Shu Lea Cheang

by Lawrence Chua


Shu Lea Cheang. Photo by Glenn Halvorson.

Kill is Dutch for “stream,” and Shu Lea Cheang’s wicked directorial debut is a lethal comedy swimming through a torrent of toxic multinational treachery. Fresh Kill tells the story of two young lesbian parents (Sarita Choudhury and Erin McMurtry) caught up in a global exchange of industrial waste via contaminated sushi. The place is New York and the time is now. Raw fish lips are the rage on trendy menus across Manhattan. A ghost barge, bearing nuclear refuse, circles the planet in search of a willing port. Household pets start to glow ominously and then disappear altogether. The sky opens up and snows soap flakes. People start speaking in dangerous tongues.

A riveting and densely packed film, Fresh Kill evokes the furious rhythms of channel surfing with its rapid-fire editing style. Cheang and screenwriter Jessica Hagedorn (author of the award winning novel Dogeaters) conjure a trippy, extra-literary dimension, where Jorge Luis Borges’ search for his “Dreamtiger” intersects with lesbian-erotic flights into cyberspace. Language, meaning, and communication collide around a contemporary Tower of Babel, as characters wrestle control of the flow of garbage and information from corporate gods.

Shu Lea Cheang’s powerful and provocative work in film and video refuses the conventional separations of form and content, aesthetics and truth. She has been a member of the groundbreaking Paper Tiger TV media activist collective since 1981. “Color Schemes,” a multi-channel video installation of monitors housed in industrial washing machines, used the washing cycles of the laundromat as a metaphor for the representation of black folk tumbling through America’s white wash. In 1989, Cheang traveled to Beijing at the height of the democracy movement there and was present during the massacre in Tiananmen Square on the evening of June 4. Her video installation, “Making News/Making History: Live from Tiananmen Square,” juxtaposed American and Chinese network coverage of the massacre with Cheang’s own video footage of her encounters with families, students, and soldiers, eloquently calling into question the gaps between official versions of history and personal memory. Her installation, “The Airwaves Project” delved further into the possibility of personal intervention on the writing of history. “Those Fluttering Objects of Desire” was a participatory, coin-operated audio/video installation, based on peep show video booths and telephone sex lines. The subject of a retrospective at the Walker Arts Center, Cheang’s latest installation there entwines and disrupts different artists; and writers’ narratives—"Bowling Alley" gracefully links a gallery at the Walker with a Minneapolis bowling center and the virtual cosmos of the World Wide Web. Problematizing our ideas of physical and intellectual communities, public and private space, poetry and information, Cheang’s installation also refuses the separation of mind and matter that so much new technology insists upon. As with all of Cheang’s work, you can either play along or play with yourself (the visual bowl happens at bowlingalley.walkerart.org).

In Fresh Kill, intervention, or “breaking in,” is key to its structure: long, formalistic shots are interrupted by commercial break-ins. Cyber activists from Africa bust in on multinational corporate broadcasts. Different characters will show up in the most unlikely places, breaking in on the narrative. Abandoning static shots, Cheang concerns herself with movement. Her use of cinematic space is less about a rooted territorial reference than a fluid way of exploring routes.

The inter-relationships between Fresh Kill‘s characters and their language challenge cinematic representations of “reality.” The characters speak in poetic and elegant constructs that don’t sound like “real” movie dialogue, yet remain faithful to urban vernacular. The characters’ provocative genealogies problematize ideas about race, which has traditionally been represented as a naturalized identity. A black woman is the mother of a white woman who, in turn, is the mother of a black child, and a Native American man and South Asian woman, both Indians, are father and daughter. On another level, the level of complexity Cheang portrays is true to American urban culture and begins to articulate unexpressed ideas about kinship and family. But while Fresh Kill may have the style and nerve of an “urban” movie, it transgresses that specificity, placing the local on a continuum with the global.

Lawrence Chua What was your emotional attachment to the narrative? You came up with the idea and then approached Jessica Hagedorn, right?

Shu Lea Cheang There was a certain political agenda we wanted to deal with, in terms of media and environmental racism. That environmental racism was manifested in the transport of industrial toxic waste to Third World countries. Right from the beginning, we made a parallel between the waste and the dumping of garbage TV programs into Third World countries. Basically, once that was constructed, it seemed like we kept on making parallels. You have First World/Third World, then you have New York City/Staten Island, and even within New York City, you have “Tent City” (a makeshift community of homeless people) as a kind of garbage dump. We set up a bunch of characters with the intention of trying to reverse stereotypes. Right from the beginning we wanted to have this Asian hacker, who was also this quiet sushi chef; a lesbian couple . . . There were all these preset characters we wanted to put into the landscape.

LC Can you elaborate on that? How did challenging stereotypes have to do with the way the narrative unfolded?

