Asian Cinema Highlights of 2017
As another year draws to a close, the time has come for VCinema contributors to take a look back at 2017 and select their Asian cinema highlights from the past twelve months. In addition to picking their favorites from this year’s crop of releases, some contributors have taken this opportunity to discuss related experiences – such as festivals, retrospectives, or re-releases – that were particularly special in 2017.
Much of my attention in 2017 was on Mainland China where the quality of multiplex fare is improving, albeit often in a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ way, but the most engrossing films still stem from the independent sector.
Two standout films were set in the 1990s, a decade that has proved a fertile ground of late for Chinese filmmakers looking to explore the roots of the country’s current conditions, for better or worse. In Zhang Dalei’s exquisitely realized, black-and-white debut feature The Summer is Gone, 12-year-old Zhang Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi) enjoys his holiday while his mother frets about getting him accepted to a top middle school, despite his subpar grades. Set in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, this semi-autobiographical film is brimming with evocative detail from the sounds of neighborhood chatter about imminent reforms to Xiaolei sneaking into the local movie theater. Yet it’s richer than most cinematic nostalgia trips since Zhang parallels Xiaolei’s laziness with the professional crisis of his father, Chen (Zhang Chen), who lost his job as a film editor when the nearby state-run studio was shuttered. A moodier portrait of the decade was presented in Dong Yue’s atmospheric noir The Looming Storm, which found factory security guard Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) investigating a string of murders in a dying town. Guowei’s obsessive tendencies truly rear their head in the film’s second half when he is left to his own devices as a result of the privatization of his workplace. At once staunchly direct in its political symbolism and curiously enigmatic in its handling of key narrative details, The Looming Storm makes disquieting use of genre tropes to comment on the grassroots consequences of widespread industrial reform.
Even more barbed in its critique, was Vivian Qu’s present-day set Angels Wear White. It has the distinction of featuring not only the year’s most arresting opening image, but also its most pointed parting shot. Both involve a statue of Marilyn Monroe in her famous ‘flying skirt’ moment from The Seven Year Itch which serves as a powerful, if not exactly subtle, metaphor for the film’s concern with the position of women in a society that remains strongly patriarchal, despite the supposed acknowledgment of gender equality. Taking place in a resort town, it deals with the attempted cover-up of the sexual assault on two underage girls at a beachside hotel. The establishment’s teenage cleaner Mia (Vicky Chen) has information that she opportunistically tries to sell to the lawyer investigating the case, but risks jeopardizing her position as an unregistered migrant worker. Qu’s handling of timely material remains rigorously detached throughout in order to deliver an unflinching portrait of a society rife with double standards.
Of the year’s documentaries, I was gripped by Steve James’ latest examination of a community under duress with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. Focusing on the case of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned bank catering mainly to Chinese immigrants that was indicted for mortgage fraud during the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, Abacus ticks like a finely tuned legal thriller simultaneously affords a fascinating entry point to a community that has assimilated to an American way of life yet retains its own culture, particularly in matters of finance. Returning to Mainland China, Dream Empire surveys the nation’s booming property market and the dubious strategies used promote new developments to unsuspecting citizens. Seen through the inquisitive lens of Danish documentarian David Borenstein, there’s an abundance of satirical laughs to be had from the levels of duplicity on display. But Dream Empire also has a profoundly humanistic center in Yana, the partner in a talent company that provides foreigners to launch events who thinks she is on the verge of success but is actually another economic casualty in-waiting.
I’ll wrap-up with three films that feature unconventional female protagonists. On the Beach at Night Alone found prolific auteur Hong Sang-soo addressing his real-life, extra-marital affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who is magnetic here as an actress fleeing from unflattering headlines prompted by, yes, her fling with a married film director. Hong strikes some deeply melancholic notes yet the film is also playfully self-aware, with plenty of the soju-fueled revelations his admirers have come to expect. Daisuke Miyazaki’s pulsating sophomore feature Yamato (California) pivots on a bold performance from Hanae Kan as a wannabe rapper frustrated with her unremarkable life in the titular Japanese town, where the ongoing presence of the US in the form of a massive military base prevents the post-war identity crisis from ever fully resolving itself. Meanwhile, in Masaaki Yuasa’s hallucinatory anime The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, ‘The Girl With Black Hair’ (Kana Hanazawa) has a night out involving a book fair, an arts festival, the romantic attentions of ‘Senior’ (Gen Hoshino), and a lot of alcoholic beverages. Like its restless, up-for-anything heroine, it’s wildly unpredictable, and completely intoxicated on the possibilities of what can happen in a city after hours. Happy New Year!
Recently, I’ve been engaging with films in a discursive manner. Which is why I always give a self-reflexive film more leverage than other films. These are films that consciously try to open up a conversation with you through their narrative.
My 2017 started with easily one of the most self-reflexive, and often difficult, films in recent Philippine mainstream cinema, Darkroom. The film presented itself as a found-footage film, which turns into an exploration of selfie culture. What really haunts the kids in the film, are not just the spectres of the past revolution, but also the techno-historical cluelessness of their generation. Walter Benjamin’s aura came haunting back as the ghost of mechanical reproduction in the age of digital multiplicity.
Discussing history, also, on the other spectrum of Philippine cinema, are two films by Khavn. Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Amber, like its predecessor Mondomanila, captures a not-so-recent history of the urban-center, but was told as if it is taking place in a distant future. It describes a nation in which actual change is as elusive as the criminals depicted in the film. Balangiga, on the other hand, tries to depict the US-led massacre, which took place in 1901, through the eyes of those who are affected by it. The film avers its focus from the colonial narrative, conscious of its non-nuancing and partisanship, as its ground for critique.
Jumping to Okinawa, Go Takamine continues to process his island’s history through Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane). The film consciously reflects on the case of the Agent Orange ingredients found in a military base in Okinawa. But as in his earlier films, Takamine complexifies this in respect to various aspects of their history under occupation by both US and Imperial Japan, how it informed not just the way their arts have developed, but also the ways they remember their own history.
Two films reflecting on resistance to global capitalism are worth noting this year. First is Bong Joon-ho’s transnational production Okja, which is, ironically, produced and distributed by global streaming giant Netflix. Noting its source of capital is an important point of discussion as it reflects on the film’s total design. One can find similarities to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in its commentary against capitalism; Okja serves to update this by commenting also on the liberal modes of non-violent resistance. Inevitably, the film also reflected on its own defeatism to transnational capital as the film ended with techno-nihilist undertone. Huang Wenhai’s documentary We, The Workers, on the other hand, focused on actual organizing work done by Chinese Labor movements. The film provides glimpses which are rare for most films that cover labor movements: the heated debates and criticisms among labor members, actual planning of actions and their time after-work. We, The Workers may be the greatest contribution to date by Chinese cinema to the growing history of Third Cinema.
There were also conscious attempts to discuss women in cinema. Sion Sono’s Antiporno reflects on the visual representation of women, ironically, under the confines of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno revival. Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die focuses on women’s active participation on their own identity-formation as a response to the encapsulating notions in their patriarchal culture (It is interesting to note, however, that both films were directed by men). I’m yet to reflect on more recent Japanese films directed by women, but Naoko Ogigami’s Close Knit and Kiki Sugino’s Snow Woman are well worth mentioning.
Lastly, I would like to note on an attempt from Vietnam to build a bridge between commodities and violence in Lê Bình Giang’s Kfc. While seemingly disjointed in its structure, it works with regards to how the film discusses violence as a cycle of oppression while commoditization lives side-by-side. For this critic, the film highlights a new era of politics in South-East Asia, and perhaps, in other parts of the globe, wherein it has become more apparent that violence perpetuated by the state was always-already filtered through and is coexisting with neoliberal/global capital, and therefore breeds the necropolitical tendencies of its would-be fascist leaders.
The film I was most excited to see was Korean American Kogonada’s full-length feature debut Columbus. When it finally came to San Francisco, I took advantage to watch three screenings three days in a row like I normally only reserve for Hong Sang-soo. (I saw Yourself and Yours twice this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, now SFFILM, but one screening was in Dolby’s new headquarters, so that was nice.) The film exceeded my expectations and I was glad I got the opportunity to tell Kogonada so at a Q&A. I was also delighted he recognized me. (I had interviewed him in person a few years ago.)
