Thursday, December 09, 2010
9 Screens 10,000 Waves
Apologies for the delay in posting my review, life seems to be slipping by of late.
As mentioned in my earlier post I was very keen to see the new film installation by Isaac Julien Ten Thousand Waves, showing at the Hayward Gallery as part of the Move: Choreographing You exhibition. As usual at the Hayward the entrance price is offputtingly expensive, but I urge you to shell out to enter this celluloid dreamworld that Julien has created.
I wasn't that keen on the rest of the exhibits but my real focus was always to see Ten Thousand Waves and I was not disappointed. You enter a large dark room with large screens all around and two in the centre (images shown on both sides) - the viewer is immediately immersed. Different images show on each screen at different times so I did not remain stationery but moved around in the space, trying to figure out the best position and also placing myself somehow inside the narrative. And yes there is a narrative structure even through you may enter the room at any point in the 1 hr screening. In fact this is my only criticism, I feel that the viewer benefits from seeing the piece in its entirety as the context is given from the outset. Some people wandered in for only ten minutes and did not perhaps get to make all the connections, the interwoven stories and journeys of past and present.
The opening shots are of the dark black sea and we are played the audio of a woman calling 999 and reporting the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers that are stuck out at sea when the tide has come in (Lancashire 2004). I think the footage is the actual footage too. This was very upsetting and to see the rolling black waves all around you on the screens and hear the panicked phone call is quite chilling.
We move from these images of a tragedy for Chinese immigrants in the UK back to an unspecified past time in Fujian province in China (Fujian is where the 23 cockle pickers that died came from). Maggie Cheung is ethereal and serene as the goddess of sea travellers Mazu. This section is based on the fable The Tale of Yishan Island - the tale of 16th Century fishermen lost and in danger at sea. At the heart of the legend is the goddess figure who leads the fishermen to safety
The harsh reality of the present is juxtaposed with the mystical safety of the past.
Throughout the film the viewer is encouraged to make connections, to think, to question ideas of identity, diaspora, traditions and culture. It is also beautifully shot and aesthetically wondrous to watch. Later on footage of the Cultural Revolution and Maoist celebrations are spliced in to the story. The Technicolour newsreel seems eerily unreal and yet so familiar, so far away and yet so close to us (both geographically and historically).
Silent film star Ruan Lingyu is also referenced in a section in which actress Zhao Tao plays her in a reconstruction of her most famous film The Goddess. Slow lingering shots and beautiful mis-en-scene contradict the harsh reality of the subject matter which is actually the cruel life of a prostitute in 1920s Shanghai. Zhao Tao has starred in the films of Jia Zhangke and interestingly I was reminded of Zhangke's film Still Life when I watched (or should I say experienced) Ten Thousand Waves.
I couldn't quite believe I had been in the room for an hour when I emerged. Time seemed to go by very quickly and ever since I have been wanting to return to that space. If you are in London do not miss this.
Ten Thousand Waves is showing at the Hayward Gallery until 9th January 2011.