“Letters From the South” – 2014 Asian American Int’l Film Festival Review

One of the more eclectic highlights of this year’s Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) is “Letters From the South,” an anthology of six short films dramatizing the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. Produced by Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui (who contributed one of the segments), this omnibus explores various themes: exile, family and generational conflicts, the rise of the new China, evocations of nostalgia for home, displacement, and belonging. As with all anthologies, the quality varies from film to film, but overall, this is a collection of consistently high quality, featuring some of the most talented filmmakers working out of Southeast Asia.

Aditya Assarat’s “Now Now Now,” set in Thailand, concerns a Thai-Chinese college student’s conflicted feelings about the arrival of her slightly older cousin from China, a successful photographer who comes to give a lecture at her cousin’s school. The Chinese older cousin is seen as more alluring, glamorous, and worldly than her younger cousin, especially to a boy she likes. Although this film is the lightest, and slightest, of the collection, it does have an appealingly dreamy mood quite consistent with Assarat’s previous features “Wonderful Town” and “Hi-So.” Just as in those other two films, especially the latter, there is a very youthful feel tinged with melancholy, ending as the Thai-Chinese cousin confesses her wish to the boy she likes, as he sleeps, that she was as attractive to him as her Chinese cousin. “I’m your friend, too,” she wistfully tells him.

Royston Tan’s “Popiah,” set in Singapore, uses the titular food, a type of fresh spring roll popular all across Southeast Asia, as a symbol of the passing values of tradition and the conflict between generations. The patriarch of the family depicted here insists on going through the painstaking process of crafting the skin for the spring rolls by hand instead of buying them pre-made. This causes much annoyance to his grandson, who fights with his grandfather, as he is forced to help him do this task, which he finds to be quite boring. He eventually leaves in frustration, retreating to the more stimulating environment provided by his electronic gadgets. “Popiah” impressively compresses a family saga into a short space of time, aided by some lovely cinematography. The family conflict ends on a note of reconciliation and acceptance, if not exactly full mutual understanding.

Midi Z’s “Burial Clothes,” set in Myanmar (Burma), is an excerpt from his feature “Ice Poison,” and it deals with a young woman who returns from China to her hometown in the countryside to participate in the burial rituals for her dying grandfather. She has brought her father’s ancestral burial clothes that were saved back in China for the occasion. However, because ancestral burial clothes were outlawed under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they were buried for many years in the ground, and now the clothes are all rotten. These rotting clothes are a potent symbol for the neglect of the past and of tradition, and of the memories that may die along with the young woman’s grandfather. The young woman’s copious tears at her grandfather’s passing are as much for herself as for her grandfather, at the difficulties she faces in starting a new life in a place that may be her birthplace, but one that holds a much more uncertain future. Midi Z creates a stark, documentary-like atmosphere that is nevertheless quite resonant and affecting.

Sun Koh’s “Singapore Panda,” the most humorous film of the collection, concerns a financially failing Singapore radio station that is being bought out by a Chinese conglomerate (represented on the ground by Hong Kongers), who demands that they change their programming to appeal more to a mainland Chinese and pan-Asian market. This new programming is typified here by a new radio show, a children’s program about a panda who attempts to fit in with a group of orangutans. This story’s metaphorical affinity with the cultural hybridity enforced by a global marketplace couldn’t be clearer. One of the radio station employees must contend with globalization within his own family, as his visiting child relatives arrive from the US, thoroughly Americanized and speaking almost exclusively in English, barely able to speak a word of Mandarin. Despite the piece’s light touch, there is some caustically sharp commentary concerning the tyranny of the marketplace and how unique cultural characteristics can become subsumed by a bland synergistic bouillabaisse.

The anthology closes with two films that depart from the linear narrative mode of the previous pieces and take a turn toward the experimental. Tan Chui Mui’s “A Night in Malacca” is set in the titular area of Malaysia, one that has great import in the country’s history of colonization by the Dutch, Portuguese and British. It is also the most boldly experimental piece, with jittery and jaggedly edited visuals, switching freely between monochrome and color, that are quite unsettling, yet hypnotic and mesmerizing. The film features a voiceover based on the writings of Yu Dafu, an iconoclastic Chinese writer who created his major works in the 1920s and 1930s. The excerpts of his work included in the film are meditations on exile, and the challenges of being a proverbial stranger in a strange land, and being a perpetual outsider. Tan’s visual approach viscerally, and hauntingly, taps into the precarious psychological position of the exiled, forever searching for a place where they feel they can fully belong and truly call home.

As with any satisfying meal, this cinematic six-course offering saves the best for last, with Taiwan’s master auteur Tsai Ming-liang ending “Letters From the South” on a gracefully elegiac note with “Walking on Water,” in which Tsai returns to Kuching, Malaysia, and the apartment building he lived in as a youth, which is still standing. This short is another entry in the series of films Tsai has been making in the past few years featuring his main actor and perennial muse Lee Kang-sheng as a red robed, slow-walking monk making his incrementally forward moving travels in various environments. Head down, and hands out in a supplicant’s gesture, the monk exists in stark opposition to the hustle and bustle of humanity all around him.

In other films in Tsai’s series, the monk travels to metropolitan areas such as Hong Kong or Marseille.  “Walking on Water” is also set in a city, but here, the monk is much more in harmony with his surroundings, as he travels through the restricted space of the building, the tenants going about their ordinary and rather mundane, but very meditatively presented, lives. The compositions and staging of scenes throughout are quite stunning and often breathtaking, as in the opening shot of the monk performing the titular act, walking slowly on top of a puddle of water that acts as a reflective mirror. The inhabitants of the building get equal screen time with the monk; some of them go about their daily tasks, but others are as still and contemplative as the monk is. This is beautifully expressed by two searching close-ups of women who sit silently, but whose faces form fascinating speculative landscapes that invite us to wonder about the depths of experience embedded in their faraway gazes. More than nostalgia, this expresses a memory of home that encompasses melancholic longing and fond recollection in equal measure.

“Letters From the South” screens July 31, 6 p.m., at City Cinema Village East in New York. For more information, visit AAIFF’s website. The films will also screen at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 9.