With his documentary Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version, James Hong claims to open the first front in what he predicts will be the world's impending race war. It's not a pretty sight but at least this race battle is being waged through images, instead of with weapons, as in, say, the US' current conflict in Iraq.
The film is a rant by Hong, an American-born Chinese with family in Taiwan, who returns to Taipei after a 10-year absence and witnesses phenomena in the city that trigger an unbridled rage deep within him.
First among these is the rampant Americanization of the city's landscape and its people. American chain stores and restaurants dot the city and Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, lords over the city as a giant monument to the wholesale adoption of American-style capitalism and is a constant reminder, in the form of a glass-sheathed phallus, of Western, read American, domination.
Hong makes clear in the opening narrated scenes of the movie that, for him, the concept of America is an exclusive realm for white people and that he is an outsider in his own country. America, simply stated, is white, Hong said in an interview in Taipei yesterday.
Coming from this strained relationship with white people, the abundance of white men in Taipei and their presence, particularly when in the company of local women, disgusts Hong. The raw, emotional intensity of his distemper, some may say hatred, has invited intense controversy over the film in the US, where his bluntness runs against the grain of extant ideologies regarding race. Racist whites would naturally object to Hong's disparaging remarks, he said, and white members of the liberal left who espouse the popular ideology of rainbow multiculturalism would find the sound of an ornery Asian man unsettling.
Hong is, indeed, unrelenting and unforgiving toward white people. Shots of pasty white men, usually overweight and dressed sloppily, shuffle around the city in the company of Taiwanese women as the torrent of racial epithets in Hong's narration is censored out with a high-pitched beep.
The first version of the film, Hong said, was uncensored and offended audiences. As does the final censored cut. But he ultimately preferred the censored narration for the additional level of complexity it brought to the film by suggesting a power that attempts to muzzle the director and by allowing viewers to fill in the blanks with their own racial epithets. The censored edit is called the "sensitive version."
Another irony of Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms, which screens today, is that, while the movie lashes out at perceived US, white, male domination in Taiwan, it is a uniquely American product. It is born of the director's ethnic alienation in the US that climaxes in the context of Taiwan.
An episode at Taipei-Spot Film House, where Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (
Hong's point regarding global domination by white men is one that has been made since the advent of post-colonial theory and hardly stands as the film's original trait, interesting though it may be. Instead, Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms is significant for its stripping away of what Hong calls insincere ideologies of multiculturalism in the US and the ushering in of a new paradigm of racial relations in the new century that he claims will be characterized by racial balkanization brought about by a frank assessment of racial and cultural differences. "People are not born equal. To say so is a lie," Hong said.