An introduction to the presentation of Hao Jingban's Off Takes (2016) on Vdrome.
As a part of Hao Jingban’s Beijing Ballroom project (2012 - 2016), Off Takes dances past the protagonists, twirls around the narratives, slides across the memories. The artist takes a step into the ‘abandoned’ footages and offers an affective and personal reading of the ‘incompatible’, ‘inability’ and ‘incompetence’ through the absence of opposition. To think alongside the idea of uncertainty, the film begins with a question, and ends with a greeting.
Joni Zhu: You use three different segments with the protagonists and sub-titles to refer to different historical periods. “Retaliation” was used to refer to the 2000s; “Nothing Could Be Done” refers to the period from the late 1970s to 1990s; “Self-Criticism” refers to the decade of Cultural Revolution. With “stiff” being the only description you assigned to the ‘90s, I am curious to know how you assemble these decades. How do you view the rest of the mentioned decades and your connection or distance with them?
Hao Jingban: During the making of the Beijing Ballroom Project, I came to realise that since 1949, there were two periods during which people in Beijing were fanatic of social, collective dancing. The first was in the 1950s when the Civil War ended, and the People’s Republic of China was newly established, and the second was in the ‘80s, when the Reform and Opening Up gradually initiated. In-between, there was the Cultural Revolution, during which social dance was hardly possible. Therefore, my research of the project naturally focused on these two distinct periods. There were ruptures and continuities between these two eras concerning the dance culture. I saw it as two different generations dancing with different spirits and mindsets so I treated them separately in my project. I somehow found it easier to talk about the ‘50s, the threads were clearer. The ‘80s were harder to deal with as we are still living in a kind of extension of it; it was also when I was born so I experienced it and I am still experiencing it. I wondered what it meant that I couldn’t locate the ‘80s well, wondering what did it do to us all and hence what dance meant during that decade. Was it the emancipation of individuals after the long dark decade? Or were it actually some brief, final golden days? Or something else? There are some questions I felt one can only answer with the passing of time, and I continue thinking about them, more and more pessimistically though. So I started with the 1950s’part and finished I Can’t Dance (2015). I thought I would leave the footages I filmed about the people who danced in the ‘80s until maybe someday when I am very old and I look at them again. Off Takes was actually more about my inability to talk about the ‘80s. The protagonists of the second and the third part are all people who danced mainly in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I started by thinking about this inability, and gradually the footage I had abandoned—the off takes—became the key words. The first part, “Retaliation”, came last in the process of making. The social dance as a collective phenomenon faded in the ‘90s.
JZ: The year 2000 was great for Chinese cinema at Cannes: Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as Edward Yang’s A One and A Two, which is mentioned in Off Takes. It reminded me of the camera that the father gave to the son in Yang’s film, in which the son says: “I will use the camera to capture what you can’t see, to tell others about the things that they don’t know about”. I guess this is filmmakers’ mission and reason. This brings me to thinking about contemporary, “incompetent viewers” in relation to passive consumption and inability to perceive; the footage and the viewer, who failed who?
HJB: I would prefer to say that the decade of 2000 was a great year for Chinese language films at Cannes rather than Chinese cinema. Your question reminds me that in the history of cinema, it was argued that in the ‘60s, especially in the Nouvelle Vague movement, the filmmakers intentionally applied the Brecht theatrical approach to filmmaking, namely exposing the once invisible cinematic languages that constructed the illusion of continuity in the film, in order to create a so-called “detached distance”. By doing so, they believed audiences would fail to immerse themselves in the film thus enter a reflexive space of their own. During this period, some filmmakers as well as a small group of young historians started looking beyond the image to examine the mechanism of image-making.
At the same time, entertainment has always been part of art. I have also watched loads of TV dramas and blockbusters in the lockdown time, just to stop thinking. But the “incompetent viewer” is not a contemporary phenomenon. The “incompetency” of seeing and perceiving resides in each of us; we are all incompetent in perceiving certain things, although your blindspots and mine are maybe different. For me, the image can be seen as a kind of equivalent of the world, more and more so nowadays, with the growing accessibility to means of producing and sharing images. We perceive the world differently with our different experiences and memories, therefore we also perceive the images differently. Think about, for example, how a farmer posted a video on TikTok of himself advertising a brand of truck he uses (I heard in China TikTok is now one of the main channels for selling agricultural machinery to farmers). The image should be more accessible to the fellow farmers than to me. And there must be many things in this video that can be seen by the fellow farmers but don’t speak to me at all. Of course, I might have my way of seeing, as a person who randomly runs into this TikTok post. And not only for the truck video, even in the white cube of art or the black box of cinema, the competence/incompetence exist simultaneously.
