(In)hospitable World: Being Water

by Lai Yung-Hang

Water, earth and other elements

As people call this planet Earth, it reveals mankind’s preference of the land to the ocean and river. After all, human beings are not aquatic animals, but they cannot live without water. Furthermore, they rely on water to thrive, from agriculture to commerce. Villages and cities are built along rivers and seashores, proffering resources of irrigation, transportation and electricity. No wonder most films selected in the Reframe series: “The (In)hospitable World” come from places near water: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Christmas Island, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Philippines. Water and earth are only two among various natural elements that not only constitute the environment as substances, but as forms or “ways” in nature, whereas the world has become inhospitable as the equilibrium or harmonious dynamics of natural elements have been intervened in the Anthropocene. These “ways” also refer to how we can perceive, imagine and renew the relationships between natural elements, humans and other beings, and the environment as a whole. In the following sections, I will focus on “water” as an example of the elements observed in the Reframe programme.

Crises like water

Screenshot from the segment Soul River directed by Kulikar Sotho from the anthology film Mekong 2030 (2020)

Being curated in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this programme highlights the environment and its inhabitants in crisis. Water, in many of the selected films, is regarded as the cause of crisis or disaster. In Soul River, a short film in Mekong 2030, numerous people who used to depend on the Mekong River for a living have to flee because of flooding; in Taklub, survivors of the 2013 typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines still live by the sea and suffer from post-traumatic stress. Other examples include the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan (Snapshot Mon Amour) and the gradual subsidence of an oyster-farm village under seawater on the Northwest coast of Taiwan (Ohong Village).     

On the other hand, we  see other kinds of environmental crisis like water, which is invisible, dispersing, flowing, often unstoppable — and transforming. Water evaporates to vapour in the air and goes with the wind. In the Middle Ages, when the germ theory was not yet known, people used miasma (bad air) to explain the outbreak of plague. We now know epidemic diseases in the 21st century, such as SARS and COVID-19, are caused by viruses disseminated by droplets and aerosols in the air. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow 昨天今天明天, adapted from Albert Camus’ novel La Peste, captures the horror of a plague, which disperses massively and invisibly, no matter how the pathogens are carried and transmitted. They are everywhere and invisible. Ironically, air often becomes visible when it is polluted (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone).

Screenshot from Ohong Village (2019, dir. Lungyin Lin)

But what is no less horrible, harmful or even fatal, is the toxic idea. Prejudice is a virus of the mind, and it plays an essential part in scapegoating. Toxic thoughts mutate and spread like germs, and they can “go viral” by word of mouth or the government mouthpiece. Chia-ju Chang refers to René Girard’s discussion of scapegoating in the time of crisis in the Reframe symposium. Along with the global outbreak of COVID-19, xenophobia and racism have surged. Many East Asian people, including the local-born, are identified as “Chinese” and accused of bringing the virus to the West and become the victims of racial attack. What is even more ridiculous about scapegoating is that people often mistake a lamb for a goat, although both are innocent. Even in “normal” times, people compete for what their mimetically desire — wanting what the others want — which is exacerbated in the time of crisis. The marginalised groups, which have always been exploited, are often blamed when bad things happen, and they are  the groups who suffer first and most when there is a crisis, be it ecological or economical. They include refugees, migrant workers, women, children, and sometimes animals. Taking Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the earth and the world that the latter refers to as the result of human activities, while the former refers to the given natural habitat of mankind and other creatures. While the world always relies on the earth, we  see that an environmental crisis is always political.[1] The privileged groups make the earth a hospitable world for themselves at the expense of other beings (including human and non-human), to whom both the earth and world are often inhospitable to begin with. 

Against water: containment

Screenshot from Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927, dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

If threats in the environment always spread pervasively like water, a common response of humans is to contain or block, such as building a dam to prevent flooding. In Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, people living in the forest use cages and fences to protect their stocks against the feline predators, and to trap the elephants. As they live on the livestock, skin the felines, and tame the elephants, it shows that containment is also a technology to consume Nature. In other words, containment, blocking and lockdown are anthropocentric technologies with economical and political consequences. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow demonstrates lockdown and isolation are used as emergency strategies to alleviate the spread of a plague. Antagonists in the film are those who try to avoid or resist such a policy, and they are depicted as irresponsible and even murderous. While the plague is interpreted as a metaphor of Fascism for Camus, this Hong Kong adaptation got itself into the political whirl as it was accused of implying the 1967 Leftist Riot.[2]

Another kind of blocking is found in Mekong 2030 and Becoming Alluvium which centre on the Mekong River, the “mother river” of many Southeast Asian countries. Hydropower dams built in the upstream by China have impacted the smaller countries in the downstream, causing flood and drought.[3] The impact on the ecosystem and the livelihoods of downstream communities could be worsened because more dams will be built by China and other countries along the river. Soul River and The Che Brother, two short films in Mekong 2030, and Becoming Alluvium register how crises are created by the insatiable desire of human beings, especially for those with power and resources. Soul River is a fable of people who ridiculously fight for a statue that they imagined could be sold with a nice price, neglecting the dire situation of their surroundings that have become inhospitable. It seems always too late when people find themselves literally “in deep water.” The final scene of a small boat drifting in the undulating river symbolises the current situation of the whole human race: ignoring the environmental crisis for the myth of economic development. The Che Brother symbolises the “mother river” as a real mother, whose rare blood plasma is capitalised by her own children, which is also a slow matricide like how people have been exploiting the Mekong River. The tale of “dew jewels” in Becoming Alluvium is about a princess who wants a necklace made of monsoon dews, so the king orders the craftsmen in his palace to fulfil the princess’ wish, or they will be executed. This is also an allegory of human’s unlimited greed, which is indulged by political violence.

The intersection of developmental economy and authoritarian politics is commonplace among Asian countries, against the historical background of Western colonialism, which has transformed instead of simply ended in the 20th century. Both human subjects and the environment are colonised by capitalistic governance, with containment as one of various means. Many Undulating Things 湧浪之間, as highlighted in Gina Marchetti’s symposium discussion, revisits the colonial history of Hong Kong. It is mentioned by an interviewee talking about feng shui 風水 (literally “wind” and “water”), the traditional Chinese geomancy that has planted the idea that “water is wealth” 水為財 to the heart of the folks. Hong Kong’s harbour is deemed as its most valuable natural resource, so it had served as the British coloniser’s entrepôt in South China before it became an international financial centre. The harbour has become the emblem of the metropolis, as captured by the film, such that its prosperity seems to be sustained by a non-stop flow of goods, talents, consumers, and capital. However, sometimes the “water” could be trapped, as exemplified by the technology to grow tropical plants in glass boxes that keep the humidity when they are transported to the West, to bigger glass boxes, that is, greenhouses. Today, the biggest greenhouse is the planet Earth.      

Being water: flow and hope

Screenshot from Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019, dir. Prateek Vats)

The underprivileged people live like water, full of uncertainties, spreading everywhere for survival. When they are regarded as the source of crises, they may become subject to “containing technologies.” Asylum Seekers in Island of the Hungry Ghosts are confined and transferred like animals, while their therapist Poh Lin Lee seems to be the only one who treats them as humans. The boundary between human and other animals is also blurred in Eeb Allay Ooo!, the protagonist of which is an outsourced “monkey repeller” in the city. Dark humour comes from the irony that the monkey is revered as a religious icon, while the hero, a migrant worker, is humiliated by others, bullied and trapped in a cage. He dresses like a langur to scare the monkeys away, and finds himself becoming a celebrity. At the end of the film, he seems to fall into a trance during a religious carnival, wherein he (in a langur costume) is more respected than when he was being a “human.” Migrant workers in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone 黑眼圈 live and sleep in urban ruins or dilapidated buildings, and they are accused by the authority as one of the sources of the suffocating smog. These precarious people are vulnerable not only in terms of their socio-economic conditions but also regarding their psychic life and subjectivity. Tsai’s mastery of cinematography and the actors’ performances capture the precariats’ loneliness and repression in a speechless atmosphere. 

Still from I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006, Tsai Ming-Liang)

The economic spillover of the coronavirus pandemic has hit the creative industries and other sectors. Numerous theatre workers and film talents, for example, are “gig” freelancers who rely on the persistent flow of projects, which have been heavily hit  by the outbreak and the consequent lockdown policies. Ma Ran points out that Japanese art-house cinemas have been struggling for at least a decade due to the loss of young audiences and the government’s policy in favour of multiplexes and blockbusters, and during the pandemic these mini-theatres are requested to close. Thus the independent film circuit in Japan is also a precarious culture. What we face in 2020 is not only a public health and economic crises but also a cultural crisis  — the world has become less hospitable for non-mainstream cultures and people whose daily lives rely on them.  

