Film Scratches: the Surrealist Ritual Dramas of Tzuan Wu
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
Tzuan Wu is a Taiwanese filmmaker based in New York, and his recent shorts are surrealist ritual dramas in which symbolic props and enigmatic images evoke psychic struggles, in the tradition of Maya Deren. Japanese influences seem at least as strong as Chinese for Wu, and the mixture of Western surrealism with both Japanese and Chinese theater styles recalls the films of Shūji Terayama. Wu’s talent for making striking visual compositions and for creating distilled, ritualistic actions, which suggest multiple meanings while remaining open-ended, make his films both compelling and disturbing.
In talking cure (2008, 15 minutes), a girl in a pink wig and an asymmetrical white gown is seen (although not heard) talking in the prologue, and the title suggests that she is undergoing psychiatric treatment. She throws away her umbrella (the protective veneer of sanity?), and we soon see a group of white-coated figures who clutch their umbrellas tightly while destroying eggs. Again, the title suggests that they are psychiatrists. If the eggs are creative products, do the doctors destroy creativity? Several more episodes involve characters who may have wandered in from a Chinese opera, and a woman gives the girl a hula hoop. The wholeness of the hoop’s shape seems to enable the girl to produce many more eggs, which are promptly collected by the white-coated people. In the end, they drag her off to a kind of bonneted milkmaid who paints flowers, mirrors, and everything else white. Since the psychiatric profession tends to offer us drugs as a solution to emotional problems, and these drugs tend to take the color out of experience, this is a fitting image. The visual compositions throughout the film are strange and striking.
In we can’t grow up together (2010, 3.5 minutes), a woman in a white wig and whiteface, looking like a Butoh or Kabuki clown, enacts a series of symbolic vignettes in a Brooklyn park. A mysterious man in a bowler hat continually menaces her from the background with bubbles, clocks, and a mirror. These personal rituals with symbolic objects, such as a doll’s head filled with roses, evidently have a special significance for the artist, but he doesn’t attempt to clarify their meaning for us. We may pick up the general themes of the corrosive power of time, the loneliness of exclusion, and the transformation of the self, but the form is open enough so that the viewer can drape his own meanings onto the images. Wu has a wonderfully operatic way of framing the scenes, infusing simple actions in a park with the feeling of epic drama.
An intriguing study in male womb envy, the pineapple of a very, very serious lady (2010, 3.5 minutes) is a portrait of a “passionate, juicy” drag queen (the insouciant Luis Rivera) who uses sheer performative nerve to work out her envy of women’s ability to give birth. We see her removing an apple she is using as a fake breast and biting into it, and subsequently tearing apart a pineapple, interestingly suggesting that a pineapple is an apple in drag. Behind her, we see a collage of brightly colored fruits, flowers, political protests, alien babies, and other alluring manifestations of fecundity. The voiceover text, in Chinese and English, tells of her quest to become a mother, and tells us what the baby says back to the mother, speaking over a telephone whose cord comes from between her legs. A mock birth, assisted by drag midwife Brian Jacob, seems to end tragically, with the lady’s inflatable “baby” destroyed, and she herself (or possibly her female identity) dead. “Bring me back to where I was born,” says the text, comparing the narrator’s split Chinese/American identity with the character’s gender dysphoria. The playful, even joyful performance of pregnancy in the film seems to celebrate the freedom to creatively expand one’s possibilities, while the tragic ending pessimistically implies that there are serious consequences to the playfulness.
Wu clearly has the ability to think and design on a grand visual scale, but he is a young and underfunded artist. Somebody needs to start giving this young man money, so that he can realize his ideas on the same scale which runs through his imagination.