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Circuits of Exchange

Fresh Kill, dir. Shu Lea Cheang

Still from Fresh Kill, dir. Shu Lea Cheang

By Phoebe Chen

There’s an image that resurfaces in Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill (1994), so insistent in my prefrontal cortex that I’m surprised I’ve yet to dream about it: a shot of a lone television monitor aslant on a rocky shore, waves crashing in the background like some picture of the Sublime made abject. To my millennial eye, it’s anachronistically cumbersome, nothing like the whisper-thin gadgets of the past decade, a boxy thing so firmly of this awkward and weighty world, even as its cathode-ray tubes beam virtual ones on-screen. In the early ‘90s of Fresh Kill, television is still king, a prime medium for circulating information across seemingly collapsed distances. But, as the film reminds us, all this tech also circulates literally as detritus, rejected by the tides like so much waste.

All kinds of industrial refuse haunt the film’s ranging locations—a tent city in Manhattan, an island off the shores of Taiwan, a living room in Brooklyn—but that global chain of use-and-discard is just one of many that the film tracks. There are the media circuits realized by a dizzying array of cable shows and a Web1.0 set-up that connects a Chinese hacker in New York to cyber activists in Africa. Then, there’s the ecological loop of a sinister fish-borne virus first seen in an upscale sushi restaurant, Naga Saki (chic!), whose prize produce is sourced from Orchid Island, a long-time site of nuclear contamination in the Pacific Ocean. Like any other palatably exotic and overpriced joint, Naga Saki is thronged by white yuppies and Wall Street-types who talk like random buzzword generators. Their hyperbolically senseless speech is the first sign that language has an unusual function in Fresh Kill, more a parody of vernacular-based sociality than an actual means of communicating. In the restaurant prelude, I already hear Italian, Japanese, English, Spanish—easy hallmarks of an exclusionary cosmopolitanism disguised as inclusive multiculturalism. The film probes how those two passé isms—and other optimistic jargon of ‘90s globalization—are entirely contingent on transnational flows of corporate capital.

The virus, of course, roars through New York on the back of these flows. Its symptoms are vague, but comically bound with signs of technical dysfunction: early clues are a CGI flash of green in the victim’s face (a telling shade of cyberpunk emerald), and, when they try to speak, voice malfunctions that glitch and jump between foreign tongues. This rapid switching is built into the film’s editing, which often relies on fast cuts that mimic the darting flux of channel-surfing. As the virus spreads, the film barrels toward disorder and sheds its initial narrative form for a hypertextual funhouse that plays more like video installation art. Fresh Kill’s fall into formal entropy integrates a compelling contradiction into its structure, which sets legible chains of culpability against increasing social and linguistic unintelligibility.

From its opening scenes, the film maps the various circuits of exchange that ensnare everything from sushi to the evening news, linking service workers who have fallen ill to insidious corporations that oversee food supply chains. But these traceable chronologies hardly matter without political accountability. What good is evidence if it guarantees no consequent redress? The film offers no forthright call-to-action with the promise of resolution, but stakes its power in a kind of showing: even at the most facile level of representation, characters are vectors of resistance, cast against industry norms and archetypes—an Indian lesbian protagonist with a Native ex-cop father; her white partner with a Black media activist mother. Fresh Kill charts the ubiquity of global capitalism’s exploitative circuits, but shows us, with frenzied brilliance, that there is chaos not in spite of an imperialist, ecofascist world order, but because of it.

Phoebe Chen is a writer and grad student living in New York.

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