Interview #84 — Ming-Zhu Hii
By Margot Tanjutco
Ming-Zhu Hii is an actor, film and theatre director and commercial voiceover artist; she’s occasionally also an installation artist, writer and producer.
She helms the production company Find & Replace Films, is currently the 2018/19 Director in Residence at Malthouse Theatre.
Margot Tanjutco talked to Ming-Zhu Hii about kinaesthetic storytelling, cultural conflict, and consolidating a creative practice.
Was there a moment when you realised you wanted to pursue a creative career?
I wanted to be an astronomer for years but at some point my maths and science teachers were like ‘she just doesn’t have the grades to do astronomy—she should do art’ then I got kicked out of art class because I talked too much, so they suggested I do drama.
If you asked me why I still do it rather than anything else, it’s because I really do believe in art as a refuge. For me it’s a particular kind of poetic art work that I was obsessed with and that I found this kind of almost inarticulable solace in. I can only continue to labour and do that under the belief that there’s got to be somebody else out there who needs that and you might stumble upon it at just the right time where it means that it will maybe save their life.
Because you’re a multidisciplinary artist working in several mediums of theatre, film, and even visual art—how do you honour an idea when you have it? What’s your process for actually going ‘here’s my idea, which way does it go?’
The lovely, beautiful, late John Clarke said to me on set of The Ex-PM one day, because we were talking about writing, ‘I’ve got a thought for you, Ming-Zhu: form. When you’re writing, always allow the writing to find its correct form. Sometimes it’ll take a while before it tells you what that is and sometimes it’ll come to you’.
He had this idea for a story and he didn’t know if it was a TV pitch, monologue, essay, or book – and he called his sister. And he told his sister the story and hung up and realised that was the form. The form was telling his sister the story on the phone. And it was done. That work was done. But it’s difficult to realise that because the ego always wants it to be a thing.
In your Director’s Statement for your short film Intrusion, you mentioned that because you did have to play the main protagonist and write it and direct it, that you did have to make some compromises. I was curious about what those compromises were for you.
Time. I had to rush because I hadn’t given myself enough time to review each take. But if I were more aware of what adjustments I needed to make being in the actual shot I was trying to direct, I would have just slowed down internally.
Hand in hand with that is that I would have taken more time to establish a culture of practice for myself – which then ideally has the knock-on effect of instilling confidence and calm reassurance in your cast and crew on the day. It’s difficult to carry something when you’re wearing many hats, but also difficult to do it when you haven’t given yourself enough time to establish a culture. I was very lucky that my husband who is like my second brain was also one of the other two producers, and managed a lot of the day for me.
I really do believe in art as a refuge.
Was feature filmmaking always something you had in mind?
No, it was a really slow back and forth. I suppose it’s because I’ve always been an actor, I’ve been on a lot of sets and for a really long time I resisted the commercial world a lot. People are really risk-averse in this country and that was maybe one of the reasons I wasn’t so interested in working in that part of the industry.
I just started to dabble over the course of the next few years, getting more and more into it until I got to a point where I thought thought, fuck it—I’ll just study screenwriting and find out what I don’t know. I did that! I found out what I didn’t know, but you know interestingly I’m veering back more and more now to where I was artistically (at heart, anyway) before I learned “the rules”.
I‘ve also done a fair bit of acting in the mainstream film and TV industries over the years, and strictly speaking, I work in the advertising industry as a voiceover artist – so on the one hand I’m entertainment-central as a performer; but then on the other, I’m still at heart deep arthouse-experimental in terms of my native aesthetic. It’s tempting to try to put them in the blender; to be swayed by the commercial world to build a structure for the darker, more oneiric, poetic expression. But poetry doesn’t work that way. It wants to be its own thing.
I do think that an amalgam of the two are possible, but only with incredibly specific projects that are built with that kind of outcome in mind.
I feel like that’s really in right now. Because you have such a strong aesthetic style and especially with Fashion Director which is set in that fashion world, it makes experimental forms more accessible.
That’s an exciting way of thinking about it. I like that—if you can hook the commercial side of that, there’s money there and you can work in it for a while. That’s something of a sweet spot for a time. But you have to be pretty rigorous with understanding both the integral weirdness of your work and how to package it up for a commercial space. And you have to be very open-eyed about whatever deal you’re walking into – but also what your tolerances are for the level of compromise you’ll ultimately have to make.
