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25.02.2021

"Student Bodies" (2019) by Ho Rui An

Projector presents “Student Bodies” by Ho Rui An, a video work of pedagogical horror that approaches the fraught history of capitalist modernity and radical culture in East and Southeast Asia through the figure of the student body. This video is introduced by writer Minh Nguyen.

2020, video HD, sound, 24:35
Video available until March 11
For more information about this work and others by the artist, visit his website.

The Asian Financial Crisis spurred ‘Asian horror’ films. After the 1997 crash, production companies, particularly in Thailand and Japan, projected local anxieties into fables of spirit possessions and natural disasters. These abject thrills struck a chord with audiences abroad; while other sectors plummeted, film thrived. This turn of events is revealed in Ho Rui An’s video Student Bodies (2019), but obliquely, initially as near-subconscious flashes. First, we see disquieting footage of high-rises like Kuala Lumpur City Centre or Sathorn Unique Tower and feel faintly unnerved, about what we’re not yet sure. These shots are followed by a culminating scene from the J-horror hit Ring (1998): on television, the spirit Sadako emerges from a well and creeps toward the frame, facial features shrouded by straight, jet hair. She tears her way out of the screen—her archetypal act of transgression—as an accursed image becoming real.

The spell of images becoming real is elemental to Ho’s work. Or, as the Singaporean artist puts it in an interview in New Bloom Magazine, how images turn into politics and vice versa, and “the politics that shape the production and circulation of images.” Student Bodies chronicles the body politic of Asia as incarnated by actual bodies (pupils, bureaucrats, factory workers, pop stars), spanning from 1863, when the first youth of Bakumatsu-era Japan were dispatched to study technology in the West, to the new millennium when Sadako crawls out of the screen and neoliberal reforms sweep across the continent. Stern facts presented in overlaid text or captions (on Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir’s Look East policies which prioritized economic development models in Japan, or that many Japanese manufacturers shifted operations to Southeast Asia in the ‘80s) accompany somber shots of buildings and skylines. Ominous sounds such as whirrs of machines and garbled news soundbites rouse a sense of dread. The chronological order and associative thread between scenes insinuate a narrative yet we are dipped in and out of it. A photocopier grazes its camera light over a 1983 TIME cover titled “How to Cope With Japan’s Business Invasion” and we recall a faded photograph from the beginning of the video, of the first Japanese students abroad. Later the camera lingers on the Satsuma Students Statue in Kagoshima, of bronze schoolboys with arms raised skyward. Are these the same boys? The video drops us into a mystery, leaving us to piece together recurrences and gut sensations as clues.

Student Bodies reconceptualizes Asia away from conventional geographies and maps an intricate nexus of flows—of capital, power, and people. It theorizes images through images (what the film critic Edward Small calls “direct theory”), that is, analyzes images using its same visual semiotic system and production technologies. We are shown footage through SONY monitors and LG laptops; the mise en abyme technique of recursively displaying other televisual systems implicates organizations (such as electronics corporations, the film industry, military, and government) that produce, circulate, and suppress images.

In the context of Southeast Asia where consumer access to such technology is a recent development, Student Bodies’ employment of horror genre tropes draws unease toward a type of discursive violence: the asymmetrical divisions of who consumes or produces information, or who has historically formulated Asia as a subject of knowledge.

Oscillations between fact and fiction, bubble and crash, the invisible hand of the market, and the interventionist hand of the state—such are some of Student Bodies’ rhythms. Beneath the cold delivery of facts, an eerie, spectral force ripples throughout. At one point, after on-screen text reads that exports in South Korea skyrocketed to $10 billion by 1977 under Park Chung-hee government’s mantra of “growth first, distribute later,” the camera brings us to a dim, empty room. A television turns on by itself to a Daewoo Industries commercial with a tiger; the screen’s brightness emanates a Poltergeist glow. The tiger erupts a vicious roar, emblemizing the voraciousness of the economic mantra at a visceral level. It evokes how abstract geopolitical desires haunt our lives, how they become instantiated in images that pass through media which doubles as both our tools and our psyches. These desires emerge, if you will, out of our screens.

This text is an edited and abridged version of the original article written by Minh Nguyen and was first published in Open City Documentary Film Festival’s Non-Fiction Journal Issue #2: Networks.

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