Praise for The Map of Sex and Love
Homelessness and Self-Disclosure: Evans Chan’s ”Minor” Cinema
-- an appreciation by Hector Rodriguez (below)
-- 2001 Hong Kong International Film Festival
--- Tony Rayns (columnist, Sight & Sound)
-- Sek Kei (Ming Pao Daily, March 23, 2001)
--- Berenice Reynaud, author of Nouvelles Chines, Nouveux Cinemas
"...Beyond matters of love and sex, there are three maps in Evans Chan's film -- [through the dancer's story in "Rubber Band,"] the map of moral education; [through Mimi's recollection of a broken Europe in "Belgrade,"] the map of a disturbed self; [through the "Nazi Gold" episode,] the map of a historical ruin...a skillfully scripted, finely acted, deep...romantic...and emotionally involving film, beautifully lensed with a moody score..."
--- Jeany Leung, (City Entertainment, Issue 575, April 26, 2001)
-- Oleg Aronson, (Moscow Film Festival Daily, June 29, 2001)
-- Toh Hai Leong (Singapore correspondent, Kinema Film Journal)
-- Lawrence Lau (Ming Pao Daily, April 7, 2001)
http://www.dighkmovies.com/v4/225/225a.html -- review by John Charles
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/oct2001/vff2-o31.shtml -- review by David Walsh
http://static.tlavideo.com/map/themapofsexandlove/ -- review by Donald Scott
Homelessness and Self-Disclosure: Evans Chan's "Minor" Cinema
By Hector Rodriguez
--- Georg Lukacs(1)
In Lukacs' view, the novel arises out of a fundamental problem: deep-rooted frameworks of orientation have disappeared, social structures have become mere conventions, and objective moral standards no longer command absolute conviction. He describes this "transcendental homelessness" as a condition of possibility of the modern novel. The protagonist has become "problematical, ” in the sense that her home, her fundamental project, is no longer given in advance: "The novel tells of the adventure of interiority; the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself." (2) The novel is essentially biographical, in the sense that the situation of the protagonist and the story of her life -- her quest for some sense of orientation or rootedness in the world --forms the basic principle of narrative composition. The experience of purposelessness in life as a whole is the basic structural core around which narrative material is organized. Thus an existential problem supplies literary authors with an urgent "problem of form," a principle of artistic composition, which superficially "looks like a problem of content." (3)
The novel selects only those events and situations relevant to the existential project of its main character. This literary structure requires a tight balancing act. Its protagonists often find themselves torn between two conflicting demands; first of all, their desire for absolute self-containment or some lost perfection, away from a dissonant and disorientating world. Secondly, however, characters cannot sever all ties with external reality. It is a condition of the novel that life should be lived in a concrete environment. While the world is given meaning in relation to the protagonists and their quest, the world must remain objective, and this objectivity must be felt as such. Thus characters must in some sense navigate their yearning for isolation and harmony with the demands of an essentially disharmonious world. This is the "adventure" at the heart of the novelist form. (4)
The "adventure of interiority" may take many forms. It may, for instance, involve the protagonist's existence in time, her efforts to formulate a project for the future while coping with the tyranny of the past. The problematical protagonist often negotiates the interconnected requirements of memory and expectation, in the process of finding order in the conflict-ridden flux of thoughts. By making sense of the past from the standpoint of the present, the character can generate order and meaning in the world. This method gives the structure, for instance, to such "novelistic" films as Ann Hui's Song of Exile and (perhaps) Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild, where the problem of memory is closely related to the situation of displaced persons. (5) Their protagonists are exiles in a global community, both geographically and existentially homeless, whose life projects involve the re-appropriation of their pasts. From an artistic point of view, the respective filmmakers have to confront difficult aesthetic problems concerning narrative order and completeness.
It is not necessary to endorse Lukacs' analysis as a general theory of literary form to grasp its relevance to those films. The theory also seems particularly pertinent to Evans Chan's far more cerebral, but also equally personal, The Map of Sex and Love. Chan clearly believes that narrative structure should properly articulate questions at once existential and historical. The environment of the three protagonists in The Map is marked by homelessness, and their life problem is given by this experienced loss of direction and certainty. The frameworks of orientation that guided previous generations are no longer there, and this absence haunts the entire plot. The presence of religious and everyday rituals (from the placing joss sticks in front of a small domestic altar to the conversation during a simple family meal) only underscores this consciousness of loss.