Another CAAM Fest film I was anxious to see was fellow former Clevelander Matthew Hashiguchi’s documentary Good Luck Soup where he explores his identity as a Japanese/Italian American growing up in Cleveland while telling the life of his beloved grandmother. I was part of the Q&A and attended the screening with a friend who was born in the Cleveland suburb of Parma. Accompanying us was her mother who spent many years in Cleveland and was friends with Hashiguchi’s aunt. These are the types of connections that cinema affords that keep me coming back.
CAAM Fest also brought a film that, if I’d known about it earlier, I would have been anticipating it as much as those above. I was already a fan of Indian Canadian director Ali Kazimi, but his documentary Random Acts of Legacy, where he sifts through home movies from 1936-1951 of a Chinese American family from Chicago, solidified my fandom even more. These moving images push against stereotype after stereotype of Asian Americans, particularly how affectionate this family is with their children – they are constantly kissing each other!
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Korean Studies program at UC Berkeley, I got to meet and eat with South Korean director E J-yong. Along with attending a screening of and talk about The Bacchus Lady, I sat next to director E during an after-screening dinner and continued the conversation about cinema, and food, E being a bit of a foodie. Thanks to the same folks, I also attended an enlightening lecture by Steven Choe on Lee Chang-dong in April. I will miss these opportunities now that I no longer live in the SF Bay Area.
I was hoping My Future Perfect by Nele Wohlatz, a fictional film about Asian immigrants in Argentina would, come to the San Francisco. Thankfully, SFFILM, the new name for the San Francisco International Film Festival, didn’t let me down. (Besides Yourself and Yours, they also brought the powerful Filipino feature Ma’ Rosa by Brillante Mendoza. Give Joclyn Jose all the awards!) Films featuring non-professional actors are a huge risk, but Wohlatz pulls it off. Xiaobin Zhang doesn’t so much shine in this film as grow, gradually filling up the screen with her emerging confidence as a Chinese immigrant finding her space in Argentina.
Speaking of moving to Tokyo, while wandering around the used book heaven that is the district of Jimbocho, I stumbled upon the Jimbocho Theater, which has regular ongoing retrospectives of Japanese films. My first trip to there was to see a film I had no knowledge of previously, Takuzo Tanaka’s The Night Flying (1967). I don’t know anywhere near enough Japanese to understand the dialogue, but I gathered what I could all while enjoying that gorgeous Technicolor and jazzy/poppy soundtrack of the 60s. I will be frequenting the Jimbocho Theater often.
My favorite film of 2017 was also from the 1960s – 1969’s Funeral Parade of Roses by Toshio Matsumoto. It counts as my favorite 2017 film because it was finally released in the US this year. My friend and I left the Roxie Theater stunned. This experience was a further reminder of how much great cinema I have yet to see. Some feel despondent about this fact, that they will never see all the great films out there. As for me, this fact leaves me with relentless hope that I will always have the chance to be surprisingly thrilled by a future film, especially future films from the past.
Reflecting back on 2017, my mind immediately pans toward Jackie Chan – a man who started off the year by winning an honorary Oscar and ended it off by making his best Hollywood feature to date. And to be fair, not only is it his best Hollywood feature, it is also hands down one of his best films in the past two decades. It’s especially fitting that The Foreigner stemmed from a Hollywood production (with Chinese co-financing) in a year where he was awarded a top honor by the very same industry. From a career standpoint, I’d say that 2017 was one of Chan’s best years in a very long time.
And as a fan of Asian cinema living in North America, I’m just constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be living in Toronto. While it’s no comparison to being in Asia itself, the accessibility to Asian film (and culture) in Toronto is not something we can really complain about. And like any other year, 2017 had the usual slew of international festivals in Toronto that showcased Asian cinema in its full form and glory. And with distributors like Well GO USA, seeing some of the more popular new releases from Asia on the big screen has fortunately become the norm.
But 2017 also had more than just the usual. In June, The TIFF Bell Lightbox (theatre complex operated by the Toronto International Film Festival) was one of the only theatres in North America to screen Netflix’s Okja theatrically. This screening was accompanied by a Skype Q&A with Bong Joon-ho and there were additional screenings of some of his other masterpieces. What made this event even more substantial was the fact that Okja is pure cinematic greatness, and is a film deserving of theatrical exhibition.
And if that weren’t enough, TIFF decided to wrap up the year by curating a retrospective on Johnnie To’s career. The retrospective, entitled ‘Expect the Unexpected’, screened close to 20 films by To, with archival film prints for most of these screenings. To was available for in-person introductions for a few of these films, and the great critic Shelly Kraicer (who curated the entire lineup) provided thoughtful introductions to most of the other films. As someone who named his website after one of To’s films, being able to see his 2004 feature Throw Down in 35mm was one of my cinematic highlights of the year and the perfect way to end 2017.
2017 was a great year for Japanese cinema with lots of quality titles from 2016 mixing with a surge of new films.
I got a taste of it when I took part in the Osaka Asian Film Festival and enjoyed its programme which was packed full of great films from across Asia. But for me, the best films came from Japan’s indie scene particularly Jun Tanaka’s BAMY, a supernaturally tinged romance shot in the vein of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. Its story of a man with the ability to see ghosts who finds himself torn between two women, only one of whom shares his ability, is equal parts chilling and funny and showed that there is life in J-Horror yet. Speaking of funny, another standout was Poetry Angel, directed by indie wunderkind Toshimitsu Iizuka, a drama where a diverse group of characters who wish to express themselves do so through poetry boxing. It’s pushed along by an exuberant performance from Amane Okayama and features another wonderfully dry comedic performance from Maho Yamada. Hopefully, it gets more festival slots.
Things got a bit steamier in the middle of the year as Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot project started hit places like Nippon Connection with Akihiro Shiota’s ribald take on gender wars Wet Woman in the Wind being a particular highlight. As attention grabbing as all of the flesh on display in those films was, restrained dramas like The Tokyo Night is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Over the Fence, and Japanese Girls Never Die were my personal favourites. All three examine issues around gender relations and class and do so through poetic imagery, bittersweet romance and comedy, lots of energy, and great acting performances. Another film I want to highlight is Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse which brought exquisite drama full of emotions in the story of a famous novelist forced to confront the cold nature of his character when he finds himself unable to mourn the death of his wife while getting involved with running the family of another widower.
This year also saw the celebration of Seijun Suzuki who passed away in February. His name will be familiar to cinephiles thanks to his antics making off-beat yakuza thrillers for Nikkatsu in the 50s and 60s, his other works such as the Taisho Trilogy are getting welcome re-releases and retrospectives at film festivals like Busan.
In terms of anime movies, the big films were In This Corner of the World, a melancholic and beautiful film about one woman’s experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the supernatural teen romance Your Name, both released in Japan in 2016. As good as they were, this was definitely the year of Masaaki Yuasa as the world enjoyed his anarchic animation and comedic storytelling in his latest hits, Lu Over the Wall, a charming animation about a boy from Tokyo who moves to a small seaside town and forms a rock band with friends and meets a mermaid, and the raucous The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a wonderful tale of a boozy night out on the streets of Kyoto which turns into a magical celebration of the city and human connections with many flights of fancy and Yuasa’s energetic animation style making it an enjoyable time. The films took awards at prestigious animation festivals Annecy and Ottawa respectively. Meanwhile, his rediscovered 2004 film Mind Game is becoming widely available and it’s about time. It’s a mind-bogglingly fun film set in Osaka and the belly of a whale that teaches the audience to seize the opportunities of life. Seeing all three is a must and they are even better on a big screen since you can get even more absorbed into the mixture of fun and action. After years of working on TV anime and shorts, Yuasa is finally getting the recognition his talent deserves and he will be back in 2018 with Devilman Crybaby.
With both the anime and live-action scenes thriving, I am excited to see what will emerge from Japan next year.