Dispatches from IFFAM 2017 – Asian Cinema is Thinking About Things

A selection of socially conscious Asian films plays a big role in this year’s festival.

by Philbert Dy

With everything going on in the world, one might turn to cinema for easy escapism, to jump into an alternate world where everything is pretty and things always turn out well. But it seems that a lot of the Asian films present at this year’s International Film Festival and Awards Macao are instead set on shedding light on the problems present in their respective nations. They all do so in pretty varied ways. Not everything works, but it is remarkable to see all the different approaches taken to being socially relevant.



The Wrath of Silence, from China’s Xin Yukun, is pretty much a hardboiled detective story. Its protagonist (Song Yang) is a mute tough guy who works in the mines. His child disappears, and he goes all over trying to look for him. Embedded in this genre tale, which does include some cartoonish elements, is a study of the iniquities inherent to 21st century China. Looming over this one quest to find a child is the decision of an entire village to sell off the rights to the mountain that they live on to a mining company. All the darkness of this film spirals out from that decision, the villagers’ eagerness to get a quick payoff leading to the arrival of all manner of unsavory elements.


But the film is hardly didactic, its pleasures largely derived from watching the tough guy protagonist kick a succession of goons. It does lean into excess in the end, with a clunky, CGI-reliant signature image that feels ridiculous, in spite of the clear earnestness of the sentiment. But for most of its runtime, the messaging simply adds a sense of unease to the proceedings, the film making it very clear that this just isn’t the kind of context where a little guy can really win out in the end. The system just isn’t set up for our hero the find what he’s looking for.



Also from China is Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White. Xiaomi (Wen Qi) works at a seedy little resort on the coast of Xiamen. She is covering for the receptionist one night when a man checks in with two twelve-year-old girls. Later, she witnesses him entering the girls’ room. This incident is discovered, and an investigation takes place. But the man is a government official. The parents of the girls, though initially outraged, seem incapable of going up against him. And Xiaomi, on her part, is staying in the city illegally, and just wants to stay out of trouble.


This is a movie that just doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The thing that ought to happen is clear, but none of the characters seem all that interested in making it happen. The guy they have to go after is ultimately too rich and too powerful, and it all ends up just being too much trouble. Like The Wrath of Silence, this movie runs up against this general sense that life on the fringes in China is an unforgiving proposition, but it does so more from the female perspective, and it doesn’t rely on genre tropes to move things forward. It just stays with its characters, just girls trying to find some way to cope in a society that is inherently unjust to them. It often does so in poetic ways, the film’s powerful moments keeping them away from the specter of abuse, and instead letting them bask in freedom under strange, somewhat surreal symbols of femininity.



From Pakistan comes My Pure Land, which is based on the true story of Nazo Dharejo. The film explains at the start that in Pakistan, land disputes can lead to armed confrontation, and that for the most part, women are discriminated against when it comes land ownership. With her father and brother already dead, teenager Nazo (Suhaee Abro) is forced to defend her family’s home against their uncle and his men. With few guns and quickly diminishing ammo, she and her family try to last as long as they can against much larger numbers.


The movie’s timeline goes backwards and forwards, filling in the story of the dispute and the relationship Nazo has with the characters. Again, it’s a depiction of a society that just doesn’t work. Its institutions are so corrupt that people are openly offering their services as mercenaries on the street. And so, these women are left to fend for themselves, taking up arms against men who underestimate their resolve. It’s fascinating material, but the execution does feel a little off. The fractured timeline is a little more confusing than it really ought to be, and even with all the extra explanation, there are still details that are weirdly left out. But when the film does just get down to the story of Nazo and depicting the iron will with which she faces these men, the movie proves to be wildly satisfying.



Pen-ek Ratanaruang last released a movie in 2014, and his own career seems to be in the crosshairs of his latest film, Samui Song. The film gets self-referential pretty quickly, and goes full meta by the end. It tells the story of Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak), an actress typecast into soap opera villain roles. She’s married to a French man who has fallen under the thrall of a cult leader. A night of abuse leads to her going to a hitman that she met at a hospital. She hires him to kill her husband, but things don’t quite go as planned.


Ratanaruang does seem to getting at something, but what that might be is elusive by the end of what turns out to be a pretty noir-ish tale. Still, there is a cultural specificity to the whole thing that gives it a measure of heft, the director taking aim at all manner of societal ills, before turning the camera on himself, perhaps admitting some complicity in the perpetuation of these ills. The film ends up feeling more unsettling than convincing overall, but that might just be the point.