Disfigurements

Introduction

The Japanese film Hausu (House) was released in 1977 by director Nobuhiko Obayashi. I watched a version of the film translated and distributed by Criterion Collection, which describes the film as a “hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions... equally absurd and nightmarish, House might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet.” I’d summarize the basic plot structure as: following her father’s announcement that he is remarrying, Gorgeous and her friends—Sweet, Melody, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, and Kung Fu—head to her mother’s childhood home for the summer, where they are hunted and eaten alive by her aunt’s cannibalistic ghost, who consumes all of the unmarried girls who come visit her.

Other sources describe the film as “basically undescribable.”

Originally, the film company Toho, noted for producing and distributing the films of Akira Kurosawa as well as the Godzilla franchise, approached Obayashi, a successful TV commercial director and experimental filmmaker, and suggested he write a film that could be a “Japanese version of Jaws”—long, slow summers, teeth in the water, oceanic abyss. The ocean as a shape giving shape to other shapes.

When the ocean and hungry monster within it are modular, the potential for what might become “a Japanese version of Jaws” is endless. You might think about reinventing the monster, or you might think about appetite. You might think about water, a substance that spreads and seeps into every surface available to it.

Nobuhiko Obayashi is a native of Hiroshima, Japan, and as a child survived the atomic bomb, during which all of his friends died. He has also noted that his wife’s older brother died as a kamikaze pilot during World War II. His overall creative project, it could be inferred, is to convey the experience of war in service of a message for peace. Of Hausu, he says, “I wanted to write a fantasy with the atomic bomb as a theme.” To conceive of his Japanese version of Jaws, Obayashi asked his pre-adolescent daughter Chigumi what she was afraid of. Sitting at the mirror brushing her hair, she answered, “If my reflection leapt out to eat me.”

HAVE YOU EVER HAD THE EXPERIENCE OF DISAPPEARING INTO SOMETHING MUCH GREATER THAN YOURSELF? I was born into families in exile, so I learned where I was through the screen. Here is the world they brought you to, said the screen. I will show it to you.

Nobuhiko Obayashi speaks of he and Chigumi as having “written the film together.” This creative process seems to replicate the doubling that occurs in the film between Gorgeous and her cannibalistic aunt, and can tell us something about the anxieties of both creators simultaneously. It can also tell us something about how these anxieties might manifest aesthetically and reflect two generations processing one distant event, its sedimentary after effects, and the particular moment in time in which they occur: twenty years post-detonation, in a space that had been leveled in the war, in a reconstruction sown by trauma, radiation, industrialism, hyper-production, globalism, the solidifying power of the state, and the new, unfamiliar landscape of home.

The phenomenon of children of traumatized parents being affected directly or indirectly by their parent’s post-traumatic symptoms has been described by some as secondary traumatization, and can occur through dissociation in the contexts of attachment, transmission of trauma through efforts to maintain control, and epigenetics. Very often the unexplainable or inexpressible or unconceivable is recognized by the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency, ambient anxiety that children can sense but not understand, through affective messages, gestures, values, thought systems, and stories. Children of “survivors” are often implicitly tasked with representing without “re-experiencing,” in a forced labor akin to art, parenting, and therapy.

Often, one child is nominated to carry and communicate the grief of their parents. This is called being a “holding environment.” For these children, working through transmission—healing—requires a simultaneous process of separation, and this can manifest in a crisis of identity—becoming the “break” in an intergenerational chain link of emotional life.

For me, becoming a “break” required a twin exile:

In the first exile, my mother left her home, her language.

In the second exile, I left my mother, her home.

To enforce some type of order into an otherwise chaotic system of messages, I chose to interpret the film Hausu through the recursive appearance of the DISFIGURED FACE. Of course, no real faces were disfigured in Hausu’s production; Obayashi was a master of special effects. Disfigurements occur through these effects, or through masks, reflections, and surfaces.

I chose to talk about this house—my house—through these images because I do not have the language to talk about the haunting. These disfigurements, marks across a surface, cohere into a language, hieroglyphic as they are. They are all I have, and I care for them—it is a maternal gesture.

