Q&A with Wong Hoy Cheong
35:21 | Published on November 12, 2013 | 15 Views
In this fascinating in-depth exchange with June Yap, curator of No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, Malaysian artist and filmmaker Wong Hoy Cheong responds to a range of questions from audience members. Wong discusses his artistic interpretation of historical events, his techniques for working effectively with young and inexperienced actors, and the importance of multilayered sound design and music to films such as Doghole, which was featured in Yap’s exhibition at the Guggenheim.
For more information, visit the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Good morning.
June Yap: Hello, Hoy Cheong.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Good morning.
June Yap: Good morning. Sorry, I know it’s really early where you are. I hope that’s fine!
Wong Hoy Cheong: I’ll have to live with it.
June Yap: Okay. Well, we’ve had the great opportunity of viewing your work, and also your wonderful talk, and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us about the work. At this point in time, we really want to open it up for questions, but I thought, being up here, I get some priority, and I get the first question! So I just wanted to ask something, because you did mention that the idea of creating this film about this very historical moment was for you a means of unpacking what was a very gruesome event for a younger generation. In this work, you use a lot of young people, so I was wondering, what was their response to the production of this work, to experiencing this history through your work?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yes, we used a lot of young actors. First of all, it was not easy to get those young actors, because one of the requirements was being skinny. Two, a lot of young actors haven’t had this kind of traumatic experience, just like me. But because I have some training in theater and directing, we used certain methods to get them into a heightened state of emotion. For example, we would tie people up, actually, during rehearsals. Different groups of people. Blindfold them. And say certain things to them, like abuse—verbal abuse—and sometimes even mildly physically abuse them. We’d pull them through spaces that they were not familiar with, and have them walk through dark spaces blindfolded. They had to negotiate their way through the spaces, before something happened to them. So, we had about two weeks of intense rehearsals and discussions. And it worked. And then, of course, there are technical methods you can use. For example, control of the eye. In theater or in film, the blink of an eye tells a lot of things. The way you stare into a camera, or stare beyond a camera, or the way you stare away from the camera, creates different emotions that, even though the actor might not have those emotions, visually, they can create a certain effect. So, we used all these bold aesthetics strategies, as well as technical methods, to get what I wanted.
June Yap: How did they feel, having been put through this experience?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Um . . .
June Yap: Or did you get them into a state where they didn’t respond to you anymore?
Wong Hoy Cheong: No, no. Because they were a very good group, a team. First of all, they had to work with each other, so there was a sense of comradeship, a sense of being in prison together. Because for one, different versions of the set were created within one space. It wasn’t a very big room, and they all basically had to live there, or spend a lot of time in there, in a hot, damp space. So that created a kind of understanding, a kind of having to physically maneuver around each other. And we did talk about history. But most of them actually have no idea that this is part of history, or what we went through, or what the older generation went through. So it was difficult for them to realize it. But somehow, they managed to connect it to their own experiences of growing up. And it was good. I mean, it was good that they understood history through themselves, through their own experiences as individuals, and as actors within a space.
June Yap: Thank you. I will open it up, unless no one has any questions, then I’ll add another. Yes? Please use the microphone in front. I think that would be preferable. It gets you closer to it. I think you can leave it on. Maybe you can. Yeah.
Question: Hi. My name is Yun-Seong#, and I’m actually from Korea. I was watching the movie, and it became really emotional, because most of the story matched that of the survivors I have seen from Korea. Hundreds of different survivors. Korea was directly under the control of the Japanese, and the Japanese used all kinds of methods. The two lines that really caught my attention in this movie were that over half a million people were killed, and that people who wanted to die couldn’t die. Those were the two main facts that really struck me, because I’ve seen and I’ve heard all kinds of evidence. For example, this one survivor, the Japanese regime took out all his teeth, so that he couldn’t die by chewing his tongue. So, the cruelest methods that you can imagine. The question I have is this: We have statistics saying that over a million people were killed, either directly, or indirectly, by Japanese soldiers. And also over half a million in Malaysia. Malaysia was under the control of Japan too during this period. I know China was, and Korea was definitely. Where do you get these kinds of sources, of these numbers? I know you probably hear a lot from the survivors, they tell you all these stories. But there’s a problem with the statistics. So, I just wanted to ask you, what was your source for that? Because it really matches: China, Korea, and now Malaysia. Thank you very much.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yeah, there actually have been a lot of books written about this period, but it’s not easy to get accurate statistics. But that was the statistic. The data and statistics I got from a couple of books, and I made certain generalizations. This half a million, well, people died in different areas. From the war itself, from executions, from torture, and from the Death Rail. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the film Bridge on the River Kwai. Basically, a lot of Asians, or Malaysians, at that point, were sent to Burma and Thailand to build tracks for a train. It was called the Death Railway. People died in different areas, and that’s where I got the statistics.
