Floating Life

Floating Life (Fu Sheng, 1995 Australia 95 mins)

Prod Co: Southern Star/AFFC/Hibiscus Films Prod: Bridget Ikin Dir: Clara Law Scr: Clara Law, Eddie Ling-Ching Fong Ph: Dion Beebe Ed: Suresh Ayyar Art Dir: Chung Man Yee Mus: Davood A. Tabrizi

Cast: Annie Yip, Edwin Pang, Anthony Wong, Annette Shun Wah, Toby Wong, Cecilia Fong Sing Li

Floating Life (Clara Law, 1996) represents some kind of turning point in Australian cinema in that it establishes a signpost towards a still nascent movement in this country, which is the creation of an Asian-Australian cinema. Prior to Floating Life, I am not sure that there ever was such a mainstream feature film made in Australia (I could be wrong) by an Asian immigrant filmmaker that featured Asian immigrants, dealing with their problems and their experience in settling down in Australia: the kind of cinema that one could call Asian-Australian in the same way that there is a genre of Asian-American films. Thus Floating Life is a generic cousin to the American films of Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Eat a Bowl of Tea, Life is Cheap. but Toilet Paper is Expensive), Peter Wang (A Great Wall), Ang Lee (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet), and the documentary films of Christine Choy (Who Killed Vincent Chin?). All these are examples of a hyphenated east-west cinema (Asian-American, in this case) but they happen also to discard the latter part of the hyphen to focus more or less on the remaining eastern part. Similarly, Floating Life deals with the Australian experience of an Asian immigrant family and this experience is stated almost wholly from an Asian perspective. This migrant experience is fraught with anxiety and a sense of trepidation if not outright dread: a far cry from the kind of new world optimism and pioneer spirit that might be the migrant experience of the text books and of popular myth – I suspect this is largely the source of the adverse criticism that the work has attracted, apart from certain aesthetic flaws inherent in the film which I do not intend to dwell upon in this article. Floating Life exudes ambivalence and I think a debate could centre on the film’s identity. I will explain why.

A universal theme runs through Floating Life – the theme of migration. Migration from continent to continent, from country to country, house to house. In Floating Life, director Clara Law asks us to consider this universal theme from a local perspective, that of a Hong Kong family – an elderly father and mother with two young boys who have migrated to Australia to join their daughter and son-in-law. An adult son, Gar-ming (played by Anthony Wong), remains behind in Hong Kong while waiting for his papers to be processed. Soon, he too will join the family in Australia but with a sense of what a Chinese aphorism calls ‘heaviness in moving’ – the burden that we feel when we have to move house. An elder daughter, Yen (played by Annette Shun Wah), has already migrated to Germany, having married a German and now bringing up a daughter in deceptively cosy surroundings. At one point we hear Yen say, “The happier I am in Germany, the more it hurts”. The film takes turns to reveal the perspectives of each family member. We see a family mostly in crisis, as its members grapple with the tasks of settling down in foreign lands.

One of the signs with which Clara Law has reduced the universal to the local is her way of looking at the family as an entity enjoined with the concept of home. The theme of migration is treated as a variety of homes in different localities – A House in Australia, A House in Germany, A House in Hong Kong, and so on. It is as if Clara Law is saying “We may all be migrants but in the final analysis, it is the house we live in that matters”. Hence the emphasis on fengshui – the ancient Chinese practice of geomancy that bears on where one lives and whether one lives in harmony with nature that determines the harmony and strength of the family. (Fengshui is evoked by the eldest daughter, Yen, living in Germany as she tries to re-arrange furniture in her new apartment so as to strike the right balance with which to achieve harmony in her surroundings and hopefully also to achieve a sense of wellbeing. She has a foreboding of ill health as symbolised by an itch that she feels in her spine.) “Old homes radiate harmony and strength”, says the father as he looks at a photograph of a traditional Chinese house. The implication is that modern homes run a dissonant theme with nature and that somehow displacement is an inherent part of modern living, leading to disharmony.

