JAMES T. HONG with Penny Lane

Originally published by The Brooklyn Rail

Although expressly political, James T. Hong is not your typical activist filmmaker. He has said, “I don’t think movies always have to have socially uplifting value. For the most part, if they do, it’s boring.” Rather, he provokes people to reconsider their own ideology, biases, and received wisdom. He refers to San Francisco, usually thought of a progressive haven, as a “White Asshole Paradise” [Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is, 2000]. His titles can be sarcastic, such as A Portrait of Sino-American Friendship [2007], which depicts a chubby American businessman yelling into a cellular phone while a prostrate Chinese woman massages his feet. The xenophobia of America is mocked by with millions of ants swarming over a map of America (Total Mobilization, 2006], and exposing China’s “Million Flower Movement” to subjugate White America [The Coldest War, 2006]. In other films, he takes on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the legacy of Hitler’s Germany, white guys’ love of Asian women, the global influx of American “crap,” Plato’s cave as allegory for the Iraq War, and more.

Hong’s style reaches its apotheosis with Lessons of the Blood, a feature length documentary (co-directed with his wife and collaborator Yin Ju Chen), which took six years to make. An expressive visual style – heavy contrast, aggressive music, deadpan voiceover, meticulously edited archival materials – energizes what could have been a straightforward effort to simply educate and outrage viewers. This movie pierces the miasma of politeness currently enveloping most avant-garde filmmaking (even that which presents itself as “oppositional”), and demands a response.

Lessons of the Blood centers on Japan’s covert use of biological warfare before and during World War II. Hong and Chen deftly examine the issue through a myriad of lenses: historically changing relations between China, Japan, and the U.S.; Japanese revisionists who deny the Nanking massacre and other war crimes committed during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II; the complexities of ideology, imperialism, nationalism, and economic empire; a visit to the remains of Unit 731, where Japanese scientists committed atrocities; and the devastating lives of elderly Chinese suffering the horrific results of Japan’s biological warfare to this day.

Lessons of the Blood opens with a quotation: “History is complicated.  Nations are complicated.  The political is complicated. Suffering is not.”

Lessons of the Blood will receive its New York City premiere at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, October 11, at 7:30pm. This event is presented by FlahertyNYC, a monthly series of risk-taking documentary films sponsored by The Flaherty. James T. Hong will also present “Some Works for Everyone and No One,” a selection of his short films and videos, and selections by his major influences Werner Herzog and Hans-Jürgen Sybergerg, at UnionDocs on Sunday, October 3, at 7:30pm. 

Penny Lane (Rail): Can you share something about your background? What brought you to filmmaking?

James T. Hong: I was born in Minnesota. I majored in philosophy at a few different universities, but graduated from the University of Minnesota. I went to grad school for a PhD in philosophy at Urbana-Champaign. In grad school, I realized that academia was mostly unpleasant, and mostly just kissing ass. Also, my specialty was German metaphysics. It’s not so easy to get a job in that. I always had an interest in film, especially because of my two favorite filmmakers at that time, Werner Herzog and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. I applied to film schools, and I got into USC in 1994 or 1995. I learned some technical things, but I didn’t enjoy USC. There was no art or documentary; it was all commerce. I dropped out and moved to San Francisco in 1996, because there were people there whose work I respected, like Craig Baldwin and Bruce Connor. It was easier to support myself there than it was in L.A. So that’s how I started making movies. Craig Baldwin has been a big influence on me. I owe Craig a lot. He was the first person to support my work. And at one time, San Francisco was a nice place. I think the dot-com revolution changed it irrevocably. Foodies are the worst.

Rail: You’ve made a lot of short films and videos since then. How did you come to make Lessons of the Blood, your first feature and your first straight-up documentary? When did you first become interested in the subject?

Hong: Actually, the first feature I ever made is called The Spear of Destiny: A Film for Everyone and No One (2000-2004), which ended up more for no one. [The background for Lessons is that] my father was born in Taiwan, and my mother was born in China, so I always heard stories about how Japan invaded Asia. I knew that the Japanese did horrible things, and that they’ve never really dealt with this issue [as a nation]. I was always interested in that. The second impetus was a Japanese high school textbook from 2005 called The New History Textbook. It’s a whitewashing of their history. It seemed interesting to me that Japan could not only ignore the issue, but that they could [actively] change their history to make it nicer. The third inspiration was Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking, a bestseller that pushed the issue onto the international arena. She killed herself in 2004 or 2005, and her death sort of motivated me. With all that, I went to China to research the issue with my wife, Yin-Ju Chen, who was essential in the making of the documentary. We became caught up in this issue of biological warfare.

