Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i, 2016) 

I’ve written at length, here and elsewhere, about 3 Islands, an experimental documentary by Taiwanese female filmmaker and artist Lin Hsin-i, one of my favorite nonfiction movies of last year. Yesterday I had the chance to watch another of her works, Letter #69, a short film (19 min) that was screened at this year Visions du Réel and in 2016 at the Women Make Waves Film Festival where it received the Excellence Award.

Here is the synopsis from Visions du Réel:

In the White Terror period in Taiwan, Shui-Huan SHI was imprisoned for hiding her brother, and was soon executed later. In the prison, she wrote 69 letters for her family. Simulating the life in the prison, this film silently criticizes the history. The “photographic film image” in the video, Letter #69, is an old photographic film from an abandoned old Taiwanese theater. After cleaning the film, Shi Shui-Huan’s letters were printed on it to construct a stop motion. The reproduction of old film serves as a response to the esoteric, dark history of Shi Shui-Huan and her brother Shi Zhi-Cheng in their last escape where they hid in the ceiling. It is also a response to the historical violence of Taiwan that cannot be cleared and is difficult to look back at.

In 1954 Shi Sui Huan was imprisoned for hiding her brother who was resisting the regime of Chiang Kai-shek. During the period spent in prison, she will eventually be executed, she wrote letters to her family and her last one, the letter number 69, was left blank.
The blankness of the last letter is the canvas from which the director starts her investigation into the so called White Terror, a period of purges when political dissidents who where protesting or resisting against the Kuomintang-led Republic of China government, were persecuted, incarcerated and killed. While the period started in 1947 and ended in 1987 when the martial law was lifted, I think the director is referring here to a more specific time and place, the first years of the White Terror and a corner of the Liuzhangli Cemetery in Taipei where Shi Sui Huan and other 201 people are buried. Most of them were leftist thinkers or activists but also, like Shi Sui herself, people who just protected their relatives. The graves were forgotten and basically untouched in fear of repercussions till the end of the martial law, when slowly the country started to breath again, a “rebirth” that is well reflected in cinema (the so called Taiwanese new wave of Hou Hsiao-hsien,  Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, etc.)

The absence of written words in the last letter embodies the impossibility of directly connecting with the tragic period and its remnants, yet the blankness also represents the white noise resulting from the accumulation of all the phantasmic memories that in one way or another, while denied for so many years, are still alive and present. Sowing together all these fragments of scattered memories in an heterogeneous piece of cinematic patchwork, Lin Hsin-i’s short movie is an attempt to discover and create images and sounds of a lost and tragic period. The letters of Shi Sui Huan are juxtaposed with the narration in the present (done by family members of the victims), and images of ruins are overlapped with performative actions that recreate some of the gestures that the prisoner might have done.
Not only Letter #69 brings to the surface an obliviated past and directs its gaze towards a crucial spot in Taiwanese history, but the filmmaking style that made 3 Islands so powerful and fascinating for me is here in full display again. Aesthetically Letter #69 is a fragmented and kaleidoscopic work that blends the beauty and clearness of the digital image with the grain and the roughness of overused celluloid film ー an old strip of film where the director printed the woman’s letters ー sound manipulation and voice distortion with reenactment, and read and written passages from letters with the constant sound of a running film projector.

I might be partial because my cinematic taste tends definitely towards hybrid documentaries, but 3 Islands and now this Letter #69 are so fascinating and challenging that make Lin Hsin-i one of the most interesting filmmakers working in experimental nonfiction today.

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Documentary in East and Southeast Asia, a list/database

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
More here

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.

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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.

IMG_0170Aragane (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.

Some thoughts on 3 Islands (Lin Hsin-I, 2015)

 

I finally had the time to rewatch 3 Islands, an experimental documentary directed in 2015 by Lin Hsin-I, a work I enjoyed on my first viewing a month or so ago, but one that, because of its complexity and all the historical references, I really wanted to watch it again before trying to write down a “proper” review.
The movie is a blending of experimental cinema and non-fiction, a “genre” that has recently become more and more the main field of my interest*, but at the same time an exploration of the historical resonances that tragically bind together three different territories, Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Jeju island in South Korea.
3 Islands is a complex and multilayered work punctuated by literary quotes (Marguerite Duras, Kenzaburō Ōe and T.S. Eliot among others**), archival footage, contemporary art, beautiful digital shots of jungle and ruins, fictional memories and a minimalist and eerie music to wrap up everything.

