This week Tony traveled to Hong Kong, where he palled around with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, visited Chungking Mansions, and ate at some of the city’s iconic dai pai dongs. Comedian Jennifer Neal and Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Nathan Thornburgh recap the episode.
Nathan Thornburgh: Jennifer. Hello. Let’s proceed to smoke weed.
Jennifer Neal: I hope you brought it, because I didn’t.
Thornburgh: No, no, that was a line from this episode, when Tony was in the boat, headed to Tai O Fishing Village. He hands Christopher Doyle a camera and says, “Let’s proceed … to smoke weed.” I think it’s my new favorite way of saying, “Action.”
Neal: That’s right. I remember now.
Thornburgh: So I have a lot of thoughts. But first, you. What did you think of this episode?
Neal: The first thing I thought was, Hong Kong? Is that really Parts Unknown? It seems like a place a lot of people are very familiar with. So I was really curious as to how you would approach this city, because I think it’s been done a million times before.
Thornburgh: I was thinking about that. Maybe that’s why it’s kind of tucked in, like, midseason, even though this episode feels like it should be on the podium. I’m making a prediction. This is the Emmy episode. This is gonna be the winner.
Neal: Are we taking bets here?
Thornburgh: I’m sure we can do with some Emmys betting on PaddyPower.com. Give me the f***ing Over on Hong Kong winning an Emmy, because this episode just blew me away.
Neal: OK, I’ll bite. What about it blew you away?
Thornburgh: The combination of the personal take, going into the teeth of a very known destination, as you said., and just the filming of it—the mix of nostalgia and sentimentality in a very unsentimental place. The tracking shots, the Cantonese version of “House of the Rising Sun” … man.
Neal: A lot going on in this one. What about at the beginning, when Tony opened up with this very vulnerable, emotional letter?
Thornburgh: Let me ask you, as a civilian, did you get the “falling in love with Asia” reference there?
Neal: That’s what I was going to ask. Was he referring to his girlfriend, Asia Argento?
Thornburgh: Seems so. Her name is pronounced Ah-sia in Italian, not Ay-sia, but it’s her. And she’s not just his girlfriend. She’s a film director, and she is the director on this episode as well. The scheduled director fell ill, so she was a late addition. You can see her in at least one of those meta, behind-the-camera shots. It’s part of why I’m really digging this episode. It’s like there are Easter eggs throughout, starting with the intro. You don’t need to be a deep Bourdain subreddit follower to know that they’re dating. And the timing—this episode coming out so soon after that speech she detonated at Cannes. Did you see it?
Neal: Yes, I did. Ava DuVernay was right next to her. And you can see the men in the audience squirm. Incredible.
Thornburgh: So, yeah. I think Tony loves all the episodes he’s made this season. But this one is special. You see it. He’s nearly giggling when Christopher Doyle shows up. You can tell this is bucket list stuff.
Neal: This episode of Hong Kong is what happens when you’ve reached that point in your career where you don’t have to do things just because they’re popular. You can do things because you’re interested in them personally. Like cinematographers.
Thornburgh: You can tell it’s a little about keeping his head in the game, to stay interested in all these places. I’m always trying to soak up these little life lessons from him. He’s not one to give advice. He doesn’t want to be anybody’s wise uncle. But just watching him follow his North Star on the shit he’s fascinated by and make art around his peculiar set of interests—it’s inspiring.
Neal: There was a lot of that in this episode.
Thornburgh: And I dug how they made the making of the episode a plot device, almost. They could have had Christopher Doyle shoot the thing and just given him credits. But instead you see Tony handing him a camera on the boat, and it feels like, all of a sudden, the saturation goes through the roof. You’ve got yellows and greens and fluorescent blues, this very Blade Runner color palette, which is there if you look for it in Hong Kong. And then all the meta-filmmaking shots, like the one where he’s like resetting the scene in Chungking Mansions.
Neal: I didn’t know that Asia directed it, but I knew I was very captivated by how it was shot. The same with the photography behind it. And it reminded me very much of Gaspar Noé in that way.
Thornburgh: Yes, that’s a great catch. You get an A in film nerd class.
Neal: I was thinking about that movie Enter the Void that he made in Tokyo. The highlighted colors they use in Hong Kong, especially the shots of the open stall food markets were very reminiscent of that style.
Thornburgh: I also thought the theme—the nostalgia—was really right on here. The Perfect Dish series that you and I appeared in took me to Hong Kong last year, and I remember being in one of those iconic wet markets—fish getting their heads cleaved, slabs of meat flying around—and my friend was saying they’re going extinct. Like, her grandmother shops here because it reminds her of the early days, but she does all her shopping at the supermarket.
Neal: So how did you feel watching this episode, compared to your experiences there?
Thornburgh: There was a moment from Chris Doyle—who’s very funny, much more frenetic than I had pictured him—talking about filmmaking, and he asks, “What does a chile taste like, and how do you communicate that?” I think that’s a very legit question because, really, it tastes different to each person. That’s my long-winded way of answering you. In Hong Kong, everybody’s experience is a little different. I’ve been there a lot over the years, but what I really loved during my last trip was jogging by the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park along the harbor in the early morning. There are a lot of different Hong Kongs to be had, but this episode’s version, the Hong Kong where you feel alienated and inspired and overwhelmed was just really beautifully presented. Have you ever been to Hong Kong?
Neal: I have, seven or eight years ago. For me, it was lots of neon lights, lots of way-too-tall buildings. But I didn’t have an opportunity to really discover anything. I discovered a lot more watching this episode, listening to refugees’ experiences, listening to how people are afraid that the old way of bamboo noodle making—riding that bamboo stick—was going to go away.
Thornburgh: In good news, if that method goes away, then at least that guy can have kids again.
Neal: Oh, God, I was wondering about that.
Thornburgh: So, that refugee scene in the Chungking Mansions—it’s like another theme or obsession with him. He keeps coming back to the stories of people caught all over the world in these little purgatories. That Somali guy was impressive. And America won’t let him in just because of where he was born. Now he’s going to go to another country, and he’s going to be very successful and bring all of his talents and that fire that brought him halfway across the world, and it’s all going to go somewhere else, and it’s going to help them beat America. Ridiculous.
Neal: Sucks for America, but it’s good for another place. So many Americans that haven’t met a refugee before in their entire life, they think of them as like this group of people that pose this existential threat. What I love about this scene is putting faces there to humanize that situation.
Thornburgh: I also don’t think about refugees in Hong Kong, so that was surprising. In Hong Kong, I think more about the Filipinas, the women who are caretakers and nannies and cooks. They’re a strong presence. Roads & Kingdoms did this great story on them a while back.
Neal: I felt like parts of the episode were also kind of flirting with the whole esoteric New Age theme. Christopher Doyle’s frenetic energy, and—I don’t know—when he was talking about time, it kind of reminded me of Rustin Cohle from the first season of True Detective. “Time is a flat circle.” I was like, what? And then that feng shui thing …
Thornburgh: Does she do fortune telling as well? Maybe she can tell us if I’m right about this episode winning an Emmy.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.