The following documentary film reviews have been received at Pacific Affairs and will be published in the print edition within the next 12-18 months. Please note that minor textual changes may occur before final publication in our print and official online edition (hosted at IngentaConnect).
Last updated 7 February 2018
Pacific Affairs accepts documentary films for review from distributors and producers/directors that have been released in the previous two years only. Our focus in on current political, economic, and social issues affecting Asia and the Pacific Region. We do not review films on art, theatre, or music. Please send review copies to the following address marked “For Review Only – No Commercial Value”. While we will make every reasonable effort to review all documentary films within our scope that are sent to us, we reserve the right not to review a film.
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DRAWING THE TIGER. Directed and produced by Amy Benson, Scott Squire, and Ramyata Limbu. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (96 min). US$395.00, universities, colleges and institutions; US$89.00, K-12, public libraries and select groups. In Nepali with English subtitles.
“If the girl child does not study, we will marry them off. That’s how it is…I have endured a lot. I don’t want my children to have the same fate.”
– Shanta’s Ama (mother)
“If I keep studying, my aim is to be a doctor. I believe I will be able to achieve something and prove myself to the world.”
– Shanta (age 15)
Landlocked between India and Tibet and known for its Himalayan mountain range, Nepal is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking 144th of 188 countries in human development standards (UNDP Human Development Report 2016). For 2015 estimates, the life expectancy at birth was 70.7; infant mortality rate was 28.9 per 1,000 births; and the maternal mortality rate was 258 deaths per 100,000 live births (CIA World Factbook 2017). In terms of education, Nepal’s adult literacy rate was estimated in 2015 to be 63.9% of the total population, with 76.4% of men and boys considered to be literate, as opposed to 53.1% of women and girls (CIA World Factbook 2017). The net primary school enrollment rate estimated for 2015 was 97.7% for boys and 96.1% for girls (World Bank 2017), but in reality, only a small percentage of adult women in Nepal have ever attended school.
Following a rural Nepali family over the course of seven years, Drawing the Tiger profiles a family’s hopes for a better life. The film opens with scenes of the family’s village homestead. This family faces persistent poverty, and like most in rural Nepal, relies on subsistence farming, but there is not enough to feed everyone. We soon learn that Shanta, the smart daughter infused with not only her own hopes and dreams but also those of her entire family, has been awarded a scholarship and has gone to Kathmandu to study.
The film pans back and forth between the village and the bustling capital city of Kathmandu. In a field near their home, Shanta’s mother talks about how hard her life has been and how she wishes for a better life for her children. She talks about how hard life is for girls in the village and how difficult it is for them to receive an education. The film later takes us to the village school, with dilapidated buildings and little to no instructional materials. The headmaster of the village school explains, “…well-connected people…send their children to private schools…The teachers and headmaster himself are from the village, so they are not rigorous…Even my own children are failing.” He goes on to say that everyone wishes they could be the “chosen ones,” like Shanta, who found sponsorship, left the village, and went on to study in Kathmandu.
Kumar, Shanta’s older brother and the eldest son in the family, lives and works in Kathmandu. He polishes Buddhist statues that he has heard sell for US$180 each, while he only makes US$40–50 per month. Kumar is discouraged about his own life but wants to support Shanta, who studies until midnight in their small shared room, with Kumar’s baby climbing on her as she pores over her homework. Despite his mother’s wishes, Kumar sees no reason to return to the village. He notes: “Village life is hard, but city life is lonely.” Village life and city life collide when tensions build between Shanta and Kumar’s wife, who is uneducated and uncertain of what she should do in the city, so far away from the village that she has known all of her life. Shanti also shares that she misses her parents. When Shanta does not return home, the village school headmaster tells us that “the whole village cried. The whole village cried.”
Around the world, government agencies, local non-government organizations, researchers, and international organizations concentrate efforts on increasing the enrollment of girls in schools. On social media, charities call for donations to send girls in far-away, poor countries to school. In the last three decades, United Nations conferences include a global development goal focused on the “girl child.” Countries in the Global South, usually working with well-funded international organizations (INGOs), have attempted to promote girls’ access to formal education systems. In Nepal, researchers, funding agencies, and various governmental offices have noted the substantially low enrollment of girls in its schools, and donor and bilateral agencies have spent millions of dollars on education initiatives aimed at girls. This funding has been supported by a substantial body of literature that promotes educating girls and women for social and economic benefits. Yet these initiatives and analyses, while insightful and well intended, only tell part of the story.
Drawing the Tiger helps us understand that gaining access to schools is simply the first step. Students like Shanta also need social and emotional support in order to fully participate and excel in school. The film’s true strength comes through the telling of this one family’s story, giving us an up-close glimpse into the human tragedy of persistent poverty and the painful toll that poverty can take in the lives of families and communities. Initiatives and programs hoping to redress poverty through education must move beyond enrollment numbers and participation charts. We must imagine and support the whole child and her particular needs. We need to examine poverty and gender in relation to educational achievement and in the contexts in which educational inequalities exist. As the film’s director Amy Benson noted in an interview with The Globe and the Mail, when we better understand “how complex poverty is, we can do global development better.”
Jennifer Rothchild, University of Minnesota, Morris, USA
TOKYO IDOLS. A film by Kyoko Miyake, producer, Felix Matschke, Bob Moore, Kyoko Miyake; cinematographer, Van Royko; editor, Anna Price. London, UK: Brakeless Ltd.; Quebec: EyeSteelFilm, 2017. 1 online resource (88 mins.) In Japanese, with English subtitles. URL https://kyokomiyake.com/#/tokyo-idols/.
Japanese idols are young, (mostly) female pop stars known for their childlike cuteness, their can-do attitude, their colourful costumes, and their relentlessly cheerful songs. By far the most famous and successful idol group is AKB48, which is composed of over a hundred members who move up and down in ranking in annual fan elections. As the documentary Tokyo Idols points out, Japan may still be in the midst of a recession, but the idol industry is booming: it’s worth an estimated US$1 billion annually. A disproportionately large number of hardcore idol fans are adult men, many of whom spend huge amounts of money to connect regularly with idols through “handshake” meet-and-greet events.
Tokyo Idols follows 19-year-old Rio, who seems to be on the brink of idol stardom, and a group of male fans in their thirties and forties known as the Rio Brothers, as well as numerous other idol groups and fans. We watch Rio and the other idol groups perform, interact with fans online and in person, and struggle to get wider exposure in an over-saturated market. We also watch the Rio Brothers and other fan groups passionately support their favoured idols: chanting and performing carefully choreographed movements at their live events, collecting endless pictures of themselves posing with the idols, and frequently insisting that there is nothing “impure” about men in their forties obsessing over teenage (and occasionally pre-pubescent) girls.
At 88 minutes long, Tokyo Idols does not have time to delve deeply into the many questions—about gender norms, ethics, and otaku culture, to name a few—that the idol industry raises. Still, it does accomplish something that’s rare when it comes to mainstream international reporting on Japanese popular culture: it moves beyond stereotypes and “Japan is weird” narratives in an attempt to understand what motivates some men to devote themselves to fantasy relationships with teenage girls, and what motivates so many young women to become idols. (To be clear, there are female idol fans, but the film gives them almost no screen time.) It’s also refreshing to see this reporting being done by a female director (Kyoko Miyake) with a unique perspective: Miyake was born in Japan but moved abroad at 26, meaning that she grew up surrounded by idol culture but has also had the chance to examine it from a distance.
Tokyo Idols doesn’t exactly let adult male idol fans off the hook for their deeply problematic obsessions, but it does at least try to present some of them as three-dimensional human beings. For Kōji, a 43-year-old salaryman who says that 19-year-old idol Rio has “inspired” him to live a better life, idol fandom seems to be a way to bond with other men and to imagine possibilities beyond a life full of disappointment. For him, Rio’s concerts, in which he dances with other men and chants support for her, appear to be one of his few sources of genuine joy. That isn’t to say that Rio’s good looks and her sexual availability have nothing to do with his obsession, but the appeal seems to be more about an idea of a person than an actual person.
Just in case audiences start to get comfortable with idol-fan relationships, though, the film challenges them by focusing on steadily younger women: first a group of younger teenage idols called Harajuku Story, and then, in a deeply unsettling segment, an idol group called Amore Carina, which features girls as young as ten. At a meet-and-greet, they’re dwarfed by the adult men who surround them to intently shake their hands. One man comments that he likes these idols the best because they’re not “fully developed,” and that if they were older they “wouldn’t interest” him. When two of the men say that they think of these girls as their “good friends,” the director, who is mostly invisible in the documentary, snaps back, “That’s a big age gap for friends.” The men look mildly abashed. “It’s not that big of an age gap,” they say.
At some points Tokyo Idols hints that female idols—at least the ones old enough to make their own decisions—have more agency than we give them credit for. They’re working within a system that they know is rigged, and they’re using the only tools available to them. The idol industry may be exploiting their youth and perceived sexual purity, but the women are just as happy to exploit lonely older men who feel like failures, or self-identified otaku who feel ostracized from mainstream society, telling them that they’re special in exchange for hundreds of dollars a month in “supporter” expenses. The women aren’t presented as malicious or manipulative, just practical.
Ultimately, Tokyo Idols shows us that idol culture is built on paradoxes. It succeeds by making fans pay for human connection through meet-and-greets, but these events are rigidly structured—there’s a timer and a collection of staff to physically move the fans if they linger too long. Both idols and fans exhibit a great deal of self-awareness about the fact that their “relationship” is a fantasy, and yet both work very hard to maintain the illusion that it’s real. Idol-land is a space in which women are taught that their worth is entirely based on whether or not men find them appealing, but it’s a space that plenty of women are happy to enter, arguably because, as one journalist in the film points out, it’s one of the few sectors of Japanese society in which they have a great deal of power. I wish that Tokyo Idols had taken more time to examine these paradoxes in depth, but the film does serve as an excellent starting point for a more meaningful conversation about Japanese idol culture in the non-academic world.
Lindsay Nelson, Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan
FORGETTING VIETNAM. A film by Trinh T. Minh-ha, Produced by Jean-Paul Bourdier. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (90 min). US$395.00, Universities, Colleges, and Institutions; US$89.00, K-12, Public Libraries, and Select Groups. In English. URL http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c943.shtml.
Forgetting Vietnam, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s cinematic meditation about the legacy of the Vietnam War on contemporary society, is framed by two ancient myths. One describes how the shape of Vietnam was formed when two fighting dragons fell into the South China Sea (or East Sea as it is known in Vietnam). The second traces the origin of the Kinh (Viet) people to the union between a mountain fairy, Au Co, and the Dragon Lord, Lac Long Quan. The serendipitous coupling of land and sea, which led to the creation of the Vietnamese nation, is reflected in the Vietnamese word for country: dat nuoc. Literally meaning “land sea,” the dyadic term dat nuoc acts as the organizing theme for the documentary, bolstered by other dualities that the film contemplates, such as ascending/descending, leaving/returning, old/new, and remembering/forgetting.
The subject of remembering and forgetting is, of course, the war. The documentary commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, which saw the victory of the northern half over the southern half of the country. As the film suggests, even after four decades, the impact of the war remains palpable, etched into the land and people. Remembering and forgetting are difficult, for the trauma and pain have not subsided: “scars of war have surfaced publicly through increasing unearthed hidden remains” [36:34]. Moreover, as the film implies, unlike King Le Loi, who, according to legends, wisely returned the magical sword to its water source after defeating his enemy, the current Vietnamese government maintains a tight grip on power, and its control over the social memory of the war has hindered postwar reconciliation. In one of the most poignant scenes, Trinh T. Minh-ha focuses on the 1968 massacre in Hue, an event that resulted in the death of possibly two thousand civilians, and one that the Vietnamese government continues to deny. It is no wonder that “wandering souls of the unclassified, dismissed or ‘impure deads’ continue to populate Vietnam’s collective memory” [36:44].
Highly influential as a feminist and postcolonial theorist, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films are often experimental and provocative. They challenge narrative and cinematic conventions while raising critical social issues. It is no surprise, then, that Forgetting Vietnam is not a linear conventional documentary. There is no voice-over narration. Instead, scripts comprised of pithy phrases and questions appear throughout the film, superimposed over images of Vietnam’s landscape and people in their everyday life. The documentary features many lyrical scenes of waterways and lush rice fields, underscoring the critical roles of dat and nuoc in not only sustaining life, but also culture and spirituality. The soundtrack is spectacular and at times steals the show. It features traditional music, such as northern-style quan họ, chèo, and popular ballads of the pre-1975 era. The lyrics (which are occasionally translated) and melodies work powerfully with the images to evoke nostalgia and longing.
