The Way to My Father’s Village (1988)
“In the fall of 1986, Richard Fung made his first visit to his father's birthplace, a village in southern Guangdong, China. This experimental documentary examines the way children of immigrants relate to the land of their parents, and focuses on the ongoing subjective construction of history and memory. The Way to My Father's Village juxtaposes the son's search for his own historical roots, and his father's avoidance of his cultural heritage.” (Video Data Bank Catalogue)
“’Suffering is never interesting to those who suffer.’ As a personal documentary-maker, Fung represents suffering without the gloss of sentimentality, in part through the way he establishes his voice. In The Way to My Father’s Village, as Peter X. Feng observes, Fung never appears on camera throughout his lengthy journey to China. Instead, his "voiceover discuss the omissions mistakes and frustrations of his documentary project." The Way to My Father’s Village reveals as much about Fung’s struggles as a documentary maker as it does about his father.” (Like Mangoes in July: The work of Richard Fung, review by Ann Borden)
“In the autumn of 1986, shortly after his dad’s death, Richard traveled to his father’s village in southern Guangdong. His father, Eugene Fong (whose name was changed by an immigration official to Fung), emigrated to Trinidad in the early 20th century. Separated from his father’s village by two generations, Richard decides to retrace his father’s journey in an attempt to understand him ore intimately. (A screen text provides an inventory of the scant details Richard remembers of his dad: “He gave money to beggars. He fought against having a union in his shop. He never taught us his language. He always wore Bermuda shorts.”) The recollections of close family members and hand-held footage of the village are accompanied by a soft, lyrical narration reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. The voice becomes more uncertain as Richard’s roots-tracking expedition unfolds. The China he imaged at firs as an idyll of romantic and revolutionary feeling turns out to be a disappointment. Having journeyed to China with his mother and a Western tour group, Richard finds he must reluctantly accept the role of the tourist. When Richard finds that he does “not fade into the crowds,” at times being mistaken for someone Japanese, he takes his frustrations out on his fellow travelers. Holding the camera, he announces his desire to keep them out of the shot. They disturb the scenery. It is finally Richard’s analytical rigour and formal playfulness that break the spell of his autobiographic yearning. On the unstable ground of his initial longing, Richard gathers the facts and fictions he has collected about his father and discovers that his memories of the real and memories of the imagined have become indistinguishable.” (Kyo Maclear)
“This is a beautifully rendered, meditative video about the quest to recover family history. It is also a wistful eulogy. The story centres on the video artist’s then recently deceased father, a Chinese national who migrated to Trinidad in the early part of the 20th century. The challenge for the narrator is to penetrate the impenetrable “ordinariness” of his father’s life. When he thinks of his father, the narrator tells us, there is both too much to say and nothing at all, and it is this contradiction that informs the narrative: “He was not rich nor poor enough to be interesting-not even “typical.” His father discouraged all of his children from learning his language, Hakka, and from learning about china. The narrator senses as larger, painful history behind the discouragement: “Dad never understood why I needed to know about china; suffering is never interesting to those who suffer.”
Yet the tape also tells the story of the artist himself, the last child in a family of eight children who is “always aware that I had come in near the end of a story” – a story that he tries to recreate through photographs, family oral narrative, the historical accounts of missionaries, adventurers, academics and party officials; and finally, through traveling to China to retrace his father’s journey.
The family photographs, taken before Fung’s birth and lifted from their context, belie the family history. Viewing the pictures of his father by the beach, the narrator remarks ruefully, “I don’t remember my father being that relaxed.” The only picture of China that his father possessed is one o the house bought by his family with money he sent back from Trinidad, not the house in which he grew up. The story is punctuated by the “official” narratives on China by Marco Polo, European missionaries and Roland Barthes that similarly reveal and conceal, clarify and distort.
It is only when the narrator interviews his older Jamaican Chinese relatives that a more concrete sense of his father’s history emerges. The relatives had been sent back to China to “learn Chinese culture,” and had been caught in the brutalities of the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war. Their graphic testimonies reveal a world of endurance, suffering and courage described with a matter-of-factness and humour that is astonishing.
The video then moves to its final segment, the narrator’s journey to his father’s village in China, where we the viewers hope “all will be revealed.” But the charm and the unflinching honesty of this poignant video are such that the director will not give us the long-for denouement. There are obstacles: his mother-his translator-speak Cantonese and the villagers speak Hakka. The questions and answers are mixed p in a three-way shuffle. Other tourists get in the way of his picture-taking and “spoil the purity of the image I’m trying to capture.” There is a dissonance between the memory of his father’s life that he imagines, and the “real” memory. The two cannot come together.
But the videos final note is not one of despair at being unable to recreate history: the journey, and the desire to recover a memory not the artist’s won, create their own kind of truth. For the Caribbean, with its multiple roots and routes, offers a lesson on the elusive yet enduring nature of ancestral memory—a lesson worth learning.” (The Way To My Father’s Village by Belinda Edmondson” in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung, ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto)
I was born and grew up in Trinidad, on the other side of the world from China. In the fall of 1986 I finally went to my father's village in southern Guangdong. This experimental documentary is neither about my father nor about China. Instead, it comes from the search of the children of immigrants for our roots. Whether we will it or not, we are linked or are seen to be linked to a country of which we may have little or no experience. The tape is about history and memory, the experience of colonialism, tourism. It is also about media and is informed by a critique of the conventions and assumptions of much documentary, especially the notions of objectivity and truth.
The Way To My Father’s Village is organized into five discrete movement. The first three segments deal with ways of understanding history: official history through documents, personal memory, and oral family traditions. The third segments examines how people from the West have brought our own agenda to looking at China. From Marco Polo to Roland Barthes, Westerners have looked for markets to conquer, souls to save or even intellectual problems to solve. Overseas Chinese have not been immune to these biases. The last dramatized segment of the tape touches on the cultural displacement of the post-colonial era.
Producer/Director/Camera: Richard Fung
Camera for “Tony and Dorothy: Bongo Kolycius
On-line editing: Shalhevet Goldhar
Script Editing: Tim McCaskell
Family Footage: Rita Fung
With Dorothy Yap-Chung and Tony Fong
Thanks: Lloyd Wong, Michelle Mohabeer, David Hole, George Leung, Tim McCaskell, George Smith, Debbie Field, Paul Cheung, Anne-Marie Stewart, Robert Clarke.
Thanks: Rosalind Kulasegram, Ken Theobald, Eng Ching
Production: Trinity Square Video
Post Production: Charles Street Video
Produced with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council