Hsu Chia Wei’s video Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015) opens with a shot of an empty sky, the sounds of a forest and the voice of a man who plunges us into the middle of an account of a wartime retreat. Then a puppet of Hanuman appears against the blue sky, music erupts and the narrative shifts into the magical exploits of the monkey god. In the same shot, the camera pulls back to reveal three masked puppeteers dancing in unison as they control the movements of Hanuman. Or perhaps it is Hanuman who pulls the strings, a spirit animating this strange dancing body made out of three fused human bodies? Behind them sits a masked musical ensemble, executing a score as they drive this dance forward. Or perhaps it is Hanuman who propels this music, inspiring it?
We cut to an elderly man before a microphone: we have been listening to his stories. He is a former Nationalist intelligence officer who retreated first from Yunnan to Myanmar, before settling in Chiang Rai on the Golden Triangle at the Thai-Myanmar border. He is in a recording studio, as he addresses a projected image of the Hanuman puppet. Cut to a group of armed soldiers and masked spectators, observing, in an unnatural stillness, the performance of Hanuman and his masked entourage upon a foundation slab, on what is revealed to be the site of a former intelligence bureau in Huai Mo Village in the border regions of Thailand and Myanmar, a place that is woven out of a dreamlike web of identities and memories.
A sense of tranquillity permeates the unfolding of the work, which is a characteristic of Hsu’s works. In Hsu’s universe, spirits, humans, machines (both mechanical and digital) coexist without ruse, without irony, without judgement. Cameras, camera cranes, lighting equipment, microphones, screens often appear, as do his film crew, in film shoots that are better understood as rituals rooted in a mode of thinking, working and being that makes possible the peaceful coexistence and continuous negotiation of multiple modes of being.
Hsu is based in Taipei. In 2016 he won the Gold Award for Documentary at the 49th WorldFest-Houston International Film and Video Festival. His solo show at Liang Gallery, Taipei, opens 10 June.