Digitopia

Jia Zhangke: In Public
John Akomfrah: Digitopia
Tsai Ming-Liang: A Conversation With God

Produced by
the Jeonju International Film Festival
and the Sidus Corporation (South Korea)

In 1990, video artist Shu-Lea Cheang (1) curated a ground-breaking series, To Be Televised, for a New York-based cable, Deep Dish TV, gathering video documents from five Asian countries (South Korea, the Philippines, the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) – based on the premises that “as video camcorders become more widely distributed in Asia, video makers have become active protagonists in the current social and political changes that are taking place in the region.” (2) Ten years later, a second revolution is happening in Asia, involving digital media, significantly affecting modes of representation. In the last decade, Asian film industries have undergone major changes as well. The economic crisis involving the area has drastically modified the composition of the local markets – Hong Kong products are no longer automatically assured to find a “niche” in Southeast Asia. In mainland China, filmmakers that came of age after Tiananmen Square, also known as “the Sixth Generation” (Zhang Yuan, He Jianjun, Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke etc.) started to work in independent productions, illegal and invisible in their own country, but critically praised on the international scene. Some have recently been able to enter the studio system, while others continue to work independently. In Taiwan, the most important “post-New Cinema” oeuvres to emerge in the early 1990′s were those of Tsai Ming-liang and Chang Tso-chi. But the current slack of the Taiwanese film industry is limiting their production opportunities, forcing them to temporary inaction, foreign co-production or even temporary exile.

Meanwhile, the 1990s have witnessed the unprecedented development and modernization of the South Korean film industry, encouraged by multi-faceted efforts from the government. The creation of the Chonju/Jeonju Film Festival in 2000 matched the desire of involving South Korea in a cutting edge international film culture. In addition to homages to Asian (Hou Hsiao-hsien) or European (Chantal Akerman) auteurs, the Festival hosted a number of events devoted to digital filmmaking, such as the N-Vision competition, eventually won by John Akomfrah, whose work was shown in South Korea for the first time. One of the founders/ members of the Black Audio Collective, created in London in the multi-cultural excitement of the early 1980s, Akomfrah reached international notoriety with his debut documentary film, Handsworth Songs (1986). Born in Ghana and raised in England, Akomfrah has unceasingly explored issues pertaining to the African diaspora, social and political struggles in contemporary England, memory and identity, mixing documentary, narrative and autobiography in a non-linear fashion. In the last few years, he has worked extensively in digital filmmaking. In a society as ethnically homogeneous as South Korea, showcasing the work of Akomfrah was a courageous challenge.

The same year, Jeonju launched another initiative, producing an omnibus film composed of three digital shorts entrusted to different filmmakers: Zhang Yuan from China, and two Korean directors, Park Kwang-Su and the more experimental Kim Yun-Tae. The second omnibus commissioned by the Festival involves pieces by Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang and John Akomfrah as the only non-Asian director.

At a hidden, subliminal level, the combination works – for in each case we are dealing with filmmakers who are slightly displaced within their own national cinemas. Jia continues to operate illegally in China – his work produced via a small company in Hong Kong (in partnership with his usual DP, Yu Lik-wai, a director in his own right) (3) and through foreign financing. As a Black British, Akomfrah still occupies a marginal position in England. And finally Tsai Ming-liang, is marked by a double exile – as a diasporic Chinese born in Malaysia, he came to Taiwan as a young man to study and make films. A series of events have rejected him into the far margins of the Taiwanese film industry: first, The River (1996) and The Hole (1998) received bad, even hostile, critical reactions in Taiwan; then Tsai’s main producer, the Central Motion Picture Company (CMPC) more or less gave up film production to devote itself to television; so Tsai spends his time between Taipei and a Buddhist community in Malaysia where he directs theater, and relies on foreign financing for his film work.

The presence of Akomfrah’s piece, as a caesura, a split in the middle of the tape, produces an interesting logicality. The director’s Black British identity, clearly marked by the inflections/accents of the speaking voices and the strong visual presence of an attractive black male face, sharply contrasts with the pan-Asian look of Jia’s and Tsai’ s pieces. The latter pieces are coming from two opposite sides of the Chinese world – separated by history, politics, and the rampant evolution of capitalism (chaotic opening to the free market economy in China, sour after-effects of the “Taiwan economic miracle”). Akomfrah’s Digitopia is similar to the dot that separates the two terms of an e-mail address (dot.com). Its impenetrable quality has also something to do with the way it constantly glides, without entering it, over the world of “internet relationships” it endeavors to depict. A message sent into the digital world is not addressed to a “real” Other who might, in turn, respond; it is engulfed in the “black dot/hole” of virtual appearances. A seasoned digital media practitioner, Akomfrah has produced a visually elegant, self-reflexive piece, in which “the real” is twice removed. It is visited, as by ghosts, by the images of two women, in contradistinction with each other – an enigmatic, alluring, veiled silhouette, and a naked backside, repeatedly “caught” in the act of (interactive?) fucking on the computer screen. A female voice, with an impeccable British accent, floats over these images, without being clearly attached to any of them. Whether by phone or on the net, the male protagonist never manages to connect with (the) woman.

On the other hand, as enthusiastic “beginners”, both Jia and Tsai seized the digital camera as a tool that could provide them with a more intimate, closer, way of “grasping” reality. Yet, once again, they end up with a world of missed encounters. The real, said Lacan, is not only what eludes us, but what we tend to resist, and both filmmakers articulate this dilemma with elegance and poignancy. The “intimacy” produced by the digital recording is more with the “subject” than with the “object”, and what strikes at first in both Jia’s and Tsai’s contributions is how congruent they are with the rest of their work – they are, somehow, a form of inverted self-portrait, the “captured” images functioning like a mirror image of their emotions and concerns.

In Public

Jia’s In Public starts as a distant echo to his groundbreaking Xiao Wu (1997): in a train station. Yet, instead of following the evolutions of his central character in a variety of public and private spaces in which he seems to “fit” less and less, Jia assembled 30 shots, recorded over a period of 45 days, of anonymous passers-by, travelers, railroad and bus workers, in and around the small mining town of Datung, in Inner Mongolia. Like Fengyeng, Jia’s hometown, in which he also locates the plot of Xiao Wu and Platform (2000), Datung is on the verge of major changes – no longer profitable, the mine might be closed; meanwhile, people want to partake in the new pleasures offered by capitalism, such as dance halls, karaoke, blue jeans. Unflinchingly, Jia’s gaze and Yu’s camera capture the gap between “life’s slowness and hope’s violence” (Apollinaire), between the ennui, backwardness, and dreary atmosphere of a small town, and the impatience, hidden desires and private concerns of its inhabitants, that create as many enigmatic narrative vignettes. A man waits in a train station – inquires which train has arrived; a first railroad worker gives him a wrong answer, a second the correct one; the man’s relatives, a young couple, finally arrive, carrying a heavy bag. Later, at a bus stop, a skinny woman, dressed in black, whose drawn, white features betray a strange kind of tense beauty, runs after a bus that won’t stop for her; in the cold, on her fine heels, she performs a sort of dance to express her frustration, circling around the empty bus stop, shortly joined by a young man with whom she starts a conversation we can hardly hear. Is he trying to pick her up? We won’t know; after a while, another bus comes; they hop on. We are now inside a bus. Another one, looking at the passengers at close range; a little boy (one of the rare close-ups of the piece) looks back at us. In a train station, a disused bus has been turned into a restaurant, one of the rooms is a pool hall, another a dancing hall; people come and go, to buy tickets or to play pool, while a couple dance, trying on new steps. In the midst of this agitation, an immobile figure stands out – a bald man, wearing dark sunglasses, sporting a vest and a tie, smiling and smoking in silence, surrounded by a small group of people. He seems in command; he’s in business. The camera keeps going back to him, first with a close-up of his face – is his smile friendly, vain or sinister? – to a shot of the wheel-chair on which he is sitting, detailing the miniature portrait of Mao hanging from one of the arms, to a shot of the empty space where his left leg should be… (Is he a wounded socialist hero? a gangster?) Nearby, And, next oblivious, the couple is still dancing. In an adjacent (?) (4) dance hall, people move to a socialist song (“the laborious and courageous Chinese people, marching with vigor into a new age.”)

Tsai’s A Conversation with God is also based on a series of idiosyncratic vignettes of public spaces, which he presents as images “standing in” for those he was unable to record. His initial project was to shoot a famous medium as she was talking with God, but she refused, saying that “God does not like to be filmed.” In one of his attempts to visit the medium while she was in trance, Tsai’s motorbike was stuck in one of these traffic jams that plague Taipei. “A temple beside the road was having a ceremony… Alas, it was the birthday of another God.”

In this project, Tsai, was his own cameraman, and, as AD, had hired his usual actor, Lee Kang-cheng, and it is tempting to imagine the two men and close collaborators, sitting on the same bike, deciding what to do next. The answer was to shoot what was at hand, and the first section of the piece shows a ritual during which a young man dances, enters into a trance, shivers and whips himself till he bleeds, for the benefit of a watching crowd. Older male worshippers wipe the blood and occasionally attempt to restrain him. As made clear in Rebels of the Neon God (1992), The River and What Time Is It There? (2001), Tsai is obsessed by Chinese rituals, healing practices, trances of possession, and traditional belief systems that include ghosts, reincarnation and the cult of the ancestors. He is also acutely aware of the way these beliefs clash with the conditions of modern living in Taipei, that reduce them to picturesque survivals from the past, areas of conflicts between the generations, or last resorts of hope when everything else has failed. His collaboration with Lee, who is about 15 years younger than him – is telling: Tsai is a believer, Lee is not (5). Yet it is on Lee’s body that Tsai had staged the healing rituals that are at the core of The River, and already appear in Rebels, it is Lee’s character who is guilt-stricken at the idea that he has not appeased his father’s spirit and not taken his mother’s mourning rituals seriously enough in What Time… ?

There is a reverse parallel with Jia’s piece here; while the latter – a true atheist – was tracking down evidence of the absence of God (Mao, socialist ideals) through the pitiful remains of the cult it once commanded (the corny song, the portrait), Tsai – a devoted Buddhist – finds God in the presence of the most mundane, vulgar, unpredictable, petty, or even dirty and sordid aspects of contemporary life in Taipei. Immediately following the temple ritual, Tsai shoots (or attempts to shoot) a scene that seems to come directly from Jia’s Platform, only with a more contemporary, more urban seasoning. In a neon-lit makeshift hall, in front of a mixed crowd (men and women), a trio of young girls in skimpy attire sing pop songs while performing some vaguely erotic dances. The generator breaks down; screams, disappointment; a competent hand reconnects the faulty cables; the dancing resumes, the crowd rejoices, the girls look absent, a female voice screams “he’s pointing a camera at her. Please sir, points it in another direction.” The image turns black, while the sound continues.

The rest of the film is mostly composed of a haphazard succession of shots, taken over Taipei and its suburbs: unremarkable streets at night, crossed by cars, mopeds, trucks and taxis; deserted street corners; empty underpasses, tiled in incongruous white; dead fish lying on the ground, or semi-dead fish hopelessly leaping out of an expense of dirty water (an allusion to The River?). Another meander takes us into the house of a female healer – is she or is she not the medium “conversing with God” that Tsai had sought in the first place? (The only time we “see” God is indeed in her parlor, as an almost-confidential shot reveals a small altar with a bejeweled statue). Here, she looks like a plain woman, with a working class practice, enacting modest trances to cure her patients’ bladder and stomach problems. Close-up of her fat hands, soiled with the ink she uses to outline her “inspired” drawings. Maybe God resides in the littlest things – a dying fish, a twitching hand. Or in an empty sky – a metaphor, in Western romanticism, that God, indeed, did not exist – yet in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, emptiness is the locus that makes transformation, and even life itself, possible. Tsai’s last shot, however, is ambiguous, for, albeit empty, the sky is crossed by the electric wires of modernity, and accompanied by the noise of the traffic that we guess, down below, dense, jammed and polluting. Then, silence comes, as in a reverse parallel to the black shot of the “strip tease” sequence.

Commentators have often expressed how puzzled they were by Tsai’s short contribution. In fact, Conversation with God is a witty, highly personal piece which acutely portrays some of the contradictions of the contemporary Chinese psyche. In a previous piece, The Call of Mist (1998) Akomfrah was wondering how is it possible to mourn of the death of a loved one in the age of cloning sheep. In all his work, but especially In Public, Jia explores the empty spaces left in both landscapes and minds by the failing of the Maoist ideology. In Conversation, Tsai revisits his own belief system, his own emotional attachment to Chinese tradition, and wonder aloud how, in a hyper-industrialized country where pollution kill fish, a Malaysian expatriate can still turn to a medium for comfort, while finding God’s footprints in the tired smile of a stripper, or the pale glitter of a traffic light at night.

Endnotes

  1. Since then, Taiwan-born Shu-Lea Cheang has directed two films (Fresh Kill, 1994, I. K. U., 2000) as well as a number of web-based installation pieces.
  2. Shu-Lea Cheang, To Be Televised, program notes.
  3. Yu Lik-wai has been the DP for all Jia Zhangke’s features. He has also directed a documentary, Neon Goddesses (1996) and a narrative feature, Love Will Tear Us Apart (1999).
  4. In his excellent description of the piece, Bernard Eisenschitz notes “every localization is done a posteriori, while remaining hypothetical and mysterious.” “Passerelles,” Cinema 03, Paris, 2002, 14.
  5. Conversation with Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng, Los Angeles, Oct 3, 2001