May/June 2020 for My Sight is Lined With Visions
Image courtesy of the Video Data Bank at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, vdb.org
Liberatory Escapes: Dirty Laundry and Sea in the Blood, dir. Richard Fung
By Justin Nguyen
Mobility, according to British geographer Tim Cresswell, seeks to explore the content and politics of movement, the contexts of affect and power that imbue human displacements from one place to another, whether social worlds or political institutions. It is a condition of human life—to be mobile, to have aspiration and desire, to make meaning out of existence—that the works of Richard Fung confront. As such, Dirty Laundry (1996) and Sea in the Blood (2000) are expressions of being in the world and the embodied experience of living. The examinations of family histories in these films occur at the critical nexus in which queer diaspora is produced and experienced: the complex of fractured identities and longing that occupy that contradictory space in between what Stuart Hall calls the “metropolis and periphery” in which difference is defined.
Dirty Laundry weaves together documentary and fictional (re)enactment to traverse space and time through cinematic means. The fiction elements center around an encounter between Roger Kwong, a traveling writer, and a Chinese railway steward. While writing an article about Chinese migrants’ successful acclimation into Canadian society, Roger discovers a hidden photo of his great grandfather holding hands with a male companion. Simultaneously, we learn from talking-head historians both of the role of queer sexuality in constructing the Chinese migrant as a racialized other and the real instances of queer kin relations in the disproportionately male population of migrant laborers. The discussion of a suppressed history is marked by a reworking of an early scene, a reenactment of a migrant couple in which a wife braids her husband’s hair. She is replaced by a man, and at the end, both men are replaced by a modern Asian lesbian couple.
As the encounter between Roger and the steward becomes sexual, we are reminded of the circularity of history and time, and the space they occupy on the train—both a signifier of mobility and an iconic motif that also occurs in Asian/American labor history. The train becomes a vehicle of desire: for a stranger who stumbles upon Roger, it’s a chance to see her girlfriend, and for Roger, a chance to learn something about himself and his history. Fung offers a critique of archival production and the suppression of knowledge, and in doing so, he not only unearths a history of queer kinship but also begins the spatial mapping of a queer Asian geography.
In Fung’s later work Sea in the Blood, identity is not foregrounded as much as it is in Dirty Laundry but it still functions as a vector for mobility in Fung’s impulsive distancing from his home and family. This video documents two trips in his life: a childhood trip to England to seek treatment for his older sister Nan’s thalassemia, a hereditary blood disorder, and a six-month long excursion Fung took fifteen years later with his partner Tim, while Nan’s health was in decline. He dismisses the letters his family sent in the final days of Nan’s life as a manipulative tactic because they disapprove of his trip with Tim. Nan was always sick, Fung narrates, but she always got better. In contrast to Roger’s move towards home in search of self-discovery in Dirty Laundry, in Fung’s depiction of his personal life, the escape away from home is a practice of liberation and development of the self.
This video is also a meditation on life in close proximity to illness and death, and the trajectories and limitations that illness imposes on the people living with and around it. Fung establishes a poetics of nostalgia and aching that incorporates old home video and family photographs with a combination of on-screen text (letters between Fung and his older sister Arlene) and voiceover. Years later, Fung still thinks about Nan. He recounts the late-night conversations they shared about politics as revolutionary fervor developed in Trinidad, their secret reading of Mao’s Little Red Book, and how in that same summer of Trinidad’s independence from British colonization, he learned how to swim. As Fung interrogates the past and the medicalization of Nan’s illness, the specter of AIDS looms close, a silent yet obvious presence that only reveals itself at the end in a letter to Arlene which tells of Tim’s symptoms. What is expressed in all this is the complex of human mobilities: the conflict between his desires away from home and the sister he left behind, as well as Fung’s eventual development of a radical queer politics that also enfolds his partner’s illness.
Although the performance of enactments and reenactments in Dirty Laundry may appear from another time, Fung’s larger work still feels incredibly contemporary with the issues that lie at their core. The character of the “butch plant” lesbian who travels across the country to visit her partner has become a memified trope in today’s social media landscape, and the concept of gay Marxists falling in love in Paris seems just as alluring now as it was forty years ago. Mobility in the time of COVID-19 means the simultaneous restriction of physical movement and heightened discursive freeflow in meanings about race and Asian migrant subjectivity. Fung’s films may directly inform us about histories of Asian exclusions that precede our current moment, but they also tell of individuals who exist, not in spite of any oppressive institution but simply as living things in the world.
Justin Nguyen is an undergrad and programmer in San Diego.