Revisiting the New Windows: Asian Films at the junction of the New Millennium

By Dr. Liew Kai Khiun

Gen-X, retrospectively

When the Asian Film Archive invited me to write a commentary for their screenings of twelve films for September 2023 under the theme of Y2K DreamZ, I felt an immediate nostalgia for a time that I think will no longer be repeated. Among the productions that I recognised instantaneously were that of Lee Chang Dong’s Peppermint Candy (박하사탕,1999) and that of Chan’s 2000AD (2000). Other than those titles, The rest of the programme is new to me. In responding to these, the challenge comes in how to thread a more common narrative from the diverse national and thematic backgrounds from this selection.

Certainly,  except for 2000AD these films do not deal directly with the anxieties over the possible disruptions that might arise from the automatic global reset of entire computer systems back to 1900 instead of going forward to the year 2000 Nonetheless, they came into existence in a world just emerging from the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) Cold War decades constant threat of a nuclear apocalypse. Perhaps the way of understanding the selection of films is under the real possibilities of resets, how to move history forward. I will elaborate these possibilities within three interrelated areas, the windows of opportunities offered by a liberalised global environment that we now see retrospectively as precarious, the pushing of socio-cultural and cinematic boundaries by filmmakers, as well as the transnational cinematic connections during this period.

I would like to periodise the film selections within the decade of the 1990s in which they served as reflections, responses, and predictions of the historical transformations that I now revisit with some nostalgia for the hope it had offered to my 20-year-old self then. Starting with the collapse of the Berlin Wall a year ago in 1989, this decade looked optimistically towards the new millennium. Reopened borders, deregulated economies, democratised societies, and new connectivity from the internet that gave promising futures. The continued commitment of China’s opening to the world in the post-Tiananmen years, the ending of four decades of war in Indo-China, and the momentum of democratisation in The Philippines and South Korea in the 1980s to that of reformasi in Indonesia and Malaysia in 1998; all pointed to what political scientist Francis Fukuyama envisioned in 1989 as the path towards “The End of History” with the triumph of liberal democracy.

The Financial Crisis of 1997, which started almost immediately after the historic handover of Hong Kong to China on 1 July, might had rocked the economies and societies from South Korea to Indonesia. However, the wheels of the Asian “miracle” economies continued to turn. What worried the world was that of the specter of global chaos from the increasingly connected financial and logistical systems from a prospective computational reset of data to zero immediately at midnight of 2000, a fear known as the Y2K. There was no reset as the world moved on and celebrated the arrival of the new millennium.

This was what the 1990s looked like to me growing up during the decade as part of what we were called, the “Generation-X” or the “Gen-X”. Also known as the MTV generation, our identities were increasingly defined along screen cultures. From Tiananmen to Baghdad and New York’s World Trade Centre, we witnessed wars in real time “live” from the comforts of television in not just our living rooms, but our homes, as television sets expanded to the bedrooms. From the unreserved portrayals of violent ganglands in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) to that of the pioneering computer-generated imageries of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) as well as the shaky handheld cameras movements of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s Blair Witch Project (1999), the screen experience of drive-by-shootings, velociraptors and hauntings became more real than reality itself. This was also a decade where public complaints against the perceived increasing trends of explicit portrayals of sex and violence on the screens, signifying too the diversification of content to include more experimental and daring themes.

Meanwhile, the 1990s witnessed the transformation of the single screen cinema to that of the multiplexes where several films can be screened simultaneously in smaller rooms, thus expanding consumer choices significantly. That was a time before selfies, webcams and CCTV when the gaze was still facing outwards. We were the generation that took film so seriously that we turned Star Wars of the 1980s into a religion by the 90s, and horror was a long-hair female in white crawling out of the television screen in Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998). For me, “X” in the 1990s was associated more with that of Spike Lee’s biopic of the African American civil-rights activist, Malcolm X (1993) played by Denzel Washington. Three decades on, Black Lives continue to matter.

As such, I saw in screen cultures, offering me new imaginations, reflections and predictions.  From a retrospective distance of three decades, I can now see them as having presented  new starting points and, also new warnings. One prophetic scenario was that of Stuart Baird’s Executive Decision (1996) featuring Kurt Russell, Halle Berry and Steven Seagal stopping a hijacked commercial airplane loaded with dangerous chemical heading for New York City. On September 11, 2001, the world, including myself, witnessed live on television the second plane crashing into New York’s World Trade Centre, heralding the start of the War on Terror in the new decade, and the end of the optimism of the 1990s.

As I was thinking of the relevance of film in the 1990s for this topic, another film genre on viruses and diseases came to mind in the 1995 film Outbreak, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and Dustin Hoffman trying to trace an imported African primate as the source of a deadly epidemic that resulted in the lockdown of entire cities in America. This scenario became a reality in 2020. When COVID-19 pandemic broke out two decades later, the lockdowns became global daily living realities of isolation and anomie seemed also closer to the scenario of an outbreak of the “Cockroach virus” in Tsai’s The Hole.

Figure 1: Screenshot from Tsai Ming Liang’s The Hole

Finally, the sophisticated T1000 liquid metal shape shifting polyalloy robot assassin and its more dated cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Terminator 2 (1991) and the black suited Agent Smith in the virtual world of The Matrix (1999) did not materialise, yet. However, these films predicted the challenges Artificial Intelligence and Big Data confronting humanity in the age of CHAT GPT and drone warfare.


Window of possibilities and opportunities

World Cinema benefited from a more peaceful, liberalised, and connected geopolitical environment of the post-Cold War 1990s. This decade also coincided with the coming of age of a new generation of “new wave” filmmakers in the region using the moving image to navigate the shifting socio-cultural identities. Here, the 1990s offered an unprecedented window of opportunity for filmmakers to expand on their creative works in offering new narratives unimaginable just a decade ago. Dependent on individual societies and industries, this window did not remain open all the time where filmmakers in the region were at the mercy of the political climates in which they operated within.

In the Middle East, the end of the Iran-Iraq War as well as the Lebanese civil war offered the otherwise war-torn region a brief respite (that was again shortly interrupted by the Gulf War in 1990). This gave the opportunity for director Ghassan Salhab the context to locate the generation that grew up during the Lebanese civil war depicting how they retrace the spaces within the war-torn urban ruins in Terra Incognita (2002). For Iran, alongside the cessation of hostilities, the death of the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, put forth a possible end to the turbulent Islamic revolution associated with his ascendency.  Iranian films made significant headways in international film festivals in the 1990s. But the oscillating moments of repression and reform within Tehran placed its filmmakers in tensely precarious positions. Every Iranian film that was screened in international film festivals, especially from women filmmakers like Mania Akbari’s 20 Fingers (بیست انگشت, 2004) became one that successfully squeezed through the constantly flipping shutters of Iran’s windows.

Figure 2: A scene from Terra Incognita


Figure 3: Confronting South Korea’s past in Peppermint Candy

Films like Lee Chang Dong’s Peppermint Candy and Tsai Ming Liang’s The Hole were the products of the creativities released from the democratisation of South Korea and Taiwan that were once under military dictatorship and authoritarian rule. Peppermint Candy emerged from a series of South Korean films in the 1990s that took the opportunities of new freedoms to critically revisit the traumatic impact of the country’s repressive dictatorial legacy and honour the sustained resistance to it. Lee moved on to serve shortly as South Korea’s Culture Minister between 2003 to 2004 and continued making films into the 2020s. Now a film classic of Korean cinema, his iconic production coincided with the beginnings of the globalization of Korean popular culture

A year after Peppermint Candy, Il Mare (2000), a romantic time-travel film was released starring Jung Ji-Hyun and Lee Jung-Jae. In the next two decades, the Korean Wave or Hallyu made these individuals household names around the world. With Lee Jung-Jae as the protagonist, the games in the Netflix series Squid Game (2021) became used by kids in playgrounds around the world.


Pushing Boundaries

I have been a fan of Hong Kong Cinema’s Wong Kar Wai. I watched his 1997 production Happy Together (春光乍泄) that premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival that year. What shocked me, and I think many of the audiences as well, was the passionate lovemaking between the characters played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung in the opening scene. It is admittedly my first cinematic encounter with gay sex. Do remember, that it was in the 1990s where the internet had to be accessed by a dial-up mode and I was still largely in the analogue age when pornography came in printed literature and gay sex was criminalised. Film introduced me to new perspectives and worlds about how we can be over what we ought to be.

