China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Yu Haibo & Kiki Yu Tianqi, 2016)

“You can just take a picture!” a frustrated driver calls out to “painter worker” Zhao Xiaoyong as he makes a long delayed attempt to express himself artistically by painting the streets of his rural hometown in the style of European artist Vincent Van Gogh. Xiaoyong is one of several men attempting to survive in a declining industry, a painter of knock off replicas of famous works of art produced for the foreign market in the small town of Dafen, Shenzhen known as one of China’s largest “oil painting villages” since an enterprising Hong Kong businessman kickstarted the movement back in the tumultuous year of 1989. 

Though the title may at first seem ironic, referring to the “fake” paintings at its centre, Yu Haibo and Kiki Yu Tianqi’s strangely moving documentary China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Zhōngguó Fán Gāo) explores the conflicts which continue to define the lives of the artists who as they put it paint to live but take their art extremely seriously and possess tremendous technical skill but are forced to stifle their own creative instincts while producing meticulous copies for a mere pittance. As Xiaoyong laments, they find it difficult to attract and keep apprentices because you can earn more at the factory, while one of his colleagues ironically admits that they had to set up a production line in order to complete an unusually large order though following the financial crisis those are largely thin on the ground. 

Xiaoyong is a Van Gogh obsessive, as are many of the artists of Dafen, and longs to visit Amsterdam in order to see the originals up close. Ironically enough, their biggest market is indeed the Netherlands, and his most important client has invited him to visit several times previously though Xiaoyong and his wife continue to argue over the expense. His eventual visit is however heartbreaking, his eyes a deep well of pain and confusion as he finds himself overcome with disappointment and disillusionment. He thought his client owned a fancy gallery, but his paintings are being sold in a pokey knock off souvenir shop for three times what he was paid to paint them which was only around €8 to begin with though they took many hours to complete. Later talking to another artist about his trip he remarks on how overcome he was seeing Van Gogh’s originals, but the experience also destroys the sense he had of himself as an artist, reminding him that he is “just” a craftsman making diligent copies while leaving him with the desire to create something meaningful of his own. 

Earlier in the film, Xiaoyong had travelled back to his rural hometown for the anniversary of his father’s death breaking down in tears while reflecting on the various ways his poverty has defined his life, denied an education and orphaned at young age. Back in Dafen, meanwhile, his teenage daughter who lives with grandparents in order to attend high school visits home and declares herself fed up with education, as if she’s wasting her time unable to keep with the curriculum silently crying in the corner while her parents continue working. Xiaoyong sympathetically laments he didn’t have the opportunity to learn very much but has taught himself to open his mind and has obviously become a skilled craftsman with canny business skills only to find himself falling for his own mystique serious about his craft but unaware of the various ways he is being exploited by the Western art economy.

What he’s doing may in a sense be dubious though no one seriously thinks they’re buying a Van Gogh original for €30, but who is to say what really is “authentic” art or suggest that Xiaoyong’s artistry is worth any less solely because someone painted what he painted before? Can a meticulous copy be in itself a separate work of art resplendent in its technical prowess? Xiaoyong says he fell in love with Van Gogh’s paintings because of his discovery of beauty in poverty, he and his friends tearfully watching the 1956 Hollywood biopic Lust for Life fiercely identifying with the artist’s struggles as they too try to accommodate painting to live with their desire for creative expression. In a strange moment, Xiaoyong recalls a dream he had in which he met Van Gogh and told the artist that he had almost become him, but Xiaoyong’s salvation eventually comes in a meeting of the two worlds, painting a portrait of his ageing grandmother her face a labyrinth of lines born of a long life of rural hardship. Sure, you can just take a picture, but it isn’t quite the same.


China’s Van Goghs is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident, Jill Coulon, 2016)

Ironically taking its title from the classic Chinese legend of the monk Xuanzang who travelled in order to bring Buddhism back to China, Jill Coulon’s Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident) follows a group of Chinese tourists on a 12-day coach tour through Europe which will apparently take them through six countries though they will be disembarking only infrequently. As the tour guide Huo explains during his opening speech, Chinese tourists were once greeted by vaguely offensive signs in their native language instructing them to avoid being noisy or spitting but these have now been replaced by those advising that their Chinese credit cards are readily acceptable. 

According to Huo only 8% of Chinese people currently hold a passport but more and more are venturing abroad. Nevertheless, they are still ambassadors for China and so he reminds them to be careful of the impression that they make. In any case, they will spend relatively little time on the ground, arriving in Rome at 9am they leave at 1.15 and though they appear to have a lot of free roaming time much of the trip is micromanaged with meals already booked in Chinese restaurants. Embedded with the travellers, Coulon does not spend much time getting to know them or discovering their various backgrounds and reasons for choosing this method of travel but some do speculate on the tendency of Chinese people to do everything at speed wondering if Europeans are more laidback because their societies are already “developed” and so they can afford to spend time in the present without feeling the need to forge the future. 

