WHY I LIKE CINEMA
In some ways my life has been shaped by cinema. Sesame Street and sitcoms aside, the first feature-length film I saw in Hong Kong that I remember, in fact, was Disney’s Little Mermaid in my friend’s flat. I have early cinema memories from Hong Kong, for instance when I went with the whole family to see first Disney’s Aladdin and then Beauty and the Beast, and my sister falling asleep during the films because she was so young. Then later going to Hong Kong on my own from the UK and watching Waterworld in the cinema (which, although not considered a great film, included tattoos and maps and the future and islands).
My childhood in Hong Kong has now become like a movie to me – the older I get the more faded, flickering and comfortably rosy it gets, like looking back at old familiar videos with a smile on one’s face. I can replay favourite scenes at will, and rewind and fast-forward as I desire. Life through a lens.
As a teenager, I watched old black and white and epic silver screen movies on Sundays with my grandmother at her house. The King and I; Elizabeth Taylor; Indiana Jones with my mother; Star Wars. Shared family watching included American sitcoms at set times, and I especially loved reruns of I Dream of Jeannie (which is actually from my parents’ era) , the Addams Family (which I feel is just like how Patrik and I live today!) and Bewitched, which were like magic realist series – plus I Dream of Jeannie was about the space race! Partly what I love about my parents’ generation – and it is a kind of nostalgia fuelled by the media made at the time, a nostalgia for something I never lived through – is how (at least in the movies and in these serials) everyone is so polite to each other, even when they’re angry. It’s a lost art, and doesn’t happen in my generation.
Clockwise from top left: The Thief of Bagdad (1924 film) with its 1920s polite insults; Anna May Wong, the Chinese actress in Hollywood and the first Chinese-American movie star; Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May Wong; the Mongol (Chinese), Indian and Persian Princes plot against the Arab Prince; the flying horse, which is achieved by superimposing the film, an early cinema technique I used myself in my Bollywood film
We watched one of the first ever 3D films at the IMAX cinema, Across the Sea of Time, about Ellis Island and a Russian immigrant boy in New York, trying to find his long-lost grandma by making a few dollars showing images to passers-by with his stereoscope. He stowed away on a ship and there was an arresting scene in 3D when the ocean seemed to wash over us… suddenly loomed the saviour-Statue of Liberty. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We visited the real Ellis Island and New York, a brief sideways loop into an endlessly fascinating city of cities, city of dreams and a memory of a lifetime. Only now do I suddenly realise that this little boy may have been like a premonition of my future husband, whose own tale bears a resemblance to his. Later we were both moved to tears by Shaun Tan’s wordless picture book about immigrants, The Arrival – itself containing a New York-esque saviour city where dreams are born and fortunes made. Only recently I bought the ViewMaster stereoscope reels of this legendary 1995 film. I love New York. I also bought the soundtrack to this film as a teenager and play it as background painting music; it takes me back to that cinema every time.
Later on as my thought matured, I studied New Wave French cinema in French class at school and watched Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat for the first time and thought about science fiction. Then the classic – and my favourite film of all time – Blade Runner – I have never seen a greater film before or since. I watch it every year and still get something new from it every time. I realised that film could really be an art form; le septième art; the seventh art. I went deeper into this and watched as many films as I could; I had a Saturday job in a library so I could borrow as many as I liked free of charge. So I did – I became interested in world cinema and devoured most of what the library had to offer (and it was the biggest library in Kent). I enjoyed learning about other countries through their films and would watch anything to expand my horizons – aged 15-17, when I was also busy studying hard, the only relaxation I allowed myself was watching world cinema in the evenings (I considered it part of my education).
At the Slade, when we had to choose our departments, I unexpectedly chose 16mm film instead of painting because I was so entranced by the magic of it, and figured I had the chance to do it so I should, since painting was already in my blood but film was so new and exciting and textural – in those days you could still learn proper film techniques and cutting the film meant literally cutting and splicing it: editing was a physical process. I really got into this and made my first short film, the Bollywood film (film stills of which are on my website), which also shows my early interest in cinematographic art, matte painting and stories – this is a humorous condensed story wrapped up in 2.5 minutes. We had to also learn Final Cut Pro (I don’t know what software they use these days) and digital editing to edit both telecined films and digital videos, and I was glad that I had the original skills of ‘cutting’ and ‘splicing’, which mean nothing to today’s purely digital editors… I went through the traditional art of filmmaking, whose tangible celluloid surface came first! I continued watching world films every Sunday with my friend who lived in Hackney early on at the Slade and he’d give me a lift home on his bicycle, cycling dangerously sometimes in the early hours, but we were young and reckless then… We used to visit our friend, Umit of Umit Cameras in Hackney as he sold and rented 16mm and 8mm movies. And I joined Close Up, a film library, which was then located on Brick Lane, which I walked to weekly to get my fix of world cinema.
At the Slade we also studied postmodernism and I was excited that my favourite film, Blade Runner, was featured on the course; I painted giant screens in the sky in an early work. I always kept up my painting practise alongside my filmmaking. Then I went to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and I fell back in love with painting all over again… those really are my roots; I have painted all my life. I shared a flat with a Polish painter and we did everything together. She was my best friend in Paris, and I painted alongside doing film and cinema. I had always loved film’s tactile quality and was looking at the work of Stan Brakhage et al, scratching directly into and colouring onto the celluloid surface. My flat was covered in film reels and lengths of film hanging down from shelves; I also bought a Steenbeck editing suite, my pride and joy; new, they cost in the thousands; mine was second-hand from Canterbury University and it took a father, his daughter and I to lug it up to my flat in Bethnal Green. But we did it, and I spent many happy hours editing, scrutinising, cutting and splicing my films.
