The last movie I saw before the pandemic shut down New York in March 2020 was Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White (2018). Ever since I found out about Zhangke, I have tried to see all of his movies, either in theaters or on the computer. Zhangke is part of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. At one point, he and the innovative observational painter Liu Xiaodong, about whom I wrote a monograph, were friends and worked together. His documentary film Dong (2006), following the artist painting laborers whose task was to dismantle a city near the Three Gorges Dam building site, was another film I watched. While Zhang Yimou, who is part of the Fifth Generation, made his film debut with the widely celebrated Red Sorghum (1988), Zhangke’s debut film Xiao Wu (1997) (aka The Pickpocket), came out nearly a decade after Yimou’s debut and Tiananmen Square.
Starting with the long-haired pickpocket, Xiao Wu, living in the dilapidated city of Fenyang (the filmmaker’s hometown), Zhangke has focused on China’s petty thieves, criminals, and those left behind or pushed out by China’s industrialization. This interest is what got him and Liu Xiaodong to work together. According to Zhangke, seeing Chen Kaige’s historical fiction, Yellow Earth (1984), with Zhang Yimou’s powerful cinematography, convinced him to become a filmmaker.
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The Fifth Generation’s interest in historical dramas contrasted with the Sixth Generation’s scrutiny of everyday life and figures living on the margins of China’s accelerated modernization. This distinction is partially the result of Tiananmen Square and learning what the government would accept from its citizens.
Before the spread of COVID-19, my favorite movie that I watched on the computer was The Wailing (2019), directed by Na Hong-jin. I watched it twice and will watch it once again, I am sure. This is a great supernatural horror film about an unexplained plague and the different religions that shaped Korea: Christianity, Shamanism, and Buddhism. I had already seen Hong-jin’s first film The Chaser (2008) and his second, The Yellow Sea (2010), and was a fan. One of the residual pleasures of watching these films was seeing the landscape and cities, the passing shots, people walking in the streets, but it is the stories that Hong-jin conjured into film that pulled me in.
Shortly after New York closed down, I began watching TV shows on my computer, usually late at night, after finishing whatever I was working on. It became a way to leave the room that I had spent many hours in, on the computer, reading a book, cooking, or eating. I would start watching something after walking around my neighborhood. In the first months of lockdown, except for the ambulances, the drivers who liked to race down Fifth Avenue in their fancy sports cars, and the homeless who didn’t bother looking up as they roared by, the streets and sidewalks were empty, especially at night between seven and ten p.m. Often, I felt like I was living in a ghost town and, contrary to what might be expected, I was rather soothed by the emptiness. Many people living in my building relocated elsewhere. The popular hotel across the street closed, and its street- level windows were boarded up.
As someone who does not like to talk on the phone and who seldom answers it, I liked hearing different voices in the movies without having to engage in conversation, especially after I had been alone all day.
Before the pandemic, I watched two seasons of Killing Eve starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. How can a Chinese American poet not want to watch a show with a Canadian-born Asian actress playing an MI- 5 agent named Eve Polastri and an English actress Jodie Comer playing a psychopathic assassin named Villanelle?
Killing Eve is the first TV show that I can remember having a female Asian lead, unless you count Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starring Chloe Bennet, who had to change her name from ‘Chloe Wang’ before she started getting any roles. But two seasons of Killing Eve was enough and I felt no interest in picking up where I left off, wherever that was, as I didn’t remember.
The first TV drama I started watching and continued to watch was the Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge starring Sofia Helin as Saga Norén, a police detective who is on the autism spectrum. I read about the show while down an Internet rabbit hole, looking for a series that I might be interested in. I ended up watching all three seasons in less than two months. Norén, who possesses no social skills, is based in Malmö, a city where Eve, Cerise, and I stayed in for ten days, when Eve had a show there. I don’t think I recognized anything of the city in the show and it did not matter, as my main interest was in Norén’s character, her bluntness and complete disinterest in fitting in or following social decorum.
In my mind, Norén is the ideal poet. Seeing her every night, obsessed with her job but unable to fit in, was like having a friend I did not need to talk to.
Once I finished the series I looked for other crime dramas to watch. I watched the Welsh TV police procedural, Hinterland, starring Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias. I cannot stand American police shows, or practically anything coming out of Hollywood, but I am easily hooked by a police procedural that takes place in a bleak landscape of rolling green hills and forests covered in snow where the characters speak a language I do not understand.
I liked hearing Welsh. I grew up in a house where my parents spoke a Chinese dialect, and which that no one in Boston’s Chinatown understood. Watching Hinterland was a close approximation of having dinner with my parents, who talked in a language I never learned to speak and which they refused to teach me. In this case, the sound of Welsh in an otherwise empty room was comforting, because it came with subtitles.
After I finished with Hinterland, I think the landscape was one reason why I started watching Shetland, which was filmed on the northern Scottish island. I also think that both shows brought back memories of being in Ireland and Scotland. My family and I spent two weeks on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, which is one of Europe’s westernmost points.
If you spend any time in the Dingle Peninsula, you will inevitably hear a story about the director David Lean coming to the area to film Ryan’s Daughter (1969), starring Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard, and Christopher Jones. His multimillion dollar extravaganza changed the economy of hardscrabble Dingle as well as made it a tourist destination, none of which I knew as I arrivedwas there to write about the artist Maria Simonds-Gooding.
Writing this, I began thinking about the cities that writing about art took me to: Glasgow; Berlin; Paris; Beijing; Malmo, Lund; Barcelona; Madrid; Turin; Milan, and many more.
Watching a show on my computer is a cheaper way to get there, but the trip has to be nearly as rich in its offerings.
I binged on Warrior (2019), starring Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan, Joanna Vanderham, Andrew Koji, which is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 19th century, and the beginnings of the Tong Wars. The show is plot-driven and I usually get bored with such a tightly constructed narrative, where the surprises are predictable. It is why I stopped watching, but will no doubt hit the ‘Resume Play’ button in the near future. I think the writing in Warrior has to get better first.
I suppose that’s one reason why I watched Blacklist starring James Spader for as long as I did. The surprises were surprising and how can you not like Spader when he gives a critique of Roberta Smith’s art reviews? While I cannot remember the episode or what he said, my only child, who is 20, reminded me that this was one reason why we started watching it again when they were home from school. But I stopped watching that as well, even though this is the last season and everything will be revealed and tied up. I did not watch the show for as long as I did to get everything explained to me.
The two movies that I recently watched on my computer were Séraphine (2008), a French-Belgian film directed by Marcel Provost and starring Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis, a charwoman and self-taught, visionary painter, Séraphine Louis, and Ulrich Tukur as Wilhelm Uhde, the German art critic who discovers her. There is about 20twenty-minutes left to watch, but I have not gone back because I know how it will turn out and I am not sure I want to watch Séraphine’s suffering.
The other film was the Canadian documentary, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2021), directed by Barry Avrich. It’s oOstensibly about the selling of forged works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko, under the guidance of Ann Freedman, director of the now- shuttered Knoedler Gallery, who claims she thought they were authentic. I watched that movie from beginning to end.
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From the fictional pickpocket Xiao Wu trying to avoid being caught to Ann Freedman maintaining that she was innocent despite all the evidence against her, it is possible that there is narrative to what I watch; never finish; and stop watching. I just don’t want to step back and tell you what it is.