A Transnational Fantasy Fiction
Gökçen Fındıkçı • 24.12.2023
Hair, it is something very worthy of our obsession. Through everyday scenes we are forced to think about it, perhaps in a similar way -at least for me- to dust; things of life that constantly change their shape and insist on not disappearing, and as is the eternal story of matters that are somehow always there, to consider using them as the fabric or theme within your art is a very clever and inclusive way of working. As is the case within Bo Wang’s new transnational fantasy fiction essay titled, ''An Asian Ghost Story'' which had its premiere at DOK Leipzig 2023 as part of the International Competition Documentary Film, where it won the Golden Dove and also gained a sincere appreciation from the audience.
The film opens by inviting us to everyday places somewhere in Asia, while a voice-over begins to recount some details. It is the late 60s, there is a 'Union', and we get a clearer idea of the political conjecture of the time. “It was a strange time, with strange things and strange people”.
One day, a worker tells a story to her colleagues about a wig factory worker who once encountered a ghost; she appeared out of a broken radio while the song ''When You Will Return'' was playing. The ghost used to be a Japanese woman who somehow ended up in China and died in the North. After her death, all of her hair was cut and sold to a wig factory and ever since her spirit has resided within that hair. The woman also reveals that she intended to keep this story a secret, but obviously, could not resist the temptation to speculate about the real owner of the hair and eventually broke her promise. As a result, we are now a witness to this story too, which may serve as an attempt to unravel the mystery.
‘’Commodities are always transformed to conceal their past
But the past never dissipates’’
Under the melancholic atmosphere of the post-Cold War era, the export of real hair wigs contributed to Asia’s economic development with Hong Kong as a major hub. In its heyday in the 1960s, “Asian real hair” was popular among wealthy U.S. women, but then the States imposed an embargo on the product which was now classified as “communist hair”. From this point on, the obscure and innovatively composed story begins to layer on top of this defined socio-political state. The story embroiders the main conceptual idea and incorporates the incarnate ghost story. The narrative switches to that of a tale and flies fluidly through lands and continents, progressively conquering the theme from all possible aspects.
On one hand, Wang bends reality throughout the film from a variety of angles. On the other hand, he creates witnesses by collaging mass-media footage, like putting a rug under the scene to revive the memory of a generation. The narrative is tightly woven around this collective remembrance in an allegorical and joyful way, alongside the retro self-shooting parts as if in a of position of confirmation - highly humorous, interlocking the story, enriching it and taking it to another level. Although Wang composes a rich amount of visual materials, it all blends seamlessly and shares a common aesthetic integrity. Through additional frames added in-between scenes, Wang displays boldness in experimenting and leaves a signature. In the middle of the film, the narrative continues and leads the audience into a trance-like dream state through inverted narration and increased speed. Wang’s ability to create a rhythmic sensation through the use of montage and sound, effectively rise the tension. The story strongly bears a fictional character and becomes a convincing and cleverly thought out unique fantasy.
‘’Too many memories to leave behind’’
After this odd fairytale-like journey, a sense of nostalgia begins the surface and gently starts to make its presence felt. The past now appears through a dusty glass, like a ghost, somewhere over there, and it is hard to believe it is reality. I then start to understand how personal and international this story is. While the song by Teresa Teng - one of the most successful and influential Asian pop singers of that time - plays in the background, I start to wonder what kind of role she played in this collective memory. That makes me nostalgic as well and prompts me to reflect on the past. As ''When You Will Return'' still plays continues to play, Wang consoles us with a warm embrace.
An Interview with Bo Wang
Gökçen Fındıkçı: Firstly of course, how did you conceive of this project? Or to be more precise; what was the initial reason for you to develop this film?
Bo Wang: This project came about from a commission invitation from the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), Hong Kong, themed around the textile industry and modernization in East Asia. This was the beginning of covid, and I came across a news that Chinese wig factories were looking for skillful workers as they had already outsourced the most labour-intensive part of the production to North Korea, who closed its border after the outbreak. The result was the increase of the price of wigs globally. This made me consider wig as my research object for the exhibition. It is an ignored commodity whose production and distribution have been mapped out on a transnational scale since very long ago. Due to covid, it was not realistic to travel to either China or Hong Kong, so I decided to focus on archival material instead of conducting fieldwork. The majority of the film was filmed in The Netherlands with non-professional actors (except one), and I had a cinematographer do some extra location shots in Hong Kong. I also recycled some of my own footage from previous projects.
GF: How did you structure the film? Did you have a defining backbone from the beginning?
BW: The film also experiments with voice-over. I was inspired by Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). In the last part of Kwaidan, the storytelling voice was obscurely both inside and outside the world of the story. I worked with the essayistic format in my previous films, which were often grounded in a more documentary approach. In this work, I sought to further explore possibilities of voice-over story-tellings, and how it could provide a ghostly quality to film.
GF: I wonder how long it took to write the script and how it evolved. Can you tell me a bit more about that process? I am also curious about the reality behind ‘EVPL’, better to confess that I was so convinced!
BW: The actual script writing took about 3 months after I decided to focus on the film knowing the limitation of not being able to travel there. But before that, I had been reading and researching the topic for about a year – partially thanks to Covid, and also CHAT had given me enough time in advance when reaching out to me.
Glad to hear that you find it convincing! EVP actually existed but EVPL was my invention – L for linguistics. All the stories and figures mentioned by the “expert” in the film are based on facts. Since the late 19th century, the inventions of modern communication technologies like radio have actually advanced transcommunication, the study of communication with the dead or the spiritual world. In comparison to visuals, sound has always been believed to have an indirect but transcendent quality, capable of connecting to the otherly world. That was the background of the EVP (electronic voice phenomena) device, invented by Konstantīns Raudive and Friedrich Jürgenson. EVPL is just a combination of EVP and big data ideas that are so common in our technology thinking today. As a practitioner, I often pay particular attention to the role of sound in my works. I am happy that my interests on sound and the peculiar history of transcommunication come together in this film.
GF: Regarding archival material use, could you tell me more about the process and your experiences working with the archives? Did you already know from the start what you specifically were looking for, or was it more like random catches/fits?
BW: Prior to this project, I worked on several projects in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2019. These projects focused on the spatial politics in Hong Kong, with a particular interest on how colonialism had shaped its space and how it hides behind some other issues which are more contemporary. So I have had a quite extensive archive of material. When working on An Asian Ghost Story, some clips that never made into previous projects but I had been so fond of arose to my attention. For instance the interview with the government official on his personal belief on ghost had been one of my all time favourites. These footages played a role in how I structured the rest of the film.
GF: Also regarding your biography; you have been travelling across the continents. Do you define yourself as an immigrant? How did your journey and interests in mass media and pop culture started to relate to each other? Did distance help you to be an ethnographer in your own culture? And did you used to listen a lot to Teresa Teng?
BW: I actually don’t know if I define myself as an immigrant, but I think these experiences living in different places helped me to reflect on my relationship to places. It is often with distance that you start to recall things that you didn’t pay enough attention to, which is often the case when looking back to my own culture. I guess mass media and pop culture nowadays are crucial in how we experience a place, they define certain sensibilities, whether authentic or not might not be the question. Teresa Teng more belonged to my parents’ generation, but we grew up inevitably hearing a lot. For my parents’ generation in the 80s, it was a song that opened up forbidden sensibilities and signaled the opening up of the country. Just another anecdote, Liu Xue’an, the composer of “When Will You Return” went to the same highschool of mine. The song was originally composed for a movie made in Shanghai in the 1930s, and quickly became a transasian hit. In the 1950s, he was accused of being bourgeoisie because of this song and several other similar ones. He ended up in a labor camp for more than 10 years, coming back home fully blinded. This story is not well known, but it always resonates with me, giving a deep sense of sadness undertone to the song.
GF: As a multidisciplinary media artist, how do you decide which format reflects the idea best?
BW: An Asian Ghost Story was originally exhibited as a single-channel video installation at CHAT, displayed together with some objects in a space that resembled a sanitized room. After the exhibition, we applied for fundings from the Netherlands Filmfond, to complete the film version. I would say I am practical in conceiving formats, often taking direct considerations of possible showcase conditions.
GF: How easy is it for you to get funding?
BW: Actually not easy at all so far. Previously, living in the US and China meant very limited public fundings. I was very used to improvising with a small budget. The Netherlands has a quite good funding system. But as long as I am still involved in a PhD program, I am not eligible for Mondriaan.
An Asian Ghost Story was supported by CHAT for the video installation. Afterwards, when we got the festival invitation from CPH:DOX, we applied for Netherlands Filmfonds’ finishing grant so that we could complete the postproduction of the film version. Well, I hope it can be easier in the future.