For Hong, juxtaposing the complex history and the undeniable human pain is a way to shed light on what is left unsaid and hidden by the official history.
“The Chinese communist party has never done investigations … There are groups of Japanese going to China to investigate. Many American documents have been declassified. But it is not human documentary evidence … Victims are the proof,” he says.
An interest in death
Hong says he’s interested in mass murder. For last year’s Taipei Biennial, Hong co-curated an exhibition titled the Museum of the Monster that is History, which dwells upon the subject of institutionalized violence and state-sanctioned forms of terror.
Nazism is another recurrent theme in his works. The Denazification of MH, for example, is an experimental documentary that explores German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s reluctance to confront his involvement with the Nazis. In Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is, a prophecy of Asian world domination is delivered in the Nietzschean vocabulary that alludes to Nazi ideology. Hong’s politics are not always easy to swallow, and his tactics are often loud and aggressive.
Documentary filmmaking “should be something that has a certain kind of strength, power or teeth. Most [documentaries] I see don’t have teeth,” the artist says.
Born and raised in a Chinese-Taiwanese household in Minnesota, Hong subverts and attacks model minority stereotypes through works that tackle the particularities of the Asian American experience. His confrontational cinema mocks the xenophobia of America and loathes the white man’s obsession with Asian women. In A Portrait of Sino-American Friendship, for example, Hong depicts a fat American businessman talking on his cell phone while a prostrate Chinese woman shines his shoes.
“Typical identity politics films in the US are all about being victims, victims of racism. To me, it’s boring. I want to come from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness,” Hong says. “To me, to assimilate — because I was taught to be just like anyone else — is safe. To be safe, to not stick out.”
Hong gave up his PhD studies in German metaphysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and moved to Los Angeles where he eventually graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school. But the documentary filmmaker says that the formal filmmaking at that time, which plays with the texture, light and material of film, was too tame for his tastes.
“For me, art is argument. You are trying to convey an idea ... I think film should have arguments and should make you remember,” the artist says.
Hong’s oeuvre also provokes people to face and re-examine their own stereotypes, biases and ideology. Cutaways of Jiang Chun Gen — Forward and Back Again, which premiered at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, elicited shock from audience members who associate Japan with “hi-tech, anime, cute things and sushi.”
“I try to change people’s perceived opinion, to show that lots of stuff we learned in school is either incomplete or wrong,” Hong says.