Clara Law (Law Cheuk-yiu) has amassed a substantial body of work as a writer and/or director, with upward of twenty feature credits between 1985 and 2015. Starting with her early Hong Kong–based films addressing sexuality, The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (Pan Jin Lian zhi qian shi jin sheng, 1989) and Temptation of a Monk (1993), Law embraced transnational cinema through invitations and awards from major international film festivals, as well as participating in Erotique (1994), a compilation film with multinational contributors. Her work insistently interrogates the interconnections among concepts of Asia, transcultural migrations, and filmmaking practice through narratives that exceed “Chineseness” both in terms of culture and ethnicity, and in terms of expectations for Asian women directors. Reconfigurations of sexual and cultural identity, and geopolitical correspondences and differentiations, consistently recur in her filmic narratives, as characters encounter new personal, cultural, racial and ethnic formations in the wake of geopolitical transmigrations.
Given that this is a feminist journal, it may be useful to note at the outset that Clara Law's work rarely takes up feminist issues overtly. Most of her narratives feature cisgender and heteronormative, albeit equally matched, couples and families. Only rarely do we find a character trajectory that one might describe as feminist, as in Yiyi's development from gauche ingenue to a competent role-model type in Like a Dream (Ru meng, 2009), or teenage hooker Jane's increasing empathy, maturity, and independence in Farewell China (Ai zai taxiang de jijie, 1990). More frequent in Law's complex depictions of women protagonists are embodiments of the pains of Chinese diasporic life in the context of transcultural migration. In the feminist analysis of Law's work that follows, we attend to her proclivity for genres often considered gynocentric as well as her gender-conscious play with those very conventions.1 As feminist critics, we celebrate a woman filmmaker who has amassed a substantial body of work over a lengthy career. That body of work is not only structurally multifarious, visually distinctive, and occasionally lyrically poetic, but also generative in its dicussions of political, philosophical, and sociocultural issues, and profoundly evocative in its multilayered approach to personal experience.
Although for many years feminist film theory decried auteurism as a critical approach, nevertheless considerations of a director's work as an oeuvre have persisted not only in studies of classic directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and the Europeans who theorized la politique des auteurs, but also in popular considerations of contemporary directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, and others. Rarely are women directors accorded such critical attention or included in “great directors” or auteurist college courses.2 Indeed, Agnès Varda, the lone woman director among the French New Wave, has only recently been celebrated with the respect that has been lavished on her male contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and the rest, including Varda's former husband, Jacques Demy.3 Yet it must be acknowledged that the omission of women directors from the auteurist “pantheon” (Andrew Sarris's term) has come about partly because, as statistics clearly demonstrate, women directors seldom have access to continued production.4 Clara Law is one of the few women directors who have amassed a significant body of work over multiple decades.
In the context of gendered narratives in relation to authorship, it is well documented in contemporary data that women directors tend to include more women not only as protagonists, but also in secondary roles.5 Law's principal characters are frequently heterosexual couples or families, and both men and women characters tend to be depicted through basic human desires and dilemmas in the transcultural or transnational context. Like a Dream is typical of this gender-balanced representation, as both the male and the female protagonists undergo a spiritual crisis that binds them together. In some of her films, such as Farewell China, The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (Pan Jin Lian zhi qian shi jin sheng, 1989), Autumn Moon (Qiu yue, 1992), Floating Life (1996), and The Goddess of 1967 (2000), women characters are unusually complicated and symbolically redolent, as they often represent the political persecutions and cultural discomforts of migration.
MIGRATION, EXILE, TRANSCULTURAL IDENTITY, AND GENDERED GENRES
The history of Chinese women's cinema illustrates how women's participation in filmmaking is geopolitically and historically contingent, and how women's films' meanings resist uniform interpretation. Gender matters in understanding Chinese women's cinema, but is itself a historically and geopolitically specific concept always in need of close examination. It is in and through a diverse cinematic engagement with historical forces, whether of the market, politics, or patriarchal traditions at national, transnational, or diasporic levels, that Chinese women filmmakers, as historical and authorial subjects, have exhibited their agency, reorienting gender configurations and articulating different meanings and aesthetics in history.6
This observation by Lingzhen Wang is particularly appropriate for a consideration of the work of Clara Law, as her films are inextricably linked to the historical and sociopolitical circumstances of their making. At multiple times throughout her life, Law fled oppressive political regimes and engaged with a new sociocultural milieu, and she reflects her responses to such junctures in her films.
This article will address the geographically and historically contingent themes of migration and exile that recur repeatedly in Law's films. Those thematic concerns are inflected by the structural protocols of feminized genres such as melodrama, romantic comedy, and family drama, as well as through explicitly feminist endeavors such as her contribution to the omnibus film Erotique (1994). Because Law's films are specifically located not only geographically but also historically and sociopolitically, and because they are inextricably connected to her own successive migrations and the sociopolitical and cultural environments that surround their making, our critical approach to her films situates her dominant themes in a biographical context.
Clara Law Cheuk-yiu was born in 1957 in Macau, a Portuguese colony at the time. The early years of her life coincided with a period of rapid and significant change in the Asian sociopolitical landscape after the installation of the Communist government in China in 1949. Relations between Macau and the People's Republic of China came to a head with a major border clash between Portuguese African troops and Chinese Communist border guards in 1962, followed by a more serious incident in December 1966. In January 1967, the Portuguese governor effectively ceded control of Macau to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. With the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) in full swing on the mainland, the Law family left Macau and moved to British-ruled Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Law attended British schools, studied English literature at university, and, upon graduation in 1978, started working at Radio Television Hong Kong as an assistant producer and director. She directed twelve drama programs between 1978 and 1981. In 1982 she began studying film direction and screenwriting at the National Film and Television School in England, winning the Silver Plaque Award at the Chicago Film Festival for her 1985 graduation film, They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here.7
After film school, Law went back to Hong Kong to work in the enormous and prolific commercial film industry there, where she rapidly developed skills in a variety of genres. She began her feature film career with The Other Half and the Other Half (Wo ai tai kong ren, 1988) a raucous slapstick comedy from a script by Eddie Ling-Ching Fong, who had been working in the Hong Kong film industry as a screenwriter and occasional director since 1980, and who soon became Law's life partner. The Temptation of Golden Lotus (Pan Jin Lian zhi qian shi jin sheng, 1989), Law's second Hong Kong feature, was distributed worldwide by Golden Harvest Company, then one of the largest studios in Hong Kong. It was also Law's first film invited to an international film festival and something of a turning point for her. Law and Fong flourished in the Hong Kong industry, making five feature films over five years. By the third, Farewell China, they were working with top stars and backed by the full resources of Golden Harvest Studios, with location shooting in New York.
