By Tiffany Ran
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
This year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) selection of Asian films offers a kaleidoscopic view on China, a country known for its turbulent history immediately followed by its accelerated growth. While many of these films are part of SIFF’s China Stars, a program of films meant to promote cross cultural showcase and exchange, most will not be promoted in China.
In that similar vein, dissident filmmaker Yang Shu (played by Gong Zhe) in “A Family Tour” lives in exile in Hong Kong and uses her invitation for a screening of her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taipei as an opportunity to see her mother (played by Nai An), who stayed behind in China. Through the disguise of a travel tour of Taiwan, mother and daughter are reunited. Since Yang’s exile, the two kept contact through phone and video calls, but together, tensions arise as Yang struggles to hide her intolerance of the censorship and control by the Chinese government and her mother’s seeming acquiescence to its reality.
This beautifully shot film is a meditation on the isolation and estrangement of the protagonist and the bittersweet negotiation between mother and daughter of whether this meeting will be their last.
Similar echoes of exile and estrangement are examined in “The Sweet Requiem,” a drama produced by documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam.
The story, set in a Tibetan refugee community in India, traces a family’s treacherous migration over the snowy Himalayas, eventually settling in India where the trauma and displacement of their flight from Tibet and oppression by Chinese officials continue to shape their experiences in India.
Among the more controversial policies to have existed in China is the “one-child policy,” documented in “One Child Nation” by directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. “One Child Nation” paints a damning picture of the policy, its inevitable, yet unexpected consequences and jarring cruelty that arose as a result of its practice. Despite facing past questioning by Chinese officials, Wang rips the file open on this no holds barred documentary that includes interviews with family planning officials, midwives, and even her own family members. The documentary shows the far-reaching grasp of a social experiment which led to countless dead babies and abandoned children. With consequences so far reaching, the 85-minute film haphazardly covers more ground than it can reasonably tackle in such a format, leaving, perhaps intentionally, a lack of resolve and more information to be desired.
A more lighthearted feature takes us back to China with protagonist Sasha Li (played by YouTube star Anna Akana), a spoiled fashion-school graduate who is forced to work at her father’s toy factory in Shenzhen. The film “Go Back to China” is loosely based on writer-director Emily Ting’s experience working at her family’s toy factory in China. “Go Back to China” employs the classic trope of spoiled rich girl learns hard lessons, which conjures up references to past Hilary Duff film “Material Girls” or reality shows like “The Simple Life,” a similar schadenfreude with an Asian American twist. We see glimpses of China through a princess lens, where a challenging work environment and the rigidity of tradition is glossed over with a sort of bubblegum sense of humor.
On a completely different sort of factory, we witness in “American Factory” the culture shock between former General Motors (GM) factory workers and their new Chinese employer Cao Dewang, who took over the former GM factory and reopened it as Fuyao Glass America. The all access look at the transition highlights differences between the Chinese laborers Cao is used to having at his disposal and the American factory workers born of an erstwhile Industrial Revolution era. Despite tensions between the workers’ incentive to unionize and Cao’s insistence that the company could not operate with the presence of a union, the surprising aspect of the film is the factory workers’ positive embrace of the opportunity to learn from their foreign cohorts. The film offers interesting insight into the heart of America during a precarious political climate where oddly, a Chinese company has sprouted and taken root.
Filmmaker Derek Chiu’s artful “No. 1 Chung Ying Street” traces a history of protest in Hong Kong and compares two seemingly different protests with reconstructed scenes from the 1967 anti-British protests, where left leaning activists vow to support Mao and his teachings to the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement.” Elder Wingkuen (played by Yeung Sau-Churk), having witnessed both protests in his lifetime, is an unobtrusive link between the two protests and the characters involved. Rather than a cause-driven or politically minded film, Wingkuen’s witness poses as an emotional examination of the common threads of activism and Hong Kong’s identity.
The 45th SIFF will close with “The Farewell,” directed by Lulu Wang, where Chinese American Billi (played by Awkwafina, “Oceans 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians”) goes back to China with her family to visit her grandmother, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family decides to keep her diagnosis a secret, using Billi’s cousin’s wedding as an excuse to gather and say their goodbyes. While this secret is agreed upon by all her family members, Billi struggles with this. She finds it difficult to keep her feelings at bay as she struggles to reconcile the differences between her family’s Eastern outlook and her own. This cultural dissonance is explored throughout the festival with more sobering Chinese films selected this year exploring identity, policy, politics, and migration, and ends with a heartwarming and relatable farewell.
For more information about SIFF, visit siff.net.
Tiffany can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.