The film pays special attention to ordinary women: at work, in the market, and at the temples. Even though the film was shot in 1995 and 2012, with a seventeen-year gap that saw enormous transformation, resulting from the normalization of relations with the United States and Vietnam’s reintegration into the global market economy, the images of women and their daily activities suggest more continuity than change. The implication is that women’s daily activities, which have endured war, revolution, and globalization, have been the mainstay of Vietnamese society. Moreover, as some forms of women’s work, such as mobile and street vending, have been outlawed in recent years, their persistence also represents a form of resistance.
Other acts of resistance have also been captured by the film. Interspersed throughout are snippets of people’s conversations that reveal frank criticisms of the state and the Communist Party. Trinh T. Minh-ha also managed to get some candid shots of people in the streets and markets, including those who were clearly bored or disengaged. Most compelling are the few people who, when caught by the camera, stared defiantly instead of averting their eyes. These instances provoke discomfort, as the viewer becomes aware of his or her voyeuristic intrusion and of having the tables turned.
While Trinh T. Minh-ha challenges many conventions in documentary making, this film does not abandon all. The documentary unfolds geographically from north to south, mirroring the historical movement of the Kinh people as they expanded from the Red River into the Mekong Delta. This expansion was facilitated by wars and colonization of the indigenous peoples of the south. By following this north-south trajectory, the documentary, like many historical narratives, privileges the story of the Kinh and the idea of the Red River Delta as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. In fact, the two myths that anchor the film are creation stories pertinent to the Kinh people and not to the other ethnic groups that continue to inhabit Vietnam. Like remembering and forgetting, documentaries are necessarily selective, and one needs to start somewhere. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting and helpful to reflect openly, however briefly, on these choices.
A related issue is that the film seems to reinforce some longstanding assumptions about the north and south, which are antipodes not only in geography, but also in politics for much of the country’s history. The two regions are often stereotyped as polar opposites: the north as the sophisticated, orthodox centre of Vietnam’s culture while the south is seen as heterodox, commercialized, and boorish. The documentary’s choice of scenes, particularly when one contrasts the depictions of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, reify these opposing stereotypes. Dominating the images of the north, notably Hanoi, are charming neighbourhoods, traditional musical performances, and tranquil temples. When the camera turns to Ho Chi Minh City, however, one gets jarring traffic, poverty, and uneven urban development. In contrast to Hanoi’s water puppetry, Ho Chi Minh City offers a performance of a scantily clad female acrobat [1:01:10]. While these are not the only images of the south, the film leaves a strong impression of Ho Chi Minh City as fast-paced and competitive [58:28], even though Hanoi in 2012 could be described in similar terms. Implying a lack or loss of Vietnamese culture, the documentary characterizes the city as: “‘New Thailand’ on target” [1:01:22]. As if to underscore the lack of authentic culture further, the subsequent scenes of the Mekong Delta are accompanied by northern-style quan họ singing rather than a style of music native to the south.
Notwithstanding the above two points, this is a poetic and, at times, provocative and moving documentary that contributes to the contemplation of the war’s legacy in contemporary Vietnam.
Van Nguyen-Marshall, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada
PEOPLE ARE THE SKY. A film by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (94 min). US$395.00, universities, colleges, and institutions; US$89.00, K-12, public libraries, and select groups. In Korean and English, with English subtitles. URL http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c935.shtml.
People Are the Sky is a very personal film, and is better for it. Filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson was born in Sinch’ŏn, in present North Korea, during the colonial era. With her family, she came south to Seoul in 1945. After first leaving Korea for her doctoral studies in 1962, she decided after a brief experience of the repression of the Park Chung Hee government in 1970 to settle permanently in the United States. There she met and married her husband Don Gibson, with whom she eventually lived in his natal Iowa until his death in 2009. Kim-Gibson’s sorrow and her love for Don frame and suffuse the film. The title is something of a mobile metaphor throughout, but its first referent is the love Don had for the open Iowa sky and the open love he had for people, and the love for others that Kim-Gibson herself experienced with and through him.
