My Heart the Travel Agent: an interview with Wayne Yung
from the book Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists
by Mike Hoolboom
He is standing in a meet-and-greet at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival as the scrum moves out of the hall, with a lot of shiny metal hanging off his face and a serious haircut and an upright slouch that looks like the whole city of Köln has managed to tuck itself up into his body. We talk for just a moment before I race back into the theatre, desperate for the movie to open, for someone else’s life to start so that mine might be put off for some more suitable hour. Wayne looks so hip and up into it all that he makes me want to run back into my hotel room and read books. Not that books aren’t life as well — some of my best dreams turn around the reading of books, sleep narratives, fractured and delicious. But Wayne has no need of these diversions. At least, he doesn’t create a Berlin wall out of them: he is right there on the front line of his life. Who else would have kicked off a ‘career’ in the fringe with a movie called Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter. Co-starring his boyfriend of course. Co-starring himself of course. What better way to muse about identity politics and the fabled passivity of gay Asian males and the sticky negotiations of relations where one is HIV positive and the other isn’t than in the midst of a slamming butt-fuck?
Wayne’s work might be read as an oblique autobiography — certainly he has been unafraid to appear in tape after tape — and so we have watched him age, not that he’s old by any means, but he is not so entirely young any more. There is a lot of years and lovers between Peter Fucking… and My German Boyfriend, for instance, and his aesthete sensibilities have been sharpened in the decade-plus to a fine point. He is not afraid of beauty, to arrange and layer and wait for the light until yes, now, exactly now. And because pictures of guys like Wayne aren’t exactly crowding out the billboards — I mean good-looking Asian gay male hipsters, or even not so hipster — Wayne has an issue. His short tapes (and what’s wrong with short?) fly in the face of this exclusion, and point out some of the cracks in the corporate mega-pixel that is trying to recast us all as part of a global village. Watching him brave his way through these videotaped moments is a bracing reminder that there is another heart beating in the next room, and it’s not your heart, and not your room either. It touches me, it moves me, and then I want to read him tell me all about it.
Mike Hoolboom: Did you know with the fierce unbending will of a child that you would always make pictures? Did you have an early significant picture encounter (or did you feel, as you were moving past childhood, that it was difficult to keep parts of yourself from becoming a picture)?
Wayne Yung: I grew up in Edmonton; after my parents divorced, my father and I lived together in my grandfather’s basement. Each room had just a small window, high up on the wall, which let in a narrow beam of sunlight, like a spotlight in the dark. I remember once standing up on a chair, trying to peer through the window, and seeing only weeds growing in front of the glass, and the fluffy white clouds high up in the sky. I started crying with a vague frustration that I was missing out on something, that something wonderful was going on, somewhere out there, without me. It wasn’t like the door was locked; I was free to run out to the local playground, or to the corner store. But I had this vague feeling that there were many things I couldn’t do, things I couldn’t even put a name to, as long as I was ten.
Ironically, I connected this to the feeling I had when I played my father’s ABBA records. So maybe it was a just a premonition of my future gay life! Anyways, I think it was this particular feeling which drove me to leave Edmonton, and then Canada. It’s this feeling which often motivates me to try new things; the feeling that otherwise, I’d be ‘missing out.’ Living the life of an artist, and of a videomaker, has let me try a lot of things I might not otherwise.
I can’t say I always knew I’d make images. I started reading for pleasure at a very young age, finishing at least one novel per week; so when I turned 14 or 15 I decided I wanted to become a writer myself. Later, in high school and college, I took some classes in creative writing, as well as acting. Finally I went to art school, and became a visual artist and performance artist. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I discovered videomaking, which allowed me to pull all these creative impulses together. Video allowed me to tell stories, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.
I can’t say I have this innate, burning desire to make images. Much depends on the pleasure I derive from the process, from collaborating with my peers and meeting members of my audience. After moving to Germany, I temporarily lost the urge to make videos because this pleasure was missing. I spent the first few years trying to find it again. I’ve come to realize that video projects are my way of playing with my friends, who also happen to be artists and video makers. We discuss ideas over late-night noodles, we get together to do spontaneous projects, we have a good time. I miss that. Without this external input, my internal engine simply loses interest in making art; I don’t make it just for myself.
I think an artist is just kidding himself if he says he doesn’t care if the audience rejects his work. Actually, even ‘rejection’ is a response; the real problem is when there is no response at all, when no one cares to look at your work, and it never gets noticed by anyone. Most artists would give up if they were really just ‘making it for themselves.’ For me, the audience is the other half of the equation; I see artmaking as a dialogue, not a monologue.
MH: In an essay called ‘Centre the Margins,’ Richard Fung talks about the absence of gay Asians on movie screens. He goes on to write: ‘In my own video work in the area, I have seen the most important task as the representation of gay and lesbian Asians as subjects, both on the screen and especially as the viewer. I believe that it is imperative to start with a clear idea about audience. This in turn shapes the content of the piece.’ Do you feel the same, do you begin your work with a clear idea of the audience, and the political arena your work is entering into? Do you feel the responsibility which is implied in Richard’s remarks about his own practice, and does it similarly shape the form and content of your work?
WY: Richard Fung was the first one to use video to describe the issues of gay Asian men, and played a major role in inspiring me and other gay Asian directors; there are probably about 30 film and videomakers in the world who have shown specifically gay Asian characters onscreen. This is from the thousands of other directors who show gay characters of other races, the huge majority being white characters. Most gay Asian directors know each other personally, since we meet at film festivals, which often put all the gay Asian films into one special program. This ‘ghetto programming’ has both good and bad sides: on the one hand, it’s an easy way to get an overview of the gay Asian scene in one show, but on the other hand, it means other programs (the ‘sex’ program, the ‘family’ program, the ‘religion’ program, etc.) can remain all white.
Richard was a big influence on me as I was starting out, especially his essay ‘Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn.’ I do feel a certain responsibility to present gay Asian men onscreen, and am often critical of others for using all-white casts, especially when it’s not essential to the concept.
I recently read a draft script about an old man confronted by four young women on the street, written by a director here in Germany. When I spoke to her, I suggested it might be interesting if all the characters were Turks, who form a large minority in Germany; there were no clues in the script that would have prevented this. She was very surprised by my suggestion; it hadn’t even occurred to her. But I was surprised by her surprise; she herself is a Persian who grew up in Germany. In the end, she never did produce that script, but instead moved on to another one, which also features only white German characters. And so it continues — German movies fail to reflect the reality of the street; the population here is about ten percent foreign, but that’s certainly not visible onscreen.
I don’t believe that a non-white director should be ‘required’ to cast non-white actors, but if we all continue avoiding using non-white actors, then we simply perpetuate the larger system that makes us invisible.
Minority directors are in a peculiarly privileged position, precisely because we’re minorities living in the context of a majority. I know what it’s like to be Chinese-Canadian and queer; but I also have a very good idea about what it’s like to be white and heterosexual, because I’ve been consuming white heterosexual media for my entire life. I’m quite confident that I could write believable white heterosexual characters, based on this lifelong exposure, and my daily interaction with white heterosexuals. But I’m not at all confident that a white heterosexual could write a believable non-white character, or a gay character, especially if they’ve had no intimate exposure to such people, or to the media made by them. For me, the question of race and representation can be asked in three directions: who is making the image? Who is represented in the image? Who is consuming the image?
A friend of mine, who’s also Chinese-Canadian, once told me about something that happened when he was working for a queer film festival. The programming committee was debating a gay Asian video; my friend thought it was great, but the other committee members didn’t appreciate it at all. The others were not Asian, and simply didn’t get the humour. So my friend had to push for it, and finally got it into the festival. It was put into a program which attracted a large gay Asian audience, and it turned out to be a big hit. If my friend had never been on that committee, the tape would have been rejected, and this audience would have been left with yet another tape about gay white men.
My third video, Lotus Sisters, was an experiment in addressing a particular audience: gay Asian men in North America. I let the onscreen characters use the slang and inside references that only we would understand, and consciously chose not to ‘subtitle’ it for the benefit of ‘outsiders.’ In the end, I think it was only semi-successful; the text was difficult for many gay whites to understand, and opaque for heterosexual audiences. Since then, I’ve tried to find a balance: there should be something satisfying for a mainstream audience, but a bonus layer of meaning for non-Asian queers, and a super-bonus layer for gay Asians.
However, gay Asian issues have become less and less central to me, especially since moving to Germany. A lot of that has to do with the audience here. For white Germans, gay Asian subjects may be interesting on an exotic level, but it has little personal relevance or application, since hardly anyone actually knows an Asian in real life. And for the few gay Asians who do live here, my voice is also quite alien; most of them come directly from Asia, and when they hear my native English accent, they put me in a different category, that of a privileged ‘Westerner.’
But even if I was still living in Vancouver, surrounded by my gay Asian-Canadian community, I’d probably be drifting away from this topic anyway. I feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say on the subject of being gay and Asian. But I’m still trying to settle on my next topic.
Chinese have been in Canada for well over 100 years, and now form about a third of Vancouver’s population. The city once had a reputation for being very ‘British,’ but is now well known from being very ‘Asian.’ In truth, Chinese-Canadians are assimilating very quickly into mainstream Canadian culture; my generation generally speaks little Chinese, and I think the next generation will only speak English. It’s a natural consequence of a school system where everything is taught in English, and we study Shakespeare instead of Confucius. Chinese cultures has heavily influenced the cuisine of Vancouver, but less so the culture.
Nowadays, my audience seems to be gay white Germans, as well as the ‘general’ German mainstream. This has also necessitated a shift towards working in the German language, as in my latest work. However, I still cringe at the idea of portraying only white people, and make an effort to include non-white faces onscreen. Perhaps not always Asian faces (they can be very hard to find in Germany), but certainly people of colour.
I see Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together as an inspirational example. Although the two main characters are gay Hong Kongers, I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a ‘gay Asian’ movie. Being Asian is not the issue, and being gay is not the issue either. In this film, racial and sexual identities are not a major subject of conflict or analysis. And yet, nonetheless, it is very pointedly not just another story about straight white people. Happy Together is not limited to some Asian or queer ghetto; it manages to speak universally, transcending its specificity.
I do think very much about my target audience. For me, artmaking is a dialogue between artist and audience. I see it as a kind of contract: they give me a few minutes of their time, and I give them some entertainment, usually in the form of sex and comedy. If they don’t come away entertained, then they probably won’t come to my next screening; they might even walk out before it’s over, or simply tune out. But underneath the entertainment I still try to slip in some of my more political statements.
MH: Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter (4:31 min, 1994) is a home movie essay, and a boldly personal sexual encounter. Did you worry about making something so intimate and revealing? Its blurry, handheld haziness seems a guarantor of its authenticity, it insists: this is really happening, and we’re really feeling this. Sex appears as the final assurance, the last stand of truth.
