Asian Cinema Digest #33

March’s digest brings together an eclectic mix of content with a little bit of something for everyone. In the spirit of International Women’s Day on March 8, a lineup of online screenings spotlights actresses, documentarians, and video artists – the women in front of and behind the camera.

A radical spirit of experimentation threads through the month’s highlights, be it in the works of artist-filmmakers pushing the possibilities “expanded cinema” with forays into video art, installation, and orchestral music, or in the sheer daring of directors who refuse to be constrained either by scrappy budgets or by directives on form and content. 

With the lifting of pandemic controls in Singapore, in-person arts festivals and screenings are back too, so keep your eyes peeled for more to come. 


Labour and Love: 8 Documentaries by Deepa Dhanraj

On the Criterion Channel is a series of eight documentaries by pioneering Bangalore-based filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj, a co-founder of India’s first all-female feminist film collective, the Yugantar Film Collective (1980-3). Focusing on the experiences of working-class women, Dhanraj delves into issues from population control policies to patriarchal Sharia laws and Hindu-Muslim tensions, turning the camera into a tool for political action. 


Shasha Movies: Revolt Against the Sun 

An independent streaming service for South-West Asian and North African cinema, Shasha Movies presents a programme of contemporary Iraqi video art produced between 2017 and 2022. Borrowing its title from an elegiac poetry collection by Nazik al-Malaika, a modernist and feminist who popularised Arabic “free verse”, the programme Revolt Against the Sun spotlights works that boldly subvert conventions of form and structure. Streaming with a monthly subscription.


Image still from The Heroic Trio (1993, dir. Johnnie To)

Michelle Yeoh Kicks Ass 

Dive into Michelle Yeoh’s multiverse with eight films starring the indomitable Malaysian-born martial-arts movie heroine streaming on the Criterion Channel this March. From her early role as a feisty police officer in Yes Madam! (1985), to her gravity-defying stunts in the cult classic fantasy-action flick The Heroic Trio (1993), to her subtle performance in the groundbreaking wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Yeoh proves herself one of the most versatile, electrifying icons of our time. 

For those unsure where to begin, Accented Cinema’s video essay The Thousand Faces of Michelle Yeoh makes a compelling introduction to the dazzling whirlwind of Yeoh’s career.  


Vimeo’s Staff Picks: The Voice Actress

Gorgeously cinematographed with tightly-composed scenes and lush primary colours, Anna J. Takayama’s short film sensitively traces the emotional landscape of a veteran voice actress working in Tokyo as she navigates a changing industry. The soulful 15-minute film has bagged awards at the SXSW Film Festival, the Short Shorts Film Festival, and more. 


Ballad of a White Cow (2021) by Betash Saneeha and Maryam Moghadam

Co-director Maryam Moghadam plays a widow whose life is shattered when she discovers that her husband was wrongly executed. Struggling to make ends meet and protect her young daughter from the cruel truth, she accepts the aid of a stranger claiming to be her husband’s debtor, unaware of his real connection to them. Ballad of a White Cow (2021) unfolds a tense, austere tale of grief and guilt, revealing the odds stacked against a woman seeking moral justice in contemporary Iran. The film is available as part of MUBI’s Festival Focus: Berlinale.


Metrograph at Home: In Between Days (2006) 

Having recently moved to snowy Toronto with her divorced mother, Korean teenager Aimie struggles to fit in. Things are further complicated when she develops new feelings for her best and only friend. An intimate portrait of adolescence and the immigrant experience, So Yong Kim’s In Between Days premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and is now streaming on The Metrograph At Home with a subscription. 


Image still from Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive (1989, dir. Wayne Wang)

Made in Hong Kong and Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive

Shot on a shoestring budget and leftover film reels, Fruit Chan’s landmark indie feature Made in Hong Kong (1997) follows three disillusioned youths as they tackle the gritty realities of a city on the verge of handover to China. Chan’s film pairs neatly with Wayne Wang’s neo-noir comedy docu-fiction Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive (1989), both streaming on the Criterion Channel. One of the first Chinese-American filmmakers to gain a foothold in Hollywood, Wang returns to Hong Kong for this dizzying, X-rated tale of a Japanese-Chinese-American “cowboy” hired to deliver a briefcase to a notorious triad boss. 

The 4K restored Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive will be showing at Oldham Theatre on 17 and 19 March 2023. Get your tickets here


Image still from Song Lang (2018, dir. Leon Le)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema (APUC – 亞洲躍動電影展) Season 16 

Season 16 of the semi-annual film festival Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns with a hybrid presentation. From March 25 to 31, four South Korean independent films are available to audiences in the United States and Canada via Eventive. Between April 3-9, a free streaming programme “Movies You May Have Missed” will feature four other films: Leon Le’s Song Lang (Vietnam, 2018), Shen Yu’s Old Town Girls (China, 2020), Werner Herzog’s Family Romance LLC (United States, 2019) and Shunji Iwai’s The Case of Hana and Alice (Japan, 2015). 

As part of a collaboration with MUBI, Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed Decision to Leave (2022) is available via a 30-day free trial exclusive to Asian Pop-Up Cinema subscribers in the United States and Canada. 

Image still from Yi Yi (Time Flows in Strange Ways on Sundays) (2021, dir. Giselle Lin)

Locarno Shorts Weeks 2023 

Catch some of the best Asian short films from the 74th Locarno Film Festival for free on Vimeo. Inspired by the sounds of bamboo which signal the approach of motorised food carts, Chanrado Sok and Kongkea Vann’s Somleng Reatrey (Sound of the Night) follows two noodle-sellers as they eke out a living on the streets of Phnom Penh. Both set in Singapore, Siyou Tan’s Strawberry Cheesecake centres on three rebellious, vape-loving schoolgirls while Giselle Lin’s Yi Yi (Time Flows in Strange Ways on Sundays) is a bittersweet meditation on memory and loss. 


Image still from T333 (2021, dir. April Lin)

Otherness Archive 

The Otherness Archive is an open-access visual repository of queer films and its pioneers which resists the censorship of homosexual, transgender and racial themes. Works by Asian filmmakers April Lin 林森 and Sarnt Utamachote feature in the current iteration of the archive, which focuses on transmasculine experiences. Check out Lin’s TR333 (2021), a speculative eco-fictional documentary which blends 3D animation, found footage, and a musical score based on data sonification.


Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) by Trinh T. Minh-ha

“There is no such thing as documentary,” writes Vietnamese filmmaker and theorist Trinh t. Minh-ha in her 1990 essay “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” arguing instead that mediated images of reality are never transparent nor innocent. Combining archival footage with seemingly “authentic” interviews of Vietnamese women – later revealed to be reenactments of ethnographic interviews collected and translated in the late 1970s – Surname Viet Given Name Nam blurs the lines between fact and fiction, questioning the construction of documentary truth. Catch this landmark film for free via e-flux’s Screening Room through the month of March.  


A Cambodian Spring (2016) by Christopher Kelly  

Through the eyes of three local activists, A Cambodian Spring (2016) centres on protests against the untrammelled development of Boeung Kak Lake, which forced thousands of residents out of their livelihoods, leaving their homes flooded and buried in sand. Directed by Christopher Kelly, the film premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Canada, and is streaming on MUBI.  



Image still from Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

Asian Cinema Film Club: Top 50 Asian Cinema – Round 4 

Hosts Elwood and Stephen celebrate another 25 episodes of the podcast by adding 50 titles to their list of favourite Asian films. This hefty selection highlights films ranging from Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) to S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR (2022). Check out the full list on Letterboxd.


Image still from High and Low (1963, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

The Cinematologists Podcast: Akira Kurosawa at the BFI 

Film academics Dario Llinares and Neil Fox revisit the work of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa on the occasion of his retrospective at the BFI Southbank. The podcast episode features conversations with the curators of the programme, filmmaker Asif Kapadia and writer Ian Hayden Smith. For those who prefer reading interviews, Smith spoke with about the BFI retrospective.


Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka on the Making of Stonewalling

Episode #450 of the Film at Lincoln Center Podcast features a Q&A from the 60th New York Film Festival with Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka, the directors of Stonewalling (2022). The Beijing-based couple shares how they created the “sense of documentary reality” behind the film. Through the eyes of a young flight-attendant-in-training who carries her child to term to settle a debt, Stonewalling captures the zeitgeist of a younger generation adrift and disillusioned by the crushing promises of capitalism. 



Image still from Tropical Malady (2014, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The Metrograph Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In this interview with the Metrograph, Thai master of slow cinema Apichatpong Weerasethakul reflects on Tropical Malady (2004)’s entry into Sight and Sound’s list of the 100 Greatest Films, on the making of Memoria (2021), which stars Tilda Swinton, and on A Conversation with the Sun (2022), his latest VR-installation incorporating AI-generated conversations and footage from his personal archives. 


Sight and Sound Interviews: Hirokazu Koreeda on Broker (2022)

In this interview for Sight and Sound, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda opens up about his latest film Broker (2022), which centres on a debt-ridden launderette owner and his church-worker accomplice who sell abandoned babies to childless couples. Reflecting on alternative relations of kinship, Koreeda discusses the “innate human desire to form a familial unit”, which connects Broker with his Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (2018). 


Image still from The Once and Future (2021, dir. Yeo Siew Hua)

Flesh Memories: Yeo Siew Hua’s Expanded Cinema in The Once and Future

Singaporean filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua, whose A Land Imagined (2018) clinched the top prize at Locarno speaks with Sense of Cinema on the making of The Once and the Future (2021). Combining laser choreography, a score by the Berliner Philharmoniker, and Anandi Bhattacharya’s vocals, Yeo’s ambitious project in expanded cinema speculates on the possibility of a singular human consciousness. “I wanted to reclaim the corporeal flesh in all its beauty and blemish, and the yearning of it,” he says.


