Few months have passed since I’ve launched here on the blog, a project to create a list of the most significant East and Southeast documentaries, and, as I expected, the submissions did not come in big numbers — after all “documentary” and “East and Southeast Asia” are terms still part of a niche in the discourse about cinema around the world — but the quality of their content was very high. I think it’s about the right time to publish the list and have it circulated around the web.
The idea was to compile a list of the most significant and important works of non-fiction made in East and Southeast Asia, a database that could function as a guide for cinephiles and anybody else interested in documentary, but also as a sort of cartography to discover and explore non-fiction cinema, and its history and development in the region.
Cinema arrived at varying times in different areas of the continent, thus evolving in completely diverse ways, and this is even more true when considering documentary, a minority mode of cinema whose limits and definitions have been hazy and shifting since the dawn of the seventh art. Moreover, because many countries in the region have experienced, and tragically are still experiencing, colonization and dictatorship, in most of the area documentary was for a long period associated to propaganda, and it’s only in the last decades, with the impact of political change and the liberating advent of new and affordable technologies, that non-fiction cinema was able to free itself, rise and gain its status as a mode of free-expression and art, although unfortunately not yet in every country. For these reasons some national cinematographies (namely Japan) are more represented than others on the list, while others are sadly absent. Lack of access is also another problem that affected the making of the list, even today in the internet age and in a time where the net has become, or at least is trying to be, a different mode of distribution, access is a big and unresolved issue.
I’m sure there are many knowledgeable scholars out there in the world, who could give us more titles and insights to enrich the project. The list does not pretend to be all-inclusive, it’s not a dictionary or a documentary encyclopedia — although at certain stage in the future it might turn into one — but the aim is nonetheless to offer a database, a list and a sort of expanding work in progress. If you think there are works worth to be included, do please leave a comment or even better, reach me by email here, we can discuss about it.
Last but not least a big and special thank you to the bunch of scholars and film experts who submitted their titles, the project wouldn’t have seen the light without their vital contributions. Special credits go to Rowena Santos Aquino, film scholar and critic who specialises in documentary film history/theory and Asian cinemas/histories, Nadin Mai, independent researcher specialized in Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema, and curator of Tao films, and Frank Witkam were essential in broadening and deepening the scope of the list.
Works are listed in chronological order:
Fighting Soldiers (Kamei Fumio, Japan 1939)
Although in the 20s and 30s Japan had Prokino, it can be said that Fighting Soldiers was the first true example of Japanese (Asian?) non-fiction cinema made with an authorial touch. You can read more here.
Children in the Classroom (Hani Susumu, Japan 1954), Children Who Draw (Hani Susumu, Japan 1955)
Capturing the daily routine of an elementary school class in the manner of direct cinema and cinema vérité, but way before the terms were coined, these two films brought radical changes and opened up new possibilities in the world of Japanese non-fiction cinema.
The Weavers of Nishijin (Matsumoto Toshio, Japan 1961)
The process of manufacturing textile in a famous Kyoto’s district rendered through rhythm, montage and music in a beautiful and grainy B&W.
Record of a Marathon Runner (Kazuo Kuroki, Japan 1964)
Focusing on the young runner Kimihara Kenji and his preparation for Tokyo Olympics, Kuroki turns a PR sport movie into a fine piece of authorial expression.
Summer in Narita (Ogawa Pro, Japan 1968), Narita: Heta Village (Ogawa Pro, Japan 1973)
The two films here stand for the whole Sanrizuka/Narita series, but especially Heta Village deserves to be in this list, a milestone in world documentary and “an extraordinary documentary about time and place“.
Okinawa Islands (Higashi Yoichi, Japan 1969)
From August to October 1968, a film crew from the Japanese mainland ventured into U.S.-controlled Okinawa. Student struggles entered a new phase from 1968, rejecting “values” in the broad sense of the word. Higashi strongly felt the need to be free from previously established values, choosing in this work to grapple with the theme of Okinawa. The Okinawan problems analyzed in this film remain unresolved today. (from YIDFF)
A.K.A. Serial Killer (Adachi Masao, Japan 1969)
The avant-garde Japanese documentary film par excellence, and the first embodiment of Landscape Theory, A.K.A. Serial Killer is a film solely composed of a series of locations where young Norio Nagayama lived and passed by before committing the crimes for which he was later arrested.
Motoshinkakarannu (NDU, Japan 1971), Asia is One (NDU, Japan 1973)
Promoting an anonymus cinema made by amateurs and not by professionals, the Nihon Documentary Union delves here into the margins of Okinawan and Taiwanese society, focusing their gaze on the minorities and on the historical fractures in the areas. More here.
Minamata: The Victims and Their World (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Japan 1971), The Shiranui Sea (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Japan 1975)
Another monument in the history of world documentary, the Minamata series is an incredible and touching exploration of one of the biggest poisoning incident ever happened in Japan, and how it tragically affected people and their lives. You can read more here.
