“Long before I came to study film academically, these visits [to my mother’s film studios] had opened my eyes to the utterly fragmentary making of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility.”—Rey Chow
We conclude our week-long feature on Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience with another excerpt from the book’s final chapter “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood”. In the following passage she explores the influence of her mother’s film career on her own writing and intellectual development:
Because of my mother’s involvement with film, I had opportunities to visit film studios during the time when some of her scripts were being shot. Long before I came to study film academically, these visits had opened my eyes to the utterly fragmentary making of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility. If, say, a particular corner of a living room was the focus, the rest of the room could be left in chaos, filled with makeshift equipment, unused props, and other messes as long as they did not intrude into the frame to be captured on camera. In a face-to-face dialogue between a female character and a male character that was shot from the waist up, an actress who was somewhat short could be made to stand on a phonebook so that her height in relation to the actor would appear aesthetically proportionate on screen. On yet another occasion, I was captivated by the skilled martial arts movements performed by a well-known actress (Chan Bo-jue/Chen Baozhu) playing an assassin. Those movements were shot while a whole group of us bystanders were in the movie studio, but when the scene was shown in the movie theater, the cinematographic illusionism had been rendered so complete by the editing process that the actress’s stunts appeared as though they had happened all by themselves in another world, miraculously devoid of us, the witnesses.
Inspired by these films, I wrote, at the age of about ten, the synopsis of a film featuring a modern-day female knight errant called White Rose. My mother showed my penciled draft to one of her director friends, Mok Hong-see/Mo Kangshi, who reportedly said it was an interesting story. Needless to say, I was very disappointed that he did not proceed directly to filming my script!
A more remarkable though little known incident during this period was the invitation my mother received to write the radio version of a film entitled Guong do ya bat/Guangdao ershiba (The twenty-eighth anniversary of Hiroshima). Her friend Lung Gong/Long Gang, the fi lm director, had developed the controversial idea of making a film in 1973 about a Japanese family at the twenty-eighth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I have never seen the fi lm, which I understand to be the story of the family’s courageous survival in the aftermath of the Second World War. Using mainly a Hong Kong Chinese cast, Lung Gong was artistically and intellectually as well as commercially ambitious: he wanted the film to be a carrier of the universal moral “peace.” An industry practice in Hong Kong in those days was for a newly released film to be promoted in the form of a radio play, in which the ending would be left as a cliffhanger so as to entice audiences to buy tickets to the movie. Because of my mother’s reputation, Lung Gong had intended to have her write the radio script for his film. My mother declined.
She still had too much of a sense of gar sau gwok hun/jiachou guohen, she told us afterward, conveying her sense of ethical constraint with that untranslatable idiom, which became in this instance her means of alluding to the knowledge of millions of Chinese people’s suffering and sacrifice under Japanese aggression. To her, even though she did not say it in so many words, Lung Gong’s project amounted to a betrayal.
Even at a time when memories of the war came back in uncomfortably close quarters, my mother rationalized, in a fashion characteristic of her generation of survivors, in collective rather than personal terms. It was inconceivable for her, as a member of the Chinese community, to actively collaborate in a piece of fiction about the plight of civilians in postwar Japan. The terror, violence, and trauma she had lived through as a solitary young Muslim girl during the war remained an intimate part of her life but hardly if ever surfaced in her many writings and productions, which seemed to have been sealed off from that experience with an imaginary boundary. In its remarkable historicity and audiovisual versatility, her life’s work reverberates in my thoughts with a profound muteness. Was this muteness, which she held so close, a protective veil? Was it not actually a sound, indistinguishable from her voice, that unique opening to her inimitable creativity?