In 2013, Kim-Gibson made a journey first to Seoul and then onwards to P’yŏngyang and finally to her hometown of Sinch’ŏn. People Are the Sky intersperses a chronicle of this trip with archival footage, over which Kim-Gibson narrates her own memories of important moments in modern Korean history, as well as interviews with scholars and activists in the United States, South Korea, and, eventually, North Korea. Many of these figures are quite well-known authors in the field: Charles Armstrong, Bruce Cumings, Suk-Young Kim, Kim Dong-choon, and Hwang Sok-yong, for instance, all make significant appearances. As a result, the film offers both a personal and a critical-scholarly review of important turning points in modern Korean history, from colonialism and its end to the US-Soviet occupation, division, the Korean War, postwar development, and political shifts in both South and North. One could do much worse than to show this film in a classroom or public education setting as an introduction to how the Koreas became divided and why they have stayed that way, along with connected issues such as the ongoing US military presence in the South, human rights, and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
Yet to watch People Are the Sky only as a critical documentary would be to miss much of what is moving and important about it. At one point, Kim-Gibson makes a short narrative detour to discuss the nineteenth-century Korean indigenous new religion of Tonghak. At first, this struck me as an odd tangent in a film otherwise concerned with the present and more recent past—and in truth, the significance of the moment may be lost on many audiences. But as she goes on with her explanation, it becomes clear that through her journey and through the film itself she seeks to embody the Tonghak belief in innaech’ŏn, the immanence of heaven in humanity. People, once again, are the sky. Kim-Gibson brings this deep humanism to her encounters in both South and North Korea. She is at once a forward, vivacious, and sympathetic interviewer of ordinary people. For example, while her scholar and activist interlocutors present a critical evaluation of US aims in South Korea since 1945, when she interviews ordinary people she allows the diversity and ambivalence of South Korean opinion on the ongoing US military presence to come forth. She seeks out children in public places when she has the chance, making older ones practice their English, addressing younger ones with the sort of patter familiar from many a Korean grandmother (“What’s your name?” “How pretty!”).
Indeed, who Kim-Gibson is both socially and personally and thus the character of her rapport matters a great deal to the high quality of People Are the Sky, and makes it stand out from other films that promise—the trope itself is tired—a glimpse into North Korea. She possesses a common historical experience and social intimacy with many of the people she interviews, and at moments takes advantage of the sort of social license accorded older women in Korea. When she asks older people about their lives during the war, they open up to her as someone who shared the same tragedy. When she goes to a North Korean veterans’ event and talks with one old soldier, it is the mutual emotional catharsis of liberation in 1945 that comes through over and above his glorification of the role of Kim Il Sung. And when, in a P’yŏngyang park, her minder curtails her attempts to ask questions of schoolchildren (the mediation of her trip by guides and minders is addressed quite directly), Kim-Gibson is annoyed but also has a laugh with him in a way that releases the ideological tension of the moment by asking one final inappropriate question to someone she recognizes as doing his job. May I talk to those trees over there, and are there questions I should not ask? Notwithstanding the painful history the film explores, Kim-Gibson’s warm humour is prominent. She makes self-deprecating jokes about her wild hair, and invites others to join in. “Fashionable,” one old North Korean woman finally says, and everyone laughs; Kim-Gibson crows in triumph to her guide.
When she finally gets to Sinch’ŏn, she recognizes little from her youth. She is taken to another North Korean memorial to another act of American malfeasance, the Sinch’ŏn Massacre of 1950, and joins a site interpreter, whose family was killed there, in a wider sorrow for the human losses of the period. But then she goes to another park and meets more children there, on a school trip from across the country, and has with them the easy dialogue she was unable to have in P’yŏngyang. Shortly after, she goes to Kŭmgang Mountain, and is surprised by how hard the climb is, but is patiently assisted by her uncomplaining guide for the hours up and down. From these last incidents Kim-Gibson arrives at a heartfelt, if not unexpected, conclusion: her home place may be gone, but she shares the sky with North Korea’s people. As a historical film, People Are the Sky is excellent; as a work of art, it is beautiful.
Robert Oppenheim, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA