A Separation

The Crowd (1928)

A Separation

By Andrew Chan

From Metrograph Vol. 2, Summer 2016.

An examination of how film can be used to understand one‘s own identity, and also as a way to try to explain it to others.


One of the default postures engendered by movie love is a sulking slouch. When I think back on the period when I was first becoming obsessed with the movies, I recall my awkward teenage body in this position, leaning against the base of the living room couch at an angle of surrender. What was on the TV screen could have been any of the canonical treasures I watched on TCM in the late ’90s and early aughts, but I was especially drawn to the most brooding European masterpieces, films whose angst opened up the ecstasies of wallowing.

If you happen to be a short, bespectacled, transparently gay Chinese American spending your childhood in the middle of the Bible Belt, you could do worse than seizing on Ingmar Bergman as a talisman for dark days. All those quivery-voiced confessions, the hand-wringing and the self-pity and the staring into space: even when I could barely wrap my little mind around them, his films seemed to channel my most unspeakable fears, chastening them to a state of exquisite refinement.

Being in possession of such fears was almost like a privilege, proof that I shared at least some of what had inspired this master. In other words, my love of the movies, the imagined exchange of understandings between myself and the screen, had something fundamentally to do with vanity. The early onset of cinephilia made me feel wise beyond my years, high off the kind of delusion to which youthful narcissism clings.

Like many delusions, it was nurtured in private. While my parents were out grocery shopping, I would pop in my copy of The Seventh Seal, recorded off of TCM, and luxuriate in a landscape governed by the laws of salvation and damnation. What would they think if they caught their 11-year-old watching Ingrid Thulin smearing vaginal blood on her face in Cries and Whispers, or Bibi Andersson threatening Liv Ullmann with boiling water in Persona? Revealing such peculiar taste might have meant letting my already too haphazardly guarded closet door swing open.

cinema offers the pleasures of community, even emotional intimacy, amid the comforts of anonymity.

One of my favorite films at the time was King Vidor‘s The Crowd, which famously culminates with a father and son shaking the sorrows of poverty during a trip to the movies. The camera glides away from their faces until they‘re just specks, lost in a sea of other laughing spectators. When I was old enough to drive to the only art house theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, and watch movies there alone, the paradox that Vidor romanticizes in this scene would echo in my mind: the idea that cinema offers the pleasures of community, even emotional intimacy, amid the comforts of anonymity.

No matter how fearfully I protected the solitude of my film viewing at home, or how quickly I‘d learn to duck in and out of theaters to prevent anyone from gawking at the lone Asian in the audience, my movie love was not merely a symptom of mousy introversion. Early on I‘d found a companion, an accomplice, in my father, who had grown up Hollywood-besotted in small-town Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, when such fandom was a mark of colonial cultivation.

As a child I’d make-believe I was casting my own movie, and he‘d humor me with a long roll call of possible stars: Ann-Margret, Annette Funicello, Sandra Dee. The sound of these names wafted glamorously through the air. More vividly than any of the films we watched together in those early days, I remember our weekly car rides to Blockbuster Video, just the two of us, and how I‘d echo his delighted listing of those names by rattling off the titles of movies we might rent, like someone practicing elocution.

The years went by, and much of our bonding time was spent sitting in the darkness of movie theaters in the various cities we moved to, both in the U.S. and abroad. My father didn‘t often share my enthusiasms, especially as rebellious adolescence turned them more self-consciously esoteric, but he maintained the role of chauffeur with an unfussy selflessness. A few times I was cruel. He‘d fall asleep, even snore, and I‘d take offense at his indifference. On the ride home I‘d fill him in on what he‘d missed, in a tone thick with condescension.

A Blockbuster Video in North Carolina. Photo by Ildar Sagdejev

By freshman year of college I‘d come out, a catastrophe so surreal I willed myself to perceive it as Sirkian melodrama—smothered in Technicolor, sequestered within the perimeter of some screen in my mind. As loved ones tenaciously endeavored to pray it all away, I had prayers of my own, to which the release of Brokeback Mountain seemed a partial response. I couldn‘t believe my luck that this peak moment of gay acceptability had been directed by a model of Chinese immigrant achievement. I thought it would be a good idea to ask my dad if we could see the new Ang Lee movie together.

Oh, the hubris. I was strategically crafting a Crowd-like moment of cinematic redemption. We went on opening night because I wanted him to see the line wrapping around the theater. If he could get a good look at all the white people busting down the doors for something a Chinese man had made, wouldn‘t it be that much harder for him to turn away from the film itself, from the injustice it depicted? I had us sit up close, I wanted him to be engulfed. I didn‘t dare look at him in the darkness. I knew I had him cornered, that his reliably placid temperament would never permit so histrionic a gesture as walking out. At the end, I made sure he heard my theatrically muffled cries.

We rode home in silence. I had enlisted the power of cinema for utilitarian ends, only to find the movie was no more prepared to fix my life than my father was to acknowledge what he‘d seen. But to know a love by its failures, its futilities, is not to know it less. We come to the movies with the little that we are, and for all their ability to immerse us in worlds beyond our comprehension, we are forever seeing them from our own solitary distances. It is this unrelenting separateness that makes them objects of our longing. When we gaze at the screen, we see the unknowable, impenetrable surface of everything worth holding dear. •

Andrew Chan has been published in Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Slant, and elsewhere. 

Brokeback Mountain