The first voice that the viewer hears in De Anima (2021) is the artist’s, Taiwanese-American filmmaker James T. Hong. Reverberating bass and buzzing synth set the tone for a disquieting disclosure: that “it has been twenty years since [Hong] has changed the prescription on his glasses”.i Blurry scenes of a subway in Taipei evoke the vision – it’s as if we are seeing the world through his eyes. 1 Hong’s gaze fuses with that of the camera, and we are drawn into a state of empathy with the artist. Yet there is also an irony to this opening statement. Why would Hong, a filmmaker for whom clarity of vision would seem a vital tool, neglect his optical health for twenty years? The logical question further clouds our perspective. Should we trust the artist? Especially one who can barely see?
The response offered by Hong is frank. Not only should we not trust him, but neither “should [he] trust us”.ii What begins as an exercise in identification quickly turns into deliberate obfuscation. “Now”, Hong continues, “seems to be a good time to not see things clearly”. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that the insidious blur is a metaphor for our post-truth world, where rumour – that murkiest of “truths” – frequently supplants fact. As in many of Hong’s films, current events provide a case in point, and in De Anima, these centre on the global Covid-19 pandemic. Since its inception, misinformation about the nature and transmission of the virus has spread as quickly as its bacteria; a cocktail combination which has undermined countries’ and governments’ strategies to combat both.iii In this scenario, many individuals have begun to make their own decisions about pandemic protocols and their ethics. So, when we see people in De Anima wearing face masks, do we judge the latter as evidence of their submission to government policy, their belief in its efficacy in curbing transmission, or their social morals? 2
“Behaviour”, Hong muses, “can only be judged from the outside”.iv Viewed this way, the face mask becomes a signifier – a sign of its wearer’s possible scientific, moral and political opinions – yet their actual beliefs remain impenetrable. Perhaps truth is not what lies behind the mask, but the mask itself. To illustrate this theory, Hong cites the work of the late American philosopher Donald Davidson, who posits that “most of our beliefs must be true”.v Belief, Donaldson argues, does not exist as a private mental state that is disconnected from the use of language. For Davidson, language, beliefs, and the concept of truth are intimately connected, and language itself must be public if there is to be any possibility of objectivity. As explained by Richard Rorty, Davidson is “saying that most of anybody’s beliefs must coincide with most of our beliefs ... and to reject that mass of shared beliefs (as perhaps not corresponding to reality) is to bring back a tangle of uncashable and useless metaphors”.vi Insofar as we act on our beliefs, they generate “truth” – that is, meaningful behaviours.
Such enquiries into the metaphysics of truth have influenced Hong’s filmmaking practice since the 1990s. Born in Minnesota in 1970, he studied philosophy at various universities before enrolling in a PhD at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Finding the “kiss-ass” culture of academia frustrating, he abandoned his PhD to pursue filmmaking at the University of Southern California.vii Disappointed by the programme’s commercial emphasis, he eventually moved to San Francisco, where he made several short films, including Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is (2000). Whilst the experimental documentary style of the film references the work of directors Craig Baldwin and Werner Herzog, its subject touches on a personal topic for Hong: clichés and prejudice with respect to East Asians.viii
Hong quotes his experience of racism whilst growing up in the US as having influenced his decision to study philosophy, in which he saw a means of unpacking “the foundations of western thought which had legitimised racism towards non-white populations”.ix In Behold the Asian, a long-haired Hong plays its Asian archetype, walking the streets of San Francisco and climbing the sand dunes of California’s Death Valley wearing a Non La, a conical hat made of palm leaves that is traditionally worn in East and Southeast Asian countries. The narrative is both assimilation and resistance, with Hong pondering the conformism and rebellion that has shaped the history of Asian populations against the backdrop of American consumer society. The irony of the film lies in the figure of the artist, a first-generation Asian American (and thus a US native) toying with nativist fears of “the other”. 3
In Hong’s work, fear is often portrayed as the root cause of irrational judgments. These include beliefs that foreign migrants will eliminate white populations (Total Mobilization, 2006) 4 and the anxiety of leaving one’s tribe, embodied in Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Form of the Good (2006). What assuages fear, the latter’s short narrative suggests, is ignorance, the limited worldview of the cave providing its prisoners with ideological comfort. 5 Yet, in the case of the War on Terror (the film’s contemporary reference point), ignorance can also have the opposite effect, increasing our desire to thwart unknown adversaries before they discover us. To destroy them, one must avoid any intimacy that would foster empathy – the enemy must be kept at a distance. In one sequence of the film, appropriated footage from a US military helicopter shows the blurred viewpoint of its operators firing bullets onto people and buildings below. A cross on the lens of the camera gives the impression of a targeted attack, but the footage is dark and the process, indiscriminate. At this scale, the blurred figures of humans look like ants, corralled into buildings by an invisible threat from above. 6 From this vantage, one wonders how much the helicopters’ operators can actually see; a situation that recalls Hong’s blurry vision in De Anima.
The trope of the human-as-animal appears in a number of Hong’s films. In The Duck of Nature/The Duck of God (2010), a remote-controlled duck plays the role of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who is snubbed by other birds on the canals of Amsterdam. 7 Originally commissioned by the Dutch government, the film was intended by Hong as a metaphor for the discrimination faced by migrant populations within mainstream society, as well as a synthesis of Spinoza’s humanist philosophy (for which the philosopher was excommunicated by the Jewish community). In addition to their role as main characters, animals in Hong’s films often feature in cutaway shots (sequences that lead viewers in or out of a film’s main narrative) as vehicles for human emotions. In A Chinaman’s Chance – Dokdo and Senkaku (2014), shots of seagulls flying out to sea highlight the arbitrary nature of national boundaries (sovereignty over the Dokdo islets is disputed by Japan and South Korea; the Senkaku islands between Japan, China, and Taiwan), 8 and in the four-channel video installation and performance Nietzsche Reincarnated as a Chinese Woman and Their Shared Lives (2016–18), views of insects and animals illustrate the various reincarnations imagined by Hong of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who, later in life, was influenced by Buddhist ideas. 9
If these tropes anthropomorphise animals, they also animalise humans. Hence why animals are often employed in war rhetoric: not only are they seen to embody basic human instincts (to kill, to survive), but their evocation serves to dehumanise the enemy. The framing of particular populations as animals and “lesser beings” by fascist regimes, for instance, was used throughout the twentieth century as a means of justifying ethnic genocide. However, in Hong’s films, the perspective of animals also stirs real empathy, such as the explicit scene of a pig being slaughtered in Nietzsche Reincarnated as a Chinese Woman and Their Shared Lives 10 and the character of the dog in De Anima, whose complaints and wry observations about human behaviour challenge a humancentric worldview. 11
For Hong, animals are equal, if not superior to human beings. According to Buddhism, neither humans nor animals have individual eternal souls, the latter also seen as sentient beings capable of enlightenment. As a Buddhist, Hong abides by these beliefs, as well as the idea that humans and animals are forms of vital energy. In De Anima, footage shot with a heat detector camera conveys these concepts, the bodies of pilgrims and stray dogs at Mahabodhi Temple in India transformed into pools of red and orange colour, which merge with the surrounding environment. 11 The temple, which Hong visited in 2019, marks the site of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. In many ways, Hong’s Buddhism complements his scepticism: both advocate living in accordance with the rules of nature. It also mirrors his research into “biomorality”, a system of ethics inspired by Aristotle’s History of Animals that is shaped by organic processes. In De Anima, immoral behaviour is as easily detectable as a “bad smell”; a biological essentialism which moves away from the idea of the human soul as the arbiter of moral judgment and towards nature as a source of ethics.
In his lecture ‘On Nietzsche’s Second Brain’ (2018), Hong speculates how the philosopher’s nihilism could have originated from a similar form of biological essentialism: his suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 12 He bases his thesis on current medical science that demonstrates the effect of microbiome activity on the mental state of humans, as well as allusions by Nietzsche to his deteriorating digestive health in his writings. We are, Hong says, often urged to trust our “gut instinct”, an impulse that we often associate with truth – no matter how unethical that impulse may be. In this way, “all prejudices come from the intestines”, because the signals sent by the gut to the brain tend to override intellectual and emotional arguments.x If Hong’s thesis at times sounds far-fetched, his thorough knowledge of Nietzschean philosophy and experience of similar digestive problems make its arguments convincing.
