The New God (新しい神様, Yutaka Tsuchiya, 1999)

Yutaka Tsuchiya opens his 1999 shot on video personal doc The New God (新しい神様, Atarashii Kamisama) with a lengthy scene of performance art in which a young woman dressed in a suit explains why she was drawn to nationalist ideology while seemingly ignored by the other passersby in the street, a woman behind her even continuing to hand out flyers as she speaks. On the left himself, Tsuchiya was nevertheless struck by the raw emotion in the song of right-wing punk band Revolutionary Truth as performed by charismatic lead singer Karin Amamiya whom he eventually ended up marrying despite their conflicting views. 

In any case, it’s clear even from the film’s opening that Karin is becoming disillusioned with the version of nationalism to which she has hitherto ascribed, a feeling which is intensified after she is invited to visit North Korea in the company of a former member of the ultra-left organisation Japanese Red Army. During her time in Pyongyang, recording video diaries with Tsuchiya’s camera, she is extremely attracted to the quality of unity she sees as integral to the North Korean system while otherwise unable to process the simultaneous truth that oppression and unity are not synonymous. Children are not abused in North Korea she naively explains having been invited to tour a day care centre, reflecting on her own difficult childhood in which she experienced bullying so severe it has left her with lasting trauma which prevents her from fully connecting with the world. 

It is indeed this sense of dislocation that pushed her towards nationalism, taken in by the idea of nation as family while looking for a place to belong. To be fair to her and to her bandmate Itoh neither of them express particularly extreme views aside from their historical revisionism and their idea of nationalism seems to be inclusive rather than exclusive in which they have no particular problem with minorities or people who are not considered to be ethnic Japanese. In fact, they seem to subscribe more to a patriotic small-c conservatism in which hard work is regarded as a virtue which should always be rewarded in full. This is the reason they give for their views on the controversial Yasukuni shrine which houses the souls of those who died in war including those later convicted of war crimes, believing that the soldiers like everyone else “worked hard” during the war and their sacrifice shouldn’t be ignored. 

For his part, Tsuchiya listens patiently to their sometimes confused ideology while internally questioning his own as someone who identifies as left-wing progressive and believes that the war was wrong and the emperor system is responsible for the majority of ills in contemporary Japan. Yet as someone else puts it left and right are in themselves fairly meaningless labels as is the concept of nation. Karin gets on fairly well the guys from the Japanese Red Army but finds their impassioned speechifying off-putting while later disillusioned with her nationalist organisation after her speech about her experiences in North Korea fails to elicit much of a reaction from those she now decries as being part of a social club less interested in serious politics than getting together for drinks and chat. The issue for her is that these people don’t really care about Japan and aren’t sufficiently interested in changing society for the better. 

The implication is that Karin and Itoh were drawn towards nationalism because of their marginalisation, Karin mercilessly bullied and disconnected from her birth family, while Itoh later admits he became a nationalist to escape being a “nerd”. What Karin craves is the sense of extended family one might feel in a society such as she feels North Korea to be, the emperor a father figure of paternalistic feudalism. She feels herself to be worthless, admitting that she feels best when’s she’s needed and is attracted by the sense of purpose found in activism while politics is for her an escapist fantasy that allows her to evade the need for self-examination. The pair of them also feel a sense of ennui in a stagnant society, decrying their “boring” lives in insisting that “this suffocating peace” has endured too long as they direct their ire ironically enough towards capitalism and Japan’s geopolitical relations with America. 

Opposition to American imperialism unites both left and right, implying that they aren’t so different after all. Tsuchiya advances that the difference between them is that he thinks the emperor system is at fault, while Karin and Itoh feel it to be a solution. He doesn’t understand why they need to locate a sense of pride in something external like nationhood or emperor rather than learning to find it from within, while Karin seems to long for authoritarianism out of a lack of self-confidence essentially hoping to be freed from the burden of choice. Even so through spending so much time listening to each other the trio have discovered a sense of mutual understanding which does not require them to agree or even to share common ground though they do more than expected, becoming as Tsuchiya hopes a path to a better society in which such meaningless labels existing only to divide one person from another are no longer relevant. 