The superpower ideological contest of the Cold War might have ended. But the Culture Wars for Asia were starting to surface. Following Samuel Huntington’s predictions of the world divided between Western Christendom and the Asian Confucian zone in The Clash of Civilisation in 1993, was a regional debate on “Asian Values” that attributed the “Asian miracle economies” to Confucian notions of harmony founded on social collectiveness, cultural paternalism in placing emphasis on societal interest over that of the individual. Put simply, it is also known as family values.

Film has been a platform where such contestations are created through scenarios on the big screen that often place established norms and values to the test. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, the triumphant narratives of Asian values came crashing with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 where such values were blamed for whitewashing entrenched cultures of corruption and cronyism that was attributable to the economic debacle. In fact, after several decades of economic prosperity, Japan was by the 1990s, suffering from deflationary trends that turned society to more critical introspection.

The trends can be seen to be reflected in the films that have been selected for this theme.  Katsuhito Ishii’s Taste of Tea (茶の味, 2004) takes a surreal interpretation of changing times and expectations within a rural Japanese family. Although India was not affected by the Asian Financial Crisis, the 1990s saw similar critical portrayals in Indian Cinema in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (आग, 1997) where she explored the presence of otherwise highly tabooed notions lesbian relationships within loveless marriages.

Two productions in the programme lineup, Shunji Iwai’s production All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて, 2022) and Lawrence Ah Mon’s Spacked Out, were dealing more harshly and irreverently with the experiences of social dysfunctionality from the perspectives of youth in the areas of bullying, juvenile delinquency, and anomie in Asian cities. This mood was also captured cinematically with what was considered then more radical techniques of first-person Point of View that opened new subjectivities in how we see the world.  The difference between this generation with that of their parents? Discmans, mobile phones and the internet. These new media and communication technologies gave the Gen-X youths the possibilities of finding new connectivity, mobility and identities, and un-Confucian digital individualities, something we take for granted two decades later in our Spotify playlists.


Figure 4: The first mobile generation (Screenshots from All About Lily Chou-Chou and Spacked Out)

It remains easy to casually drop civilisational labels of Confucianism on entire societies in the modern Asian contexts. But these films have instead taken the more intellectually laborious path in exploring people as complex individual subjects living at the juncture of the 21st Century.


Trans-national connectivity

I am a scholar of transnational circulation of popular culture between East and Southeast Asia and I have been researching its historical flows and observing contemporary trends for the past two decades. I see in the selection of films in the Y2KDreamz programme with such transnational identifications that include the following: the industry collaborations between Hong Kong and Singapore in Gordon Chan’s 2000AD, The Hole, directed by Taiwan-based Malaysian Tsai Ming Liang, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s cosmopolitan narrative in Last Life in the Universe เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล (2003) with Japanese and Thai actors under the cinematography of Hong Kong-based Christopher Doyle.

Rather than its singular term “transnational”, I use “Trans-national” here in the subtitle to convey the inclusion of the national in the geographical imaginations and travel of the selection of films. In particular, the travels of protagonists across different areas in their own countries in Malaysia and the Philippines respectively in Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, 2006) and John Torres’s Todo Todo Teros (2006). Here, one does not need to go abroad to experience cultural cacophonies.

Common to these films are the notions of tourism, tours and tourism where the films serve in some ways as tour guides to both the characters and audiences, like in the Olga, the Russian tour guide in Berlin whom Torres in Tod Todo Teros is infatuated with. One sees that also in Noi serving as a defacto guide for fugitive Kenji in rural Thailand in Last Life of the Universe, and in Fire, where the film opens with a guided in the Taj Mahal. Produced at the turn of the new century, the production of these films coincided with the beginnings of the steep rise in tourism and travel in Asia by Asians through the newly reopened regional borders.

