A Hong Kong Exile production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Tuesday, April 11. Continues to April 15
Audacious, avant-garde, experimental—and as one grinning audience member put it so accurately after the show, "unapologetic"—Room 2048 left many who watched it a bit stunned.
That's in no small part because it ended not with a traditional cast bow but in a suspended state of limbo, the performers on the dark stage caught in a dreamlike purgatory sliced up by slivers of light. The crowd didn't quite know if it should stay or go, even when the Firehall's heavy door to the lobby was cranked open.
But that feeling of awe was also because the show had done such surprising things with light and movement—some of them bombastic, some of them poetic.
The dance-based multidisciplinary work (choreographed by Natalie Tin Yin Gan) began more strikingly than almost any show in recent memory. To the sound of Susumu Hirasawa's throbbing anime pop, projected light made performer Michelle Lui appear to shift magically in space, as if we were watching cinematic jump edits. One moment she'd be standing in a rectangle of light facing one way, and in a single quick lighting change, she'd be facing another direction entirely, without ever seeming to move. The effect was discombobulating—as if your eyes had just been tricked.
And really, the young trio behind Hong Kong Exile is all about discombobulating, disassociating, and disorienting. If these "tricks" on the eyes were just about gimmicks, the show might seem self-indulgent, but there's a purpose to the often tormented, alienated imagery you see in the threesome's works. They're expressing anxiety over Hong Kong's final handover to China, (in 2047), the way they feel tied to yet distanced from that frightening event, as the diaspora who live here in Vancouver. The piece is a follow-up to 2015's NINEEIGHT, inspired by the start of the transfer of power over Hong Kong from Britain in 1998, and has the same frenzied feel.
None of this is spelled out literally. We see the magnetic Lui convulse violently, for seeming eternities in a flashing spotlight while Milton Lim ambles around her, glowing red cigarette in hand, like he's grooving out at a club. We see Alex Tam remove layer after layer of white boxers as Lui looks longingly on, an exercise in frustration and unrequited desire. And in the extended ending's cryptic repeated phrase, a squareofblacknesscreeps over and engulfs Lui and Lim, who are lying in repose like statues, only to recede and throw them into light again, over and over.
In an interview before the show, digital lighting and soundtrack designer Remy Siu explained the interdisciplinary troupe is interested in conveying the passage of time—in the case of the finale, the generations, the centuries, that sentence Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
A yearning burns intensely in every scene. Background materials tell us that and the mix of constant undulating fog and cinematic references are a nod to the passion and nostalgia of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Room 2048's heavy feeling of eternal waiting, never connecting, and being trapped in time says something about desire and loss that transcends words.
If all that sounds too serious, there's always a cheekiness that undercuts Hong Kong Exile's work. Witness Tam struggling to remember Chinese numbers and relating his own Oakville-originating diaspora story.
Room 2048 ends up an odd mix of the personal and the conceptual, and the material often feels willfully cryptic. But the images here, created through that inventive digital lighting, frantic movement, and all that fog, will deeply unsettle you. This is work that's bold, technically savvy, and risky. As that viewer said, unapologetic.