《UNFINISHED BUSINESS》: The Films of Joshua Gen Solondz and His Residency at Speculative Place
The is an essay that weaves together writing on Joshua Gen Solondz’s films and his residency at Speculative Place (from January 7th to January 28th, 2019), along with Solondz’s dreamlog transcription during that time (marked below in italics). Part travelogue, the following also tells the making of his work-in-progress shot in Hong Kong and shown for Screen Slate.
On January 7th, 2019, the day that Joshua Gen Solondz arrived, the air quality index was 143, and for most of his stay at Speculative Place on Lamma Island in Hong Kong, the air quality stuck around that metric. Solondz went running on the island the morning after he arrived. Andrew, my husband who helps run the residency with me, gave him directions on which paths were less trafficked by tourists. Solondz remarked how lovely it was to run through fog in the mountain paths on the island. “That’s not fog.” I clarified, “It’s smog. It always happens around this time of year right before Chinese New Year. The air quality gets bad when the air wafts down the other side of the border as production ramps up before the holiday.” A thick and stubborn front of grey hung over Hong Kong and washed a blueish filter over the cityscape. It only got worse the morning of January 8th, when an oil tanker went ablaze off Lamma Island and an explosion ripped open the ship’s bowels.1 I texted Solondz that afternoon shortly before I got off work, copy and pasting from a news article, “Hong Kong oil tanker fire: Senior officer says he has never seen such a blaze in 30 years’ service.” Solondz replied, “fuuuuuck.” Over dinner on his second day, I said to him, “Bet you didn’t think you’d be coming here to shoot the end of the world.”
Solondz did not pack light. He brought a modular synthesizer: two panels exploding with wires and dozens of input holes that he had built into a suitcase. At that time I had gotten some studio monitor speakers from work, since I was working with an engineering team that brought me to Shenzhen every few weeks to an audio factory that was manufacturing speakers and headphones. Solondz beamed when I demoed them for him, “They go very loud.” I’d come home from work to him improvising on the synthesizer. Solondz mixes the sound for all of his films (except Luna E Santur), and the audio, ideally played as loud as possible is confrontational, pulsing and caustic.
Solondz finished editing (tourism studies) at Speculative Place, a 7-minute film that assembles as he describes, “unused footage/home movies accumulated over ten years that became too much of a weight.” Employing elements of the flicker film and kaleidoscopic imagery, Solondz weaves footage spanning Tokyo, Baghdad, Amsterdam, Brussels, Golan Heights, Livingston, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Soundtracked by throbbing synthetic sounds, these places are only slightly discernable – Hebrew on a street sign, distinctly European sidewalk design – and merge into a kind of filmic Rorschach test of flickering images. In these hallucinogenic visions, (tourism studies) remarks on these disparate scenes, existing in memory as a collection of non-places, suspended in the aquatic experience of the traveler. Invoking the Rorschach test, Solondz asks:what is it that the tourist thinks they see?
January 5th: dreamt there was a breakfast curry place near here where you could practice swordplay after you eat. Great tea selection, I choose a sweet smelling flower tea that makes your skin rot off if you rub it on your face. The owner says it’s perfectly safe to drink but it’s not her preference.
January 6th: dreamt a schoolteacher stabbed me
January 7th: dreamt I was drinking sour beer with Jason and Mo at a waterpark.
January 7th: Dreamt I was ditching class with Rajee and Limbo, Limbo’s friends, Gary Mairs’ class. He was screening one of my pieces, under the title “modumakurous furious” skin something deeper, something, I’d submitted something as a screencapture for a project as a film…ahr…ahr…
Solondz had to remind me of my end of the world comment recently over a Skype call. I was a bit embarrassed by how glib I sounded, but the joke was descriptive of the percolating atmosphere then. Emma, his wife and also our dear friend, was pregnant with their son in New York, and they found out a few weeks prior to Solondz starting his residency. There was a part of me that felt guilty for bringing him all the way out to Hong Kong during that time. In nervous anticipation for fatherhood, Solondz spent most of the several week-long stay in Hong Kong wearing a mask with a filter. He had two different kinds of masks: a 3M half mask respirator and a N95, which he would wear throughout shooting and wandering around the city. “I felt a bit embarrassed about it,” he confided in me later, especially since Andrew and I seemed rather unphased but in actuality were too lazy to go out of our way to buy masks.
Solondz’s mother, Yuriko Solondz, passed away in 2015. She was Japanese hence his middle name Gen, and his father is Jewish, hence his surname, Solondz. His mother had cancer shortly after Solondz was born, and then again when he was 12-years-old, but “what killed her” he explained to me, “was MSA, multiple systems atrophy. Her system (limbic, autonomic, etc) gradually broke down and she became a prisoner in her own body.” Her illness was not necessarily the reason why he was particularly afraid of the incredibly toxic levels of air quality in Hong Kong. Solondz had an inherent fear of environmental toxicity, rightly so. Running a residency that is experimental and open-ended, I know by design how porous the program is to the elements – atmospheric, political – and I try to create an environment that allows for these aspects to be generative. But these elements are uncontrollable and often terrifying. During his residency, Solondz and I talked a lot about whether he could film smog. It was ever-present, palpable but impossible to document without it appearing merely as a color filter.
Solondz’s mom appears in his film Breast, shot in 2007 on video. It shows an exchange between his mother and him in a series of banal, intimate actions: He is attempting to fit her prosthetic breast onto his chest. It doesn’t fit very well, so they try another one. She takes out a bathroom scale and tries to weigh them. “It’s less than a pound, so it doesn’t show,” she said flatly. After wiggling one into a silk bra, she goes to the sink and takes a pill. The film is shot mostly from her point of view at his chest, and we only see her face for barely a second at the very end. We see the back of her head the rest of the time, as she is crouching down in her nightgown weighing the gelatin inserts. This is not the only film of Solondz’s that his mother stars in; he also made the shorts, dream (2005), Momcut (2006) and later, Videos with Mom (2008) after which he scaled back shooting her (“maybe she felt self-conscious about how unglamorous her depiction was”). Besides physically appearing in these films mentioned, she is ever-present and floods his body of work as filmic explorations of loss, the body and history.
Luna E Santur from 2016, shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, takes the form of a flicker film, depicting a kind of psychosexual embrace between two masked lovers draped in sheets. Dedicated to Emma his wife and his mother Yuriko, the result is a kind of hypnagogic exploration into sex and specters. “I didn’t believe in ghosts,” Solondz said to me once. “I was really angry when my mother appeared to me as a ghost. I’m both a skeptic and an agnostic. But the haunting is so unlike anything that can be described by another or depicted by media. It just [happened] and was extremely nondramatic.” The way that these images stutter in Luna E Santur, sometimes you can just barely discern exactly their actions. These spectral forms overlap with glimmers of celluloid in decay, and the pulsing images also have an optical effect of leaving shadowy imprints; the shadows by design beget a hallucinatory quality. These masked figures caress each other standing in embrace and mount each other on the floor. A bare ass is exposed, flickering. Are they fucking? Mingling between the erotic, dreams and death, these images perpetually edge on being visible/invisible.
January 9th: dreamt steve urkel lamp Halloween went to Japan with Emma and a bunch of friends wow my heart is really pounding kept getting freaked out about spooky things happening on Halloween things happening to emma’s body freaking me out a little bit I guess she guess measured him cervical the image of an empty alien voiced by steve urkel met him at the party everyone’s high on a lamp every say hi endless spreading mercury a musician dancing around maybe me or maybe I was him making music making good music and dancing and screwing until the ending yeah that’s all I got.
January 10th: dreamt I was on a road trip with the Yoshizakis…a roadside stand selling whale meat and I’m very excited…going to school with Becca…they opened a kosher shwarma place or something…
January 10th: dreamt I was ditching class with Rajee…screening under the name of something else…like skin deeper, I submitted a screen capture of the simpsons…
January 10th: dreamt I was in Japan…e kept freaking out…jokes about using her dad’s dead body as a surf board…really good ideas for music…
I had just come back to Hong Kong in February 2018, after convincing my company to create a job for me here to avoid a layoff. I felt compelled to come back to Hong Kong out of an inexplicable longing to be back where I was born. For more ineffable reasons otherwise best described as a gut feeling – against the advice of my parents or anyone else – I wanted to be here as witness as things continued to shift politically for the city. Since 2014, I knew that this place would look increasingly unfamiliar to me, and returning here, I wondered whether these changes would be visible––and how slowly or fast they would come. But of course, it was impossible to predict any of these events or their relentless pace in the past year. Solondz and I talked about these political impressions at great lengths. They were yet fully visible during his residency. Adjacent to him still mourning the death of his mother, I was in a reckoning with returning to Hong Kong and its slow death. These vectors of loss were also entangled with how we were respectively working through our identities as diasporic, bicultural Americans, which rules us both in our respective work. For Solondz, these are political and cultural dilemmas that guide his interest in processing historical trauma and its specter through his films.
it’s not a prison if you never try the door, a 7-minute film by Solondz from 2013, explores the experimental thresholds of the monster movie genre. Soundtracked by his signature throbbing synth, the film degrades footage of the classic 1957 Godzilla by employing glitch effects. The result is a successive and rapid sequence of emergency, fleeing and terror in visual disintegration. Images of peoples’ faces in horror bleed into visions of Godzilla destroying power-lines. Flashes of military defense lines leak into images of buildings on fire. It is widely known that the atomic bomb was a metaphor that undergirded the original Godzilla from 1954. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka explained, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”2 Films like Godzilla are so ingrained in the popular consciousness, they nearly appear to us as a kind of meta-memory. While there are various specters that haunt Solondz’s works, such as sex and death, the other – the raging, vengeful political spirit – emerges as glitchy mutants and scenes in incessant decay.
January 11th: like several different layers trying to record the dream I had, being in a ryokan with Emma and some else, an opportunity to remarry or something but it’s all weird and frazzled, I spilled working for my dad listening to audio but I spill my glass and I stop the audio but I don’t know. So much trying to get to this point…can’t stop recording…
January 11th: stupid dream within dream waking hall of mirrors bullshit but it’s the Vietnam war.
January 12th: dreamt e and I went on the bachelor, all we do is start drama and make obscene food arrangements. When asked why we were on the show, we never give a consistent answer.
January 13th: dreamt I was working as an Everest teen or, he, it was like new years eve and I stayed with him, he had a hard time staying on Hydrox and being at Disneyland and eating a bunch of bad salmon fish kinda crunchy in an unpleasant way, really low grade stuff, like my dad, coming back from new years eve and it’s his birthday and he’s upset he said he had to get up and work at a call center and so I hang out but the next morning emma tells me she had a miscarriage so I say well we just gotta fuck, something coffee shop and feel okay about it there’s this bullshit fucker everyone likes rubies rufio and some people tar and feather him its his friend’s idea I think its fucked up but I cross over and should I get partially tarred, but it’s a silvery platinum gold sheet stuck on her shiny and kinda good so its confusing she gets cleaned up later…
Solondz brought a battery-powered Scoopic, and we spent the first half of his residency discussing possible locations to shoot. There are WWII-era Kamikaze Caves on Lamma Island from Japanese occupation, and they are connected to underground circuits blown by dynamite inside the mountains that connect the top of the tallest mountain on Lamma, overlooking the South China Sea, to the shore. These caves were used to conceal speedboats that were launched by the Japanese navy on suicide missions against enemy ships.3 Lamma Island is also the place of the earliest signs of human life in Hong Kong, dating back 4,000 years to the ancient Yue people.4 The dissident poet Ma Jian, when he lived in Hong Kong, resided on Lamma Island.5 As a Permanent Resident in Hong Kong, if you live on Lamma for 7 years, an older resident told me, you have the right to be buried here when you die (unlike other areas in Hong Kong where burial is scarce and extremely expensive).6
I suggested Po Toi Islands, another Outer Islands territory in Hong Kong, that was even smaller than Lamma Island and less inhabited. With unobstructed views of the South China Sea to the horizon, Po Toi has one of the few surviving pre-war lighthouses in Hong Kong and has myriad abandoned houses amidst these scenic hiking trails and camping areas.7 The island is rumored to be haunted.8 We went out to Po Toi Islands one early morning and against the backdrop of the South China Sea, Andrew and I tied our jackets around our heads, as Solondz had instructed to obscure our faces. He directed us through various actions and poses against the backdrop of various sea views. Unable to see anything, and feeling blindly for Andrew and digging my hands into the ground, I had Luna E Santur in my head. Solondz later said, “I was mildly terrified for you guys in Po Toi since we were high up on a cliff. That’s why I made you crawl.”
On one of his last days, Solondz texted, “Also not sure what y’alls evening plans are but I’m currently shooting Tai Kwun rn. Do you guys want to eat together and maybe don stockings and wrestle? Feel free to screencap that btw.” After eating at Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill, Andrew and I pulled hosiery over our faces and wrestled underneath a highway overpass wearing all black. Commuters on their way home didn’t bother to stop, as Solondz filmed. He also directed us to pull masks over each other. “A Hong Kong action film,” he later said.
January 14th: wish granting manga dream yeah something swarming if you don’t allow the manifestations of your dreams to appear, vampire family, teenage girl gets in trouble.
January 15th: dream uh sorta a mashup of terminator scenario but Johnny 5 as pursuing robot and the protagonist has to dress as a woman to escape notice, it turns into variations on like, yeah, evades and there’s this sketchy new art shot but someone else shoots him because he won’t do it but like, yeah that’s what I remember…
January 15th: continuation of previous dream, um, after a series of hijinks involving robots peering under doors and robots listening to the pitch of people’s voices but I think I’m testing out of that but my perspective gets further and further away but she begins to break down, turns silvery, starts to suck, I am the enemy…
January 15th: I’m me and I’m I I’m the silvery thing no longer am I a dumb robot looking under doors and listening to voices and peering into the backs of people’s heads, I am a full blown alien trapped in my prison/person serving studio/video ends and I get smarter and more dangerous…something… and I look like D-A-I-S look like Jeff Goldblum…
January 17th: dreamt I went to London with Hayatt and e, found a small room by a gas station. We were doing live performances for a festival but keep getting lost. We have a bag of marijuana that we keep putting in our mouths to chew on. I don’t think that’s how it works.
We had a screening of Joshua Gen Solondz’s films at Speculative Place. The program included Luna E Santur, Breast, Against Landscape, it’s not a prison if you never try the door, Deviations from the Wheel, Outsourcing, Burning Star and Prisoner’s Cinema. Ming Lin, who was also visiting Hong Kong at the time, came early and made popcorn manually in our cast iron skillet and helped us set up the chairs in the living room. We hooked up the digital projector I had bought second-hand from a dance studio in Causeway Bay and placed it in the center of the room.
During the screening, Solondz and I lay on the floor next to the projector in the middle of our packed living room. I took a piece of cardboard that we had lying around from takeout we ordered earlier from the local 茶餐廳 (cha chan teng, the Hong Kong equivalent of a diner), which he used to cover up the lens of the projector in-between each film. Lying in the dark as if telling ghost stories around a hearth, Solondz unraveled the themes and making of these films as a part-performance woven into the screening. Turning the speakers to their maximum capacity, the screening ended on Prisoner’s Cinema. I wondered if my neighbors could hear. We followed with a discussion about representational politics, the Asian cinema canon vis-a-vis experimental films, ghosts and opacity. At the end of the night, we danced to Cantopop, and after everyone left to go catch the last ferry, the three of us watched the Hong Kong classic A Better Tomorrow (1986).
