the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Thursday, May 04, 2006

As Time Goes By (2)

In one of Johnny’s (David Thewlis) many rants in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), he suggests at one point that the Chernobyl meltdown was one of the signs of the impending apocalypse:
In the same Book of Revelations, when the seven seals are broken open... on the Day of Judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison
a third part of all the waters, and a third part of all the land, and many, many, many people will die. Now, do you know what the Russian translation for "wormwood" is?
- No.
- Chernobyl. Fact!
[This monologue has also been adapted into a song by The Orb in their 1997 CD Orblivion]. Although Johnny’s etymology cited is slightly inaccurate (the name of the Ukranian city is actually derived from the word for mugwort [Artemisia vulgaris], which is related to but distinct from wormwood [Artemisia absinthium]—and this is not even considering the question of whether the New Testament Greek term apsinthos [ἄψινθος] itself necessarily refers to the absinthium genus), the resulting association between the Chernobyl meltdown and the Biblical prophecy has, nevertheless, become enshrined within popular culture.

As it turned, the Chernobyl disaster, horrific as it was, did not presage the impending apocalypse (despite what some might think of the current world [dis]order), though it may very well have contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union three years later. The issues of premonition and anticipation, furthermore, are relevant now as we observe the recent twenty year anniversary (on April 26) of the disaster.

Anniversaries are solemn occasions, moments to reflect, to both look back and to look ahead. It is surely not a coincidence that this anniversary has coincided with a energetic lobbying drive on the part of the US nuclear industry. For instance, on April 25th, the eve of the Chernobyl anniversary, it was announced that Christie Whitman, “former administrator of the EPA,” and Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, had agreed to lead a public relations campaign in favor of nuclear power. As the NYTimes noted at the time, however, the choice of Whitman is rather ironic, given that during her two and a half year period at the helm of the E.P.A., she oversaw the creation of rules for the storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain--rules which were subsequently thrown out by the courts “because they covered only the first 10,000 years of waste storage, while peak releases of radiation were expected after that time.”

[For its part, Greenpeace has released several reports on nuclear power over the past couple of weeks, noting, among other things, that since 1986 (the year that Patrick Moore himself left Greenpeace), there have been nearly a quarter of a million cancer cases (nearly 100,000 of which were fatal) as a direct result of the Chernobyl disaster, and tha,t in the US, there have been nearly two hundred “near-misses,” any of which could have resulted in an “American Chernobyl.”]

In other words, the recent nuclear energy campaign is not only seeking to foster what Limited, Inc. forcefully calls a “monument of amnesia,” but furthermore its central arguments are grounded on a sort of inverse amnesia—an unwillingness or inability to look, not into the past, but rather into the future. This inverse amnesia applies not only to the nuclear energy lobby’s refusal to reckon with the very real possibility of another catastrophic failure, but also to its failure to effectively address the problems relating to the long-term problem of effectively storing radioactive nuclear waste. This double amnesia—this simultaneous obliviousness to both the past and the future—results in a sense of being myopically trapped in the present.

A fascinating engagement with of this chiasmatic intersection of anticipation and amnesia can be found in the recent Hong Kong comedy Golden Chicken 2 金鸡2 (Samson Chiu Leong Chun 赵良骏, 2003), the sequel to the 2002 box office smash and critically acclaimed Golden Chicken (also directed by Chiu). Drawing on the tradition of the (in)famous late nineteenth century courtesan Sai Jinhua 赛金花 (featured in many literary and cinematic works, including Zeng Pu’s 曾樸 1907 novel A Flower in the Sea of Sins [Niehai hua 孽海花]) who allegedly helped save China during the Boxer Rebellion), as well as Shi Shuqing’s 施叔青 more recent “Hong Kong trilogy” 香港三部曲, that similarly takes a late nineteenth century (fictional) prostitute by the name of Huang Deyun 黄得云 as a metaphorical figure for Hong Kong—the Golden Chickens center around the eponymous figure of a prostitute (a “chicken,” in Cantonese slang) by the name of Ah Kum 阿金 (her name literally means “gold”) (Sandra Ng 吴君如), who then becomes an allegorical figure for Hong Kong itself.

