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Helter Skelter (2012)
Helter Skelter (2012)

Six women filmmakers from the Far East that you need to know

Featuring a psychological drama about a Tokyo it girl, a black comedy about dead pigs, and a love letter to South Korea’s cinematic history

The patriarchy hasn’t yet been dismantled, but in terms of film festival awards recognition, 2021-2022 has been a year to remember for female filmmakers around the world. 

Chloé Zhao won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for her western drama Nomadland in April 2021. French filmmaker Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or at Cannes two months later for gender-subverting body horror Titane. In September, Lebanese-French director Audrey Diwan followed suit, picking up the Golden Lion at Venice for L’événement (Happening), and now, as we approach the 2022 Oscars ceremony, Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog is a favourite for top honours.

We have also witnessed the cinemas of various East Asian nations re-emerge in the global cultural zeitgest in recent years, with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car among the major breakthroughs. But beyond the impressive works of these male directors, there are, too, countless women producing outstanding work in the same field from countries like South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

It’s something being championed right now on platforms like the BFI Player and MUBI – which each have strands dedicated to ‘Women With Movie Cameras’ showcasing outstanding female filmmakers of diverse nationalities. The 2022 Glasgow Film Festival, meanwhile – which operates a hybrid format this month, online and in-person – notably includes works by new female talents from the Far East among its schedule. Moreover, tastemaker distributors Criterion will release a landmark work of the Hong Kong New Wave on Blu-ray this month: Ann Hui’s Boat People.

With so many talented women from the industry the rightful focus of attention in March 2022, Another took a closer look at a breadth of key female filmmakers from across a wealth of East Asian nations. Read more on a wealth of inspirational icons and emerging talents below.

BOAT PEOPLE (ANN HIU, 1982)

Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui’s greatest work receives a home media release in the UK via Criterion on March 21: the winner of five Hong Kong Film Awards in 1983 (including Best Picture and Best Director), Boat People cemented Hui’s position as one of the leading filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Wave.

The title references the Vietnamese refugees who evacuated their home country by sea following the end of the Vietnam War – due to ongoing conflict, economic strife, and brutal repression under the new communist government. And while it is estimated that up to 400,000 refugees died at sea, perhaps even more harrowing were the New Economic Zones the refugees were fleeing from. Ostensibly designed to provide employment for the poor and food for the hungry, these zones were described by The Washington Post in 1979 as “barren labour camps characterised by hardship, deprivation and, ultimately, death”. 

They serve as the main focus in Hui’s harrowing film, which is told through the eyes of a Japanese photojournalist (George Lam), and built on the kind of meticulous cinematography and shot composition befitting of such a profession. Through his eyes, Vietnam’s “new face of joy and happiness” is soon replaced with something much more disturbing. Opening with a three-minute crane shot capturing the excitement of a triumphant military parade, Boat People soon gives way to profound images of desperate poverty, torture, suffering and injustice that linger long after the credits roll.

HELTER SKELTER (MIKA NINAGAWA, 2012)

Helter Skelter takes place in the heart of Tokyo’s glitz and glamour – with bright colours, prim hairdos, garish set designs and time-lapse footage of the city’s streets establishing a dizzying foundation in the film’s opening moments. An operatic soundtrack partners an early reveal, as bandages unravel from a woman’s face to reveal a beautiful subject inside. 

What follows is a kaleidoscopic sensory experience within a gauntlet of narcissistic fashion models and paparazzi cameras. It is the story of a Tokyo “it” girl teetering on the edge of madness amidst a vomit of sexual conquests and commercial rivalries, in a world where it’s rumoured that organs, skin, bone and muscle are being transplanted illegally for the purposes of cosmetic surgery.

Intense and vibrant production design, snappy editing and disorientating camerawork are at the crux of this psychological drama – a major box office success in Japan helmed by one of Japan’s most successful female photographers. A leading force within the late 90s ‘Girly Photo’ movement, Mika Ninagawa was known for vibrant, hyper-saturated images – an aesthetic she brilliantly transplants into moving image here.

SWEET BEAN (NAOMI KAWASE, 2015)

Few female filmmakers are as symbolic in Japan as Naomi Kawase, whose international successes since the 90s paved the way for a generation of female directors who have followed. 

Abandoned as a child to be raised by her great aunt in rural Nara prefecture, Kawase’s early forays into documentary and autobiographical filmmaking would culminate with a landmark Caméra d’Or win at Cannes in 1997 for Suzaku: a tender family drama about the transformation of a remote timber village during an economic recession. Aged just 28 years old, Kawase made history that year as the youngest ever recipient of the award, and the first from Japan.