What’s your own relationship with the fashion and commercial worlds?
I’m very interested in setting stories in the fashion world, because I’m quite fascinated with it as a metaphor for the world that women are in through which we filter through this commercial expectation of what it is to look a particular way and what it is to perform or dress for other people.
I’m personally aware of my complicity within the white patriarchal, heavily commercialised world. Maybe more so than a lot of other people because I work in the entertainment industry and I am paid to sell things.
So I’m really fascinated by the notion that in the fashion world, there is an intersection of the commercial and the artistic and sometimes that could be quite extreme and sometimes you can convince yourself that you’re doing something purely artistic that is, in fact, for the most part, commercial. I am very captivated by the notion of self-awareness in the face of a Faustian deal.
I oscillate between saying I’m really experimental, and also crafting narrative stories; now it’s starting to be about combining those two things.
How do your film and theatre practices inform each other and what can those industries learn from each other?
I’m still finding out. At the moment I’m really interested in the breath that can be created in theatre practice. I’m curious about it from the perspective of slow cinema. Filmmakers like Steve McQueen, Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami who hold on an image for a very, very long time and either nothing happens or something quite sharp happens. They just dare to have a locked-off camera which is effectively what a stage is, it’s just that in the theatre everybody in the auditorium has different camera angles.
And what can you do with a locked-off camera that isn’t necessarily about creating a lot of dramatic action on stage but that might juxtapose dramatic action with moments of intense stillness and intense focus. And what is it in theatre practice to dare to do very little? I’m really interested in what it means to dare to do very little, to dare to be boring, to dare to ask the audience to focus in a different way, to shift the way they expect to receive performance.
Hilariously, content has always been secondary for me in many ways. I really just want to see how you can push the edges of form in a very poetic, almost unrelenting way.
What do you want audiences to take away from your work?
One of the things that I’ve realised is that my work is not for everybody. I mean, no one’s work is for everybody but I’ve really realised that it’s absolutely certain that my work is not gonna resonate for a huge proportion of the population.
For the people, however, who do resonate with it and deeply, I want them to feel that are not alone. Even if they are disturbed by it, that they are not alone in their disturbance.
When I was in LA after my film screened there, another woman who was also a filmmaker came up to me and said she could feel it in her body. If you can create work honestly in a way that is ‘deeply true’, I don’t even know what that means, the hope is that it will also connect with another person on a very deeply true level that they can’t necessarily articulate. A way that maybe bypasses the rational brain…that they feel that kinaesthetically rather than learning morals or lessons.
I don’t want it to be boy meets girl and we should all be nicer to each other. Like, no no no, I want it to be more like ‘I was just horrified and then comforted and then the rug was pulled out from underneath me and now I don’t know who I am anymore’ – that’s the experience I want people to have.
What are you keen to explore with Malthouse as Female Director-In-Residence in the coming year?
I really want to consolidate my practice. I feel like I missed a boat a few years ago where I didn’t dive deeply enough into my directing and theatre-making practice because I very much felt like an outsider but I also couldn’t deal with the overt political fight every single day. And what I’m trying to do here is take the time to be resilient and kind to myself and know that I can engage in political discussion without feeling like I’m under attack all the time – or like I’ve gotta be on the offensive or defensive, where I can go ‘okay, this is acceptable and this is not acceptable and there’s a space in this dialogue for my practice’. I found that really hard. And maybe that’s actually one of the reasons I moved to film is that I felt I could be a lot more independent in the film space and I could create work aside from the dialogue of representation that was very fiery particularly in the Melbourne theatre scene.
I wanted to understand what it was to tell stories and I needed to hone my skills as a storyteller; as an artist. I didn’t feel I could do that while I was essentially in the heat of a battle.
It’s also important to say, and this is not universally true for artists of colour, but certainly my experience has been, is that it feels very important for me to take the time and go slowly and deeply in consolidating my practice, being aware of the fact that I’m a woman of colour. That I am identified as an Asian woman in this industry and that I can define what that is, rather than have that definition put on me.
But that also my practice doesn’t have to be defined by anger and fighting. Like, I don’t have to show up to work to fight every day and I’m allowed to just make work.
I’m really interested in what it means to dare to do very little, to dare to be boring, to dare to ask the audience to focus in a different way, to shift the way they expect to receive performance.
I am not great at telling stories that necessarily
centre ethnicity as the sledgehammer theme or message of a work.