As is well known, the Hong Kong studios were commercially driven: they emphasized genres and stars, with exacting standards in production values. For Law to succeed here immediately was a tribute to her talents and skills. Her professional success also coincided with what is known as the second-generation Hong Kong New Wave, which arose in the early 1990s and included Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan. Their films are distinguished for their sumptuous production values (including helicopter shots, an expensive embellishment before the advent of drones) and are often located in the ultramodern cityscapes that Hong Kong and Shanghai had developed so rapidly over the previous few decades.
As the 1997 end date of British rule approached in Hong Kong, the industry was perceived to be in decline, although it has since regained its ubiquity in global cinema. The next migration of Law's life came about in 1994, when she and her husband moved to Melbourne, Australia.
FLOATING LIFE (1996)
Of all Law's films, Floating Life has inspired the most scholarship and thus sets the tone for discussions of all of her work. In many ways it is her signature film, whose motifs and cinematographic practices radiate through all of her work. Tony Mitchell writes that it has achieved “the status of a major cultural text about the dilemmas, struggles, and self-management strategies of Asian migrants in Australia,” and that the title has become a metaphor for the double displacement, deterritorialization, and dislocation of migrants: it was used by an ethnographic study of media use by Asian migrants in Australia, as well as in an anthropology article about the transcultural experiences of Hong Kong migrants in Sydney.8 Another example of such metaphorical use can be found in the title of Dominic Pettman's 2000 article on Hong Kong cinema, “The Floating Life of Fallen Angels: Unsettled Communities and Hong Kong Cinema.”9
Floating Life was produced in Australia under the auspices of the Australia Film Commission (now Screen Australia), a government body similar to Canada's Telefilm Canada. Other than Hollywood, Bollywood, and Hong Kong, most countries—including France, Britain, Italy, and now even China—subsidize their national film industries, and films tend to be made on a more or less independent basis; production budgets rarely rise to blockbuster levels. Although the contrast between the Australian film industry and the experience of working in one of the largest studios in the world couldn't have been more striking, Law and Fong nevertheless adapted resourcefully to their new production conditions. For Floating Life they brought over an art director from Hong Kong, but otherwise gathered a crew of mostly Australian professionals in key positions (producers, cinematographer, editor, composer, sound) and sourced the cast from the Australian Chinese diaspora.
The domestic settings, concentration on a small family group, and emotional tone of the film situate it as a family drama, similar to the classic soap opera or the bildungsroman. This is a feminized or gynocentric genre, like other forms of “chick flicks” such as romantic comedy and melodrama. In the film, the Chan family, consisting of an elderly father and mother with two young boys, has migrated from Hong Kong to Australia to join their adult daughter and son-in-law. Another daughter is married and living in Munich, while an adult son remains behind in Hong Kong waiting for his papers to be processed so he can join the family in Australia. Yet he has, as Stephen Teo suggests, a sense of what a Chinese aphorism dubs “‘heaviness in moving’—the burden that we feel when we have to move house.”10
Consistent with the genre, the film is structured around family dwellings in successive episodes that take place in the countries where the Chan family members reside (Hong Kong, Germany, and Australia, and hints about Canada). The segments are introduced by titles: “A House in Germany,” “A House in Australia,” “A House in China” (a still photo of an old hutong-style house, the father's nostalgic memory of a house “radiating harmony and strength”), “A House Without a Tree” (a kangaroo hops by, in a humorous nod to the Australian icon), “A House in Turmoil,” “A Big House,” and “Mui Mui's House” (in Munich). As the film proceeds, emotional interpersonal and intercultural scenes, especially in hearth settings (the kitchen) and transitional spaces (hallways and staircases), find various members of the family ravaged by fear, nostalgia, and despair. In one touching scene, the elderly mother constructs an altar to pray for an end to her daughter's psychosis brought on by displacement, while the daughter looks on from the staircase above, the strong Australian sun piercing the domestic setting. Teo points out that “one of the signs with which Clara Law has reduced the universal to the local is her way of looking at the family as an entity enjoined with the concept of home.… Floating Life shows how Chinese family values, and thus, Chinese culture, are a part of the universal flow of migration to other countries and the ironic results that occur in keeping or observing such values in a foreign environment.”11 At the end, in “The Big House” episode, as a signal of accommodation and acclimatization, Dad plans to build a lotus pond and a greenhouse to grow tea (his old profession), and notes that they have plenty of land for all the children to build houses, thereby reuniting the family. Mui Mui, the central character of the final episode set in Munich, is the young grandchild; she seems just fine, as the film ends with her running and laughing in a place that has always been her home. Teo situates Floating Life as
a signpost towards a still nascent movement in [Australia], which is the creation of an Asian-Australian cinema … a generic cousin to the American films of Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Eat a Bowl of Tea, Life Is Cheap but Toilet Paper Is Expensive), Peter Wang (A Great Wall), Ang Lee (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet), and the documentary films of Christine Choy (Who Killed Vincent Chin?).… This migrant experience is fraught with anxiety and a sense of trepidation if not outright dread: a far cry from the kind of new world optimism and pioneer spirit that might be the migrant experience of the text books and of popular myth.12
Only a few years after Teo's reading, Tony Mitchell took a different approach, seeing the film as more outward than inward looking: a “Hong Kong migrant reading of Australia, defamiliarizing and recontextualizing familiar Australian localities and geo-political formations, contrasting them with the film's other principal loci of Hong Kong and Germany.”13
Mitchell's article is a reader's guide to the robust literature on Floating Life. The film has been subjected to a remarkable range of critical approaches, including Freudian melancholia and loss in relation to racial difference and assimilation; placement “within notions of an ‘Australian Self’ derived from Australian cinematic canons”; multilingual, transnational, and mobile themes of displacement and alienation highlighting “the diasporic condition of homesickness and the longing for belonging”; and locating the film within a feminist discourse of “bringing the ancestors home” on the margins of a traditionally white, masculine Australian landscape, thus positioning it as operating within bell hooks's notion of “a site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.”14 Mitchell emphasizes, however, that it is much more than an “issue-based” film. He highlights its intimations of a positive, liminal state of “in-betweenness” that situate it within much broader social and existential parameters. He cites Law's cinematographic practice, production design, and use of distinctive color codes created by contrasting uses of film stocks, filters, and levels of exposure.15 These elements subjectively delineate the three principal settings and offer a stylized, expressionistic view that suggests the different perceptions and experiences of the various family members.16 “In any case,” Mitchell adds, “it is a film which situates Australia within a Hong Kong-Chinese migrant diaspora framework, rather than the other way around.… Instead of telling an Australian ‘migrant’ story, then, Floating Life situates its ‘floating’ characters in the context of Hong Kong diasporic migration to the USA, Australia and Canada, and situates Australia, and Australian dilemmas of identity, firmly with an Asia Pacific regional context.”17 We quote Mitchell at length here because his reading clearly positions the film as a nodal point in Law's career and suggests its capaciousness as a rich cinematic text.