In the years since 1997 (a watershed year in terms of international recognition for Japanese cinema overseas), Kawase has won the Grand Prix at Cannes for The Mourning Forest (2007); child adoption drama True Mothers was nominated by Japan to compete at the Oscars in 2020; and in 2021, she was invited to direct the official film for the delayed Japan 2020 Olympic Games. And while transcendent films like Still the Water and Radiance can be found on MUBI via the ‘Women With Movie Cameras’ collection, the best place to start is arguably 2015’s Sweet Bean (available on the BFI Player, alongside The Mourning Forest)

The film opens with pastel shades of blue, pink and white that mirror the blooming cherry blossom trees in spring, before a narrative spanning the course of a single year unfolds at a struggling dorayaki street food stall in Tokyo. Intimate and observational camerawork brings much tenderness to the story of stall-owner Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase – star of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train and Sion Sono’s Suicide Club), who is forced to seek culinary assistance from an elderly woman named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) in order to keep his business alive. The gentle rhythm of the film is later disturbed, though, when it is revealed that both individuals are hiding a secret.

DEAD PIGS (CATHY YAN, 2018)

Born in Shanghai but raised in Northeast America, Cathy Yan enjoyed a career in journalism  (beginning with an internship at the Beijing office of the Los Angeles Times) before she turned to filmmaking. Her debut film, 2018’s Dead Pigs (which boasts renowned Chinese independent filmmaker Jia Zhangke as an executive producer) adapts a bizarre story she stumbled across during her time as a reporter: in March 2013, over 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River, raising concerns over the safety of Shanghai’s drinking water supply.

Yan’s adaption of these events is, essentially, a black comedy built around an entourage of seemingly unrelated characters who are eventually linked together by Shanghai’s porcine problem. Boasting glossy visuals, memorable characters and rich cinematography — as well as a knack for absurdist humour – the film proved a hit at Sundance Film Festival in 2018, and appeared at the BFI London Film Festival later that year.

In an interview with SlashFilm in 2021, Yan described her debut as “a marriage of the tone of American indie with the aesthetics of the classic Chinese indies that I grew up with”, citing filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai, Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson among her inspirations. Yan was tapped up to helm a major US production soon after the film’s release: she directed Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey in 2020, becoming the first Asian filmmaker to helm a DC Comics superhero film in the process.

YUNI (KAMILA ANDINI, 2021)

35-year old Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s latest offering is a highlight from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival scheduling. Yuni won the Platform Prize at Toronto in 2021, before being selected by her home country as its official submission for the Best International Feature Film at the Oscars in 2022.

The film largely takes place in a school in rural Sedang, where the disappearance of a number of purple-coloured objects (pens, erasers, etc.) has led to the film’s eponymous protagonist being accused of having a “purple obsession” by her teachers. Accordingly, shades of lilac and intense violets are everywhere in this delicately structured coming-of-age drama, which concerns the young Yuni and her friends as they navigate the concepts of teen romance, sexual attraction and female masturbation. The kicker is that the school (and the wider community) live in accordance with strict Islamic teachings that forbid pre-marital sex.

It’s a tender and unpretentious depiction of teen angst and wistful ambition, with naturalistic performances and crisp, rural cinematography at its heart.

HOMMAGE (SHIN SU-WON, 2022)

Receiving its European premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday, 12th March is Korean filmmaker Shin Su-won’s Hommage – a love letter both to filmmaking as a vocation, and also to South Korea’s frustratingly obfuscated cinematic history. 

The latter point is of some interest. While productions like Oldboy, Parasite and Squid Game are examples of the country’s booming modern-day film industry, South Korea was churning out popular features for decades prior to the ‘Hallyuwood’ revolution. The reason why so few of these are known outside of their country of production is that many can no longer be found – countless films produced during the Korean War era were never sufficiently preserved from their original prints, for example; and even some of the most popular films of the mid-20th century are deemed lost.

Hommage pays dues to that history with the story of a middle-aged female director named Ji-wan (Lee Jeong-eun, star of multiple Bong Joon-ho works, including Parasite) who is chastised by her own family after failing to find success in her field. While contemplating her career, she’s handed a dubious olive branch when an archivist approaches her with a job opportunity: a black-and-white feature by one of the country’s first female filmmakers has been re-discovered, and it needs to be restored ahead of a proposed film festival screening. 

There’s little financial incentive for Ji-wan, but as she digs into the film’s history and searches around ageing theatres for crumbs of information about the production’s missing elements, the job becomes a passion project in this affectionate tale of physical and philosophical restoration.