In total I counted 37 unique occurrences, and separated them into 8 categories:
   dislocation;

   through the window;

   through a shroud;
   through animation or scrawling over (extradiegetic);
   through cross-fade;

   through broken mirrors;

   by fire (extradiegetic);

   by water or disturbing the water.


Watching the movie from a distance, it might be tempting interpret it as a cacophony, an excess of signs in which all meaning is lost. I understand how through this one could say, “Nothing really happened.” But following this motif, a story unfolds that is much more coherent (though no less closed), that says more about a psychological situation than a series of events. The face/head as distorted, fragmented, severed, or shrouded is a code in an aesthetic of reassembly. By studying the marks, textures recombine from ruin to lines of language to a scar—a reverberating harmonic in a physical, historical, spiritual, and aesthetic echo chamber.

This is a story about a scar. This is a story about my mother, and, this is a story about me. About the love of youth/and the end of youth. Through Hausu, through the relationship of Chigumi and Nobuhiko Obayashi, I’ll position us as two actors in a theater of house in which memory, anxiety, chemical interaction, and absence crisscross and inhabit the space. Think

of a story as delicate as glass, cut to transmit, reflect, and refract light. Think of this story in the form of a mirror, in which reflected light preserves many of the detailed physical characteristics of the original light. Think of a mirror by another name, which is a looking glass. Think of passing through the looking glass, through a scenery that’s less a landscape and more a stage, where those who are “caught” may speak to one another.

I mean, I have never seen the actual images of war. What did I witness?

 

Disfigurement 1

Is this a memoir?


Or is this a story about faces?


The face is the central organ of sense and a primary emotional expresser. Beyond being the region of the head from forehead to chin, it is also a means of identification, and the surface of a thing—in particular, the surface used for presentation purposes. Basically, anything that presents itself for viewing can have a face, or a façade, such as a clock, wall, or building.

The word face also acts as a verb, a method of positioning toward someone or something, as well as the act of confronting or accepting something. This often requires some type of adjustment. A wall might face something, or you might turn to face the wall. A wall might have ears, paintings, or the wall might open up to be a window. The wall might be a jagged, crooked texture, and there might be a lot going on under the surface, even if everything feels light, and white. To admonish yourself, you might turn yourself in towards the wall.

A person (I, you) can disfigure, a thing (a bomb) can disfigure, and an abstraction can disfigure (time). The word disfigurement often requires violent terms to define it, such as impair, soil, or damage. It originates in the Latin figura, or ‘shape, figure, or form,’ which means that with the prefix dis-, indicating reversal, negation, removal, or release, the term implies that the action destroys a unity-which-can-no-longer-be, a “control,” an ideal from which one has been removed and to where one can no longer return. This is where I run into trouble: theorizing the person I am meant to be. When a shape is negated or released, how does it reappear? What takes its place? When an imposter finds their poses, who represents the new unity?

The code word to evacuate in Operation Frequent Wind was “The temperature is 105 degrees and rising,” and was broadcast on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon, Vietnam on April 29, 1975 alongside the song White Christmas. In my mom’s version of the story, my grandfather, Ông, came home that day and told the family to pack one bag to leave. My grandmother, Bà, four months pregnant, gathered her dozen children and ran, alone, in a procedure that had been discussed but never rehearsed. Arriving at the U.S. Embassy, my mom, ten years old, was so terrified of the helicopters that she went limp and her brothers dragged her across the concrete, running, and so her shins were skinned when they flew to the cargo ship. I think of that moment as a drag through the fugue, a big line drawn down a little leg that is a line that demarcates a new life, a new person, a new time. It is a boundary.

Witnesses to the fall of Saigon have reported hearing the ch-ch-ch helicopter sounds in their dreams. They call it “dreaming in the wind.”

