Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (流浪北京, Wu Wenguang, 1990)

Wu Wenguang’s seminal documentary Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京, Liúlàng Běijīng) opens with a stark title card explaining that it was filmed between August 1988 and May 1990. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the film never mentions what happened between those dates and is in a sense defined by the things it doesn’t say. Often regarded as the father of Chinese independent documentary, Wu’s shooting style breaks with the accepted norms which had favoured meticulous control by shooting handheld and in 4:3 with a grainy camcorder as he interviews his counterculture friends accidentally documenting their lives on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

As the opening explains, his subjects are a group of 20-something bohemians who have each rejected their State assigned jobs and relocated to Beijing, without proper residence permits, to participate in an artistic and cultural revival in which anything seems possible. Zhang Ci was a magazine editor in her hometown but hated it and came to Beijing to be a freelance writer. Zhang Dali studied book binding in the city and stayed on living as a freelance painter, while his classmate Gao Bo did the same thing but is a freelance photographer. Also a freelance painter, Zhang Xiaping was working as a scenic artist in Yunnan and has only recently come to the capital, while Mou Sen, originally from Tibet, is a struggling avant-garde theatre director. 

While perhaps fulfilling the starving artist stereotype, what Wu discovers in the stories of his friends is a sense of despair and inertia at odds with the supposed hopefulness of the times. Ci often appears on the brink of tears as she talks about her life, obviously dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the harshness of her living conditions making use of the facilities at the near by university, offended and perplexed when foreigners compliment her on her bohemian lifestyle. Dali too declares himself bored with Beijing and its dull culture vultures while lamenting that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance artist, only foreigners have money to buy his paintings and there aren’t many of those around. There is perhaps a sense of artistic rivalry between Dali and Xiaping who appears to have achieved a degree of success preparing for a big solo show while complaining that she hates selling her paintings and would almost rather sell her body. 

Dali and Bo expand on the phenomenon of “Cen Fan” as they sheepishly convince friends currently doing better to spot them dinner, while Bo declares himself a vagabond at heart but also remarks on the various anxieties of living on the margins trying to make rent in a fracturing Beijing. They each insist that they live for their art, Mou Sen certain that there could be no life for him without theatre, but some also dream of more conventional lives, Ci and Dali longing for materialist comforts of a decent home and a car even if in his case he wants these things to facilitate his art rather than to improve the quality of his life. Increasingly despondent, they discuss the idea of going abroad, Ci eventually making a, it’s implied, cynical marriage to an older American man to get a visa to emigrate while Dali eventually marries an Italian and Xiaping an Austrian. When Bo takes a job in Paris, Mou Sen is the only one left behind yet even he had mused on the idea of marrying a European in order to see Europe while admitting the possibility he may find a nice Chinese girl he likes and simply marry her. 

The artists’ mass exodus seems to run in tandem with the shockwaves of Tiananmen, as if they have given up on the prospect of social revolution and concluded that their only future lies abroad. Shortly before we are told she has left for Vienna, Xiaping appears to suffer a period of mental distress culminating in a public breakdown in a KFC from which Mou Sen and Wu himself had to rescue her, an incident which seems overly pregnant with symbolism as if the rapid changes of the modern China have fractured her mind. Wu never mentions Tiananmen, how could he, and it seems he encountered a degree of resistance including distressing footage of Xiaping’s manic episode (not for reasons of taste or privacy but shame on the part of the authorities), but the sense of painful defeat echoes all the same in a well placed title card as the artists make their exit signalling both the death and the failure of this short-lived counterculture movement. 


Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Road (大路朝天, Zhang Zanbo, 2015)

“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for. 

Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit. 

A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry. 

Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.

Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities. 

If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”. 


The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Single Woman (单身女人, Lin Xin, 2018)

What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society. 

The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility. 

Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness. 

Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself. 

On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living. 

Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation. 

Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society. 


Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

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.

Keep Rolling (好好拍電影, Man Lim-Chung, 2020)

In recent years a festival darling, Ann Hui picked up the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award at the 77th Venice Film Festival yet there have been plenty of ups and downs in her 40-year career as Man Lim-Chung’s candid documentary Keep Rolling (好好拍電影) makes plain. Making his feature directorial debut, Man has been a frequent Hui collaborator as production designer and art director since July Rhapsody in 2002 and follows Hui from the production of 2017’s Our Time Will Come right up to her Golden Lion acceptance speech featuring both behind the scenes footage of Hui directing and direct to camera interviews from herself and other Sinophone directors including Stanley Kwan, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Jia Zhangke, Fruit Chan, Tsui Hark, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. 

What quickly becomes clear is Hui’s ready willingness to face herself. She makes no secret of her on-set frustrations, Man cutting to footage of her irritated with an assistant director while another director recalls an incident from earlier in her career in which she lost her temper with her creative team only to turn up the next morning with tea and pineapple buns by way of an apology. By contrast, she is also described as unusually flexible in her working practices, willing to listen to the opinions of others and change her mind if convinced rather than stubbornly insisting on perfection or getting the image first in her head. Though she is often direct and forthright, making it plain to a PR that she won’t go on stage just to say a few meaningless words while reminding another that she’s not as young as she was and the schedule of in-person appearances is becoming unmanageable, she is also cheerful and energetic always laughing and joking unconcerned with her image and willing to expose an unvarnished vision of herself such as her agonising over a dress to wear to an awards ceremony only to turn up in her regular clothes because she didn’t have time to change after spending all day deliberating with the jury, much to the annoyance of old friend Sylvia Chang who had dressed up for the occasion. 

This is perhaps why she’s been able to weather the storm, philosophically laughing off the low points of her career in which she struggled to make ends meet as having accorded her additional life experience and added to her understanding of the lives of others. “You should treat each film as if it’s your last”, Stanley Kwan remembers her advising him, not for any morbid reason that tomorrow you may be gone but because you may never get the opportunity again should funding dry up which is a definite possibility in ever pragmatic Hong Kong. After recovering from a slump with Summer Snow, she found herself in another after the consecutive box office failures of The Stunt Woman and Eighteen Springs, funding Ordinary Heroes with investments from friends but seeing that too flop leaving her with no offers at all.

Yet as Jia Zhangke points out, an artist cannot care too much about box office and Hui herself comments on her determination to take on stories that matter to her and more recently to contemporary Hong Kong though she also admits that the growing importance of the Mainland market may be disrupting that of the local industry. Her protagonists are loners and outsiders often standing at a crossroads of history, a position pregnant with symbolism reflecting according to some the spirit of Hong Kong always anxious in search of settlement and security. Yet, they also perhaps reflect a sense of herself as a perpetual exile, born in Northern China to a Chinese father and a mother she discovered only at 16 to have been Japanese, thereby gaining new understanding which helped repair their sometimes fractious relationship as dramatised in 1990’s Song of the Exile. Now in her 70s and still working, Hui also cares for her now elderly mother reluctant to pursue the idea of placing her in residential care unwilling to admit the idea of “abandoning” someone while perhaps also reflecting on her experiences filming A Simple Life, inspired by the life of her friend and producer Roger Lee. A vibrant yet uncompromising look at the life and career of a legendary artist who helped to kick start the Hong Kong New Wave and went on to conquer European festivals, Man’s elegantly put together doc ends with the words “Long live cinema” a fitting tribute to woman who has dedicated her life to its continuing evolution.


Keep Rolling opened the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also have the opportunity to stream the film March 17 – 21 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 12.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

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)