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They Were Asian American, But…

The Vault, May/June 2020

By Brian Hu

Revisiting the nine short films and videos in “The Vault,” it’s hard not to see them as a last stand of sorts. Mostly produced in the 1990s, the works were flanked between the growing professionalization of Asian American media arts organizations, the lure of Sundance and the “independent film,” and outspoken though controversial cries for multiculturalism in the arts. These were, of course, all opportunities to expand one’s canvases, gain visibility, monetize. That these artists responded to these new streams for growth by making experimental shorts feels less like surrendering to a financial necessity than an act of refusal. That these shorts are offered for free through My Sight is Lined with Visions is so curatorially apt.

These shorts demand closer scrutiny. Their radicality comes not just through their length and genre, but in such disparate modes of creative engagement. They also sidestep the mainstream of Asian American cinema – whether consciously or unconsciously–by rerouting culture in different directions. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the rise of the feature-length film in the 1990s faced its share of resistance within Asian American corners, primarily by those who held on to the political roots of community filmmaking that spawned the movement in the 1970s. But the ‘90s experimental film and video makers resisted the commercial in a fundamentally different way: not by embracing the rhetorically transparent filmmaking of activist documentary, but by embracing obfuscation, blurring the lines so crucial to identity politics. Theirs was not simply a fight for self-representation. They questioned the “self” and the formulas for “representation” altogether. As Susette Min has argued about 1990s Asian American artists, theirs was not merely a fight for visibility–in fact, calls for diversity led to mainstream spotlighting at places like the Whitney Biennial–but also a fight to remain “unnamable.”

Felt throughout these shorts is a palpable sense of refusing to be labelled, not only by the larger art or film communities, but by Asian American cinema itself. Filmmakers like Roddy Bogawa, Jon Moritsugu, and Gregg Araki have been dubbed the “bad boys of Asian American cinema” not just because their works ingratiated in flesh, apathy, and abjection, but because they proudly remained unassimilable to the mantras of Asian American self-representation.

Take Moritsugu’s rally-cry debut Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain (1986), which literally begins with the Asian guy getting kicked into the sea, drowning through the weight of a concrete brick that reads “critical theory.” The film then unleashes a rhythmic tommy gun of semantic overload, typeface shenanigans, horror citations, sexual taunting, and mystery meat, a post-punk keying to the car of art and capitalism. The film spits in the eye of legible public media that is so foundational to the public television and educational missives of Asian American cinema. It refuses a seat at the table. Moritsugu is here to ruin your game of musical chairs.

While Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain channels Nick Zedd’s shock aesthetics, there are many ways to be transgressive, as "The Vault" reminds. If Moritsugu bludgeons our eyes, Tran T. Kim-Trang’s koré (1994) massages them, with every searing zoom-in an ocular stretch, every flip from black and white to color a lively jolt of haptic friction. In considering the political force of skin and sex – the biopolitics of who pleasures, who dies – is an invitation to inhibition that is the denial of sight, making this the most sensuous of Tran’s extraordinary Blindness series.

Pleasure is also at the center of Ho Tam’s jubilant ditty Cop Strings (1999), which unveils the public and private lives of a Hong Kong policeman, contrasting the uniform and the disrobed body through a thunderous guzheng performance. Rea Tajiri’s Little Murders/Obits (1998), too, is a musical treat, bringing together Frank Sinatra, ‘80s-‘90s Hong Kong cinema stylings, and Asian American theater in a tantalizing and moving game of personal and genre misrecognition.

There’s also something dancelike about Helen Lee’s acclaimed Sally’s Beauty Spot (1990), which on paper reads like a conventional rumination on racial self-awareness: an Asian American woman is frustrated by a birthmark on her breast that makes her an exotic object of the western gaze. What makes the piece such a powerful work though is that the spot is more than a target of self-hate, but an erogenous surprise enlivened by a performer who moves like a dancer and poses like a model – not for the white man, but for herself and Helen Lee’s camera.

There’s an analogous moment of self-reflexivity in Roddy Bogawa’s Four or Five Accidents, One June (1989), where the main character (Bogawa) is filming an interview with a woman he’s encountered during his summer as a deliveryman. While the interview goes on, a secondary audio overlaps on top: a nagging voice in his ear chiming in about proper camera distance and staging. Is this the voice of film school? Of “proper” institutions like PBS or the aesthetics of information embodied by organizations like the National Asian American Telecommunications Association? The film is an evocative rumination from the liminal spaces of summer vacations and car rides, spaces of boredom mapped through radio sounds, and the landscapes of American mundanity. It ends, perhaps inevitably, in Hollywood. But the film itself, with its conceptual detours and narrative slipperiness, is anything but.

Like so many works in "The Vault", including Twitch, Amit Desai’s play on Orientalism in public spaces; Suprematist Kapital, Yin-Ju Chen and James T. Hong’s indictment of consumptionist iconography; and Spencer Nakasako's document of racism and 'free' markets in Monterey’s Boat People (co-directed with Vincent DiGirolamo); these shorts are keenly aware of the structures that seek to define their filmmakers, structures that emanate from various overlapping mainstreams: commercial, art-world, Asian American. These shorts propose alternatives that are also variously overlapping, including Asian American ones, but refuse to be reducible to any.

Brian Hu is Assistant Professor of Television, Film, and New Media at San Diego State University, and Artistic Director of Pacific Arts Movement, the presenter of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

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