On my stomach, there is a line stretching from hip to hip. It’s not a scar, but it looks like one. My mother has a huge scar across her stomach, skin wrinkling around it, from having had two Cesareans. I was always told that she got her scar when I was born, and I always told her that my scar was a faint shadow of hers, given to me when I was born. But she always told me that this wasn’t true.

This investigation is not so much about Hausu, but about my mother’s exile, and my exile from my mother. When I was two years old she left home and moved very far away. I would see her every other weekend, and for two months in the summer. In her absence, anything else that could operate as a mother-force rushed in to fill up the space of the empty emptying emptiness. It is a space I don’t know the bounds of, that spreads and seeps into every surface available to it.

Over the years, I have attempted to reconstruct her story, if only to understand why or where I come from. It is a type of possession, a type of talking to a ghost, who I only understand and who I can never fully hear because I am absolutely intimate with the estrangement. My mother, receiving a new life on a boat, mirrored this estrangement in the portrait of her relationship with herself, becoming very much like: a boat.

A face can be read (through expressions) or be written (with makeup), and in this way has some relationship to interior life. But if it does not mirror interiority, if it becomes a performance (and it always does), the face shifts into a mask. We’re accustomed, in our 21st century marketplace, to wear these masks in open air. Sometimes, masks, makeup, expressions, and scars can create a new face, a face with a shadow of the past, that is, from somewhere within, speaking.

There can be a face of the people, and a face of the land. Faces, bodies, youth, optimism—all can be disfigured, and skin carries its own memory of conditions experienced in the remote and immediate past. In Hausu, when the walls grow eyes, the clocks hold bodies, the mirrors spit fire, and red red red red red lips attach to the wall, the house becomes a demarcated zone of disfigurement, like a war zone, a colonial territory, a graveyard rising up from the past.

You should never start an alarm with the words, “I’m dreaming.”

And how can I be my mother’s daughter if I don’t have her face?

Her disfigurement?


What is more figurative than the frame?

 

Disfigurement 3

Gorgeous’s home is characterized by synthetics: AstroTurf on the balcony, a pink and yellow sky, a little Putt-Putt course, and an egg-shaped swing. A glass wall divides interior and exterior.

Gorgeous’s father, a film composer, has come home early from shooting a movie. They’re going to spend the summer at their villa, together. In this occupational role-play, her father can be considered a double for Nobuhiko Obayashi, and Gorgeous a double for Chigumi.

Gorgeous’s father has a surprise for her. “Come out, will you?”

Ryoko Ema emerges from behind the curtains, thin and gauzy like a veil, to the sound of the wind, in a white dress that practically blows her across the balcony.

Free jazz plays. Gorgeous, her father, and her father’s new girlfriend triangulate within this frame, the camera panning across the warped glass wall, breaking their faces in half. While her face rises out of her face, Gorgeous says: “She’s going to be my new mom?”

“It’s been eight years since your mother died,” her father says, grabbing her from behind the shoulders. “It’s about time we had a home again.”

In this moment is a twin exile:

   1. Gorgeous from her mother, final death
   2. Gorgeous from her father, neither his object of affection nor desire

Ryoko Ema wraps her white scarf around Gorgeous’s neck. “I hope we can be friends.”


Gorgeous throws off the scarf. “I won’t go with you!”

 

Disfigurement 4

Gorgeous has a super power. She spins around and has changed clothes. She’s wearing a purple floral dress, in her pink room with pink blossoms. Holding a rose between her fingers, she looks through a box of photographs of her mom. Because the same actress, Kimiko Ikegami, played both Gorgeous and her mother, it can be difficult to separate which character is appearing in each scene, and this confusion should be thought of as purposeful. The “character” of Gorgeous is stuck in a loop, a possession, a polyhum.

My mom met my dad when she was seventeen, in Zionsville, Pennsylvania. They were in a band that played Vietnamese folk songs. When she met my dad she left home for the second time.

I heard the tapes once. Bà was playing them while cleaning, in a stereo tucked under her shrine. Maybe it was all the vacuuming and dusting, but even the furniture seemed to sway with rhythm. “That’s your mom and dad,” she told me. I so rarely heard the words “your mom and dad” together—because they were never together.

