Asian Cinema Digest #36

A dossier of interviews, essays, a podcast – voices from the margins are amplified in June, looking at the politics of truth-telling and representation with lots on documentary filmmaking.


Image still from Tokyo Uber Blues (2022, dir. Taku Aoyagi)

30th Edition of Sheffield DocFest

Sheffield DocFest’s online programme features a number of documentaries from Asia, including Tokyo Uber Blues, shot by filmmaker Taku Aoyagi while he was working to make ends meet as a food delivery rider during the pandemic; Mehran Tamadon’s documentary Where God Is Not, gives voice to former political prisoners of the Iranian regime and their traumatic experiences of incarceration and torture. Streaming for a fee for UK audiences from June 19 to 25. 

Image still from: I Scream Fever (2023, dir. Tetsuya Chihara)

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia Virtual Screenings 

Founded in 1999, the Academy Awards-accredited Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia is one of the largest of its kind in the region. Selected shorts from the live programme are streaming for free here, alongside an online special selection.


Image still from Butterfly (2004, dir. Yan Yan Mak)

Odyssey: A Chinese Cinema Season

Organised by non-profit organisation UK-China Film Collab, the film festival Odyssey: A Chinese Cinema Season runs through June 2023. Virtual screenings across the genres of fiction, documentary and animation are for rent under 5 main strands: ‘Journey’, ‘Equality’, ‘Biodiversity’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Urban Development’. Check out the in-focus section, which spotlights films starring actress Josie Ho, including Yan Yan Mak’s Butterfly (2004). 


Image still from Lan Yu (2001, dir. Stanley Kwan)

Lan Yu (2001) by Stanley Kwan 

Based on an anonymously published Internet novel, Stanley Kwan’s queer cult classic Lan Yu chronicles a tragic romance between an architecture student and a closeted older businessman. Over a decade of falling in and out of each other’s lives, Lan Yu and Chen Handong grapple with mounting social pressures while wading through the political turmoil of late 1980s-early 1990s Beijing. Streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Shinjuku Boys (1995) by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams 

Through the eyes of three transmasculine onabe who work as hosts at the New Marilyn Night Club, Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’s documentary Shinjuku Boys delves into the complexities of gender and sexuality in 1990s Tokyo. Interview sequences shot in the club, which is patronised by straight women who have become disappointed with cis men, alternate with candid scenes of the three at home and with their partners. Streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of Masc, a collection spotlighting the stories of transgender men, butch lesbians and gender-nonconforming people.


Fresh Kill (1994) by Shu Lea Cheang 

For those who missed Taiwanese-born artist and filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill while it was showing at the AFA earlier in 2023, the film is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. Toxic waste litters a post-apocalyptic landscape where radioactive fish glow green in Cheang’s “eco-cybernoia”, which satirises the evils of consumerist capitalism. 


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on MUBI: Uncle Boonmee (2010) and Mekong Hotel (2012)

As he spends his last days contemplating the reasons for his illness, Uncle Boonmee is visited by memories of his past lives. Ghostly eyes gleam in the dark and spirits sit by sun-dappled mosquito nets in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s luminous Palme d’Or-winning film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Meditating on filmmaking as a means of creating “synthetic past lives”, the film pays homage to the kinds of cinema that the director grew up with, interweaving six 16mm film reels, each shot in subtly different styles. Now available on MUBI

In a hotel overlooking the portion of the Mekong River which divides Thailand and Laos, Apichatpong and his crew rehearse for a project titled Ecstasy Garden. Set to the wistful melody of an acoustic guitar, the film mixes documentary and fiction, with two lovers haunted by the woman’s mother in the form of a flesh-eating ghost. Mekong Hotel arrives on MUBI on June 30


The Video Essay: “Fading Apparition”

Combining half-articulated speech fragments, an evocative soundtrack, and images of darkness and sleeping bodies found across Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, Vasco Vasconcelos’s video essay is an open-ended meditation on the cinematic significance of sleep. Jointly presented by MUBI and FILMADRID International Film Festival, Vasconcelos’s essay is one of the seven video essays which will premiere on MUBI’s Notebook from June 5 through June 11, 2023. 

