A Thousand Fires (Saeed Taji Farouky, 2021)

The whole world turns on oil, but most of us give little thought to where it comes from to the extent that we never really think of oil at all aside from that which it powers. Saeed Taji Farouky’s elegantly lensed observational documentary A Thousand Fires follows a small family in Myanmar who support themselves through unregulated oil digging, operating the kind of hand cranked wells one might associate with 19th century prospecting and getting barely a barrel a day but still fetching more than they might be able to get through farming. Yet this intrusion of modernity continues to disrupt their otherwise traditional existence as they ponder better lives for their children that will necessarily take them far away from their parents and their home. 

As they later reveal Thein Shwe and Htwe Tin once made their money through farming but now they only draw oil. You might think it would be a less intensive occupation, but the rigs require constant supervision and the machinery often breaks either needing immediate repair or resulting in a day’s lost work. Yet Thein Shwe is worried most about his oldest son, Zin Ko Aung, who is wilful and rebellious rarely helping his parents out to the extent the he worries if his son would even be able to start the engine for the well if no one were available to do it for him. 

His mother meanwhile makes slightly passive aggressive comments about a young woman his age who finished high school and now has a good job as the manager of a textile factory in the city. It might not be that there is no way out for him, but the parents worry that as he seems to have rejected both education and inheriting the oil wells he will be left with nothing at all. Their daughter, by contrast, is currently staying with them along with their baby granddaughter having married and moved to another town. Perhaps a part of them knows that in order to give their children better lives they must effectively send them away while worrying if they’ll be alright, if their sacrifices will have been worth it and these other lives are indeed better than theirs. 

To quell some of this anxiety we see them consult a fortune teller to find out if Zin Ko Aung will achieve success only to be told that he’d be better off if they changed his name from the one they gave him at birth to the one the fortune teller suggests. Capitalising on his talent for football they send him to the city to apprentice with a youth team for a year with no way of knowing if it’ll pay off and Zin Ko Aung will be able to make it as a sportsman, as his sister jokes becoming the first famous person from their village able to support the family with his newfound riches. The family also take part in several traditional festivals, praying for a “prosperous life” while eerily paying homage to a god of oil by “feeding the dragon” pouring liquid into a greyish swamp which bubbles and snorts as if burping in gratitude. 

Then again another passerby reveals that a Buddhist priest in their area cleared a hole and set fire to it causing an explosion that rocked the mountain. In an ironic touch, we witness a festival in which young children have their heads shaved in preparation for being ordained as monks before cutting directly Zin Ko Aung enjoying his new city life by getting a fancy haircut drenched in a red smock which strangely resembles religious robes. Another fortune teller the couple visit in the city warns Thein Shwe that his lifeline is short and he must be careful to remember his religion, while adding at that no matter one’s good intentions the only place you’ll find an honest man is in a cemetery.  Simultaneously he tells Htwe Tin that she is the leader of her family and admonishes her that women are overly materialistic and simply want too much. In any case all she seems to want is for her son to find his way even if he has to leave his family to do so. Poignantly as the film ends the couple are left alone, their son-in-law arriving to take their daughter home and their son away in the city while all they’re left with is more of the same dredging oil up from beneath soil and feeding the ever hungry dragon of the contemporary society that barely knows of their existence. 


A Thousand Fires screens in New York March 19 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Trailer (English subtitles)

A New Old Play (椒麻堂会, Qiu Jiongjiong, 2021)

“A new play always tells an ancient tale” according to an intertitle a little more than half way into Qiu Jiongjiong’s three-hour Brechtian epic of mid-20th century Chinese history as witnessed by a Sichuan Opera performer, A New Old Play (椒麻堂会, Jiāo Má Táng Huì). Inspired by the life of his grandfather, Qiu’s absurdist drama is a cradle to grave journey through turbulent times but also a questioning of the nature of art at the intersection of politics and commerce, its uses and misuses in a constantly evolving society. 

As the film opens a pair of grim reapers kick start a pedal bike rickshaw and deliver a summons from the King of Hell to Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng), now in his 70s one of the finest clowns of the Sichuan Opera. Qiu Fu does not want to accept that he is dead and tries to run away but running away from death will always be a futile endeavour. Oxey and Horsey will escort him to the Ghost City and the afterlife where he will be relieved of all his pain and suffering after drinking Mother Meng’s Soup of Oblivion. But if it all just disappears in the end, what was the point of it all? Two young lovers discuss between them their immediate fate and decide to stay on in limbo where they still remember their love. Qiu Fu wonders how he’s supposed to perform Sichuan Opera for the King of Hell if all his memories and long years of perfecting his craft have been taken away, but is told that each of us has a “secret code” that can never be erased his presumably being clowning. When everything else is gone, Sichuan Opera will survive. 

