Doel and Clarke 1997, Wong 2004). Asian urbanities have fed imaginations about density, verticality, and alienation. Wong (2004, 100) argues that, as filmic configurations of urban futures, Asian cities can be seen as prototypes of what capitalist world cities might become (King 1990 in Wong 2004, 100). Davis (2010, 140) points out, however, that while these cinematic cities signal certain Asian mobility, imaginaries of high-tech futures in the cyberpunk genre particularly emphasise the dark side of life, presenting grubby alleyways, shady business, and images the like.

From William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013), rampant hypermodernity has been presented in a dystopian fashion that involves not only stories about the dark sides of life but also visual narratives about neon-lit and significantly vertical façades. This article considers urban Hong Kong, in these narratives, to be both an actor and a shell—not much different from Ghost in the Shell’s Major character and her cybernetic body. In film, the city is not represented but reframed as “a body with a ghost”: in cyberpunk film specifically, it is reframed as a shell patched with lights and shadows, encapsulating the soul (or what is left of it) of a place. The cyberpunk city is not a copy of a “real” city but rather a particular rendering of a city that is already a simulation.

James Tweedie (2010) stated with reference to Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) that “[t]he neon sign is where the city begins to assume the form of cinema”. Although he subsequently argues that, today, neon in the “city of spectacle” is rather a fragment from another time and “the future of the city is no longer written in neon” (Tweedie 2010), the dystopian city of the future is significantly and persistently neon-lit. The dystopian city of the future is a patchwork of recycled images—a pastiche, as Bruno (1989) argues. Taking on the position that the cinematic city is not just a context or an image, but also a body and a ghost, this article articulates how, via Oshii’s visual elaborations in the 1995 anime, the American adaptation has produced another kind of future city; a future city that finds both resemblance and misconception in the everyday experience of Hong Kong as a “shell” that is both familiar and unfamiliar (Abbas 1997). This article, thus, reiterates the exchange between film and the city towards a story about spectacle and contemporary urban experience.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWiderScreen Journal
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


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