Nobody is white. Courtesy Frye Art Museum / Singapore Art Museum

Last year in Arizona, at the same time a law was passed requiring immigrants to carry papers or risk being charged with a crime and detained, the Arizona Department of Education took another step: notifying the public schools that teachers with "foreign" accents might be removed from classrooms. There was once a War on Terror; could there be a War on Accents?

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In the films of Berlin-­based, Singaporean-­born, Chinese-­­descended Ming Wong, everything—everything—has an accent. Roles are ethnically miscast, so that cultures and races travel across bodies, never quite taking up residence in anyone. Everyone parrots lines in a language they don't speak. Performers appear in drag, drag being a kind of accented gender performance. In fact, "proper" pronunciations of words in Cantonese, Hindi, Malay, and English are entirely absent in Wong's work, existing only as abstract ideals—a lost, utopic inverse of the stereotypes about the cultures those languages come from. Instead of reinforcing a fixed written language, the active mis-speakings open up a free zone where anything might happen.

Take the centerpiece of Wong's current exhibition at the Frye, Life of Imitation. The title is an inversion of Imitation of Life, the 1959 American movie about a light-skinned, mixed-race young woman who rejects her African American mother in order to pass as white. In Wong's version of the climactic scene, the young woman is played by three men—Chinese, Indian, and Malay, representing each of the major ethnic groups in Singapore—speaking in accented English, with English subtitles.

Complicating things further, the actors in Life of Imitation change roles with every shot. The African American mother is played by a Chinese actor, and the mixed-race daughter is played by a Malay man; when the shot changes (the action continuing apace), the daughter is Indian and the mother Malay; and the permutations continue.

On top of that, two different cuts of Life of Imitation, with different sequences of all the permutations, play simultaneously on opposite walls at the Frye, with a large mirror hung next to each one. You might find yourself watching the reflection of a video projection of a Chinese man dressed as a woman, looking woefully into a mirror while protesting to the Indian or Malay man dressed as a woman standing behind him/her, "I'm white. White! White!" The panicked tone of this outdated insistence on racial whitewashing—the young woman needs to pass as white in order to be seen as legitimate in 1950s American society—echoes resoundingly in bullying laws like the new ones in Arizona.

Life of Imitation is Wong's first full American exhibition, and it contains video performances, Polaroids, ephemera, billboard paintings, and documentary shorts. This is the same body of work Wong showed as Singapore's representative at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where it won an award from a global art jury. Singapore has only been an independent country for 46 years, and its art world is only now having its coming-out moment. Next month, Singapore will host the third edition of its international biennale, the first to be curated by a Singaporean artist (Matthew Ngui) and the first to commission works that consider Singapore as a site. Last month, the government broke ground on its National Art Gallery. While Life of Imitation is a fairly vast universe of ideas, it takes as its ostensible subject the golden age of Singaporean cinema, in the 1950s and early '60s.

It would be ideal to know the nature of Singapore when considering Wong's art. What we know instead is its reputation. The tiny, entirely urban city-state of five million became famous in the United States in the '90s, when a young American was fined, jailed, and caned for vandalism and petty theft there. The government then quashed protests at the meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in 2006, leading those leaders to describe Singapore as "authoritarian," while the "campaign of smiles" urged Singaporeans to smile at all times when out in public. Press censorship in Singapore is routine—foreign correspondents are banned for negative coverage. Drug laws are draconian—punishments include hangings. And a ruling party controls the government, while opposition candidates are sued to bankruptcy. On the bright side: The country is clean, calm, and prosperous. Its population is almost half foreign-born. In other words, if the government is a monolith, the people are anything but.

Old Singaporean cinema—prenationalized cinema—was racially mixed, reflecting the population of the time. But Wong takes that intermixing further, to where clashes or differences arise not between people but within them. Single bodies speak multiple conflicting languages at once (gender, ethnic, and formal languages). Mastery of a "pure" ideal, or assimilation into a "norm," is further undermined by subtitles—inserting yet another gap, between spoken and written words, between looking and hearing—even when the actors seem to get their lines right. It makes you feel both unhinged and refreshed.

What you see when you first enter the show at the Frye are large, bright paintings advertising "Life of Imitation, A Ming Wong Production." These were painted not by Wong but by Neo Chon Teck, the man said to be Singapore's last remaining billboard painter from the golden era. Wong's other main collaborator in the exhibition is Wong Han Min, a youngish man who, as a hobby, collects ephemera from the old movies, which is also displayed in the galleries. Each of these collaborators, plus a young woman selling movie tickets, is also the subject of a short documentary film whose narrative seems to progress, entropically, toward fiction. Whether these are real people or extensions of Wong crosses the mind (the catalog lets on no subterfuge; they seem to be verifiable, but the temptation to wonder seems part of the work).

Wong's fictional films—Life of Imitation plus In Love for the Mood (his version of a scene from Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love, featuring a Caucasian actress attempting to speak Cantonese), and a series of re-­creations of old Singaporean genre pictures with Wong in every role—might be seen as the "primary texts" of the exhibition. But these are interspersed with other texts: the billboard paintings, movie memorabilia, documentaries, and a video of clips from old Singaporean movies, all of which function like dictionaries for cross-referencing and retranslating the same lost original material—that bygone era, any bygone ideal—that Wong's films recall.

Along one wall, the collector's faded holdings hang in plastic sleeves, faint visions of a time when movie houses played one movie that everybody watched, rather than the separatist marketplaces of today's multiplexes. The movie houses themselves—known as "dream palaces"—also are resurrected here, in a small gallery featuring a series of Polaroids that Wong shot of Singapore's remaining movie houses, some still fully operational under glowing marquees, others in ruins with bushes growing through the floors. You have to squint at the small photos and can still barely make them out; there isn't quite enough information in any one picture to be satisfying. But satisfaction has its limitations. recommended

This story has been corrected since its original publication.