I watched Edward Young’s films for years. The society I have been living in during these past years has been adjusting to what I could see in his film all the time. For example, I come from a generation born in the ‘80s, when China started to open up, I only realised recently that the capitalism or commercialism that came with this opening was once a crucial way for me to learn about the world outside. Nowadays, it became more and more a sheer fetishism of money, and I can see people now are struggling painfully for that. The Taiwan in the economic bubble years that Young portrayed gradually became the most appealing part of his films. Off Takes is my journey of trying to see things that were once a kind of blank for me.
JZ: You saw the feeling of weirdness as something that could only be invoked by rational analysis. In a way, that feeling operates from the perspective of the outside, when something is found in the wrong place or does not belong. What made you decide to reclaim and legitimise these previously abandoned footages? How does the situated perspective change the viewpoint of these footages and allow them to belong?
HJB: I would like to hear the answers to this question from the viewers of my films.
In Off Takes, I was actually quite specific about the feeling of weirdness as something that could only be invoked by rational analysis. This line of narration was speaking over the image of a dance competition recorded in a home video. There were a couple that danced so close to the camera, sometimes so close they would fall out of the frame. I couldn’t stop watching them dance over and over again. They had a sort of boldness and rawness that can’t be seen everywhere and every day. At the same time, they were also so familiar and normal to me. I would have just watched it and laughed over it, thinking that they were funny, and that’s it. This to say that often familiarity prevents us from seeing. When making this project, the dance footages I could find were very limited, not to mention in the ‘50s and before, but even in the ‘80s there were not many people who had the means to do video recording, and most of the dance footage were lost, poorly preserved, or impossible to access. Yet, those were the only materials that I could get, I felt that I had to dig out something from them. So what could I do with them? The three scenes I used in Off Takes were images I was somehow obsessed with at that time, yet there were some obstacles for me to understand them, which made it difficult to organise them into works. So I decided to try to find out what were these obstacles that stopped me from reading things out of these images. Off Takes could be seen as the final presentation of this journey. At the same time, I also tried to suggest that the images can always be seen if you are equipped with the competent eyes, and everyone sees different things in these images.
JZ: In the segment of ‘Self-Criticism’, the woman’s dream of becoming a dancer was cut short by the movement; her teacher said that he “will have her back once the movement is over”. The physical movement of dancing was impeded by the sociopolitical movement. I wonder if you have more to share on this and the notion of movement through the making of the Beijing Ballroom project.
HJB: I would like to answer this question with the work I Can’t Dance, which was set off to understand the relationship between of these two “movements” you mentioned. You might find a comparatively more thorough and detailed answer from a historical perspective there. It’s difficult to give a summarised answer to this question, there are almost no other ways to examine what and how does propaganda works on people than looking into people’s lives as detailed as one can, and paying attention to their emotions and affects as close as possible. For me, the answer really lies in the detail of the ways in which their daily lives and emotions are structured. What I could do, and also would like to do, is to make my work something like a ‘fish tank’ and hope the ‘audience fisher people’ could find their own answers in it.
Certainly, the relationship between propaganda and people is never a straightforward mechanism of “coercion and resistance”. However, one of my most striking discoveries during this project is that the abstract contents of propaganda worked very concretely on people’s bodies, on the ways they pose themselves and the ways they move. Even when moving, not during dance, you could see the differences as well. I encountered people who started to dance the Jitterbugs from 1930s, ‘50s and ‘80s, they danced the same sort of dance very differently, not as much as individuals, but more by generation. These marks of the eras left on human body are something one could imagine and anticipate, but when I saw all the different bodies from different eras mixed and dancing together in a dark ballroom in suburb Beijing, in 2010s, it was still a shocking picture in front of my eyes.
JZ: ‘To find out the meaning of some images, you will have to wait.’ Sometime has now passed since the completion of the Ballroom project. Are there any new meanings emerged from recent feelings towards the footages?
HJB: Not yet. The project is temporarily finished. Maybe in the future.