In an online interview following the 1996 premiere at the London Film Festival, Law said that her education had left her feeling at times more Western than Chinese. In search of her own authentic culture, for a time she rejected the Western elements of her upbringing. She subsequently asserted Floating Life as a signal of the end of that period, wherein she accepted her dual cultural identity as a life-enriching heritage.18
REVOLUTION, SUFFERING WOMEN, AND MODERNITY
The misery of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution is a significant motif throughout Law's work. Ideologically harsh and physically brutal, it punished the bourgeois elite and educated classes by sending them to work in factories and fields. Yet while claiming the liberating goal of defeating oppressive feudal practices such as binding women's feet, it nevertheless upheld traditional patriarchal values that subjected women to sexual repression. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (1989) critiques the repressive patriarchal practices of the Cultural Revolution, presaging a powerful direction for Law's later work. The film is based on an adaptation of the novel and screenplay by Lillian Lee (Li Pik-Wah), an extremely popular and eccentric Hong Kong literary figure who refused to be photographed or seen in public. Her famous works include Rouge (1988) and Farewell My Concubine (1993) as well as the novels and screenplays for Law's films The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus and Temptation of a Monk (1993). The novels focus on primal erotic desires and their destructive forces, against a backdrop of traditional Chinese arts and culture. The character Golden Lotus comes from Chin P'ing Mei (translated recently as The Plum in the Golden Vase), a sixteenth-century novel known for its explicit eroticism.19
Both the novel and the film The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus subversively reconfigure and reconstruct the character of Golden Lotus, a well-known icon of libidinal desire in traditional Chinese literature and culture. The narrative depicts a woman's self-recognition through erotic encounters with three men, as Jade Lotus (Joey Wong) goes through life experiences similar to those of Golden Lotus/Pan Chin Lien, a “slut” woman (yin fu), in Chin P'ing Mei.20 Parallel sequences, which may be read as either visions or flashbacks to a previous life, connect the sixteenth-century Golden Lotus to contemporary Jade Lotus, yet Jade is unaware of her reborn Golden Lotus identity. In bewilderment, she excuses her unruly desires by saying, “I seem to be not myself.” Eventually, an exuberantly athletic sexual encounter knocks over a bookcase and guides Jade Lotus to the book Chin P'ing Mei. To her surprise, the sixteenth-century novel seems to tell her own story.
The soft-core erotic scenes lent notoriety to the film, but it is Law's representation of the Cultural Revolution that is salient here. In the principal narrative, adult Jade Lotus has been raped, tagged as a counterrevolutionary, and sent to work in a factory in an outlying village “to achieve reform through labor.”21 Accompanied by revolutionary songs blaring from a loudspeaker, one sequence occurs against the backdrop of a wall covered with dazibao (“big-character posters” celebrating the Maoist Cultural Revolution).22 In this setting, young girls are instructed in the practice of ballet. Whereas ballet had been formerly regarded as a Western ruling-class dance form, the Cultural Revolution transformed it into a new revolutionary art in which young women wearing army gear rather than tutus danced on their toes with swords or guns in their hands.23 In another scene, traditional culture is scorned as feudal when eight-year-old Jade Lotus sings a traditional song about Golden Lotus and a girl standing nearby asks, “What counter-revolutionary song are you singing?” Later, when Jade Lotus seduces a young revolutionary, Wu Long, she is harshly denounced at a public meeting. Subsequently, a copy of Chin P'ing Mei is thrown into a fire and burned to ashes before she can retrieve it—a depiction of the rejection by far-leftist revolutionaries of traditional culture and personal passions, which were generally considered feudal, bourgeois, and revisionist. Such events and their settings recall the riots in Macau and Hong Kong in 1966–67, the political context in which Law's family migrated from Macao to British-ruled Hong Kong.
To escape the strict moral pressure of the new political regime (indicated by the villagers peering through the window), Lotus marries Wu Ruda (Eric Tsang), a buffoonish pancake maker—a parallel figure to Wu Dalang in Chin P'ing Mei—and moves with him to Hong Kong. However, neither marriage nor moving to the modern city keeps her from entanglement with the young revolutionary Wu Long or from the temptation of Simon Liu, a Hong Kong designer and fashion photographer described as “slimy” by Steve Fore in his productive reading of the film as addressing the position of women under traditional and contemporary forms of Chinese patriarchy.24
Diverse modalities shape the time-space intervals in the diegesis, as the protagonist moves from Shanghai to Huizhou (a city near Hong Kong in Guangdong province), then settles down in Hong Kong. Temporal, geographical, cultural, and political vectors are central to the narrative. With Huizhou (a mainland city in a Cantonese-speaking area) as a nodal point, the political and cultural traits of 1960s Shanghai (Mandarin speaking; Cultural Revolution at its peak) contrast sharply with 1980s Hong Kong (Cantonese speaking; modern consumer culture).25 The time-space transitions reveal two different modernities—on one hand, the far-left revolutionary modernity of the mainland in the 1960s that harshly repudiated tradition, and on the other the consumer-capitalist modernity and rapid economic development of Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. Operating within complex binaries juxtaposing mainland versus Hong Kong, political and cultural differences, and tradition versus modernity, reflections on female sexuality and traditional Chinese patriarchy are accomplished through the rebirth of Golden Lotus.
Even though it had been commercially released in Taiwan, the film was invited to the Toronto film festival (then called the Festival of Festivals), its only film festival invitation.26 The Toronto premiere launched Law's ascendant trajectory in global cinema, as the film was immediately acquired for commercial distribution in North America.
The repressive sociopolitical atmosphere depicted in The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus also hangs over the hometown of the migrant couple from the mainland in Farewell China (1990), whose Chinese title translates literally as “the season of love in another land.” The film opens in a small, dark, poorly furnished room where Li Hong (Maggie Cheung) and her husband, Zhao Nansheng (Tony Leung), are preparing for a trip to Shanghai, where they will apply for emigration visas to the United States. Playing in the background is a song about the pain of leaving home: “Thinking of our ancestors who determinedly left their native place / They have no idea what it's like to be so far away from home.” As the song continues, the young couple passes through a dark street, the father holding their child in his arms. A poster on the wall says: “Only One Child Is Good,” referring to China's obligatory one-child policy. The political motivation for their migration is evident, as freedom is repeatedly mentioned to describe life in New York. As Zhao's friend says, “In America, you don't have to get a permit from the president to move.”
