Wong Hoy Cheong: Excavating Doghole

22:09 | Published on November 12, 2013 | 64 Views

In this talk, artist Wong Hoy Cheong reflects at length on the centrality of Malaysian history—the country’s traumatic period of Japanese occupation in particular—to his shifting creative practice over the past twenty years. He also discusses in depth the complex themes, aesthetics, and structure of his recent film Doghole. Wong also responds to questions about his work’s technical and behind-the-scenes aspects as well as the emotional resonance it has with audiences in Malaysia and elsewhere.

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Question Text Card: Doghole is a short film about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. Approximately 23 years ago, you also created Sook Ching, which consists of painting, documentary, and performance, and which was also about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia.

What draws you to this period of Malaysian history and why do you suppose it is still such a vital creative resource for you today?

Wong Hoy Cheong: Doghole is not about just one work. It had its impetus in a series of connected works made over twenty years ago. In the early nineties, I decided to conduct an archaeological exploration of the Japanese occupation, because my father was a survivor of the Japanese occupation and a lot of the survivors were reaching their sixties and seventies by then. I wanted to document them and their stories, almost like an oral history project. I also wanted to do a painting—I was a painter then—on the subject. And also, I also wanted to do a performance about it. All these interconnected projects evolved in the nineties, then I left the subject of the Japanese occupation for over twenty years. Doghole is like a revisiting of the subject that I first approached twenty years ago. There were various reasons why I decided to retrieve this story and make it into a film.

Question Text Card: Can you tell us how Doghole was conceived?

Wong Hoy Cheong: In 2008, I was invited to a conference called “Dictionary of War”. It was supposed to be a conference discussing issues around war. But I, not having experience of war, a middle-class kid, decided that it would be kind of pretentious and disingenuous if I was to write something as though I knew anything about war. And it occurred to me, I had actually dealt with this subject many years ago. So I pulled out the recording of the interviews I did. And in this particular interview, I then realized, I had a section I had never used. Because at that point in time, I did not know how to deal with that section, which is now in Doghole.

So I transcribed the recording into a text, and I analyzed the text from various aspects of the process, to do with what transpired during the war, what the protagonists would have gone through, and the issues surrounding existence within war. So that’s how the film started, because after I finished the conference, again, I left it. And then about a couple of months later, I was invited to do a new project in Japan, a new commissioned work. And I thought, “Yeah, why not?” You know? It’s something I had left, because I couldn’t deal with it then. But now that I had written almost an academic paper on it, I had an objective eye on this episode, and thought perhaps I could delve into it, and turn it into a film. And that’s how Doghole emerged.

Question Text Card: What kinds of questions or discussions were you hoping to provoke through the making and screening of this film?

Wong Hoy Cheong: Okay, there were two threads to Doghole. One, I was very interested in exploring the aesthetics of narrative within the film, the technical process of filmmaking. Two, I was very interested in exploring what emerged from the so-called academic paper I wrote for the “Dictionary of War” conference. Go back to number one: film and the aesthetic experience. I wanted to explore, in a very technical, in a very highly aestheticized way, this film. Because I didn’t want it to be a grim film about war. I wanted to make it light. I wanted to draw in the youth. I wanted to have animation. I wanted to explore all kind of technical possibilities, within the filmmaking process and what technology can offer us.

Two, in terms of human resilience. This film is mainly about human resilience, and there were various aspects of human resilience that I tried to explore. One is, of course, human resilience in wartime. How did the protagonist—in this case, my father—live through this experience? What are the issues and the contexts that allow someone to survive, and to survive again after that? Especially having seen—I don’t know, according to him—more than thirty people being executed in front of him, one after another? And having survived those executions, there’s the guilt of seeing your friends or your fellow prisoners die in front of your eyes. So, in this second section, I’m going to talk about some aspects of this human resilience, this memory. Memory is a very strange thing that we all have. Memory is not only about remembering, it’s also about forgetting. I think in order for it to be a memory, we must forget. So, memory is like flotsam that floats in our minds, and out of our minds. Within memory, what is real, and what is imagined? It’s been so long since this person has experienced war, so how much of it is real, factual? How much of it is about him imagining what he went through? I was interested in that aspect, and this is revealed in the film’s more fantastical sequences.

