Fun in the Dark

Cinemasia film brochure
My CinemAsia film brochure

Every year, CinemAsia puts on a film festival. For five days, you can take refuge inside an art house theater and binge on Asian films. This year, the festival featured movies from 14 countries and regions. Why? Here’s their mission statement.

CinemAsia weaves Asian stories that help to enhance Asian visibility in culture and media, through which we foster an inclusive society.

Mission statement,

Me? I’m just looking for fun in the dark. My husband and I first attended this festival in 2015, when an in-the-know friend took us to see The Last Wolf. The story focuses on two Beijing students sent to Inner Mongolia in 1967 to “educate” the nomads. But what I remember are the wolves hunting horses in a snow storm. The wolves drive the horses into a lake where they sink halfway into the icy water. The lake will function all winter long as an open air larder for the pack.

From that moment on, my husband and I were hooked. We went back the next night and then again the next year for an entire day of film binging.

Films feed my imagination in the same way books do. Blind Massage was the inspiration for Auntie Wen, the blind masseuse in my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Paradise in Service gave me the idea for the mercury injections that one of the characters in my new novel, Peace Court, will have to endure. I got food and travel tips. What more can you ask for from a day in the dark?

This year, we returned to the CinemAsia film festival. Here’s what we saw.

Little Forest

Little Forest film poster
Little Forest theatrical release poster. Image source: Wikipedia

First up is the sneak preview for this year’s festival. The director is South Korean. There will be Korean food after the showing. This is all I know about Little Forest.

I expect something bloody like The Age of Shadows or The Handmaiden, the only examples I’ve seen of Korean cinema. As it happens, big budget movies with A-list casts in historical dramas or male-led thrillers tend to be the most successful with Korean audiences.

Little Forest falls into neither category. It’s an adaptation of a Japanese manga. A young woman, Hye-won, fails to make it in the big city. She slinks home to Uiseong County. It’s winter and the larder is empty. Hye-won goes into the garden and digs up cabbage lying beneath the snow. She transforms it into a heartwarming stew that steams on the screen.

You wouldn’t think that a feel-good movie like this would garner any awards. Yet the Korean Association of Film Critics namedLittle Forest one of the 11 Best Films of the Year. The movie critic of the Korean Herald explains:

On paper [the movie] sounds like a snore-fest, and at first that is what it seems, in the eyes of those numb from nonstop stimulus of the city life. But the mouth-watering cooking scenes, a simple life devoid of stress from dealing with people, and a drink with friends after an honest day’s work are vicarious pleasures.

Yoon Min-Sik, “Sanctuary in the ‘Little Forest’”, Korean Herald, 21 Feb 2018 (accessed 12 Mar 2019)

With more than half of the South Korean population now in the big cities, places like Uiseong have become a symbol in Korea. Pruning apple trees, harvesting snails, planting tomatoes. Uiseong doesn’t appear in my Lonely Planet guide but I think I have a stop for our round-the-world adventure.

Ala Changso

The title of Ala Changso is a transliteration of a Tibetan folk song: please drink up this cup of good wine. We hear the song twice, each time as an ode to family. Drolma is a woman with a complex family situation. She decides to make a pilgrimage from her home in Sichuan Province to Lhasa.

Drolma takes three steps, claps her hands three times using wooden blocks, then prostrates herself on the ground. She wears an animal hide apron to protect herself. It will take her a year to reach Lhasa.

Ala Changso film footage
Ala Changso film footage. Image source: Hollywood Reporter

The tradition of pilgrimage is an old one in Tibet. Indigenous animistic beliefs held certain mountains, lakes and rivers as sacred. When Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7th century, these pilgrimage sites expand to include monasteries and temples.

Tibetans are deeply convinced that by doing pilgrimage all the sins can be washed away; physical pains can be cured; wishes and blessings can be answered and granted by the Buddha.

Lobsang Tsering, “Path of the Souls: An Epic Pilgrimage Story of a Tibetan Family”, Tibet Vista, 27 Jun 2017 (accessed on 12 Mar 2019)

This tradition was interrupted in 1949 when the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet territory. China argues that Tibet has been an integral part of China for the past 800 years. Tibetans call it an invasion and the current Chinese rule an occupation. For decades, the Chinese government prohibited the practice of Buddhism and, as a result, pilgrimage.

In the mid-1980s when the ban was lifted, interest in Tibetan pilgrimage exploded. These days, it’s hard to find any adult Tibetan who has not undertaken at least one pilgrimage. Ala Changso may be the best look any foreigner could get into this ancient practice and the wonders of Tibet.


Tibet is one of those topics you shouldn’t raise in China. Taiwan is another. Father, an award-winning documentary, has little to do with Taiwan Strait politics. Instead, it focuses on glove puppetry, budaixi, and its preeminent living practitioner, Chen Shi-huang.

Budaixi came to Taiwan from Fujian Province, where the art began in the Ming Dynasty. The puppeteer wears a glove, the puppet’s costume. The glove is loose and short, allowing the puppeteer to slip out his hand, flick his wrist, and cause the puppet to fly.

The dexterity that allows for martial art also permits subtle gestures. In Father, an old father takes his daughter for a walk. He puffs on a pipe and real smoke comes out of his mouth. She combs her long hair then flicks it behind her back.

Still image from Father
Two budaixi puppets in Father. Image source: CinemAsia

Taiwan is a country with a long history of colonization and occupation. When the Nationalist government came to Taiwan, it banned the use of native languages. Nowadays, speaking Hoklo or Mandarin can make the difference in an election.

Puppets, too, must adapt to the prevailing winds.

Japanese colonial rulers imposed Japanese culture with samurai stories, Japanese costumes, and hairstyles; [in] the nationalist budaixi era […] puppets wore Republic of China military gear

“China” from the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts (accessed on 13 Mar 2019)

Chen pleads for the revival of traditional budaixi with Hoklo stories and clanging gongs. Father is a lament for a dying art.

The Looming Storm

The Looming Storm is set in an industrial town in Hunan. The year is 1997, when Hong Kong returns to China and state-owned enterprises across China will close.

The Looming Storm film image
Still image from The Looming Storm. Image source: Hollywood Reporter

Yu Guowei is a security guard at Smelting Plant No. 4 who dreams of becoming a police officer. He tries to catch a serial killer but clues wash away in the unrelenting rain. Suspects lurk in all-concealing raincoats, ogling the prostitutes, while the prostitutes dream of a better life in Hong Kong. This is classic film noir.

It’s also an iconic moment in Chinese history. Smashing the iron rice bowl was a slogan for the reforms Deng Xiaoping needed to modernize the economy. Before the CCP closed all but the most essential state-owned enterprises in 1997, those companies dominated

major mining and manufacturing sectors: coal, ferrous and nonferrous metals, chemicals, textiles, pharmaceuticals, machine tools, food processing, printing, tobacco, capital goods, fertilizer, motor vehicles, electronics, and defense.

Neil C. Hughes, “Smashing the Iron Rice Bowl” in Foreign Affairs, July/August 1998

15 million Chinese lost their jobs in 1997.

Early in the film, Guo is named Model Worker for cracking down on employee theft. 10 years later, his factory is slated for destruction and the new security guard mocks him. You a Model Worker, someone who made nothing?