On Space, Temporality and Memory: Architectural Representations in Contemporary Asian Cinema

by Sonali Joshi

Both cinema and architecture are spatial practices – they open up the viewer to the possibilities that lie within both art forms, they introduce spectators to new experiences within which the spectator is placed; they are both expressions of ideas that can be transformative, while offering a view that is embedded in a form of realism, but equally a dialectic between “actuality” and “reality”[1]. They are both ‘structural’ art forms and share common traits by which space, light and human interaction and experience combine, positioning the human as both an active and passive spectator. Both are also inherently visual and dependent on light. Architectural practices shape and organise light in ways that allow for certain human interaction and experiences of buildings and structures. Light passes through the camera lens to capture the cinematic image, which is then viewed through the passing of light through the projector as light is reflected onto the screen. Space and light are key points of intersection between cinema and architecture, both producing imagined, physical and sensorial experiences.

3:11 A Sense of Home (2011) dir. Naomi Kawase

Perhaps one of the most quintessential cinematic works that offer such a reading of the city is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Japan 1953), illustrating how the cinematic view can offer a cartography through which to explore the city[2]. Set mostly in Tokyo against the backdrop of post-war reconstruction, Ozu offers “reflective observations on landscape and the city”[3] articulated through the contrasting views of a father and son, mirrored by the rapidly transforming post-war built environment on one hand, and the rural harbour town of Onomichi on the other. Japan is a nation that has been shaped in many ways by both man-made and natural catastrophes, to which both architecture and cinema have offered their responses. In the aftermath of the second world war, Japan found itself in a process of rapid development and modernisation, and this was reflected most evidently in the rise of the city. More recently, the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 followed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster have equally left an indelible imprint on the Japanese psyche and been reflected across art forms. A number of Japanese architects have talked of ‘3:11’ as creating a definitive moment of shift in architectural thinking. Similarly, the disaster became a vital concern for many filmmakers. Naomi Kawase’s collective piece 3:11 A Sense of Home (Japan 2011) draws together short works by filmmakers from across Asia and beyond, each offering their own response to the disaster, one film in particular simulating the experience of the earthquake from within a home. Katsuya Tomita’s Tenzo (Japan 2019) follows the lives of two Buddhist monks in the aftermath of the disaster – one who runs a suicide helpline and another whose temple was destroyed and now lives in a temporary shelter and is a construction worker helping in the debris clear up. As Japan approaches the 10th anniversary of the disaster, both cinema and architecture continue to respond to this ‘event’, one that has become as much an architectural as it is a cinematic response.

Cinema offers the ideal vehicle through which architecture and representations of architecture can be articulated. Indeed, the cinematic viewing experience is by its very nature created through a fusion of an architectural physical form, the structural platform of cinema and the screen, and the space within.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), dir. Tsai Ming-Liang

In Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003), the film theatre provides the entire setting of the film. The owner of the film theatre had approached Tsai Ming-liang to see if he would be interested in collaborating in order to save the cinema which was due to close. Although Tsai Ming-liang turned down the offer of collaboration, he went on to hire the cinema for a year, ultimately using it to film Goodbye, Dragon Inn. As King Hu’s classic wuxia film Dragon Inn (Taiwan/Hong Kong 1967) plays on screen, the film itself becomes the mediator of a dialogue between historical and contemporary modes of filmmaking and film viewing, while history and memory are translated into a contemporary context and thus the film acts as a bridge between a discussion about the past, present and future, all framed within the architectural structure of the film theatre.

The integral relationship between humans and buildings and the ways in which we interact with buildings in relation to time and nostalgia points to an intrinsic fragility embedded in a sense of memory – a concept that is inherent to both architectural and cinematic practice.