In pursuit of free procreation and potential happiness, the international migration in Farewell China turns out to be a miserable failure. Li Hong disappears into a New York underworld of Chinese migrants, and Zhao Nansheng enters the country illegally to search for her. With the assistance of Jane, a second-generation Chinese American teenage prostitute, Zhao eventually finds his wife. The denouement features the couple's heartbreaking reunion when they run into each other by chance in front of Li's squalid tenement. With family photos on the table and a mattress Li has picked up from the street, the room is reminiscent of their small dwelling back home. Accompanied by a popular Chinese song that celebrates rivers and mountains in the homeland, the two fall into each other's arms in tears. But the next morning, Li becomes a complete stranger. Wearing garish makeup and a sleazy dress, she has forgotten what happened the night before and that the man in her bed is her husband. When Zhao follows her into a park, she mistakes him for a stalker and stabs him to death.
As the plot outline suggests, Farewell China is a melodrama in the grand style. While not at all a pastiche of the great 1950s melodramas, it shares with them the elements of bankable A-list stars (Cheung and Leung), large studio production values (Golden Harvest), a relatively mainstream cinematic apparatus (relative to Law's earlier work, that is; Variety described Farewell China as having a “bold international look”), and cranked-up genre elements, including the travails of hardship, squalor, degradation, mental collapse, heartbreak, and death, all in a displaced setting.27
To situate Law's affinity for classic genres, we should note that a significant aspect of the milieu surrounding her sojourn at the National Film School in England was the resurgence of melodrama as a celebrated critical genre. Known variously as the “woman's film” and “women's weepies,” and formerly sneered at (recall film critic Molly Haskell's famous line about “wet, wasted afternoons”), melodrama enjoyed a critical revival in film studies in the 1970s and 1980s.28 In 1971 the British Film Institute published Jon Halliday's comprehensive interview with Douglas Sirk, setting a new tone of respect for the genre as well as for the director who defined melodrama in the 1950s, and scholarly work on the topic took off with Thomas Elsaesser's 1972 piece “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on The Family Melodrama.”29 At the same time, feminist film scholarship was developing apace in articles published by Christine Gledhill, Claire Johnston, Annette Kuhn, Laura Mulvey, and Linda Williams. In their work, melodrama was a nodal genre addressed primarily to women that spoke about women: a “gynocentric” genre. Moreover, around this time Rainer Werner Fassbinder, another self-professed influence for Law, burst onto the world stage with films clearly indebted to Sirk's melodramatic narratives, mise-en-scène, and ideological critique. The tumultuous onslaught of Fassbinder's films, sometimes more than one a year, must have been breathtaking for young Law as a film student.30
Elsaesser suggests that melodrama characteristically comes to the fore at times of social and political upheaval. The genre not only emerges from but must also negotiate a matrix of contradictory determining factors—social, historical, ideological, industrial. In Sirk's melodramas, as in Fassbinder's and Law's work, the sociocultural milieu is omnipresent, often as important as the human characters. Buffeted by forces beyond their control, lives are delineated by cultural mores that constrain their behavior and moral choices.31 In Farewell China, the cultural imperatives of chastity and loyalty to marriage constrain Li and Zhao in different ways. When a Hispanic immigrant invites Li out for coffee, she overreacts as if he has sexually propositioned her. Zhao is also morally distressed as he roams around Harlem, Flushing, and Brooklyn with Jane (whom Variety describes as “a raving Madonna lookalike”).32 He is aroused by her fake hooker moans and falls into an erotic delirium driven by his humiliating desires.
Relationships in melodrama come into conflict often because of the disruptive effect of some external agent, such as social or cultural change. This factor is at the surface of the diegesis in Farewell China as well as Law's other films about migration. In tandem with such narrative causality, melodrama often suggests the emotional state of the characters through expressive use of props, gesture, setting, and lighting. In one example from Farewell China, Li maniacally protects a small trunk containing toys for her son, suits for her husband, and even maggot-infested meat (a shocking and nauseating image) as links to her eroded loyalty and heart-wrenching homesickness. Ironically, the character of Jane, from the second generation of a Chinese immigrant family, offers something of a contradictory vector: “I hate my Chinese parents, I hate being Chinese, and I hate speaking Chinese.” She dyes her hair in a futile effort to erase her Chinese physical traits. Yet somehow, through assisting Zhao in his search, she becomes more independent, and through conversations in Cantonese with him, comes to realize that her Chinese features are not only unerasable marks on her body but also cultural strengths, much as Law did with her realizations about her own dual cultural heritage.
Laura Mulvey, one of the most prominent London feminist theorists when Law was a film student in England, distinguishes between tragic melodrama, in which the masculine point of view predominates, and women's melodrama, in which events are seen from the female protagonist's point of view.33 Farewell China complicates these categories by constructing the narrative as a quest by Zhao, who experiences many moral and physically dangerous moments in impoverished neighborhoods, including a robbery and a gunfight, as well as the erotic temptations presented by Jane. Wearing a gaudy jacket and clumsily whistling, he teams up with Jane and makes a living by pimping her. Yet unlike Li, whose point of view is occluded as a result of her mental and emotional breakdown, Zhao manages to maintain his position in a patriarchal world as he survives the disorientation of migration and settles down to work as a Chinese food deliverer. In an unusual genre twist, however, the predominantly masculine point of view has its final comeuppance through Zhao's (quite unusual) death at the woman's hand.
In the closing credits, a forward-tracking shot through a beautiful Chinese landscape of rural villages and farms is accompanied by a song with lyrics that translate as “Who would like to leave our hometown / We all hope to come back soon / Oh, for a long time you have to wait / Chinese people have patience.” In the poignant final shot, Li's and Zhao's son, Shanshan, walks into their old home.
In contrast to the misery of the Cultural Revolution depicted in The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus and Farewell China, the setting of prerevolutionary Shanghai in The Unbearable Lightness of Inspector Fan (Bao zou shen tan, 2015) is idyllic. The film features a neurotic and decidedly un-patriarchal male protagonist, who indulges in romantic moonlit trysts as well as a range of reflections on the future of China. In a mixed bag of comedy, crime, thriller, and detective genres, Fan Ruyi (Ethan Juan), an inspector in the French Concession in Shanghai in 1924, is consigned to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Song Xiaoqiao (Yang Zishan), a warlord's daughter who was about to marry a provincial military governor. Fan is a decidely weird character who obsesses over a notorious short story collection, Sinking (Chenlun, 1921) by the Chinese writer Yu Dafu. The protagonist of Sinking is a Chinese student in Japan who suffers from sexual depression. He falls in love with a Japanese woman but, because China is such a poor country and relatively backward in comparison with Japan, feels too inferior to declare his feelings. The young man commits suicide, calling out, “Oh, my motherland, it's you who brings death to me. Please become wealthy and strong quickly. You still have many sons and daughters who are suffering.” Fan shares a similar sexual-national shame, as he was appalled by his late wife's bound feet, an embodied trace of China's feudal past. This abrupt transition from the personal-sexual to the national-political underlines Law's constellation of interests in erotic desire, personal identity, and political and cultural issues.