Then again Qiu Fu has found himself playing many different roles in the course of his life beginning with plucky orphan, convincing former nationalist soldier turned stage performer Pocky (Qiu Zhimin) to train him up as an apprentice. Pocky meanwhile will turn out to be on the wrong side of history, a Nationalist loyalist quickly outmanoeuvred by the times in which he lives. One moment, the troupe is performing pro-Nationalist patriotic fare with titles such as “The Patriot Beggar” and “Behead Ma Miao” crying “down with traitors” in front of signs which say “save the nation fight communism” only to find them replaced by those which read “save the nation down with Chiang Kai-shek”. A fearful Pocky sends the troupe to Taiwan but discovers Sichuan Opera doesn’t travel as well as he’d assumed, the actors quickly reduced to begging and finding even that somewhat competitive. 

Qiu Fu’s greatest performance may even have been when dragged onstage by the communists as an example during a lecture on opium addiction having been forced to endure going cold turkey, claiming that his Lenin suit is far superior to the fine robes he once wore as an opium addict. The “theatre of joy” is now “the people’s theatre” but the promised new era almost immediately disappoints. Red brick buildings sit incongruously amid the traditional houses with their ornate tiled roofs while Oxey and Horsey lurk forever in the shadows waiting to escort those succumbing to the famines provoked by the Great Leap Forward though even they are afraid to use their rickshaw in this age of austerity. No longer the representatives of a new world, the troupe finds itself on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution, Pocky branded a reactionary warlord while others are forced to wear signs reading “theatre tyrant” or “gangster” only for Qiu Fu to turn his humiliation into a show clowning for the local children who giggle at them in their funny hats as they stand in the courtyard in front of the theatre displaying their sins for all to see. Before too long Qiu Fu is forced to brick himself up inside a pig sty while his wife (Guan Nan) is encouraged to divorce him testifying to his faults before a judgemental panel of ideological purists. Once rehabilitated he must once again play the beggar, cast as a villain forevermore. 

Qiu Fu’s memories seems to end soon after the Cultural Revolution though he must have lived on a little longer, the story of his life told to a series of ghosts caught up in a kind of bureaucratic hell apparently undocumented in the land between life and death. Now you see him, now you don’t, Qiu Fu’s life both eternal and gone an instant. Using a series of deliberately theatrical stage sets, Qiu’s beautifully ethereal production design is somewhere between Roy Andersson and Arthur Rackham’s Brothers Grimm in its oneiric mists and pale-faced ghosts, Qiu Fu always sporting a bright red nose and gnome-like little red beanie accompanied by a pair of oversize glasses to remind us of his age. Imbued with an ironic sense of humour, the tale is sometimes broken by a series of Brechtian intertitles written in the rhythms of Sichuan Opera the techniques of which Qiu repurposes to fantastic effect, boats travelling on seas of silk, or small boys floating away on clouds above model cities and armies at war. Is it life or death that’s a dream? Both or neither perhaps it’s all the same a cyclical opera to be performed in perpetuity telling an old story in a new way from here until eternity. 


A New Old Play screens in New York March 18 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Museum of the Moving Image Announces Complete Lineup for First Look 2022

New York’s Museum of the Moving Image has announced the complete programme for this year’s First Look which takes place in person March 16 – 20. As usual there are a number of East Asian films on offer including the latest short from Tsai Ming-Liang, an absurdist voyage through mid-20th century China as seen through the eyes of a Sichuan Opera performer, a documentary focusing on the lives of Burmese oil drillers, and a surreal Indonesian parable about the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity and its links to oppressive authoritarianism.

The Night

(Screening alongside opening night feature Murina)

This 20-minute short from Tsai Ming-Liang captures the atmosphere of nighttime Hong Kong during the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement protests.

A New Old Play

Qiu Jiongjiong’s absurdist epic charts China’s mid-20th century history through the eyes of a Sichuan Opera performer on his way to the afterlife beginning with his childhood in post-Imperial china through to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

A Thousand Fires

Director Saeed Taji Farouky will be attending in person March 19

Saeed Taji Farouky’s beautifully shot documentary explores the lives of a family of independent oil drillers in Myanmar as a mother and father consider whether or not their son might be better off playing for a youth football team in the city.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Lead Actress Ladya Cheryl will be attending in person March 19

An absurdist parable about the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity and its links to oppressive authoritarianism, Edwin’s outlandish retro grindhouse drama sees a young man contend with literal and societal impotence through the medium of violence while falling in love with a woman equally in desire of revenge against her misuses at the hands of a misogynistic society. 

First Look runs March 16 – 20 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Full details for all the films as well as the complete programme can be found on the official website where tickets are already on sale. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following the Museum on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.