Experimental Reviews

Where Am I? (2019) – 5 stars

Director: Cheng Qiu

Writer: Cheng Qiu

Running time: 4mins

One of the most sickening things about the state of the world, is that with the bulk of humanity coming under ever increasing pressure – eternally competing with a growing portion of society for an ever shrinking patch of economic and social security – some individuals can line their pockets by selling the world’s most desperate people ‘the power of positivity’ as a cure-all. Being worked to the bone by your line-manager in a dead-end zero-hours job, so that you can hand most of your paycheque to your local slumlord for the privilege of having a rat-infested roof over your head? Well never fear, just ignore all your natural impulses telling you this is wrong, and manifest yourself a better life with positive thought. Not a millionaire yet? You’re just too negative – you’re repelling all the positive opportunities that surround you.

In this toxic environment, where we’re expected to mask our feelings with a perpetual masquerade of joy above all else, is it any wonder so many of us are trapped in an eternal personality crisis? Having grown up being told that success is derived from the impossible standard of unflinching positivity, confidence, and an absence of self-doubt, if we don’t fit into capitalism’s endless sprawl of grinning, grinding cogs, we often assume that we are the ones who are dysfunctional. As a result, even with an economic sword of Damocles dangling above our heads, constricting our every movement and relationship, we have to be unconditionally “OK”, and sadness is often confused with weakness.

One of the things I find most comforting about the gorgeous, flowing world of chalk and charcoal conjured up by Cheng Qiu in Where Am I? is that it dares to suggest it’s OK to have a range of emotions beyond ceaseless guffawing glee. Written, directed, animated and narrated by Qiu – born in China, educated at England’s Royal College of Art, currently residing in Amsterdam – the film plays with Yin and Yang. While the concept is undoubtedly familiar to most viewers, it is something which I feel should be a lot more present in discussions around emotions than it is.

The idea of dualism, of an active ‘light’ side (Yang) and a passive ‘dark’ side (Yin), describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, and how they may even interrelate to or empower one another. In Where Am I? this is embodied physically by a light and dark female figure – and it is important to understand her as a lone figure – as she shifts between examining her two sides. As she dances back and forth between two seemingly distinct worlds, Qiu flits between the mediums of charcoal and chalk on black paper – a distinct, real-world style which leaves a trail of dusty ghosts behind the current form the film’s character is taking on. Meanwhile, Qiu reads assorted scraps of her own poetry, ruminating on feelings of alienation, fear, and self-discovery.

Knitted together in both English and Chinese, the two languages begin as distinct, before increasingly overlapping, while our dancing figure’s two sides rapidly merge, ultimately leaving a flesh-toned woman standing alone, the interplay having come to a conclusion. The woman initially pushed back against either one side of the other of her Yin and Yang, and felt disconnected from one or both to the extent she would question, “Who are you?” – even though she can “hear your footsteps beating with my heart.” By the end, she has embraced the fact that there are no ‘sides’ or distinctions to be made, and the fact that she is so intimately acquainted with this stranger is because it is her. Or at least, part of her.

It’s a truly wonderful moment. In a sudden distillation of sound and vision, we see a woman realise that all the things which her environment pushed her to reject were actually part of her – and that working with that rather than against it is a much healthier way to live. Sadness, passivity and doubt alone might be harmful, but they have their place as a counterweight to happiness, activity and assuredness – helping to strengthen those traits in the process. Likewise, the increasing melding of two languages, of English and the character’s mother tongue, suggests a new recognition that she needn’t hide her old identity in new surroundings, moving beyond the pressures of others to ‘fit in’ to realise we are most empowered when we can draw on every facet of our cultural and social heritage. Ultimately, the answer to the film’s titular title is that ‘I’ can be found everywhere, in all these apparently conflicting or separate characteristics, which whether people like it or not, cannot healthily be supressed.

In a world where many people are invested in cramming those around them into homogenised shoeboxes, where emotional complexity, cultural diversity and many other facets of identity are viewed as ‘spanners in the works’, making it harder to churn out an easy profit without having to cater to anyone else’s needs, simply embracing your sadness, or the legacy of your first language, can be a revolutionary act. In every one of its elements, Where Am I? manages to embody this idea of many different elements making a balanced and synchronised whole – from the piecing together of previously distinct scraps of Qiu’s poetry, to the seamless melding of visual and linguistic different art-forms – the film manages to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

Cheng Qiu has created something unique and beautiful here, and whatever form her next projects take on, she is clearly an artist with a bright future ahead of her. Technically and thematically there is nothing to fault in Where Am I? It is a stunning work, which balances a melange of fragmented ideas and contrasting styles, synthesising them into a work of supreme emotional intelligence.

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