The year of the strong woman part 2: 10 East Asian women at LFF

This year’s BFI London Film Festival has strong women front and centre, and some of the most kickass of all come from East Asia...

7 October 2015

By Kate Taylor

The Assassin (2015)

Our celebration of “the year of the strong woman” continues. This has been a bumper year for female talent on- and off-screen in our East Asia selection, with six films directed by women and yet more focused on female stories – including two women who are extremely good at killing.

From Japan, festival favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda returns with his sights set squarely on female relationships in the joyous tale of sibling support Our Little Sister, while Arrietty director Hiromasa Yonebayashi delivers what may prove to be the last Studio Ghibli film for a long while: the gorgeous tale of young female friendship that develops into something quite magical, When Marnie Was There. In the documentary selection, My Love, Don’t Cross That River gives us charismatic Korean grandma Kang Kye Yeol, one half of a staunchly romantic 76-year marriage, who will restore even the most hard-bitten cynic’s faith in love.

Following our feature on diverse female talent, here we highlight some East Asian female talent from across the programme, championing creative visions, complex characterisation and great screen performances.

Sylvia Chang – Murmur of the Hearts, Office, Mountains May Depart

Office (2015)

Undoubted queen of the selection is Taiwanese renaissance woman Sylvia Chang, at LFF on directing duties with Murmur of the Hearts (Taiwan-Hong Kong), as actor in Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France), and star/writer/producer of Office (China-Hong Kong). For those who dig their cinema sensory, strange and wonderful, Murmur of the Hearts delivers an emotionally intelligent romance and family saga. In Mountains May Depart, she provides an emotional anchor as a Chinese teacher in Australia, while in Office she dazzles as CEO Chang, the most badass boss to hit the screen since Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006).

Shin Su-won – Madonna

Madonna (2015)

A former school teacher, who made her directorial debut at the age of 43, Korean director Shin Su-won develops the blend of institutional critique with genre elements she employed in Pluto (2012) with Madonna, a film that Variety calls “an anguished cry against vicious class inequality and ingrained female abuse in South Korean society”. Highly stylish filmmaking, it’s also tough stuff, hitting Von Trier levels of female punishment with its tale of the regular humiliations piled upon Mi-na, a woman dubbed ‘Madonna’ for both her sexualised body and unintended pregnancy. A thriller like no other, this is gripping impassioned cinema. 

Rira Kawamura, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, Sachie Tanaka – Happy Hour

Happy Hour (2015)

Jointly winning best actress award at Locarno, where the film’s script also won a special mention, this quartet of actors star in Happy Hour, a Japanese film that passes the Bechdel test approximately 764 times. Four friends in their thirties – a nurse, curator, café worker and housewife – deal with the fallout of a divorce in their midst. They also attend workshops on balance, go to nightclubs and literature readings, have painfully honest dinner conversations, and start, inexplicably, to fall over. A rewarding element of the film’s 317-minute duration is how many of the on-screen experiences are filmed in near real-time, so that we live events alongside the characters, developing and measuring our own perspectives. By the end of the film you will have four new best friends.

Diep Hoang Nguyen – Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere

Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (2014)

In her extraordinary debut feature, Diep Hoang Nguyen gives us a dark and dreamy vision. A pregnant teenager living on the edge in contemporary Vietnam, 17-year-old Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen) gets little support from her horny but feckless boyfriend, so she turns to her transgender flatmate Linh (Thanh Duy Pham Tran) who suggests some unconventional career advice. There’s a strangely sensuous tone to the proceedings as the film – made with the support of director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) – drifts into magic realism territory. We encourage you to discover Nguyen now and become acquainted with a deeply sophisticated new filmmaking voice.