Bringing the 12-day trip down to an hour of viewing time adds a satirical bent to the breakneck speed, though it does seem that some travellers at least are mainly interested in ticking off the most famous attractions as quickly as possible. Offering commentary as they pass through the picturesque town of Lucerne, Huo points out the Rolex store before ironically juxtaposing the beauty of the Alps with the Hermès boutique directly opposite. Most of the tourists are indeed in it for the shopping, several picking up a luxury watch while one enviously observes that this seems to be a very wealthy town filled with exorbitantly priced sports cars as if the expense meant nothing to them at all. Passing through Paris we see the tourists laden with bags from top designer stores, one ironically wearing an Armani T-shirt with a little Chairman Mao pin directly underneath the logo. Some meanwhile tire of the ceaseless consumerism and defiantly decide to go somewhere different with no shopping opportunities if only to avoid other Chinese tourists. 

Despite his long years working in the tourist trade, Huo himself does not seem to be free of stereotypical impressions of Europeans, explaining that “true” French women are blonde with green eyes and that the French go on strike in the spring, holiday in the summer, and go skiing in winter leaving only the autumn for work all of which he describes as “bad capitalism”, implying one assumes that China’s excessive work culture is “good capitalism”. Another tourist however reflects enviously on the fact that the French apparently only work 150 days a year while her partner points out that if you count non-weekdays China also offers around 130 days off which doesn’t seem so bad to him even if he’s incredulous about four day weekends and getting a day in lieu if a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This perhaps contributes to another tourist’s conclusion that the French are “lazy” because of the disinterested way a guard at a museum swiped his ticket, sitting with his legs crossed.

A pair of old ladies, meanwhile reflect on the way that European cities have preserved traces of their history with ancient ruins visible in local parks something she feels would have been regarded as a nuisance in China and destroyed either by the authorities or malicious persons. While Huo relates the various stereotypes he’s encountered from foreign tourists, that the Chinese people have no freedom and might not know what a washing machine is, another young woman enquires if they have internet up in the mountains only to be told that the internet and online shopping are not as developed in Europe because the prohibitive costs prevent an effective delivery infrastructure, she ironically adding that in China workers cost nothing. In his closing speech, however, Huo remarks on the awkwardness of responding to the accusation of wealth unable to answer either that he is very rich or very poor opting only for the disingenuous statement that “China is a developing country”. The tourists might not be looking for spiritual enlightenment like Xuanzang, but still as one puts it they have their goals and they have perhaps been achieved as they circle back around to Milan and the plane that will take them home.  


Journey to the West streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chen Uen (千年一問, Wang Wan-Jo, 2020)

Born in Daxi in 1958, Chen Uen became one of Taiwan’s premiere comic book artists eventually publishing in Japan and Hong Kong and later travelling to the Mainland to work in the growing online gaming industry. Sadly after a tumultuous career spanning over 30 years, Chen passed away of a heart attack at the young age of 58 in 2017. Though he had perhaps not always been appreciated to the degree he would have liked in his home country, the artist did receive a posthumous exhibition at the National Palace Museum the summer following his death, apparently the first comic artist ever to have received such an honour. 

Exploring both his life and career, Wang Wan-jo’s engrossing documentary (千年一問, Qiānnián Yī Wèn) paints an enigmatic picture of the complicated artist, bringing his work to life with a series of animatics along with poignant shots of an animated Chen walking the city streets and eventually arriving at his own exhibition. Through interviewing his various collaborators, the image of him which eventually arises is of a man who was at once singleminded, driven by artistic conviction and certain in his skills, and that of a sometimes insecure talent privately hurt by his public failures and resentful that his home nation often failed to embrace his work. 

Like many of his generation, Chen was profoundly influenced by wuxia serials and carried that love into his art, becoming one of the first artists to move away from the then dominant Japanese manga aesthetics drawing inspiration from traditional Chinese ink painting including the use of a brush rather than the pen. In his later, increasingly avant-garde work we see him experimenting further with materials using toothbrushes and sand, scorching the paper with fire or marbling ink in water to achieve his desired effect. As mangaka Tetsuya Chiba (Ashita no Joe) points out, manga panels are constructed with narrative progression in mind yet Chen treated each of his panels as a standalone image with a strongly cinematic vision. This tendency towards directness in his stripped back storytelling leads Chiba and others to offer the slight criticism that to some readers Chen’s comics may have lacked dramatic richness as a consequence. Nevertheless, he soon found himself wooed by Bubble-era Japan, invited by publishing powerhouse Kodansha to collaborate on a series of wuxia-themed projects beginning with The Heroes of Eastern Zhou.

