Watching Richard Fung’s “Sea in the Blood”

Thinking about Richard Fung’s “Sea in the Blood”
By Lynne Sachs

Two men swimming, the flow of skin against the skin, and there below the surface of the water is a camera.  Richard Fung’s lens is an activated observation machine, the eye gazing at the self.  His memory becomes an animal in the pool – at once contrite, angry, lusty and compassionate.  “Sea in the Blood” (26 min., 2000) is convulsively personal, traveling that primal voyage from love of family to love of another, a stranger, merely a human being beyond the scope of the childhood home.   Richard is a devoted, conflicted brother to an ailing older sister with a genetic blood disease that will eventually swallow her up and kill her — prematurely as they say.  This fact is science, uncontested, seemingly apolitical.  Richard is also lover to a man who contracts HIV.  The flow of life’s blood pushes Richard to a heightened state of awareness – Marxist dialectics push into tropical isolation, hard-edged phrases push across screen of lush flora, unwanted “bad news” pushes into extended holiday.

I am a filmmaker equally preoccupied by the tug-of-war between the private and the public, personal experience and the sweep of history, intense intimacy and social consciousness. I know why I am so deeply affected by Richard’s film, and yet I am still grappling with the specific dynamic of this work that makes it resonate outside the particulars of its story, framed by the often-ineffable contingencies of death.  Richard, a Trinidadian citizen of Chinese ethnicity now living in Toronto, begins his narrative with his own young-adult explorations of the European continent with a newfound male lover.  Soon, however, we learn that by partaking of the pleasures of the mind and the body, Richard has neglected his responsibilities as a son and brother.  Through refracted super-8 home-movie footage, the story spins backwards in time, tugging at our emotional capacity to watch both the disappointments and celebrations of a tight-knit family struggling to save their daughter from the ravages of a genetic blood disease.  Her sickness is the result of a rare condition that is simultaneously susceptible and impervious to the advances of modern medicine.

Speaking with eloquence and chilling distance, Richard proclaims “Death was a fact I was born into, like mangos in July.”  When Nan is on her deathbed, Richard is still trying his wings, relishing in his independence, witnessing the living mythologies of Greece and Turkey, and the verdant landscapes of Ireland.  He is flawed, selfish and gloriously human in his willful decision to disappoint his family.  A decade later, he is a cultural soldier, a guerilla, on the battlefront for AIDS awareness with his boyfriend who has been diagnosed with HIV.

In 2006, I realize that “Sea in the Blood” has political potency only partially realized six years ago when Richard completed this experimental documentary.  As viewers, we glean Richard’s appreciation of an activist’s role in a universe that has become more and more dominated by the medical establishment.  Richard tells us that as a teenager he and his sister Nan “would get up in the middle of the night to pee and talk on the porch about the Black Panthers, looking out at the darkness.”  I sit in the darkness of my home watching Richard Fung’s movie, decades later, feeling as if I am now in conversation with him.  We are two filmmakers, male/female, Canadian/American, reminiscing about the exquisite, brutal days when silence somehow equaled death.