It's rare when a filmmaker is able to match provocative themes with evocative imagery — and do it consistently. Addressing race and class issues in his arrestingly photographed works, James T. Hong is one such artist. His filmography includes Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is (which won a Golden Gate Award at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival despite its labeling of dot-com-era San Francisco as "the white asshole paradise") and Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version), an excoriation of white guy–Asian girl couples. (It's a comedy, and a brutally funny one at that.)
"To tell you the truth, I've never thought anything I've ever done was very controversial," Hong explains before allowing that the audience at the 2004 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, where Taipei 101 screened, included at least one person who threatened to fight him after the lights came up.
Not that Hong minds. One of his guiding principles as a filmmaker is "to make people think differently about a particular topic, whatever it's about — to see it either in a new light or hear a voice that they themselves can't express," he says. "It's not interesting to show movies to people who already agree with you. It's better to show to a hostile audience."
It's certainly possible that his two newest works, The Denazification of MH and 731, might stir up the wrong (or right) kind of crowd. Both are technically different from films he's made before: Denazification retains his signature narration-over-black-and-white-footage style but is entirely in German; 731 was shot on high-definition color video. Both were created using footage Hong captured while traveling earlier this year; both deal with questions of perspective in individuals and countries greatly affected by World War II.
"I'm just a war nerd," he admits, but his interests extend far beyond those of the casual History Channel viewer. While the 2005 SFIFF featured his Iraq War parable, The Form of the Good, both of his latest efforts tie into his WWII fascination. The experimental 14-minute Denazification, which pays a visit to Martin Heidegger's Black Forest cabin, explores the philosopher's late-in-life struggle to come to terms with his wartime allegiance to the Nazi party.
Hong — who was born in the United States but says he'd jump at the chance to move to China permanently — calls 731 "a regular documentary — at least what I think is a regular documentary." The 30-minute film features footage of an abandoned facility in northern China once used for biowarfare testing. The filmmaker's narration grimly describes the Chinese view of the horrors that transpired there ("3,000 were killed in live-body experiments") — before switching gears and offering the Japanese response ("war and atrocities go hand in hand").
The point-counterpoint structure of 731 prefigures Hong's most ambitious project to date, an in-progress film with the working title New History Zero. "It's a feature-length documentary about the war and revisionism — the way the Japanese see it, the way the Chinese see it, and the way that America has had a huge influence on the way that the Japanese have dealt with the war, which is incompletely."
After Denazification, Hong hopes to make more films in other tongues, to "force people to understand that English is not the only language." But his overriding goal is as personal as it is political.
"My aim now is to communicate more with Asians. I realized that most of the Asian Americans I've encountered don't like my work. Either it's too nonnarrative — they're more into the Hollywood type of movies — or it disturbs the kind of quietist attitude that they have," he says. "They want to just fit in like everybody else. They don't want to look like assholes. My aim is always to show that no, we are assholes — everybody is." (Cheryl Eddy)