I haven’t heard the tapes since, but I do remember her singing. Backstage at Galaxy Night Club in Fairfax, VA, I watched her shuffle and swan around the room, long, long black hair, áo dài.

My grandparents remember her as a beautiful child. Long, long black hair. They had a pink shawl with long black fringe. In the mornings, I would pull the knots out of it.

“Kimi, what are you doing?”
“I’m combing my mother’s hair.”
I knew she did not want to be forgotten. And I did not want to forget.
The death we forget about in Hausu is, of course, the mother. The mother is never a dead space in the mind, even when absent. Never. It exists. It exists because it changes.

In panic or revolt, Gorgeous gathers her friends and runs away to Auntie’s house. “To my mom’s hometown!” She tells them.

The girls venture deep into the maternal ecology, from where they are never to return.

 

Disfigurement 8

On the train, Gorgeous tells her friends about Auntie. They watch the past as if it’s a movie, a landscape passing from Technicolor to 16 mm film.

“A long time ago,” Gorgeous begins, “there was a war.” She tells her friends that Auntie was engaged when her fiancé was drafted in World War II. We see him open his draft card; it turns pink.

He promises to return. They kiss. The girls exclaim, “It’s a kiss of fire!” Because as they kiss, the camera begins to glitch and shake up and down as a mushroom cloud explodes over their necking heads. Soldiers march out of the head/cloud. A dissonant chord plays.

Auntie’s fiancé leaves for the war.

He is shot and dies while flying a plane.

The war ends.

He does not come home.

The memory of war is tied to the story of forgetting, the story of new life—new youth, second youth. Auntie does not forget. She holds a rose at his grave. The rose cries red, scribbly tears, shrivels up, and dies.

Five years later, Gorgeous’s mother marries. She is photographed in her bridal gown and makeup. White on white on white. Auntie stands sadly behind her sister. The camera flashes and reveals mushroom clouds. The girls gasp: “It’s like cotton candy!”

Auntie grows hungrier and hungrier.

 

Disfigurement 11

A force more powerful than they guide them.

Fantasy’s camera falls from her hands.

From the center of its fish-eye lens, the house watches them.

When my mom and my dad got engaged, her parents refused the marriage. “You’re not ready,” they said. She was eighteen.

“It’s because he’s white!” She shouted, and ran away that night, to my other grandmother’s house, Omi’s, my father’s mother’s. That night she awoke to the darkness pressing down on her. Ran to the side of the room to turn on the light. The darkness vanished, and she fell asleep again.

The next morning, the phone rang. Her oldest sister wanted to speak to her. My mom said no. “Why?” Asked Omi, but she understood that if my mom came to the phone, her sister would tell her to come home, and she would have to obey.

One by one the sisters traded the receiver and asked her to come to the phone. Each time she said no. Finally, they said to Omi: tell her that her sister is very sick.

My mom came home. The basement was set up like a hospice. For two months she cared for her sister until death, the sister who had been her biggest influence and her best friend, who she would sing with, who understood her desire to break free. The week after she died, my parents were married. My mom wore her sister’s earrings, which she never took off again. No one was invited to the wedding. She called them her immortal earrings.

On the afternoon that Omi told me this story, she accidentally set the kitchen on fire. Tossed some incense into the trash can with the ember still lit. After it was put out, I found the trash can still intact. When I touched it, it turned to ash.

Fantasy’s camera breaks. There are no more images, no proof that something “happened.”

 

Disfigurement 12

As soon as they enter there are signs that the house is alive and talking. It is dark. “Dear Chandelier,” says Auntie, “Please shine on them!”

The chandelier turns on. The house turns on.

Auntie’s house is painted in shades of gray. It is covered in dust. Not even the fridge works. It should be clear by now that this is a dead house, a dead space, but there’s so much stimulus it’s hard to grasp on to any one thing. Auntie admits to being lonely.

“But now I have all these young girls in my house,” she says to her coven—seven smiling girls.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Bà would take her hair out to redo it, and it would fall down to the ground and cover the floor, hanging long to her ankles, black. I would run over to touch it, enchanted. I had read of hair this long in books, and as the books represented my fantasy world, so too did these moments. I clung to them as part of the fabric of the world. In these moments were magic, and so I found magic in the fabric of the world. I imagined that like Rapunzel I would climb down my tower to stand on the Earth. I imagined her hair as a river, a scroll. And so I imagined being taken from where I was.

The girls set to work cleaning the dust from the house, opening the windows to light. Prof decides that she’s in charge until their teacher, Mr. Togo, comes to join them. Color enters the rooms. The house “wakes up.” Becomes animated. Auntie calls to the stove.

“I talk to the furniture as I work,” Auntie says.

Mac, holding a watermelon, turns to the fridge. “Dear fridge – may I cool this in you?”

 

Disfigurement 14

The first apartment I remember had headshots of her all over the walls. My mom was modeling for QVC, and was the spokesperson for CBS, where her line was, “The address is CBS—welcome home!” When she moved to New York, she lived in three different apartments on three corners of West Broadway and Prince. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Soho. She loved Soho—she loved shopping, window shopping, and she loved seeing celebrities. They were real to her. Her gossip. Her friends. Her role models. She dressed like them, followed their beauty regimens, their secret skin remedies, their weight loss products. The last time I saw her, she was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, a Rolex, and a hat pulled down low, like she was hiding from the paparazzi.

We were a sight. Me in a giant fur, runs in my tights. She with long, fake lashes.

Fashion, baby, is an endless, public performance. When you perform, you “turn on.”

It’s Fantasy who discovers Mac’s head in the well, thinking it’s the watermelon cooling. As she pulls the watermelon up by the rope, the camera zooms out, creating a strange loop. She gazes happily at the sunset, looks down, and sees she’s holding Mac’s head.

Fantasy giggles. Mac says: “Fantasy!”

Laughter turns to fear. Fantasy tries to run away. Mac bites her in the butt and she bolts. Mac’s head pukes, and falls backwards into the well.

“A head!” Fantasy gasps, back in the house.

“Yes – everyone has one,” the rest of the girls say. Kindly.

 

Disfigurement 15

Eating the watermelon, Auntie opens her mouth to reveal to Fantasy an eyeball.

Fantasy looks shocked and scared.

“Fantasy,” says Gorgeous, “You’re imagining things again. Stop it.”

The watermelon slice wobbles and laughs, as if Mac’s been trapped inside of it. Around the waking house, things absorb tragedies. The watermelon is a tuning fork; it signals a bomb, a disfigurement, girls exploding into laughter. The tragedy is radioactive. It has a half-life, splitting self, time, the mirror, the walls of the house, again and again.

In a dream, I was in a mall and encountered my mom in a benign capacity. I was looking for a toilet when she arrived with a friend, and they pointed me in that direction. I still couldn’t find the toilets, though, and kept getting further disoriented, as if I was moving clockwise on a carousel moving counterclockwise. I found my mom in an H&M and she said brightly, I found you a t-shirt!!! It was transparent neon and changed colors like a mood ring.

Yes, it was stellar. She was so motherly.

After dinner, the girls clean up. They don’t notice that when they pour water into a glass, it turns to blood.

 

Disfigurement 17

At the hospital, Ông was walked in slowly. He started talking to Bà in her coma while we fanned around him. He said that they had had a dozen children together; that they had spent forty years raising children looking forward to the days when it would be just the two of them again; that soon after the last moved out she had gotten sick, but that in the few months of their freedom it had been like when they’d first met: Haiphong, 1953, a young nurse and a young public servant, holding hands on the boulevards, and that he feels robbed of the opportunity to devote the rest of his life to loving her, that his only hope for the future would be to find her in the afterlife and never be apart again.