Secondly, I’m interested in complicity. I think in times of war, there’s a lot of complicity. And it is not only pertaining to this particular situation. So, for example, maybe you can identify a little bit more if I refer to the European context of the Holocaust. A lot of prisoners, people who were taken into concentration camps—because they were Jews, or they were ideologically not “correct”—were used as leaders, or to control the other populations within the camp. Like bosses. They meted out violence to their own people. And in this context, if you look at the various parts of the film, we start off with an arrest. The arrest has Japanese, mixed together with Chinese spies, arresting my father, the protagonist. But why was my father released? He was pulled out by a Japanese soldier. Was this because of sympathy? Was it because my father was a young kid? Was it because he wanted this particular kid to be a messenger, to tell the rest of the prisoners that if they didn’t confess or become spies, they would be executed as well? So there were many layers to that. And then you have another layer of empathy. There were Gurkha soldiers towards the end of the film, who fed the prisoners. And Gurkha soldiers were mercenaries. Why did they feed prisoners who were dying? I guess in times of war, there is no right, there is no wrong. There is indiscrimination, I would say. This was an aspect I wanted to explore in this film.

Last, I guess, is the aspect of the sacred and the profane, the slipperiness between the highly aestheticized and beautiful film and the terror behind it. I think sometimes the boundaries between aesthetics, between beauty and terror, are so thin that we can easily slip from one into the other. This film was conceived with these kinds of thoughts in mind.

Question Text Card: Doghole deals with a very violent and oppressive period of Malaysian history, yet the images—particularly the animated sequences—and editing choices give the film a surrealistic and aesthetically appealing quality. Why was it necessary to employ animation techniques in your film, and what did you hope to achieve with them?

Wong Hoy Cheong: I really enjoy animation. I like special effects. I’m a sucker for animation and special effects. Because they can do so many things that live action cannot do. And in this film particularly, I was interested in memory. I was interested in the release of the mind from live action, a kind of alienation effect. What better things to use than animation and special effects? They can enter a world that live action cannot; it can only pretend to. For example, you can’t ride a bicycle and fly in the air unless you animate it, unless you use special effects. You can’t have thousands of cockroaches crawling around you if you don’t animate it, if you don’t use special effects. So I was interested in the technical part of technology, as well as in what technology can do to help us, in our own imaginations, because live action cannot help us.

Question Text Card: Many of the scenes in Doghole are highly choreographed and you use a great many match cuts. Why did you use such techniques?

Wong Hoy Cheong: Choreographing this film . . . I have done quite a number of films that are about an exploration of looseness of lack of control. But this one, because it was such a personal film, I felt I needed to highly choreograph it, so that it did not become too personal. Using scenes that slip from one to the other feels like stream-of-consciousness to me. Because in memory, we just slip from one idea to another, one thought to another, one memory to another. So for example, we have a scene where a latex bucket becomes a pot falling, containing urine and feces. Or a bowl becomes a turntable, or vinyl moving on a turntable. I wanted these scenes to be seamless, to flow from one to another, just like memory. All of us who have dreamt before, or remembered our dreams, will understand that we can walk out of your apartment doors and enter a different world. And that from there, you can walk into another space in the next moment in your dream or memory. I wanted this kind of fluidity, which moves from one element to another element, one space to another space, one context to another context, to give it the quality of a memory.

Question Text Card: There is an extremely moving scene in your film where an opera singer serenades with a melancholic song while prisoners are being shot by Japanese soldiers. How did you get the idea for this scene and what is the song about?

Wong Hoy Chong: The whole scene is supposed to have that kind of Brechtian alienation effect that I talked about earlier, in which it is a very tense moment of people screaming and shouting on the bus. And then the ropes around their hands are cut and the execution takes place. I wanted to break the tension of the execution scene with a song, with this strange scene of a woman singing. But actually, it’s not so strange, because again, at this precise same time, in the forties in Europe in concentration camps, orchestras were used to play music as prisoners were led to execution. Or there were speakers in concentration camps, you know, so-called “entertaining” the soldiers or the executioners as they executed people. It had a very terrifying effect when I found out about this. I wanted to create this kind of effect, the sort of beauty of music, and the horror of war pulled together in one scene. Therefore there was this woman singing.

Why the song? It’s a very interesting thing, what this song means. It’s a love song. It’s a song called “Ru Guo Mei You Ni,” and is sung by a singer from China who apparently was a Japanese spy during the Japanese occupation. Her name is Bai Guang. She was also one of my father’s favorite singers. I remember him telling me that he liked her music. And, in fact, I have a photograph of her. So, all of these factors made me use this particular song, sung by this particular singer. And the song is, as I said, “Ru Guo Mei You Ni,” which literally translates as “If Without You.” It’s a love song. Why a love song? Is it because this woman is longing for her lover? Is this woman singing a farewell to her lover, who was going to be executed? Is this a mother singing of longing for her son? Is this a nation, or a people singing about death, the loss of life to execution? It has these various aspects but also, more than that, I was very intrigued by the lyrics of this song. Even though it’s a love song, there is this very graphic, but apparently idiomatic phrase in Chinese, which translates the notion of broken-heartedness with a phrase like “Your large intestines are being snipped inch by inch.” That is a graphic description of longing, of broken-heartedness. And I thought it was terrifying, because yes, people are executed—literally, they are snipped bit by bit. But within the context of the song, and within the context of the scene, it made the whole thing so bizarre. And I wanted that notion of the strangeness of an execution.