Mabel Cheung – A Tale of Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities (2015)

A beautiful opium-smuggling widow is stopped at the border by a gruff but rather handsome guard who spies that flies are buzzing around one half of her basket of baked goods but not the other. She is defiant, he is defiant, and as meet-cutes go it is played to perfection. But wait, I hear you cry, what about the flies? Well there’s the thing, it is observational moments like these, tiny details that Mabel Cheung amplifies throughout A Tale of Three Cities, that bring immense texture and warmth to a film that plays on an epic canvas of explosions, assassination attempts (a festival theme!), and heart-wrenching familial separations. One of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors (An Autumn Tale, The Soong Sisters, Beijing Rocks), we are thrilled that Mabel Cheung joins the Official Competition Jury at this year’s Festival.

Jun Ji-hyun – Assassination

Assassination (2015)

Sometimes it’s just great to see a woman on screen with a very particular set of skills. In Assassination, three under-the-radar members of the Korean resistance are sent to 1930s Shanghai (also a setting in A Tale of Three Cities) to bump off the leader of the Japanese forces in Korea. Leading the trio is Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun aka Gianna Jun) a hot-shot sniper plucked from jail in Manchuria where she awaits the death penalty for shooting her superior. With a charismatic hitman Hawaii-Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) counter-hired to eliminate her, and rumours of a doppelganger in town, Ok-yun must keep her head, and her finger firmly on the trigger. Jun Ji-hyun, star of My Sassy Girl, The Thieves and The Berlin File, is impeccable as the woman with a mission.

Cao Fei – La Town

La Town (2014)

Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s projects explore the fantasies of young people in China, employing escapism and fantasy as well as documentary strategies. Screening here as part of the Experimenta strand, La Town recently debuted at the 56th Venice Biennale, and her Whose Utopia? video has just finished its run as part of the display at TATE Modern. With reference to Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and Marguerite Duras’ dialogue in particular, La Town mixes social commentary with a disarming sense of scale, creating a mythic town that lingers in the imagination.

Haruka Shimazaki – Ghost Theater

Ghost Theater (2015)

Thunder! Lightning! A strange doll… possessed! For his latest film J-Horror pioneer Hideo Nakata (Ring, Dark Water) gets theatrical in a film that favours old-school jumps over creeping dread. When Sara (Haruka Shimazaki), an ambitious young actor auditions for a new play, little does she know that the backstage egos are the least of her worries. A Japanese singer and member of the Japanese idol group AKB48, Shimazaki plays it straight as Sara, while in fabulously lit set-pieces, pieces of the set conspire to attack her. A joy to watch, Shimazaki’s performance adds a still centre to this deeply enjoyable spookfest, giving us a Final Girl we want to root for.

Naomi Kawase – Sweet Bean

An (2015)

Adapting a novel for the first time, Naomi Kawase follows last year’s LFF selection Still the Water with her realisation of Durian Sukegawa’s moving story of the transformative poetry of cooking. Sentaro is the manager of a Doraharu bakery, selling dorayaki ‘sweet red bean paste’ pastries, when 76-year-old Tokue applies to be his assistant. It turns out that she has a thing or two to teach him about the art of cooking – and also that she harbours a secret. Kawase, continuing her focus on exquisite detail, once again explores tumultuous emotional territory with a deceptive simplicity.

Shu Qi – The Assassin

The Assassin (2015)

“For [Hou Hsiao-Hsien] the circulation of the air is just as important to him as other things, such as what the characters are doing,” Taiwanese actor Shu Qi told the Cannes press conference following the premiere of The Assassin, her third collaboration with the director, after Millennium Mambo (2001) and Three Times (2005). After starting out as a model and star of erotic movies, Shu Qi has made over 80 features and twice won acting gongs at both the prestigious Golden Horse Award in Taiwan and the Hong Kong Film Festival, starring alongside Jason Statham in The Transporter (2002) along the way. In The Assassin she gives an incandescent performance as the titular hitwoman, Nie Yinniang, whose heart overrules the deadly teachings of her nun guardian. In this virtually dialogue-free film, Yinniang stalks Hou’s immaculate mise-en-scène as a bold and elegant creature. And what’s more, she makes it look a breeze.

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