Italian cinematic auteur Federico Fellini’s magnum opus, 8½ (1963), is a semi-autobiographical tale about an emotionally immature, creatively blocked film director struggling to balance his complicated personal life and to say something meaningful in a science-fiction film he’s trying to make.
Hong Kong contemporary artist Wong Wai-yin explains how the film changed her life.
I was 17 years old and on summer holiday after my high-school exams. I felt I was going to be a failure. And I felt lonely being around my clever friends from an English Christian girls’ school. I spent all day watching movies in Broadway Cinematheque and [the now closed Wan Chai cinema] Cine-Art House. I just went to see whatever was showing.
I enjoyed reading about autobiographical movies and studying films that broke the fourth wall [wherein characters break with dramatic convention by addressing the audience directly]. I was obsessed with the idea of hyperreality and also the New Age saying that life is just a soul playing a video game or a role in a film.
I had no idea how to communicate this thought to others and it wasn’t appropriate to discuss it at school, so I felt like I had found something when I first saw 8½ – I had discovered someone who thought the way I did.
I expected the film to be great, and it was. It made me realise that art could be a direction for me. And when I look back now, I see my own works are highly autobiographical.
In my solo show “Without Trying” (Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2016) I confronted my own struggles. And my exhibition “A place never been seen is not a place” (Oi!, Hong Kong, 2017) involved a dreamlike environment in which the boundaries between reality, dreams, the exhibition and the visitors are broken down. When preparing the show last year, I knew that its essence was inspired almost 20 years ago by Fellini – in 8½, he also juxtaposes reality, imagination, memories and dreams – and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
I have watched 8½ maybe four or five times. I find I pay attention to different things each time. I didn’t have strong feelings about the part involving the estranged wife (the film’s protagonist, Guido Anselmi, is largely insensitive to his wife but belatedly realises the error of his ways) until I got into a relationship and then married.
I wanted to experience director’s or writer’s block after I watched the movie. I thought it would be a cool way to exist. And struggling to say something honest was, to me, the highest expression of an artist. I know it sounds pretentious. I was 17 at the time: forgive me.
From 2010 to 2016, I experienced artist’s block myself. Although I tried to develop discipline and make art every day, there wasn’t a single thing that satisfied me. I even started to think about giving up and couldn’t bear to look at my older works. It felt difficult to be around art people. Fellini struggled to say something honest in his work, and I was struggling to say something in my art.