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Dear Bo Wang, to get started, please tell us about your approach in making the film “Many Undulating Things” (2019) about Hong Kong? What makes Hong Kong’s situation so unique?

Hong Kong is very visual, but for me as a filmmaker, the uniqueness lies in the rich complicities of social, political and historical contexts that put the visual identities into question. Back in 2012 while visiting Hong Kong, I had a long conversation with my friend Pan Lu on various issues of the city, from recent demonstrations, to its history and paradoxes. We also see these issues as more universal, as problems of other global cities today, drawn from our experiences of living in other parts of the world, be it in China, USA or Europe. So we decided to work together on a film to explore these topics. It took us some time to decide to focus on Hong Kong’s urban space as our subject. We see space as both a material foundation for Hong Kong’s economic structure and a contested site among different ideologies and thoughts of how to see the society itself. That’s where the project started from. Pan Lu and I have worked in a very collaborative manner, from research to production and editing. The best thing about collaboration is the conversations, which often bring up new things that cannot be generated within one person. And eventually, this project ended up in three different film works.


How were the shooting conditions in terms of state regulations and permissions? Was your artistic film work particularly challenged by the current political, social and economic tensions in the country?

There were way more difficulties to obtain filming permission than we had expected, but I guess that also proves our point: Spaces are not neutral. They are manifested by the logic of power. Some spaces look inclusive and mundane, but they are highly manipulated, excluding activities that do not match with their agendas (like in the case of shopping malls). The powers behind the spaces are also entwined. One might easily get lost, not knowing where one is and where the spatial boundaries are located. For us, navigating through the spaces for permissions also helped to understand the structures behind. Eventually, we had to come up with different approaches to deal with different sites: transportation stations, container terminals, governmental sites, shopping malls, public houses, even pedestrian walkways.

Your film could be assigned to the genre of essay film. In its literal sense, the term means also the process of trial and error, i.e. trying something that cannot be enforced according to a plan. German philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno described the essay form as “spontaneity of subjective imagination”. What does it mean to you to make an essay film?

The making process for us was a process of learning and exploring the subject. The trials and errors, like you described, as well as the challenges and detours, were also part of the experience of our subject. We want to include that in the film. The essayistic approach allows space for those disclosure and reflections. In the film, we try to defamiliarise the spaces from what they seem to be, then maybe that can also be the necessary way of presenting the film too.


Interestingly, the essay film and the documentary film are both in close proximity to the contemporary art exhibition system. I’ve read that you have already shown your films in museums. What has been your experience in this context?

Yes. If we talk specifically about the Hong Kong project, we have also exhibited in Biennale and museum contexts. For instance, “Miasma, Plants, Export Paintings” (2017) was initially an exhibition commission from the Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, a Biennale that takes place in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong. I think it’s the shared interests in certain common discourses that brings essay film, documentary film and the contemporary art scene together. We are very happy to have opportunities to engage with discussions across different venues. That also means different formats and modes of presentation.

French anthropologist Marc Augé invented the neologism of the so called “non-places” (non-lieus) in order to describe spaces of transience, where human beings remain anonymous; spaces which do not hold enough significance to be regarded as places. Just as a place is characterised by identity, relation and history, a space that has no identity and cannot be called relational or historical defines as a non-place. As a result, non-places do not create a special identity or a special relation, but create loneliness and similarity. Marc Augé mentions motorways, hotel rooms, airports and shopping malls. What do you think about the term non-place in relation to your film “Many Undulating Things”?

Those non-places have a strong presence in “Many Undulating Things”. As you can see in the film, we have spent time talking about shopping malls, infrastructural spaces, generic public housing projects, etc. In the first film of our series, “Traces of an Invisible City: Three Notes on Hong Kong” (2016), the first chapter is about the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center, a non-place that accommodates all kinds of trade fairs nowadays. Built on a reclaimed land, the building was intentionally designed to ignore any cultural identity. There is a very famous saying: Hong Kong is a revolving door. From the point of view of the global capitalist system, Hong Kong itself is a non-place, a hub whose role is to facilitate the flow of goods and capital. However, this doesn’t mean that the city is totally deprived of identity. Life happens and people build communities and society. The needs to claim identity and to humanise the place also collide with the underlying logics that run the city. The collisions sometimes end up in dilemmas. In the last chapter, we see in a local neighborhood, how collective memories and senses of community were projected on a music fountain in a shopping mall, but the fountain of a non-place, was doomed to disappear.


A well know-expression about Hong Kong is: One city, two systems. What about its architecture, its style, its aesthetic? Can you find something completely original and unique in Hong Kong?

