Chris Gehman (2001)
Richard Fung by Chris Gehman
Richard Fung is the most community-minded—or, perhaps more accurately, most “communities-minded”—of artists. A Trinidadian-Canadian of Chinese ancestry, Fung has made his mark primarily through a series of challenging videos on subjects ranging from the role of the Asian male in gay pornography to colonialism, immigration, racism, homophobia, AIDS and his own family history. Fung has always seen himself as much as an educator as an artist, and in Helen Lee’s essay “Dirty Dozen: Playing 12 Questions with Richard Fung” from Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung (Images Festival and Insomniac Press, 2002), Fung says he aims to produce work which is “pedagogical, but hopefully not pedantic.” (Fittingly, he holds a degree in cinema studies as well as an M.E. in sociology and cultural studies, both from the University of Toronto.)
Fung credits director John Greyson for encouraging him to redirect his energies from academic studies to video production in the early 1980s. Fung’s work from the start was a fusion of elements, combining documentary and essay forms with activist videos. Interviews often form the structural basis for the videos, which regularly embrace a multiplicity of styles—from the highly artificial Chromakey superimpositions in Chinese Characters (1986) and Dirty Laundry (1996) to simple documentary footage, archival materials, and quasi-Brechtian, anti-realist dramatizations. Dramatization becomes particularly important in the multi-layered Dirty Laundry, which exposes the virulent racism and homophobia that was directed at Chinese immigrants who came to Canada to build the transcontinental railway in the late 19th and early 20th century. The film is framed around the story of a young, gay, Chinese-Canadian man researching the life of his grandfather.
Undoubtedly, Fung’s most critically acclaimed work to date is Sea in the Blood (2000), the final part of a trilogy exploring his family history. (The other works in the trilogy are The Way to My Father’s Village, 1988 and My Mother’s Place, 1990.) In Sea in the Blood, Fung speaks with tenderness and candour about the way his life has been shaped by loved ones—a sister and a lover—stricken with incurable illnesses. Forcefully moving, but made with a feather-light touch, Sea in the Blood manages gracefully to speak of illness and a brother’s absence at the end of his sister’s life; of colonialism and incipient political awareness; of growing up as a young gay man in a homophobic society; and of a lover’s fears for his partner’s health. It is a contribution not only to a burgeoning genre of documentaries and cinematic essays on illnesses and the medical system but also to the genre of autobiographical cinema.
In the same essay by Helen Lee, Fung said, “I don’t see myself as an artist first... I have always had difficulty applying the label to myself”; however, the arts community has not hesitated to recognize him as such. Fung has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the 2001 Bell Canada Award for video art and the 2001 Arts Toronto Award for media arts, as well as a McKnight fellowship and Rockefeller fellowship. Fung has also been influential as a critic, theorist, curator and organizer. His essay “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn” from his book How Do I Look? (Bay Press, 1991) has been widely anthologized, while his essay “Working through Cultural Appropriation” published in Fuse magazine (vol. 16, 1993) provides an exemplary antidote to the caricatured discourse on cultural appropriation and “political correctness” presented in the dominant media. One of the founders of Toronto’s annual Images Festival, Fung is currently the coordinator of the Centre for Media and Culture in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
(written for the Film Reference Library)