IJ: I guess all the stuff with Wong Kar Wei – they were very art film-based works – she was interested in this because it was an entry into another sort of space. She came to Frieze, and we actually showed the work at the Venice film festival, which she also attended.
That was a bit like a re-entry into the film world for her. She then came to the Shanghai film opening, when it was at ShanghART gallery – so, I think in a way, there was this curiosity and interest in the art world. Then she said to me ‘Well Isaac, I’ve retired from making films’ so in a way it was very unusual since everyone I spoke to said ‘you’re never going to get Maggie Cheung, forget it.’
The other female role that we see is the portrayal of a ‘lady of the night’ played by the young Chinese actress Zhao Tao. Tao’s character is based on the main character in the seminal Chinese film ‘The Goddess’ filmed in 1934, a classic and tragic tale of love and sacrifice. However, in ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ Tao’s depiction of the solitary heroine was Isaac’s own interpretation of Tao’s role as a contemporary actress playing a recognizable Chinese icon, and brings together a multi-dimensional interpretation that weaves between the past and present.
IJ: I should just say that the Zhao Tao character for me, is someone who is of course a lady of the night – but in her character she is played more like ‘The Goddess’, and these scenes and scenarios are a way of her acting and performing that character – but she’s also a character that is haunted by the Morecambe Bay tragedy – I mean it’s not really explained, but she’s a contemporary character that’s playing this character from the past – and perhaps has a relative that may have died in the Morecambe Bay tragedy. However she’s not really out about it, and she’s not really talking about it. That’s a little bit how I see her character.
Coincidentally, Maggie Cheung played the role of Ruan Lingyu, the young actress who played the original ‘lady of the night’ in The Goddess, in the biopic ‘Centre Stage’ filmed in 1992. Lingyu was the first Chinese screen siren in the thirties but sadly took her own life at the age of 24.
MC: Playing opposite Zhao Tao’s character, we see the cameo role of a paying client played by the Chinese film and video artist Yang Fudong. What was your decision in casting him?
IJ: I think this work is a bit of a homage to Yang Fudong; it’s a sort of conversation between someone who’s working with moving image, and also making multi-screen works – it’s like a sort of acknowledgment of that. Also, Yang Fudong and I have been involved in conversation in terms of display and presenting works; the language of multi-screen installation, which I think is a different cinema, if you like, or a different video art. I think in the transnational sense in terms of the kind of global art world that we inhabit, there’s a certain aesthetic interest, and one of the things which developed from this was that Mark* was invited to participate in a panel for the Gwangu Biennial, along with Johnson Chang and Gao Shiming.
MC: Is it the first time you have worked with Yang Fudong?
IJ: Yes, it is, I mean Mark worked with Yang Fudong on Documenta 11, because Mark had invited him to be in Documenta 11 – so that was part of a conversation of the last decade, of our interests in Yang Fudong, Chinese and contemporary art, and so on.
In addition to the three main leads in ‘Ten Thousand Waves’, acknowledgement must be made to the powerful narration by British born Chinese actor, Benedict Wong, who recites extracts from Ping’s poem over images of the enveloping sea.
If you have not yet seen the installation, one could mistakenly imagine a narrative in which an ancient goddess, watching over the sea, looks down upon the victims of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, and represents both a past and present China, with a nod to Chinese cinema through references to ‘The Goddess’. However, Isaac breaks up the rich cinematography with sequences that deconstruct Mazu flying, by revealing Maggie Cheung suspended by wires against a green screen.
MC: Are you trying to dispel the myths and the notion of faith by doing this?