The New God streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

The Weald (杣人物語, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

@KUMIE Inc.

“I wish I were younger” comes a common refrain among the cast of elderly men and women living a traditional life in the mountains and forests of rural Japan in Naomi Kawase’s 1997 documentary, The Weald. Arriving in the same year as Kawase’s Caméra d’Or-winning narrative feature Suzaku, The Weald (杣人物語, Somaudo Monogatari) continues many of the same themes in her fascination with nature and moribund ways of life while taking on a meta existential dimension as her interviewees muse on loss, loneliness, and a lifetime’s regrets. 

What they almost all say is that they wish they could be young again with all the possibilities of youth. A lumberjack dreams of becoming a timber dealer, while another man jokes that he was once handsome though you wouldn’t know it now. One heartbreakingly laments that he’d like to start over because he’s never felt true happiness in his life. Then again, another believes that “happiness depends on your way of thinking” and that a man who’s learned to be satisfied with a small portion is in his own way rich. For another man happiness lies in having people speak well of him after he’s gone, knowing he must then have lived a good life. 

Then again life has its sadnesses. A carpenter reveals his private grief in having lost a son, unable even to watch his daughter’s wedding video because it’s too painful to see him there. “In a city he wouldn’t have had a motorbike” he sighs, reflecting that he was unlucky to have been born in the country and needlessly blaming himself for something not in his control. The last man, meanwhile, speaks movingly of his late mother’s descent into dementia and his own decision to give up on marriage while still young to dedicate himself to her, only to be left on his own in the end. He wonders if he was right to sacrifice his life for her while longing to be reborn in the hope of seeing his former girlfriend, his face dissolving into an old photograph in which he is young and handsome as if to grant his wish. 

Meanwhile, an old lady meditates on loneliness in a solo life of busyness firstly claiming to feel none but then revealing the emptiness of her days with no one to cook for. “I don’t know the meaning of life, I just live day to day” she explains, insisting that it’s pointless to worry and better just to get on with things. “I am satisfied to live each day peacefully” she adds, immersing herself in the moment. She like the others is uncertain why Kawase is filming her, telling her to come back later when she’s 18 again because old people are no fun. Another man later tells her not to waste her expensive film on him in case she needs it for something more important, the elderly residents either maudlin or amused but each mystified as to why someone is so keen to listen to their stories.  

Implicitly in these stories of the elderly, Kawase hints at the effects of continuing rural depopulation with fewer young people around, an elderly couple explaining that they have come to depend on each other even more as they aged only for the wife to fall ill and need care from her husband 14 years older but in better health. They go about their lives in the same way they have for decades, wandering the forests and practicing traditional skills which may all too soon be lost. 

In keeping with her earlier documentary work, Kawase often films in extreme close up or layers dialogue on top of another scene as when old lady wanders aimlessly trough the forest while her meditations on loneliness accompany her. What she seems to have discovered in the wisdom of those who agreed to speak to her is that happiness and suffering go hand in hand while youthful regret tinged with nostalgia can in itself almost be lonely. Even so many have managed to find meaning in their lives whether it be being present in nature or the love for one’s spouse and family while longing to be reborn eager for their next lives whatever they will be. “I wish only the best for everyone” someone adds before returning at last to spring and all the brief joys it will deliver. 


The Weald streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

A Movie Capital (映画の都, Toshio Iizuka, 1991)

As the opening of Toshio Iizuka’s A Movie Capital (映画の都, Tokyo no Miyako) makes plain, 1989 was a year of turbulence all over the world but also perhaps also of hope as many of the directors invited to the very first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival often insist in positioning their art as an act of resistance against authoritarianism. In essence a visual record commemorating the festival’s inauguration, Iizuka’s film also has its meta qualities interrogating not only what documentary is and what it’s for but its potential as a means of bringing disparate communities together in an exchange of truth and solidarity. 

In fact, the film opens with a brief prologue dedicated to Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, who sadly passed away just before the festival opened, contrasting Ivens’ 1928 work The Bridge with the box office hit of that year in Japan, Shozo Makino’s Chushingura. Jumping into the film proper we witness something similar as the tranquility of the Bubble-era nation is directly contrasted with the events of Tiananmen Square as seen in a video sent to the festival by a Chinese associate living in Hong Kong. In actuality, the first Yamagata featured no films from Asia in its competition section provoking a symposium in which a number of Asian directors, producers, and critics discuss why that might be. Ironically enough, fifth generation Mainland Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief) was invited but unable to speak because, as his wife explains during an exasperating phone call, it’s not as easy for someone from China to travel abroad as it would be for someone elsewhere. The authorities haven’t granted him permission to leave and so he cannot even apply for a passport. 

Censorship and an element of personal danger to oneself or one’s family are otherwise cited as reasons documentary filmmaking has not taken taken off in Asia. The director of May 80 Dreamy Land which concerns the Gwangju Uprising is also unable to attend because he is currently on trial. Meanwhile, his representative Kong Su-Chang laments that he is among the older members of his small circle of documentary filmmakers who are of a generation without mentors having to teach themselves how to make films because there was no one there teach them. Filipino directors meanwhile cite the continuing influence of America along with wealth inequality as potential reasons the documentary has not flourished while asking if documentary and entertainment are in some way incompatible given that documentary is at its most popular at moments of crisis. 

Still as almost every interview states at one time or another, their primary goal is to make sure the voices of their subjects are heard and their faces seen determined to capture the everyday experiences of ordinary people as honestly as possible. While it’s obviously true that none of them were themselves included in the competition, many directors also claim that more important is the opportunity to meet other filmmakers in order to generate friendships and exchange ideas. They see their mission as making the world a better place to live hoping to challenge the status quo through their filmmaking while what Yamagata becomes to them is an opportunity to improve the fortunes of documentary filmmakers throughout Asia through mutual solidarity while the town of Yamagata itself also comes together as a community in order to celebrate documentary art even recruiting the marching band of a local primary school to help. 

One director’s suggestion that the future will become harder for dictators thanks to the democratisation of technology may in a sense be naive but in its own way true in the ability of ordinary people to record their own stories even if they face the same difficulties and dangers. Even so Iizuka’s assembled footage from the films which played that first edition alongside interview and Q&A footage not only help to give an impression of the open and enquiring nature of the festival, but also to interrogate itself and its art asking what it’s for and what purpose it can serve at a moment of geopolitical instability as the Berlin Wall falls and the echoes of Tiananmen reverberate while documenting not only a single event but its purpose and intention. 


A Movie Capital streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

YIDFF Announces Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 Streaming Series

Launched in 1989, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival is one of the key events in Asia dedicated to documentary filmmaking. In celebration of their long history, YIDFF has put together a special series showcasing some of the key works from Japan which have featured over the last 30 years. The program will stream worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms from Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 with all titles streaming for free during the first week.

A Movie Capital

Directed by Toshio Iizuka, A Movie Capital is a record of the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival’s first edition held in 1989 and against the turbulent geopolitical backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Living on the River Agano

Makoto Sato’s documentary weaves its way along the Agano River talking to the mostly elderly residents of small-town Japan many of whom remained unrecognised victims of the Minamata disease caused by industrial pollution.

The Weald

1997 documentary from Naomi Kawase focussing on six groups of elderly people living in the Yoshino Mountains.

The New God

Personal documentary from Yutaka Tsuchiya in which he documents his relationship with a right-wing punk band which eventually led to his marrying its vocalist Karin Amamiya despite not sharing their nationalist views.

A2

Tatsuya Mori’s 2001 sequel to his 1997 film A in which he returns to follow the everyday lives of members of the new religion sect Aum Shinrikyo who were responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground.

The Cheese and the Worms

1995 personal documentary from Haruyo Kato documenting her life in the mountains living with her grandmother while caring for her mother who is suffering with a terminal illness.

Dear Pyongyang

Documentary by ethnic Korean Yang Yong-hi who stayed in Japan after her father who was a committed communist and leader of the pro-North Korean movement sent her three brothers back to North Korea as part of a repatriation program only to see them become increasingly dependent on care packages from home as the situation in Pyongyang continues to decline.

Storytellers

2013 documentary by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai focussing on the stories of those affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Cenote

Experimental doc from Kaori Oda shot on Super-8 focussing on the “cenote” sink holes of Mexico which were once the sole water source for Mayans living far from rivers and lakes.

Pickles and Komian Club

Poignant 2021 documentary from Koichi Sato following Maruhachi Yatarazuke, the owner of a 135-year-old family-run pickle store forced to close during the pandemic.

All films will be available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 – Feb. 6 and will be free to view until Jan. 24. Full details for all the films can be found on the official Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival website, while you can also keep up with the latest news by following the festival on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Kyoko Miyake, 2013)

“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.

Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe. 

An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her. 

The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant. 

While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again. 


My Atomic Aunt streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城, Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, 2020)

“We can’t afford to be afraid” insists a protestor trapped inside the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University during the 2019 protests sparked by opposition to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. Credited only to the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective, its directors for obvious reasons choosing to remain anonymous, Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城) is a visceral exploration of life behind the barricades as the trapped youngsters, some of whom are under the age of 18, grow increasingly frustrated and afraid, desperate for escape but fearful of police violence. 

The police, it has to be said, do not come out of this well. While the protestors blast local hip hop highly critical of law enforcement, the officers negotiating via loud speaker repeatedly troll them with ironic pop songs with titles such as “Surrounded” or “Ambush From Ten Sides” while otherwise taunting them with ridiculous insults and talking about going out to kill cockroaches. Such deliberate provocation at least giving the impression that they are merely looking for an excuse to storm the university does not endear them to the protestors trapped inside most of whom already want to leave but not if it means walking out into the arms of the police. With the mounting hysteria, it isn’t even the immediacy of the threat that causes the most anxiety but the possibilities of its aftermath, many fearing not just police brutality but sexual violence and that their mistreatment will not end with their arrest. This is one reason that many struggle to trust a cohort of high school principals who are permitted to enter the university in order to lead out some of the school-aged protestors, promising to protect them from the police batons in order to deliver them to their homes safely and directly. In return the protestors are asked to provide their IDs, leading many to fear they will simply be arrested the following morning. 

Nevertheless, as the situation inside begins to decline it becomes clear to many that they must leave by whatever means possible, some engaging in potentially dangerous escape attempts such as abseiling from a bridge to be met by friends on motorbikes, or exiting through the sewers. Others debate the wisdom of leaving at all, correctly as it turns out surmising that the police will eventually be forced to end the siege because allowing it to continue is simply far too expensive. Even so, these are extremely young people under intense strain, mentally and physically exhausted while also fearing for their lives. Remarking that many have made their wills, one young man insists it’s not death he fears, he’s prepared for that, but that he may die in here and no one would know.  

The necessity of hiding their faces, the documentarians are scrupulous in blurring even the faintest trace of identifiable features, adds to the sense of the collective which becomes in the eyes of some at least their best weapon of defence. Yet through repeated attempts to break through the blockade and the gradual shedding of those who cannot endure any longer deciding to accept the threat of arrest and surrender, the group necessarily weakened causing many to fear their reduced numbers leave them increasingly vulnerable. Some protestors loudly harangue their friends for leaving, while others offer only comfort as their fellow protestors tearfully apologise but can clearly remain no longer. A few pledge to wait it out while debating the ethical dimensions of leaving if it means abandoning those who are already too injured to make their own way out. 

In the midst of the action, the documentarians hover over blood-stained helmets and the aftermath of violence but are also relatively free to record police brutality seemingly ignored by officers otherwise pinning protestors to the floor and in some cases recklessly firing rubber bullets in close proximity even at one point appearing to fire directly at the back of a fleeing protestor’s head. Interrupting these scenes with shots of empty corridors – discarded clothing, a lone shoe inches away from the fire, all those battered umbrellas – the filmmakers evoke an almost apocalyptic atmosphere of total desolation offering little hope for the future in a society dominated by fear and authoritarianism. 