On this note, I would like to elaborate on 2000AD that personally resonates with me as a Singaporean. From the 1980s, through the tightly choreographed scenes of high-speed car chases, martial arts and gun   within the congested and cluttered streets of the planet’s most densely populated city, Hong Kong cinema has set the norm for what constitutes cinematic action. Until 2000AD, these scenes were almost unimaginable in the more orderly Singapore. Although it had prided itself as a “clean city”, by the 1990s, Singapore also found that orderliness is not necessarily all positive when it gets associated with contrived sterility of a cultural desert.

With factories starting to relocate to China by the 1990s, there was a need to rebrand Singapore as a jazzier and exciting “renaissance city” that would appeal more to the talents and capital from creative, cultural and financial industries. At the same time, Singapore’s local film industry was re-gaining  local presence and regional headways during this decade.  With filmmaking and distribution companies like The Shaw Brothers and Cathay, and iconic movie stars like P. Ramlee and Saloma, until the 1960s, Singapore was once a regional film centre. The 1990s saw its revival. With emphasis on socio-economic issues particularly on topical themes within the country’s new urban landscape, the trends heralded the beginnings of what can now be considered as Singapore’s national cinema.

On the commercial front, the Singapore television industry also started leveraging on the accidental regional popularity of particularly its Chinese language television drama programmes that were initially meant for local audiences. This came through the establishment of Raintree Pictures, the film arm of privatised national broadcaster Mediacorp. Recognising the limitations of Singapore’s small market, Raintree’s strategy was to insert Singapore’s presence in the form of artistes and directors and the country’s location into the regional productions, particularly that of the then vibrant Hong Kong film industry.

2000AD stands out as one of Raintree Pictures memorable collaborative projects with Hong Kong Cinema for its use of Singapore as the location of the narrative. I remember the anticipation in the air when the trailers and posters rolled out depicting not just our local artistes interacting with celebrities of Hong Kong popular culture like Aaron Kwok who was the production’s main protagonist. Adding to the anticipation  was that of computer screens, fighter jets and action taking place finally within familiar landmarks in my own neighbourhood in Singapore. For Singaporean audiences, probably the most breathtaking cinematic moments of 2000AD were the car chase and gun-battle scene that saw vehicles driving in from Battery Road and North Bridge Road before crashing through the then newly gentrified al-fresco pedestrianised walkway of Boat Quay. The scene ends with a car being slammed by other into the Singapore River as the antagonists escaped by a boat they had hijacked.  Singapore became imaginatively fast and furious.

Figure 6: Car chase scenes at Boat Quay in 2000AD.

Over the decades, Singapore has become part of the global location for filmmakers with recent additions including Hollywood’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Netflix Korean Drama Little Women (2022). Since 2000AD, there has not been a similar car-crash through Boat Quay. Similar action related scenes in Singapore over the years have become predictably located at a particular road intersection of the financial district in Shenton Way. Sources who have worked with the production of 2000AD told me that obtaining approval for this set was a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare that amounted to significant traffic disruptions. As such, 2000AD serves as an invaluable archival reference for the history of Singapore Cinema to the kinds of imaginative possibilities at the turn of the new millennium.


“If you can no longer possess, you can only not forget.”

For me, the innocent imaginative possibilities of the 1990s ended on 1 April 2003. Amidst the SARS epidemic (that now felt more like a rehearsal for COVID two decades later), I received the shocking news that Leslie Cheung, who was associated with the heyday of Hong Kong Cinema and popular music, committed suicide. Two decades later, with exhibitions, talks and performances across the city, Hong Kong commemorated his passing. In the words of one of the characters played by Leslie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (东邪西毒, 1994) “If you can no longer possess, you can only not forget.


About the Writer

Dr. Liew Kai Khiun
Assistant Professor
Hong Kong Metropolitan University

I am a scholar in Transnational Popular Cultural Studies in the context of East and Southeast Asia for more than two decades. My scholarly and general works include regional Asian and Singapore cinema and television.  One of my current projects in this area cover the convergence of Singapore screen cultures with that of the Korean Wave as part of transnational Asian Cinema. I am currently an Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong Metropolitan University. I just turned 50 this year, and I am fortunate to have lived to watch Wakanda Forever last year.  If there is one Asian film that inspired me during this half-a-century, it is Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes (千言万语, 1999).


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer