At the Trinidadian premiere of John Huston’s 1957 South Pacific war romance Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the audience exclaimed out loud when they saw the agouti on screen. How, they asked, did this large rodent—related to the guinea pig and endemic to Central America and the Caribbean—make it across the world? They knew the answer, of course: the film was shot on location in Trinidad, the West Indian island in crude masquerade for a besieged Oceania, its native flora and fauna supplanted in antipode by the carelessness of a Hollywood maverick. So what if the agouti doesn’t belong scampering next to Robert Mitchum’s sleeping head? The folks at 20th Century won’t notice.
The story comes from Islands, a 2002 short film by the Trinidadian-born, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker and video artist Richard Fung. His films, including Islands and the stunning 1986 Chinese Characters, exist at the nexus of identity, visibility, and colonization, constantly interrogating the accuracy of and potential for actualization inherent in cinematic reflection. What he uncovers in this exploration is a tough paradox: the subjects of his films—like the audience who laughed at the “Pacific” agouti—do see themselves on screen, but in versions altered by white cultural dominance to conform to an inauthentic standard. In the colonization of their images, they are thus rendered “in/visible”.
This colonization is a process, so let’s begin at square one: the relationship between visibility and identity that Fung investigates is built on a foundational reality of complete invisibility, the absence of self-image. In Chinese Characters, Fung interviews two gay Asian men about their experiences with white-centric gay porn—both men’s faces are shrouded in darkness, rendered inscrutible as the televisions behind them broadcast dueling images of serene Chinese landscapes and hardcore male-on-male action. Islands presents a similar absence of image: as the on-screen text narrates the story of Uncle Clive, a Chinese-Trinidadian man hired as an extra in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the only discernible faces are those of Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, the white movie stars whose names grace the opening credits John Hancock-style. Uncle Clive’s face, by contrast, is nowhere to be found. In both of these cases, the effacement serves as an essential jumping-off point for the colonization of the image, for in the absence of a reflected self an opportunity is opened for new forms of identification. In other words, if you look into a mirror and see something other than yourself, the image works on you.
The interviewees in Chinese Characters find themselves molded by their received images in unexpectedly liberatory ways: “porn,” one of them remarks, “increases my ability to fantasize.” Sure enough, the availability of same-sex erotic content offers a new visual language to Fung’s subjects, one of which finds that a porn magazine “reinforces [his] self-image” despite the absence of sexualized bodies that look like his. Fung hones in on this notion of expansion of self-identification through—most notably—fashion. One sequence sees a man trying out several visual identities to a sleazy 80s porno-funk score, a sartorial shapeshifting from a high-concept groutfit model to a flowy beret-sporting poet to a machine worker with unzipped coveralls, hanging dong for all to see. Later, the same man—having landed on the leather jacket and white sneakers of the modern greaser—walks across the field into a forest as shots of his feet reveal a series of new costume changes: the cruiser, the bootstrapped leather daddy, the Yellow River explorer, the barefoot Adam. In these moments of quick-change, Fung evokes an emancipatory notion of identity in flux, his characters freed by their exposure to new images to experiment with self-representation.
This emancipation does not last long: the subject ultimately finds themselves subsumed into their received images. In the pivotal scene in Chinese Characters, the cruiser enters the forest and removes his clothes as a similar scene from a porn film—this time with a white actor—is intercut. The two meet on a converged visual plane, our cruiser now superimposed on the porn footage as he seductively rubs his bare chest. We cut to the film’s most provocative image: the cruiser, eyes obscured by the conical straw hat he now wears, is layered over footage of an all-white-boy orgy, the film’s extremely raw images accompanied by a chorus of remarks we can only assume are directed at him: “You’re so… soft.” “I was stationed in Singapore once.” This moment in Chinese Characters strikes at the tension at the film’s core: with no faces or bodies like his present in the universe of gay porn, the cruiser superimposes himself on it, albeit in a representation of Asian stereotype. The comments in voiceover belie casual racism, the cruiser’s Asianness construed as a feminine softness or a far-too-expansive relationship to the continent writ large. In the reverie of gay sex, the cruiser thus finds himself subsumed into the image in a manner both revealing of a true desire and obscuring a true identity: sure enough, one of Fung’s interviewees remarks that, in exploring white-centric porn, he “moved [himself] closer and closer to the image of… what the magazine was selling.” “I wonder,” he says, “how much of my Asianness that I am denying.”
In this tension, Fung explores the fundamental paradox inherent in such received images and his subjects’ relationship to them. This is the paradox of in/visibility, the nature of being visible but only in a manner divergent from authentic representation. In other words, that which is in/visible can be seen, but not truly known. In Chinese Characters, the images of China we thought we’ve seen are actually of Canada. Another porn film shows an Asian man masturbating, using—as one of Fung’s interviewees remarks—exclamations and gestures received from white porn films. For Uncle Clive’s part, his role as an extra in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is one of a Japanese soldier, despite the fact that he has “never seen a Japanese person in his life.” At the premiere of the film in Port of Spain, Uncle Clive gets his first good look at the faces of Kerr and Mitchum but, in his big scene, “strains to see himself.” In each of these examples, Fung’s subjects are beholden to an illusion of presence, one by which they are visible in a literal sense but invisible in a more fundamental way, the true natures of their identities erased by their representations on screen. Thus completes the colonization of the image: through the power of white cultural dominance, the images of Fung’s subjects are rendered devoid of any internal truth, knee-bent to an identity received from without.
Images courtesy of Vtape.