Hi-So (2010), dir. Aditya Assarat

In Hi-So (Thailand 2010), Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat offers a personal reflection on the experiences of a young Thai-American man, Ananda, returning from the US to Bangkok, to star in a film. Much of the film’s concerns rest on the contrast between Thai society and American society, yet intertwined within a sense of loss and nostalgia. Memory is bound up within the building that Ananda grew up in and returns to. Following the first half set in an idyllic coastal location, the film then shifts to Bangkok and the grittiness of the urban environment. Ananda reflects the city’s changing landscape upon his return to the building in which he grew up, one that embodies a sense of change but is also visibly in a state of growing decay and disrepair. However, although one of the household servants in the building, Aunt Phen, believes the building is to be renovated, Ananda reveals to his girlfriend that his mother has already sold the land to make way for a road to a shopping mall. Ananda reminisces on how the skyline looked when he was a young boy, and how the cityscape has drastically changed over time. The contrast between a longing for the past and the inevitability of the future involving demolition and development is characterised by the building itself, which also forms the centrepiece of Aditya Assarat’s companion short film 6 to 6 (Thailand 2012) in which three of the household servants including Aunt Phen feature again in the part-demolished building. Aditya Assarat also produced Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s debut feature, 36 (Thailand 2012), in which a similar derelict building becomes a site of an encounter between a film location scout Sai and art director Oom. As Sai seeks to capture every precious image on her digital camera, Oom poignantly suggests that the act of remembering is perhaps itself more important than capturing the memory.

Diamond Island (2016), dir. Davy Chou

The subject of development and changing cityscapes features in several films produced by Cambodian collective Anti-Archive in which the city of Phnom Penh plays a central role in the depiction of the lives of urban youth. Davy Chou’s second feature film Diamond Island (Cambodia/France 2016) follows the story of 18 year old Bora, who, having grown up in a rural village, heads to the city to work on the construction site of a new upmarket property development. Named Diamond Island, the development represents Cambodia’s future, an “ultra-modern paradise… encapsulating the dreams of youth and rapid urban modernisation at once”[4]. In one striking scene, which we subsequently come to realise is in fact a dream sequence, Bora is led by his estranged brother, who has tracked him down, onto what we assume to be the construction site. His brother beckons him to climb up onto what appears to be the highest point of the construction, urging him to surmount his fears. The building represents both the future and fear of the unknown, all wrapped up within a sense of unstoppable urbanisation and transformation that becomes entwined within the experience or at least the dreams of urban youth. This is mirrored by a later scene where Bora and his friends along with some girls head over to the now almost complete apartment complex for their own private party, waking up in the lavish surroundings they helped construct but which are far from their own reality.

One of the producers of Diamond Island, Steve Chen, also made a film on the same theme entitled Dreamland a year earlier and also an Anti-Archive production, who interestingly works in a cross-disciplinary manner as a filmmaker, producer and architect. He describes his practice, Chen Office, as a cross­-disciplinary design and production house based on “a shared vision for an alternative spatial practice”[5].

Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019), dir. Kavich Neang

A more recent Anti-Archive production also takes urbanisation as its core theme, but in this case reflecting real human experience and an existential threat to a building and its community. In Last Night I Saw You Smiling (Cambodia/France 2019), Kavich Neang focuses on his own family’s experience of eviction from an iconic housing complex known as the White Building. Rapid population growth in Phnom Penh starting in the early 1950s led to an urgent housing need in the city and the White Building, completed in 1963, was a response to this and “exemplar of Khmer architectural modernism”[6]. In more recent times, due to its prime location, the building came under increasing risk from the threat of demolition and development. Kavich Neang, born and raised within the White Building, sought to capture memories and a collective sense of loss amid the uncertainty around their futures, by turning his camera onto his own family and the community within it. A housing block that once bore witness to unprecedented events in Cambodia’s 20th century history, now sees demolition loom large. The building that held Kavich’s hopes to shoot a fiction film (which he in fact did go on to shoot and has almost completed) becomes the set for a real life turn of events. The corridors of the building become a film set, where daily life plays out. The darkness of the corridors mirrors the now greying walls that were once radiant. A building that was once Cambodia’s first multi-storey housing complex must give way for the inevitability of urbanisation.

While these films explore the relationship between human experience and the built environment, other cinematic representations of architecture and the city look at imagined futures and utopian ideals.

The northern Indian city of Chandigarh is the subject of New Zealand artist-filmmaker Gavin Hipkins’ film City of Tomorrow (New Zealand 2017). The film navigates the city, modelled on Garden City principles and designed by renowned French architect Le Corbusier, whose early writings on repetition and order (“The City of Tomorrow and its Planning”, 1929) form the basis of the film. Hipkins uses black and white to heighten the curves and grid-like pattern of the city, elucidated by light and shadows, while the cinematic viewpoint provides the vehicle through which to explore this unique architecturally designed city.

Ai Weiwei’s film Ordos 100 (China 2012) furthers the idea of a utopian architectural concept of the city. Bringing together 100 architects from 27 different countries, the documentary charts the development of a curated construction project led jointly by Ai Weiwei and architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron to design a city amid the desolate landscape of inner Mongolia. A unique experiment in collective architectural practice, it was nevertheless one that would never be realised, although it still stands as a cinematic project in its own right.

Nervous Translation (2018) dir. Shireen Seno

Cinema and architecture share common traits and I would argue that cinema is in itself inherently architectural – through the processes of filmmaking and film viewing, through structure, and through human experience, and this often rests on notions of memory. Shireen Seno, a filmmaker also having first studied architecture, presents a child’s view of the world in Nervous Translation (Philippines 2018) through a particularly structured frame in which most of the film plays out in the home of a young girl and her mother. This architectural viewpoint that Seno takes is illustrated through her editing style which combines long and short takes and is curiously heightened by the ingenious use of ‘miniatures’, in particular a miniature kitchen, that reflects a child’s world. The final scene which sees the ravages of a typhoon destroy this miniature world is brutal, but also telling of the child’s world view being disrupted by forces beyond the control of anyone around her, and ultimately this miniature world becomes larger than life. Indeed, Shireen Seno has talked of the film as a means of expression connected to notions of longing, history and fragments of memories[7].

Syndromes and a Century (2006), dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

An intertwined relationship between humans and buildings and the representations of such interactions particularly in relation to time and nostalgia point to an intrinsic fragility embedded in a sense of memory. Syndromes and a Century (Thailand 2006) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, himself having first studied architecture before turning to filmmaking, hinges on this very concept of memory infused within a structural space, in this case that of the hospital where the two central characters meet, inspired by Weerasethakul’s own parents. The physical structure of the hospital becomes the space within which a love story is articulated, albeit represented differently in the two distinct parts to the film – in the first half we see a hospital in a rural setting, while in the second we see a more modern clinic in an urban setting with scenes from the first half played out again although not identically. Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses such techniques to disrupt the narrative, thus creating unique structure and temporality to his films created through fragments and reconstruction and I would argue that these techniques are thus by their very nature architectural. As such, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmmaking style exemplifies a spatial filmic practice, and as someone who studied architecture before turning to cinema, he describes this relationship between both art forms in the following way:

“For me, architects and film directors operate similarly. They are practical. As an architect, you know what you want in the conception of a space… But in terms of concept, it’s always about time. When you approach a building, you need time to go from point A to B. Buildings are designed as a journey and films are the same, you have an opening that you come through, an angle you follow, maybe a disruption in space.”[8]


Chen Office, http://www.chenoffice.com

Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, https://www.circuit.org.nz/film/city-of-tomorrow-trailer

Fiederer, Luke (2018), AD Classics: Master Plan for Chandigarh / Le Corbusier, ArchDaily, https://www.archdaily.com/806115/ad-classics-master-plan-for-chandigarh-le-corbusier/  

Hruksa, Jordan (2010), The Architecture of Apichatpong, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/apichatpong-joe-weerasethakul-56152/

Ingawanij, May Adadol (2019), Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Art As Common Property, https://opencitylondon.com/news/open-city-documentary-festival-2019-focus-last-night-i-saw-you-smiling-the-invisible-presence-of-this-place/

