Intrusions, Interruptions

New works by Maryam Tafakory, Bo Wang and Nour Ouayda

Deirdre McAteer

Director MARYAM TAFAKORY, Year 2023, Country IRAN, UK

九龙东往事 (An Asian Ghost Story)
Director BO WANG, Year 2023, Country RUSSIA, UK

الحديقة السريّة (The Secret Garden)

Director NOUR OUAYDA, Year 2023, Country 


From a fissure in a Beirut pavement, a monstrous swell of pink and green vegetation bursts, usurping the geometric grey slabs from the regimentation of their sidewalk uniformity. A radio wails autonomously late in the night, signalling a ghost in the home, a ghost in the hair, one of many phantoms on the streets of Hong Kong. A howl of wind at the door hijacks a sleeping lover’s reverie, submerging her, instantaneous and un-willing, in the icy memory of a long-ago nightmare. These moments of intrusion, of interruption, recur throughout The Secret Garden (2023), An Asian Ghost Story (2023) and Mast-Del (2023), films which consider rupture and its aftermath.

The intrusion of the past in Mast-Del is violent and invasive, history excavated suddenly from deep within the storyteller’s “decaying memory”. She confides in her lover that her “teenage self is often resurrected by temperature, wind, hailstones…”. Her only recourse to ordering the rupture lies within the act of telling. Her story, of a juvenile date intercepted, unfolds mutely in twin narratives of text and video across the screen, while a hissing wind muffles the soundscape like white noise. This patchwork is composed of found footage, resolution distorted so that clips of cigarettes drawn to lips and of bodies pressed close, moving in tandem, are difficult to unravel, one’s eyes deciphering the images in the wake of their dissolution – the visual experience of cupping water between your hands. Such obfuscation reflects the experience of foraging within the decay of memory. More pertinently, it acutely conveys a tale of sexuality guarded and censored, imbued with a palpable sense of the hunted paranoia of the narrator, for whom desire is still accompanied by fear, despite the passing of the years.

The figure of the ghost is the ultimate threat to teleology, a manifestation of temporal rupture. Bo Wang’s An Asian Ghost Story, a surreal rendering of a mass haunting unfolding within the wig trade industry of Asia during the Cold War, uses the ghost, alongside hair, to examine the liminality inherent to the state of Hong Kong. An anonymous talking head, a man dressed in a white coat of authority, informs us that “what distinguishes hair from other parts of the human body is that it belongs to a different temporality…[that] it is by nature a substance that disturbs the separation between life and death. That is something we often attribute to ghosts”. If a ghost is a temporal rupture, then a ghost story represents a bid to re-assert rule, reappraising the sudden intrusion and reproducing it as order. Clips of disembodied hands fastidiously sewing hair, one by one, into wigs is interwoven throughout the film. The surreal narrative arises from the juxtaposition of real footage and a true story detailing the embargo placed on Communist hair in the 1950s, and the fantastical ghost story that is told and re-told, repeated in whispers between co-workers at the wig-making factory, via news bulletins and the voice-over narrator, who is later revealed to be the female ghost herself.

Disruption is the central conceit of Nour Ouayda’s The Secret Gardena Borgesian fable of a city that, as the hushed voice-over explains, wakes one morning to find itself “turned green overnight”, colonised by rampant flora sprouting from every crack and fissure in the urban landscape. The film creates a playful tension between the melodrama of its narration – “Then and there, Camelia and Nahla realized that the silent plants were conspiring against us” - and the placid effect of its lulling sequence of ordinary, bucolic imagery, snapshots of everyday plant-life taken in the director’s home city of Beirut. It utilises conventions suggestive of dystopic genres, including a soundtrack that veers from hammer horror type orchestration to an escalating use of air raid signals, whilst the videos roll on, benign and unanimated. The disruption examined in The Secret Garden is both temporal and spatial. We are told that the plants’ eruptions make the familiar strange and cause a rift in the minds of the city’s inhabitants. A plant is, of course, the germination of a seed long ago sewn and the monstrosity and threat of the vegetation in The Secret Garden lies in the immediacy of its arrival – the violent interjection of that which should be gradual, organic, granular.

Deirdre McAteer is a writer living in East London.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Mast-DelAn Asian Ghost Story and The Secret Garden at Genesis Cinema, 8 September 2023.