Image still from Methods for Egg-Viewing 卵形凝視法 (1973, dir. Masaki Matsushita and Yoichi Nagata)

Experimental films by Masaki Matsushita and Yoichi Nagata

Equinox is streaming a compilation of shorts by Japanese experimental film artists Masaki Matsushita and Yoichi Nagata. Largely shot in black-and-white with a handheld camera, the films upend ordinary ways of seeing the world – Methods of Egg-Viewing, for instance, plays with the plain contours of an egg, turning it into a Surrealist framing device. 

DAFilms: A Thousand Fires (2021) by Saeed Taji Farouky

Palestinian-British filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky’s 2021 documentary A Thousand Fires chronicles the lives of a Burmese couple, Htwe Tin and Thein Shwe, who run an unregulated oil field using precarious, hand-drilled extraction methods. They eke out a barrel every few days, in hopes of giving their teenage son a better chance at life. But the boy’s entry into a football academy in the city threatens their familial ties. Drawing similarities between Thein Shwe and his own father, a Palestinian refugee who worked hard for his family, Farouky reflects on the human aspects of the global oil industry which connect his childhood in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to his subjects’ lives in Myanmar. 



Image still from: Jinpa (2018, dir. Pema Tseden)

Quiet Storm: Pema Tseden and the emergence of Tibetan cinema

Indian-born Tibetan film director Tenzing Sonam reflects on the coming-of-age of Tibet’s nascent film movement in an essay now published on White Crane Films’s website. Sonam situates Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden’s The Silent Holy Stones (2005), The Search (2009) and Old Dog (2011) in the context of increasing repression by the Chinese authorities and censorship processes which leave filmmakers liable to imprisonment for hints of subversion in their work. Yet, despite these limitations to his creative freedom, Pema Tsedan’s films testify to the enduring dynamism of Tibetan cultural identity, operating at a “deeply humanistic level” that transcends China’s colonial presence in Tibet. 


Image still from: Egaro Mile (Eleven Miles, 1991, dir. Ruchir Joshi)

Death Race Calcutta: Ruchir Joshi’s Essay Films

Writing for MUBI, Andrew Northrop delves into three films by Indian cultural writer, novelist and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi, which screened at the 2023 Essay Film Festival. Taking a self-reflexive approach to capturing Bengal’s traditional wandering musicians, Joshi’s feature film Eleven Miles (Egaro Mile, 1991) questions documentary conventions, sitting “somewhere between an essay film and a road movie”. Tales from Planet Kolkata (1993) challenges stereotypical filmic representations of Calcutta; while Memories from Milk City (1992) merges a meditative poem and an encounter with a group of opinionated young men.

Image still from What Happened to This City? (1986, dir. Deepa Dhanraj)

The Good Fight: Deepa Dhanraj’s Visions of Solidarity

In this Criterion Current essay, Devika Girish looks into how Indian documentarian Deepa Dhanraj’s feminist films were intended as tools for mobilisation, based on an intersectional understanding of gender, class, caste and religious inequities. At the same time, Dhanraj’s ethos stresses filmmaking as a “time of respite for her subjects, away from the daily exigencies of survival.” 


Image still from Bumming in Beijing: The Lost Dreamers (1990, dir. Wu Wenguang)

The Chinese Independent Documentary Movement Revisited

A new issue of the bilingual journal Chinese Independent Cinema Observer, which publishes twice a year, can now be downloaded online. Issue 5, “The Chinese Independent Documentary Movement Revisited”, features 19 interviews with significant documentary filmmakers, including Jiang Yue, Hu Jie and Wang Nanfu. Originally published in a 2021 issue of the Chinese-language journal Jintian (Today), the interviews have been translated to English.

