Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Productionist Metaphysics (short works)

by on April 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

7:30 at 92Y Tribeca [Program & Tix]
Director James T Hong will be at 92Y Tribeca tonight for an on-stage discussion with independent curator Chi-hui Yang and UnionDocs writer Colin Beckett. The talk follows a program of new works co-directed by Hong and Yin-Ju Chen (his wife, I do believe) as well as a 35-minute, 35mm film by Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan: Grossraum (Borders of Europe, 2004-05, silent).
Penny Lane introduces the director in the Brooklyn Rail:

Although expressly political, James T. Hong is not your typical activist filmmaker. He has said, “I don’t think movies always have to have socially uplifting value. For the most part, if they do, it’s boring.” Rather, he provokes people to reconsider their own ideology, biases, and received wisdom. He refers to San Francisco, usually thought of a progressive haven, as a “White Asshole Paradise” (Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is, 2000). His titles can be sarcastic, such as A Portrait of Sino-American Friendship (2007), which depicts a chubby American businessman yelling into a cellular phone while a prostrate Chinese woman massages his feet. The xenophobia of America is mocked by with millions of ants swarming over a map of America (Total Mobilization, 2006), and exposing China’s “Million Flower Movement” to subjugate White America (The Coldest War, 2006). In other films, he takes on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the legacy of Hitler’s Germany, white guys’ love of Asian women, the global influx of American “crap,” Plato’s cave as allegory for the Iraq War, and more.

The profile leads into an interview with Hong where he explains why he became a filmmaker:

In grad school, I realized that academia was mostly unpleasant, and mostly just kissing ass. Also, my specialty was German metaphysics. It’s not so easy to get a job in that.

Moderator Colin Beckett waxed rhapsodically after Hong’s October 2010 appearance at Union Docs:

James T. Hong is on to something. At the conclusion of the hour-long discussion that followed his Sunday night screening at UnionDocs, a friend turned to me and said: “I think I found a new hero”. That exhilaration, shared by myself and, it seemed, everyone I spoke with, is difficult to account for given that Hong showed only 45 minutes of his own work. On top of the two short shorts of his own, Behold The Asian (1998) and Taipei 101 (2004), he presented excerpts from films important to his development. He is as canny a programmer as he is a filmmaker, and with these clips he created a context for himself that offers some hint of what he is up to. Hong works within established forms — experimental documentary, and the video essay, mainly. Both of the shorts he screened begin in familiar territory. But each of them move quickly towards less comfortable ground and by the time they end, it is hard to be sure of what you have just witnessed. Hong’s confrontational films explode the established pieties of the political avant-garde, re-drawing the map of territory claimed long ago.

Here’s how Hong was glossed in the program notes for that Union Docs show:

James T. Hong’s work emerges from the conflicts between different regimes of truth, of power, and of what is unsaid. As a filmmaker, he emphasizes the manipulative features of cinema itself, where the essential hermeneutic aspect of filmmaking, even so-called “experimental film,” makes cinema a form of ideology or propaganda par excellence.

If only the phrase “regimes of truth” could go unsaid.
I am intrigued by the stills and synopsis for End Transmission:

A decoded, alien environmental message, structured as a hypnotic experimental film, forcefully and poetically warns us of their return and the planet’s re-colonization.






James T Hong is best known for Lessons of the Blood, his 2010 documentary about the atrocities committed in occupied China during World War II. Blood is *not* on tonight’s program, but here’s some information for the curious.
Mara Math for Cinesource Magazine:

Perhaps the most controversial of the locally-connected docs is “Lessons of the Blood,” in which James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen conclusively reveal the horrors still lingering from Japan’s bio-warfare experiments during World War II. During the Japanese occupation of China, Unit 731 conducted experiments on Chinese civilians, the horrors of which are still active in those who survived. It’s a corrective particularly relevant in the Bay Area, given that just an hour north of San Francisco, the Travis Air Force base hosts the Jimmy Doolittle Air and Space Museum. As “Lessons” documents, the (in)famous Doolittle Raids in China were among the events whose terrible reality has been obscured by propaganda and mythologizing.
Hong and Chen’s decision to make the film was sparked by the publication of a new Japanese high school history textbook in 2003 withih which the Nanking Massacre was described as an ‘incident’ and relegated to a footnote. […] The former San Franciscans left their home of twelve years to complete “Lessons.” “We moved to Berlin in 2008 because we got a grant from the German government to finish this movie,” Hong explains. “I’d applied for a lot of grants in the U.S. and got almost nothing.” He agrees that one likely reason the German government supported the making of “Lessons of the Blood” was to show that the Nazis weren’t the only war criminals. But in Europe there’s more support for the arts generally, it’s easier to get funding here, it’s not easy at all in the U.S.


Production Notes from Hong’s website:

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States launched an audacious air raid against the home islands of Imperial Japan which is now called the “Doolittle Raid.” Since it was early in the US involvement in the Pacific War, the raid needed to be launched from aircraft carriers in the enemy-controlled waters east of Japan.
After the raid, 15 of the 16 B-25 bombers flew over Japan and toward China. Low on fuel, the pilots were forced to crash land or bail out over the Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces of eastern China. Most of the American pilots made it to safety with the help of Chinese civilians.
Desperate to find the Americans, in 1942 the Japanese military launched the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign in a effort to intimidate and punish the Chinese for helping the downed American airmen. The Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians while searching for the Americans, and more sinisterly, the Japanese military also used biological weapons of at least 6 pathogens, including anthrax, plague, cholera, and typhoid, against the local population and along the Zhejiang-Jiangxi railway.
In the remote areas where the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign was waged, there are now a number of hamlets called “Rotten Leg Villages” where still surviving evidence of biological warfare exists. In 2005, there were hundreds of surviving old people with incurable, open, and rotting legs or appendages. These people had been victims of Japan’s World War Two bacteriological warfare as children or teenagers, and they now suffered from horrible, open wounds which still have never healed.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →