Lost Cinema, 6 channel video installation, 3 video projections, 16:9 ratio, colour, silent; 3 digital videos displayed on monitors, 16:9 ratio, black and white silent. Performance Still. Courtesy Elaine Chiew
The woman in the cheongsam and upswept hairdo walks into the audience’s line of sight from behind a pillar, carrying a tiffin carrier. She poses, every gesture and expression countenanced to project drama and artifice, and many of her poses are notably contorted, emphasising an arched foot, her thrust out hip.  The man enters, dressed in a suit, carrying a suitcase. His gestures are likewise pronounced and protracted. Behind them, the six channel video shows a man dressed in a suit sitting in a car, and his expression flits from pensive to slightly frowning; facing us, it’s as if he too is part of the audience, watching the man and woman centrestage.  This stage enactment is meant to portray a segment from In the Mood for Love, directed by Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong, 2000) which artist Brian Gothong Tan has manipulated in terms of his video footage.  The iconic scene where the man and woman sit across from each other in a booth with the wallpaper behind them is immediately recognisable, but instead, in Tan’s vignette, what we might find are two women in cheongsams, but they are different women, and they dance the swim from the ’60s.  The soundtrack is a loop, hard to place in terms of era, but hypnotic in its repetition. 
Actors Sun Pithhaya Phaefuang and Ma Yanling in the performance of 21 April, 6 p.m. Performance Still.
Courtesy Elaine Chiew
Entitled Lost Cinema, Tan hopes to capture through vignettes from three films — besides In the Mood for Love, he’s also re-enacted Eric Khoo’s 12 storeys (Singapore, 1997) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (Thailand, 2004), the idea of dreams and narration in the construction of cinematic images. When we dream, according to Tan, it’s the cinema of our subconscious, and when we wake, these vignettes are often not remembered. The curation at Institute of Contemporary Arts poses these key questions to help unlock a series of thought-provoking intersections: “How does our perception of a film change when live performances by the actors are introduced? How does the mood or narrative change when colour and sound are removed from a film?” 
To that end, I loved the nested narrative structure in this work, the larger video channel in colour, the smaller video channel in black and white, and sometimes the images track, sometimes they don’t, with the performance as an additional third layer, triggering all manner of associations and allusions.
Image 3.  Lost Cinema.  Installation view. Courtesy Elaine Chiew

In fact,  the placement of the smaller video channel has the effect almost of gagging the larger narration, but it also raises another question (almost sci-fi): do we dream in technicolour? The meanings of these vignettes also shift depending on the film it is referencing.  We are all somewhat familiar with In the Mood for Love, given its worldwide circulation, but not so much Eric Khoo’s 12 storeys (Singapore, 1997), an interweaving of four stories happening within the ubiquitous Singapore HDB block.  Apichatpong’s film, Tropical Maladies (Thailand, 2004), also has a segmented structure — bifurcated into two separate narratives, the first is a romance between two men and the second a mysterious tale about a soldier bedevilled by the spirit of a shaman.  It won the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and was also the first Thai film to win a “Big Three” film festival prize. Tan says that to him, all three movies are ultimately about love, and he chose them because they were his favourite directors. 

Tan plays with the thematics of all three films in his versions — as the stage lighting changes from a throbbing red to a hallucinatory blue, the live actors begin to touch.  Both slowly disrobe, to reveal the costume from Khoo’s 12 storeys.  The woman’s undoing of the frog buttons of her cheongsam is sexually charged and exaggerated, highlighting perhaps the fetishisation of Asian femininity. The arched foot feels like a metonymic reference to the bound feet custom of olden days.   They touch and caress, and this seems an ironic reflection of the theme of isolation and fraught communication issues tackled within Khoo’s quadruple stories where you have intimacy (sexual as well as physical given the cramped space of an HDB flat), but you don’t necessarily have closeness. 

Performance Still of 12 storeys vignette. Courtesy Elaine Chiew

Performance Still of 12 storeys vignette. Courtesy Elaine Chiew

Here, the male live actor becomes androgynous, and his gyrations are balletic and also jerky, as well as highly feminised and sexualised, a commentary in itself on how society expects women to hold and position their bodies.   The soundtrack here changes to a dialogue snippet from 12 storeys.

Performance still of Tropical Malady. Courtesy Elaine Chiew

When the lighting changes to green, we are in Tropical Malady, and the actors grapple and tussle with each other in raptor-like and rapturous fashion — sex is survival, but then survival is also sexual. This may seem trite, but its meaning is surely pursued through each gesture and interaction between the actors, given the slow pace, optimal for absorption and reflection.  Cinema as a medium is about accessibility, and Brian Gothong Tan draws upon his experience from theatre and his background degree in experimental animation from the California Institute of Arts in 2005 to produce a startlingly visual and easily engageable conversation about the role of our subconscious in powering our creative expression, as well as the link between performance and cinematic arts. 
Lost Cinema is on show at Earl Lu Gallery Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore from 21 April to 6 May, 2018.