The Japan move would be the first of many, allowing Chen to escape the sense disillusionment he felt in Taiwan while honing his skills as a contractor for a major publishing house willing as his editor testifies to work on whatever they suggested including the ubiquitous cute girls then popular in the Japanese manga market. Unfortunately, however, he does not seem to have settled very comfortably in Tokyo while his wife recounts her difficulties trying to navigate raising their two children while unable to speak the language. The family soon returned to Taiwan, and Chen would make his subsequent moves alone leaving his family behind to work in comics in Hong Kong before moving on to Beijing where he began working on concept art for the then nascent world of online gaming beginning with a franchise inspired by Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  

In an excerpt from a TV interview, Chen describes his comic work as a dream that miraculously came true adding that had he been interested in material comfort he probably would have stuck to jacket art for video games which might have proved more lucrative. His decision to do just that later in his career might then seem like a minor defeat even as it feeds into comments from some of his assistants that he liked to stay ahead of technological change and was keen to experiment with new tools even teaching himself photoshop intuitively while the program lacked Chinese-language support. His colleagues describe him as mercurial, an unhappy person probably lonely away so long from his family yet also fiercely caring and protective of his staff. For Chen, heroes were less fearsome warriors than those who were “unwavering, rational, and polite”, qualities which ironically mirror his own personality though others also call him stubborn, a perfectionist who always did what was right rather than settling for the easy option. A poignant memorial to the under appreciated pioneer of Taiwanese comic art, Wang’s documentary does not set out to solve mystery of Chen but revels in his contradictions while celebrating the glorious complexity of his bold and colourful career. 


Chen Uen streams in the US until March 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Come and See (เอหิปัสสิโก, Nottapon Boonprakob, 2019)

The ethics surrounding the organisation of religion can often be thorny, yet the issue is less one of practice or philosophy than of the potential exploitation of vulnerable people in search of spiritual support. Titled “Come and See” (เอหิปัสสิโก) after an exhibition organised by the religious organisation at its centre in order to debunk the “fake news” and frequent attempts at what it describes as defamation in the mainstream press, Nottapon Boonprakob’s documentary investigates not only the controversial Buddhist sect Dhammakaya and its former abbot Dhammachayo (missing since 2017) but the place of Buddhism in modern Thai society which was under the rule of a military junta until the summer of 2019 following a 2014 coup. 

Founded in 1970, the controversial sect is said to have over four million devotees with 131 temples located around the world and operates out of a vast religious complex centred in a building which resembles a giant spaceship with a large eye-shaped orb. It has caused controversy with practitioners of Buddhism firstly because its teachings run in contrast with traditional religious thought in suggesting that Nirvana is a physical rather than purely spiritual place and that it is possible to meet the Buddha as founder monk Dhammachayo claims to have done. Doctrinal issues aside, however, many view the sect with suspicion because of its aggressive fundraising programme while Dhammachayo has also been directly accused of money laundering and the receipt of stolen goods. The temple deflected the accusations on the grounds that Dhammachayo’s age and ill health prevented him from responding fully while his followers later insisted he would turn himself in but only once Thailand retransitioned to full democracy. Following a lengthy siege of the temple building it was however discovered that Dhammachayo was not in his “recovery room” as aides had stated but apparently missing, perhaps in hiding. His whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Using a mixture of talking heads interviews with current and former members as well as religious experts alongside documentary footage, Nottapon Boonprakob does not directly investigate the various allegations but sets them against the contemporary Thai society. The sect itself and some of the experts even those on the opposing side believe the charges are at least in part politically motivated, that given its vast wealth and huge number of followers it is in danger of becoming a state within a state and therefore presents a threat to the traditional authorities. This level of destabilisation is thought to have contributed to the military coup which took place in 2014 and is posited as an explanation for the junta’s determination to weaken the temple’s reach though in the continuous absence of Dhammachayo its efforts would seem to have proven fruitless. 

Nottapon Boonprakob follows one particular devotee as she takes part in the resistance movement to the police investigation eventually moving into the temple compound which is later placed into a lengthy siege during which two people sadly pass away, one from an asthma attack and the other apparently a suicide committed in protest (though the temple disavow this action and claim the man was not a follower). Devotees are heard to offer their lives for the abbot, perhaps disturbingly citing that dying for something when everyone dies anyway will buy them more “merit” and thereafter a secure place in the highest levels of heaven. Devotees can earn merit by donating monetarily to the temple or by completing other tasks as we see them do during the siege though it is perhaps strange that we only seem to see the women cleaning and cooking even if they also seem to make up a larger percentage of the devotees captured on film. It was this increasing concentration on “fundraising” with “sales” quotas set for monks that drove one former practitioner away, explaining that she felt under pressure to continue donating eventually becoming disillusioned with the materialist bent of the sect’s practice which she now feels is corrupting Buddhism in Thailand. 

