By Jamie Corliss
Directed by Lenora Lee and Tatsu Aoki and accompanied by the music of Aoki and Francis Wong, LIGHT is a swirling narrative about Chinese immigrant Bessie Lee. Using dance, poetry, and music, the film follows the story of a young Chinese woman arriving in America to work as an indentured servant. The screening of the film for the 20th Annual Asian American Showcase was accompanied by a live dance performance by Lee and improvised music by Aoki and Francis Wong. Though using film projections in stage dance performances is nearly ubiquitous today, Lee’s performance, which reversed the trend and brought dance to a film festival, was surprisingly refreshing. The opening film, with live dance and music was a nice introduction to the dance and camera styles of Lee and Aoki; a simple, but visually pleasing mixture of whirling movement and depictions of serene natural elements.
The feature film, LIGHT, depicts Bessie and other young Chinese women as they attend school, are taken under the wing of a church in New York City, and eventually gather the courage to escape from their boss. Filmed in many of the original places that Bessie lived, worked, and worshiped, the film juxtaposes contemporary New York City with the historical tale of Bessie Lee. This contrast of new and old brings Bessie’s story to the present, highlighting the issue of human trafficking that still goes on today. All of the main performers in the film are women and the film highlights the experience of immigration for Chinese women. Taking after the positivity of the title, LIGHT shows these women bravely and optimistically coping with their experience as they help establish New York City’s Chinatown.
Born in 1894, Bessie Lee, the historical inspiration for this film, emigrated to the US as a young woman where she worked as an indentured servant. Through few details are offered during the film, major themes of Bessie’s experience are revealed through emotional dances, music, and camera work allowing the audience to fill in the specifics. The film opens with a group of Asian dancers moving inside of a large, wooden cage-like structure. They are surrounded by a blooming rural landscape, but the dancers are unable to move outside the sculpture, visually representing the trap these women feel and the beautiful natural world they perceive outside their oppression. Using sharp cuts or black screens, the film jumps to representations of Bessie’s experience around New York City. Bessie and a core group of three other women dancers are seen excitedly arriving to New York City and discovering Chinatown. The women are then seen performing repetitive movements in a kitchen, where they suffered difficult labor and emotional abuse from their boss. The women become involved with a church and connect with religion through a woman at the church who teaches them. Again, the film jumps from Bessie’s school, to the church stairwell, to the park in Chinatown, following a growing group of dancers. The climax of the film arrives during a traditional Chinese dragon dance, where the women consider escaping from their boss. The dancer representing Bessie appears in every scene, but the growing group of women brings attention to the fact that Bessie’s experience is shared by many Chinese American women. Poetry scattered throughout the film, repeats the word “sister” further emphasizing a solidarity among Chinese women in America.
Dance is the central medium of LIGHT and Lee’s choreographic style is prominent from her small gestural phrases through the expansive dance scenes. The movement vocabulary is strong and though clearly narrative, never strays into simple pantomime, always staying committed to Lee’s movement aesthetic. Much of Lee’s movement was circular and, though rooted in traditional modern dance technique, seemed influence by tai chi. Aoki’s camera style was also bold and constantly moving. This consistent motion was dizzying and made it hard to remember any given movement or phrase performed by the dancers. Rather than a still moment to absorb the experience, the film interspersed sudden blank screens, jarringly cutting from one scene to another. The motion of the camera, movement, and music stayed at a constant tempo and rhythm that was tiresome, but also conveyed a sense of being outside of normal time. The settings and costumes mix historical and contemporary and traditional Chinese with Western items and dress, further blurring any sense of time.
In the tradition of folk art, LIGHT celebrates the life of an ordinary woman while elevating alternative forms of storytelling. Though the film followed a rough narrative form, the central elements were abstract meaning gathered from movement and poetry, leaving the story to be loosely interpreted. The film highlights the contrast of traditional and contemporary culture and celebrates elements of Chinese art and cultural practices while demonstrating the way that culture shifted in Chinatowns in America. This cultural hybridity was present in the mediums of the film itself, using a mostly Western art form, modern dance, to tell a story about Chinese American culture. The blending of new and old, American and Chinese makes space for a practice of Asian American, multi-disciplinary art form that is layered and complex.
Because LIGHT bridges the historical and contemporary, it calls upon some themes of Chinese American identity, gender, and community. Several scenes take place in contemporary Chinatown in New York City and bring awareness to how new immigrants from China established or found a community of other Chinese to stay connected to Chinese culture. Throughout the film, Bessie and the other women seem to be negotiating their old and new cultures with their excitement about arriving in a new country and their pain at being forced into labor. LIGHT also emphasizes the importance of connection to landscape. All the happiest scenes take place in some kind of natural landscape, on the ocean, hills, fields, or in the park.
Religion plays a major thematic role in LIGHT, with numerous scenes shot in the original church that Bessie Lee attended. For Bessie and other women in her position, the church is a place of refuge. The women are seen learning from a church member, worshipping in the pews, and Bessie alone dances in front of a cross-shaped window, glowing from behind. The poetry and music help frame the church space as a safe space. By simply following Bessie’s experience, the film does not acknowledge difficult questions about the potentially colonizing role of the church, assimilation to Christianity and Western cultural practices, or any cultural conflict between the women and the church. LIGHT focuses on positivity and hope as opposed to criticism of race or immigration. Glossing over these serious and complex topics was somewhat disappointing, however, the ultimate goal of the film was to represent a feeling of hope and perseverance. LIGHT begins the challenging process of examining dark subject matter while keeping an optimistic tone, but in the process it loses some of the potency and complexity of issues like immigration, assimilation, religion, sexism and trafficking.
Overall, LIGHT is an emotionally driven dance film that brings the life of an ordinary Chinese American woman to the fore and captures a sense of hopefulness. The film gently address issues of oppression, sexism, and human trafficking, yet is ultimately a story of a woman keeping hope. The film is both entirely created by Asian Americans and conveys an Asian American experience that emphasizes people and their experiences over a contrived Asian-ness. The artists, performers, and producers of the film weave together their identity with contemporary art forms, modern dance, experimental movement, and film. Though lacking in any deep critical analysis, LIGHT is a thoughtful collaboration of experimental film, music, and dance.
About the Author
Jamie Corliss is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and social justice advocate. She completed undergraduate degrees in Dance and Cultural Studies from Columbia College Chicago and is currently receiving an MA in Critical Ethnic Studies from DePaul University. Jamie’s writing focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and the environment as well as performance studies. As a movement artist, she dances with a variety of independent Chicago artists and is a founding member of the artist collective, The Coincidentals.