Image still from Burning (2018, dir. Lee Chang-Dong)

Lee Chang-dong’s Short Story “Snowy Days” and an Interview 

Before Lee Chang-dong stepped into the director’s chair, the acclaimed South Korean auteur, whose psycho-thriller Burning (2018) made waves at Cannes and the Academy Awards, was known as a playwright and novelist. His short story “Snowy Days” has been published in The New Yorker Magazine. In an accompanying interview Lee discusses how the story was based on some of his own experiences guarding a barbed wire with a fellow soldier in the cold “like actors onstage in an absurdist play”. 


Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960)

Metrograph editor Nick Pinkerton delves into Kim Ki-young’s classic thriller The Housemaid (1960), wherein the titular femme fatale infiltrates a respectable middle-class family, seducing her employer and setting in motion an escalating series of tragedies. Pinkerton revisits the Golden Age of South Korean cinema and the legacy of the film, which continues to top “best of all time” lists, influencing filmmakers from Im Sang-soo to Bong Joon-ho, who has cited the film as a key inspiration for Parasite (2019). 


Shirin Neshat, The Fury, 2022 (still). Two-channel, HD monochrome video, 16 minutes 15 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery. © Shirin Neshat.

4Columns: Shirin Neshat 

New York-based visual artist Shirin Neshat has positioned herself as a champion for Iranian women’s rights throughout her career in film, video and photography, drawing acclaim, visibility, and also controversy. In this essay for 4Columns, Aruna D’Souza criticises Neshat’s photo-series and two-channel installation The Fury (2022) for playing to Orientalising stereotypes, muffling the voices of actual Iranian women, and instrumentalising Black and Brown people for her own ends. 

Image still from Talking Picture (Takahiko Iimura, dir. 1981)

Takahiko Iimura in Berlin 1973 to 1974

Julian Ross’ essay in the Supplément to the Berlinale Forum and Forum Expanded looks at how avant-garde Japanese filmmaker and video artist Takahiko Iimura’s practice was shaped by his short stay in Berlin between 1973-74. Ross argues that opportunities to present video work in Germany prompted Iimura to redirect his energies to the installations—often utilising black and clear leader or live feedback loops—which preoccupied his practice thereafter. 


Image still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Luck, Statecraft, and Withdrawal: Video Criticism in Southeast Asia

Taking as its starting point the exhibition “Video, an Art, a History 1965–2010”, New York-based writer and curator Serubiri Moses evaluates video art criticism in Southeast Asia by looking into art historian David Teh’s research. The essay considers the paradigm of the nation state in relation to works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Ho Tzu Nyen, among others.


Spirited Away to Miyazaki Land 

Through snippets of an interview with Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, writer Sam Anderson reflects on his visit to Ghibli Park, “Japan’s long-awaited tribute to the legendary animation of Studio Ghibli” for The New York Times Magazine. Anderson details how not a single tree was cut down in the construction of the park, which has neither rollercoasters nor moving mascots.


Linh Tran on Her Slamdance-Winning Debut Waiting for the Light to Change

Vietnam-born, Chicago-based filmmaker Linh Tran’s debut feature, Waiting for the Light to Change (2022), follows five twenty-somethings who gather on a lake house in Michigan in early spring. In an interview with The Film Stage, the director talks about her influences and how she created a sense of authenticity in the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival. 



Call for Proposals: 27th Southeast Asia-Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association (SEAPAVAA) Conference

Founded in 1996, SEAPAVAA aims to strengthen professional capabilities in audiovisual archiving in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This year’s conference will be held from 8 to 13 May in Pattaya, Thailand, under the theme “Sustainable AV Archives for the Community”. The deadline for proposal submissions is March 20, 2023. 

Call for Applications: UnionDocs Summer Documentary Lab

UnionDocs—Center for Documentary Art is now accepting applications for two intensive summer labs that mentor feature documentary projects in their early stages. Selected participants from across the globe will have the opportunity to workshop their concepts, attend screenings, seminars and sessions on documentary production, and encounter industry professionals. The early deadline is March 10, 2023, after which there will be an application fee.

46th Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) 

The first and longest-running festival dedicated to showcasing moving image artists of Asian descent, the AAIFF has premiered acclaimed directors like Wayne Wang, Mira Nair, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and Ang Lee. The 46th edition of the festival will be held from July 26 to August 6, 2023. The regular deadline for submissions is March 10, 2023. More details here.

Asia South East Short Film Festival 2023

Organised by WWCSFF Worldwide Cineastes Film Festivals, the IMDb-qualifying Asia South East Short Film Festival is open for submissions on FilmFreeway. The festival will be held on June 16, 2023, with screenings in Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Taipei Film Festival 2023

The 25th Taipei Film Festival, which runs from June 22 to July 8, 2023, is currently accepting submissions to the International New Talent Competition by emerging filmmakers who have recently completed their first or second features. Read the guidelines here.


This edition of the Asian Cinema Digest is compiled by Sheryl Gwee 

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