Inside and Outside the Wall a film by Yihan Lin
As time puts the pandemic into the rearview, it seems likely that everything we did and said during the COVID years was more about COVID than we may have noticed. The time stamp of these few intense years might become ever discernible in the artifacts, physical and electronic, that we will have left behind.
In the last issue of this publication I wrote about a film conceived and born of quarantine. In the course of revealing an intimate truth, the filmmaker’s voice-over populates with unseen people the empty courtyards and rooftops her camera sees from an apartment window. The film, entitled The Last Name of John Cage, with implication of confinement fully intended, is 4 minutes 33 seconds long in homage to Cage’s piece, “4:33” — a contemplation on the nature of silence.
Yihan Lin’s Inside and Outside the Wall, made in the same year (2020) by an artist on the other side of the world, is an utterly different film in terms of style and structure. Thematically, however, the similarities between the two films are uncanny. Inside and Outside the Wall is a split screen memoir of Lin’s 14-day mandated quarantine in a hotel room in China after her return from study in the U.S. The room is clean, well appointed in practical terms, unadorned and small. Two windows look down onto a busy street. A flat screen TV is mounted on the wall opposite what looks like a queen sized bed. There are a couple of chairs, a small desk and a bathroom with a shower.
The screen on the left documents the filmmaker in captivity. She does exercises, sits at the little desk with her laptop, answers the door when health workers in protective gear come to check her temperature and lies in bed listening to news of the government’s efforts to combat the virus. At one point a chorus of male voices is heard. A subtitle reads:
“For the health of the general public — contribute our power!”
There is a particularly sumptuous bit where a knock on the door heralds the delivery of some hot food in plastic containers that the filmmaker carefully opens, left to right, one two three, on the little desk in front of her laptop. I have watched this meticulous ritual a few times and still long for the dumplings that are revealed and whatever it is on the right that is red and glistening. She takes a picture of the food with her cell phone and, from this moment on, I am completely won over by this film. My reasons range from rational to arguable at best.
Lin’s taking a picture of her food with a cell phone is, or can be, a loaded gesture. It may be that there are people out there — the filmmaker’s family, close friends — who are concerned that Lin is eating well in quarantine; but it is as likely that Lin is consciously behaving as she normally would in this situation. The food looks lovely; you take a picture. Cell phone cameras have
made this a common thing. We viewers, however, are watching this through another camera that has also made a record of the food and is recording the
cell phone recording the image of the food. By introducing this layering of a camera recording a camera recording, Lin has made this simple document of her confinement into a flexing of her audio visual savvy as well as her skill as a performer. The film’s setting is intimate. Lin inhabits it honestly and draws the viewer into it with an informal, effortless grace.
Ah, but everything mentioned thus far happens on the left hand screen of a split screen format. It is on the right hand screen that Lin populates this same hotel room with a cyber-menagerie.
When, on the left, health workers call Lin to the door, on the right a huge shark swims in the air over the bed. And while, on the left screen, Lin exercises in the narrow hall by the door, on the right an octopus undulates languidly in mid air under the shower. While some but not all of these fantastical images on the right may relate to those seen simultaneously on the left, they all can be understood as an artist’s response to spending a long time alone in a small space.
The last three minutes of the film record a national observance of silence during which, “Cars, trains and ships will honk,” a television news reader explains. “Air defense sirens will sound.” On the television are scenes of soldiers and sailors in formal array on parade grounds and naval vessels while senior government officials in suits bow reverently in the deafening blare. In the right hand screen, a penguin stands stiffly, awkwardly on the sill of the open window. And Yihan Lin, having just submitted to a nucleic acid test in her doorway, stands at her hotel room window, her phone trained on the street below, recording a “silence” that John Cage could love. G&S