Image still from Youth (Spring) (2023, dir. Wang Bing)

Interview: Wang Bing at Cannes 

Shot over the course of a year, Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring) centres on young textile workers in Zhili, Huzhou. In an interview with Dennis Lim at Cannes, the Chinese documentarian opens up about how the film’s patchwork structure, which aims to “maintain the integrity” of each subject, was edited from 2600 hours of footage. Wang also touches on his other documentary Man in Black, which focuses on classical composer Wang Xilin and his memories of imprisonment and torture during the Cultural Revolution.

New Left Review’s Sidecar: Stridulations

Writer James Wham reflects on the “monstrous stridulations of the machines” in Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring), setting its portrayals of harrowing working conditions in contemporary textile factories in conversation with Engel’s critiques of the “barbarous indifference” surrounding the 19th century industrial revolution. 


Image still from Tiger Stripes (2023, dir. Amanda Nell Eu)

How A New Wave Of Southeast Asian Filmmakers Is Making An Impact In Cannes

In this feature for Deadline, Liz Shackleton looks into the reasons behind the growing presence of Southeast Asian films at major international film festivals. Speaking to the producers of films like Tiger Stripes and Inside the Yellow Cocoon, Shackleton highlights how labs, workshops, and regional funding schemes have helped to raise production values and spur creativity in filmmaking.


Image still from Rebels of the Neon God (1992, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang)

Senses of Cinema: Annotations on Tsai Ming-liang

Senses of Cinema has published new annotations on several of Tsai Ming-liang’s films as part of the acclaimed Malaysian-Taiwanese director’s retrospective at the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Read about how Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) is an invitation to “bear witness to the decay of cinema” and how the disjointed temporality of What Time is it There? (2001) “refract[s] a Taiwanese culture ‘out of joint’ at the dawn of the new millennium”.

Don’t miss out AFA’s screening of Tsai’s debut feature Rebels of the Neon God (1992) on June 18 and 25. Tickets here


Image still from The Dragon Lives Again (1977, dir. Bruce Leung Siu-lung)

Bruce Lee’s Indomitable Legacy 

A series by the Spectacle Theater in New York, titled “Milking the Dragon: The Golden Age of Bruceploitation”, spotlights films starring Bruce Lee-lookalikes, which sought to capitalise on the kung-fu star’s popularity after his death. ScreenSlate’s article looks into how Lee became an “increasingly disembodied signifier” as the Bruceploitation cycle went on, perpetuating his personal mythology. 


Domitable Myth: Three Depictions of Japanese Holdout Soldier Hiroo Onoda

Mia Stewart, the Philippine-born director of an upcoming 15-plus-years-in-the-making documentary titled Searching for Onoda, unpacks the myth surrounding Hiroo Onoda. The titular subject was a Japanese soldier who remained on Lubang Island in the Philippines for 29 years after the end of World War II, killing civilians, including the filmmaker’s grand-uncle. Competing narratives persist as to whether Onoda truly believed that the war was not over – making him both a war hero and a victim of militarism – or whether this was a lie fabricated to recuperate his evil acts. In this interview with A.E. Hunt, Stewart discusses the myths peddled by Arthur Harari’s film Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle and Werner Herzog’s novel The Twilight World.



Image still from Forgetting Vietnam (2015, dir. Trinh T. Minh-ha)

The Film Comment Podcast: In Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha 

To mark the launch of her new artist book, titled The Twofold Commitment, postcolonial and feminist filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha joins The Film Comment Podcast for a rich, insightful conversation. Minh-ha touches on how filmmaking translates reality, what nostalgia means in the context of war’s traumas, knowledge and ignorance, and our shifting relationships with old and new technologies. 

Writing for e-flux Criticism, Patrick J. Reed reviews Trinh T. Minh-ha’s The Twofold Commitment, which features the script of her film Forgetting Vietnam (2015), which was released in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. 