Originally, we didn’t want to make a film about biological warfare, because it’s really gruesome to see some of the victims. It’s terrible. I thought, “How can we film this? Who would want to see this kind of movie?” But every time we went back to China, more relatives of these victims would contact us, and tell us, “You have to film these people before they die, so they can tell their story.”

Rail: What is the meaning of the title? Why did you structure the film as a series of “lessons”?

Hong: In Chinese, “lessons of the blood” is a very common term. It’s used to describe anything traumatic. It doesn’t sound so profound in Chinese, but it sounds really strong in English. Also, the movie is sort of structured like a history textbook – lessons. Blood, obviously, connotes suffering and war, and also poison in the blood – the biological warfare that poisons your blood. Some people criticize it. They think it’s too strong, too unsubtle. But generally, I don’t think my work is particularly subtle.

Rail: You open with a quotation: “History is complicated.  Nations are complicated.  The political is complicated. Suffering is not.” I felt that the structure of the film mirrored that quotation; you start with a really complex political history, and by the end, you’re left with the horrendous suffering of one woman who is literally dying, rotting away, before your eyes. Were you consciously mirroring that quotation with the structure, or did I just make that up?

Hong: Yes. It goes from macro issues – historical issues, conflicts between nations, the war – and it gets smaller and smaller in focus until it is about one person. The reason has to do with the idea of proof. When dealing with Japanese revisionists, they try to debunk any type of data [that proves their responsible for war crimes]. So the film proceeds from a certain plausible deniability to the suffering that is undeniable. It becomes proof. The woman at the end [who is dying] – when I filmed her, it was the first time I had met her. Her family had asked us to go find her. We went with some local party officials.

Rail: Why did you want to bring the government officials there?

Hong: Because the higher echelons of government don’t acknowledge the issue at all. [The existence of these victims] is just an embarrassment to the government of China. China’s supposed to be this economic superpower, but they don’t give a shit about these aging victims in the poorer hinterlands. They’re just waiting for them to die. The reality is that history moves on, nations move on, but these people got crushed. They got stepped on, and nobody remembers, and nobody cares, and there is no uplifting end. They just suffer, and then they die.

Rail: In the film, we meet some historical revisionists who claim that the Nanking massacre never happened, that biological warfare never happened, and so on. I found these people frightening, but pretty wacko. I wonder if this is a fringe movement in Japan, or if this kind of revisionism is more mainstream?

Hong: It’s true that the activists you see in the movie are more on the right-wing fringes. I wouldn’t say all Japanese are right-wing fanatics, but the mainstream is very conservative. There is also a lot of ignorance. In fact, I can’t show this movie to my Japanese friends. We can’t talk about this issue at all. And these are people who are artists, people I think are generally left-wing… but I guess not about World War II. For example, we needed some translation, and we asked some Japanese people in San Francisco to help. I thought they were hippies – they had long hair, they were musicians. But once they realized what they were translating, they wouldn’t do it. They said that they loved the emperor, and that everything we were saying was a lie. I’m telling you, the [Japanese] people who do know about it still don’t believe it, or they don’t want to believe it. In fact, I challenge you, if you have Japanese friends – not Japanese-American, Japanese friends – to ask them about Japan’s war crimes against the Chinese. There are Japanese activists who are trying to promote the issue and make Japan deal with their history. But it’s a very small minority.

Rail: Why do you think this is?

Hong: There’s a joke. A Chinese, a Japanese, and a Korean get into a fight. The Chinese goes home and gets his family. The Korean goes home and beats up his own brother. The Japanese goes home, and brings back his entire country. In Japan, there is a real ethos of working together, of sticking together. They have an idiom: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” This is, of course, a stereotype, but I think it’s true in some ways.

Rail: I understood the documentary to not be criticizing Japanese people per se, but more a nationalist agenda that refuses to admit any criticism of its own history. But you also criticize certain ways that China has used the 300,000 dead from the Nanking massacre as its own kind of nation-building, political tool. Were you worried at all that your film could be used for Chinese propaganda?