In Paris, in the country that invented cinema, I enjoyed going to the cinema alone – by now I’d become used to doing things alone (most efficient way to get things done!) and enjoyed going to places alone, seeing nothing inherently wrong with it. I remember watching the newly-released Borat movie, subtitled into French – but because I also spoke English I’d laugh first, and then hear the rest of the audience laughing seconds later! – and then art films at the beautiful cinema La Pagode (all cinemas should look like this!) and feeling somehow proud of myself for enjoying my company alone and being by myself. Back in London I, unusually, went to a concert alone (I rarely go to concerts, being more visual) – I made an exception to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play the breathtaking and atmospheric Vangelis Blade Runner soundtrack – favourite music of my favourite film. They got a standing ovation.
At the end of the Slade I borrowed a book from UCL library about the forgotten art of glass painting for film backgrounds – matte painting’s origins. Now it’s all done digitally of course, but it was a real skill in the past and I made my own films that combined film with painting. But just as matte painting itself became a forgotten art, film itself was slowly dying, too. Tacita Dean, another Slade graduate, famously said that she needed the ‘stuff’ of films, analogue film as a medium to make her work… and sadly, in the UK at least, we all watched helplessly as this beautiful industry declined. Now we cannot fully make 16mm films in the UK anymore. We must get them processed in Europe, where they still have the facilites to do so. I remember blissful summer days walking round Soho to excitedly collect my developed and processed films from Soho Images (which is no longer there… how London changes!)… from the ease of that, to hardly anyone making analogue movies in the UK (apart from a small group of artists – some my friends and colleagues – who have always done so).
The film library Close-Up in Bethnal Green was still a constant in my life (in fact, it still is) during my time at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and now I became interested in world cinema that looked at traditions from around the world, watching them on my laptop propped up on my Steenbeck 16mm film editor. I remember feeling proud that my dad once worked with the company that helped the first Westerners to be allowed in the Forbidden City in China to film The Last Emperor – a fact that he still reminds me of today!
In my second favourite film, Luna Papa (Луна Папа: Tajikistan – this film also features a floating island!) the heroine arrives too late for the movie at the open air theatre – the movie has already finished – and there is a special feeling of emptiness after the movie has finished – yet also anticipation, as it is a warm summer night that has just begun for her. It’s this strange feeling before and after a movie that I want to paint.
After Paris I also became interested in collecting antiques and longed to buy vintage cinema seats. Fortuitously I met my future husband Patrik, and we used to go round London and Paris flea markets together. In the end he bought the vintage cinema seats we now have, which feature in my large-scale work Drive In. In the early days of our relationship Patrik was working on the leather part of an interior for a rich English banker who had his own huge private home cinema, the largest private one I’d seen before in real life and the only nice part of his bland rich house which was soulless (he never lived in it). The doors were triple height and even the cinema was boring!
Memorable times I spent with Patrik watching films included going to see Hugo (about George Meliès, the early filmmaker) after we’d argued, and watching the film made us feel so good that we made up again, and watching Cinema Paradiso, one of our shared favourite films. Later on, we enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel – he concedes grudgingly that I have quite good taste in films.
I started to enjoy listening to dramatic film soundtracks, especially Vangelis and Ennio Morricone while painting, because it reminded me of that special Friday-night feeling of looking forward to going to the cinema, especially when I had the privilege of sharing a large studio for several years with my good friend who regularly paints large-scale works. Music played loud in this place was really something. These were special times before and after my marriage and I will always cherish my memories of this wonderful painting studio – where I first painted cinemas. I decided to paint the actual place, the cinema itself, as I loved the spaces of cinemas and all that they held for me. ‘Paint what you love’, I was told. So I did. Later on we shared this studio with, appropriately, a film composer who provided her own dramatic soundtracks – a perfect combination of art and music. Good times!
I began to entertain the idea that one day I’d like my own cinema as a side business and possibly a supper club… that’s still a possibility for the future when I’m more settled. For now, I’m enjoying London’s cinemas. I used to wear a hoodie and go to the cinema alone in London during the BFI film festival, to see obscure Georgian or Mongolian films or films from different countries where hardly anyone is in the cinema. Cinema is an expensive luxury I allow myself to indulge in.
Patrik and I walked to the Lexi cinema sometimes on a whim to see a movie together. We’d make a point of buying popcorn and Coca-Cola (things we’d otherwise not have) and make a night of it. I noticed the anticipation that always comes with watching trailers before a movie starts, and the 20th century fox drumroll, or the Universal Studios dramatic sunrise over earth credits, and started to remember this feeling, trying to bottle it and paint it.
One of London’s hidden gems: the Cinema Museum in Lambeth
I didn’t think that cinema was that important to me until I painted them; for me it was just relaxation and entertainment while learning something new but now I realise it is so much more. I look forward to sharing it anew with my family, both in the cosy home cinema we’ll create and visiting actual cinemas outside. Although I don’t relish the idea of my children spending hours and hours in front of screens, cinema is projected light reflected off a giant screen and engages your eyes (and senses) differently, as opposed to the projected light from a computer screen. Cinema has broadened my knowledge, opened my mind and shaped my life. Now we have Netflix, so we can watch the latest releases – but not beautifully crafted world cinema, mind you – in the comfort of our own home. But there is still something about taking a trip to go somewhere else, to be transported, to be in a dark place, set apart from the real world, isolated and cocooned and immersed in a story. Cinemas are islands ~