Inside the Red Brick Wall screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (dialogue free)

All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Wang Qiong, 2021)

Following a series of demographic fluctuations including decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy, the Chinese state began to impose population controls in the early 1970s finally introducing the infamous One Child Policy in 1980. Though the name is perhaps a misnomer given that numerous exceptions existed permitting certain families such as those in rural areas to have two children, the effects of the policy’s often violent and inhuman enforcement continue to linger despite its vast relaxation with most now permitted to have up to three children in an effort to combat the ironic side effect of China’s rapidly ageing society. Wang Qiong’s All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Jiātíng Lùxiàng) is, quite literally, about her sisters but also all of the women of China past and present whose lives continue to be defined by cruel and thoughtless authoritarian government along with outdated patriarchal social codes. 

The sadness in her own family, however, locates itself in the liminal figure of her younger sister Jin, the family’s third child born at the height of the One Child Policy and therefore in some senses illegal. As Qiong’s mother Xiaoqing later recounts, she became pregnant seven times and each time a girl. She had four abortions, but was still determined to conceive a son in order to perform what she saw as her filial duty. Despite undergoing partial sterilisation in 1992, a country doctor helped her to maintain one functioning ovary expressly because she had not yet had a male child, Xiaoqing eventually had a son, Sifan, in 2002, but prior to that had already made the difficult decision to opt for a late term abortion when pregnant with Jin in the conviction the baby would be another girl. Ambivalent in her decision she also took herbs which she believes were responsible for counteracting the effects of the injections she was given to induce abortion allowing Jin to survive, but because of their poverty and the stringency of the One Child Policy Xiaoqing and her husband Jianhua decided to abandon the baby hoping someone who had a son already would take her in. Having left her outside an orangery, the couple were distraught to learn that Jin had only been moved to a better location outside a school where she apparently lay for several days. Eventually the decision was taken to retrieve her, Jianhua’s mother persuading his sister Jinlian and her husband Zhenggen to raise the child alongside their son Jun. 

This awkward situation has continued to present a fault line in the organisation of both families, Jin a member of both and neither at the same time. Having been lovingly raised by Jinlian and Zhenggen as their own until her early teenage years, it was impossible for Jin to avoid the reality of her abandonment and the knowledge that it would not have happened if she had been male. Though she lived in a different village, most seemed to be aware of the circumstances of her birth with local children mocking her for having been “picked out of the trash can”, a cruelty even more chilling on hearing the accounts of Qiong’s parents who recall being told by a doctor that if they did not want the baby who had been born healthy they should throw her in the bin then and there. Qiong herself recalls seeing the corpses of other late term abortions in a gutter on her way to school almost all of them female. The One Child Policy may not be so draconian as it once was, but the patriarchal mindset is still very much in place. Qiong’s older sister Li is currently pregnant with her third child and shocks her sister by revealing that she plans to have an abortion should the baby be another girl in order to avoid displeasing her husband. 

Li already had a son from a previous marriage who is, perhaps tellingly, not seen here and does not seem to be living with her presumably having remained with the father’s family in order to carry on their name. Asking her mother why everyone continues to value male children over female, Xiaoqing reflects that daughters become a part of someone else’s family when they marry and thereafter are responsible for looking after their in-laws. Only by having sons and gaining daughter-in-laws can you expect someone to be around to care for you in your old age.

It’s this rigid definition of family units which has caused so many problems for Jin who continues to refer to the uncle aunt who raised her as her parents while careful to refer to Xiaoqing and Jinhua as “your mother and father” when talking to Qiong, yet also encouraged to participate in filial rituals presenting gifts to her birth parents. The same problem occurs at her wedding when deciding which set of uncles should sit at the top table given her peculiar situation of having two sets of parents, worrying if her young son Chengxi will later be confused and wonder why it is he has three grandmas and grandads. For her part, she often loses her temper with him telling him that he’s a “useless baby” and “anyone is better than you”, a particularly heartbreaking moment occurring some years later while she berates him for having apparently bitten another child at school as he sadly removes a little paper heart from his forehead as if agreeing with her that he doesn’t really deserve it. Having married young trying to forge her own family while unable to repair the rifts with her parents and siblings, she contemplates leaving her husband who struggles with employment and has a gambling problem but ultimately decides not to because she doesn’t want her son to “live in a broken family” as she has done while simultaneously making him a “left behind child” as they head to the city in search of work and a little space from Jin’s overly complicated family situation. 

Even as she describes her father as “abusive”, and depicts her mother as a difficult person, Qiong is also careful to frame their actions within the confines of their times, the ultimate villain the cruel inhumanity of the One Child Policy. Xiaoqing’s brother was a local official in charge of the policy’s enforcement and tearfully declares himself haunted by the memory of exposing two of his own children in a forest behind the hospital in which they were born, preferring to regard it as water under the bridge and simply a consequence of the political reality he would have been unable to resist even had he chosen to. Meanwhile, Qiong’s elder sister remains somewhat complicit equally unwilling to confront a reality she sees as unchangeable while irritated by Jin’s attitude describing her as “childish” seeing as she is already a mother herself and should therefore “understand” the circumstances of her birth. We see countless signs in doctors’ offices reminding patients that “sex selective testing and abortion are prohibited”, but they only serve to remind that this is obviously something many people still consider when faced with the nation’s ever increasing wealth inequality and persistent patriarchal social codes which value sons over daughters. A complex examination of the ramifications of the One Child Policy through the prism of one particular family, Wang’s raw, personal documentary is an unflinching condemnation of repressive authoritarianism but also of continuing female subjugation in an unequal society. 


All About My Sisters screens in San Diego on Nov. 3 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón, Juan Martín Hsu, 2021)

Named for the classic song by Teresa Teng that connects the mother and son at its centre, Juan Martín Hsu’s documentary/fiction hybrid The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón) sees the director himself making two trips from his home in Argentina seven years apart to see his mother in Taipei in part in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his father when he was six years old. It may be a minor spoiler to reveal that the truth remains frustratingly out of reach though he perhaps discovers other, equally hidden, familial traumas in the complicated history of post-war Taiwan. 

Martín and his brother Marcelo were born in Argentina where their parents ran a restaurant but his mother later elected to return to Taiwan while they stayed behind. The earlier visit in 2012 is apparently the first in the 10 years since his mother left, the difficulty of obtaining visas and the expense being the reasons he gives for leaving it so long. His next trip, however, is not for another seven years, he and his brother instantly remarking on the various ways his mother may or may not have aged. Martín seems to want to talk about his father, but his mother would rather not drag up the past. In fact so averse is she that she’s developed a habit of cutting the faces of those she doesn’t like or want to remember out of her photos which is why the boys complain they don’t have any of their father. While chatting about that, she advances that their father was murdered because of an extramarital affair he’d been having with a local woman, later claiming that he may have had a drug problem or been involved with organised crime. 

Mostly what she tells her son is that she was unhappy, having left a previous marriage because her husband was intensely patriarchal refusing to allow her go on working after becoming his wife. She met Martín’s dad after persuading her first husband to allow her to work at a restaurant and left with him for Argentina pregnant with her first husband’s child, Diego. But in Argentina her new husband was little different, actively preventing her from learning Spanish while also discouraging her from associating with other Chinese-speaking migrants, especially men. The boys speak to her in awkward Mandarin with the assistance of smartphone dictionaries while she complains that her Spanish was never good enough even after she began running the restaurant on her own. “You two wouldn’t be able to spend “la vida” in Taiwan” she explains, “just like your mum couldn’t spend “la vida” in Argentina”. 

Martín’s mother keeps telling him to leave it alone, that he might not like what he finds he if keeps poking into his father’s death though as we find out later he has own traumatic memories of the night his father died along with a burning desire to understand why as if hoping to unlock the secrets of his history. In a raw hotel room exchange, his brother complains that he doesn’t feel part of this extended Taiwan family and is upset that Martín threatened to disown him if he refused to take part in the documentary, feeling a little tricked in having agreed to come only to be forced to participate while his brother seemingly ignores his discomfort. Yet while looking for his father Martín discovers a darker history of his grandfather’s suffering during the White Terror adding new layers to a legacy of familial trauma in the buried history of his maternal family as complicated as it already seemed to be. 

In between each of these difficult conversations and meetings with family members, Hsu splices brief fiction shorts along the theme of exile, the first featuring a returnee who emigrated as a young man leaving a lover behind who is now it seems about to marry someone else but carrying regrets, while another sequence follows a young woman preparing to go abroad but feeling terribly guilty about abandoning her mother. At times the sense of cultural dislocation seems unbreachable as the brothers accompany their mother and her partner to karaoke sessions and tourist excursions but then there’s the song and its universal ability to connect, Martín’s mother singing it firstly with a guitar and later a microphone almost like a long forgotten lullaby. Martín may not unlock the secrets of his father’s death, but does perhaps gain a new understanding of his mother, a resilient woman but also a perpetual victim of a patriarchal society, an oppressive regime, and finally of distance in the separations emotional and physical between herself and her sons. 


The Moon Represents My Heart screens in San Diego on Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – The Moon Represents My Heart

Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Chang Yung, 2021)

“Safety isn’t the issue right now. We have to keep moving forward” a harried doctor replies to a cabman’s question, like most it seems just getting on with it until it’s over. Like Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous’ 76 Days, Chang Yung’s Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Wǔhàn Wǔhàn) documents the final stretches of the city’s intense lockdown beginning in February 2020 yet where 76 Days was largely a exploration of grief, panic, and confusion Chang’s documentary assembled remotely from 300 hours of footage shot on the ground by local camera crews perhaps reflects a new accommodation with the nature of the pandemic in its empathetic depiction of ordinary people going about their lives as normally possible. 

The first trail Chang picks up is that of factory worker Yin who has begun working as a volunteer driver ferrying medical staff between the hotel where they are being housed during the lockdown and the healthcare facilities where they are working. Yin explains he took the job more or less for something to do rather than be bored at home, but it also places a strain on his relationship with heavily pregnant wife Xu who is intensely anxious about catching the disease or that there may be other complications with the birth but no hospital space available to treat her. Through his various fares, Yin gets to see the other side of the pandemic as the medical staff honestly describe the situation on the ground which is often in contrast with the impression given by official channels. 

As for the medical staff themselves, ER Chief Zheng is quick to point out that much of the PPE they’ve received is not fit for purpose while his staff is already traumatised and close to burnout. Later a team of psychiatrists is sent in to provide support both to the frontline health workers and to the patients, most of whom are extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses if sometimes frightened and angry though one they’ve nicknamed grumpy grandpa continually refuses treatment and otherwise makes a point of pigheadedly insulting his nurse. Psychiatrist Zhang is also however under strain, learning via telephone that her father in her hometown has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Like many she is away from her family with no idea when she’ll be able to return to them. Nurse Susu, in the same position, receives a raw and difficult phone call from her small daughter who breaks down crying, unable to understand why her mother’s not coming home while all she can do is listen in heartbreak unable to explain or make a promise she knows she can keep as to when she’ll back. Zheng likewise makes calls to his wife and daughter, but also reveals that he’s asked an old friend to watch over them should the worst happen. 

Nevertheless, people try to find the small moments of joy where they can. At a temporary hospital for those whose cases are mild to moderate, a mass dance routine breaks out while patients otherwise try to keep active through group tai chi supporting each other while Zhang runs group therapy sessions on the other side of the wall. Worried part of the problem is that the patients can’t bond with them because the PPE erases their identity, some of the doctors print out photos to display on their chests while others are always quick to help, a collection of local hairdressers offering free haircuts to medical personnel to help prevent contamination and make PPE more comfortable. 

The overall impression is of a community managing, working together to get through the crisis while quietly getting on with the job. Chang apparently made his documentary partly with the rise in anti-Asian hate crime in mind, hoping to “humanise” the citizens of Wuhan by showing them as ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances though others of course may read it slightly differently in its deliberate avoidance of the horrors of the virus save a few scenes of grieving relatives or terrified patients, the only indication of anxiety caused by the system seen in those at the temporary hospital hearing it’s about to close down and fearful of what might happen to them next. Nevertheless Chang’s empathetic documentary is at its best capturing the everyday reality, be it a husband running all over town trying to find somewhere selling a crib or a woman cooking yams in her room because she can cope with the virus but another one of those box meals might push her over the edge. 


Wuhan Wuhan streams in the US Oct. 6 – 12 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. It will also screen at Chicago’s Chinese American Museum on Oct. 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)