Your movie is, amongst other things, a love letter to Peter, an HIV-positive white man. You are HIV negative, and you say at one point, while he is fucking you, that this condom isn’t enough to contain your fear. What a powerful moment this is to share with us. What led you to speak about this, and how did you negotiate this ‘scene’ where, in the end, as artist and editor, you would ‘top’ him — in other words, have control, the final say. I’m wondering what this moment feels like now, with a distance of ten years, and a world of difference in treatment options. Not to mention the many who have died.
The issue of interracial desire is already here, at the beginning of your work, and continues to bring a strong questioning presence to much of what follows. In later work you describe the racism which keeps Chinese men from each other, but here you are on much more tender and immediate terms. I realize this is an impossibly large question but: can you elaborate on how your thoughts have changed over the years about this? Is that part of why you make movies?
WY: I rarely look at my early videos anymore; when I introduce people to my work, I generally begin with Search Engine (1999). But recently I was invited to do a lecture for a Queer Studies seminar here in Cologne, so I decided to focus on the early works, because I find them to be much more ‘queer’ than my later work. After several years of ignoring Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter, it was a bit of a shock to see it again. It’s almost like the tape was made by someone else: someone much more naive and idealistic, with a lot more daring and recklessness. Twelve years later, my video making has become polished and considered, and I’m a lot more careful about what I say.
It was my first video, at the age of 23. I had just attended a series of weekend workshops at Video In Studios in Vancouver, taught by Lorna Boschman and Paul Lang. My grip on the technology was quite tenuous; in this video, every transition is a fade to/from black, because I forgot how to do a dissolve between two shots (this was back in the days of tape-to-tape linear editing). The sound quality is quite poor, because I recorded the voice-over by speaking directly into the camera microphone, while sitting in a closet late at night when everyone else was asleep (we were spending the weekend at a beach house, and I’d borrowed the Hi8 camera from our host). The music was recorded after everything else was edited; luckily Peter knew this musician, Glen Watts, who was able to pace his accordion-playing to match my voice-over.
When I look at this video the thing that really shocks me is that Peter actually agreed to do this! After all, he was 18 years older than me, and not nearly so naive as I was. We had just started dating four or five weeks before shooting this scene. There wasn’t any script yet — I wrote that after the fact. I guess I wanted to collect some footage, and let the editing ideas come later.
It was only after I showed the finished video to Peter that I actually asked his permission to show it in public. I was quite prepared to keep it private if he felt uncomfortable with it. But he said it was okay, as long as it never showed in his home city, where his friends might see it! So I never did show it in Edmonton, and Peter has never had to sit in an audience watching this tape.
A few months later I made One Night in Heaven; Peter was in that one too, as well as Paul Lang. Again, I’m a bit startled by the freeness and spontaneity of my working style back then. I had originally planned to set the story in Stanley Park, but it snowed the day before the shoot, so I quickly rewrote the story to work indoors. The location was in the storage lockers beneath Video In Studios.
I guess I dated Peter for about a year and a half. It was a long-distance thing: he was living in Edmonton, and I was in Vancouver. He was an artist himself, so we did a lot of projects together, not only video. It was only my second serious relationship; Peter had certainly had more lovers than me, having had a very active gay life in the 1970s and ’80s. But in a way, he was almost as ‘young and eager’ as I was: since testing HIV-positive, he’d been having very little sex, let alone romance, and wasn’t sure he’d ever find love again. That happened to a lot of HIV-positive men back then: they were just happy to survive, not daring to ask much more from life. There was a lot more stigma back then, and few HIV-negative men would knowingly date an HIV-positive guy.
I was also quite lonely when I met Peter. I’d been living in Vancouver for six months already, and it was my final move out of the family nest. I still hadn’t found any sex, let alone love in my new city; I was nervous and unsure of myself. Like many gay Asians of my generation, I also had very low self-esteem, and doubted that I’d ever have much of a love life. At the age of 23, you can be very pessimistic about your future! So when I fell into this romance with Peter, it was like an unexpected gift, and I went wild with passion.
In this relationship with Peter, I never felt that I was ‘less’ than him. Certainly he had more ‘power’ in certain areas: he was white, and he was an older and established artist. But I had the advantage of being HIV-negative, which was much more significant back then; and I was young in a gay culture which glorifies youth. We were both aware of these power dynamics, and discussed them openly; I think that was an important part of being together. Since it was a long distance relationship, a lot of time was spent on the phone.
After Peter (who, by the way, is still healthy and active), I had a couple of other serious relationships with HIV-positive men. This was before the ‘cocktail’ medications came out, so there was still a lot of fear, and my other positive boyfriends did not deal with it so well (one became addicted to Catholicism, the other to cocaine). Ironically, since the emergence of the new meds, I haven’t had any serious romances with positive men. It’s not that I particularly avoid positive guys, but I think maybe they’ve begun to avoid negative guys. Now that they have their own strong social network (and even ‘pride’), they don’t really need to look outside the poz scene to find love and sex. It’s probably just easier if both partners happen to be HIV positive.
None of my lovers has actually died yet (at least, I’ve never been around to see the obituary!). I’ve lost a few distant acquaintances to AIDS, but no one very close, so I’ve never had to go through that whole process of hospital visits, homecare shifts, funerals, etc. So I guess I’ve been very lucky. The subject of death and mortality is slowly creeping up on me, but only because I’m seeing myself getting older, and my friends and relatives are getting older too.