We took turns saying our goodbyes. When it was mine, I walked over to Bà’s hospital bed. I held her hand, dry and bluish, and stroked it, touched the cold stone of her jade bracelet. I didn’t recognize the face in front of me, and in that way understood that she was already gone. I noticed that they’d cut her hair. I laid on the hard, blue hospital bed and told her I loved her, and I missed her, and that I was sorry, so sorry to have not gone to see her while she was dying. I touched my forehead to her forehead for the very last time and thought that if I could recall my most precious moments alive with her, then maybe I could find a space for us to live forever. Manically I cycled through everything I could remember: I sitting with her while she prayed on a Sunday morning. She holding me on her lap and squeezing all my preteen curves. She taking a mango from her shrine to cut it up. We two who eat fruit, is the direct translation of what she would say to me in Vietnamese. We two eating it.

After they pulled the plug, it took her a day to die. My aunts worried that it was because Bà had always told them proudly that all of her ancestors had waited for their children to say goodbye, and my mother still hadn’t arrived.

But she didn’t wait. Not in this life. We were in the kitchen, everyone laughing, and the news that Bà had died came through the doorway, spreading from left to right as we turned to stone.

The next day my mother arrived, bursting into my aunt’s house sobbing, clutching me. I was packing my bag. “Stay!” She said. “I need you!”

I stayed one more night. My mom, the fun one, the beautiful one, the prodigal one, went hunting for tequila and got everyone drunk. Except this time, it felt different. She didn’t seem to want to be there, and was relying on fun as a smokescreen to perform a familial intimacy that she didn’t feel anymore and didn’t want to talk about, and she never came home again.

 

Disfigurement 19

Before the carnage is a happy time. Auntie and her white cat Blanche dance around the house. I think they dance because they are no longer lonely, but it’s sad: sad to be a sad ghost whose sadness can kill the ones they love and long for.

Auntie stares quietly, contentedly out into the distance, looking at something we can’t see. The room, the light all around her is yellow. It could be morning, or it could be dusk. Places fly in the distance, past rising up to meet the present. She yawns deliciously.

You know what? We never stopped using the basement. In my lifetime, it was a laundry room, play room, and TV room. I remember sitting with Bà while she ironed clothes, and drawing pictures with my mom’s youngest sister, who took care of me and who I followed everywhere. I had no sense back then that anything bad had happened in the room, that the room itself might have many generations just like the family who lived in it. I remember some nights being locked out of the basement while my uncles played cards, drank beer, and smoked cigarettes. Upstairs in the kitchen, the women and children cooked and sat around the table and talked. It was warm and I liked being up there. As a child, the basement was always brown, and the kitchen was always yellow. I still like yellow kitchens.

 

Disfigurement 22

Gorgeous bathes. Afterwards she’s led, possessed, perhaps, to a room. The door to the room opens for her. The light is already on. There are paper flower sculptures lining the walls, as if someone had taken her room in Tokyo and turned it into a set. She sits at the dressing stand facing three mirrors, flanked on one side by a bridal gown, on another by a drawing of a white cat. A voice whispers, fading into the air, I’ve been lonely.

In each mirror is a different image. This is why it can be so hard to trust the things you’re seeing, and if your mother is a mystery, why should you trust anything?

I like to try and imagine my mom’s monologue inside her mind, as a way of stepping outside myself. Like, when she’s walking around Soho and looking at all of these things through the windows. A window is a clear wall, and implies that you can’t reach beyond the surface. It might be calming, to freeze noise into landscape. A therapist will advise you to put a glass wall between yourself and the unknowns that threaten you, the unknowns you translate into unreasonable states of fear, especially inherited fears, epigenetic fears. A therapist will also advise you to focus an image in order to understand a situation—this one, walking endlessly along windows, is it: thinking about things she could maybe have or have not, or once could not have and now could have. To not think. To not think at all about what’s been lost.

To have and to have not... to want. What does she see in the fracturing window? Maybe a vision of endurance, and what we can say about it. What we can continue to call the self when we have lost the things we usually say about it. A way to reinhabit the world.

A way to act. What do you do when your face is a constant memory?

You dispossess.

You put on a new face.