Joshi, Sonali (2018), Nervous Translation, https://www.day-for-night.org/nervous-translation/

Joshi, Sonali (2018), Diamond Island, https://www.day-for-night.org/aperture-2018/

Joshi, Sonali (2020), Tokyo Story, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/best-japanese-film-every-year

Liotta, Salvator-John A. (2007), A Critical Study on Tokyo: Relations Between Cinema, Architecture, and Memory A Cinematic Cartography, Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 6:2, 205-212, DOI: 10.3130/jaabe.6.205

Lovatt, Philippa (2013), ‘Every drop of my blood sings our song. There, can you hear it?’: Haptic sound and embodied memory in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The New Soundtrack 3.1 (2013): 61–79 DOI: 10.3366/sound.2013.0036 [Edinburgh University Press] https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/16974/1/sound.2013.pdf

Nakayama, Hideyuki (2019), and then: 5 Films of 5 Architecture [Toto]

Paveck, Hannah (2019), Wonder in Miniature: Shireen Seno’s ‘Nervous Translation’, Another Gaze, https://www.anothergaze.com/wonder-miniature-shireen-senos-nervous-translation-feminist-review/

Thrift, Matthew (2019), Tsai Ming-liang: 90 minutes with the slow cinema master, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/tsai-ming-liang-deserted


3:11 A Sense of Home (Naomi Kawase, Japan 2011)
36 (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Thailand 2012)
6 to 6 (Aditya Assarat, Thailand 2012)
City of Tomorrow (Gavin Hipkins, New Zealand 2017)
Diamond Island (Davy Chou, Cambodia/France 2016)
Dragon Inn (King Hu, Taiwan/Hong Kong 1967)
Dreamland (Steve Chen, Cambodia 2015)
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan 2003)
Hi-So (Aditya Assarat, Thailand 2010)
Last Night I Saw You Smiling (Kavich Neang, Cambodia/France 2019)
Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno, Philippines 2018)
Ordos 100 (Ai Weiwei, China 2012)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand 2006)
Tenzo (Katsuya Tomita, Japan 2019)
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1953)

[1] Nakayama, Hideyuki (2019), and then: 5 Films of 5 Architecture [Toto]

[2] Liotta, Salvator-John A. (2007), A Critical Study on Tokyo: Relations Between Cinema, Architecture, and Memory A Cinematic Cartography, https://doi.org/10.3130/jaabe.6.205  

[3] Joshi, Sonali (2020), Tokyo Story, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/best-japanese-film-every-year

[4] Joshi, Sonali (2018), Diamond Island, https://www.day-for-night.org/aperture-2018/

[5] http://www.chenoffice.com

[6] Ingawanij, May Adadol (2019), Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Art As Common Property,  https://opencitylondon.com/news/open-city-documentary-festival-2019-focus-last-night-i-saw-you-smiling-the-invisible-presence-of-this-place/

[7] Shireen Seno, https://www.day-for-night.org/nervous-translation/

[8] https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/apichatpong-joe-weerasethakul-56152/

About the Author

Sonali Joshi is a curator, access specialist, subtitler, and founder of specialist exhibitor/distributor Day for Night and Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival. She is currently curating a 3-year project entitled “Urban, Natural, Human – architecture and environment in Japanese moving image”. Her interests cover architecture and cinema, Southeast Asian, Japanese and Himalayan cinemas.

Sonali began her career in film programming at Cornerhouse (now HOME, UK), before moving into film distribution in Paris and establishing and leading the foreign language subtitling department of a former London based post-production house.

She established Day for Night in 2006, seeking to champion access, inclusion and diversity in film. Sonali is also a French to English and English hard-of-hearing subtitler and manages subtitling and audio-description projects in various languages.

As a cultural activist, she has combined campaigning and experience as a cultural practitioner to lobby actively for the creative industries in the UK.

Sonali holds a PhD in Cinema Studies (University of Glasgow).

About the Writer