Dual film screening asked to whom history belongs

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Photo by Bobby Zipp

Hong Kong-based filmmaker and film professor Louisa Wei let her work speak mostly for itself when she presented it to a smattering of students and other community members on Tuesday,  October 7 in the LPAC Cinema.  She introduced her movie, “Golden Gate Silver Light,” with a few words of background information and a quick clarification on the presence of subtitles.  During the screening, she reacted together with the audience members through laughter and full-bodied sights in response to amusement and mild shock at the story being told.  At the end of her presentation, Wei concisely answered a few questions, one of them with a clever, almost coy sounding variation of, “Well, what do you think?”

Unassuming and honest, Wei revealed her artistic motive only subtly towards the end of the event.  It seems wrong to open coverage of an event with a detail from its closing, but there isn’t a better way to introduce the recent screening of Wei’s work than with what she said as the audience prepared itself to leave — “History should belong to everybody.”

The meaning seems obvious, but becomes more layered when considered in tandem with the work displayed.  Perhaps considering the presentation of the material backwards sheds more light on its purpose.

The films shown were a short titled “The Heart’s Mouth,” by Professor of Film and Media Studies Erica Cho, and “Golden Gate Silver Light” — Wei’s 2013 documentary chronicling the life of 20th-century film director Esther Eng.  Born in San Francisco to Chinese parents surnamed Ng, Eng embarked on an ambitious film career both in the States and in China, changing the spelling of her name in the process.  Eng was a cinematic trailblazer, representing Asian American, female, and queer performers and filmmakers in a period of American cinematic history during which members of those groups could be counted on one hand.

Wei tells the story and importance of Eng’s life both in traditional documentary narrative, with interviews from family and colleagues, and in context, explaining the lives and times of Eng’s contemporaries.  The film tells parallel stories of fellow filmmaker Dorothy Arzner and Chinese actress Anna May Wong.  Ostracized and oppressed, these women succeeded in moving themselves forward despite barriers that the director does not even bother mentioning.  The film is almost campy despite its power.  Interestingly, though, there is little sense of solidarity in struggle among these women despite their being on seemingly common ground.  Their lives and personal characters are said to be full of compassion, energy and friendship.  Yet it is understood that they struggled regularly, and were ultimately alone.

Eng kept no written record of her life.  There are no known audio or video documents featuring her.  Much of the information Wei had at hand to put the film together was a dumpster’s worth of photo reels of Eng and her family, offering insight on where she lived and where to look for interview subjects.  In these images, we see Eng’s willingness to push limits as she readily embraces men and poses provocatively (by the standards of her circumstances, at least) with women.  The demanding interpretation of the only insight into Eng’s life portrays Louisa Wei as a true visual historian and the film as a historical work.

The presentation of Wei’s film was preceded by Cho’s “The Heart’s Mouth.”  The work probably merits an analysis longer than this piece, but a basic understanding of both its obvious and subtle connections to the main event is important in realizing the value of Wei’s closing statement.  Cho’s film, made on commission for the San Jose Museum of Art, is a fantasy sequence from a longer work that involves a dreamlike encounter of love between two nameless, scarcely made-up young men set to Nat King Cole’s version of “Nature Boy.”  The scene is vivid without being lurid, romantic without being erotic — a totally charming experience.

Later, “Nature Boy” appears in Wei’s film in the form of a specially commissioned saxophone cover.  It was apparently a coincidental overlap, but it still makes the connection between the two pieces more clear.

The films present a changing history in two different ways.  Wei’s approach is retrospective, relying on details of the past to make statements on the nature of the present and expectations for the future.  Cho, on the other hand, presents a work that is immediately evident as part of history in the making.  In neither film is it explicitly voiced what is important or unusual in the stories being told.  The (rightfully) assumed and implied legitimacy of media of all groups runs as a theme through both of them.  A conception of this theme adds to the understanding of Wei’s soft-spoken closing statement: history should belong to everybody not only as it is read, but as it is written.

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