Jade Chuyu Xiong MFA EDA ‘21: “Mutual Players”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Stanley Abe, associate professor of art and art history, interviews Jade Chuyu Xiong MFA EDA ‘21.

Can you talk about what led you to your thesis project?

As an international, I’ve always had an interest in how people like me are presented in U.S. popular culture. It was during my time in college when I experienced a slowly-forming realization that people like me are not really shown in the popular culture here. I had this contradictory feeling that while we talk a lot about diversity and respecting cultures, and see so many Asian students on campus, you don’t see them on big screens or elsewhere in the media. That contradiction was my starting point, but I also turned to this idea because I always had an interest in archival materials. I was trying to explore my family archive for the thesis project, but I couldn’t go back home to China due to the pandemic, so I turned to someone else’s archives.

All images courtesy Jade Chuyu Xiong MFA EDA ‘21.

Can you talk about the process of making the film?

I wanted to compose a collage film from English language movies that feature only actors of Chinese descent and try to construct a narrative different from the dominant ones that always ostracize them. I realized that it is difficult to put together clips of Chinese actors in western films, because there were rare, and their roles were limited, but I thought that a seemingly awkward, illogical montage might call attention to the fact that many of those roles were designed to dehumanize and suggest the “differing” characters of Chinese.

“In the end, I was trying to create a feeling and evoke emotional responses rather than trying to make a statement.”

As a filmmaker, how do you take what you have learned through your research and determine how much of it to convey to the viewers?

I became fascinated by the personal lives of the actors in my film and spent quite some time learning about their life trajectories. I am curious about their experience being Chinese in this country, at different historical moments, in that particular industry. However, I wasn’t even sure that I did the right thing, researching and digging so deep into the individual lives of those actors. I was worried at one point that if I studied too much about their lives, I would mix up their lives and their art, mixing real life with representation. In the end, I was trying to create a feeling and evoke emotional responses rather than trying to make a statement.

That’s a kind of problem that can come up in almost any kind of documentary. Your film is not a documentary, but it has similar kind of relationship between you and the people you’re showing. You’re editing them, and choosing what they say or what they don’t say. That representation is a big responsibility that also carries over to the use of language in the source films, and in your assemblage. It raises a question of who understands, and who identifies.

I try to carry an insider/outsider, mixed-up identity all the way through my film. I underwent a significant personal growth since I came here for college, and in that sense, I sometimes feel like an “insider.” At the same time, I know I’m an outsider in many other aspects, and I’m okay with this. I have a similar contradictory feeling every time I go back to China as well. I hope that feeling of being a wanderer is translated in my film, as that was what I constantly experienced during my process. For example, since I work on old movies that feature Chinese actors originally from various places in Southern China, when editing, I sometimes didn’t understand some of the old English, and sometimes didn’t understand the Chinese dialects, but I somehow identified without always understanding.

In your film, you have moved the Chinese actors to the center, but you’ve also shown us how they were intended to be shown. I think that’s why your film is successful. It has both.

There is no singular story to either the Chinese characters on the screen, the actors’ real lives off screen, or the culture they represent. For me, making this work is important as it explores the unrepresentable and the uninterpretable across time and space, that define and summarize my cross-cultural experience itself. I hope that’s a lingering thought when people leave the exhibit.

Mutual Players

On View: May 7–June 5, 2021 at the Power Plant Gallery
In-person viewing is available to Duke students, faculty, and staff. Email: powerplantgallery@duke.edu