Cinema Asia is a five part documentary series about Asian film produced for the Discovery channel. Each episode looks into a movie industry of a different country discussing movies made and historical and cultural issues that affect their movie industries. Often a film professor or film critic is used to give their information or opinion.
In 1966 many Chinese movie theaters were shut down due to the Cultural Revolution and only a handful of films could be shown and they had to be revolutionary themed. Film-making didn’t begin again until 1973. Now China’s movie industry in making more movies than ever before and it is currently the third largest movie-making country in the world, however, the number of internationally successful movies is very slim. Most Chinese films never get to the cinema and are shown in movie cafes and this is often due to the Chinese government’s censorship restriction due to subjects like drug addiction and the plight of the working class. People largely stopped going to the cinema in 1993 due to the rise of new media. Piracy is a reason not many Chinese go to the movies these days, one director admits that he wouldn’t have seen half the films he has if there was no piracy. The censorship laws saw a movie called Beijing Bicycle banned because the government felt it portrayed Beijing in a bad light. The present Beijing Olympic generation of directors are now more able to pass the censors.
The best known Chinese director internationally is Zhang Yimou due to Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Earlier Zhang Yimou was experimental and invented cultural practices in his films that didn’t actually exist in China and one movie, The Road Home had the present in black and white and the past in colour. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first Chinese movie to become hugely successful outside of China; the director Ang Lee is Taiwanese so Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero is considered more of a Chinese film, although detractors criticize the liberties it takes with history. The movie caused a rush for Chinese action films to be made and Zhang Yimou brought in people from outside China for House of Flying Daggers. A new generation of Chinese filmmakers rose up after the Tienamen square incident and the filmmakers wanted to concentrate on present life within China. Feng Xiogeng’s A World Without Thieves outsold The Lord Of The Rings in China however it wasn’t successful at all outside of China.
Taiwan’s movie industry has been renowned international since the 1980s and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best known movie by a Taiwanese director. During the 1960s and 70s Taiwanese films were among the strongest in Asia, however competition from elsewhere in Asia and later Hollywoood, Taiwanese movies tended not to be popular in Taiwan and were better known overseas. Taiwanese cinema’s biggest competition now is Hollywood but earlier it was the Hong Kong martial arts films in the ’80s. Taiwan lost a lot of movie audience, as their movies were family melodramas that could be seen on TV. The first wave of Taiwan new wave cinema came in 1982 through director Edward Yang’s In Our Time which looked at modern lives in Taiwan which were realistic and sympathetic to social changes. The Taiwanese migrants struggle to survive was portrayed in a movie called The Sandwich Man which contrasted urban and rural values. The relaxation of martial law on Taiwan ended film censorship and subjects once taboo could be taken on and director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City Of Sadness covers the February 28 massacre. Hou-Hsiao–hsien moved away from history and explored a modern Taiwan unfamiliar to him in Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo. The director Edward Yang originally went to the United States to study science but eventually studied film and returned to Taiwan to make movies that were received well both locally and internationally.
Ang Lee led the next wave of Taiwanese filmmakers who were less concerned in history and concentrated on ordinary families in Taiwan and the changing values of Taiwanese society. Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a Taiwanese director, it had very little influence on Taiwanese cinema. Tsai Ming-liang, one of the Taiwanese directors considered a contemporary of Ang Lee is Malaysian. The biggest challenge for Taiwanese movie-makers now is to find a cinema to show their movies in as Hollywood films have stitched up deals with most theaters. Ming-liang Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn depicts the decline of Taiwanese cinema. His most successful film, The Wayward Cloud, challenged conservative Taiwanese values of sexuality and confused audiences. Columbia Pictures backed the thriller movie Double Vision, which mirrors Hollywood productions although set in Taiwan. Chang Wen-Tang’sSomewhere in the Green Land shows the struggles of Taiwan’s aborigines. Young Taiwanese directors are hoping to make low budget commercial movies to woo local audiences back. The most surprising success was a gay romance called Formula 17 which was made by Three Dots Entertainment who concentrate on genre movies although the company were not able to make a financially successful follow-up. Three Dots Entertainment has co-produced movies with China in order to succeed outside of Taiwan.