 

Disfigurement 28

Prof, Kung Fu, Melody, and Fantasy look for Gorgeous. In Auntie’s room, they find her in the mirror, from where she emerges, in a white nightgown, silent, possessed. In a row, they follow her in procession down the winding staircase, where their sense of direction begins flipping, and they are caught descending the staircase for years. Finally, Gorgeous stops, says, “I don’t blame Fantasy—I understand.”

JUMP CUT—To Mr. Togo, the girls’ teacher who has promised to join them, arriving in a buggy to the sound of a plane, conflating Mr. Togo with Auntie’s dead fiancé, amidst sensory distortion in which time scales, sonic landscapes, and broken promises merge with purposefully choppy cinematography.

At the bottom of the stairway, Gorgeous calls the police while the girls hover around her. Holding the phone in her hand, she listens to the sound of people screaming and calling for help. The screams are held in a sieve, so to speak, I mean none of the girls seem to hear or register their presence, and the uncanniness of the staging and camera work seems to suggest that this choreography occurs in a realm of psychic space, the house’s catharsis, memory erupting out of the wires and walls, eyes glitching in climax, hungry and ready to eat any life left in it.

Gorgeous hangs up the phone. “It’s not working,” she shrugs. For the first time in the entire film, there’s no background music. Everything is silent, like a city after a storm.

Gorgeous leaves the girls to look for help, closing them behind the heavy front door. The windows fly shut. “I’ll be right here!” says Auntie. Freaked out, they turn around, see nothing but a huge, swelling space.

Or maybe they have already been eaten.

“What a cute place to sit and eat!” I declared to Trina, admiring a breakfast nook that looked like it was made out of pews. We were looking at an apartment in the East Village, had stepped inside and it was a huge, swelling space: three floors and as big as a house. High ceilings, tiled walls, heavy doors. Windows cut into orange segments, rooms leading into other rooms. The sounds of the city at night leaked through the windows.

The rent was only $1300, in the East Village. I didn’t understand but felt I should act. My New York instinct for urgency, to act and stuff the documents in hand. I went to look around again. I was in this huge living room over Broadway. I touched the wall, and it fell apart; touching it almost punched a hole through it. Then the wind blew through, and I was scared. Took a step backward and punched a hole in the floor with my heel. “Oh,” said the realtor, “this apartment is cheap so we won’t be making any repairs.”

Should I rent it? I wondered. Was it worth it? Felt so cheap and big and good in a way that I wouldn’t feel like such a hamster in a cage, spending all my days in this tiny locked up space, though the holes would make me cold in the winter. And so it was questionable if the house was even functional.

Someone told me that the reason this apartment was so cheap was that next door was a car wash. During the day the apartment would fill up with fumes that might or might not be toxic, which is why the realtors only showed it at night, after the car wash had closed. I really wanted to live in the East Village. Even if all this detailing was a purposeful element of design, added to scallop space and give the impression of the camera’s frame, even if a dreamy life was just an artistic effect, I still wanted to play the desire game, the surface game, I still wanted to move a couch into the middle of the room and lounge on it like one delirious image. Even if I had to wear a jacket all winter. Even if there was a hole in the house, bringing noise, dust, and pollution clipped onto wind capes to rest on my skin and eat at it carnivorously, digging first into my pores and then into my bloodstream, eating quietly away at my insides, so quietly I could not hear it, no, especially not with this traffic screaming through the window, lounging delightfully on this distressed couch—mint green—I could see myself doing something so stupid as to live forever in this glorious image, cold and noise and dirt trapping me silently in it like a hole, like a hole where I’ve buried myself alive and there are cracks on the surface of the ground, where you can see me buried alive but moving, moving, until one day I just break, like a perfectly poached egg, raw and runny.

 

Disfigurement 34

A Wizard of Oz-like tornado scene is the climax for the final “chase” or “swallow,” in which household objects fly everywhere. The lamp eats up Kung Fu, and she disappears into a psychedelic world where body parts are fragmented and everything is animated. Prof loses her glasses and gets pulled in by a tin can with teeth (Jaws joke). In the red water, her clothes fall off of her. She swims orgasmically and serenely, solarizes, and disappears.

Fantasy floats alone on a raft.

When Obayashi was filming Hausu, he worked with mostly non-actors and shot without a storyboard. Dissatisfied with their performances, he would play the film’s soundtrack which changed the spirit of their acting. While shooting this particular scene, Obayashi suspended the actress Ai Matsubara nude and dumped buckets of blue paint on her, which he thought would make parts of her body easy to key out in post. This method sounds like torture. The crew reported having no idea what the film would eventually look like. Obayashi reported that the special effects did not always turn out how he had intended.

As the girls fight for their lives on a raft of boiling blood, Mr. Togo, their teacher who has promised he will come to rescue them, rolls into town, to jazzy music.

“Do you like watermelon?” Asks the Farmer Selling Watermelons, stomping like a sumo wrestler.

The stomp is a call to the gods. God is in the ground. Are you there, God?

“No!” Says Mr. Togo.

 

Disfigurement 35

Gorgeous appears at the top of the stairs. Fantasy floats towards her. “Gorgeous!” She says. “It’s true. You’re not a ghost!” She reaches for her, tears open her dress.

Omi opens a book of pictures taken of Dresden before the bombings. “Look at this picture,” she says, rubbing her finger across the page. “I would get ice cream here with my Mami before the war. It’s gone... this is gone... my city is gone...” In a shot-reverse-shot, Gorgeous and Auntie’s faces merge and switch, from Fantasy’s point of view, and in the reflection in the water.

When Bà first got sick, I laid in bed with her and we watched Chinese soap operas. The light was pale blue like Downey detergent. She started telling me about life in Vietnam. I was confused; my vocabulary in Vietnamese had to do with life in the house, specifically Bà’s house, and the network of conversations in the particular system of exchange she had created. She had not learned English, and we had learned to love and feel intimacy even across the unsteady bridge of my baby tongue.

“We’re telling stories,” Bà said happily, which is a weird translation—she said a word somewhere between gossip and stories. I kept asking her to explain the words she was using, but I didn’t always understand the words she used when she explained them. She kept telling me stories I didn’t understand, and I pretended to fall asleep, so distraught at not being able to follow the things I wanted to know, but couldn’t know. I thought that one day my children would not speak this language, would not grow up in a house where Vietnam was so close and ever-present, and if it was preserved at all for the next generation it would be something like a flower pressed into the pages of an old book, cuing the person who, when they might spend a day here or there thinking about the past, would open it up and fill in the environment that surrounded the skeleton flower, wondering about what made it bloom and what made it suffer, sketching but never knowing, like I did with my mother, and she did with her mother, and her grandmother, except that, beginning with my generation, the environment around the thing preserved was always just out of reach. My grandmother would soon die and take the things she saw with her eyes with her. I pretended to sleep until she just whispered and then turned to watch more TV. Blue light covered itself on my forehead and seeped until I was filled with the blue of Downey detergent and screen light, filtering through the spot on my forehead I touched to my grandmother’s when she was dying, and to the ground when my grandmother died. My immortal forehead.

“I want to go to sleep,” says Fantasy, leaning her head on Gorgeous’s shoulder, one tit exposed. “Mommy!” This is the film’s last appearance of Fantasy, thus, it can be argued that the film is really about how fantasy rests on gorgeousity’s shoulders. How Fantasy’s eyes witness terrible things. How Mac, Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Melody—and their corresponding archetypes—might refuse to believe what Fantasy has seen, but when shock threatens to destroy her, will fight to revive and protect.

Fantasy is the last to survive.

It is unclear whether Fantasy dies.

Contributor

Kim-Anh Schreiber

Kim-Anh Schreiber's cross-genre work has been published in The Stockholm Review of Literature, glitterMOB, littletell, and Emergency Index. She is co-creator of the video project Candy Ego, and author of the plays Meatloaf and Kult of Konsciousness. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is a participant in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace program.

ADVERTISEMENTS