Question Text Card: Was Doghole a difficult film for you to make because it is a story about your father and his torture by the Japanese?

Wong Hoy Cheong: Doghole was both; it was difficult, and not difficult, on various levels. It was not difficult because it was about my father; it was difficult technically. It was difficult because it was my father but I did not want to make it into a personal film. It was difficult in terms of working with a large cast. So, there were difficulties on various levels. But in terms of being difficult because of my father, it wasn’t that difficult. I did this interview with him very long ago. It was sitting in a drawer. And I just retrieved it and used it for a film. It was difficult in the sense that I did not want to make it into a personal story. I didn’t want it to be about him, I wanted it to be an archetypal war story of someone who had survived a concentration camp, who had to go on living, and lived his life quite fully. To do that, I had to, as I said earlier, make this film very highly choreographed, very planned. And in fact, we had a lot of rehearsals with cameras, and the cast, and the cinematographer moving through a very planned sequence in the set, with markers on the floor. It is very difficult to say that because of my father, and because it rouses very personal feelings. It didn’t work out that way. It worked out more like I wanted to make a film about someone who survived war, who just so happens to be my father. And that’s how I felt about it.

Question Text Card: Do you see any relationship between Doghole and your earlier films, such as Trigger (2004), Suburbia (2006), or Aman Sulukule Canim Sulukule (2007)?

Wong Hoy Cheong: The previous three films were about letting go. First of all, I did not hold a camera, or have professional cameramen or cinematographers hold the camera. One of the main reasons for doing those films was about letting go of the camera, letting go of control of the camera, by both the cinematographer and the director.

In Trigger, which was shot in Liverpool, the camera was mounted on a horse. In fact, I mounted six cameras on a horse. And obviously, you can’t control the head movement, or the body movement, or the tail movement of a horse, or how it gallops through a hotel. So, that gave us a certain accidental quality to the shooting.

In Suburbia, I mounted two cameras, one on a wheelchair, and one on a remote-controlled toy car, and I took them through different terrains. And of course, you cannot fully control a toy car. You cannot fully control a wheelchair as it maneuvers through different terrains. Again, it was about accidents, it was about losing control. 

In Aman Sulukule Canim Sulukule—which is Turkish, and literally translates as “Oh, Sulukule, dear Sulukule,” which is a district in Istanbul—I was working with a group of Roma kids, and I did not want to train the kids how to use the camera. So, we just basically told them, “Don’t zoom in too much, into a subject.” And then gave them cameras, and they shot the sequences, and they wrote the script.

But in Doghole, everything was controlled. From the camera movements and the editing process, what the actors said, how the actors moved, and how the cameramen moved, everything was controlled. So, it’s very different. The only similarity, I suppose, was the use of animation. And that is in Aman Sulukule Canim Sulukule. Because I was, as I said, very interested in animation. And having worked in Turkey with the Roma on animation—we did both Claymation and animation—I decided that it was a process that I enjoyed. It was a process that could take us to realms of fantasy. In the Aman Sulukule film, this was a fantasy of children; here it is a fantasy of release, a fantasy of entering a different realm, a way apart from terror.

Question Text Card: Over the last eight years, you appear to have gravitated toward photography and filmmaking in your work. What do you make of this shift, and how would you say filmmaking fits within your practice?

Wong Hoy Cheong: Yes. I’ve shifted from more solitary ways of making art, like painting, drawing, or printmaking, to photography and filmmaking because I found painting not conducive to my temperament. I didn’t like the idea of sitting in a studio, facing a blank canvas, and sort of pouring my ideas out onto this canvas, you know? Using paints, which I thought were kind of smelly, and took a long time to manipulate. I enjoyed drawing, to a certain extent. But filmmaking and photography took me to different levels of working, maybe because of my own interests in working with communities and in activism. I get to work with a group of people who can affect the outcome of my work. I like that. I like the tension of group communication, of working with a designer, working with a cameraperson, working with a costume person, a makeup artist, an assistant director, a production manager, and a team of people. In Doghole, the team was the largest I had worked with, both in pre-production, production, and post-production. I think there was a total of over a hundred people that I had to negotiate, collaborate, and work with. And of course, that’s not easy, but I like that uneasiness, because it gives filmmaking and photography a sense of tension, a sense of everybody working towards a final product. It’s the effort of more people than just your creative mind, your creative soul, and the actions of your two hands (basically painting, or drawing, or printmaking). That’s why I really enjoy filmmaking and photography much more than painting, as a creative outlet.