Two, referring to the quote, yes, that quote struck me, too. And in fact, if you see the film, everything was narrated by my father except for two quotes, which were spoken by the actor. They were culled from the whole interview. They were pulled out, these two quotes, because I found the quotes very melancholic, very disturbing. One was, “And the prisoners had to feed me.” People in camps, who have seen someone hurt, are actually helping each other. That kind of empathy, I wanted to pull out. The second one, which you mentioned, is the cruelty. From empathy to cruelty. Because why don’t you just let the person die? But perhaps it was more useful to let this person survive, because survivors, in that environment—, tell stories, horrifying stories, so that others can provide information, or can do exactly what the oppressor wants of them.
June Yap: Thank you for the question. Yes?
Question: Hi, my name’s Angel Velasco Shaw. I’m Filipino-American. I’m also a filmmaker who can relate quite a bit to you, on many levels, not just as a filmmaker, but as someone who’s struggled with painting and comes out of a long history of struggle, and family—not just my family but also the whole archipelago of the Philippines, through many forms of colonialism. Firstly, I wanted to commend you for making such an extraordinary film, where you were able to, as you said, create something that was very seamless. And I really appreciated hearing you—you’re really wonderfully articulate about your creative process, and about how it’s not separate from your intellectual or personal processes of thinking. So, I wanted to thank you for that.
I was curious whether or not you thought the atrocities that were committed by the Japanese in Malaysia were related in any way to its being a colony of Britain? I ask this question because I believe—and I’m not alone in this—that in the Philippines, the atrocities that were committed, which were also incredibly horrific, in part were committed because the United States was the colonizer of the Philippines. And I think that the Japanese wrought havoc in a certain way as a consequence. So I was curious what your thoughts were, in terms of Malaysia?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yes, definitely, because Malaya—at that point—was a colonial state. And in a strange way, the Japanese came—just as they came to many parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines—as liberators. So, the propaganda was, “We are here to liberate you from the real colonizers”—who were the British, or the French, or the Dutch. But only certain sectors of the indigenous population were so-called liberated. For example, in Southeast Asia, the Japanese, at that point, came to liberate the indigenous community. So, that includes Malays, Indians (who were also colonized in India), and other groups of people, like Filipinos. But those who had particularly Chinese blood, because of their own, history with China, took on the brunt of the terror and the brunt of the oppression. The majority of the Chinese were the ones detained, killed, and oppressed during the Japanese occupation in Malaysia. So it’s a very sensitive part of history because, even now, we negotiate through this period in history with racial overtones. Certain people were privileged, certain people were used as informers, and certain people conspired or were complicit with the Japanese at that point in time. So it was both about colonialism and liberation. I just want to emphasize that moments like that in history are not about right or wrong, as I mentioned in the talk. They’re about indiscrimination. It’s who you meet, who is nice to you. So for example, why did the protagonist get released? That’s always the question that bothers me. At no point was any historian, or my father himself, able to answer this question. Why was he released? Is it true empathy, because he was a young kid? Was it because he was useful, and the Japanese wanted to use him, as a kid, to spread fear among the other prisoners? I hope I answered your question.
Question: Sorry, I stepped away from the mic. Yes, you did, and more. And I really, really hope that you have the opportunity to continue to show your film globally, and especially in parts of Southeast Asia where we are not so aware of each others’ histories, and the commonalities that we’ve shared, and the fact that the Chinese in the diaspora are everywhere. And not just the Chinese. To be able to show a film like yours in schools—and not just in Asia, but again, everywhere—would be great. So, I really hope you get that opportunity, and I certainly will try to help make that happen. Thank you.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Thank you, yes, this film was made for young people. I was very interested in how to use history, through film, through narrative, through a visual experience, to draw in young people. And as I said, I didn’t want to make a grim film. I wanted to make it alluring, much more like seeing CSI or There Will Be Blood than seeing a grim historical film.
Question: Hi. I’m Dmitri. Making that film, you had to immerse yourself in that cruelty that happened back then in Malaysia. How did you offset that cruelty during the process of making that film? I mean, what were the other things that made you happy, instead of going through the blackness of the war?
Wong Hoy Cheong: It’s very difficult to answer that, because it was just work. By the time we shot, as I kept emphasizing in the talk, there was no pain, there was no terror. It was a very technical process. And because I had experience with theater, I could step away from it. I was like a third eye, watching a process, which we could develop and use for a film. The actors and I, we spent a lot of time going out for drinks and hanging out after rehearsals. So, it was good for us, for the actors. But for the production crew, I think it was a very weird process, because we never really got emotional. In fact, it was kind of funny, because the feces that was all over the place, all the dirt, we made it from papier-mâché and coloring. And there were jokes among us, like, throwing shit at each other! I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t terrifying. It was quite a fun process, actually, trying to match the bowl, masking it on the monitor, so that when we shot the turntable rotating, it would match exactly. It was just trying to deal with the technicalities of a very complicated shoot. So, fortunately, we didn’t go through many emotional experiences, other than the earlier rehearsals. By the time we shot, the actors were quite familiar with means to convey certain emotions that I wanted to create on celluloid or video.