ICA Infrequencies: In Conversation with the Myanmar Film Collective  

Two years after the military coup which deposed democratically elected leaders in Myanmar, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) hosted a Q&A session with a member of the anonymous Myanmar Film Collective after the screening of their film, Myanmar Diaries (2022). 

Combining elements of documentary and fiction, the film bears witness to the brutal takeover and to the courageous resistance movements that rose in its aftermath. The filmmaker shares how the tragedy has slipped beneath the international radar, touching on the intensifying violence on the ground in Myanmar, on the collective’s upcoming project, and on the “fighting chance” that they have to topple the military junta which has had a hold on the country since 1962. 

Myanmar Diaries is screening as part of AFA’s programme Coming of Rage: Asian Youth & Politics on Screen, with a Q&A session on June 24, 2023. Get your tickets here


FLC Podcast: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Revisits Blissfully Yours (2002) 

As part of a post-screening Q&A session at the Lincoln Centre retrospective, The World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director reflects on Blissfully Yours (2002). The film follows an illegal Burmese immigrant with a mysterious rash, his Thai girlfriend, and a middle-aged woman on a hazy afternoon by a river in the jungle. Apichatpong touches on how he falls asleep during his own films and how cinema is a dream in itself. 


Image still from Dust of Angels (1992, dir. Hsu Hsiao-ming)

Deep Cut: HKIFF2023 Dispatch 

Podcast host Wilson Lai joins Benjamin Yap and Eli Sands in reporting from the 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), reviewing some of his favourites at the festival, including Elvis A-Liang Lu’s intensely personal documentary A Holy Family (2022), Hong Sang Soo’s painterly, out-of-focus feature in water (2023), and the new 4K restoration of Hsu Hsiao-ming’s crime film Dust of Angels (1992). Featuring interviews with Hong Kong directors, Soi Cheang and Ann Hui. 



Call for submissions: 25th Bucheon International Animation Festival

In its 25th year running, the Academy Awards qualifying Bucheon International Animation Festival will be held from October 20 to 24, 2023. BIAF is currently accepting submissions to four out of the five award categories through June 30, 2023. 


Call for submissions: 28th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) 

The Busan International Film Festival is calling for submissions to its official selection. Films completed between October 2022 and September 2023 are welcome. The deadlines for the short and feature film categories are June 21, 2023 and July 19, 2023, respectively. 


Call for submissions: 12th Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF)

Founded by filmmaker-artists Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in 2012, the 12th edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) will run from November 3 to 6, 2023, with extended online screenings. DIFF welcomes independently produced films completed on or after January 1, 2022. Submit your work by July 15 via FilmFreeway.


Call for submissions: TOKYO FILMeX International Film Festival

Focusing on new independent feature-length films, especially from Asia, TOKYO FILMeX is calling for submissions in two competitive categories. Emerging Asian directors are encouraged to submit their films to the TOKYO FILMeX Competition by July 15, 2023. International filmmakers are invited to submit their work to the Special Screening Section by June 30, 2023. Read the regulations and submit your entries here


Call for projects: AFAC’s Cinema Program

Established as an independent foundation to support artists, writers, and researchers from the Arab region, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) is calling for submissions to its Cinema programme. Directors and producers living in the Arab region or the diaspora can apply with a maximum of two projects per cycle. The deadline is July 4, 2023, 1700 (Beirut time). More details here


Call for pitches: Michael O’Pray Prize 2023

The Michael O’Pray Prize is an “award for new writing on innovation and experimentation in the moving image.” Early-career writers based in the UK are invited to submit a short pitch for a new text, alongside an example of previous writing. Three applicants will be selected to write their texts, which will be published by Art Monthly and FVU. Submissions due July 3, 2023, 12 noon BST. 


This edition of the Asian Cinema Digest was compiled by Sheryl Gwee. 

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