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The movie’s very first image is a close up of an old strip of celluloid in what appears to be a destroyed building, later on we’ll discover is probably an abandoned theater in Tainan, Taiwan. The shots of the strip and those of the hands that pull it, are superimposed with quotes from Marguerite Duras and those from a Taiwanese artist, takling personal and historical memory, the differences in language(s) and the impossibility to convey a truth of any sort through them. It is thus clear from the very beginning that what interests the director is also, if not mainly, an exploration of the aesthetic limits of non-fiction and those of representation more in general.
In the following scenes, written messages of a young kamikaze who died in the battle of Okinawa are intertwined with images of mural art in Taiwan and connected with footage of kamikaze attacks on American ships. Moments of battles as experienced during II World War by Zhang Zheng Guan, presumably a Taiwanese pilot who fought the Pacific War with the Japanese Imperial Army, are narrated (in Japanese) over a split screen, one side showing the places where the carnage and horrors of war took place as they are today, the other showing the act of filming and photographing the very same spots. The gimmick of the split screen has here its raison d’être because, as written above, the film gives equal importance to the facts, stories and histories narrated in it, but also to the problem of representation itself, without, and this is one of Lin Hsin-I big achievements, becoming just an empty and self-absorbing aesthetic show-off. Archival war images and scenes from the Taiwanese jungle are then linked to those of the protests in Okinawa against the American base in Futenma, and everything is connected by the memories narrated, one of the more dense and horrifying passages of this account is when it describes scenes of mutilated and headless body still moving, and other where men are walking and singing with their hands on the belly holding their own intestines and livers.

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In the central part of the movie Lin Hsin-I  moves her focus on the island of Jeiju, a very small territory located between Japan and South Korea, also a place of geopolitical importance due to its proximity to Chinese waters. Again we are presented with images from today and photos and archival footage from the colonial past of the area, and more importantly from the Jeju uprising in 1948, a revolt where people were raped, tortured and brutally murdered by the Korean government’s militia. Talking or writing about the massacre was taboo for more than 50 years and was only in 2005 that an official apology from the South Korean president was issued.
As often happen to me when I watch works that are also about Japan, the least interesting parts are those that take place, or are about, the archipelago, not because they’re less compelling or thought-provoking, but more because they usually look like a déjà-vu to me. The same happened with 3 Islands and its final part about Ichimura Misako, a woman who decided to live like a homeless at Yoyoji Park in Tokyo, to whom the director felt deeply connected.
That being said, 3 Islands remains nonetheless one of the best work of non-fiction cinema I’ve had the chance to see this year, a multitude of images and words colliding and clashing together to create a polyphonic narrative.
From the aesthetic point of view, the work feels perhaps more akin to installation art than a movie, but because of this quality it works as a unique intellectual and visual experience: fragmentation, peripherality and the centrifugal complexity of its images, give 3 Islands a very peculiar rhythm and style, allowing the film to be challenging and compelling in every single minute of its duration.

3 Islands’ documentary images try to shift from literary writings to the actual fixing of body-scene. Adopting literatures as well as the personal research and practices of artists as scripts, parallel with reversible movements of the flesh, the work recounts the unknown history and the symptomatic interpretations of the 3 islands of East Asia—Taiwan, Okinawa, and Jeju Island.

Notes

* And apparently in Taiwanese documentary as well “The 15 nominees for the Taiwanese Competition at this year’s Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) signal a reversal from the previous social issue-driven, journalistic documentaries, with many entries crossing over into the domain of contemporary art. More here)

** Not really a quote, but there’s a very brief moment towards the end of the film when the director herself pronounces the words “Ogawa Shinsuke”. An homage to one of her inspirations?

Under the Cherry Tree (Tanaka Kei, 2015)

Under the Cherry Tree (桜の樹の下)  is the feature documentary debut of director Tanaka Kei, a work that follows the lives of the elderly residents of a public housing complex in Kawasaki. The movie had its premiere last October at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (Perspective Japan) where I had the chance to see it.