Acknowledging subjectivity is important to Hong, which in his films and writing often takes the form of caveats. In The Book of the Thing (2019), Hong – writing in the first person – offers observations on theories about misinformation and morality, “some possibly of wisdom, some probably of total shit”.xi The pocket-sized book encapsulates the French writer Albert Camus’ famous description of fiction “as the lie through which we tell the truth”, its para-philosophy made all the more believable because of the artist’s candour. In his films, the wit of his writing emerges in word-play – “some ideas obviously stink. Do we live in a world of s**t? For the pessimist, it is a world of excrement. For the optimist it is a world of extra-mints”xii 13 – that transform straightforward statements into provocative punch-lines. It is this skilful combination of honesty, poetry and humour that makes their scripts so compelling, his steadfast voice the ideal vessel for their cynical propositions.
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Hong’s films is less the frankness of their narratives and more their fusion of conflicting ideologies. In Suprematist Kapital (2006) 14, representations of Russian suprematist art morph into symbols of American democracy and capitalism, merging the language of the two Cold War powers. Edited to an unrelenting beat, the symbolic examples change shape before the viewer can fully grasp their connotations. The pace of transformation creates a lag between image and association, blurring the semantics of the political and artistic left and right. The conclusion of this iconographic lesson is that all images are expressions of ideology: none are neutral.
This mixture of political positions and aesthetics in Hong’s films can make their aims ambiguous. As film critic Colin Beckett writes, “in the hands of a lesser artist”, his references to “the racial and nationalist pride that birthed Nazism and Japanese Statism … would appear as cheap, reactionary irony — a slippery-solipsism that conflates the very different contexts in which these two types of pride grew and the uses to which they have been put.”xiii The dark humour of his films can also unsettle viewers, because it implies that he may not take such contextual differences seriously. However, the precision with which he links seemingly opposing concepts (the inversion of the swastika to reflect the Buddhist icon in Suprematist Kapital) and the pertinence of the transhistorical connections in his films (the roots of racism towards East Asians during the C-19 pandemic in long-held fears of Chinese imperialism in De Anima, for instance) indicate otherwise. Indeed, Hong’s films are neither essays in the virtues of liberalism nor the horrors of fascism, but existential reflections about what drives both.
To Hong, everything is a matter of perspective: truth is manifold and exists on parallel planes. Multiple channels in Hong’s works reflect this bifurcated reality, confronting the viewer with different takes on the same subject. In Nietzsche Reincarnated as a Chinese Woman and Their Shared Lives, scenes of Nietzsche’s grave in Germany, writhing insects, crowded thoroughfares in China, and elderly patients are mixed and distributed across four screens which enclose the audience, limiting their view to two channels at any time. 15 In 731: Two Versions of Hell (2007), the viewer watches the same film of a derelict factory in China where the Japanese army fabricated biological and chemical weapons twice: the first time with an audio that vilifies the Japanese, the second time with an audio that mitigates this perspective. 16 De Anima also mirrors this dual format, except with each of its two video channels presented concurrently. One soundtrack accompanies both channels, offering two possibilities for interpretation. Projected on either side of an architectural block, the viewer cannot physically watch both channels at the same time. This means that they must choose between them, all the while knowing that there is another visual narrative unfolding on the other side. 17
In Hong’s films, truth is more often a feeling than a phrase. In their atmospheric soundtracks and evolving narratives, we sense that something is not quite right; their intention not fully disclosed. And yet, Hong’s voiceovers offer a way through the obfuscation, guiding our thoughts with deft reasoning and acknowledged irony. The subjects of works like De Anima draw on ostensible opposites – the political left and the right, spiritualism and secularism – showing how these are more closely related than we might think. Perhaps such opposites are simply versions of the same truth: expressions of human nature and “gut instinct”. In a world of misinformation, we shouldn’t always trust what we hear, read or see. “Now”, Hong says in De Anima, “seems to be a good time to not see things clearly”. Through the blur, I understand his viewpoint and tend to agree.