The Fishiest Commodity Is Film: “Fresh Kill,” 30 Years Later

Shu Lea Cheang’s first feature is an encounter with media activism and its poetics.
Katherine Franco

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

People do not speak in rhyme all the time, but they often do in Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill (1994). The artist’s first feature film puts realism on trial, not only through its development of what Cheang terms “Sci-Fi New Queer Cinema” but also by way of its sonic landscape: sounds of network television feature alongside conversations composed of an auto-tuned blur of slogans and numbers. If multinationalism could speak to us at a Manhattan bar, it would probably sound like the latter. A viewer of Fresh Kill learns to not demand sense from every phrase but instead to allow the film to permeate one’s senses. This exercise, as Cheang well knows, is natural for anyone trained on the daily news and advertisements parodied in the film. Fresh Kill is a space where these sounds and images become a calculated poetics. Greed, by the film’s end, is projected onto the screen as a slant rhyme of Green. When Kill is overlaid with KISS, they form KI$$. Thirty years after its release, Fresh Kill asks with the same urgency: what is the shape—and sound—of global capitalism?

The eponymous Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was in use from 1948 until 2001, for most of that time as the world’s largest dump, receiving as many as 29,000 tons of waste every day. Fresh Kill visually links that wasteland to another: Orchid Island, a nuclear waste depository for Taiwan, where Cheang was born and spent the first few decades of her life before moving to New York. Shareen (Sarita Choudhury) and Claire (Erin McMurtry), the couple at the center of Fresh Kill’s plot, perform jobs that land them in the orbit of the film’s ecological crisis: Shareen is employed at the Fresh Kills landfill and Claire works for a sushi bar. Because of their professions, they’re easily drawn into a scandal around the circulation of radioactive fish. Femme fish dressed in lipstick and chemicals—“the fish that love to kiss,” perhaps a reference to Cheang’s short video Sex Fish (1993)—soon become the idée fixe of the film. Fresh Kill understands a grotesque dimension of our reality: that the effects of history and ecological crisis arrive on your plate. 

There is a moment in a 1996 Bomb magazine interview with both Cheang and Jessica Hagedorn, the film’s screenwriter, when the latter, prompted to reflect on “that dialectical tension between form and emotion,” asks, “What does that mean?” Hagedorn’s question strikes at that popular use of the word dialectical whose merits are difficult to describe or defend. What happens when “the dialectic” becomes phatic, used merely to lubricate social relations? To earnestly ask after meaning might be passé, but to ask what it means with a laugh or lilt is the stuff of Fresh Kill’s critique.

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

Fresh Kill takes on Hagedorn’s deceptively simple question—“What does that mean?”—as it encounters the world: broadcast television, Saran-wrapped sex toys, and the effects of the AIDS crisis. These interpretations often “mean” less than we might hope, arriving in dialogue scrambled and remixed by Cheang until it spills out in one long tangle of vowels. History returns by way of sham poetics—the film’s sushi bar is named NAGA SAKI—and comes back to haunt us in the commodity form, which very well may be the whole project of literature. Hagedorn’s oeuvre, which ranges from experimental theater to fiction, such as her classic 1990 novel Dogeaters, interrogates the American commodity in a transnational context. One passage in Dogeaters consists of a long string of foodstuffs made in the USA available at “an awesome new supermarket” in Manila: 

small cans of Libby’s succotash, Del Monte De Luxe Asparagus Spears, two bottles of Hunt’s Catsup, one jar of French’s Mustard, Miracle Whip Sandwich Spread, Kraft Mayonnaise, Bonnie Bell Sweet Sliced Pickles, Jiffy Peanut Butter, packages of Velveeta, party-size bags of Cheez Whisky, one box of Nabisco Ritz Crackers, and several boxes of Jell-O gelatin in lime and cherry flavors. 

Yet Hagedorn’s very status as novelist is under scrutiny in a scene in Fresh Kill where she plays a bookseller, announcing her own title for sale on the street. One wonders whether every novelist dreams of such an opportunity: to write a screenplay wherein you sell your most distinguished novel as a joke. The scene reminds us that a word like dialectic isn’t more precious than any other: used and exchanged, it might just end up on a book vendor’s cart in Lower Manhattan. Nothing here is too sacred to be sold.