Another former member who worked for the organisation says something similar, that he attempted to raise the matter with Dhammachayo after a practitioner came to him with a marital dilemma. Her husband had apparently walked out and she had devoted herself entirely to worship in order to get him back, selling inherited properties to buy more merit and wondering if she should sell the house she was living in too. While he worried the woman’s intense practice may have further strained her marriage and she should not perhaps be encouraged to bankrupt herself for religious reward, he claims that Dhammachayo coldly told him that he was no longer Dhammachayo the monk leaving him frightened and disillusioned. He subsequently resigned and joined another sect, becoming an outspoken critic of Dhammakaya claiming that Dhammachayo had attempted to convince him he was the “Creator of Everything”.

Other commentators meanwhile wonder if the ritual practice at the temple which takes place at grand scale featuring huge parades with much pomp and circumstance is merely an “extreme” expression of Thai Buddhism and perhaps reflects something of the contemporary society. Some describe it without judgement as “capitalist Buddhism”, providing a service that responds to customer’s desires and profiting by it as in any other business while others wonder if Buddhism has or should have any real relevance in 21st century Thailand. It is however the sect’s potential power to interfere in the mechanisms of government through complex networks of influence that has many alarmed, and is perhaps the reason they find themselves targeted by the regime while many other organisations similarly accused of corruption are largely ignored. In any case, the temple seems to have come out on top, the police forced to abandon their search in the continued absence of the abbot. Nottapon Boonprakob offers no real conclusion but as an interviewee points out independent enquiry is a central tenet of Buddhism, “come and see” for yourself. 


Come and See streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Huang Yin-Yu, 2021)

The legacy of Japanese imperialism continues to haunt a small Okinawan island once home to a sprawling network of coal mines but now mostly to ghosts of its troubled past at least according to Huang Yin-Yu’s beautifully lensed, elegiac documentary Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Lǜsè Láolóng). So named for its thick forests of mangrove trees, the island’s Iriomote Coal Mine ceased production in 1960 but from the late 19th century to the fall of the Japanese Empire at the end of the war, lured workers from not only from the Japanese mainland but from Korea, China, and Taiwan with false promises of tropical climes and plentiful fruits failing to disclose the harsh and exploitative working conditions they would later prove unable to escape. 

Possibly the last witness to these times, grandma Yoshiko Hashima (her name naturalised from the original Yang) travelled to the island with her adopted father, Yang Tien-fu who worked for the mines and was responsible for recruiting other workers, at the age of 10 leaving briefly after the war but soon returning. The last of the Taiwanese settlers, she recalls little regarding the running of the mines save witnessing frequent beatings by Japanese soldiers but does recall the discrimination she faced as a foreign worker from the local community who by far made up the smallest percentage of those employed at the mines finding herself with few friends as locals often even declined to eat their food or accept their hospitality. 

Yet in a strange way history perhaps repeats itself. Now elderly and alone, her children all having left the island returning only infrequently, she rents out her spare room for extra money to an American traveller, who, like her, came to Japan as a teenager. Though Luis tells us that he hadn’t intended to stay long on the island but likes being able to help Yoshiko who is elderly and alone, she tells us that she regrets her decision to rent to him which she claims she made in the belief he had a wife. She describes him as “‘messy”, claims he has lice, and that his slovenliness has attracted an influx of ants while the pet dog that he keeps on a leash outside disturbs her with its constant whining. Later we see him again having returned to Kansai revealing that he felt that people disliked him and found it difficult to fit in, but that his time in Okinawa has perhaps brought him clarity in the further direction of his life. 

Luis was at least able to leave the island at a time of his own choosing, but as the ghostly voice of Yoshiko’s late father reminds us those who worked in the mines were not so lucky. He tells us that he once slept on a pile of bones and the remains of workers who attempted to flee but ended up starving to death in the jungle were a frequent sight in local caves. Exploited and manipulated, workers were often hopped up on morphine, for which they had to pay, in order to up their productivity but also to make them dependent on their employment to avoid withdrawal aware that they would be unable to obtain a such substances in their home country. They also found themselves borrowing on their wages, especially if they contracted malaria and were unable to work, leaving them essentially indentured and therefore unable to leave without satisfying their debts. Yoshiko tells us that few wanted to come to “Dead Man’s Island” yet Tien-fu declares himself uncertain why some miners remained unhappy with the arrangement eventually needing to organise a specialised police force to enforce discipline complaining that workers who were in debt and therefore earning almost nothing often shirked and only worked when the police were around. 

Travelling around the otherwise idyllic landscape with its verdant green forests and peaceful rivers, Huang finds occasional ghosts of the departed miners hovering on the horizon dressed only in their white fundoshi underwear, slipping into brief scenes of reconstruction set amid the now ruined structures of the industrial mining complex. The last survivor, Yoshiko hangs on alone yet perhaps not quite reflecting on the implications of her father’s role in the development of the mines or particularly of their legacy. Her own life has evidently been hard, adopted as an infant and then married to her “brother” only to see her children desert her left behind alone in the Green Jail a guardian of a dark history few wish to remember. Juxtaposing the island’s traumatic past with the beauty of its verdant scenery Huang’s elegantly composed documentary poses some serious questions about the imperial legacy but always mindful of its wandering ghosts. 


Green Jail screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

The festival will also be screening Huang Yin-Yu’s accompanying short film Green Grass, Pale Fire: an elliptical, ethereal dramatisation of three men’s attempt to escape the mines only to find themselves trapped by the beautiful yet maddening landscape.

Images: (c) Moolin Films, Ltd./ Moolin Production, Co., Ltd.

Love and Death in Montmartre (蒙馬特之愛與死, Evans Chan, 2019)

It’s difficult to believe, in some ways, that the world could have changed so much in just a couple of decades. Qiu Miaojin gained a cult following and widespread acclaim as an openly gay defiantly lesbian writer in the early ‘90s, but sadly took her own life in Paris at the age of 26 in 1995. Hong Kong director Evans Chan’s Love and Death in Montmartre (蒙馬特之愛與死) expands his 2017 documentary which aired as part of TV series celebrating Sinophone writers and though he claimed not to have been much interested in Qiu as a personality, explores her life, love, and legacy from the perspective of a Taiwan which has now become the first Asian nation to legalise same sex marriage. 

The film’s title is inspired by Qiu’s final novel completed shortly before her death in exile in Paris. Though she became well known as an out lesbian writer publishing under her own name as a woman who loved women, Qiu, the documentary implies, never actually came out to her family and eventually fled a Taiwan which had recently entered into democratic freedom but was nevertheless still conservative and socially oppressive. In Paris she looked for freedom artistic and personal, but continued to struggle with herself in her internal contradictions which were also in a sense provoked by a hostile society. 

Interviewed 25 years later, many of Qiu’s friends and contemporaries point out that she preceded rather than participated in the burgeoning LGBTQ+ movement which only began to gain ground after her death, but that her work nevertheless helped to raise visibility and acceptance of lesbianism in Taiwan and beyond. Lacking a language to describe herself, her slightly ironic adoption of the term “Lazi” for lesbian was adopted by women who love women in Taiwan, in turn inspiring the Mainland’s “Lala”. As another interviewee suggests, Qiu’s work was also ahead of its time in giving voice to the author’s anxiety in the impossibility of defining gender, at times longing to be made entirely male or entirely female while evidently feeling neither term entirely fitted only later claiming to have discovered an integrated self in the depths of her heartbreak. 

An actor Qiu met university who subsequently starred in one of her short films excerpts of which are included in the documentary recalls her anxiety that repressed emotions once unleashed have the capacity to consume, and in her case at least this may have been the truth. Close friends recall the self harm scars on her arms where she burned herself with cigarettes following the end of a relationship, consumed by her own need for all encompassing passion yet also filled with self-loathing. Perhaps tellingly and presumably for reasons of privacy, her lover at the time of her death does not appear in the documentary which goes out of its way to avoid naming her beyond the “Xu” which appears in her letters, Qiu attributing their breakup to her “intensity” which had unfortunately turned violent further contributing to her sense of shame and instability. 

Yet the translator of Last Words from Montmartre advances that Qiu’s suicide was also in a sense a literary act, the culmination of an artistic life in the tradition of tragic authors she had admired such as Osamu Dazai or Yukio Mishima. Another friend wonders if she might have been suffering from bipolar disorder, while her former professor reflects on her decision to adopt the name “Zoe” while in Paris, a name which itself means “life”. In Taiwan Qiu had worked for a suicide hotline, yet eventually took the decision to die. Qiu’s work cannot indeed be divorced from the manner of her death, but nor can its legacy be denied in contributing to the birth of a movement that she sadly did not live to see.

Including clips from Qiu’s short films and excepts from a short inspired by Qiu’s life directed by bisexual Shanghainese filmmaker Lotte Yue, as well as reenactments featuring Qiu dressed alternately as a crocodile as in her famous novel or as a veiled ghost, Chan charts her artistic legacy through Asia and beyond with recent translations of her novels into French and English, but also juxtaposes the oppressive society she struggled to escape with the comparatively more liberal world of today which she perhaps even in the tragedy of her life and death helped to bring about. 


Love and Death in Montmartre streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Lu Adiong, 2019)

A lone monk provides spiritual healing in a decaying world in Lu Adiong’s enigmatic documentary Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Kāishuǐ Lǎma). Living in wooden house built by his followers high up in the small village of Xiongtuo on the Tibetan plateau, the Lama provides both pastoral care and traditional medicine to residents of the region many of whom have travelled over the mountains to visit him in hope of gaining his wisdom. 

Lu opens however with a lengthy shot of the desolate landscape, frosty and seemingly devoid of human presence home only to mud, smoke, and rubble. Later he will cut to a series of similar shots featuring a family of wild boar encroaching into the village, seemingly free to roam as if nature is already reclaiming this crumbling settlement. The Lama meanwhile remains hidden to us, crammed in as we are with a tightly packed group of followers awaiting his advice in a darkened room alight only with the warm yellow glow of the surrounding walls. The problems they bring him are many and varied, often related to the process of death and dying wanting to know which sutras they should read for a late relative, or intensely curious to know when and where their deceased loved one might have been reborn. Perhaps because of the obvious demands on his time, the Lama’s replies are often curt, imbued with unexpected efficiency as he simply consults his charts and recommends an appropriate sutra. He does not appear to recognise his visitors even when they remind him that he himself oversaw a ritual for them sometime previously, though he is always patient and kind, pausing to give a small boy receiving medical treatment some pocket money to buy sweets on the way home. 

Meanwhile, he also treats the sick attaching suction cups to the affected area to suck out the “bad blood” while explaining to another complainant that his problem is he is like a car engine with not enough oil and too much petrol. Cauterising the wound with incense sticks, he completes his treatment by spitting boiling water over the broken skin, handing over some paperwork to the husband which he apparently does not need to return in person. Other callers meanwhile are burdened with emotional dilemmas, a man wanting advice about the marriage of two village youngsters who’ve fallen in love but the girl’s parents aren’t keen and in any case would prefer that she and her new husband live independently rather than with his family as the in-laws wish. The Lama does not give the man the answer he was perhaps hoping for nor does he have a very favourable prognosis for another who visits wanting to know if it’s in the cards for him to patch things up with the wife who’s apparently left to return to her parents though as he tells it not because there was anything wrong in their relationship. 

True to his name, the Lama keeps the kettle boiling while a collection of visitors gather outside his home waiting for the climactic purification ritual in which men and women remove their shirts and endure the scalding water on their bodies, some directing it to the site of their ailments, baring their knees or ankles. Others have brought their children who scream in pain and terror, the water clearly far too hot for them to bear while the Lama spits out the last of the boiling liquid into the eyes of those there afflicted. In contrast to the traditional setting, many of the villagers can be seen photographing or filming the event on their smartphones to record the occasion. As if to refute the final image, however, of the Lama overseeing the landscape as the villagers return home, Lu breaks the intense Japanese folksong playing over the end credits with a whimsical, snow covered scene in which a cow eventually appears and fixes its gaze directly into the camera lens. An enigmatic exploration of a disappearing way of life in all of its various contradictions, Boiling Water Lama finds no answers to its central questions leaving only the Lama as he metes out his judgements to all who come seeking his advice. 


Boiling Water Lama screens on 12th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Huang Chia-chun, 2013)

“Finally, I understand to be strong is to be gentle” sings the lead vocalist of Sleepy Dads, a rock band comprised entirely of middle-aged men who are each fathers of children with rare medical conditions. Documentarian Huang Chia-Chun first encountered the men while working as a volunteer with Taiwan Foundation for Rare Disorders where he was struck by their intense love for their children continuing to give all for their families while also obviously facing their own difficulties as they try to balance economic support with the emotional. Charting the Sleepy Dads’ quest to play at a high profile rock festival, Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Yī Shǒu Yáogǔn Shàng Yuèqiú) is not only an exploration of living with disability but also a quiet re-evaluation of notions of masculinity as the fathers find themselves members of a minority when it comes to their children’s care. 

That was in fact one of the motivations which led to the founding of the band, one of the dads remarking that as they looked around at various support groups it was almost all mothers with very few men, lamenting that unfortunately many fathers either reject their children or abandon their families entirely. A news report later in the film, meanwhile, relates the tragic story of a single-father who was pushed towards suicide because of the difficulties of caring for his daughter alone which left him unable to earn the money to support them both and eventually overburdened with debt. Though one of the Sleepy Dads is a school teacher with a steady job, many of the others are in precarious freelance employment struggling to balance the need to earn money with the physical need to be there for their children each of whom has differing needs especially as some of them have more than one child suffering with longterm illness. 

