Writer: Soomi Kim
Director: Leta Tremblay
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In 1983, David Bowie released the single China Girl. The music video, starring New Zealand model Geeling Ng as the woman from the song’s title, soon followed. While parts of the video are cringe-inducing now (most notably a moment when Bowie pulls the corners of his eyes upward to imitate his love interest’s eyes), it presented a rarity for MTV—an Asian woman featured prominently in a piece of popular culture. When Bowie died in 2016, dancer and performing artist Soomi Kim was reminded of growing up in a very Caucasian Oregon town in the early days of MTV. Her new solo show MLCG (My Little China Girl), currently running at Dixon Place, explores growing up Korean-American, confronting Western beauty standards, and holding onto memory in the face of devastating loss.
MLCG tells the story of Kim’s childhood and adolescence in a nonlinear fashion, using dance and video to connect memories to one another and to the present. The play starts with happy memories of childhood—slides of Kim and her brothers, descriptions of the amenities of their suburban home, stories of relatives visiting from Korea. Things shift when Kim’s mother dies; she desperately needs guidance her father doesn’t provide. She turns to MTV and fantasies of being the titular China Girl of David Bowie’s song as she copes with the loss of her mother.
The use of video is one of the strongest elements of MLCG. Justin West and Kevan Loney’s video and projection design allow us to see how a young Soomi escapes into the landscape of MTV; Kim’s head is imposed on Max Headroom-style backgrounds and in profile with David Bowie. Movement is also a particularly good aspect of the show. Kim’s training as a dancer is evident as she captures the era and her own fear, pain, and anxiety with expressive and inventive choreography. Unfortunately, the storytelling is one of MLCG’s weaker points. While the narrative is clear as far as actual events go, it jumps around in time, making it harder to follow at points. This may be intentional—a comment on the fragility of memory, perhaps—but some reorganization would make the work more cohesive. At 60 minutes, it feels short; stories about Kim’s stepmothers could stand further exploration.
At some points, it seems that the show isn’t sure exactly what it wants to be or to say, but Kim makes everything clear in the end. While it has a lot of MTV nostalgia and teen angst, at its heart MLCG is a tribute to Kim’s late mother. Though the show has some rough spots, it’s worth seeing for the artistry of the video work and for Kim’s sheer magnetism as a performer.
Runs until 18 November 2017 | Image: Mark Hayes