Anne Borden (2002)
Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung
Edited by Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto
Insomniac Press, 2002
Reviewed by Anne Borden
"Dad never understood why I needed to know about China; suffering is never interesting to those who suffer," -Richard Fung, The Way to My Father’s Village.
Canadian videomaker Richard Fung’s own life tends to refract through his documentary subjects; as filmmaker and mentor John Greyson notes, "[Fung’s] on-going autobiography is all about everyone else." Since the 1980s, Fung has drawn upon experimental and activist video traditions to explore the intersection of the personal and the political; traveling through time and Trinidad (his birthplace), China and Canada.
While deeply personal, Fung’s work also represents a broad range of experience: 19th century Chinese railway workers; 20th century Central American refugees; 21st century Canadian men living with HIV. Fung offers a first-generation perspective on migration in his focus on his parents (The Way to my Father’s Village and My Mother’s Place) and his sister (Sea in the Blood). His work intimately represents the underrepresented and aesthetically challenges the documentary form. Perhaps this is why Fung’s work was embraced by the independent media community long before it became a fixture in gallery spaces and at documentary festivals.
Like Mangoes in July features essays from curators, critics and film and video makers, and was published to coincide with a Fung retrospective. Although too much ink is spilled on fawning, personal recollections that make the Toronto art scene seem about the size of a postage stamp, it is in some respects a useful resource for videomakers and scholars of independent media.
In one of the book’s strongest essays, Thomas Waugh takes critics to task for downplaying Fung’s community-based, sex-positive videos, such as such as Steam Clean, (a polylingual, safer-sex video) and Fighting Chances (a focus on four HIV-positive Asian men). This exclusion reflects "a symptomatic soft-pedaling of the hanky panky,” the sexual discourses and performances that are arguably at the center of Fung’s production. This fear of addressing the erotic in Fung’s work minimizes the "constellation" of themes addressed by Fung, and blots from the canon Fung’s creation, through his fictions, of "a transnational scene of sexual spaces, commodities, communications and identity performance."
Waugh’s piece, written in 1997, resonates in the context of Sea in the Blood (2001), in which Fung addresses his relationship with his sister Nan, who suffered from a rare blood disorder (Thalassemia). While critics have discussed the work’s relevance around issues of family, migration and illness, they generally sidestep Fung’s crucial story about gay identity formation. Fung’s is a bold revision of the 20th century American coming out narrative in which protagonists travels from family of origin to chosen family, to eventually achieve reconciliation and acceptance in both worlds. In Sea in the Blood there is no clean resolution to the familial isolation that the journey necessitates. The film represents the uncomfortable twin intimacies of family and community. Its treatment of grief is universal without being cloying, in part due to its unashamed representations of gay male sexuality.
Gina Marchetti, discussing Dirty Laundry writes that for Fung "the ‘story’ in history becomes vital to understanding [the] present, holding out the promise of a critical synthesis among issues of diaspora, race, ethnicity nationality and sexuality." Fung uses his storytelling skills to establish a "counter erotics" which challenges class boundaries and racism. Dirty Laundry is a meditation on Chinese "bachelor societies" in 19th century Canada. (Chinese women were largely excluded through immigration restrictions and this fostered an economy of prostitution). As the story unfolds, Fung draws past and present together through the fictional narrator, a historian in search of truth, documenting the community. Fung turns to fiction—a relationship between the historian and a railway worker—to represent a marginalized history in a way that defies traditional class and gender boundaries.
"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. This is one of the strengths of Richard Fung’s voice as a media maker. While a catalogue such as Like Mangoes offers insight, the best way to understand Fung as an artist is, of course, by watching the work.
Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.