The band provides a place where the men can come together to relax with others in a similar position, finding mutual support and solidarity while investing themselves in mastering a new skill. Guided by Spark, the lead singer of top rock band Quarterback, who offers them the opportunity to open at one of their concerts, the Sleepy Dads do their best to perfect their skills with the hope of eventually playing at a top festival despite their comparatively advanced age and lack of experience. Training hard to achieve their goal, it’s less the end point that matters than the process as they work through their difficulties together with good humour and determination. 

As another of the fathers puts it, however, Taiwanese men are raised to be brave and strong but he’s also under an intense amount of pressure. Poignantly his wife, preparing to undergo medical treatment herself, expresses that she’d just like her husband to give her a hug but he says he doesn’t know how because he wasn’t brought up to show emotion in that way. She also worries that he sometimes doesn’t see that she’s under a lot of pressure too and prefers to think of her as a kind of superwoman with an innate ability to cope with anything life throws at her. Nevertheless, the Sleepy Dads have fierce love for their children and are never afraid to show it, doing everything they can to care for them while knowing in some cases that their kids may not survive them and so their time together is even more precious. As the song says, they’ve learned that true strength lies in being gentle. 

While one of the mothers laments that she feels isolated even within her own family because her in-laws will not accept the children, asking her not to bring them to a family gathering, the Sleepy Dads have formed an extended family of their own coming together to celebrate one of the dad’s moves into a new home he’s had designed to better meet his family’s needs with all the kids playing together happily. They don’t pretend that their lives are easy, but they share their joys and sorrows equally and work out their frustrations through the medium of song. A warm and empathetic tribute to these selfless men and their infinite love for their children, Rock Me to the Moon is also a celebration of friendship and solidarity not to mention the power of music to overcome all hardships. 


Rock Me to the Moon streams in the US Dec. 11 – 13 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Chang Ming Yu, 2019)

How do you learn to forgive after family tragedy? That’s a question Chen-yun the heroine of Chang Ming Yu’s documentary The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Huíjiā de Lǐyóu) begins to ask herself as she tries to come to terms with an extremely traumatic history while preparing to become a mother. As a close friend of his subject, Chang is both companion and chronicler, a quietly supportive presence as Chen-yun navigates these extremely difficult emotional waters, but also prompting her to think more deeply about the concept of family at the exact moment in which she begins to found her own. 

The reason Chen-yun returns home after a five year absence is that she is told her younger brother has been taken seriously ill. In fact, as it turns out he has passed away, apparently beaten to death by members of the cult her mother Fen-chueh belonged to though she also claims he had become a drug user. Fen-chueh accepts responsibility for her son’s death, but is said to have been under control of the cult’s crazed leader Chen-miao who according to Chen-yun brainwashed her brother to make him believe he was a bad person. Chen-yun suspects that like her he eventually wanted to leave but was unable to and was subsequently killed. She harbours a degree of guilt that she chose to leave him behind, telling him only that she was leaving to look for their father who had already escaped the cult. 

Expecting a baby with her policeman husband, Chen-yun is forced to deal with the fallout from the scandal of her mother’s crime, hounded by press determined to interview her about the case. Chen-yun’s father, technically the plaintiff in the case against Fen-chueh, signals his intention to sever ties with his former wife and advises Chen-yun to do the same while also telling her not to seem too happy which seems like an unfair request when she’s about to give birth to new life. After all as she puts it, life goes on. She hasn’t forgotten about her brother but you can’t go on mourning forever. Nevertheless, despite her earlier animosity in which she hinted that her mother had been abusive in her childhood and refused to say when questioned whether or not she still loved her, Chen-yun finds herself ringing Fen-chueh when she needs someone who can sign papers on her behalf at the hospital while her husband is unavailable. As healing an act as that might seem to be, it also has its share of awkwardness, a nurse accidentally asking a series of tactless questions necessary for the admission forms such as how many siblings Chen-yun has along with other details her mother is assumed to know but does not. 

Given what we know of her family background, it is perhaps surprising that Chen-yun continues to allow Fen-cheuh back into her life, even asking her to look after her baby son. Nevertheless in the brief time before Fen-chueh must report to serve her four-year prison sentence, Chen-yun begins to repair their fragile maternal bond, coming to understand her mother a little more now that she has become a mother herself and perhaps learning to forgive her for her role in her brother’s death. “No one taught us how to be parents” Fen-chueh later confesses to Chang in a private interview, having realised that though she thought she was doing the best for her daughter she may only have been causing her harm. 

As a new mother Chen-yun cannot help but think of similar questions as she begins to bring up her young son in the midst of her family legacy, taking him with her as she visits her brother’s grave and to visit her mother in the prison so he’ll get to know grandma even while she’s away. Mixing observational footage with brief conversational sessions between a behind the camera Chang and an often emotional Chen-yun, The Reason Why I’m Home focusses not on the tabloid fodder of the crime with its cruel cultists and legacy of abuse but on the slow process of healing as Chen-yun learns to forgive herself and her mother while repairing their fragile family bonds as she does her best to raise her son in love and safety.


The Reason Why I’m Home streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

76 Days (Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous, 2020)

“Don’t worry, so many of us are here for you” a nurse tries to reassure a pregnant woman understandably anxious in being told that her husband cannot be in the room with her while she undergoes an emergency C-section in 76 Days, an observational documentary shot almost entirely within a series of hospitals during the Wuhan lockdown. Co-directed by New York-based director Wu Hao and two on the ground reporters, Chen Weixi and another who has elected to be credited anonymously, 76 Days is testimony to the heroism of the frontline medical personnel who found themselves dealing with a new and mysterious illness, but also a record of a moment as it happened through the eyes of those who were there. 

As such, it opens in chaos with a hospital overrun by those who desperately need help and have nowhere else to turn. “Let’s not panic, OK?” the head nurse adds to the end of her briefing as the team prepare for still more patients, many of them waiting in a small room complaining of the cold. Meanwhile, another healthcare worker in a full hazmat suit breaks down in tears not allowed to attend her own dying father while her colleagues try to offer comfort at the same time as encouraging her to pull herself together because they need her on the ward. She can only watch as he’s taken out of the room in an orange bodybag, two of her colleagues continue to take hold of her at the armpits, less for solidarity it seems than to keep her safe while while she follows the gurney down towards the van which will take his body away. 

Meanwhile, the doctors attempt to help those who’ve come in looking for treatment including one confused older gentleman who keeps insisting he’s not really ill and wants to go home. Making repeated attempts to escape which might be comical if it were not for the gravity of the situation, the old man is obviously frightened and alone alternating between crying on his bed and wandering around in search of company. Later his son rings him to give him a telling off for causing the doctors so much trouble, reminding him that he’s been a Party Member for decades and ought to be acting with a little more dignity while the doctors do their best to be patient with both men, especially when the son later expresses reluctance to have him back in case he’s not really “cured” (the old man will be one of last to leave the hospital). The old man’s anxiety raises another issue in that he’s used to speaking in dialect and so there is an obvious difficulty in communication between some of the patients, particularly those among the older generation, and the hospital staff some of whom are secondments from Shanghai rather than from the local area. Other patients, meanwhile have been looking up their symptoms on the internet which is causing them additional anxiety and headaches for their doctors who then have to re-explain all their treatment decisions. 

We also realise that certain procedures cannot be delayed just because there is so much to do leaving personnel tied up with bureaucracy, often needing to ring grieving relatives to ask them for a copy of their loved ones’ documentation so they can issue a death certificate. Some of the nurses also make a point of rescuing the personal affects of those who’ve died such as bracelets and other items of jewellery so they can be disinfected and returned to family members along with more practical items such as mobile phones and ID cards. At the height of the crisis, there is a large box filled with phones belonging to those who have already passed away some of which are still ringing. 

Keeping in touch becomes a secondary problem as couples come in and are shuffled into separate wards, an old woman making regular requests for updates on her husband and a compassionate nurse going so far as to show her his dinner so she can see that he’s eating. Meanwhile the woman who underwent the C-section is isolating away from her baby, she and her husband later enduring another anxious wait towards the end of the lockdown until they’re told that it’s safe for their little girl come home with them. There are no title cards or explanatory text, like everyone else we have no idea where we are or when this will end save for a few brief glances of the daily roster as we notice that admissions seem to be decreasing, people are beginning to go home, and on the momentary glimpses of the outside traffic seems to be increasing on the streets.  

Yet even when it’s over it’s not really over. A nurse has to sit and go through that box of phones ringing relatives again, some of whom evidently had not been made aware their loved one had died, to ask them what to do with the affects. The bracelet of one old woman is dutifully returned to her daughter who cannot help crying as she receives it, but like everyone else goes out of her way to thank the doctors for doing all they could while the nurse profusely apologies that they weren’t able to save her. A valuable historical document, 76 Days is also strangely imbued with a kind of hope in the selfless dedication of the doctors and medical staff who daily risked their own lives to save those they could, while proving that this will someday if not exactly end then at least stabilise. 


76 Days streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)