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

James Joyce said history was a shout in the street, and Fredric Jameson repeated it with an exclamation point almost a century later, but Hagedorn and Cheang amplify the sentiment with a screwier turn. History is not just a shout but a cheesy rhyme by which global capital instantiates itself. History cries out to be heard through the commodity, which for Cheang might be either a poem or a condom, both of which are advertised on a sign at the film’s beginning. Cheang’s engagement with history is evidently at stake in her 1990 How History Was Wounded, on the Taiwanese media’s coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. It also constitutes the motivation behind her other documentary and archival projects like Brandon (1998–99), which draws from legal, medical, and historical records to explore the 1993 murder of transgender man Brandon Teena at the age of 21. Brandon uses the archive to formulate a media-activist form of memorial that demands our participation. Fresh Kill is less a traditional narrative feature film than a work of media activism integrated into a bourgeois cinematic object. The poetics of both promotional copy and the picket line rhyme out of practical necessity: to render their demands memorable and inevitable. Fresh Kill asks what happens when these linguistic demands are performed for the sake of pleasure.

Hagedorn’s Dogeaters—the novel that she hawks in Fresh Kills—makes constant reference to cinema, television, and the radio. Opening with a scene in a Manila cinema, the novel scrutinizes the distribution of Hollywood film in the Philippines, including the infamous collapse of the Manila Film Center. The 1981 tragedy, which buried at least 169 workers under quick-drying cement, makes for a tragic metaphor around media and multinationalism: the arrival of Hollywood cinema in Manila has fatal consequences for the city’s population and infrastructure. 

Hagedorn’s characters deliberate over Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk’s classic All That Heaven Allows (1955), screened in Cinemascope and Technicolor at the novel’s Avenue Theater. “It’s a corny love story, when you think about it,” says Pucha to her cousin Rio, who narrates, “Being corny is the worst sin you can commit in her eyes.” Corniness emerges in Fresh Kill as critique: to be corny is to mock valuations, to parody the kind of love story that is at stake in Sirk’s cinema. Is Wyman herself—the first wife of Ronald Reagan, who is both scrutinized and adored by the novel’s characters—corny, or is that simply the role she is paid to play? Is the institution of family kind of corny, too, or just the terms through which we render it legible? 

Family is rendered farce in the world of Fresh Kill, where baby dolls are sold as sex toys. Cheang’s film realizes Kim Min Jeong’s declaration in her poem “Women Rise at Night,” published in English translation in 2020, “No family can be born / without someone acting like a slut.” We should pause at the cusp of Min Jeong’s enjambment: “No family can be born.” The birth of Shareen and Claire’s daughter is neither seen nor explained. Instead, we are left without explication, which makes a claim by way of restraint. When one character asks, “You want to go home and make a baby?” at the sushi bar, she is not met with a verbal reply but instead with Cheang’s cut to the image of a knife and fish. Elsewhere, Shareen asks her father (Rino Thunder), “Do you want some General Tso’s chicken?” and he responds, “I want a grandchild.” This mismatch of commodity and family is Fresh Kill’s proposal. 

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

Cheang is interested in the duration of crisis and the lack of a coherent, unified narrative strategy for covering one. A TV news anchor in Fresh Kill refers to the possibility of radiation from “an American hydrogen bomb that disappeared off the coast of Okinawa 24 years ago.” The “MISSING H-BOMB,” lost in 1965, is real: it earned a headline from the New York Times in 1989 on the same page as an advertisement for an Oscar de la Renta discount line, more evidence that Cheang’s poetics is epitomic and mimetic of the commercial context in which information is distributed. History, for better or worse, will find a way to speak through the most ubiquitous material.

The breaking news is interrupted mid-sentence by a commercial for baby-shaped sex toys and resumes with a white-collar Manhattanite claiming “We care” that the bomb has harmlessly dissolved on the ocean floor, according to the Pentagon. In his description of televisual “flow,” the theorist Raymond Williams observed that advertisements are not interruptions of discrete units of programming but foundational to the perpetual and indefinite status of the broadcast medium. Fresh Kill suggests that sponsored messages are necessary to the cyclical story we tell of crisis, in which the same seconds of footage repeat ad infinitum.

Fresh Kill concludes with a campy scene between a father and his lesbian daughter, a mockery of the archetypal parent-partner introduction that typically marks acceptance of queer identity. The scene, with its melodramatic music and conversation, is tonally antagonistic to the rest of the film. Cheang proposes that to become fixated on an identitarian project of queer liberation is to neglect larger geopolitical and multinational questions. This ambition renders Fresh Kill, in Cheang’s words, “not lesbian enough to benefit from that market,” though she claims it as “queer.” The body of water in the backdrop of this scene is a reminder of the pollution that marks the film and the bomb buried at the bottom of the ocean. 