January 20th: dream of being at my grandfather’s house with Alison and a couple of other people um maybe Ming is there and something about gate delays and teaching people about synthesizers…Ben Russell’s there…massive dance party…Thomas Beard’s there making a joke about paintings…ahh…I…I…I’m trying to give directions to people, Emma thinks I’m attracted to somebody but I’m not attracted to them…it’s even more cavernous than it is…maybe even bigger…maybe in Florida….
January 23rd: Dreamt dad was leading a judo class…I’m there with Emma…My dad is gonna lead the class…keeps saying he’s gonna be fine he’s not going to do anything stupid, Gerald is there with, I don’t remember, his kids, his partner. Anyway I pee and class begins…my dad does breakfalls and is obviously in pain but leading the class and his dance song is (hums and sings nonsense)…my dad is turning redder and redder obviously in pain, I’m just furious at him and I…he comes up inbetween segments and he says he doesn’t know how long he can hold out, I say he should go now because…(sigh)…he won’t back down…I thought about if I had to I dunno, a fraternal twin sister showed up really beautiful…saw her and I didn’t have a sister or a sibling…and my mother is dead…my mom had all there is of…my father and mother…I’m all that’s left of two wonderful people…I’ve got my mother’s classes and temper…my father’s boldness…combination of their intelligence…my father’s goodness…both their humors…I don’t want him to die…I don’t want him to die…
January 24th: dreamt we adopted a kid, half Japanese and half something else, maybe korea but he’s half Japanese and I’m really happy he speaks nihongo but he’s been separated from his parents, I’m trying to engage with him, I’m trying to have a good time but I am brought down by the sorrow of him losing his parents…I want to provide a safe environment, steel…time…stressed all the time…tired…
January 28th: dreamt of something basically Jews in space, plot of a love triangle, ruth, mary, and ruth, I forget the third person, love triangle story, post apocalyptic, they sell a kind of drug, they make a living, a multigenerational household in a ship. It’s not a typical ship, a vast mega internet submersed in a crash, they’re like the jews in Dune, sort of orthodox but it’s the traditions that survived over time…I’m making a film about that…Notes
Lo, Clifford, et al. “One Dead, Two Still Missing after Explosion Rips through Oil Tanker.” South China Morning Post, 9 Jan. 2019, www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/society/article/2181128/emergency-crews-battle-oil-tanker-blaze-hong-kongs-lamma. ↩
Parsons, Keith M., and Robert A. Zaballa. Bombing the Marshall Islands: a Cold War Tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 95. ↩
Knott, Kylie. “Secrets of Japanese Wartime Tunnels on Hong Kong's Lamma Island.” South China Morning Post, 1 Mar. 2018, www.scmp.com/lifestyle/travel-leisure/article/2135088/hong-kong-history-tunnels-where-japanese-hid-air-raids. ↩
“Bronze Age (c. 1500 – 221 BC).” Artefacts Found in HK in Bronze Age - Antiquities and Monuments Office, www.amo.gov.hk/en/archaeology_pre01.php. ↩
Whitehead, Kate. “Dissident Novelist on the Cultural Revolution and Challenging China.” South China Morning Post, 8 Nov. 2018, www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1349783/my-life-ma-jian. ↩
Keegan, Matthew. “Hong Kong Real Estate Now More Expensive for the Dead than the Living.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Apr. 2019, www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/apr/23/dead-pricey-hong-kong-burial-plots-now-more-expensive-than-living-space. ↩
“Declared Monuments in Hong Kong.” Waglan Lighthouse, Waglan Island - Declared Monuments - Antiquities and Monuments Office, www.amo.gov.hk/en/monuments_71.php. ↩
Curry, Mike. “We Take a Stroll around Some of the Less Frequented Parts of Po Toi in Our New.” South China Morning Post, 24 Oct. 1998, www.scmp.com/article/260004/we-take-stroll-around-some-less-frequented-parts-po-toi-our-new. ↩