Author: Julian Ross
If film breathes life when it is projected, the cinema is the site for ritual invocation. But what happens to films when they’re no longer screened? In other words, what happens to the dead when the living no longer visits them? Film history is full of forgotten curiosities that have been relegated to the annals of history, waiting in the shadows of our collective memory to be remembered, if only for a moment. Despite only being over a hundred years old, cinema already has many ghosts, and the film archives and our collective minds are the houses they haunt.
The centenary of cinema –around the turn of this century– brought about a reflection into film history in a moment when the digital takeover of cinema felt imminent. While the tradition of found footage filmmaking pre-existed this moment, it became more common than ever before for artists and filmmakers to tap into the history of cinema for inspiration. While most artists worked with the material of analogue film in referencing the cinematic past, several artists followed the decidedly different track of resurrecting the spirit of film history — through reenactment. Canadian artist Guy Maddin, together with co-creators Evan and Galen Johnson, staged the re-filming of lost and unrealised films by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Lois Weber and Kenji Mizoguchi in Séance (2016) where the film shoot itself became an installation in Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Phi Centre (Montreal). On the other side of the world, artist Su Hui-yu has been resurrecting the cult history of Taiwanese cinema in his ongoing and loosely formed ‘re-shooting’ series. The Women’s Revenge (2020), its latest iteration, brings 1980s B-movies to life with a celebratory outburst of joy.
Known at the time as ‘social realist’ films, these women-centred rape-and-revenge films were made at the tail end of Taiwan’s period of Martial Law under the Chinese Nationalist party Kuomintang. These quickly-made exploitation films rose in popularity and, spawning in numbers and turning increasingly scandalous, ended up being actively suppressed by the government, with productions halted and prints destroyed. Now referred to as Taiwan Black Movies, the cocktail of sex and violent revenge in these films became an outlet for an oppressed society and foreshadowed change in the form of social (and sexual) liberation. While he wasn’t exactly the target audience, Su Hui-yu saw posters of these films in fast food joints he frequented as a young boy and was fascinated by their display of eroticism. Tapping into this moment when his curiosity and imagination ran wild, Su invokes the redolent spirit of the cinematic past but also colours it with his own memories and imagination. While the previous iteration of his ‘re-shooting series’, The Glamorous Boys of Tang (2018), focused on one specific film, The Women’s Revenge synthesises different ‘black’ movies into a uniquely outrageous amalgamation. Following not one but five female avengers, The Women’s Revenge skips the traumatic scenes of rape; the collectivity between the women and the catharsis of revenge against violent patriarchy is what occupies most of the screen time in Su’s fantasy. As we saw in his dual-screen Super Taboo (2015), oppression breeds desire in his worldview but his artistic focus remains resolutely on the display of lustful and violent ecstasy.
While paying homage to under-recognised ‘black’ movies, Su Hui-yu gives their memorable scenes and iconic images his own twist. The eye-patch that one of the female avengers wears is a reference to the heroine of Woman Revenger (Tsai Yang-Ming, 1981) who starts wearing an eye-patch after her eye is poked out by a kidnapper. The uniformed men who tie up one of the women in The Women’s Revenge recalls the Japanese colonial police squad that arrest the heroine after she brutally murders her rapist-husband in the period drama The Woman of Wrath (Zhuang Xiang Zeng, 1984). The frozen gesture of knife-holding hands raised high above the head is also a homage to the memorable poster of the same film. Su lingers on this moment in a way that the drama intensifies, pausing on it as if it were a painting, perhaps a dramatically staged baroque painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. The various acts of cathartic vengeance take place in a slaughterhouse, curiously a recurrent setting in these exploitation films, most likely for its overt association with blood, violence and death. Summoning these figures and motifs from these B-movies, Su pulls them out of any sense of a narrative context. He stages them against a black void of a backdrop as if the characters have crawled their ways out the corners of our collective imagination. He breathes new life into them using his signature play with duration. Shifting between rapid motion, slow-motion and stillness, Su builds a world that feels imagined or dreamt, and stages the action amid a hazy fog that slowly engulfs the screen. The disjunctive sense of time is further emphasised in the five-screen installation where images synchronise in some moments and drift apart in others, channelling a mind slipping in and out of consciousness. The floating screens invite the viewer to navigate their own way through the delirium, but their positioning ensures we fall deeper the further we enter.
The Women’s Revenge ends with three young people in their early adolescence excitedly panting. Transparent red curtains are drawn and their lustful fixed gaze stares offscreen. As surrogates that represent us, they show Su recognises the power of our imagination in conjuring our own tantalising scenes. The boy with his mouth agape might even be the artist himself in his youth. If so, it’s not the only appearance Su makes in The Women’s Revenge. Dressed as a woman, he takes part in the flurry of vengeance against patriarchy in a gesture of solidarity but also a play with gender dynamics and sadomasochism. His application of deepfake technology to transplant the face of Lu Shao-fen, a female star of 1980s Taiwanese cinema, onto his own adds another twist. Current debates on deepfake have mostly revolved around ethical implications of the technology, namely, its latency for misuse in politics and pornography. In Su Hui-yu’s hands, deepfake becomes a portal through which cinema’s ghosts are summoned to coinhabit the present and together celebrate desire that knows no bounds.
Julian Ross is a researcher, curator and writer based in Amsterdam. He is Programmer at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Assistant Professor at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS) and mentor at Netherlands Film Academy’s MA Artistic Research in and through Cinema. He was a selection committee member at Locarno Film Festival (2018–20) and has curated film programmes, exhibitions and performance at Tate Modern, Art Institute of Chicago, Kunsthal Rotterdam, BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Eye Filmmuseum, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Anthology Film Archives, Harvard Film Archives and British Film Institute. http://www.rossjulian.com/