Extreme Private Eros 1974 Love Song (Hara Kazuo, Japan 1974)
A defining work for Japanese non-fiction cinema, exploring the personal sphere (the famous scene showing the birth of Hara’s child remains shocking even by today’s standards) in a period when it was “cool” to make politically engaged films, Hara was nonetheless able to avoid sealing himself and the movie off from the rest of the world in a sort of closed and solipsistic universe, more than ever the private is here the public and vice-versa.
God Speed You! Black Emperor (Yanagimachi Mitsuo, Japan 1976)
The camera follow a group of Japanese bikers, “The Black Emperors”, part of the so-called bōsōzoku movement, the motorcycling subculture that arose during the 70s in Japan.
The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (Haneda Sumiko, Japan 1976)
Shot in a small valley in Gifu prefecture, the movie is a reflection on the mortality and ephemerality of all things disguised as a documentary about a 1300-year-old cherry tree. More here.
Turumba (Kidlat Tahimik, the Philippines 1981)
Turumba is a commissioned piece, which shows the work of a family making paper mâché figurines in preparation for the major “Turumba” festival in the area.
Oliver (Nick Deocampo, the Philippines 1983), Children of the Regime (Nick Deocampo, the Philippines 1985), Revolutions happen like refrains in a song (Nick Deocampo, the Philipines 1987)
These three films are all part of a trilogy of life under Marcos and Martial Law. Children is a documentary on child prostitution while Revolutions is a personal essay film in which Deocampo traces his own personal development and history against the backdrop of the People Power Revolution, which started in 1983 and later led to the ousting of president Marcos. Just like Oliver, a work that follows the life and work of a transvestite in the Philippines in the 1980s, it is shot on Super-8.
Magino Village: a Tale (Ogawa Production, Japan 1986)
Another masterpiece from Ogawa Pro, a stunning and epic movie that follows and tracks down the various histories traversing a village in Northern Japan, and at the same time a record of 15 years lived together by the collective.
Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Wu Wenguang, China 1990)
Generally considered one of the films that heralded the advent of what Lu Xinyu terms the ‘New Chinese Documentary Film Movement,’ its subject is fittingly a group of Wu’s artist friends and their (marginal) lives in Beijing.
I Have Graduated (Wang Guangli, China 1992)
Series of interviews with university students graduating in 1992 in the post-Tiananmen Square protests/massacre, interspersed with performances of songs.
The Murmuring (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1995), Habitual Sadness (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1997), My Own Breathing (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1999)
Byun’s ‘comfort women’/‘low voice’ trilogy is a monumental project that gives space for Korean survivors to give their testimony, protest for redress, and fight against the social stigma of their traumatic past, staunchly filmed in the observational, present tense of the everyday and with the women’s direct collaboration.
Quitting (Zhang Yang, China 2001)
Centered on the late actor Jia Hongsheng’s real battle with drug addiction, the film is a docudrama in which Jia, his actual parents and sister, and his doctors play themselves as they reenact events that occurred during his addiction in the 1990s.
DV China (Zheng Dasheng, China 2002)
With its subject of a state employee making amateur films in collaboration with the villagers of Jindezheng, with limited state funds and equipment, the film gives the lie that ‘independent,’ ‘amateur,’ and the state media are mutually exclusive terms.
The Big Durian (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia 2003)
A soldier who in 1987 began to randomly fire his rifle in the streets of Kuala Lumpur is an entry point to exploring racism and racial politics that the incident triggered among the city’s diverse population.
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, China 2003)
Quite possibly one of the most startling documentary debuts in recent decades, one that painstakingly observes the gradual decline of state-run factories as well as livelihoods and community bonds in the Tiexi district.
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, Cambodia-France 2003)
Arguably Panh’s most striking documentary on the Cambodian genocide, as it brings together survivors and torturers/executioners to the site of Tuol Sleng, now a museum but formerly a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime where tens of thousands were killed.
Memories of Agano (Satō Makoto, Japan 2004)
Ten years after the acclaimed film Living on the River Agano, the film crew returns to Niigata. Personal memories reflect upon remnants of those who passed away as the camera observes abandoned rice fields and hearths that have lost their masters.
Singapore Rebel (Martyn See, Singapore 2004), Zahari’s 17 Years (Martyn See, Singapore 2006), Dr. Lim Hock Siew (Martyn See, Singapore 2010)
These three works represent oppositional voices/perspectives – opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan, ex-political detainee Said Zahari, and the second-longest held political prisoner the late Dr. Lim – which betray See’s commitment to political filmmaking and suppressed Singaporean histories.
