From finding Asian legibility in LGBTQ cinema, to queering the historical experience of Japanese Americans, Tina Takemoto's work thrives at the intersection of identities. CINEMQ caught up with the artist and scholar to discuss their films at London's BFI Flare.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I came into filmmaking through performance art. I did a piece called Looking For Jiro, based on a Japanese man who immigrated to San Francisco in 1923. He was very dandy-ish, and there are amazing archival photos of him around the city, with probably his boyfriend. He was very working class, but he would dress up in his finery, and he and his friends would go out and take pictures.
He was incarcerated [in the Japanese American internment camps] during World War II. My grandparents and parents were also in those camps, so I'm very aware of them. But I never thought of queer people being there too. Usually we think of the camp experience through the lens of family trauma, partly because family units were incarcerated together. Jiro's story opened up this whole space for me to think about adult queer people who were incarcerated.
I did a non-conventional performance in drag as Jiro. We know he worked in the mess hall, and also that he loved muscle men, so my performance had to do with kneading bread, these big loaves of bread that start to resemble muscles, and then fisting them, and wearing them as muscles, to a Madonna-ABBA mashup that was about longing and waiting.
Behind me, I projected archival footage of the incarceration camps. Most of that footage was shot by the US government as propaganda, so I was also interested in editing it in such a way that it would 'queer' the footage. Everyone who makes a documentary about the camps uses the same footage, so I wanted to make it strange. So that's how I got into video editing, and I made a cut that I wanted to live on as an experimental film.
You also work a lot with reclaimed footage, can you talk about your process with this?
My pieces Wayward Emulsions and Sworded Love are both taken from individual reels I found at a scrap yard. I started painting on film, and scraping emulsion off reels of 35mm film and putting it onto 16mm with nail polish and other kinds of glues. It took me 4 months, working 10 hours a day, transferring a 1/2 inch at a time, scrapping it off with a razor. When you look at the film, you see these jagged purple edges, where I have scrapped halfway through the layer of the film.
Wayward Emulsions uses footage from The Foliage (Yu Lü, 2003), starring Shu Qi. She is in a love triangle, always running back and forth between these two lovers. In my perspective, I am following a woman who is following her desire. That's how I come to think of it as a queer film, I am queering it by following her following her desire.
Sworded Love was the ninth reel of Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979). It's a typical kung-fu 'buddy story.' Two swordsmen, assassins-for-hire, they start off as best friends, but then one is hired to kill the other. In classic John Woo style, there's a great scene where one of them sacrifices himself to save the other. They're dragging themselves towards each other, they're all bloody...to me, that's a gay love story.
Your work attempts to queer the Asian American experience on screen. Do you feel there is a lack of visibility for queer Asian Americans on screen, and how do you try to work with this concept?
Growing up in US, I saw very few representations of Asians on film, especially where the protagonist, or the main character in love, was Asian. Those I did see were films from Asian countries...often kung-fu movies. It was great to see those, but they always feel distant from my experience. In terms of my process, I am spending hours and hours with these images, and I fall in love with them. The fact that I'm literally touching and scraping them means I am very connected to them, but also I'm trying to show and communicate the physicality.
There's a labour to putting Asians on screen through your work?
Yeah. And also, especially with Wayward Emulsions, I'm interested in moving from abstraction to figuration. So it starts off as a hand-painted film, but then you start to catch glimpses or frames of this woman. You might not even be sure that you saw her, so it's also about this labour of looking through these layers of abstraction.
The sound of Wayward Emulsions is actually the projector. As the projector starts to glitch, it starts to sound musical, the rhythm of the film slapping against it. I'm interested in how things that are seen as glitches and mistakes become the rhythm of the art. It is a way of thinking about queer sound or queer imagery - you take something that is conventionally seen as incorrect, but make it into something aesthetically interesting.
The intersection of racial and sexual identities is very present in your work, and how being both queer and Asian can lead to being othered in multiple spaces. Could you talk a little about that concept?
In college, I was in a lot of queer spaces that were predominantly white. Even when I lived in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of queer Asian spaces, I was surrounded by a predominantly white crowd in the film industry. I definitely felt conspicuous. It wasn't until I moved back to San Francisco Bay, where there are so many more queer and gender non-forming folks that I really found my community.
I identify now as genderqueer and gender non-conforming, and I know that I'm much more legible as queer, and that actually makes it easier for me to move in the world. When I presented as more normative, I felt like I had to deal with a lot more sexism, and a certain kind of racism or expectation of femininity. It made me angry all the time, I felt like I wanted to punch people. So I had to come into who I am now to feel better about myself.
We have these narratives in American film about the importance of coming out. White people are always like, 'You have to come out! Leave your family, be radical!' But for a lot of people of colour in the US, who come from immigrant origins, we can't leave our family, because sometimes our families actually depend on us. And if you're in Asia, and you're watching queer movies, they're often white dominated, and they're going to be coming-of-age stories, and coming-out stories, where you 'find your chosen family.' Some of that can be true for queers of colour, but I think often it's more complex.
Many of my colleagues and friends are super-political, they're doing all this queer work. But they may not be out to their parents, or their aunts, or there cousins. And I think that that isn't in itself a contradiction. In a certain white narrative, it means you are hypocritical, you're not brave. But to me, that's a way to stay close to family. That's something that a lot of Asian American queers have to find their way through, and especially if you're in predominantly white circles, people might make you feel bad or ashamed for it.
What words of advice or inspiration would you give to queer Asian filmmakers and creators who are starting to explore their artistic practice?
It is such an exciting time for young creative folks, especially in film, especially with the technologies now. Restrictions like not having access to resources actually help you to be productive and creative. You begin with the stories that you have inside you, start with your friends, start close to home.
Film allows us to enter the world of fantasy and dreams. We may feel limited or oppressed by family or social circumstances, but the realm of the imagination is huge. Enjoy the fun and the pleasure of making, and trust that if what you're making feels meaningful to you, it's going to be meaningful to someone else.
You can find out more about Tina's work at http://www.ttakemoto.com
Interview conducted in English. Images are from the filmmaker's work.
Interviewer: Will Dai
Translation: Jack Yan
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account or email firstname.lastname@example.org