The final scene of Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown is the only one actually set in Chinatown. The others take place in downtown offices, fancy clubs, Hollywood houses or Valley groves. But even though the last scene was shot on location, in the real Chinatown, Spring Street has been emptied of life and all you see are the funny, small storefronts that look stylized enough to be on a studio lot. So when artist Ming Wong shot his own Chinatown, he staged the last scene in front of a blank backdrop. “I figured I could not be more fake than the original L.A. Chinatown,” says Wong, “so we shot in the black, in the 'unknown,' in the non-place.”
For “Making Chinatown,” his exhibition at downtown's RedCat art space, Singapore-born, Berlin-based Wong turned the galleries into a fake studio back lot. He made large-format prints of stills and props from Polanski's film, attached them to plywood backboards and rebuilt the sets in 2-D.
Then he filmed in the gallery, playing every main role himself — Jack Nicholson's detective J.J. Gittes, Faye Dunaway's femme fatale Mrs. Mulwray, Mrs. Mulwray's daughter Katherine and her billionaire father Noah, all connected by blood, sex or both. This means sometimes he's in bed with a blond-wigged version of himself, sometimes he's arguing with himself or slapping himself across the face. “The figures reflect themselves like in a hall of mirrors,” says Wong, who's of Chinese descent, “and their being 'Chinese' whilst there are all these references to the 'mysterious' Chinatown further adds to the complexity. … Sometimes, you can't tell what's going on.”
Wong, who has said he'd happily live in the dreamscape of Fellini's 8 ½, has been re-inhabiting film classics for the past decade. In 2010, he made Life and Death in Venice, a Visconti spinoff, and in 2009, In Love for the Mood, his take on Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love.
When curator Aram Moshayedi asked him to exhibit his work at REDCAT this winter, he had no plans to create something new. The turnaround was tight, and he hadn't even seen the space until he flew out to L.A. in October. He had been to L.A. only once before, as a 12-year-old from Singapore on family holiday; then, he visited Disneyland and Universal Studios. His ideas of the rest of the city came from film and TV.
Those ideas weren't unfounded. “I loved driving through the various neighborhoods, and discovering these 'cinematic' spaces all around,” Wong says of his short visit. There were restaurants and dive bars that looked like they must have decades ago, when film noir was something new, “and, of course, Chinatown, which looked like a film set.”
“I somehow fell in love with L.A., with [its] complexity,” he says, “and, as an artist, the only way I could respond was to make an art project.”
Polanski had come up in Wong's conversations with curator Moshayedi. Wong recalled Chinatown only vaguely, but even before rewatching, he suspected it would make a perfect subject. “With its strange association with Chinatown and the peripheral characters who were Asian — the household staff, mainly — and who somehow had an unexplained importance to the plot, the seed was planted,” Wong says. It was about L.A. as “a place where 'you can't tell what's going on.'”
In the installation, all scenes are projected onto the sets they were filmed against. Right when you enter, you see Wong, a more subdued Gittes than Nicholson was, as he tells the same off-color “Chinaman” joke Nicholson did at Chinatown' s start. Then you see Wong as Dunaway, and Wong getting his nose cut open when he snoops around a city reservoir (“You know what happens to nosy fellows?” says the man with the knife), and Wong as mogul Noah Cross pontificating about buying the future.
It's only about 20 minutes of footage — Wong reshot just pivotal scenes — but it feels like more. “The same actor playing all of the roles, you could get over that gimmick after a few minutes,” says Wong, “but after a while, what hits you is the barrage of images, gestures and dialogue, that seem like they are happening all at once in your head. … This gives the impression of more than watching a film — you are remembering a film. It is like playing with the memory of film.”
631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; through April 1. (213) 237-2800, redcat.org.