Everyday People (1989)

(Fuse Magazine, Fall 1989)

Most Western images of China are produced by people relatively unfamiliar with the people and the country they are shooting. With few exceptions, what we get are public images of ancient artifacts and political meetings, or else the peering eye of the voyeur. Paul Wong’s new feature-length videotape Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade offers a different vision – a private China that is particularly accessible to “overseas Chinese.”

Shot on home Video 8, the use of which is not restricted in China, Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade is in many ways a home movie. Yet this is a home movie made by an experienced and inventive video artist with a superb eye, both as a cameraman and documentary maker. Wong’s position in the tape can best be described as a participating observer. One is always aware of his particular relationship to the people he is shooting. As a family member who speaks the local dialect, Wong and his camera move with ease through the villages. People send messages back to relatives in Canada: “I would like to use your house for one or two years. My sons need it to house their staff.” As a trusted outsider, he is used as a witness to peoples’ dreams and to their pain. A physician finds a sympathetic ear for the politically motivated abuses suffered by her family. A restless young woman confesses to her desire for an overseas boyfriend.

Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade is composed of several movements, loosely organized so that they frustrated expectations for linear progression. The first segment shows Wong’s relatives in Canada talking about China. Their image is inset into slow-motion footage of Vancouver’s Chinatown, specifically images of the dragon dance. In visual terms, this sequence economically suggests the relationship of ritual re-enactment to the affirmation of cultural identity. In searching out the past as a way of dealing with the present, one could say that the staging of the dragon dance is fueled by the same desires that motivate Wong’s trip to China.

The second and most interesting, segment of the tape is verité footage of time spent in southern Guandong province, particularly in the villages of Taishan – home to most early Chinese immigrants to North America. For many Chinese viewers, this footage would be a bit like watching a tape about going to the supermarket. But for anyone familiar with China only from Western representations, this footage is something of a revelation.

At its most successful, the tape transcends the narrow lenses that have framed Western views of China – clichéd images of mystery, exotica and politics. These are images outstanding for the ordinariness they capture: pigs peeing, chickens being killed for a banquet. A lengthy sequence of a bicycle accident, in which a crowd of onlookers swears and trades accusations, underscores the vast array of images of China that are not usually shown.

Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade vigilantly avoids a simplistic, digestible reading of China. The tape is, after all, only about a very tiny corner of that vast reality. Even so, within its small geographical range, the footage moves from village to city, from rice fields to discotheques, and from poor peasants to the new bourgeoisie. Wong also attempts to undermine the fetishization of the documentary image by placing the written English translation in the centre of the screen, rather than as subtitles on the bottom. The viewer’s attention is directed to the fact that reality is mediated through the process of shooting and translation. However, other distancing devices are less effective. The inconsistent use of matting one image into another is sometimes unnecessarily distracting. Similarly, the sequence on the Cultural Revolution, a snappily edited montage of political slogans and Mao memorabilia, is aesthetically engaging but raises expectations for a political analysis that the piece is not capable of delivering.

Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade does not have the analytical rigour of the Long Bow films by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon – Hinton was born and raised in Beijing – but neither does it fall into the traps of exoticness and otherness common in so many pieces about China. Wong’s tape searches out human connections – it is a tape about people.