Jessica Hagedorn People tend to open a book or go to a movie and get comfortable. They know you have the good mother who’s dependable, the wandering husband . . . the stock clichés, which are based on some reality, but tend to become very formulaic. We wanted to play with those notions, sometimes in as many radical ways as possible. But it was also important, for me, not to reverse things for their own sake. For example, the couple, Sarita and Erin’s characters, are raising a daughter. We went over and over whether we really needed to let the audience know where this daughter came from. Was the mother at one time heterosexual? And then Laurie Carlos played the mother of Erin McMurtry’s character. We didn’t go into a big deal about the fact that Laurie’s black and Erin’s white. We thought it would be really interesting to not explain it.

SLC A certain part of Jessica’s writing is much more about melodrama, much more emotional, more passionate than my directing. I’m more withdrawn and formalistic. At times a lot of our arguments seemed to be around those issues. Jessica just took off and wrote scenes that were very emotional and I’d keep on drawing it back. It’s interesting now that the film is showing, to think of different directions it could have taken.

JH At some point, you have to trust your collaborator. To me who the director is is very important. It’s a question of accepting my role and saying OK, Shu Lea came to me with the story and if she sees it that way, we can’t drive the actors crazy with two sets of direction. For example, I felt really close to a combat/lovemaking scene, that to me was incredibly passionate. Shu Lea let that go that moment, with Sarita and Erin.

LC That scene took place right after their child disappeared.

SLC Our biggest question was how do you express the trauma that occurs when a kid disappears . . . That scene does show some emotion, but people could still ask us: what are they doing in bed while the kid is gone? It’s finding a different way to show those traumatic emotions.

JH The challenge of this film is that there are a lot of stories being told at the same time. You don’t want to seem like you’re giving equal time to everything: a little portion goes to the child story, a little portion goes to the garbage. It should appear that it’s all flowing. To me, everything carried equal weight. We set that up and made it tougher than we had to but that’s who we are.


Sarita Choudhury and Erin McMurtry in Fresh Kill (1994), Directed by Shu Lea Cheang. Photo by Lona Foote.

LC I want to talk a bit more about that dialectical tension between form and emotion.

JH What does that mean?

LC The seed of the film had such a specific political context, do you feel that some of the more emotional tangents in the film were obstacles to communicating political points?

SLC It’s just my personal, repressive emotions. That character that’s passionate and can provoke a good cry has always been tough for me. Maybe the next thing I do will have more of a melodramatic feeling to it.

LC What I’m getting at is that whenever a filmmaker develops a challenging narrative style, the most common critical refrain is that “it wasn’t emotional enough, it was too cold.”

JH I was weaned on Godard and I love early Godard, but why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we have a sense of visual formality and minimalism and yet have a real passion, when it’s necessary? Why hold back all of that? Why can’t all those things work? Do we always have to choose between “let’s do abstract” or “let’s do Douglas Sirk?”

LC Who can be very abstract also. One of the things that was important for me were the literary references made. That tied a lot of things together, like cybertech and Borges. The whole film seemed to be about language and how certain languages are not really useful in achieving certain goals. Can you speak a little bit about that? Technology has been an integral part of your installation and video work, Shu Lea.

SLC It’s really all about breaking in, in every way possible. The film is structured so that you have very formalistic shots, and then you have commercial break-ins. It’s built on long shots with different frames coming in. In that sense, the whole structure of the film is about breaking in and then of course, the film involves computer hackers from Africa who break in on the satellite dish. A lot of different characters will show up in the most unlikely places, another form of breaking in. That kind of language comes from my installation work, where I set up the same kind of structure and allow the viewer to break in. As far as spoken language in the film, people are stunned by the language and at the same time they can’t handle it. They don’t expect such elegant language from the multi-culti characters. I always get those remarks. Language was never wasted. Each line is so precise.

JH Maybe it’s too much language for people to bear in a movie.

LC Dialogue has become an integral part of oppositional cultural practice in the last decade. In your installation work, that kind of “breaking in” is really clear. Those Fluttering Objects of Desire was based on the interaction of people coming in and putting their coins in the machines and switching channels. In your film, how do you affect the same kind of antiphony?

SLC I tell people if they get too confused, they should think about it as someone switching TV channels behind your back. At the same time, people have been finding that it’s not passive viewing, where the film sucks you in. It’s a different kind of involvement. At a screening in Philadelphia the audience said it seemed like they were always one step behind. A scene happened and two seconds later they realized what had happened. There is a different interaction with the audience. But some of the dialogue is actually very funny. We had a lot of online language. We got language from Wall Street. One of the things that gets difficult with the language is that it’s also so loaded with references. Some people may get it and some people may never get it. That scene where the guy stops Sarita’s truck on the road and suddenly says, “Where were you the night of the killing?”

JH This homeless man came up to me and yelled that. I loved it so much. It was so spooky and lovely.

SLC This guy is probably taken to the police station and asked that same question all the time.

JH And then he went on to yell, “Rock n’ roll baby, rock n’ roll.” I was laughing and thought, well, there’s a poem there.