During the investigation, Fan falls for Xiaoqiao, a femme-fatale type who shares Fan's passion for Sinking and a modern poem, Zhimo Xu's “Saying Good-bye to Cambridge Again” (1928). As “artistic comrades,” Fan and Xiaoqiao paddle a boat in the moonlight and recite the poem together, turning a scene that began as a comic blunder into an exquisitely poetic sequence. At last, Fan manages to secure the ransom and help Huilan and Xiaoqiao escape to the United States—Huilan is migrating for education, and Xiaoqiao for freedom and hope—this time with no foreboding of the disastrous consequences of Li and Shao's simiarly motivated migrations in Farewell China.
In this hybrid genre film, the romantic and detective investigation strands of the narrative are closely intertwined with the political. Fan discovers that James Wu, the son of a high official and a student in a military academy, wants the ransom to finance a political coup to overthrow corrupt local tyrants. Fan, who respects justice and the rule of law, challenges Wu's extremist revolutionary goal. The climax of the narrative becomes a political debate about the way modern China should define itself for the future. Law depicts 1920s Shanghai, a partially colonized city at the time, as an arena for competing ideological forces of classes, ethnic groups, and other social diversities: China in a state known as “halfway through modernity” (bu che di de xian dai xing).34
The period setting in Shanghai, predominantly in the so-called French Concession (a residential area distinguished by European architecture and gardens), also has political implications, as it was a semi-colonial area where the Chinese government had less control. The location not only suggests nostalgia for prerevolutionary China, but also sustains a love for a city that was an international haven at the time, including Jews fleeing nascent fascism in Europe. Shanghai was known for its patisseries, boulangeries, and kosher butchers as well as newspapers and cultural institutions in many Western languages. The period setting thus evokes a harmoniously diverse alternative to the monolithic and closed culture of postrevolutionary China.35
SPACES, PLACES, AND FACES: THE MODERN CITY
A sense of place is a powerful motif throughout Law's work, encompassing geographies, landscapes, and built forms. Cities offer opportunities for adventure and freedom; potential for alienation, loneliness, and danger; and new configurations of home. Three films set in modern cities render multilayered tropes of urban life, each with a different approach to the mysteries and poetics of the urban cityscape, and each articulated through different genres, including minimalist avant-garde, romantic comedy, and dystopian science fiction, with their concomitant trajectories of character and narrative.
In an early scene of Autumn Moon (1992), a Japanese tourist is fishing off a bridge. In a wide, static shot with his back to the camera, he appears as a sharp black silhouette against the hazy blue Hong Kong skyline across the water. We are in a stylized setting reminiscent not only of Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky, whom Law claims as influences, but also of the American avant-garde and the feminist theory films of the 1980s (directed by Laura Mulvey, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, and others), which Law undoubtedly knew from film school. A local teenage girl warns the Japanese tourist that the fish in these waters are poisonous now, a line that bears the burden of a long-lost past when Hong Kong was a fishing village rather than a toxic international port. Struggling to communicate in halting English (Homi Bahba's “third space of language”), they strike up an unlikely friendship when she asks him why he isn't at work and, in response, he asks her why she isn't in school.36 She tells him that her family is emigrating to Canada, to which he replies that all cities are the same. She roundly objects. (She is right, of course. No city in Canada is like Hong Kong.)
This opening scene has been likened to Jim Jarmusch films: unlikely characters talking at cross-purposes with their backs to the camera in a wide static shot. The comparison with Jarmusch is appropriate on several counts throughout the film as well: in similarities of shot and character construction between the two filmmakers, their mutual claims of influence by Tarkovsky and Ozu, and Autumn Moon sharing its male lead with Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989). In addition, early Jarmusch films were often seen as bleak and alienated, featuring characters who had nowhere to go and nothing to do except hang out, smoke cigarettes, and drink coffee—not quite the same as characters wandering in an empty city, striking up conversations with strangers and fishing off a bridge, but close enough.
In Autumn Moon, Law abandoned commercial genre for an elegiac tone and avant-garde minimalism; the film circulated to festivals and won awards all over the world. It originated, as Tony Mitchell reports, in a commission from a Japanese production company whose project entitled “Asian Beat” comprised six one-hour “home videos” by different Asian directors, all featuring Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase, who had previously come to international attention in Jarmusch's Mystery Train. Nagase was to play a detective who travels to six Asian countries to solve six different crimes. “Law was sceptical of this project,” says Mitchell, but she and screenwriter and life partner Fong “calculated that they could use the production money (about $US200,000) to make a 90-minute feature film in 35mm as well as the 60-minute ‘home video’ the producers required. They negotiated the right to make the feature they wanted, directed, edited and produced it themselves, and took it to international film festivals, something they had previously been denied by Hong Kong commercial producers.”37
The couple's independent venture paid off in spades, as Autumn Moon greatly surpassed the successes of The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus and Farewell China. It was selected for the London Film Festival as well as Sundance and festivals in New York and Toronto. It won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in 1992, as well as the European Art Theatres Association Best Picture Award. In addition to its triumphant tour of the international festival circuit, Autumn Moon enjoyed nearly as much success among film scholars as Farewell China, although it lags behind Floating Life in this regard. Here it may be worth noting that academic readings of Law's films are remarkably united on their principal points of interest, concentrating on sociopolitical issues related to migration. Tony Mitchell tags Autumn Moon as one of Law's “films of migration,” a term derived from Gina Marchetti's encapsulation of “the Chinese experience of dislocation, relocation, emigration, immigration, cultural hybridity, migrancy, exile, and nomadism—together termed the ‘Chinese diaspora.’”38
It is salient to note the date of Mitchell's article on Autumn Moon: 2003, more than ten years after the film was made. His reading was informed by the decade of cultural studies publications, specifically the area known as exile studies, that had flourished since the founding of the journal Diaspora in 1991. Issues of postmodern anxiety, migration, homeland, exile, and nomadism galvanized cultural theory in this period.39 Although Law went to film school a decade before exile studies went viral as a cultural studies discourse, this intellectual milieu precisely describes not only her own experience of multiple migrations, but also the issues that her cinematic characters confront. Ackbar Abbas puts it this way: “Almost every [Hong Kong] film made since the mid-eighties, regardless of quality or seriousness of intention, can sustain an allegorical reading of the anxieties of pre-1997 Hong Kong as a principal narrative impetus.”40