Disharmony results from dislocation in the first place. The fact of migration alone means a drastic dislocation: a pulling up of one’s roots from one’s native place. In Floating Life, this is suggested by the parents’ concern over paying their respects to dead ancestors on Ching Ming – the Chinese festival of the dead (the equivalent of the Christian festival of All Souls Day) when Chinese families visit the cemetery, sweep the graves of their loved ones, offer prayers and food to the departed. A mark of the Chinese character is filial behaviour and Floating Life implies that since the family has migrated to a foreign land, its members are no longer filial because they can no longer pay their respects to dead ancestors at the allocated time of the year. “The roots,” as the daughter in Germany says, “.are with one’s parents”.

Old age and death is concomitant to the theme of filial piety – and the elderly protagonists of Floating Life are the natural bearers of the theme. But the film isn’t about dying or old age – it is a film about migration, about renewal. It’s a mark of the complexity of the narrative that Law has chosen to invest more than the standard clichés of living the good life down under – those early idyllic scenes of encountering kangaroos on the street in the suburbs and peeping at blondes on the beach. Law’s subject is the Chinese family and Floating Life shows how Chinese family values, and thus, Chinese culture, are a part of the universal flow of migration to other countries and the ironic results that occur in keeping or observing such values in a foreign environment.

For instance, in Chinese families the ultimate test of filial behaviour is how one’s children look after the parents in old age. Floating Life shows this remarkable feature in Chinese culture as a part of the migration theme – the fact that families stay together even as they migrate to foreign lands; that obligations between the living and dead are not cut off as one moves to a new country. The Old Country and the New Country are invariably linked because of these filial ties – just because one migrates to a new country doesn’t mean that these ties no longer exist or that they should be cut off for eternity. Law states the theme in the usual way, with the old parents voicing their concerns about observing the rituals of Ching Ming, wanting to buy incense and paper money to burn as offerings to their dead forebears (but having missed the bus to go to Chinatown to buy the incense and paper money, they justify their failure by saying that being in a foreign land the scent of incense wouldn’t reach their dead parents anyway: “It’s all in the heart” says the father).

Law comes up with a variation of the theme of filial piety by inverting the theme – in the scene where the eldest son Gar-ming buries the aborted foetus in the garden of his apartment in Hong Kong. The burial motif radiates with the theme of old age and death as well as that of filial piety and this motif is telegraphed in an earlier scene where Gar-ming claims the skeletal remains of his grandfather in the cemetery as they have to be moved out of its burial place to make way for the recently deceased. I said there was an inversion of the theme, thus Gar-ming is shown as an irresponsible son, making a girl pregnant and then having her abort the foetus, hardly the behaviour of a filial son. However, Gar-ming’s morbid preoccupation with the aborted foetus shows a tie of kinship that he in his own way has established with Hong Kong, his home. Gar-ming’s decision to migrate is not an easy one; it has to do with leaving home and forgoing a certain kinship with one’s native land, which is more than mere sentimentality or homesickness. You leave something behind. In Gar-ming’s case, he has left behind a part of himself, literally burying it in the soil, reminding one again of the Chinese aphorism that “one gains peace in the soil”: the peace and harmony that comes from having lived in a place so long that you hate to leave it.

It’s a very quirky kind of statement, and the audience may be forgiven for having missed the point of the scene, what with a dead foetus, bones and skull in the cemetery (how do you associate these with the theme of migration?). Gar-ming’s morbidity is a character trait that shows how the younger generation has been affected and put off-balance by the migration urge of Hong Kong Chinese in the years leading up to 1997 (the handover of Hong Kong to China). More importantly, it is a response to the fear that many Hong Kong Chinese felt as a result of the Tian’anmen Incident of June 4, 1989. Clearly, the family has migrated to Australia as a result of the Tian’anmen Incident. We know this from a remark made by Bing, the daughter with whom the family stays on arrival in Australia: “You’re here because you are fleeing your country”, she says. The Chinese phrase she uses is much more potent: zou nan, literally to run away from trouble, and it is the phrase used to describe refugees. Ultimately, it is a syndrome of fear that has pushed Hong Kong people to migrate. In the case of Australia, the figures for the migrant intake from Hong Kong actually peaked during the years following the Tian’anmen Incident:

1989-90   8,054

1990-91   13,541

1991-92   12,913

1992-93   6,520

1994-95   3,333

Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs

Figures from the immigration offices in New Zealand, United States and Canada suggest the same kind of trend. The syndrome of fear that results from the Tian’anmen Massacre, the dread of being taken over by a brutal communist regime – what I have also called The China Syndrome in my writings elsewhere – is undoubtedly the psychological back story colouring the behaviours of Gar-ming and Bing, the sister who had migrated first to Australia and paved the way for the family to join her. However, Bing slowly descends into paranoia and delusion, clearly exhibiting a kind of split personality. On the one hand, there is the Australian side of her personality, so to speak, fearful of being Asian, indeed even shamed by her Asian-ness, stopping her younger brothers from speaking Chinese and ordering them to speak English only. On the other hand, there is the Chinese side of her personality, fearful of foreigners and their perceived bad influences, exerting control over her younger brothers because she fears they might be susceptible to promiscuous sex, drug-taking, and become “vagrants and louts” (Bing’s own words).

The character of Bing (played by Annie Yip) is an extension of an earlier character depicted in another Law film about migration, Farewell China (1990). This is the character of Hung, a Mainland Chinese woman (played by Maggie Cheung) whose obsession to migrate to the United States at whatever costs, leads to a unbalancing of the mind, a dislocation of one’s soul, an acute loss of identity. In Farewell China, the migration process is depicted as a Dantean descent into Hell, and the journey is so harrowing that Law’s message is somewhat lost. We don’t know whether she is sketching out some allegory about migration to warn Chinese migrants about the perils of living in foreign lands or whether there’s some didactic message for Hong Kong people to stay put: better to face the domestic hell of China than the harrowing foreign hell of the United States. It’s a message targeted at the young, as the protagonists in Farewell China are two beautiful young people (the characters played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Ka-fai) whose lives and mental states become distorted by migration.

However, if Law had actually intended to impart that message in Farewell China, clearly by the time of Floating Life, migration is a more redemptive process even though, as in Farewell China, migration has brought about an unbalancing of the mind where young migrants become victims of dislocation, suffering paranoia and delusion. In Floating Life, the older generation is much more put together – when you might expect that it would be this older generation who would suffer the most from pulling up their roots from the old country. Rather, it is their eldest children who have become unbalanced. “You’re here as migrants, not here to enjoy life”, Bing says to the parents. It is clear that her paranoia is brought about by a deep sense of insecurity as evidenced in her work ethic, her penchant for discipline. Her remark about making at least two million dollars to retire on if the government were to become bankrupt and stop all Asian immigrants from drawing on the benefits of social security in the country is somewhat typical – part of the psychological complex afflicting more upward-looking Asian migrants. Somewhat ironically, it is the older generation that provides a way out of this complex, as in the moving scene of the old mother praying to the tablet of their ancestors, part of her subtle attempt to pull her daughter Bing out of the mental depths into which she has sunk.

Perhaps Bing’s fears and anxieties are the kind that Law herself felt or that all migrants feel when they make the decision to come to Australia. In making Floating Life, Law has reflected the fears and anxieties of all Hong Kong migrants who have chosen to leave Hong Kong. There is the sense that they would prefer not to leave but that they have done so for various reasons – fear (the China Syndrome) being one of them, but also, and not least of all, the urge to migrate in the universal sense of the term: the migration of the Chinese diaspora. This is the kind of migration that the Chinese have undertaken for generations to become denizens of new worlds, new Gold Mountains, not to shed off one’s own culture (though losing parts of your old identity is inevitable) but to contribute all that you bring from the old world to find happiness in the new world. I suspect that Law’s inclusion of the old mother’s lament, “We have come to this paradise on earth but there is no joy” is her way of indicating the universal urge of migration that compelled her characters to pull up roots from the old country. In another sense, it also indicates the feeling of goodwill towards Australia, as it imparts a feeling of optimism – that the lament would prove in time to be unfounded because there is finally a sense that the family can cope and that they can pull out of the complexes and crises that they have experienced. Thus the film ends on a muted note of hope – the kind that says “You’ll be right” – which is why Floating Life should ultimately be considered a very Asian-Australian work.

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This article is modified from a lecture given in October 1999.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.