Chinese Characters (1986)
Chinese Characters examines the ambiguous relationship between gay Asian men and white gay porn. Through fantasy voice-overs, staged interviews and humourous re-enactments of scenes from Joe Gage porn classics, the tape forces viewers to question their own narrow definitions of what constitutes gay desire.
Quoting Confucius, that "food and sex are human nature," Chinese Characters builds a parallel between the Chinese legend about the search for the source of the Yellow River and contemporary Asian-Canadian gay men's search for pleasure via their relationship to gay pornography. Advancing the positive value of pornography as a way to help fantasize and experience greater sexual pleasure and ingenuity, personal techniques are demonstrated and deployed in a High Noon dream of sexual adventure.
“Richard Fung’s Chinese Characters weaves together storytelling, documentary interviews, archival footage, dramatic structure, and video chroma-key to explore the relationship between gay East Asian men and gay white male pornography. Fung sits in as the talking head for interviews of others to call attention to his own role as producer of the tape and the choices he makes in the editing room. In other parts of the tape, images of an Asian man rubbing himself with explicit gay porn keyed in to the background deconstruct the traditional codes through which sexual imagery is consumed. According to Fung, the tape was made in response to the feminist debates around pornography that eclipsed issues – specifically racial issues – raised by gay male pornography. This tape is thoughtful and provocative and pushes new frontiers for documentary as well as experimental forms.” (“Remodelling Asian Media” by Lloyd Wong, Afterimage, May 1991)
“Chinese Characters by video producer Richard Fung examines the ambiguous relationship between gay Asian men and white gay porn. Through fantasy voice-overs, staged interviews and humorous re-enactments of scenes from Joe Gage pron classics, the tape forces viewers to question their own narrow definitions of what constitutes “gay desire.” A committed gay/anti-racist media activist, Fung utilizes a rich, associative media vocabulary to identify contradictions rather than propose solutions.” (‘Fung and Greyson’s queer habits at YYZ,’ April 1986)
“Richard Fung is another artist, who, in his latest tape, takes issue with social conditioning and its manipulative power. Chinese Characters is the author’s look into his own sexual development in conjunction with restricting socializing factors. Maintaining old identity standards to which you cannot conform leads to anxiety and ambivalence about the self. This inner tension is effectively conveyed in the tape through the passive/active dichotomy of the images. The passive image correspond to Fung’s past, an unquestioning approach to the world and an acceptance of the canons of normative society, while the active images reflect the turbulence of the present. Fung’s rejection of social restraint. Fung’s search for sexual identity is symbolized on the tape by the enactment of a Chinese parable about a man in search of the source of the Yellow River. Before he embarks on his journey, the adventurer cannot decide on the appropriate outfit, and changes his clothing numerous times. The sequence is quickened by jump-cuts and the same technique is used to distinguish the traveller’s rapid change of footwear in the early stages of the journey. The images suggest an initial ambivalence to the quest for sexual identity, followed by accelerated intellectual posturing. Towards the end of the tape, the adventurer finds the answer to his quest, as a court astronomer directs his gaze to the Milky Way, revealing it as the source of the Yellow River. The plethora of stars comprising the Milky Way seem to suggest a destination of a multitude of choices, of sexual and personal freedoms.” (Phil van Steenburgh, Cinema Canada JulyAugust 1985)
“Traditional Chinese music plays as images appear of ripe blossoms and trees swaying in the wind. This picture of bucolic serenity is interrupted abruptly by a cut in music and image. A synth beat is introduced as watch a young Asian man disrobe and don various outfits (lots of parachute material, leather and zippers). The game of dress-up is a ruse for introducing the question: how do we imagine gay desire? From here, Chinese Characters explores the sticky relationship between gay Asian men and gay white porn and challenges the tendency to relegate the Asian male body to specialty porn sections, where it frequently plays the passive “bottom.” Combining staged interviews, fantasy voiceovers and playful re-enactments of classic porn scenes, the tape makes an intervention into mainstream white pornography by introducing an Asian male presence where it has previously been excluded. Chinese Characters is an intellectual romp. Race and sexuality keep rubbing up against each other, getting all hot and bothered, as Richard cranks up the volume on various often unspoken transactions that shape, subjugate, and splinter gay desire. When the tape was made, the two main perspectives in the porn/censorship debates were sexual libertarianism and anti-porn feminism. Its subjects’ entry into this discussion as gay Asian men suggest that neither camp can account for their experiences of sexuality.” (Kyo Maclear)
“Chinese Characters is a tape about the ambiguous relationship between gay Asian men and white gay porn. The tape is scripted, directed and co-edited by Richard and shot by John Greyson. Two narratives are juxtaposed across four titled sections; East, West, South and Down There. The first story is from a book of Chinese fairy tales given to Richard and his sister about an explorer who is sent by the emperor to find the source of the Yellow River. Traditional Chinese music accompanies the telling with Toronto footage of swimming ducks, tree blossoms, willow trees and Spadina restaurant pagoda roofs. The explorer’s journey is broken by multiple searches for other uncharted territories. We hear of first contemporary Asian encounters with GWM porn and self-imaging with Glenn Schellenbeg’s synth-pop orchestrations ripping through.
George Leung’s voiceover is matched to Richard Fung’s onscreen informant lips. Tales of accessing In Touch magazine in Winnipeg and the appeal and social difficulties of making porn fantasies come true; the possibilities of speaking better unaccented English when “talking dirty;” the erasure of the guilt of washroom sex, or of being Asian yet still looking through the racial stereotype prisms of white middle-class Ontario culture.
And following the reverse shot drama of Lloyd Wong’s virtual meeting with a white gay porn star in the forest, there is porn re-enactment humour and relief in watching a clumsy male masturbate while adjusting a sniffable sock on his head. Richard knows his Milky Way and its slippery authenticities, and like his father, he is never one to confuse petalled palaces with actual histories.” (Take Me to the River by Clive Robertston in Like Mangoes for July ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto)
“…Starting with a similar premise – sex between men – Richard Fung shamelessly incorporates footage from gay pornographic films in his video Chinese Characters. But here it is used as a means of questioning or, alternatively, illustrating the truth of the Confucian quote reproduced in the first frames of the tape: “Good and sex are human nature.” Fung opposes the idealized, handsome, young, white gay hunk – the pillar of gay porn – with those conflicted gay Asian-Canadian men who are unable to attain this ideal yet are still ruled by its authority. He tempts the viewer with tantalizing images, only to brek the spell with uncomfortable verbal and visual commentary, which underlines the way the racist hierarchy of mainstream culture is reproduced in gay culture. At one point, as Asian character attempts to intercept a Caucasian man in a pornographic scene projected behind him, but “unreal” as the celluloid whit eman is, this spectral rendezvous proves futile. At another point, an Asian man in thee throes of masturbatory excitement teaches himself to talk dirty “like a Caucasian.” Because Fung matches thoughtful video methods and graphic skill with his dialectical investigation of the cultural boundaries and determinants of pleasure (save in the simplistic final montage, a close-up of an exquisite blossom which zooms back to expose a gritty urban setting), his tape sustains and provokes attention to a quite ‘specific homosexual difference.’(“Where We Are Now” by Martha Gever in Art in America July 1987)
“Strange things are happening at the National Gallery. People are reading a sign that warns about sexually explicit videos, going into the room where the sexually explicit videos are being shown, and stomping out in a self-righteous huff. Why? Because they’ve seen a sexually explicit video.
The videos shown last week at the gallery, including Richard Fung’s Chinese Characters and Joe Sarahan’s Holy Joe, aren’t everybody’s cup of tea – or idea of art. Close-ups of male genitals and homosexual intercourse don’t spring from the same esthetic credo as Still Life with Dephiniums. There have been some angry calls to the gallery, but the assistant curator of film and video is firm in her defence of the videos as art. Susan Ditta said gallery-goers don’t object to equally violent or sexual images in the gallery because they’re static and “sanitized” by time, citing Degas’s brother scenes and the florid epic painting The Rape of the Sabine Women. The videos have a place I the gallery because they explore difficult contemporary questions about sexual identity and the role of media in our lives, said Ditta. Predictably, one outraged viewer said taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be used to purchase this kind of material for the National Gallery. It can be argued that some of the gallery’s contemporary art deserves to be laughed out of the gallery. But none of it – neither the ‘obscene’ nor the absurd – should be hounded out. If curators caved in to fear, as opposed to ridicule, they could eventually give us an ‘uncontroversial’ gallery. Inoffensive because it would be empty.
A couple of things need to be done: People must pay attention to the ‘sexually explicit’ warning and not watch the videos if they anticipate being offended. The gallery should always guards by the video room doors to make doubly sure that unaccompanied children under sixteen aren’t seeing things their parents might object to them seeing. A New Hampshire woman who brought her seven-year-old daughter to see a video that pictures a nude man and woman and two sleeping kittens, sounded the sanest note: ‘I think any parent who brings a child into the video room has been given ample warning, and should be prepared to leave if the subject matter isn’t suitable.’” (“Sex advertised and sex displayed” Newspaper artice, 1988)