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

Cheang was an active participant in the Paper Tiger Television (PTTV) collective, founded by media activist DeeDee Halleck in 1981, as well as Deep Dish Television, established by PPTV five years later as the first grassroots satellite network in the United States. A PTTV compilation tape begins with this message:

Our lives are increasingly influenced by the large corporations that make and distribute information. Their power rests on false assumptions. Their legitimacy is a paper tiger. Investigation into the corporate structure of the media and critical analysis of their methods and meanings can be a way of demystifying the information industry. A critical consciousness about communications is necessary for cultural autonomy and democratic control of information resources.

Formed by independent filmmakers, artists, and writers, Deep Dish Television became known for its interrogation of the first US invasion of Iraq, among other topics. Cheang also documented ACT UP’s political action and the pharmaceutical industry’s greed around new drugs for HIV and AIDS. The emphasis on television throughout Fresh Kill is in part an acknowledgement of its own genesis, given that the film was mainly funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and produced for the Independent Television Service and Channel 4 of Britain. In one of Paper Tiger’s specials, sociologist Herbert Schiller says that the world runs on waste and that the New York Times carries on this tradition. “It’s difficult to find the news,” Schiller says of the paper. “Three-fourths of it are advertisements.” If today’s news has long been heralded as tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapper, television is made quite literally fishy in Fresh Kill through a visual parallel that occurs throughout the film: a fish and TV set, both washed up on shore. 

“REJECT THE WASTE,” we read on a protest sign in one of the film’s broadcast segments. Cheang is not only interested in ecological waste but also media waste, as in the four tons of e-trash collected in one day by Barcelona’s recycling plant, which she had delivered to her 2009 residency at Hangar media lab. Waste becomes both an ecological and media-archeological question in Fresh Kill, which stages the crisis of information at the turn of the twenty-first century. Cheang herself aligns her career with the availability of handheld cameras to document protests in the 1980s. She parodies the portability of media technology in one of Fresh Kill’s opening shots, in which Shareen carries around a television set as though it were a handbag. A renowned net artist, Cheang has described “virus” as her primary medium; the term “viral” functions as a natural bridge between the internet and biopolitical crisis, the subject of Cheang’s project since 2009, Viral Love Hack. Her films I.K.U. (2000) and U.K.I (2023) most explicitly take up that claim and are ineluctably shaped by the AIDS crisis. 

Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994).

“Sometimes, a feeling of devastating isolation sinks in when you struggle on your own without any link to history or to any link of cross-national link references,” Cheang said in 1996.1 Her recommendation? “We have yet to explore cyberactivism and its broader effect.” Cheang’s body of work counters an identitarian, individualized, and thus oftentimes isolating model of queer liberation, which forecloses the macrohistorical and in turn leads us away from solidarity. Fresh Kill parodies the celebration of the queer family, or couple, at the film’s end to remind us not to forgo a mode of resistance and resilience beyond subjective achievement. 

Although Cheang’s work is now collected by major institutions around the world, and Deep Dish Television was featured at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and in a 2019–20 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Cheang maintains an interest in constructing a document of political reality more than of her own life. She has said she “doesn’t have time to think about the preservation of the archive” of her work, though Fresh Kill—as with almost every facet of her oeuvre—persists as an archive of its decade’s media practices. The goal of film or the internet for Cheang is not to construct a body of work to outlast eternity, as the mythos of creative production has long taught us, but to build infrastructure for individuals—or, more accurately, users—to meet and collaborate. We can use it now. 

Cheang’s characters often traverse highways, roads, and open paths. To view her wanderers as solitary would be a mistake, for they are in the company of everyone else on the same road. The highways of  I.K.U., Cheang’s attempt at a “sci-fi porn” version of Blade Runner (1982), are populated by users of both automobiles and cyberspace alike. The latter, Cheang proposes, is the domain where an individual might trade the dashboard’s privacy for a more spontaneous and communal exchange. Something shifts, then glitches, and we think we might have a chance at a different world or syntax. For now, Cheang is on the road with a new restoration of Fresh Kill for the circuit of anniversary screenings. 

  1.     Shu Lea Cheang and Kimberly SaRee Tomes. “Shu Lea Cheang: Hi-Tech Aborigine.” Wide Angle 18, no. 1 (1996): 3–15. 

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