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From the opening scene the film reveals its touch, low-tech and anti-spectacular in style, with a pretty straightforward approach, even though there are some formal choices that tend to be elliptical, I’ll come back to it later. Through her camera Tanaka gives voice to the elderly living in the building, focusing especially on four of them whom, during the 92 minutes of the movie, we slowly get to know and attached to. They all tell stories of solitude, each of them of course has a diverse background and even comes from different areas of Japan. Recollecting their past and the reasons for their present condition, a life on the edge of poverty, is a sort of candid confession that each of them is not afraid to make in front of the camera.  In the chatting with the director what strongly emerges is a sense of impending death, a common horizon that feels very near, and yet seems to be accepted and sometimes even anticipate as a sort of deliverance particularly from one elderly lady. Enveloped in their loneliness, the only sparse moments of comfort for these people are represented by the weekly meetings with the care staff or other various recreational activities organised in the neighborhood.
There’s a big cherry tree near the housing complex, often we see these old people taking a stroll, passing under it and stopping to contemplate its flowers, one of the few bursts of beauty coloring their lives and the visual element that gives the movie its title.
As gray as it might seem, the documentary is not only and always a bleak depiction of lives without hope, on the contrary and on a deeper level, is more an act of understanding and acceptance of what it means to become old in a society that doesn’t really know what to do with its old population. To lighten up the mood there are here and there some comic moments, especially when the two old ladies, one of them has also mental problems and lives in a flat piled with garbage, visit each other, chat and quarrel. Renouncing the classical narration in favor of intertitles and written texts to introduce the four protagonists is a perfect choice by the director, as a result the movie is smooth in its flow and doesn’t feel redundant or pathetic, gaining instead a matter-of-fact quality that is one of the best traits of the movie.

Under the Cherry Tree perfectly situates itself in a recent trend of Japanese documentary, a trend that has become almost a sub-genre, exploring and depicting the population ageing in Japan by focusing on personal lives of few individuals. A demographic trend that will dictate the political and economic decisions for years to come, Under the Cherry Tree goes together with Walking With my Mother,  Everyday Alzheimer 1 and 2 as one of the best examples of this unavoidable turn that Japanese non-fiction and Japanese society in general is undertaking.

 

 

Interview with Toshi Fujiwara about No Man’s Zone (無人地帯, 2011)

I’m reposting here and Interview I did in 2011 with Fujiwara Toshi, author of No Man’s Zone (無人地帯, 2011), to this day and in my opinion the best documentary about the March 11th’s triple disaster.
The interview was originally posted on the Italian blog Sonatine. You can purchase the DVD of the movie here (with English subtitles). 

    

Matteo Boscarol I’ve watched a couple of documentaries dealing with the disaster that hit Japan on March 11th, but in my opinion, your work stands apart from them. I think you adopted a broader perspective. Among other things, I felt No Man’s Zone was a visual essay on the impact that images of destruction have on our society.
Toshi Fujiwara Yes, you’re right but obviously it was something that was inside me from before the disaster and grew up over the years.
M.B. It was also like watching two documentaries, one with the row images and interviews from the area hit by the tragedy, the other one more reflective, with the narration and the editing giving a philosophical frame.
T.F. We’ve tried to create two separate layers very deliberately. One of the reasons is that it is a French-Japanese co-production. The cameraman and director are Japanese, and the editor is French…so why not have two layers to incorporate a certain distance within the contest. Originally, we thought of a French voice and the narration was different from the final one. It was more like a fictional story. The idea was that of a French woman and a Japanese director corresponding through the Internet. We collaborated with some French writers, but they didn’t get the right ideas because it was also supposed to be quite critical of the French culture itself. It turned into something rather awfully colonialist. So it didn’t work and I rewrote the whole narration.
M.B. In this way, it should be able to reach a foreign audience. The Japanese media didn’t do a good job, but at the same time, the international media excelled in misinformation, especially the Italian media.
T.F. Even here in Japan, it’s turning this way. Now the Japanese anti-nuclear movements are paradoxically against the people of Fukushima.
M.B. There’s a scene that particularly impressed me and even reminded me of some parts of Ogawa Shinsuke’s Heta Buraku. It’s the one when the camera is following an old lady wandering and speaking in her garden.
T.F Thank you for the compliment. It is probably because my cameraman, Takanobu Kato, was working with Ogawa. He was one of the last people to leave the production. It was important that he was with me because, being trained under Ogawa when his production was in Yamagata, he literally lived there raising rice and so on. As such, he knew how to shoot rice fields, and other details of life in the countryside.
M.B. In the same scene through the memory of the old lady, there are also references to a wider sense of time, historical and natural cycles, reaching as far as the period after the Second World War.
T.F. I would say that it goes even farther back in time; in fact, she recalls her father having been a silk worms teacher. It was before the war when Japan biggest export was silk itself.The images of movies of this kind focus usually on destruction, but we tried to suggest what was there before the destruction. What was destroyed and also what the people of these areas have lost is much more important.