MH: In Lotus Sisters (4:59 min, 1996) one man says, ‘Having sex as an Asian is important. We’ve been desexualized and now I have to show the world. I’m having sex for everyone.’ This sounds like a manifesto for much of your video work. Do you feel that you are a sex activist? Are your pictures ‘correctives’ which work to counter mainstream impressions, perhaps even impressions which are not so mainstream? Where does the stereotype of the asexual Asian come from and why has it been perpetuated?
One of the two men in Lotus Sisters says, ‘We’re all closet sticky.’ What does that mean? We see a couple of boys hanging out at a diner, lounging on the floor at home, cracking up and making out. Their moments are interrupted or juxtaposed with stolen media moments. Where are these other pictures from and why do you present them so insistently?
WY: Lotus Sisters was my third video, and the first that dealt with the idea of a gay Asian community. One of the reasons I moved to Vancouver was because I wanted to get into this amazing Asian-Canadian cultural scene, which I had first experienced in November 1993, when I came over to do a performance piece at the Racy Sexy show. I moved to Vancouver in January 1994, and, for the first time in my entire life, I started making friends with other Asian-Canadians. That was a personal revolution for me; I had grown up in Edmonton avoiding other Asians, because I was essentially ashamed of being Asian.
Song Pae Cho became one of my closest friends, and he introduced me to Winston Xin; both agreed to appear in Lotus Sisters. Song was moving to Korea, so I wanted to use this opportunity to get them together on tape. They themselves were just friends, not lovers, but they had no problem ‘pretending’ for the camera.
Through them, I had my first ‘practical’ experience of what it meant to have gay Asian ‘sisters.’ These two were very much role models for me, of what kind of person I wanted to become: political, self-confident, funny, ironic, alternative, sexy. I’d never met such interesting gay Asians before; I never even knew that gay Asians could be interesting! And when we sat together in the noodle house late at night making sassy remarks about boys and politics, something new started emerging in the space between us: a hybrid subculture. It combined being gay with being Asian-Canadian; we had a particular slang (such as ‘rice queen’ and ‘sticky rice’) and a particular attitude (a defiance that was both political and self-consciously ironic). I know we weren’t the first ones in the Canada; but these two were the first for me.
In 1995, I did my first curatorial project, a program of videos by gay Asian men, for Vancouver’s Out on Screen festival. One of the main themes at the time was our relationship with gay white men (other races were never addressed in these videos). The basic pattern was: my ‘rice queen’ done me wrong, but then I went ‘sticky,’ and now I’m happy and liberated (rice queens are white men who go for Asian men; sticky rice refers to Asian men who go for each other). Or, to quote Marlon Riggs (as we often did back then): ‘Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of our times.’
Although I found this idea very seductive in its simplicity, I also knew it was too simplistic; all my sex and love had been with white men, and I couldn’t say it was all automatically invalidated by this history of racism and (post)colonial (self)oppression. And, although Song and Winston portray ‘stickiness’ in my video, neither of them were themselves particularly sticky. So when Song says, ‘We’re all closet sticky,’ he’s also being ironic; stickiness may be a political ‘ideal,’ but it doesn’t necessarily match the messy realities of our real love lives.
When Winston says ‘I’m fucking for everyone,’ he’s confronting the de-sexualization of Asian men in North American media. It was something we were all keenly aware of, and it had had a powerful effect on me: in my entire life, I’d never had any role models who showed that Asian men were sexy and desirable. On Canadian TV we were laundrymen and kung fu stars; but no one ever fell in love with an Asian man. This has emerged as a major motivation for my work: to show Asian men as sexy, Asian men who are there for their own pleasure, and not (only) for the pleasure of white men (as seen in the specialized gay pornos designed for rice queens). It’s about taking control of the media, and of our own representation; when the media is controlled by white men, it naturally reflects only their agenda.
In Lotus Sisters, I appropriated clips from The Joy Luck Club (featuring Chinese-American women) and Farewell My Concubine (featuring homosexuals in Mainland China). It was my way of ‘cobbling together’ a gay Asian-Canadian media culture; since we were essentially non-existent in Canadian mainstream culture, I identified with the nearest approximate images. I am not a homosexual opera singer in China, nor a Chinese woman in San Francisco, but there are certainly aspects of both that I can relate to. But in the end, these things are very campy too: this melodramatic (and gorgeously costumed) opera tragedy appeals to the drag queen in anyone, and almost every Asian-Canadian recognizes their own neurotic immigrant mother in The Joy Luck Club.
Looking back, I realize that what I had with Song and Winston was very particular to that time and place. It’s not like every gay Asian in Vancouver shared this campy/political point of view; in fact, very few did. Here in Germany, I’ve mostly met gay Asians from Asia, and they generally don’t share this taste for politics and irony. When I visit Canada nowadays and see the younger generation of Asian-Canadians, they seem much more self-confident than I was at their age, both sexually and socially.
I still see Vancouver as my ‘homeland,’ and the only place in the world where I don’t feel like a minority.
MH: Search Engine (4:08 min, 1999) begins with a bevy of scrolling personal ads, when these are exhausted another set of titles appear saying, ‘When I grew up there were no Asian men on television. There were no Asian movie stars. No one ever fell in love with an Asian.’ Then a series of titles announce: ‘I want to be a sex object.’ Is desire constructed through the image? Do you feel that our bodies are made of pictures — and that by changing pictures our bodies and their possibilities will also change? Are movies necessarily, inescapably, political? Why don’t you make feature films where your ‘messages’ would reach out to a broader audience?
