July 27, 2018

I’ve Got the Blues – Review by Sandeep Ray

The premise of Angie Chen’s latest film, I’ve Got the Blues, is established up-front in an intimate exchange over drinks: Filmmaker Angie Chen (as herself) has an unexplained but long relationship with artist Wong Yan Kwai (Yank) and is out to make a film about his work and motivations. The problem is that Yank is not telling.

He is sly, baits his audience (and the camera), vacillates between profundity and nonsense. A patient and loving tribute to a colleague, the film has an intimacy and searing honesty that is rarely seen, even in films that are purportedly about the process of uncovering an artists inner motivations. For someone who puts up many guards, at times infuriating the filmmaker, Yank is actually very lucid (but strictly on his own terms) and gives away a lot of himself in the process of the multi-part, multi-destination filming. While appearing to be stubbornly against revealing much about himself despite the Chen’s desperate, at time almost pathetic pleas, he delivers in due time. Perhaps he wished to the test the filmmakers perseverance—which she clearly has a lot of.

We experience Yank through his many personas. Artist, flaneur, a surprisingly brilliant guitarist, a crowd pleaser, a ringleader in local soirees. Despite his self-effacing tough exterior, Yank is unsurprisingly tender—providing thoughtful commentary on the everyday. He has little air. He insists that he “is a painter, not an artist.” Despite his gruffness, he is clearly popular, not in the way that famous people are, but in the way that sincere people are—they develop time-tested loyalties. His barber doesn’t charge him money, a patron never actually takes the paintings he pays for, local poets read aloud their works to him, and numerous musicians appear at the drop of a hat to jam. All of these scenarios play out in front of us because of Chen’s doggedness in trying to ‘capture’ Yank. She gives him a GoPro camera and after a while, despite protestations, he uses it creating an intimate look at his sojourns. She uses footage from past interview to add context – one assumes that Chen has been planning this film for a long time.

Chen’s personal role in the film is considerable. She appears in the film several times, goading Yank, challenging Yank, and most importantly as an intermediary between him and his daughter who appears almost out of nowhere at a party. Unsurprisingly, typical to men like Yank – artists who drift in and out of penury, insecurity and often the lives of women – Yank has a daughter from a former relationship. He left France when the girl was three. She didn’t find him again till she as an adult. Avoiding what must have been a great temptation to sentimentalize their interaction, Chen channels the daughter’s feelings (despite the abandonment) for her father’s art. She actually isn’t moved but his paintings but she relates to them, a subtle distinction that Chen draws out.

Towards the end of the film (the daughter disappears as suddenly as she appears) Yank let’s out a political side. Footage of him as a young dissident exists; he was involved somewhat in the June 4 Movement. Hong Kong matters to him. Actually people matter to him. He says he was a human being before he was Chinese while he sips a drink forlornly at the roadside, very well aware of his helplessness and his relatively privileged and detached position. The film ends where it began – at an outdoor table with Chen expressing her frustration at Yanks refusal to be more forthcoming. In hindsight it appears that Yank might have known all along that he would be genuine, he just didn’t want to be coopted into her version of a journey. He took us on his. She followed him with great patience and the faith that something genuine would come out of it. And we are the wiser for it.

Sandeep Ray, Senior Lecturer in History and Film

Singapore University of Technology and Design.