 

M.B. What triggered you to go to Fukushima a month after the Earthquake to start to shoot?
T.F. I was disgusted by the way the images were shown on TV. The live footage didn’t show us how the people used to live, and didn’t give people a chance to communicate. Their lives up there were so different from the lives of journalists in Tokyo; moreover, the images are just raw material without any good editing. My intention was to make a film that would look distinctly different from what we watched on television, which was usually shot very hastily with a hand-held camera. One of my first commitments was to shoot as beautifully as we could. That’s why, when possible, we used a tripod. Already, I’d hated lots of contemporary documentaries because their shots aren’t beautiful. They shoot them too easily. Even though we did it in 10 days, we tried to do it as well as we could. Beautiful editing also was important.
M.B. And the voice of Khanjian Arsinée for the narration is very beautiful indeed.
T.F. Her voice is incredible. She’ s Armenian, but she grew up in Lebanon so her native tongues are Arabic and French. She moved to Canada when she was 17, in French-speaking Quebec. I liked her voice because she is not totally native in English [the narration is in English] and so we cannot clearly identify the nationality of her voice.

 

M.B. You went to Fukushima with your cameraman and one assistant—is that right?
T.F. Yes, it’s better to have a small crew also knowing that the TV people often annoy them…
M.B. How did the people there react to you and your crew?
T.F. Again, we were only three and we were not wearing any protective gear or masks, so they were extremely polite to us as they usually are to everybody else. You know, the people of Tohoku have a tradition for hospitality. Also, we were not asking abrupt and stupid questions like “what do you think of that and that…?”.
M.B. The problem of how to approach and relate to the people affected by disasters is a crucial one for the art of documentary. At the last Yamagata Documentary International Film Festival, there was a debate on this topic.
T.F. I was there myself, and I think the largest problem of these documentaries is that they’re more about the filmmakers going there and not necessarily about the places and the people living there. The general problem is that many filmmakers went to Tohoku, but they made films about their own confusion and panicked state of minds, while they forgot to make documentaries about the damages of the quake and the people who were directly touched by the tragedies. They are too self-centered and unconsciously self-obsessed. An even larger problem that I observe is that the audience in Tokyo takes comfort in seeing these movies, being reassured that the filmmakers are also confused. I find this tendency very problematic for being too masturbatory. They are forgetting the original function of cinema, which must be something open to create links and communications; under such circumstances, we should be mediums to make a bridge between those who experienced the tragedies and us who didn’t. That is one of the reasons why we tried to make “No Man’s Zone” an open film text, instead of sharing the personal experiences (if not self-excuses) of filmmakers. We wanted it to ask direct questions to the audience. Of course, my cameraman worked with Ogawa and I made a film about Tsuchimoto. Thus, I was influenced by others and different generations of documentary’s filmmakers, I’ve kind of skipped the generation of the so-called private documentaries.
M.B. Like Kawase Naomi?
I like Kawase and what she does; she is of my generation, but we do different things and that’s ok with me. I could say that I do documentaries like in the 60s, except that there is no more politics involved. Japanese leftist politics disintegrated in a very rapid way after the 70s.
M.B. Do you think March 11th will change something in filmmaking?
T.F. In my opinion, it should. But I haven’t seen the change yet. After all, only 9 months have passed. One thing for sure is that we have to try to do something different, different from what we were doing before. Actually, before the quake, I was working on a movie but now I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to complete it. It’s about Japan before March 11th.
It’s a different period, it’s like being after a war in a way.
M.B. We should consider March 11th almost as important as August 15th, 1945.
A few months ago, I talked to Sono Sion, and he said that the tragedy was paradoxically “good” because it suddenly uncovered many problems affecting the Japanese society. For instance the relationship between urban centers and countryside, that is Tokyo-Tohoku…
T.F. I totally agree with him. We (in Tokyo) are just parasites, which is repeatedly stated in No Man’s Zone. The nuclear plants have been there for almost 40 years, and what is awful is that even now after 9 months in Tokyo, people don’t want to admit that we’re responsible.
And even now [this interview was conducted during the Christmas period], it’s like nothing has happened at all.At the Tokyo FilmEx this year, a lady in the audience from Fukushima was quite surprised after watching the movie. She walked outside and found the streets in full illumination for Christmas.
M.B. Can you tell us something about the music used in the film?
T.F. It was composed and performed by a free jazz American musician who’s been living in France for many years. His name is Barre Phillips and we’ve worked together before [Independence, 2002]. Again, we decided on a non-Japanese composer, one of the best that you can get, and also one that was not so expensive and not too commercial. The funny thing is that he recorded the music in a chapel of an ancient monastery in the south of France. In No Man’s Zone, there are a lot of Japanese traditional views with images of Buddhas and small gods, so I thought it would be interesting to have the music recorded in a Catholic chapel. In this way, the music and the narration can maybe suggest something universal. That’s why I wanted someone else and not myself to do the narration in English. It would otherwise have become just a documentary about my experience. This nuclear accident is asking tremendous and huge questions to all of us, to our civilization and how we have related ourselves to nature and to the universe, how we perceive our lives. We actually have to think about the philosophical and even the religious aspects of it all, I would say, and it’s stated at the end of the film, that Japan, embracing western civilization, has accepted its idea of a nature existing for us, to serve humans. It’s actually a very Christian concept. It is not even Jewish or Islamic; it’s a particular belief of Christianity to say that God created everything for us.

East and Southeast Asian documentary. And beyond 

  

Today just a quick note to announce a small topic shift I’d like to give to my blog. I will still primarily write about Japanese documentaries, but in the past months I realised just how limiting it is to keep the focus only on the works coming out of Japan and by doing so missing the chance to explore the rich and vibrant non-fiction scene of East and Southeast Asian countries. To be honest, I don’t know where this decision will bring the blog and even if there will be real changes in my blogging at all. Reviews of Asian documentaries? news about a new DVD/Blu-ray or an interesting movie from China, Taiwan, South Korea or the Philippines? More about film festivals in the region? I have no idea, stay tuned. 

Japanese documentary of the week vol. 1 – Impressions of a Sunset (Suzuki Shiroyasu,1975)

Impressions_of_a_Sunset

I’ll start today a new feature – Japanese documentary of the week – a weekly and very short post to introduce an important work of non-fiction cinema, or at least a documentary that I believe is worth seeing and discovering. I’ll focus on works that are either available to watch online (legally) or available on DVD/BD (with English sub).
The fist movie is Impressions of a Sunset (日没の印象) , a short diary-movie/self documentary/artistic home-movie made by Suzuki Shiroyasu in 1975. Suzuki is a poet and a professor who worked also for TV and who, from the mid 70s, started to expand his artistic world in the cinematic realm. Impressions of a Sunset is probably, together with Fifteen Days (1980), his most famous work. Deeply inspired by Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas, 1973) Suzuki:

has gotten his hands on a “CineKodak 16” (a pre-war 16mm camera) at a second hand camera shop, and in sheer delight he films his beloved wife, films his newborn baby, proudly takes his camera to work to film his colleagues, and then films the Tokyo sky at sunset.

(from Self-Documentary: Its Origins and Present State, Nada Hisashi. You can read the complete article here)

Partly experiment, partly diary and partly home-movie, this short work has, even today, a special appeal for me, maybe the grain of the film (16mm), maybe the freshness of the approach, or maybe the subtle experimental touch we can feel here and there (the dots, the reflections, etc.). Below you can see Impressions of a Sunset legally, it is linked, together with some of works, on Suzuki’s official homepage. It’s in Japanese (no English sub) but even if you don’t understand the language you can feel the magic.

日没の印象 / Impression of Sunset