WY: Before internet chatrooms and phone chatlines there were personal ads in the classified sections of gay newspapers and magazines. I used to read and collect any ads which mentioned gay Asians, either as subject or object. In the entire newspaper, this was often the only evidence that gay Asians existed at all; the rest of the paper (especially the ads for parties and porn shops) depicted the gay scene as entirely white.
Of course, it wasn’t just the gay scene — mainstream TV and Hollywood movies were the same. All the important roles were filled by whites, both in front of and behind the camera. If an Asian man appeared onscreen, he might be a kung fu master or a cook — in any case, not romantic, and certainly not sexual. I do feel this had a major effect on the formation of my own sexual self-image; there were no media images that affirmed that I, as an Asian man, could be sexy.
And this didn’t affect just me, it also affected my non-Asian schoolmates; they made it perfectly clear that they believed Asian men were not to be taken seriously in the field of dating, romance, and sex. When I was a teen, everyone watched the film Sixteen Candles (1984, written and directed by John Hughes), which included the infamous character Long Duk Dong, an Asian exchange student who was the butt of many jokes. Suddenly my teenaged peers were calling all Asian men ‘the Donger.’ They thought it was hilarious, and I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
For me, making images is necessarily a political act; it’s about taking control of the means of image production, a control that has largely been exercised by white men. A movie like Sixteen Candles may be marketed as a ‘universal’ story for teenagers, but it’s not universal: it does not speak to non-whites. The story itself was not about whiteness per se, it was about the teenaged insecurities we all go through, regardless of race; but nonetheless, all the main roles were filled by white actors (as usual), and the one Asian actor was presented as a laughingstock.
A fellow video artist once told me about a filmmaking handbook in which Hollywood producers advise against casting a non-white actor unless it’s essential to the role. A ‘normal’ story (one where race and ethnicity are not an explicit issue) should simply use white actors only. When expressed so directly, this advice sounds shockingly old-fashioned and racist; but actually, I think it’s still pretty standard practice in mainstream film and TV. Non-white casting is still considered a cutting-edge ‘statement.’
I once thought I might make narrative feature films, but I’m not so sure now. Part of it has to do with my working habits; I’ve discovered that I don’t really enjoy the process of commercial filmmaking (script development, coverage shooting, continuity editing, etc.) And I’m not interested in telling ‘fictions’ just for the purpose of ‘entertainment.’ There’s already lots of other directors who are hungry to do that work, and I’m happy to sit back and watch them do it.
But more importantly, I don’t see the burning need. For whom would I be making the feature film? Straight white audiences? Why would I want to serve them? I don’t believe I’m going to change their minds about anything; movies like Brokeback Mountain sold well to gay-friendly audiences, but hardly made a dent among the homophobes. I once thought I might like to make a feature film for the gay film festivals, but now I understand that the gay audience is just as bourgeois as the mainstream audience, and is mostly just interested in pure entertainment. Nowadays there’s a steady supply of gay dramas and romantic comedies to serve this demand. Well, there’s still very few feature films with gay Asian men... but honestly, most gay Asian men are the same as most gay white men: they’re not interested in politics at all, they also just want light entertainment, which I’m not really interested in producing.
I think the only people who might possibly ‘need’ my kind of work are gay Asian youth, or gay Asian men who are still struggling with their self-esteem and self-confidence. But I can generally reach them by making these small video projects which are screened at gay film festivals in shorts programs. For me, that’s enough; I don’t really need to distribute my work in every suburban cinema in North America.
I enjoy today’s fragmented media market; we’re no longer forced to consume the same bland fare of the traditional three major American TV networks. We can turn to various webcasters, specialty DVDs and alternative film festivals, each with a relatively narrow target market. As an artist, I can choose to speak directly and intimately to a gay audience without having to get the permission of some heterosexual Hollywood producer, TV network executive, or the manager of your local Cineplex. I can freely use words like ‘rice queen’ and ‘darkroom’ and expect my audience to understand because they’re gay; if it was a mainstream audience, I’d have to add subtitles, or drop these words completely.
MH: In The Queen’s Cantonese (32:41 min, 1998) you adopt the serial form of a Cantonese language lesson to dish the fragmented story of a Chinese/European boy-boy couple vacationing in Vancouver. This overheated melodrama, winningly played in stripped-down sets and ravishing lighting, leads one to wonder whether being with a white guy is really okay. In the end they both fall for the same man, everyone winds up at the baths, with serial bed exchanges and agonized recognitions. At last, the two Asian boys stroll off together. Did you begin with this story and then decide on the language lesson as a framing device? What led you to adopt this form? At one point the female narrator recites, ‘To speak Cantonese you have to be able to think in Cantonese.’ Do you believe, à la Lacan, that the unconscious is structured like a language? This work is very accessible, the clearly delineated characters ‘say what they mean,’ there is a transparency of word and picture often missing in fringe media. Is that a conscious choice on your part because of an audience you don’t want to lose?
WY: I wrote The Queen’s Cantonese in collaboration with Winston Xin, who also appeared in Lotus Sisters. The concept emerged from the banter and jokes we shared over midnight snacks at the noodle house, when we talked about guys, sex, and life in general. Although we both came from Cantonese-speaking families, we ourselves spoke the language poorly, having been completely assimilated into the English-speaking majority. So when we sometimes dropped short Cantonese expressions into our conversation, phrases which we remembered from our childhoods, these words became ironically recontextualized by the gay subjects of our adult conversations.
The Queen’s Cantonese became a way for us to re-connect to our lost childhood language and adapt it to our contemporary needs as adult gay men. The project was also a way to place gay Asians at centre stage, in a Vancouver gay scene where we were still largely marginalized. So I ‘re-designed’ various gay milieu to reflect a campy Cantonese influence (e.g., a gay bar with mah jong players, a cruising park within a bamboo grove, a gay bath-house with dim sum carts). This portrayal of Vancouver as a ‘Pearl of the Orient’ was also inspired by a quote from Christopher Isherwood, where he says that his literary portrayal of Berlin was not strictly true-to-life, but rather reflected the ‘heightened’ Berlin of his fantasies, skipping over the drab and tedious details of his everyday life in Berlin.
The ‘language lesson’ format served several purposes. On the one hand it was economic and practical: language lesson videos have notoriously cheap production values and unrealistic acting, allowing me to disguise my lack of resources and directorial experience (it was my first time directing scripted dialogues). On the other hand, it was a format that was both didactic and dramatic, allowing me to communicate a lot of information efficiently and humorously. Many viewers immediately recognize the format, having been exposed to language cassettes before; The Queen’s Cantonese acts as an antidote to the boring dialogues of such programs. Even more, it’s a critique of the heterosexism (‘I would like to buy a gift for my wife’), classism (‘Where is the nearest four-star hotel?’), and prudery (no words for flirting) that are the implicit agenda of these videos.
At various points in my life I’ve spoken Cantonese, English, French and German, and my thought process is a nearly constant flow of words. Although I believe that any idea can be expressed in any language (with varying degrees of efficiency, depending on the subject matter), I find that each language evokes a particular mood, and this shows up in my work. For me, Cantonese connotes a certain casual familiarity (as in The Queen’s Cantonese) as well as an emotional moodiness (as in Davie Street Blues), but doesn’t have the over-intellectualized precision of German (as in Miss Popularity). Of course, this also reflects my own life experience, having used Cantonese as a childhood language, and German as a language of postgraduate studies.
However, as a visual artist, I also believe there is another thought process which is entirely wordless. I edit videos according to a visual logic which can’t really be translated into words; words aren’t really efficient (or sufficient) in explaining why one image works and another doesn’t. There is a famous anecdote about the dancer Isadora Duncan who was asked by a newspaper reporter to summarize her latest dance in just a few words. She replied: ‘If I could express it in words, I wouldn’t have to dance it, would I?’
The Queen’s Cantonese has emerged as one of my most popular pieces. It was a kind of ‘service’ I undertook for the gay Asian community, providing them with an artwork that tries to speak to their specific realities and concerns, in an entertaining format that they can easily enjoy. It’s a video many have gladly purchased for private use, more so than any other video I’ve made. It’s a kind of ‘love letter’ addressed to an entire community. But gay Asians are a fickle audience (like any other), with no particular loyalty to me and my artistic production. Whenever I make something ‘arty’ (such as Angel), they largely avoid the show, and are replaced by an ‘arty’ crowd. I don’t have a problem with that, since I don’t expect (or desire) uncritical loyalty from any audience. I don’t have an allegiance to a particular audience either; sometimes I want to serve one crowd, sometimes another.
MH: Davie Street Blues (12:37 min, 1999) is a mini-narrative love lament, its grainy tableaus featuring a hyperactive white clown and an unmoving Asian stoic played by yourself. Why the long static shots and narrative burlesques? And how did you shoot this? It looks fabulous.
WY: Davie Street Blues was my homage to the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai; some of the scenes were direct ‘quotations’ from his work, particularly Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995). This is also why I chose to do the voice-over in Cantonese (which I can speak only haltingly), and shot it in 16:9 aspect ratio; I wanted to evoke the feeling of watching a subtitled, art-house movie.
The decision to use long static shots was partly practical, partly artistic. On the practical side, I designed this as a no-budget project to be shot in less than 24 hours, with just two crew members: Clark Nikolai on camera, and Nickolaos Stagias doing everything else. We shot guerrilla-style, using available light, with no shooting permissions for any of the public locations, so this forced a lot of practical limitations on what the cameraman could do. For example, in the café scene, we performed in a real café during normal business hours: I went in, bought a drink, and sat down in front of the window; a minute later, Stuart Folland (my co-star) joined me, performing in character. Meanwhile, Clark was out on the sidewalk with the video camera, shooting through the window, and Nico was holding an umbrella over his head. We did the shot in one take, and the café staff didn’t even notice what was happening.
On the artistic side, I wanted to strip the picture down to the basics, using none of the compositing, graphics work or special effects of my previous (and later) videos. It was all just straight cuts, like in a classic art-house movie, with the visual interest being driven by the actors’ performances. We shot it on MiniDV, sometimes using a very slow shutter speed to compensate for low light levels (also a technique used by Wong Kar-Wai). Using such a small camcorder was also conducive to this fast, highly mobile, guerrilla style of shooting.
The stillness of the main camerawork reflected a certain emotional state I was experiencing. My romance with a visiting film student had recently ended in heartbreak, and it was taking me a long time to accept that it was over, even after he’d already moved back to Zurich. I was at an emotional standstill, waiting for the day when I’d finally stop thinking about him; so this video project represented a kind of post-breakup therapy for me.
