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New Asian Currents Makes Waves at Yamagata Documentary Festival

By Anette Olsen

From Keng Dern Tang's 'A Short Journey.'

The Yamagata (Japan) International Documentary Film Festival, held every other year since 1989, has earned a reputation in Europe as a must-go-to festival. This year's festival (October 10-16) offered a dense program of more than 200 entries. Since its beginning, the Yamagata festival has made efforts to screen documentaries made by Asian filmmakers, and the New Asian Currents section has become a wide-open window into documentary filmmaking from this part of the world.

One of the highlights from this section was the five-minute long A Short Journey by Thai director Keng Dern Tang. The film grabs the viewer instantly and contains in five minutes all the elements of a human drama. "Today I'm going to pack my clothes and leave," says a little boy to the camera. He is going to school, and a social worker has come to accompany him. By the time the film ends a few minutes later, the situation has changed dramatically.

Li Lin's disturbing Three-Five People won the International Film Critics' Prize. The filmmaker (from China) met a group of heroin-addicted children living in the streets of Chengdu in China and decided to film them. Not only did she make a film, but she also tried to help the children, and succeeded in bringing two of them to Beijing for drug treatment. The filmmaker's personal involvement in the lives of the children did not ultimately save them from their hopeless situation, however, and the filmmaker herself received death threats from underworld criminals and the police. Lin went back a year later to see the children again, who by then were all HIV-positive. The long, insisting takes of the children shooting drugs and their mutilated bodies from needles and beatings made this film the hardest to watch, in its shocking depiction of a merciless world.

Japanese director Kamanaka Hitomi did thorough research for her film Hibakusha—At the End of the World. The "hibakushas" are radiation victims suffering from diseases like leukemia and cancer. The filmmaker digs into the issue of nuclear warfare and the risk of radiation and talks to radiation victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 50 years ago and to farmers in the US who live on contaminated land near a nuclear plant. Hitomi explores the political motives of covering up the truth about radiation effects and effectively puts the use of modern nuclear warfare into perspective

Among the more poetic works in the festival, Nail, a black-and-white film from Taiwan's Huang Ting-fu, captures the atmosphere around a temple in Taipei, where visitors are filmed in close-up. Wellspring, from Chinese director Sha Qing, is a moving and beautiful film about a Chinese family struggling to help their sick son who suffers from cerebral palsy. What we see is not only tragedy and desperation but a family facing its situation with great perseverance, dignity and a "wellspring" of love and affection for their son.

From Huang Ting-fu's <em>Nail</em>.

One film caused a heated debate following a Q&A session, with some of the audience members accused the director of exploiting the main character. Korean director Hosup Lee took five years to make his first documentary, And Thereafter, which tells the story of an elderly Korean woman, Young-ja Wike, who married an American GI in order to escape the hopeless situation of poverty after the Korean War. Young-ja's life with a war-traumatized husband and grown-up children with whom she can hardly communicate is no American Dream. She never learned English well enough and was looked down upon by Americans, while Koreans called her a whore. The "thereafter" of the marriage turned into a pitiful and isolated life. Young-ja's only joy is growing chili peppers in a small field outside the house, and the film is structured around the changing of the seasons and the work in the chili pepper field.

The secrets of this dysfunctional family are revealed little by little and are used as plot points that turn the story in new directions, thickening the layer of humiliation and violence Young-ja's has to endure. The filmmaker knew about the family secrets beforehand, and some in the audience decried his approach as manipulation, while others saw it as the filmmaker's choice of style and structure.

Lee told the audience that he was very close to Grandma Wike, who treats him as her son, but that she never quite grasped that he was making a film about her. This triggered some skeptical comments from the audience, who believed he had taken advantage of her and her story. Nevertheless, the film is important and very well made.

What characterized many of the films in New Asian Currents were their freshness and their energy to courageously address social, ethical and political issues in modern society in a critical and engaged approach.


Anette Olsen is a freelance journalist based in Copenhagen. She was a member of the FIPRESCI jury at the Yamagata festival this year.