Hong: I understand that it’s possible. There’s nothing I can do about the potential use of [my movie and the history it depicts] for nationalistic purposes. I think that the Nanking Massacre has the potential to function in China similarly to the way 9/11 functions in the U.S. But I still think it’s good that the government would support remembrance and memorials of the Nanking massacre, because the fact remains that a lot of young people in China have never heard of it. Or they have, but they don’t care. The analogue would be the Holocaust. Israel uses the Holocaust toward political ends. This is a fact. But still, regardless of what Israel has done to the Palestinians or what crimes they have committed, the Holocaust will remain a horrible crime. It still deserves to be recognized. It’s the same thing with China. No matter what China did or does, there were certain crimes that were committed against the Chinese and they will always be crimes. We need to know about those things, too, and that was my aim with this movie. All cinema functions as a form of propaganda. Movies are designed to manipulate you to act in a particular way or believe in a particular way. Yes, even experimental films. AndLessons of the Blood is no different. But I can’t show Lessons of the Blood in China anyway, so I don’t know how it could function as nationalistic propaganda for the Chinese.

Rail: You can’t show this film in China?

Hong: No, because it’s critical of the [Communist] party. We have a version that we can show in China, and we will try to do that. All references to politics are removed. It focuses only on the story of biological warfare. That’s it. We showed that version in Singapore, because even in Singapore it had to go through censors. We also have another version that’s only ten minutes, to show party officials, so that they will support a bill to help [the victims of biological warfare] and get them free healthcare. There’s also a version that’s four hours long. But even my wife couldn’t sit through it. Only I can sit through it, and I fall asleep.

Rail: What was the most important thing you think you learned in making the film?

Hong: It’s that some of these people who have these wounds, they just go on with their lives. Some of them are married. Some of them have kids. They just live. I think for us in the west, to live like that would be like a living death. They just persevere. It’s something I suppose I couldn’t do. The other important thing I realized was that some of [the victims] didn’t even know what had happened [to them]. They didn’t know why they’ve had these horrible wounds for so many years. It wasn’t until very recently that [the issue of biological warfare] has come to light.

Rail: You dish out criticism for plenty of historical actors in Lessons. But don’t you think you take it pretty easy on Communist China? I think you breeze past the Great Leap Forward, which caused the deaths of maybe 20 million people, as “some disastrous social and economic programs.” I think that to elide that part of China’s history is a provocative move. Right now, everyone in the west prefers to criticize China. Did you want to intervene in the common view of China in the west?

Hong: Yes. China is the bogeyman, just like Japan was in the 1980s. When I was growing up, my family would never drive a Japanese car, because we were afraid people would hate us. On TV, Americans were smashing Japanese cars, because Japan was so rich and stealing jobs and buying American property. I understand this kind of fear mongering, this hatred of China. But for me to support the idea of China as the enemy is just not very interesting. Actually, I’ve seen many, maybe too many, movies about China made by Westerners. I would be curious to see more critical documentaries made by Chinese about America or Germany or the Netherlands.

Rail: It’s amazing how quickly America’s least favorite Asian nation can change.

Hong: I agree. In foreign policy today, it’s just: China enemy, Japan friend. But I’m certainly not the only filmmaker that has made a film critical of Japan lately.The Cove is highly critical of Japan. I’m not a huge fan of Japan, but I found that movie kind of unfair. And it won the Oscar.

Rail: You said before that your films are not subtle. I read a review by Jaime Mendoza, who described your work as “literally screaming bloody murder.” All of your films do have a very aggressive style and often take on unpopular opinions in a pretty loud way. Why are you drawn to that style of filmmaking?

Hong: Well, I’m an Asian-American. And that term “Asian-American” sort of groups us all together – Hmong, Vietnamese, Koreans, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. It’s a misnomer, because in Asia it’s a huge deal to be Japanese versus Chinese, or Korean versus Chinese.  And this idea of Asia is itself a convenient fiction. But here, I’m just an Asian-American. And the way that we are supposed to function here is to be quiet, and to assimilate, and become doctors and lawyers and professors. So the way that my work developed originally, the impetus, was to try to find a form that was very strong – that wasn’t this way of just listening and assimilating and being quiet. It was a way to be heard and to be stronger. Also, personally, from an aesthetic point of view, the works that I like are works that are stronger and not subtle. Even if I don’t like the movie, at least I will remember it.

Rail: I wondered also if it might be a kind of statement about how polite people are in the art world.  For all of the noise we make about being radical or provocative, within the art world there’s not really all that much vocal disagreement on political issues.