Question: Hi. My name’s Raja#. Seeing this work here in New York, I’m struck as well by the similarities with the atrocities that are being committed in our name, even today, in places like Guantanamo Bay, under the guise of the War on Terror. And just yesterday, there was a letter to the editor in The New York Times from a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay describing his experience of being force-fed, and thus denied the right to protest through hunger strike. I wonder if you could talk about how you see a work like this speaking not just to the historically specific, but also more universally, and to some of the atrocities that are still going on today.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yes. There are a lot of images in the film that you might have missed. For example, there were two images—sort of snapshots—made during the torture scene that were directly taken from the whole 9/11 experience. Two images were from the Abu Ghraib camps: the peace sign, and the chain tied around a prisoner’s neck. That was how I tried to bring that film into the present time. The references to current events, current technology, and current filmmaking—the opening scene of execution—were also related to There Will Be Blood, to the opening scene, where people fell into a grave. And during the torture scene, in the room where the Japanese did the interrogation, there was actually a laptop. A first-generation laptop sitting there—I don’t know if you noticed it? There were a lot of little modern entrapments of things that were bringing the film from 1940s to the present, particularly those images of Abu Ghraib. So there was a conscious attempt to create history, but also to make it relevant to the present time, both through technology, and through images. Hopefully, subliminally, the subliminal images will bring us to our own experience of contemporary war and how we see these episodes in war. Does that answer your question? Yeah, sure, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, I’m Fiona. I’m from Malaysia as well. It’s great to see your film here. It’s given me a lot to think about. I was also struck by the photographs, and the staging with the Japanese soldiers and the prisoners. I was reminded of Abu Ghraib at that moment, too. But I had another question: I wondered if you could comment on the closing caption you had after the interview. You commented that your father, after the war, got married and then went to Japan and toured the country, and enjoyed it very much. That seemed a very ironic ending. Could you could say a little bit more about that? Thanks.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yeah, that is an irony I wanted to create. A story about resilience, about people that people can forget, and move on, and not hold onto the past. So, for example, in postcolonial countries, there’s still a lot of anger over being colonized. And sometimes, for me, it gets a bit tiring. You know, I just want to move on, and stop talking about being oppressed. And I’m sorry—I mean, this is New York City—but just as with the Holocaust. We must move on, somehow. We must recognize a period in history, and move on, and not keep using that as a crutch to locate ourselves in a moment of siege. That was what I wanted to convey through that message. But later, after I made the film, and it was shown to a Japanese audience, I realized why there was that optimism in 1970, when my parents went to Japan. 1970 was the year of the so-called—according to my Japanese friends—last utopian world expo, and it was in Osaka. And the fantasy images of those futuristic buildings that you see in the long animation sequence were actually taken from photographs of the pavilions in the world expo. That was the expo that was right after man landed on the moon. There was a pavilion where moonstones were exhibited. And I remember seeing them, because these moonstones traveled all over the world, and I remembered that seeing them in Malaysia was quite an experience: “Wow, they are actually stones from the moon.” They were actually boring, but you know, the idea that these were stones taken from this round glow at night stirred up a lot of emotions, that man could move on to a better and more wonderful world. So, I can imagine that having gone to a world expo where “utopia” was a theme, one must feel that despite one’s own experience in a particular point in history, one could come back and say “Yeah, maybe the world has moved on. Maybe there is a utopia beyond this horror, and beyond this terror” Just a guess. Again, we have no idea what goes on in human minds, other than what is said, or what is imagined, I suppose. Next question?
Question: Hi. My name is Ky#. You talked a lot about the visual, and I was wondering whether you had anything to say about how you conceive of sound, and the voice, playing into the real, and the surreal, or trauma, and distance? Or how you work with sound designers and the actors’ voices?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Could you be a little clearer? In terms of the sound design of the film?