Screenshot from Nothing to be Afraid Of (2019, Silva Khnkanosian)

These crises call for an ethics of care which challenges the liberal philosophy behind the capitalistic system. Care ethics is relational, addressing the interdependence of humans and other beings, and the environment as a whole. This approach, when applied in environmental ethics, reminds us that all human activities are supported by Nature. It puts attention at the centre of ethics, making visible what has been neglected, in particular the vulnerable beings, including humans and other creatures.[4] In other words, ethics of care drives us to pay attention to the precariats and reveals our interdependency with the latter, making us aware of the universal precariousness. Instead of being apathetic about or even scapegoating the marginal communities, we should realise our responsibilities to them. In this regard, cinema can function as an aesthetic intervention or “technology of care,” providing the experience of what has been neglected. For example, many selected films in this Reframe programme are narratives about communities whose insecure living conditions, subjective feelings and contributions are often neglected. They include migrant workers, farmers and fishermen (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Eeb Allay Ooo!, Mekong 2030, Ohong Village), refugees (Taklub and Island of the Hungry Ghosts) — especially the females in these groups. Nothing to be Afraid Of is a timely selection, because it is about women deminers working in a contentious territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a ceasefire period. But the conflict has reemerged in this area since September 2020. The documentary shows these deminers’ working process, including their tea and dinner breaks. The demining process seems banal and repetitive, although it is indeed extremely dangerous and meaningful. It invites the spectators to watch patiently for 72 minutes, the daily work of these courageous women where any slight mistake could kill them.

Still from Planet ∑ (2014, dir. Momoko Seto)

Film can also let us see the world in an unfamiliar way, opening for opportunities of care. Planet ∑ is an experimental sci-fi that brings us extremely close to insects and moulds in a posthuman apocalyptic world. The re-scaling spectacle suggests that human beings  change their perception of the world and other creatures based on an anthropocentric scale. All Movements Should Kill the Wind 所有动作都应杀死风 leads us to pay attention to the dust produced in a stone carving workshop that creates monuments and statues of political leaders and deities. While the dust and even the objects of worship are apparent, the costs they leave behind are often neglected. The film makes visible  the pollutants carried by the wind as well as inhaled by the workers who lack protection. In a scene, it looks like the camera has shrunk to the size of dust and entered the blood vessels of the stonemasons, materialising the invisible costs behind the “concrete might” to an infinitesimal level.

Environmental crisis and cinema share the dimension of time; for example, many climate fiction films forecast an inevitable catastrophe, and put their hope in the next generation, as noted by Jennifer Fay, expressing a kind of nostalgia for the status quo. However, cinema  has the potential to allow the audience to experience the alternative senses of temporality. This is how cinema becomes a site of hope, like a dream. Fay suggests films like I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone disclose the secret held by the future: in the film’s fantastic ending, the three precariat protagonists sleep on a mattress floating on dark water. Instead of providing another path of modernity or sustaining the present development, Tsai’s slow cinema invites us to pause, sleep and dream. If the environmental crisis is created by incessant economic development in the name of modernisation, hope may simply come from rest. An old monk in The Unseen River (Mekong 2030) tells a sleepless young man to imagine immersing himself in a river, and let it cleanse his soul. However, it is not simply emptying one’s memory in a dream, rather it allows people to connect to the past and see the future — this is how a young monk reunites with his lost family.

Still depicting the ending of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang)

The ending of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone  suggests an “ethics of water.” In the Taoist fundamental text Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu emphasises the supreme good is like water, in favour of but not competing with other beings, staying at the disdain position (Chapter 8). This is an accurate description of the dark water at the bottom of an abandoned construction site, where the three protagonists sleep on an adrift mattress. The precariat protagonists live like water, contributing to society but are unpopular. Lao Tsu’s philosophy, like the ethics of care, calls our attention to the vulnerable, supple and tender, which are the traits of life (Chapter 76). This is an ode to the precarious scapegoats: “Who receives unto himself the calumny of the world is the preserver of the state. Who bears himself the sins of the world is king of the world” (Chapter 78, translated by Lin Yutang). Humans are used to calling their habitat “the earth,” missing the fact that all lives depend on water, just like how well off communities neglect the fact that their comfortable lives are supported by the grassroots, rich countries neglect the reality that  they take advantage of poor countries that offer cheap labour and natural resources, and how human beings forget that all civilisations hinge on the environment’s hospitality.  

Lai Yung-Hang is a PhD student at King’s College London in the Film Studies Department. He is a film and drama critic, a member of Hong Kong Film Critics Society and International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong). Contact: brucelai@hotmail.com. Film and drama review blog: https://medium.com/我不是貓.

[1] Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (Oxford University Press, 2018), 10.

[2] Gina Marchetti’s presentation in Reframe: The (In)Hospitable World Online Symposium, 23 Oct, 2020.

[3] Oxfam, “Mekong Public Forum – The Mekong We Want,” Oxfam in Cambodia, July 30, 2019. https://cambodia.oxfam.org/get-involved/calendar/mekong-public-forum-mekong-we-want.

[4] Sandra Laugier, « Care, environnement et éthique globale », Cahiers du Genre, vol. 59, no. 2, (2015): 127-152. https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2015-2-page-127.htm.

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