Do you feel that the pressures of having to make political work and having to be this savior, the woman of colour who is going to do it…whatever it is?
Certainly, early on that was a big part of things… I think I’ve gotten better at saying no to that… But even if you’re like ‘I don’t represent all diverse people or all Asian women’, even if that’s true and you state that and people accept it, there is still the fact that semiotically, you’re Other. That’s going to be all over your practice. That’s going to be all over your marketing, that’s just going to be all over whether or not you get included in programs…you are this political body. You will never be able to escape that and I will never be able to escape that.
I am not great at telling stories that necessarily centre ethnicity as the sledgehammer theme or message of a work.
I was raised by a white mother and I grew up with English as my first language in very much a Western education system. My experience of my Asianness is largely via my Malaysian-Chinese father who moved to Australian when he was sixteen, only spoke English with me at home, and who also had a complex relationship with both his and his daughter’s cultural identity and nationality. I feel particularly blessed that my step-dad – my mother’s husband of the last fifteen-odd years and my step brother and sister are all ethnically Chinese too. I also have a couple of Chinese-Australian sisters-in-law so I sort of feel like the Asianness of my family is expansive and definitely not just defined by my biological family, which is exciting.
I suppose that nothing about my cultural identity is simple, and that’s had a profound impact on how I read and tell stories. I am very interested in the incidental and subtle complexity of cultural conflict – which is often as internal as it is overt. But to me, that’s a byproduct of being alive.
I was also trained in the European tradition at Drama school. I trained at the VCA and my practice is grounded in the classics, in the European classics. I weaned myself into reality on European arthouse film and this is the language that’s inside my body. In terms of my understanding of poetry and art, that’s inside my body and my experience of being Othered as an Asian-Australian woman is in my consciousness.
What are you listening to right now?
Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds are always favourites. I’m very into Benjamin Clementine at the moment. He’s a balladeer who writes his own music, heavily influenced by Wordsworth and Blake. He had a really difficult upbringing in the UK then ran away and went to France where busked for years.
His first album is very iconic. He calls himself a Bohemian Butterfly, he’s so influenced by the Left Bank artists and Nina Simone and these British spiritualist poets as well. So he’s on high rotation.
I’m also obsessed with ECM. ECM is a record label from Germany and it’s like experimental avant-garde, classical jazz hybrid. I’m an incredibly old human being inside
What are you reading?
I’ve been reading about essay film lately. Since I’ve been at Malthouse, I’ve been reading a lot of plays – more plays than I’ve ever read in my life, I think. I’m reading around the texts that I’ve been looking at adapting. But recently, a lot of poetry. I’m trying to re-fill a very depleted well.
The term ‘Asian-Australian’ in and of itself contains a whole
narrative of migration, asylum and colonialism across
so many generations and in so many contexts.
How do you practice self-care?
I love to cook. That’s kind of it. My father was a chef and I grew up in the kitchen of an Asian restaurant in Tasmania. So my strongest memory of him is through food and it was how he showed me love. I’m really emotional about it because my father passed away recently and the last thing I was able to really to do for him was cook for him which I’d never done before, and it was amazing to do that. He loved and it was really quite profound. He was also you know, my Asian dad — the Chinese part of my blood and I don’t have any siblings so there is an almost fated sense that one of the things he really left me with genetically is an inarticulable passion for food.
For me, cooking was this deep, deep, inexplicably primal link to my father because it was how how showed me love and was also synonymous with his Asianness. And I’m more Asian when I’m cooking than doing anything else.
My husband is sometimes like ‘why are you doing an Asian accent when you’re in the kitchen?!’ and I’m like ‘I’m not! The food’s making me…!’ It’s just what happens to my body. I become such a Chinese aunty when I cook. It’s quite cathartic. It’s a deep, spiritual thing for me to be in the kitchen.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It’s complicated. I find labels – particularly labels around ethnicity and nationality – really fraught. I have to have difficult conversations with somebody every single day about ethnicity and identity. And nationality is another matter again. Australia is an invader nation on unceded land. The term ‘Asian-Australian’ in and of itself contains a whole narrative of migration, asylum and colonialism across so many generations and in so many contexts. Weirdly, I feel more of a connection to the idea of being a Melburnian girl from Tassie who happens to have paternal roots in Asia, than I have to the concept of being “Australian”. It’s enormously complicated.