Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Many Undulating Things, Be Water

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This year, we are pleased to have been able to commission articles on each new feature film in the 2019 programme. Steffanie Ling writes here on Bo Wang and Pan Lu’s Many Undulating Things.

Many Undulating Things 湧浪之間 invokes capital in the eco-friendly rainwater filtration system permeating a luxury condo. In the water that floats container ships into the Port of Hong Kong, the tourist yachts that dock at a mall, and those who swam from Maoists to the relative freedom of cage tenancy. It is the false humidity on William Holden’s forehead in Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955).  As a real estate agent tours the film crew around a “very contemporary” unit, she states that the significance of water translates to money. However, Pan Lu and Bo Wang do not show it as a symbol of wealth. Instead, the formlessness of water, as applied to various forms of capital, has been managed, boxed up, shifted, and controlled throughout Hong Kong’s colonial history to its present state as a Special Administrative Region in China. 

The traditional equation of water and capital compels me to reconsider how Bruce Lee’s famous statement on zen fluidity could ring as a darkly neoliberal treatise describing a boundaryless, chameleonic, elusive matter that we can’t fully capture or moralize — “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water.” Then, in a city surrounded and permeated by water, capital can find its way into every pore in the city’s complexion. In the contemporary mallscape, colonizer and colonized flatly co-exist in retail experience. The former as valued customers, the latter an indiscriminate entrepreneur. The last time I spoke to my father he said “Take care, be good” and then added, “Be water”. The rest of Lee’s quote: “You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” I drafted a reply, “bà, water is for CAPITALISTS” but it was at the end of a conversation about blood pressure, so I let it go. 

Beyond water, Many Undulating Things also charts the use of sealed glass boxes in the building of a botanical empire to architect-gardener Joseph Paxton’s design of the Crystal Palace. “If commodities are the cells of capital, the arcades were the greenhouses.” Cutting from documents of the Victorian exhibition space, a burgeoning arcade society in Benjamin, Baudelaire and Haussman, we are then transported to its inverse: the dense and lively corridors of Chungking Mansion. The transition begs the question, what actually thrives under a glass box? Under late capitalism, even the light and space laden malls get supra-gentrified. Banal but joyful music fountains are stripped from mall atriums leaving behind spatial voids. Benches are plucked away from the residents of nearby towers housed in stacked cages or capsule living searching for air conditioned environments.

Since 2014, large-scale pro-democracy protests have periodically erupted against erosions to the autonomy Hong Kong was afforded after the 1997 handover. In July 2019, as citizens stormed the Hong Kong legislature building to protest a dubious extradition bill, they proceeded to display a colonial-era flag beneath a defaced emblem of the city. Weeks after, a unique confrontation between civilians and riot police. Rather than taking place on the streets of central districts, the conflict broke out inside a shopping mall in the suburban New Territories. The pro-democracy mall clash is an exciting combination of air conditioning, Haussman’s boulevards, arcades, and the civil disobedience, dust and heat, it was all supposed to subvert and keep out. We are heading to the outskirts of learned civility, we are watching a ticking time bomb of an image. 

Steffanie Ling is a writer, critic and curator based in Toronto and Vancouver (unceded territories). She is Artistic Director at Images Festival in Toronto.

Bo Wang and Pan Lu’s Many Undulating Things screens on Thursday 5th September at Regent Street Cinema.