India’s cinema is well known as they produce more movies than Hollywood. The Bollywood name and the dislike of the association with Hollywood by the mainstream Indian movie-makers are touched upon briefly. Though the industry is still referred to as Bollywood throughout the episode. Indian movie-makers are moving away from the stereotypical song and dance movies, Foreign (Non-Indian) films only scrape 5 percent of revenue in India. Famous superstars and romantic story-lines are the hallmark of Bollywood cinema. The actors often don’t sing their own songs and there is a separate industry called playback devoted to the soundtracks. There are movies that have song, dance, romance, fantasy and action which last three hours with intermission and the combination is known as masala. An Indian film critic suggests that nothing else matters in India other than cinema and cricket. The traditional women have undergone a makeover in the movies and the traditional wife with the bindi has disappeared with a much more independent minded women stepping forward. India’s film industry employs six million people but just like Hollywood there are still only a select few that make a successful road to stardom. Acting classes teach both dance and stunts are also taught as actors are expected to do their own stunts. Despite the strong presence of traditional Bollywood films there are modern Indian films that are making social comments.
South Korea’s cinema has beaten Hollywood within South Korea with the country producing up to 100 movies a year. The Olympics and the World Cup are considered reasons that South Koreans are now prouder of themselves. In the 1990s Korean cinema got 20 percent of all the local movie takings and a decade later it rose to 50 percent due to the Koreans making blockbuster style movies. Often the themes cover North Korea plotting against the South. The blockbuster Shiri was able to beat Titanic in box office sales. Many Korean movies cover events that could only happen within Korea and genre films are taken and given an Asian twist, which is the reason for the success of their movies locally and internationally. An action thriller, Silmido, was made due to despair of the lack of ideas in Hollywood movies and is based on real events in Korea’s political history. Up till the 1980s it was impossible for filmmakers to use themes questioning authority. Memories of Murder is a movie about a serial killer that focuses on the incompetence of the police rather than murderer. During the 1990s Korea introduced a cinema quota system and local movies had to be screened for at least 146 days a year. The roles of women in movies have started to change from those strictly behaving under the rules of a Confucian society to those with much more independence. Korea makes 50 to 100 films per year and the most successful internationally are violent action films Chan Woon-Pak’s movies put Korea’s film in the international film festival circuit but haven’t been so successful locally. The Pusan film festival went from being poorly attended due to lack of interest in local movies to being sold out due to interest in local movies in just a few years. Korean films now hold the spots that were once held elsewhere in Asia by Hong Kong films. The local quota system is caving due to pressure from America so it will be interesting to see what happens in the near future.
Iran’s movie industry has won the most awards internationally. Often ordinary members of the public win the awards as they often feature rather than professional industries. Due to the country’s prominent Islamic faith movies avoid sexuality and often feature on current issues that affect the country. Children are often the main actors in Iranian movies as the filmmakers are able to make contemporary social commentary that they wouldn’t be able to using adult actors because children can say things that adults cannot and presently fifty percent of the Iranian population are under twenty. Children Of Heaven uses Iran’s poverty as a theme and the main story is about a boy who wants to come third in a race because the prize is a pair of shoes. Kirastami’s movies are described by a film critic as non-genre films and similar to haiku’s because much is unsaid. His former assistant Jafar Panahi has become a director with a similar style with one movie, The Mirror, which has a surprising plot twist with the main young girl getting off a bus and refusing to be filmed anymore. Then the movie takes on the appearance of a documentary although the girl is no longer on the bus.
Iranian movies are compared to Persian carpets due to them being regarded as the highest form of art in Iran. Iran’s history of cinema is inter-weaved with Iran’s revolution with 180 cinemas being burned due to fear of westernization. Before the revolution up to 70 movies were made but after the revolution none were made. The industry was saved by a simple pre-revolution movie about a cow being aired on television. The Ayatollah saw the movie and decided that movies could still be made but they have to adhere to the Islamic code. The fundamentalism only allows women to be portrayed a certain way. Often it is a male actor under a chador and in scenes involving hand touching often two hands of the same sex are used. There is an actress/director who speaks out against the rules involving women in the movies always wearing a chador. Director, Tahmineh Malani took an outspoken feminist point of view in her movie and was arrested and sentenced to death but there were appeals for her release internationally and she still focuses on women’s rights. Also covering women’s issues is male documentary maker, Meldus Osguy who is making a documentary on the reasons Iranian women are having cosmetic surgery. A number of Iranian films are now looking at border issues and cover themes such as war that also involve Pakistan and Iraq. The Iranian film industry has not only survived since the revolution but now flourishes.
The documentaries are not only about the movie industry of each county but the inner workings of the industry and how the county’s history has affected it. Hopefully this fascinating series continues and more Asian countries receive coverage.
Available on DVD from Madman Entertainment