While the original Golden Chicken features Ah Kum at her physical prime in the early 2000s, Golden Chicken 2, by contrast, opens in the year 2046, with Ah Kum already in her 80s. Like the Sai Jinhua in Zhang Chunfan’s 张春帆 informal sequel to Flowers in the Sinful Sea, Jiuwei gui 九尾龟 (Nine-tailed tortoise, 1910)—in which the now-elderly Sai must rely on her stories (rather than her body) to satisfy her customers—Ah Kum, in the 2003 sequel, is now a rather youthful-looking octogenarian (thanks to extensive plastic surgery), and when she encounters a young man (played by Chapman To 杜汶泽) disconsolate about losing his girlfriend (whose name is written [tattooed?] in black ink [and in English] under his eyes) and his consequently about to take a handful of “memory-erasing pills,” Ah Kum must rely on her memories and stories (rather than her physical charms) in order to cheer him up.

Like Forest Gump, Ah Kum proceeds to launch into a detailed account of the highs and lows of her own life, on the logic that bad memories make the good memories all the more memorable ("Looking back over all my years, even the saddest ones offer sweet memories"). She focuses in particular on two periods of her life: the early 1980s when she was still a school girl, and the SARS epidemic of 2003. She describes with gusto an array of bizarre (and occasionally tragic) characters, such as the mental patient who is unable to recognize his wife and therefore is constantly searching for her or her replacement (and who, as a result, has developed a body-hair fetish under the belief that when she ostensibly first left him, the only thing she left behind was a strand of hair). The narrative thread which stitches together all three time periods covered in the movie, however, is Ah Kum’s on-again, off-again romance with her cousin and childhood sweetheart, Quincy (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau 张学友 ), whom she marries for a day in 2003, after which he divorces her and is immediately imprisoned for embezzlement. During their earlier reunion during 1990s, however, she had accidentally gotten pregnant, secretly borne his child, put it up for adoption, and now (in 2046) one of her goals is to track down and make contact with her grandson.

Revolving around the theme of memory-erasing pills, GCII is located at a unique juncture of commemoration and anticipation. The 2003 SARS epidemic, for instance, is presented as Ah Kum’s flashback, but the movie’s use of deliberately distressed archival footage of the epidemic and other contemporary events gives the movie a sense of a prophetic “nostalgia for the present”—an uncanny anticipation of how the present will be remembered several decades in the future. Similarly, just as GCII looks back at the precedent of early twentieth century novels such as Flower in the Sea of Sins and Nine-tailed Turtle, it simultaneously looks forward—in its thematization of memory-erasing pills and, in the separate subplot about the mental patient constantly searching for his wife because he is unable to recognize her—to movies such as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Peter Segal’s Fifty First Dates (both of which were released in 2004, the year after GCII).

The most obvious instance of this sort of anachronism, however, can be seen in director Samson Chiu’s dialogue with the celebrated HK auteur Wong Kar-wai, and specifically his long-awaited film 2046 (also released in 2004, the year after GCII). Part of the significance of the year 2046 for both Chiu and Wong is that it represents the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control—an anniversary which is particularly significance because it represents the outer limit of Deng Xiaoping’s famous promise that “Our policy on Hong Kong will not change for 50 years after it is reunited with the motherland in 1997.” [Another Hong Kong movie which similarly brings together Deng’s 50 year promise with preternaturally young former prostitute searching for her lover & sons from a past life, is Stanley Kwan’s 关锦鹏 1987 film Rouge 胭脂扣. In Kwan’s film, the protagonist is a 1930s prostitute who attempts to commit double-suicide with her lover, and then returns looking for him 50 years later as a ghost.]

Chiu very explicitly plays off of these political connotations ("You know what Hong Kongers are gifted at--they are gifted at forgetting"), but also uses the Dengist notion of arrested anticipation and suspended temporality to gently poke fun and the notoriously slow production of Wong’s long-delayed 2046 (GCII concludes with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the debut screening of Wong’s film—more than 45 years after he started working on it at the end of 1999). [This dialogue between Wong Karwai and the more popular director Samson Chiu is remiscent of the long-standing dialogue between Wong and his former collaborator Jeffrey Lau 刘镇伟. For instance, Lau's 1993 film was an explicit take-off (based on the same Jin Yong 金庸 novel and featuring many of the same actors] on Wong's long-delayed Ashes of Time 東邪西毒 (which did not appear until 1994, the year after Lau's parody of it).