I would like to borrow scholar Ackbar Abbas’s remarks on Hong Kong’s cultural identity. By the way, Abbas’s writing on Hong Kong was an important inspiration for us, and he has contributed a very poetic comment on our film, which we used in our poster. Abbas describes the status of culture in Hong Kong undergoes from reverse hallucination, of not seeing culture but only desert, to a culture of disappearance, of intense interests in seeing everything as culture in the fear of their disappearance. According to Abbas, the change was largely triggered by the uncertainty of political changes in the 1980s


“Many Undulating Things” plays with the rhythm of ebb and flow, with the image of the sea, that surrounds all of Hong Kong. But with one peculiarity: More and more architecture and human and mechanical activity take the place of the sea. If Hong Kong were an organic organism, what would its state of health be today?

The image of the sea, or the image of Hong Kong as a sea port, reveals the historical origin of the city. The sea signifies openness and connectivity. Hong Kong came into being as a result of early global trade. Now, what affirms its role are no longer its geographical conditions, but the protocols, tax-incentives, laissez-faire, financial industry, management and communication technologies. In your question, if we consider the city as a resemblance to an organic organism, we are assuming that there is a state of normality, of some kind of healthy equilibrium. However, history shows us that, like the system of capitalism, Hong Kong has never been in equilibrium. It has always been built on contingency, accidents and has developed out of disasters and traumas, one after another. It’s always in a perpetually UNDULATING state.

From the second part of your film onward, you started to work with found footage like photos, films, paintings, and you use them as layers to explore contemporary Hong Kong. Can you tell us more about your research?

We have been looking for images from the past: old city photos, drawings, postcards, films, or even descriptions in literature etc. We believe that by examining how the city images were constructed also gives a lot of insights on how the city is perceived.

In the third chapter, you concentrate on how colonisation worked over the past centuries and how it is also linked to the re-organisation of botanical eco-systems. You mention the invention of glass-boxes, which have been the preliminary stage for all of today’s forms of spectacles.

The film is also developed on the history of climate in Hong Kong. During the early British rule, the colonial government was deeply concerned about the tropical weather and related issues like diseases. Their efforts to solve these problems, based on colonial knowledge of the world, determined how Hong Kong as a city is spatially structured today. Behind all the efforts also lies an essential question for modernity: how to see the relationship between nature and society. The idea of creating an artificial environment, to stabilise and control, to offset the entropic force of nature, led to glass boxes and warm houses in the early days, and the pervasive air-conditioning of today – not only as a technique of acclimatisation but also a form of conducting social control. Commerce is what it really protects.


In his “The society of the spectacle” French philosopher Guy Debord writes that the spectacle allows only one single attitude of reception: the passive reception. The architecture of Hong Kong is super spectacular, does it make you exhausted and passive?

For me, the experience of Hong Kong is a bodily experience. The pervasiveness of neon lights, the humidity in public spaces and the chilling air in AC-environments, the flow of people, the noises of escalators, the ticking of pedestrian crossing signals, the disorientation of walking seamlessly from one mall to another… It works on all your senses.

What was the most important lesson you learned while shooting your film?

Don’t spend seven years on one film again? Haha…


At the end of the conversation would you mind telling us a little bit about your background and how you became a film maker?

I studied physics and mathematics for my undergraduate degree in Beijing but later found out that I was more interested in art. I later quit my PhD-programme in applied physics in Maryland, to study photography at School Visual Arts’ MFA programme in photography, video and related media in New York. That was where I shifted to filmmaking.

You grew up in Chongqing, a megacity in southwest China, later moved to China’s capital Beijing for college before living in the United States for several years. Where is your cultural and artistic home? What do you identify with?

I think the experiences in these places jointly informed my artistic vision. At the same time, I learn a lot from the differences between one place and another. I appreciate the sense of distance. For instance, it was after I moved to the States that I started to reflect on my personal experiences growing up in Chongqing in the 80s and 90s. And it was after the 2008 Olympic Games while being in New York that I started to examine how it was for me to live in Beijing between 2000–2007, the time when the whole city was in pervasive transformation preparing towards 2008. Those disconnected reflections go into my practice.

I would like to ask you about the current situation in Hong Kong. After a year of massive protests, the corona crisis seemed to have pushed the Hong Kong democracy movement into the background. But in March, there were renewed arrests and violent clashes between protesters and police. What do you think, what will happen in Hong Kong over the coming months?

To be honest, I failed to follow the recent news. Like the virus, it’s really hard to predict.


2046 will be the final year before Hong Kong will officially lose its status of self-regulation. Everything seems to be going much faster now. What do you think will happen?

I don’t know, and I think we also cannot assume that China will be an immutable state, for good or for bad.

Are you working on new projects?

Together with Pan Lu and some other friends, we are doing some researches on a new project. Instead of trying to make sense out of what we do, maybe it’s better to say what the project will be about: territory, plants, sea, highlands, colonial medicine, cold war, special economic zone, ethnography, spy and cinema.

Berlin/Amsterdam, 8 April 2020

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