Sylvia Chang should be a household name, akin to Meryl Streep or Juliette Binoche, but the actress, who is of Taiwanese descent and makes films primarily in East Asia, remains a sort of mysterious avant-garde genius. Maybe due to the oblique racism and sexism that permeates Hollywood and the movie industry at large, her name is an esteemed but little-known one, faintly acknowledged in circles of hardcore film fans. Those in the know — at least, the ones based in New York — will be able to enjoy her work, which encompasses a fruitful four-decade career, at the Metrograph retrospective running through May 27.
Earlier this year, on his Netflix show Ugly Delicious, the restaurateur David Chang described an uncomfortable truth. Characterizing the stereotypes enforced on Asians, Chang stated: “People expect Asians as a whole to be subservient, right? Quiet.” It’s a formulation that has particularly plagued Asian (specifically East Asian) women, pigeonholing them as possessing meek, genial traits. Little has been allowed to challenge that assumption: Asian women are still being swapped on the screen by white counterparts, whether it’s Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell or, more recently, Natalie Portman starring in Annihilation, whose heroine, Lena, is Asian-American in the books on which the movie is based. In a world where Hollywood knows little about how to write Asian women, Sylvia Chang has been shaping a declarative, cliché-free career, putting complex Asian women characters up on the screen.
After dropping out of school at sixteen and becoming a DJ, Chang entered the movies, starring in classics like Li Han Hsiang’s Dream of the Red Chamber (1977) and King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (1979). In the Eighties, with a quick swoop, she moved into directing. The way Chang has shifted, like Streep, among genres with a languid, quietly stoic chill speaks to her acute ability to morph and change in the way only a true performer can. It’s what’s made someone like Streep so recognizable and lauded, the sensibility that is rare and golden: to use flesh like a mask. It’s a faculty Chang houses in spades.
In the 1989 film Full Moon in New York, directed by Stanley Kwan, Chang plays an aspiring actress living in New York. She stars alongside Maggie Cheung and Gaowa Siqin, playing Wang, Li Fen, and Zhaohong, respectively — three women who cross paths in the professional corners of New York City life. Through them we examine the dissonance of being Chinese in America: the idiosyncrasies of serving Peking duck in a Hunan Chinese restaurant, the bricolage that’s become known as Chinese food in America. We see a clever discussion of sex that is frank and disparaging of men. We see straight and gay sex that’s messy, sexy, and relatable. We learn about China’s long history of homosexuality (Cheung’s character has a female lover and is ostensibly a lesbian), an astounding and bold statement given the AIDS crisis of the Eighties. We see the blending of chi from Asia with the chi in New York. We see them consider acupuncture. The three women wear Céline-esque black-and-white, like a uniform; at one point, Zhaohong stands with her Chinese-American husband (also dressed very chicly) in front of a mirror and murmurs, “Don’t we look like a couple in a Hollywood movie?” The entire movie considers a Chinese stereotype: “Do Mainlanders believe in feng shui?” the characters ask each other. The question is a reminder to actively consider what you know about a culture and a place — Mainland China, in this case — that contains more than a billion and a half people.
In Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues (1984), the mood is completely different — instead a pseudo-musical comedy in the key of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, set against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chang plays Shu-Shu, a young girl who falls in love with a young clown (Kenny Bee). Shanghai Blues is funny and bombastic, and sometimes outrageously uncomfortable: during one performance, Bee wears blackface and practices the archaic minstrel acts of yore, proving that sometimes movies don’t translate socio-politically decades later. But for the most part, the film is charming in its insouciance, the comedy by turns easy, funny, and slapstick. And with Chang, the quiet feminism always lingers, at times playfully so. In one scene, a male passerby mentions, “Never insult a woman, because one day she could be your boss.” In another, Shu-Shu and her friend Stool (Sally Yeh) begin to shit-talk the men they were fighting over just moments before, deciding, “It’s all their fault.”
It has to be said that Chang is not only an impeccable performer who knows how to tell a story through her actorly intuition — she’s also a filmmaker with the same capabilities. She has a keen sense of how aesthetics — coloring, framing — are weapons with which to lure an audience with the all-consuming effectiveness of a gravitational pull. In Murmur of the Hearts (2015), which she co-wrote and directed, the lushness, the greenery, and the great expanse of nature and pools of water provoke a palpable longing for motherhood. The entire movie, in fact, is a roundabout way of describing mothers, in their complex variations, and how people go about grappling with the wonderment (and fear) of the maternal being. It’s a beautiful film that reminds me so intensely of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s heart-wrenching Biutiful. They’re both bleak descriptions of parental responsibility and what gets lost or gambled along the way. But they’re also portraits of great love — of aching characters and their efforts to wrestle with the ghosts of their parents. Ancestorship is an important foundation for the roots of these films, and tonally they strike the same twang that makes the heart go boom.
All in all, Chang is a master collaborator — one of those generous talents who doesn’t claim to need solitude to thrive. It’s no surprise, then, that at the Far East Film Festival in Italy a few years ago, Chang told an interviewer: “I’ve decided that filmmaking is not just about directors, and not just about actors — it’s about collaboration.” Her ability to hone in on who she works with (and how she works with them) is a reflection of her magic and the purity of her craft. It’s also a testament to Asian cinema, and all the worlds we don’t yet know.
Through May 27