Question: Yeah. Sound design, or the actors’ voices. How you see it playing in? I know that you didn’t do the sound design yourself.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Okay. The sound design had many layers. In fact, in certain parts, we had as many as 50 tracks. Most of it is quite inaudible, but in my limited experience in filmmaking, it’s amazing how there’s all this layering of not-really-audible, subliminal sounds. A monkey crying in the jungle creates certain emotions within you. Water trickling down the wall and dripping on the floor creates certain emotions. So we had all this very mild layering of sounds in the back—from planes to dogs barking—to create tension. Or, things chattering. And we are all familiar with these kinds of sound effects in contemporary films. The actors didn’t actually speak very much except for the two Japanese actors who spoke in Japanese, and the protagonist, who spoke only two lines, like I said, which were culled from the actual recording of the interview. But in terms of sound design, there were two songs. One song was “Ru Guo Mei You Ni” (“If Without You”). For the second song, which was in the fantasy sequence, or the imagined sequence, I wanted a really cheesy, light, 1960s song with an Osaka, world-expo feel. Something that lulls you into a two-minute animation block in the film. And at some point, the sound design was very, almost no sound, I think. A stillness. The lack of sound also creates a kind of counterpoint effect. That was how we moved with the sound design. And we went through a lot of sound. In fact, I had two sound designers work on it. They couldn’t give the film what I wanted, so with two designers, it got better. Personally, I still feel the sound can be much better in terms of its complexities. But one has to stop at some point. We can’t keep polishing an apple until it rots.
Question: Hello, my name is Ling. I have a question about audience feedback. You mentioned that you’d seen Japanese audience feedback, and I noticed that you thank Fukuoka Museum in the credits. So, I wonder, what was the Japanese audience feedback on this film? Also, could you talk a little bit about occupation as a shared memory in South and Southeast Asia? How do you connect this experience with a so-called Western audience? In your talk, you talk a lot about comparing this experience with the concentration camps. How do you try to connect to that in your film?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Hopefully that particular experience transcends history and locality. I think human experiences such as the one you just saw are quite similar in different parts of the world. I think people have mentioned Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And I can imagine it happening in a lot of prisons, still. America legalized, in Guantanamo, methods of torture. They are still there. People still go through these kinds of experiences, where people of certain races, or ethnicities—or certain ideologies—are detained, arrested, and tortured. Right now. All over the world. And I was hoping that experience would transcend 1945, or the 1940s, or Southeast Asia, and move beyond to something about human experience, human complicities, human empathy, and human resilience against all odds. That was the intention. And that’s why there was a need to connect it to various points from CSI to animation to images from Abu Ghraib.
Question: Hi, my name is Kevin. I’m also from Malaysia. And my father, who’s quite old, lived through the same experience as your father. And I’m wondering, having made this film with him, how did he react, seeing the finished product, and also seeing other people’s reactions to it?
Wong Hoy Cheong: Okay, I did this interview 20 years ago, and I made a first documentary on the Japanese occupation, and it was called Sook Ching, which translates as “Purification by elimination.” This was a process in which people had hoods over them, and they lined up in groups, and these informers with hoods pointed at the captured people, and those they pointed at, or those who were accused, were taken into camps, tortured, or executed. That was the first film—more of a documentary—that I made. And he saw that, and I guess he was quite pleased that I was interested in that part of history, or his own personal life. But when I made this 20 years later, he had passed away. So, he never saw this film. In terms of responses from him, I guess he really responded to the earlier film. Maybe I should go back and answer the earlier question about a Japanese audience responding. When I showed it in Japan, some old people walked out of the film. But the young people, especially university students, had no idea, some of them, of this episode. I remember being in U.S. in the ’80s, and I was tutoring in UMass, at that point. This was in the early ’80s, or mid-’80s. And even then, a lot of 17 and 18-year-olds did not know much about the Vietnam, uh, War, and that was in the ’80s. So, I can imagine Japanese students five years ago, had no idea what the Japanese occupation was about. Or did they know that Japan had this intention of control of Asia, or occupy any areas of Asia during the First World War.
June Yap: And I think that wraps up our Q-and-A. We would like to thank Hoy Cheong. I think we would all agree that you definitely have intrigued us with the deftness by which you have handled what is a very weighty subject, and managed to open it up for dialogue. And for that, we are very appreciative. I would also like to thank all of you for being here with us today, and thank you for the very wonderful, very meaningful questions that you have raised. As mentioned, there is a reception in the Museum rotunda that, unfortunately, you can’t join us. But I’m sure you're headed for breakfast, soon.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yes, yes. I apologize for not being able with you. I have some work due in Malaysia that’s very urgent right now, so I had to cancel my trip.
June Yap: Yes.
Wong Hoy Cheong: In fact, I was really looking forward to taking a break, and going to New York City.
June Yap: Yeah, definitely.
Wong Hoy Cheong: I lived in New York City at some point in my life, so it would have been nice to go back and visit, and see friends. And I know I’ve got family and friends in the audience, so hi to everyone, and apologies again.
June Yap: Well, we’re definitely missing you here, and we wish you all the best during the intense period in Malaysia right now.
Wong Hoy Cheong: Yeah. I have been tasked with certain jobs to do with running the elections in Malaysia—very important elections, watershed elections. So, unfortunately I have to be around to help hold down the fort.
June Yap: But thank you for joining us in this way, anyway—it’s been fantastic. Thank you!