Homelessness permeates both the particular, private lives of marooned characters and the general, public predicament of the whole society. Impending changes in Hong Kong's physical landscape, associated with the impending arrival of Disneyland and the subsequent erosion of rural community and culture, give a sense of the precariousness of life, the instability of a world where everything solid melts into air. History is projected onto an environment that offers no stable anchorage. Wei Ming, one of the film's protagonists, views events with a certain detachment, through the eyes of his video camera. An observer rather than a participant, he embodies the ambivalence of a subjectivity neither unequivocally tied to his native land nor yet fully isolated from the hold of the past. The central metaphor of the film, that of the map, marks a distance, a spacing: the temporal difference and geographic gap between Hong Kong and New York, "the two Manhattans." Wei Ming can freely move from one to the other, but never stand in both at the same time. Any sense of "being-here" presupposes the awareness of "not-being-there" as its other, its necessary structural condition. In this context, the sea becomes a highly resonant and polyvalent image. The choice of Lamma and Lantau islands as key locations in the film highlights the presence of the water, with its connection to the origins of Hong Kong as a fishing village as well as the impulse to travel beyond the sea (both Wei Ming and Mimi have had formative experiences overseas).
The experience of distance, both emotional and geographic, characterizes the life of oppressed, diasporic persons. This marginality is grasped not only as the individual circumstance of the film's characters, but also as the collective condition of Chinese immigrants and displaced persons everywhere. The Map is to some extent a work of collective enunciation, where desire is political and the languages of "major" national totalities (China and the US) are adapted to the experience of "minor" peoples. If we agree with Deleuze and Guattari that Kafka's culture, the culture of the Prague Jews, is a "minor literature" in the margins of the major European languages, we can equally well describe the work of Evans Chan as a "minor cinema." (6) The film's characters themselves assert the kinship of the Jewish and the Chinese peoples -- indeed of all displaced peoples mercilessly bandied about by the forces of history and globalization.
Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein has often observed that metaphor is a form of montage: the bringing together of seemingly unrelated elements, detached from their original contexts and thus brought into new connective relations: "Perception of the object is not only immediate and direct, but is extended beyond the bounds and tokens that normally delimit that object, a process which thus occurs in two dimensions." (7) Fresh, unexpected connections between disparate materials generate surprise and insight, in a concretely perceptual manner. This principle of connectivity also underpins the work of Evans Chan.
The Map of Sex and Love, for example, draws a surprising connection between the plot of the Italian opera La Boheme and the recent history of Hong Kong. Through the character of Mimi, which is also the name of Evans Chan's protagonist, Puccini's opera suggests the precariousness of working class life. In The Map, Wei Ming mentions how the destitution of Puccini's Mimi recalls an older generation of Hong Kong working class women, whose difficult and underpaid labor made possible the territory's much-praised economic success. Wei Ming's comment is followed by a series of shots of Hong Kong streets at night, while Puccini's music continues nondiagetically. The connection between the opera and the territory is not only presented conceptually. Its meaning is projected onto perceptible images of the cityscape. We are thus led to see the present fabric of Hong Kong daily life, the texture of its streets and people, as the product of a sad history of sacrifice and privation. Chan gives us not just a thematic idea; the montage of sound and image also gives the paradigm of a way of looking at city space as a trace of historical time.
Connectivity underpins the entire film, whose manifold intertextual references embrace philosophy, Cantonese and Western opera, classical Chinese cinema, Chinese and English-language poetry. This display of quotations highlights the aesthetic of connectivity, the mutual illumination of dissimilar materials, which distinguishes the cinema of Evans Chan. In some cases, the dialogue clarifies the meaning (sometimes perhaps a little too much so) of those connections, but in other instances, the allusions are more ambiguous and suggestive: for instance, the first time we see Larry, a photograph of Japanese writer Mishima can be briefly glimpsed on the wall behind him.
The Map does not represent the external landscape of Hong Kong as a purely objective datum. The world is linked to the inner life and situation of the characters in various ways. For instance, the film's lyrical atmosphere helps to link subject and object. The "horizontal" development of the characters and their interactions coexists with "vertical" poetic interludes. Better put: the boundary between the narrative and the poetic is never sharply defined, because many dialogue sequences are suffused with a quietly lyrical tone, while lyrical sequences can be dramatically relevant. Interior and exterior worlds interpenetrate. While television footage of local activists and government officials reminds us that the world's objectivity is never absorbed into the experiences of the characters, the boundary between self and other continuously fluctuates. In developing this poetic approach, Chan turns the digital video camera into a richly expressive tool. Together with his outstanding director of photography, O Sing Pui, the filmmaker has developed uniquely digital effects, derived mainly from color temperature and shutter speed, reminiscent of O Sing Pui's own video project Song of the Earth. The poetic consciousness resolves the tension between self and world by allowing for a momentary blending of the two.
City space provides the setting for a drama of encounters and anonymity. It is all about the tension between making contact and asserting distance. Larry makes love to a stranger in a gay sauna but then gives him a false phone number. Mimi longs for "self-sufficiency" and "total self-containment." The dissonance between the self and the world, the fundamental trait of this novelistic film's problematical protagonists, breeds a desire for absolute isolation. The Map, however, also underlines the insufficiency and poverty of this desire, the necessity for interpersonal contact. In most of Chan's fiction films, moments of intimate revelation between friends or lovers play a central dramatic role. It is through the medium of conversation, whenever memory unfolds freely in the presence of another, that subjectivity can best attain clarity about itself. The narrative of the film is oriented around this cognitive and affective "mapping" of oneself through interaction and dialogue with others.
The secret from the past is a staple of movie melodramas. (Psychoanalysis itself is to some extent a melodramatic activity). The Map contains generic melodramatic devices, including devastating confessions and sudden revelations. A melodramatic sensibility typically aims towards public disclosure.(8) Melodrama is to some extent about the interplay of concealment and self-revelation. This approach demands articulate characters, capable of indulging in long monologues and voice-over narration. The film embraces this desire for explicitness, but at the same time distances its melodramatic elements by the scope of its existential themes, by comparatively restrained performances, and by the presence of broader political themes. This combination of melodramatic conventions, often involving family secrets or domestic relations, together with self-conscious distancing devices is characteristic of the tradition that I would label "art melodrama." Ingmar Bergman is perhaps the key figure in this mode.
The narrative of The Map underlines the difference between secrets and enigmas. This distinction also helps to relativize the melodramatic stream. A secret has a fairly clear-cut explanation. The content of its mystery is eminently solvable. The relationship between Larry and his former teacher, for example, can be traced back to a car accident whose truth admits of a simple solution. In contrast, an enigma may be intrinsically contentless: a void, the absurd. As Wei Ming says in the film: "Some secrets are like a box, you open it to see what's inside. And yet some boxes open only to a total void --They're not secrets but enigmas -- like my sexuality, like this world, like the gold my father used to weld. Maybe it came from Nazi Germany. But maybe not…" The distinction between a solvable mystery and an absurd enigma is not always sharply delimited. The "Nazi Gold" episode seems intrinsically open-ended, and yet the entire situation raises historical questions about political responsibility which seem very real, and very much worth resolving.
The concept of a contentless mystery, an enigma that defeats our desire for knowledge and certainty, naturally recalls the work of surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. An Asian patron in the brothel of Belle de Jour carries a small box whose contents frighten the women in the establishment; the audience is never allowed to look inside the box. Bunuel's surrealism is very different from Freudian psychoanalysis: while the latter has analytical intent, and is concerned with unveiling the truth of subjectivity by showing the psychological mechanisms that determine its avatars, the former asserts the value of mystery for its own sake. In some way, The Map regards selfhood not only (and perhaps not mainly) as the efficient product of psychological mechanisms, but also as an existential project of self-construction predicated on the constant awareness of absurdity. The work of Evans Chan is underpinned by the conviction that narrative form should treat the absurd as a necessary condition of meaning.
(The essay was first published in Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly 54/55 [Winter/Spring, 2002]: 20-25.)
(1) Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel tr. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT, 1971), 62.
(2) Ibid., 89.
(3) Ibid., 71.
(4) Not every work that we would describe as a "novel" is novelistic in Lukacs' rather specialized sense: he noted, for instance, that Dostoevksy's writings are not novels.
(5) Following one of my lectures on transcendental homelessness in the films of Ann Hui, one of my students, Augusta Palmer, wrote an illuminating paper which showed how this framework is also applicable to the work of Wong Kar-Wai.
(6) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka : Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
(7) S. M. Eisenstein, Selected Works, vol. 2, ed. Glenny and Richard Taylor (London: BFI, 1991), 33.
(8) Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination : Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1976).
(Hector Rodriguez received his Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University. His essay, "The Fragmented Commonplace," which discusses Hong Kong's avant-garde arts as well as Evans Chan's To Liv(e), is anthologized in Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia [ed. Jenny Lau, Temple University Press.] An associate professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, Professor Rodriguez is currently conducting research about the philosophical implications of new media art as well as creating his own digital work. His experimental animation, "Res Extensa," was awarded a prize of excellence at the Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition in 2003.)