MH: My German Boyfriend (18 min, 2004) looks so beautiful, every landscape and building and face is glowing and perfect and arranged. The movie begins with high expectations about your three German dates-to-be, each disappoints in their own way, and then you meet a man who eventually marries you. Desire is so messy and misbehaved — how does it relate to the perfect aesthetic world you have composed? How do issues of control (which make this perfect world possible), expectation and desire work together, or do they? ‘He wasn’t part of the script,’ you say when you fall in love with one of the actors, and he can’t tell whether he’s acting or not. By making the movie you put your own ‘real’ love at risk. Can you talk about the line between art and personal life, between public and private. Why do you take such risks?
WY: I shot My German Boyfriend in Berlin during the summer of 2002, but didn’t edit and release it until 2004. It was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts; in my original proposal, I stated that the first part of the video would be scripted, and that the second part would be a video diary documenting the process of making the first part. So I couldn’t really plan what the second part would look like until the first part was already shot. And I couldn’t write the script for the first part until I’d actually arrived in Berlin to do the necessary research concerning German/Asian stereotypes. Much of the project developed spontaneously on location.
In the first four minutes, you see at least 20 locations; it took weeks of exploring Berlin, searching for locations that best ‘represented’ the city. My general shooting plan was to book my cameraman (Kai Scharmer) plus one actor for the day; we would put on our costumes, go visit various pre-selected destinations, and simply shoot scenes whenever and wherever I felt inspired. So even though the shots may look meticulously planned, most were the result of serendipitous discoveries. Whenever I saw a beautiful place, I quickly sketched out an action and a camera position, and we’d try it out in various ways until it finally worked.
We always shot more than I needed, and we did a lot of scenes which didn’t make it into the final edit. That’s one of the pleasures of working with such a small team and using MiniDV: we can play around and use up lots of videotape, without needing to spend a lot of money. Again, we shot without any shooting permissions for the public spaces, and to the casual passerby, it really looked like we were just friends on a fun, spontaneous outing. When doing scenes in public, I don’t like having assistants standing around behind the camera because it attracts too much unwanted attention.
I dislike drawing storyboards, and usually work without them. A few days before the shoot, I usually do a camera rehearsal with my cameraman, so that we can work out the basic style. After that, I don’t control him much, since I’m too busy directing the action, as well as performing myself. I have to trust that he’s doing a good job, especially when I’ve supplied only a vague script outline. During a video project, my closest relationship is always to my cameraman.
My German Boyfriend, like most of my work, involved a lot of personal emotional risk: I record myself in romantically intimate situations, and reveal autobiographical confessions in the narration. This is partly a political action, inspired by Richard Fung’s call to diversify the visual representation of gay Asian men; since it’s often impractical or impossible to get other Asian men to do these gay scenes, I usually end up using myself as the ‘model’ gay Asian. It’s also an artistic decision based on my own understanding of the best way to be a artist — I have the most respect and admiration for those artists who take the biggest emotional risks. Perhaps it’s also because, deep down inside, I’m actually a control freak, and I’m learning that art (and life) are much more interesting when you give up control, and let random accidents happen. I get a kick out of proving to myself that I’m not limited to my own personal ‘boundaries,’ and that I can overcome my own fears.
I think this is a peculiarly Canadian style of video art, closely related to American work, which I rarely see here in Europe. European video artists seldom put themselves in emotionally vulnerable positions; they tend to prefer being cool and in control. Here in Germany, my videos seem jarringly out of place; few German artists would reveal such private details onscreen. In contrast, many Canadian video artists seem almost addicted to self-confession, and it can be like a competition to see who can take the biggest emotional risk. My own early models included Paul Wong, Paul Lang, Ken Anderlini, Kiss and Tell, Laurel Swenson, and Maureen Bradley: all queer Vancouverites who weren’t shy about their own vulnerabilities.
Mixing my personal and artistic lives has become second nature to me, and everyone who’s close to me knows that they might get pulled into one of my projects. I’m actually surprised at how rarely this causes conflicts, but I guess that people who place a high priority on anonymity are not the type who would hang around with me. I am drawn to people who show a lot of emotional courage, and to boyfriends who trust me enough to allow me the freedom to be the artist I want to be.
In My German Boyfriend, there are scenes of me kissing the actor Frank, who I ended up falling for. Much of this footage is actually from camera test rehearsals, where the goal was simply to develop the necessary romantic chemistry for the video performance. Somehow the line between ‘pretending to be lovers’ and actually wanting to be lovers got very blurry; it’s like that psychology trick of putting on a fake smile in order to cheer up your actual mood. In the end, I’m quite ready to ‘exploit’ this phenomenon in order to produce good footage. The actor Donald Sutherland once said that he had to develop a ‘romantic’ relationship with his director, even if it’s between two heterosexual men, in order to produce good footage. I see this in my own work too: the best ‘performance’ is usually the one which isn’t actually being ‘acted.’
MH: In your Field Guide to Western Wildflowers (5:37 min, 2000) the camera turns around you and a succession of men locked in a kiss. Behind you is a turning sky filled with flowers identified by their common name, Latin name and an associated quality (Honesty, Anticipation, Reconciliation). Where are these names from and how did you come up with the idea for this tape? How did you structure the running voice-over? And what does this picture perfect world have to do with desire?
WY: I got the idea for Field Guide to Western Wildflowers one morning over breakfast, as I was joking around with my friend (and fellow video artist) Clark Nikolai. The idea of using flowers in the background was actually just a random placeholder; I didn’t know what I wanted in the background yet, so I just said ‘Flower,’ expecting I would get a better idea later. Of course, I never did. Collecting flower images became a long and tedious obsession, as I painstakingly scanned and cut out each one.
Field Guide to Western Wildflowers refers back to the old flower language of the Victorian era, when every flower had a traditional meaning, and it was common to send carefully prepared bouquets in order to communicate a coded message (e.g., red rose means love, white lily means purity). However, in my video, I only sometimes kept the traditional meanings; other times I invented entirely new meanings (e.g., periwinkle means co-dependence), with an eye towards their relevance in describing contemporary gay romance.
My original goal was to kiss 99 guys for this video. I prepared a small invitation card describing the project, with mock-up photos of me kissing Clark. Then I gave copies to three of my friends, who had four weeks to go find 99 volunteers for the shoot. In the end they managed to get 64, which turned out to be plenty. The most successful recruiter (or should I say, ‘pimp’) was Clark, who invited all his bear friends; I often get comments that there seem to be a lot of beards in my video. Clark invited whoever he met at the bar; later he told me some pretty interesting stories about guys who declined to participate, because they would never kiss an Asian man. It’s unfortunate that I had no access to them — it would have made an interesting interview.
The shooting day was eight hours long, divided into ten-minute slots; every kisser knew his pre-assigned time, so that he wouldn’t have to wait too long. Traffic was controlled by my receptionist who sent me each kisser, one at a time.
First, I sat with the kisser and showed him a ‘menu’ of 11 types of kiss, asking him to draw the line. Some wanted only a cocktail kiss in the air, others wanted dry kisses on the lips, while a few wanted the whole menu (one even bit me in his passion, which was inconsiderate, since I still had hours of kissing to do). After shooting a two-minute kiss on a rotating platform (one guy nearly fell off), the kisser went to the next room to do a brief interview with my friend Winston Xin. The theme was: ‘Tell me about your first Asian kiss.’ Since this topic was known to everyone in advance, some took the opportunity to deliver a prepared anecdote (two guys even wrote poems). Others admitted that their very first Asian kiss happened just now, and spoke about that. Clips from these interviews form the audio track of the video (beneath their voices is an old Japanese cabaret song from the 1920s, about a woman who sells melons on the street). The interview stories ranged from sweet and innocent, to exotic and fetishized, to complete surprise that an Asian kiss could just as hot (and just as normal) as any other.
Politically, I was motivated by the idea that no one ever kisses the Asian man onscreen, especially not in the gay media of North America. I wanted to show that gay Asian men are not romantically invisible, and that a wide range of other gay men can appreciate (and have already sampled) the romantic potential of the Asian man. In North America, there’s still a certain shame around having an Asian partner; if a white guy ‘unexpectedly’ takes an Asian lover, his white friends might say ‘but you’re good-looking — why go for an Asian?’ This video is a statement of ‘pride,’ showing men who aren’t ashamed of kissing an Asian, and who aren’t afraid to talk about it either. On a personal level, it was also a kind of farewell to Vancouver. I was planning to move away after finishing this video, and this was the last chance to kiss every boy I’d ever had a crush on!
MH: In Miss Popularity (6:20 min, 2006) you delve into the murk of multiple relationships, taking an approach that is both lyric and documentary. You use a raft of black and white found footage from the 1950s, common currency in fringe media, but unusual for your work: why lean on these borrowed tunes? You close with a forest kissing idyll showing you and a German man. After the distance provoked by the found imagery, was this scene a way to bring the movie ‘back home,’ to give it roots in the present?
WY: I’m frequently inspired by watching the work of other artists, and interested in sampling new visual styles, even if only for one project. The found-footage style of Miss Popularity was inspired by the work of Steve Reinke, who I met during his residency at Video In Studios in 1996, when he made the video Everybody Loves Nothing. It was Steve who first told me about the Prelinger Archives; ten years later, I discovered that these archival films were now available as downloadable movies, which gave me my first opportunity to play with them myself.
Miss Popularity deals with the theme of polyamory, with which I started experimenting in early 2005. Of course my boyfriend(s) knew about it, as did some of my closer friends, but it was hard to discuss openly, due to the social disapproval surrounding the idea of multiple relationships. The power of social disapproval formed the background of many educational films of the 1950s, which tried to teach teenagers the ‘correct’ way to behave as respectable young men and women. This black-and-white world provided the perfect springboard to begin my video. After starting with pure found footage, my own voice is gradually inserted: first through graphic titles, then through voice-over, and finally through camerawork; in the end, there’s no archival material left — only footage of me and my (second) boyfriend Frank. The video progresses from archival to contemporary, from hetero-normative to queer, and from societal to personal.
Miss Popularity represented a milestone for me, being the first finished project which was entirely motivated by my life in Germany. (I’d already completed a few other tapes here, but they were all projects that were initiated in Canada.) I made it in the spring of 2006, after becoming depressed about not making anything in my first three semesters as a postgraduate student at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. I was now facing my fourth and final semester, so I decided to whip out a short video during the semester break, just to prove to myself that I was still capable. In the need for speed, I fell back on the tried and true artistic strategies I’d learned in Canada (i.e., no-budget experimental video, using personal/confessional voiceover). In the end, Miss Popularity has done quite well on the festival circuit, especially in Germany, where this peculiarly Canadian (or generally North American) strategy still stands out as something unusual. But I’m still trying to find my way here, as a Chinese-Canadian video artist who has now chosen to live in Germany. I’m still trying to find my genre, my subject, my audience, and my voice in general. But in the end that’s why I had to leave Canada, although I still love the place: I needed this new challenge, as an artist and as a human being.
Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists, Mike Hoolboom
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2008, pages 174—184.