Ackbar Abbas famously argues, in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, that Hong Kong cultural identity only became an object of intense concern under the shadow (during the late 1980s and 1990s) of its anticipated extinction following the 1997 Handover. Samson Chiu’s GCII, meanwhile, implies that it is precisely the under the threat of potential amnesia (in the form of the memory-erasing pills) that memory and commemoration in turn become possible (both in the form of Ah Kum’s extended flashbacks, as well as her confirmation that the broken-hearted man she encounters on the roof-top in the year 2046 actually represents a tangible link to her own past).

Borges, in his story “Funes the Memorious” (Funes el memorioso) argues that the ability to (selectively) forget is an enabling condition for memory itself (not to mention sanity). The implication of Chiu’s film, however, is somewhat similar, that it is the very possibility of forgetting which functions as a condition of possibility for the drive to remember. As Derrida, Archive Fever, argues with respect to the archive (which is distinct from memory, but similarly predicated on “forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory),
There would be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression. Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression or destruction drive. […] (19).
Returning to the anniversary of Chernobyl and its implications for a rational energy politics, we might argue that the very literal "death drive" underlying many current discussions of nuclear energy (together with the “monument of amnesia” on which they are premised) should be viewed, not as a simple negation of the creation of a an archive and for a consideration of future directions, but rather as a catalytic condition of possibility for the same.
(Part 2 of 3)


Blogger roger said...

Wow. What a post! I have a plebian question that I asked in a semi-ashamed state, since this post requires a little more meditation than the usual off the cuff comment. The question is -- is GCII, uh, subtitled? For those of us who are, basically, barbarians. (although, having just edited a medical paper about Taiwan, I now realize that many Taiwanese and Southern Chinese don't speak mandarin Chinese with any fluency, or even understand how to read it. Which is the message I got from Dictionary of Dictionary of Maqiao, my fave Chinese novel, too).

4:46 PM  
Anonymous chowleen said...

liked your reading of GC2--and of memory and the anticipation of memory--very much. a note: when we first catch sight of the young man on the rooftop (in the HK of 2046), he has "I LOVE LUCY (heart)" written under his eyes, and we worry along with him that indeed, it will be difficult for him (short of memory pills and some serious laser resurfacing) to forget his recently departed lover. and which is what makes the closing shots of him doubly sweet: in the course of a long day into evening of listening to ah kun's stories, the young man has shed copious tears; and his tears have blurred what he and us the audience had both feared were the indelible traces of his beloved: lucy's name wasn't tattooed after all, but only written in washable marker.
nice work, mr. NG.

6:46 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Roger and chowleen,
many thanks for your comments.

Roger--yes, GCII is available with English subtitles (English, Chinese, etc.). Many Hong Kong films are released with both English and Chinese subtitles, and DVDs (which is what I have) typically offer far more options. Buy it if you get a chance--I think you might be amused.

chowleen--that is very nicely observed. Your remarks about the tears are well taken, and remind me of two additional details (both completely unrelated to your point). First, the tears evoke the English title of Wong Kar-wai's first movie, "As Tears Go By," which also featured Jacky Cheung (Quincy in GCII)--thus suggesting a nice book-end to GCII's dialogue with Wong's most recent film, "2046." Also, speaking of tears and "2046," it is reported that Wong felt that Maggie Cheung "cried better" with one eye than the other, and therefore made a point of filming most of her crying scenes in "2046" from one side (don't remember which one).

8:50 PM  
Anonymous chowleen said...

do you mean zhang ziyi? maggie cheung strikes me as the kind of actress who could cry out of both her ears, if asked.

10:40 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

the tagline of "2046" is, of course, "all memories are traces of tears" (which, btw, nicely characterizes the blurring of the eye markings you describe), and it appears that my own memory of tears is itself blurred. actually, i was thinking neither of cheung nor zhang ziyi, but rather faye wong (at least according to the imdb trivia page). then again, perhaps the mistake is somewhat appropriate, in a way, given that 2046 is all about the intersubstitution of one female lover for another (indeed, is not the entire film an attempt to find a substitute for maggie cheung's character in mood for love?).

This question of substituted actresses, in turn, reminds me of a wonderful essay by Adam Kopnik last July in The New Yorker, in which he compares his children's reaction upon losing a fish to Hitchcock's Vertigo and more generally to issues of identity and substitution (and consciousness and existence....).

7:16 AM  

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