Dear Pyongyang (2005,Yang Yong-hi Japan)
A second generation zainichi Korean director makes inquiries about the history of her activist father and mother. Over the years she records on video visits to her three brothers and their families, who migrated from Ikuno, Osaka to Pyongyang over thirty years ago, while reflecting on how she had been running away from the values her father forced upon her. (from YIDFF)
Oxhide I (Liu Jiayin, China 2005), Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, China 2009)
Novelistic in detail and scope and in pushing the notion of filming in real time and filming real life perhaps to an extreme, with a shot count of twenty-three and nine, respectively, Liu and her family reenact real-life events and pierce the multilayeredness of lived experience.
The Heavenly Kings (Daniel Wu, Hong Kong 2006)
Following the formation of the boy band Alive, of which Wu is a member, the film follows the band’s attempts to crack the music market and, in the process, delivers satirical jabs at the Cantopop industry and Hong Kong popular culture in general and reveals itself as a hoax.
24 City (Jia Zhangke, China 2007)
One of Jia’s documentary contributions, with a bit of fictional play with the interview, which nevertheless does not take away from its sober examination of the demolition of a factory town and its transformation as ‘24 City’.
Investigation on the night that won’t forget (Lav Diaz, the Philippines 2009)
Perhaps Diaz most invisible and least accessible film. The films is a two-shot recording of Erwin Romulo speaking about the circumstances of the death of popular film critic Alexis Tioseco and the subsequent investigation.
Disorder (Huang Weikai, China 2009)
A black-and-white found-footage film assembled from 1,000+ hours of footage shot by amateur filmmakers of everyday scenes in the Guangzhou region, whose effect is assaulting and absorbing.
Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada 2009)
Canada-based Chinese filmmaker’s debut follows a couple who work in the city and annually make the long trek to their home village for Chinese New Year and becomes, in the long run, a frank portrait of one family’s diverging values/priorities.
The Actresses (E J-yong, South Korea 2009) Behind the Camera (E J-yong, South Korea 2012)
This mockumentary diptych takes the premise of a photo shoot and remote directing, starring top Korean stars, to address celebrity culture, the (absurd) nature of filmmaking, and the public/private divide.
Live Tape (Matsue Tetsuaki, Japan 2010)
On New Year’s Day in 2009, Musician Kenta Maeno strums his guitar and sings in a pilgrimage from Kichijoji Hachiman Shrine, packed with people paying respects, to Inokashira Park, where he joins his band on the outdoor stage. Live Tape is a miraculous live documentary capturing Maeno’s New Year’s Day nomadic guerrilla show in a single 74-minute take.
Arirang (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea 2011)
Kim’s sole documentary effort thus far followed a three-year hiatus from directing and is aptly a self-portrait of himself as a suffering (and at times, insufferable) artist – and perhaps even a parody of artistic self-portraits.
Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, France-Cambodia 2011)
With his lineage of being the grandson of famed (and disappeared) Cambodian producer of the 1960s/1970s Van Chann, Cambodian-French filmmaker searches for the oral history of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian cinema and cinephilia.
Ex Press (Jet Leyco, the Philippines 2011)
A passenger train travels across the landscape of the Philippines, while a monologue description of the journey presents fragments of memory and fantasy that look back at the country’s past.
Theatre 1 and 2 (Soda Kazuhiro, Japan, USA, France 2012)
The most complex and broadest in scope of Soda’works. Following Oriza Hirata and the Seinendan Theatre Company, Theatre 1 and 2 form a deep analysis of the creative process, but at the same time touching topics such as politics, performance, economy, art, engagement.
No Man’s Zone (Fujiwara Toshi, Japan 2012)
One of the best works about the triple disaster that hit Japan in March 2011, No Man’s Zone reflects on the meaning of natural and man-made disasters for our age, but has also been defined Tarkovskian in its aesthetics.
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymus, Norway-Denmark-UK, 2012), The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
Two successive works on the 1965-66 massacres of civilians in the name of Communist purges and the suppression of this past are set stubbornly in the present and made in collaboration with both perpetrators and survivors.
War is a tender thing (Adjani Arumpac, the Philippines 2013)
Arumpac is the child of a Christian mother and a Muslim father. She explores the second-longest running conflict in the world, the Mindanao War, through the lens of her parents’ divorce.
Storm Children, Book I (Lav Diaz, the Philippines 2014)
The film is supposed to be the first part of a two-part film, albeit Diaz never said when he would finish the second part of it. Storm Children follows the lives of children in the parts of the country hit hardest by typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Months later, the documentary shows that nothing has been done to alleviate the people’s struggle.
Aragane (Oda Kaori, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan 2015)
A breath of fresh air in the Japanese documentary world, Aragane, made by Oda at Bela Tarr’s school in Sarajevo, explores in the manner of structural cinema the time and dark spaces of a Bosnian coal mine. You can read more here.
Jade Miners (Midi Z, 2015), City of Jade (Midi Z, 2016)
This duology by the Taiwan-trained Burmese filmmaker was clandestinely shot in northern Myanmar to capture hundreds of labourers (one of which has been his brother, City of Jade’s focus) toiling the earth in jade mines, which are also part of a site of a civil war.