The New Sci-Fi Cinema of Shu Lea Cheang

Project Native Informant in London showcases feature-length films that illustrate the artist’s successful transition from a pornographic to dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews | 22 APR 24

Shu Lea Cheang’s moving image works walk a line between art, film and pornography. The Taiwanese-American artist has made four stridently queer feature-length works in the last 30 years, which present an opportunity to reconsider what boundaries – if any – exist between these categories and, if they do, how an artist might best stretch or break them.

‘Sci-Fi New Queer Cinema, 1994–2023’ at Project Native Informant is set up perfectly for visitors to contemplate this. It has a screen and a projector, red carpet and white walls, and three inflatable seats that create real intimacy between the spectators and the sexually charged material on display. There is a sense of being in a liminal space between gallery, cinema and porn theatre. The works have just enough structure to require watching from beginning to end, although not all of them are compelling enough to warrant that. The two most successful, Cheang’s first film, Fresh Kill (1994), and her most recent, UKI (2023), are the two that cleave most faithfully to conventions of artists’ film and video and steer furthest from pornography.

Shu Lea Cheang
Shu Lea Cheang, Fresh Kill, 1994, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London

Fresh Kill was made with the Independent Television Service and Channel 4, which explains its televisual look and concessions to a more conventional narrative form. A queer cyberpunk odyssey about a lesbian couple and a computer hacker who challenge a multinational corporation responsible for food pollution, its focus on the language of advertising and its music video-influenced aesthetic make it feel quite of its time. In style and plot, it’s close to another Channel 4 production, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985), about a reporter fighting a conspiracy to cover up lethal television advertising techniques. That film manages to pull its disparate groups of atomized characters into a tight plotline with a punchy conclusion; Fresh Kill is more fragmented, digressing with long sex scenes, but hangs together far more successfully than Cheang’s later projects. 

Shu Lea Cheang
Shu Lea Cheang, I.K.U., 2000, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London

Take I.K.U. (2000), whose loose story about a corporation that sends cyborgs into New Tokyo to collect ‘orgasm data’ is barely conveyed. Its dizzying array of depthless characters and high-tech production fail to raise what essentially is pornography into the realm of art, and I couldn’t help feeling that more compelling plot and characterization would have made its sex scenes sexier. Fluidø (2017) gets closer to successfully bridging the art/porn gap in its outlining of a post-HIV world in which carriers of a mutated gene can be used to create a psychoactive drug. Its lesbian BDSM and trans scenes are particularly striking, shot in simple yet beautifully vivid colours, but Cheang still struggles to combine satire, sex and shock as well as her contemporaries, such as Bruce LaBruce or Rosa von Praunheim, even if her sexual politics feel more in line with modern queer sensibilities.

Shu Lea Cheang
Shu Lea Cheang, Fluidø, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London

UKI (2023) is a sequel of sorts to I.K.U., turning around its tagline to ‘This is not sex – this is love’ and largely avoiding explicit eroticism, settling on its form as an artist’s film to be shown primarily in galleries. Using live-action and 1990s-retro CGI, it engages with the COVID-19 pandemic but was mostly conceived and written before, so signs advocating ‘Stay Home’ and ‘#BLM’, which make the film feel rooted in the lockdowns of 2020, were likely added late in production. Its themes were certainly current even before the pandemic, and Cheang’s dealings with them occasionally feel a bit obvious, such as the Bionet company encouraging people to sign into their systems with messages like ‘Your data our assets’, which recalls John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), but without that film’s savage humour. On the whole, however, Cheang’s decision to leave the pornographic genre aside and update the cyberpunk aesthetic to the dystopian-feeling 2020s is a good one, suggesting a late-career flourishing may still be possible.

Shu Lea Cheang’s ‘Scifi New Queer Cinema, 1994-2023’ is Project Native Informant, London, until April 20

Main image: Shu Lea Cheang, UKI, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.