For a thorough reading of Autumn Moon, we need look no further than Mitchell's comprehensive article, which inscribes the film, virtually scene by scene, with the elements of Marchetti's exilic anomie: dislocation, relocation, emigration, immigration, cultural hybridity, migrancy, exile, nomadism. Mitchell calls the film a “fictocritical essay on migration to and from Hong Kong,” a city made up of “deracinated, bleak and impersonal transitional urban spaces”; cites Abbas's description of Hong Kong as “a space of transit”; and asserts that the film deals “directly with the anxieties of migration, alienation and intercultural understanding prior to 1997 … portraying a city of migrants that is metaphorically emptied of people.”41 The empty cityscape has occasioned, among critics, a corollary aesthetic assumption regarding the unsettled worlds of Law's migrating characters. Stephen Rowley opines that Autumn Moon “focuses on barren, monolithic and featureless modernist architecture in order to represent the alienating aspects of contemporary Hong Kong in terms of a ‘widespread emotional malaise.”42 Stephen Teo concurs: “While all around is an impersonal world of concrete blocks of buildings and technical gadgetry, the two mutual strangers [in the film] try to breach the communication gap essentially through a cerebral process built upon the perception that they are both modern nomads who must try to deal with their sense of desolation and lack of identity.”43
Such a negative view of the modern cityscape now seems rather outdated and clichéd. We suggest instead that from the opening shots of high-rise glass-sheathed buildings and 1990s-style boxed credits in sans-serif typeface, Autumn Moon presents its urban setting in bold, ultra-modernist terms. While most commentators have assigned the newly built architecture to the “barren, monolithic and featureless” bin, this was not necessarily Law's view. In Wonton Soup (1994) for example, when a sightseeing tour passes the Bank of China, the building is identified as having been designed by Asian architect I. M. Pei, who later designed the crystal pyramid entrance to the Louvre and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and is generally considered one of the world's greatest modern architects. As Autumn Moon proceeds, helicopter shots of the Hong Kong cityscape delineate the new-world city in high-modernist art photographs often shot at skewed angles. The striking modernity of the cityscape underscores the stylized quality of Law's cinematic practice in the dramatic scenes, especially the soaring lyricism of the helicopter shots that serve as bumpers or “pillow shots” between dramatic sequences. In contrast, throughout the film, dialogue scenes are often rendered as uncut sequence shots from a stationary camera, sometimes remaining in a fixed position for the entire scene recalling the formal minimalism of Jarmusch, James Benning, and feminist theory filmmakers such as Laura Mulvey, Sally Potter, Michelle Citron, and Trinh T. Minh-ha.
Structurally, Law deploys a panoply of rich cinematic strategies: an overall stanza-like structure marked off by rhyming refrains (the helicopter shots); static, formally constructed wide shots often with voice-over interior monologues that reveal undisclosed or contradictory emotions; unlikely and endearing relationships (the sweet connection that develops between the tourist and the grandmother); quirky, discordant elements that resonate together in complex harmonies (the overhead shot of the upper bodies of Tokio and the Japanese journalist in a sex scene that includes a philosophical conversation distinguishing between happiness and freedom); and elegiac moments of stunning beauty (the eponymous autumn moon segment with the candlelit miniature boats and the wistful little song).44 Rather than the bleak, alienated setting repeatedly noted in cultural studies readings of the film, we suggest that the tranquility of the city may be the condition that allows the tender intimacies of these unlikely relationships to develop.45 These cinematic elements work together to produce complex imbrications of history, culture, politics, beauty, emotion, and wit. This is not a run-of-the-mill ficto-critical essay: this is a work of complex cinematic poiesis.
Like a Dream (2009) again takes up Law's interest in modernist cityscapes and buildings.46 This large-scale, multilocation production came about as a result of a shift in the Chinese film production environment. After the millennium, the Chinese government began offering subsidies for the film industry, which prompted many filmmakers in Taiwan and Hong Kong to move to the mainland and restart their careers, mainly in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Coproductions were also underway, drawing filmmakers and crews from Taiwan and Hong Kong to the mainland and vice versa. At the peak of her career, Law was an internationally acclaimed director. Collaborating with Fong, she evinced a renewed interest in Greater China by making a film set in three different key areas: mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.47
This romantic comedy finds an American-born Chinese young man, Max (Daniel Wu), who runs a small company in New York, in love with two Chinese twin sisters. In shock from the death of his cat, Max is also troubled to hear about the recurring dreams of a friend, Ailing (Quan Yuan), whose boyfriend has committed suicide. As Max helps investigate the reason for the boyfriend's death, he falls in love with Ailing. They start to appear in each other's dreams, causing Max to become so obsessed that he finds it difficult to cope with daily life. After returning to New York from a business trip to Shanghai, Max unexpectedly spots Ailing in the photos he took there, but he has no clue how to locate her. When he's sent back to Hangzhou, a city not far from Shanghai, he accidentally runs into Yiyi (Quan Yuan), who is identical to Ailing in every way except for her unsophisticated taste and rough manners. Yiyi teams up with Max to look for Ailing in Shanghai. Finally they discover that Ailing is Yiyi's twin sister, currently suffering from a brain disease, and Max finally meets Ailing at the hospital. The film can be read as a somewhat fantastical exploration of the relationships between identities and locations in the gynocentric genre of romantic comedy. Unlike the schizophrenic protagonist of Farewell China, whose struggles of identity in her place of exile are melodramatically tragic, in Like a Dream the split personality is literally two persons in two different places, this time to comic effect. This is classic romantic comedy, with a side of mild dislocation.
Shot in New York, Shanghai, and Taipei, Like a Dream explores a range of cinematic practices in the creation of a dreamlike cityscape, including experimental elements such as tinting, bleaching, and contrasting film stocks.48 Dualities echo throughout: dream world and daily life, West and East, life and death. The tranquil world of empty streets and buildings (shot in Taipei) contrasts sharply with the bustling everyday world of Shanghai. In parallel with the dual modalities already in play, the narrative sets up two mirroring relationships: Ailing-Max, where Max stands in for Ailing's dead boyfriend; and Max-Yiyi, where Yiyi takes the place of the lost Ailing. One anonymous online reviewer compared the structure of the film to a Bach fugue, where every passage is repeated with variation until resolution.49 Yiyi's transformation into a capable, independent woman creates a feminist space for an alternative female protagonist role in an otherwise more or less stereotypical romance.
In contrast to the elegiac urban poetry of Autumn Moon and the feminist romantic comedy of Like a Dream, Red Earth (2010) conjures a futuristic dystopia. This film was made as a ten-minute short for Quattro Hongkong, an omnibus film by multiple directors produced for the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF).50 Shot with a Canon 5D digital camera and combining still photographs and HD video, it tells a story of lost love in a science-fiction setting. A man (Daniel Wu) makes a date with a woman to watch the sunset but she doesn't show up. From then on, the sun never sets again.
Supported by HKIFF and therefore without commercial pressure, Red Earth is an experimental film about environmental catastrophe and the fate of the world. In a futuristic vision set in the contemporary moment, the large windows of the modern Hong Kong skyscrapers reflect the radiance of the always-shining, never-setting sun. As in Autumn Moon and the dreamworld of Like a Dream, the streets and buildings are empty. Yet here, the streets are empty because they cannot sustain human life. Ironically, the desolation of predawn Hong Kong occasions beautiful images that mark a striking contrast to the deathly harm that is being done to the Earth. Thus, in different contexts, Law's cinematic lexicon relating to built forms and city spaces reveals itself as extraordinarily flexible and various, with similar forms of composition achieving very different moods and meanings.
CULTURAL IDENTITY: FOOD, SEX, AND MUSIC
A repeated trope that defines cultural identity in Law's films is food: kinds of food and relationships to food, and scenes of cooking and eating. Discussions of food, specifically linked to cultural identity, figure in Floating Life, Autumn Moon, and Wonton Soup. Food can lead to sex, or vice versa, and the musical soundtrack often occurs as a third element rather than simply background. In Autumn Moon, for instance, the setup is that of a typical romantic comedy: cisgender strangers meet by chance and develop a relationship. At every turn, however, the film upends genre expectations. One such reversal is the quirky premise of the Japanese tourist's visit to Hong Kong. Although the aptly named protagonist, Tokio, comes from a country that prides itself on its exquisite cuisine, he says in the opening scene, “I came [to Hong Kong] to eat.” As the narrative proceeds, he is welcomed by the Hong Kong girl's only remaining family, her grandmother. In another twist of genre expectations, the intimacy that develops in this eccentric romantic comedy is between the tourist and the girl's grandmother, who teaches the young man to cook.
Another example of the overlap of cultural identity with food occurs in Wonton Soup, Law's segment of the feminist omnibus film Erotique. A man and a woman visit Hong Kong, where the woman grew up but no longer lives. Like Tokio in Autumn Moon, the man is a tourist, an attractive, assimilated Asian Australian with a dimple in his cheek. They meet by chance. She drives him around, showing him her old neighborhood, the Star Ferry, Victoria Harbour, the Pei-designed Bank of China, and other major sights. Their narrative is interspersed with erotic episodes featuring a wide range of styles and moods both cinematic and sexual, such as the twirling slow-motion stand-up sex of the opening scene, the humping scene in the car while torrential rain streams down the windows, or the blue-tinted close-ups of their faces as they make love in a later scene.51 Unfortunately, the attractive Chinese Australian man is a bit of a dolt who makes inane remarks about Hong Kong: “I've never seen so many Chinese girls in my life; it's like fucking Chinatown.” According to the man's friend, the woman sees him as “yellow on the outside but white in the middle”—just not Chinese enough. The friend directs him to an ancient Chinese sex manual that advises the Chinese lover to “savor” the woman and to eat seafood rather than meat to enhance sensitivity. In a comic montage, the lovers try a variety of extreme positions that keep the man groaning with effort in contrast to the woman's laughter.
The friend's judgment that the assimilated Chinese Australian lover is just not Chinese enough is borne out in the eponymous wonton soup dialogue, which follows the comic sex montage. The shot frames the couple at the railing of a bridge, their backs to the camera as they gaze across the water at the Hong Kong skyline—a composition more or less identical to the Autumn Moon shot described earlier, but this time with an emotive blue tint. Over the well-known dialogue delineating the Hong Kong taste for noodles rather than wontons, the horn of the Star Ferry sounds in the distance. In an iconic close-up of the woman, her hair blowing around her face, we hear the man's plaintive excuse, “It's not my city,” to which she replies, “Nor mine.” Over her tears, cue music: strains of an erhu (ancient Chinese stringed instrument) together with a Western keyboard, thus combining Chinese and Western culture. Over the melding of the two cultures in music, the crane shot pulls back from a close-up of the couple's embrace to soar over the high-rise cityscape up to the storm clouds overhead and an ominous rumble of thunder as the film ends.
Tony Mitchell has written about Law's use of music:
[She] uses the Chinese word hei-fen [literally “air environs/circumference”] to invoke the way in which atmosphere and tone in a film combine to generate an understanding of the totality of the situation, events and characters of a film. Music, Law argues, plays an important role in this process, and “film music should be able to work as independently as dialogue in a film … to bring out a lot of things you don't say in the dialogue, which is maybe the subtext, or is just something unsaid.” Film music functions for Law as a way of “saying something of the inner world of [a] character or … a yearning for a world they do not have.”52
Law's deployment of music in Wonton Soup is augmented exquisitely by the rare but evocative sound effects: the Star Ferry horn in the distance encapsulating a melancholic sensory memory of the city, and the thunder at the end providing an omen, even as the couple embraces, of the torrential emotional storm to come, this time without the protection of the car windows that earlier sheltered their lovemaking.53 Visually arresting and accomplished in the concision of the narrative and the poetic specificity of the noodles/wonton trope of cultural identity, the film has enjoyed a remarkable florescence in critical commentary not usually accorded to a short film. This is why we refer to the “well-known” dialogue regarding noodles and wontons. Most of the published work situates the film within Law's oeuvre on transcultural migration, treating it as a stand-alone work.
Despite the fact that Wonton Soup occurred in Law's career relatively shortly after her emergence with The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus, whose cinematically stylish erotic element first brought her work to global attention, it is interesting that the prevailing academic discourse overwhelmingly ignores the erotic aspect of the short film in favor of its sociopolitical and transcultural issues of migration, cultural identity, flexible citizenship, and narrating the Chinese diaspora. The irony of critical silence about sex is indeed bizarre, for the Erotique commission welcomed Law into a group of women filmmakers who emerged in the aftermath of the momentous publications in North America of Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (1984) and Coming to Power: Writing and Graphics on Lesbian S/M (1982).54 Challenging the assertions of second wave feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who saw heterosexual sex as rape, or less radical feminists who suggested that women preferred kissing and cuddling—what came to be termed “vanilla sex”—women filmmakers of the period celebrated female sexual transgression, including bondage, role-playing, and sadomasochism, as feminist. Bette Gordon embraced pornography in Variety (1983); Monika Treut introduced a glamorous dominatrix in Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985); and Lizzie Borden, a feminist heroine since Born in Flames (1983), empathized with sex workers in Working Girls (1986). Joining this group of filmmakers celebrated by feminists, Law contributed a narrative that features a heteronormative couple but reverses genre expectations by turning the soft-core episode into comedy.
While acknowledging the cultural thematic of Law's segment, British Time Out saw it in another light, specifically in relation to its erotic quotient in comparison to the other segments. In contrast to the short film by Treut, which features a dildo-flaunting heroine in a “deadly lesbian vignette … a variation of the Black Widow scenario—an uncompromising gender power game likely to alienate any man hoping for titillation,” followed by Borden's short about a phone sex worker (“a sometimes steamy little affair”), Law's concern with “cultural rather than gender differences” positions her as “opt[ing](out) for humour … and end[ing] the film with a soft-core whimper.”55 In the context of an international feminist take on pornography, Law's segment inserted heteronormative and emotionally charged sexuality as a matter not only of physical attraction, but also of culture and history.
ON THE ROAD: LANDSCAPE, MODERNITY, HORROR
Another treatment of Law's response to exile, passage, and adaptation to a new culture, The Goddess of 1967 (2000) is extremely interesting in that it reflects both Law's response to her new home in Australia as well as her ongoing practice of adapting popular genres as structures through which to elaborate themes of migration. In this case the genre is the road movie, which traditionally had been associated with male protagonists (Easy Rider , Two-Lane Blacktop , Smokey and the Bandit ) but had swung into gynocentric feminism with Thelma and Louise (1991). The narrative features a well-off Japanese man who comes to Australia to purchase a classic Citroen Déesse (found for sale on the internet). The Déesse is coveted as a modern wonder: beautiful in its form, aerodynamically designed, and an apogee of engineering technology for its superb suspension system. The car is owned by a suburban couple who suffer a brutal double murder in the horrifying opening scenes, leaving behind a young blind girl (played by Rose Byrne). The vehicle functions in the narrative as the conveyance for a journey that takes the two principal characters on a five-day road trip. They travel not only into the Australian outback but also into a realm of monstrous humanity, a three-generational incestuous family whose depraved patriarch lives in an abandoned opal mine—literally a hole in the ground.
While commentors have concluded that Law comes to terms with her new country in the course of this film, the rapprochement is complex in its contradictions. The first of these is that Law's antidote to her own exilic migration is another migration, the journey through the numbingly inhospitable outback. Second, Law's reconciliation with Australia is achieved through the fetishized icon of European modernity in the form of the lusciously pink and sleek Goddess. Third, and ironically (in contrast to current proud claims of “no filters” for photos on Instagram and Facebook, apparently attesting to the value of directness of perception), her apparent acceptance of the rugged geography is achieved through processes of cinematic mediation, for the landscape images are treated with a variety of technical effects, including bleaching, color tints, and the use of contrasting film stocks that render the images in turns beautiful, surreal, and/or shocking. Finally, the acceptance of Law's new home comes about through a triumphant battle with the human depravity literally beneath the surface of that landscape, in the abandoned mine that is the incestuous patriarch's dwelling. Such an extensive cascade of contradictions suggests an imaginative struggle proportionate to the vast expanses of her new homeland, a struggle painfully and elaborately resolved over the course of the film.
The marvelous documentary Letters to Ali (2004), formally unique in Law's canon, addresses exile and refugee status from the other side, from the point of view of a generous Australian family who try to get an Afghani boy out of a mandatory detention camp for asylum seekers. Law and Fong follow the family on an eight-thousand-kilometer drive across the continent, a journey that Law wittily calls their “long march” (a reference to Mao's trek across China). Law's voice is present throughout the film in different categories of text on-screen. Text in moving banners offers information (for instance, “Some Facts About Asylum Seekers”), while plain text in a typewriter serif font over images offers Law's personal voice, which is always thoughtful and unpretentious. For example, early in the film the typewriter font introduces Law's voice: “I am a filmmaker. I used to live on a small island. Eddie and I settled in Australia—in a house with more rooms than people living in it. And a park at back in a quiet neighbourhood. I could hear the sound of silence. Then I discovered seasonal changes [shots of trees in fall, winter, and spring]. I discovered birds [shot of a parrot]. And newborn babies [shot of baby birds in nest].” After an interlude of text in moving banners explaining the complexities of immigration and asylum in Australia, the typewriter font returns to say, “A year passed. Eddie and I decided to make a film about it.” After a shot of a map with their itinerary animated in red (“The Long March”), Law's text returns: “I had never camped in my life. They said there were dingoes and snakes. And serial killers.” Later: “For the first time in my life I slept under the sky with billions of stars hanging above me.”
Surprisingly and unconventionally, this personal voice carries on throughout the credits. Life partner Eddie Fong started out as the only crew member, we are told, shooting with a digital camera. Gradually, however, a number of Australian film professionals and postproduction facilities that the couple had worked with volunteered their services, and each of them is individually and personally thanked in the credits, which refer to them as “our sound mixer,” “our gaffer,” and so on. Law also writes in the first person: “I appreciate immensely all those who …” “And I was very grateful for support and help from …”
Law's experience with the making of Letters to Ali—getting to know the family who committed themselves to a stranger, finding the Australian filmmaking community that she had so recently entered to be generous and helpful—apparently changed radically her perception of the country and its people that she expressed in The Goddess of 1967. After dedicating the film to “[her] dad,” she adds, “Nature is beautiful. And the world and its people can be beautiful.”
CLARA LAW'S FLOATING CINEMA
It is useful to return to Dominic Pettman's thesis of Floating Life as a transnational entity. Australia nominated the film as its representative in the Hollywood Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category, while the Hong Kong industry continues to regard it (and Law) as one of its own.56 Thus the film occupies a “floating” and displaced geopolitical region somewhere between Hong Kong, Australia, and international art-house cinema. In the current global context, films from various and often multiple sources of origin (such as the tri-region coproduction The Unbearable Lightness of Inspector Fan) circulate transnationally and transculturally, taking on “floating” lives of their own through international film festival screenings, cinematheque retrospectives, and art-house cinemas.57 In that sense, Clara Law's films are transnational and transcultural in thematics, and their circulation continues (even in this paper) thanks to their stature as meaningful cinematic objects of beauty and substance. They float through the world in many ways.