Behold the trenchant talents of James T. Hong.
By Cheryl Eddy
JAMES T. Hong is aware that he might offend you. You might, for example, bristle upon hearing that "San Francisco, the most beautiful city," is also "the white asshole paradise." And though that bit of narration is spoken in Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is, a Golden Gate Award winner at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival from the point of view of an asylum escapee, Hong isn't afraid to agree with it.
And the declaration in his film? "It's meant to be, you know, controversial."
Hong is no stranger to controversy; his more caustic works tend to leave an imprint on the viewer. The 2005 San Francisco International Asian Film Festival slotted Hong's Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version) into a program of comedy shorts. Shot during a flu-plagued trip to Taiwan, the movie has moments of hilarity (esteemed director Hou Hsiao-hsien is spotted "sucking from a drink box"), but it's also an indictment of globalization; American-style crap, Hong finds, is everywhere, haunting even the prized Taipei 101 skyscraper.
On his journey, Hong coolly films couples consisting of white guys (inevitably fat and/or funny looking) and Asian women. His voice-overs are self-censored, with the most biting remarks bleeped out: "Look at this example," Hong muses about one mismatched pair. "Whatever the reasons, it must somehow involve (Bleep!)"
"I made a cut that was a little bit longer and not censored," Hong says. "I gave it to some people I know, and they wouldn't talk to me afterwards. They were really offended. So then I looked at it again, and I realized it was offensive in an insulting way, not in an interesting way. So I bleeped out some stuff and cut out some stuff to make it more acceptable, to make it more humorous."
Even with the censoring, though, Hong's objective remains intact. "All of us have certain thoughts about other races and other people, but we just don't say. We censor ourselves. It's a fine line between what offends people and what is interesting and thought-provoking. And my aim is never just to piss everybody off it's more to make people think about a particular idea in a more honest way."
For some audiences, however, Hong's honesty can be too brutal. When Taipei 101 played at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival in late 2004, he was greeted with a certain amount of outrage. "At the screenings, people yelled at me. They screamed at me white guys. They thought it was a racist work, and that all I did was insult people, and that there's no place for that, particularly in a documentary."
Hong disagrees, with good reason. "I don't think movies always have to have socially uplifting value. For the most part, if they do, it's boring. I like to make people uncomfortable, because I like movies that make me uncomfortable. It makes me remember them."
Race is always a key theme for Hong. "My idea was to confront certain problems like racism with the language of racism itself. If you use racist concepts against the idea of racism itself, to me that's more interesting." Hong cites Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied "a confrontational work; I think it was very powerful" as an artistic influence in this regard.
"Another big influence is obviously that I'm not white," says Hong, who is U.S.-born and ethnically Chinese. "Here in the United States, I'm sort of conflated with other ethnicities: Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, it doesn't matter. In Asia it's a big deal. But here we're the same. So this term 'Asian' I've always found sort of problematic. I choose it just out of solidarity to other people here. My work is trying to fight a certain idea of what Asians are like: law-abiding, hard workers, quiet. So the form I took was not to be like that to be more forceful and strong."
Stylistically, if not thematically, the D.V.-shot Taipei 101 is a departure for Hong, whose usual medium is black-and-white film mixed with found footage and layered with "authoritative voice, some type of music, and some sound effects." A University of Southern California film school dropout ("It wasn't for me"), Hong sees cinema as the ideal way to communicate ideas as opposed to "just writing a paper, which is what you do in grad school." Before USC, Hong was briefly a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Illinois; originally, he's from Minneapolis. His work is strongly influenced by San Franciscans Craig Baldwin ("to me, the ideal artist") and Bruce Conner; he's also a fan of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's eight-hour experimental opus Hitler: A Film From Germany to which Hong's first film, Condor: A Film from California, makes direct reference. For Hong, Syberberg's film demonstrates how "you could talk about issues that people don't talk about, and talk about it in a way that's more honest and forthright, or sometimes insulting."
Hong's Hitler fascination is most evident in his longest film, The Spear of Destiny: A Film for Everyone and No One, which debuted in 2004 and is in the process of being reedited into an entirely new film, SOD 2: Recapitulation (one segment, the four-minute "The Form of the Good" a comment on the current war in Iraq, by way of Plato's parable of the cave played as a self-contained short at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival). The original Spear of Destiny, which Hong now deems "too oblique," features a character who wears a Nazi uniform. "The idea of Hitler as an artist has always been interesting the way of making politics a work of art," he says. Not coincidentally, he's also a Leni Riefenstahl admirer: she's "arguably the greatest filmmaker of the 20th century."
Of course, Hong is no goose-stepping fanatic. ("I grew up in Minnesota people there love German stuff," he says when asked to explain the roots of his Hitler interest). But he does strive for moral ambiguity in his work, and he enjoys conflict, praising Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ for that reason: "I like that he courted so much controversy and used the controversy to sell tickets. I find that actually very ingenious." (Unlike Gibson, however, Hong prefers dealing with what he calls the "violence of ideas," rather than gory physical violence.) Hong's production company, Zukunftsmusik, employs a hammer logo that crystallizes the aim of his films. "It's sort of in your face, confrontational."
Next up for Hong is Total Mobilization, a nine-minute collaboration with artist Yin-Ju Chen that uses ants as a metaphor for immigrants. Unlike his previous films, it has no narration, just images (in one segment, ants swarm over an outline map of the United States). But don't expect Hong to be silenced any time soon. "Some people think 'experimental' just means 'shitty,' and frequently it does," he opines. "I'm experimental to the extent that I think a lot of what I do stinks. But at least I tried to do something different."
Overall, he's surprisingly optimistic when it comes to filmmaking. "I like to attack greater issues. And if I can piss someone off enough where they actually want to make something themselves, I think I will have succeeded."
'Total Mobilization' plays as part of "Pirated: A Post Asian Perspective," Tues/24, 8 p.m., SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan, S.F. $5. www.kearnystreet.org.