A digital spectre haunted the theatre when documentary film Martian Syndrome (2013), directed by Jianqiang Xue was shown. Whether the factuality of the film and its documentary features are convincing, the film deals with some fundamental, but still in some ways taboo, issues of sex labour.
Martian Syndrome is characterised by stylisation and heavily digitalised images that work well with its dichotomies: the us and the other, day and night, city and the outskirts. The characters, or rather the subjects of the film, belong to the native place in outer Beijing, a place of self-violation, alienation and sex-videos. In some ways one could say that Xue disbelieves the documentary realism and invests in the fictional qualities to show people that have been fictionalised themselves.
All of the characters including the director are said to be from Mars. In that way, Xue questions the humanity of the characters or even completely undermines it. An issue that arises from the film is a question of whether sex labour must be foreignised: Is it foreignised because it belongs to a different institutional or anti-institutional body, or is it in fact alienating because they are Martians and do not belong?
The issues of sex labour cohere with a prolific debate on the aesthetics of capitalism and production. In 1977, the sex workers of Calcutta released a Sex Worker’s Manifesto of which the initial aim was to create a collective community that would promote an empathetic support among the sex workers. In order to achieve that community, the institutional body of the sex workers had to open up another wing. Through the promotion of condoms and sexual awareness amongst the workers, the sex worker’s institution appropriated the aesthetics of a health institution, however with futile results.
Sex labour has no means for negotiation and no means of representation in contrast to the usual workers whose rights are protected by all the social channels readily available to them. Taking into consideration the promotion of sexual health, the language of health does not belong to a sex worker therefore how is it supposed to be understood? Martian Syndrome is direct in its horrific realism. Xue does not use the universal language that typically normalises what the use of a condom would mean to all the sex workers in Calcutta. The film is shot completely in black and white night vision on a two hour long tape which in itself creates a claustrophobic feel. The dialogues in particular struck my attention, because as much as they first of all characterised a severe mental trauma and anxiety, they were very ‘close to home’, engaging, and had a quality of a realist play.
The idea of Mars as the outskirts of Beijing connotes the dysfunctionality of a city or in fact the only way that it can function. In comparison to the Manifesto, Xue does not appropriate a politicised language of health and precaution, but in a subverted manner the director takes on board and represents the fact that to engage with a sex worker you need to be from Mars yourself. The question is whether the framework of the film provides the means for the negotiation of the sex worker’s rights (as the condoms have not)?
What I mean to suggest, is the fact that the representation is crucial for the incorporation of sex work into the empathetic system that the non-sex workers live by the rules of. Xue’s representation of the sex workers adheres to the pathetic communication that a piece of art would have. Representation becomes the means for a direct communication and thus negotiation of the existence of the represented subject. An obvious example of that would be a sculpture that exists in the same dimensional space as its voyeurs. Another example: “The hysteria which lay very close to the surface might at any time crack through their caution and shatter their sense of self preservation.” A very brief, yet powerful comment on the quality of life in a whore house in East of Eden by Steinbeck.
The body and the mentality of a sex worker dominates the form of Martian Syndrome, in fact it becomes it. The preposterousness of the film is a representation of a sex worker and his means for introduction into the empathetic realm of capitalism in the same way that the sentence by Steinbeck hints; by the way, this is what is happening at the core of this story.
Finally, having said all that, the use of condoms is very important and it is crucial that a prostitute has the right to use them if he or she wants to. Yet it doesn’t work that way, and on an ideological level a condom fails to be the right slogan for the liberation of the sex workers. If the traumatised body of a sex worker is not represented thus inexistent, then how is the demand to use a condom supposed to be heard?
Maja Laskowska studied Comparative Literature and Film at King’s College London. She is interested in visual art and its relationship to text and the human body.