LC One of the other things that kept audiences on their toes was the way you abandoned very static shots. The film was very much about movement. The way you deal with cinematic space seems much less about the use of space as a fixed territorial reference than a fluid way of exploring it. Can you talk about why you shunned very traditional establishing shots?

SLC I kind of regretted it. I always go into a space thinking about traveling through it. It’s a very expensive thing to do. I want to see everything and at the same time I want to travel. You have to work out these type of shots at each point of focus. It’s very formal, which allows that kind of moving in, but later on it was broken up by a still shot. You’re traveling within two spaces, one is the outer, the environmental space. The other is a more unknown space, the cyberspace or inner space. That has to do with the way a lot of characters just come on. That kind of fleeting encounter has to do with the way we’re constantly moving.

JH That lifestyle is very real in this city, where people come and go and have these global relationships. Some stay put and others are so fleeting.

LC The first time I saw the film those things made implicit sense. The way characters spoke: in very poetic and elegant constructs that didn’t sound like “real” movie dialogue. The relationships between characters didn’t seem out of place: that a black woman could be the mother of a white woman. These are things that are a part of our landscape living in New York and have to do with unexpressed ideas about kinship and family. But at the same time, this is clearly not a “realist” film. Why was there this pull away from the grittiness we recognize in an urban movie?

SLC There’s all this bullshit in filmmaking about the three stage formula: the motivation, what happens, and the result of what happens. By the end of this film, it’s like, well, it happens. It happens. You happen to catch a little bit of it. You come into the act in the middle, let’s put it that way. A lot of that also has to do with television culture too. If you live in that language of switching TV channels, you easily dig into things in the middle. And if you get bored in the middle of the sentence, you switch channels again. I can’t stand matching shots of door opening, door closing, for example. I came from a film editing background. I know matching shots. I’d really like to go back and deal with more personal, emotional stuff, but even then my set up would be totally different. People say the film is futuristic. It’s amazing. It’s happening now, right next to you. What’s futuristic about it? When people compared it to Blade Runner, I was honored, but at the same time, it’s bizarre. And it’s because reality is pushed a little further and allowed a bit more space to expand.

LC What was it like directing actors in that landscape?

SLC We did a lot of rehearsals, preparing for the character, in terms of background. The actors came to the film already placed in that scenery. There are plenty of performance people we brought in who were very accustomed to that scenery.

LC Did people like Robbie McCauley and Karen Finley have any input regarding their characters?

SLC I didn’t even have to say anything in that scene with Robbie and Karen. They worked it out themselves and took on that whole very delicate, very controlled manner. It was not quite what I had imagined, but they came in with me for the first time that day and worked together and that’s what they came up with. They were so confident too. There is a trust and a style between us, so that we don’t have to be on each other’s back all the time. They worked it out and said we’re going to show you something, and I said, “Fine, perfect.” And that was that.

JH If we had a million dollars, would you have shot different takes of the same scene?

SLC Probably not. The emotion and language were so precise and we worked through it to get that exact emotion or exact way of language. It would have been very disturbing for the actors to keep playing it differently. If you do theater night after night, and you decide to give it a different interpretation each night, it’s yours. With film there’s a different continuity with each character, and then the scenes are not shot in order. You shoot one scene one day and the next day you’re shooting three scenes before that. You have to get that character down, so it’s probably best to focus on one idea and keep that continuity.

LC It’s been seven months since you’ve finished the final cut. You’re still shopping for a distributor in the United States. One of the things that Fresh Kill‘s commercial reception underscored for me was that most distributors work on a very antiquated notion of capitalism and marketing. For different kinds of culture, they market towards a target audience that can be named: black film, black audience; lesbian film, lesbian audience. But one of the reasons why culture can be such a potent site of resistance is that there’s the possibility that if you make a film like Fresh Kill, an audience and a community constitutes itself around the work. People respond to it as what Paul Gilroy has called a “moral community,” one that isn’t isolated by marketing categories of race, class, gender, etc. Have you given much thought to what community you as an artist serve?

SLC A lot of times people want to put Fresh Kill in a certain context, so they put it in a gay and lesbian festival and only lesbians come to see it. I’ve refused to be framed that way. I love the idea of showing to an audience where there’s crossover. They can get it. It’s not like they get there and they’re confused. We also have a whole sphere that we haven’t tapped, the cyber audience. For me, the biggest ad campaign should be in cyberspace, to that whole hack generation. When we showed it in San Francisco, which is such an eco place, there was that interest coming from environmental people too. The film refused to be categorized, and that’s why I think it’s difficult. Audiences have a better take on it than the distributor. There’s always that kind of problem: How do you get the audience into the theater? You have certain channels you have to follow to get any audience. I feel better now than six months ago about the film. It’s like a reviewer said, “It’s a film with an attitude.”

BOMB 54
Winter 1996
The cover of BOMB 54
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