Chinese filmmaker Evans Chan visits Birmingham

In March, the China Institute and Arts & Sciences Festival at Birmingham welcomed Evans Chan from New York to introduce and screen three of his movies at the Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park: his docudrama, Datong: The Great Society大同:康有為在瑞典(2011), his directorial debut To Liv(e) 浮世戀曲 (1992), and on the last evening a documentary about avant-garde music, The Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan (2004)

Datong is a movie about history and the future. Qing loyalist and reformer Kang Youwei康有為took the term Datong 大同 from the Analects for the title of his utopian treatise. Exiled from Qing China after his participation in the 1898 Hundred Days Reform, Kang struggled with tradition and prejudice between East and West, and from abroad advocated for sweeping reforms that included gender equality. Kang’s American educated daughter Kang Tongbi康同壁(played by Lindzay Chan陳令智) was his translator and biggest publicist, and together they traveled the world to seek justice for China and Chinese. For a brief period, father and daughter found their utopia on a small island just outside of Stockholm. Decades later, a pioneering Chinese modern dance performer/choreographer Chiang Ching江青would also make her home on an island near Stockholm and it is she who narrates their story. Chan’s blurring of boundaries between narrative and art, dramatization and documentary, links in aesthetic ways the familial with the political, the fragile place of the diaspora intellectual-artist in the world. 

On Friday afternoon, we watched To Liv(e), Chan’s directorial debut from 1992. The film follows two couples: one couple whose artistic inspiration keep them in Hong Kong, and the other couple, who face social pressure because of the woman’s older age and earlier divorce, contemplate a move to Australia in order to stay together. The protagonist Rubie (played by Lindzay Chan), who is at the center of the two couples’ social world, pens a letter to the Norwegian actress Liv Ullman. Without awareness or engagement with Hong Kong’s social world, Ullman, out of humanitarian grounds, has critiqued the situation of the Vietnamese boat people. Contrast is drawn between the letter to Ullman and Rubie’s conversation with Elsie Tu, an English woman who, first arriving in Hong Kong after 1949, early on left the missionary and dedicated herself to social justice and education of Chinese in Hong Kong. The melancholy mood of early 1990s Hong Kong is reflected in the stunning musical soundtrack, which draws from Margaret Leng Tan’s debut recording “Litania.”

Avant-garde and classical artist Margaret Tan is the subject of the last film we saw. Born in Singapore and based in New York now since being the first woman to earn a PhD from Julliard, Tan’s career has included performance and interpretation of the music of avant-garde giants George Crumb and John Cage, and on toy pianos. In Tan’s work, Chan traces the artistic genealogy of American avant-garde music to Henry Cowell’s exposure to the Chinese operas performed in San Francisco for the Chinese immigrant community there of the early 20th century.

Identity and politics are at the center of Evans’s films. Amid a mainstream media that treats China as a monolith, there are significant challenges in portraying the complexity of China alternatives and individual Chinese in the world. In this way, Evans Chan’s films are an invaluable contribution for global Chinese studies. Chan is attracted to the visions of justice and artistry of Chinese women who’ve emerged from the margins of history and power. Highlighting Kang Youwei’s role as a father who pushed for equality between men and women, Datong is as much about the women who translate and narrate the story of the famous reformer: Kang Tongbi and Chiang Ching. Lindzay Chan, who plays the daughter, is a real-life dancer and singer as well as actress, trained in London and now living in Hong Kong, and mirrors dancer Chiang Ching’s global mobility and artistry between New York and Stockholm. After three days in Birmingham, Evans Chan traveled to Paris to research and film his current project about the Taiwanese Qiu Miaojin – the first out lesbian novelist in modern Chinese literature. Qiu committed suicide in Paris at the age of 26, while studying at the University of Paris VIII with the renowned writer/philsopher, Hélène Cixous, whom Evans Chan was to interview. 

Last week the first woman president unencumbered by political dynastic ties in Asia was inaugurated in Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen’s election was a signal by Taiwanese people for social reform and sovereignty. On the surface Tsai is undoubtedly very different from the idealistic and artistic women protagonists of Chan’s movies, which resist monolithic narratives of China and the West and instead offer a more nuanced reading of global identity. In the larger political sphere, the politics of alternate visions of China and being Chinese can be perilous. In her inaugural speech Tsai shared her vision for Taiwan, a future where justice prevails, and where for the 23 million indigenous and immigrant inhabitants the island is home. Tsai’s landmark presidency perhaps offers hope that we may move closer to Kang’s vision of a more just world.
by Dr Shirley Ye, 22 May 2016

The introduction and the Q and A can be seen here:

In recent years, having attended numerous Q and A sessions, I’ve found it frustrating that the often-excellent material generated doesn’t get approached creatively. To this end, I decided that as well as producing a more familiar and linear video of the Q and A – which itself has been edited for brevity and clarity – I would also produce a video essay which would attempt to offer something a little more interpretive. This resulted in the short video essay you can find below, which cuts together with some material from the Q and A with selected shots and scenes from ‘Datong: The Great Society’ – to give a more creative impression of both the filmmaker and the film.
Dr Richard Langley

Both films can also be found on the Department of Film and Creative Writing’s Vimeo channel (FCW@Bham), along with an ever-expanding range of staff and student films.