Looking forward to CinemAsia 2018

Toy kittens used to tune in Our Shining Days (2017).

Tonight the 11th edition of the CinemAsia Film Festival starts in Amsterdam, opening with Chinese box office hit Monster Hunt 2 (2018). The festival features, as the title suggests, on cinema from all over Asia, both arthouse and commercial.

In 2018, the festival includes films from China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and through diaspora Canada and The Netherlands. On Sunday, Cinemasia closes with A Better Tomorrow 2018, after which it’ll go on tour with a selection of its programme in several other Dutch cities. Today we take a look at several highlights of that programme.

Teenage Rebels: Bad Genius (2017) and Our Shining Days (2017)

Bad Genius

Two films at this year’s CinemAsia feature teens rebelling against their schoolmasters, and both perceived and real inequality. In the Thai Bad Genius, two brilliant teenaged prodigies are hired by rich kids at their prestigious school to help them cheat tests. What follows is a smart, comic thriller on class differences and how that informs values and virtues. The two prodigies both come from poor backgrounds and are dependent on scholarships for further schooling, while the rich kids only need decent grades to ensure the higher education abroad that their parents will pay for.

But above all Bad Genius impresses how it turns something seemingly mundane as taking tests and cheating on tests into enormously exciting events. The codes used to cheat are a marvel in and of itself, that rival any used in espionage thrillers. Indeed, the final operation is as thrilling as any in films in which the hero is on a mission to save the world from nuclear annihilation.

The Chinese Our Shining Days is quite different, despite also featuring rebellious teens dealing with the class divide, this time at a music school. Those who play traditional Chinese music are looked down upon by those who play classical (Western) music. The classical players dress in smart suits and skirts, while the Chinese music players either dress down or in a frumpy looking uniform. The Chinese music players play for the love of the music, or are up to mischief, while the classical players are obsessed with their future careers.

Wonderful musical battles ensue between the two sides, for which the main characters (on the Chinese traditional side of course, the underdogs are our heroes) enlist an animation and comics obsessed group of girls who tune their voice with toy kittens. Our Shining Days is a cheerful, colourful high school comedy, and although the plot is kicked off by a romantic longing, the romance ultimately (and thankfully less predictably) takes a backseat to all the friendships formed through making music together.

South Korea reckoning with its history: A Taxi Driver (2017)

Song Kang-ho in A Taxi Driver (2017)

Also notable this edition: two South Korean thrillers dealing with the country’s recent troubled past, together charting the rise and fall of the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled South Korea from 1979 to 1987. A Taxi Driver portraying the horrible army repression of student protests in 1980 in the city of Gwangju, while 1987: When The Day Comes (2017) deals with the fall of the same regime, after public uproar following the deadly torturing of a student by national security agents causes the dictator to allow for the first democratic elections since 1960.

In A Taxi Driver Song Kang-ho, that charming everyman filmstar known mostly for his work with Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, stars as the titular taxi driver. Who drives a German journalist into Gwang-ju purely for the money, but becomes involved in the local situation once he realizes what’s happening there. What started as a student protest against general Chun assuming the presidency of South Korea, has turned into almost a full scale civil war after the army opened fire on unarmed students. A civil war in which only one side has real weapons, making it more of a massacre. Even family members who just try to get their wounded relatives to a hospital get shot on sight.

The anonymous taxi driver manages to get the German reporter into the completely closed off city, almost escapes again, and then makes it his mission to get the German out safely so the world will see the brutal repression of Chun’s military regime. A powerful, moving thriller that exposes the history of the regime. Including a bittersweetly exciting car chase. Bittersweet because we know these are real people sacrificing their lives to help our taxi driver get the word out. Was it worth it?

Indonesian cinema: Marlina the Murderer (2017) and much more

Marlina the Murderer

Besides its main competition, this year CinemAsia pays extra attention to Indonesian cinema, featuring six films from Indonesia: Kartini, Posesif, Satan’s Slaves, The Seen and Unseen, Tarling is Darling, and the feminist neo-western Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. This last film, directed by Mouly Surya, was only the third Indonesian film ever to play at Cannes.

Marlina’s husband has recently died and while his mummified corpse sits in the living room waiting to be buried, Marlina is all alone with her cattle, living on a lonesome hilltop. Seven bandits come to take advantage of this, and of her – because not only do they want her livestock and her money, they want to gang rape her. But she poisons four of them, and while she seems to not be able to escape being raped by the gang leader, during the rape she manages to get a hold of his machete and slice his head off.

For most of the rest of the film, Marlina wanders through the desolate landscape of the Indonesian island of Sumba, sometimes even on horseback. Her mission: to report what happened and carry the head of the gang leader to the police station. Resulting in many a darkly comic scene when people are confronted with her unusual luggage. The twangy guitars and widescreen cinematography are reminiscent of both spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s and Jim Jarmusch’ Dead Man (1995), which Surya has cited as her main influence.

Surya’s twist on the western genre in a very eastern setting proves the power of the genre beyond the domain of old white dudes, while at the same time using the genre’s penchant to allegorically examine its own society to shine a light on the violent patriarchy of Indonesia and the casualness of sexual violence within it. Although Marlina’s murderous behavior and its aftermath may seem extreme, she’s left little choice in this context and becomes the heroine of this western through her own acts of violence.

This Essay Outdoors article was published in March 2018