co-written by Jeremy Meckler and Michael Montag
Most of Ming Wong’s work is installation-based—video projections looped in galleries for unwitting spectators to wander in at any point in the video’s eternal repetition. What’s strange about this, is that Wong’s work is generally in direct dialogue with conventional, theater-based cinema. His radical recasting, restaging, and recontextualizing are the lifeblood of his work. From In Love for the Mood (2009), a remake of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love with a Caucasian actress playing all of the parts, to Life of Imitation, a reinterpretation of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life with three men from different Singaporean ethnic groups taking turns portraying the protagonist and her mother, Wong’s work takes the cinema out into the gallery and forces viewers to stare at the social/racial implications buried in it.
But in tonight’s screening, Wong’s work will be ripped from the gallery, and thrown back into the theater that it draws its reference from in the first place. Tonight, the Walker screens what could be seen as Wong’s “Fassbinder series,” the two films screening tonight both take their inspiration from New German Cinema rockstar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And, tracing the line back even further, both of the Fassbinder films are themselves restagings of earlier works.
Wong’s Angst Essen is based on Fassbinder’s 1974 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), which is itself a remake of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955), a film whose heritage has cinematic links to the lachrymose melodramas of the 20’s and 30’s (namely, three neglected John Stahl melodramas from the ‘30s—Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and When Tomorrow Comes, all of which Sirk remade in the ‘50s). Fassbinder paid further homage to Sirk in his article “Six Films by Douglas Sirk,” which originally appeared in Film Comment in the 1970s. At the end of the article, he concludes with great enthusiasm, “I have seen six films by Douglas Sirk. Among them were the most beautiful in the world.” Both directors used melodrama as a means of social criticism. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may retain the dramatic structure and plot of All That Heaven Allows, but it’s also, like Imitation of Life, rather brutally straightforward about racism and its noxious effects. It’s both a remake and an homage to Sirk in general. On purely visual terms, Fassbinder’s picture is more subdued, but he creates a mise-en-scene that is laden with Sirkian symbols: television sets, mirrors, doorways, all of which reiterate a sense of alienation, and in the former, there is a critique of materialism (though I think this is more true of Sirk, as he’s bringing attention to American materialism). Unlike Sirk, who came to America in the late ‘30s, Fassbinder remained in Germany; nevertheless both drew heavily on their European intellectual backgrounds.
A few more thoughts: Sirk’s films are a lot trashier than any of their remakes. They are REALLY ridiculous, but through a combination of social critique and dynamic visual style, he transcends the sheer ridiculousness of the material and elevates it to art, I think. What I mean to say is the excessive visual style comments on and critiques the actual content or material. He’s using the form to dissect the content.
While Fassbinder’s obsession with and admiration for Sirk’s English-language melodrama crossed language barriers, Ming Wong’s focus on Fassbinder illuminates those very linguistic differences. Wong moved to Berlin two years ago, and still doesn’t speak German, yet rather than translating the film into one of the languages he does speak (Malay, Mandarin, English, etc.) he performs it all in German. Wong even goes so far as to transform one of these films into a film about language. Taking directly from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, originally based on a play by Fassbinder, Ming Wong portrays the perpetually distraught and abusive Petra in his interpretation, Lerne Deutsch mit Petra von Kant. Wong’s stilted, repeated German, mixed with his violent portrayal of this powerful character lends a strange feeling to the experience of learning such important German expressions as Ich liebe Sie (I love her) and Eine dreckige, elende, miese Hure (A dirty, miserable, lousy whore). And his recasting and reperformance returns Petra von Kant to the trashy eloquence of Douglas Sirk.
It is through the restaging of work he admires that Wong is able to draw out what he is interested in. By causing a disjunction both in the language of the work, and the actors, Wong is able to draw us in to the assumptions that cause that disjunction. He is able to focus tightly on the underlying elements of the work itself—like Sirk, he uses the form to dissect the content. In an interview, Wong said of his Sirk restaging, Life of Imitation:
The key moment in the scene is when the daughter turns to the mirror and declares to her black mother that she is ‘white’. I used 3 actors from Singapore for the roles, and they are all neither white, or black, nor are they female, or from Hollywood, and they are the wrong age to play either mother or daughter, a total mis-casting.
This blog is too short a venue to explore tonight’s other exhibiting artist, Phil Collins. Not to be confused with the Prog-Rock percussionist and vocalist, this Phil Collins is a world-renowned artist considered for the 2007 Turner Prize. To find out more about Phil Collins and Ming Wong (and to see their work) come to the free screening tonight at 7:30 as a part of this year’s Artists’ Cinema 2011: Projected Images.