Understanding minds and hearts: Wilson Wang ‘24 talks about his Film & Media major, his research, and his next steps

a smiling student with glasses and crossed arms stands in front of yellow rosebushes
May 6, 2024

We talked to graduating senior Wilson Wang about his experiences at Berkeley. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to the Film and Media major?

I actually started off at Berkeley in the College of Engineering as a bioengineering major. I had zero knowledge about film or media as a field of study. I didn't even watch a lot of films at the time. It was a class in the film department, “Chinese Film Auteurs” offered by Professor Weihong Bao, who is now my thesis advisor. That class was just astounding to me at the time, because it offered an entirely new way of looking at the world: looking at texts, looking at media objects, and looking at films with kind of a conscious mind rather than simply viewing it as entertainment. So that fascinating class drew me in initially, and then I wanted to take more classes in the film and media department. I started taking classes on the technological and aesthetic sides of film, and I realized that this is a very expansive field. 

Influenced by my family, I always wanted to understand people. Back then it was kind of a pre med perspective: how do I understand people? How do I cure people? How do I make their lives better? After I got into film and media, it turned into “How do I understand people's minds, people's hearts?” 

You speak Mandarin and some Cantonese in addition to English. How has your multilingualism been an asset in your major?

Not being a native speaker of English or of Cantonese kind of makes me understand that film conveys so much more beyond language: visuals, sound, cultural nuances, etc. There's also so much within languages. Not just what’s being said, but the subtext within it, people’s accents, their gestures, their tone, their tonalities, etc. And so whenever I listen to French, for example, in a French film, I still read the subtitles in order to understand the film, but I also view language as an important facet of the entire experience. The transnational context has always been very important for the films that I like, too, as well as for my research. 

You have done research projects both with the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) and with Summer Undergraduate Research Felllowships (SURF). Could you tell us more about those projects?

With URAP, I have worked on multiple projects with Professor Winnie Wong in the Rhetoric department. Currently, I'm working on the visual culture in the late Qing and early Republic periods in China, in particular, with export paintings from the hands of Canton painters and artists and how they are circulated globally as kind of the “product of China” at the time. It has been a fascinating experience. It's culminating in Professor Wong's new book, so I'm very excited. It's also heavily related to the transnational perspective that I mentioned, because I'm interested in how China is situated globally, how other countries become situated in and beyond the Chinese national context, how borders are porous, and how different cultural contexts interact with each other and break each other's boundaries. So this URAP project has been instrumental in me developing my own research. 

With SURF, I predominantly also focused on the Canton-Guangzhou area. I am doing research regarding the visual culture and aesthetics of labor of African migrants and merchants that are currently located in Guangzhou and the aesthetics of labor of the bodies in Sino-African exchange. How might we look at this relationship beyond what has the canonical theoretical frameworks? More importantly — because I did fieldwork in Guangzhou last summer — what can we learn about people's actual lives? Abstract theorization is so important but can become detached; the fascinating part is to talk to the people that are there in Guangzhou, to go into the community in Guangzhou where those people reside, talk to them, and learn what they think.

Which faculty members did you work with for the SURF project?

I initially started off working with Professor Rizvana Bradley in the film and media department, who is now in Berlin for a visiting appointment. Having had indispensable theoretical training with Professor Bradley previously, I am more than honored and thrilled to work with my current advisor Professor Weihong Bao in the film department, who opened me up to diverse perspectives and possibilities. I also work very closely with Professor Fumi Okiji in the Rhetoric department. She has provided me with a lot of insight on this project, which has evolved into my senior thesis.

Your knowledge of Cantonese must have been helpful during your fieldwork last summer.

While people in Guangzhou are generally very well versed in Mandarin Chinese, I did have to speak quite a few times in Cantonese for various reasons. I must say, though I’ve had a year of training in Cantonese in the classroom, speaking the language in everyday conversations felt very different. The classroom training definitely prepared me immensely, but the real life experiences really made me see the nuances in different dialects in Cantonese, and how words are utilized in drastically different means than their textbook usage! It was an incredibly generative experience that not only trained me further but bonded me with the locals (hopefully)!

What have been some of the highlights of your time at Berkeley?

There have been so many good moments here, with the people and with the work that I've done. Berkeley has been a tumultuous, but very encouraging and grounding experience for me. It provided academic training beyond what I could have imagined in my high school years. And it continues to surprise me that such a large institution can also be so intimate. 

One thing I really do enjoy is BAMPFA: as a benefit of Berkeley and a benefit for my major as well as just a good time with my friends. I have spent so much in the Barbro Osher theater! The offerings are so well curated and so comprehensive. They also have some of the original copies, the 35 millimeters which really are not seen anywhere else. I'm always astounded by the series that they put on and the people whom they invite to introduce the series and lead discussions. That's the PFA part. The Berkeley Art Museum is also fantastic. It’s such a transnational and diverse experience. You might not expect to see, for example, Latinx altars and Chinese landscape paintings in the same show anywhere else, but they’re incorporated in the most interesting way possible here! 

You have been part of the Dean’s Leadership Team (DLT) in Arts & Humanities. Could you tell us about those experiences? 

DLT is different from everything I've ever done, at the school and everywhere else. Emily [Rabiner] and Brad [Perl] are just incredible people and working with them has been such a joy. They're always so kind, and they provide guidance and structure, and yet leave so much room for us to actually do the things that we want.

It also introduced me to a lot of different people across Arts & Humanities, and I made a lot of friends in this process. The DLT also encouraged a lot of people to be more interdisciplinary, both within and beyond arts and humanities disciplines. We also got to meet people who are in a lot of different roles at Berkeley: deans, administrators, faculty, alumni, grad students, and undergrads. This gave me the opportunity to know what the school was like beyond an undergrad perspective. I really, really appreciate that. 

You’re heading to grad school. Can you say more about those plans?

Next semester, I will be studying in the master's program in Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program. My concentration will focus on cultural studies, film studies, and philosophy but I’m very much open to different things. It's a very intersectional, interdisciplinary program with some very, very prolific scholars. I'm excited for the opportunity! Although I went to high school in Connecticut so I’m kind of dreading the cold weather in Boston.