Hong: I think most contemporary art that I encounter is just apolitical, or it supports the status quo of consumerist cynicism. But yes, Americans tend to be pretty polite. In Germany, people will yell at you from the audience. Americans tend to be nicer. For me, I only learn through criticism. I don’t learn from compliments. That’s how I learn what people like and don’t like. But sometimes I make movies that I know nobody will like. That’s the whole dilemma: how to make a movie that many people will like, so you can make some money. To make [art] a career, and to stay alive is a hard thing to do. I think in Europe, the climate is better. There’s more state support.

Rail: Is that why you and your wife have been living in Europe?

Hong: Yeah, we’re only in it for the money. My wife applies for grants, and I apply for grants [in Europe]. I have a distributor, and every now and again I get a hundred Euros or something, but it’s not really enough to live on. I can tell you, it’s not going to last forever. Eventually, I’ll have to get a real job. It’s just a fact. But I do want to make a super successful children’s movie that will make me self-sufficient.  That’s no joke.  I will work on it.

Rail: I want to ask you about your use of humor, especially sarcasm, that’s very prevalent in your work. It’s an interesting tension, because your films are usually pretty heavy thematically, but they’re also really funny. Why do you use humor?

Hong: I don’t know what’s funny. I’ve never thought that I was particularly funny, and my intent is not to be funny. It’s just the viewer’s interpretation. I can’t explain that.

Rail: Wait, really? Because there are certain things you say in your films, or say with your films, that are pretty hilarious. Like in Behold the Asian, when you call San Francisco “the white asshole paradise,” is that not supposed to be funny?

Hong: No! To me it’s really depressing. It’s not funny at all. I don’t know. I don’t laugh very often. So maybe that’s why I can’t understand the [idea that people find humor in my work]. It’s my own idiosyncrasy. I don’t know. But it’s for other people to interpret.  I am not frequently the best interpreter of my own work.

Rail: Let me think about it. Sometimes I laugh because you make me uncomfortable. So that’s one kind of laugher you sometimes provoke: nervous laughter. Maybe a better description would be “irony,” rather than “humor.” A certain kind of bitter sarcasm, and an irony that is reminiscent of the filmmakers you mentioned earlier, Herzog and Syberberg. Does that make more sense?

Hong: Well, Steve Seid at the PFA called my work “a sump-hole of chilling irony.” I like that. I pick topics and issues that interest me, and that I think others frequently ignore or don’t want to say. I think we all disagree a lot more than we think. And the asshole in the so-called Asian-American has to be shown more often.

Rail: How do you collaborate with your wife?

JH: Usually, one person has to take the lead [on a particular project], because if we try to make a movie where both people are leading, we could never complete it. Like editing, right? Somebody has to make the final decision, or you’ll never finish. We don’t work on everything together.  There are some projects that are just hers or just mine.  For example, I made a movie called Taipei 101.  It’s about white guys who date Taiwanese girls. And she hated it. She thought the movie was terrible, and  she wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Rail: What kinds of conversations do you want your audiences to have with each other after they see Lessons of the Blood?

Hong: Well, I want them to think about their own education. I never learned about the Nanking massacre in high school. The only thing I was taught about World War II was that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and then we nuked them. If the audience realizes that their education was biased to reflect a particular nationalistic concern, then they can begin to doubt what they think they already knew about what happened in World War II.

Rail: What kinds of criticism have you gotten about the movie?

Hong: Nobody has said it’s too uplifting, that’s for sure. There are some people who can’t sit through the ending. It’s too gruesome for them. But one of the points of the film is that some of these stories just end in pain and death. It’s just the reality.

Rail: I have to tell you that I absolutely love this movie. It moved me deeply, and it educated me, and it made me think. I think it’s really beautiful and extraordinary. And also extremely funny!

Hong: I think that’s great. It’s always nice to find people who like it. I mean, it’s not a movie you’re supposed to like.

Rail: What are you working on now?

Hong: I think I’m going to go back to China in January to film more of this one man. If he’s still alive. I don’t know if he’s still alive. He’s a victim of biological warfare who is briefly featured in Lessons of the Blood. He was infected when he was two years old. He has no memory of not having this wound. Now he’s seventy-eight years old. He’s poor. He’s illiterate. I want to make a movie just about him.  It’s a view of human life that I just can’t understand. Lessons of the Blood is more complicated; it’s about history and the way we see things. This would be a simple documentary. But again, it would be really depressing, I guess.

Penny Lane, October 2010