For some unfathomable reason — I usually keep an eye out for these things — I missed SBS’s broadcast of the five Cinema Asia documentaries when they were shown earlier this year. So I was more than chuffed when Madman kindly sent along a review copy of their DVD release, which packs all five on to two discs.
Cinema Asia is a series covering some of the history and the state today (well, in 2007 when it was made) of five cinema industries in Asia: China, Taiwan, South Korea, India and Iran. Each episode takes a look at the the background of each national cinema, the things that make it unique, and cuts together interviews with actors, critics and prominent directors.
Episode one, China, focuses on post-Cultural Revolution cinema, particularly those films made by the so-called Fifth and Sixth Generation directors, as well as China’s relatively recent emergence as a domestic audience to reckon with. Particular attention is paid to Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which made enough money domestically to focus filmmakers’ minds on big-budget movies for the domestic market. In contrast to these are smaller films made by younger filmmakers; these generally don’t make it into cinemas, and are often sent directly to film festivals overseas (sometimes at the director’s peril) or distributed locally through other channels.
Taiwan, on the other hand, shows a cinema industry that built a strong domestic audience early on, with a set of prominent local directors making cinema that reflected the island’s cultural makeup and history. Unfortunately, nowadays Hollywood’s output has become more popular, making it a struggle for local films to find an audience in the cinemas. Particular attention is paid to Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-liang, with a bit of fun behind-the-scenes footage of the latter’s Wayward Cloud.
Episode three takes on South Korea, an industry that has grown stronger and stronger since the 90s, coupling an incredibly loyal domestic audience with an increasingly confident local spin on several genres of cinema. This particular episode dwells quite a bit on the psychological fallout of the Korean War and the omnipresence of the division in modern Korean cinema, with perspectives from both film scholars and directors on the subject.
India throws us straight into the music and colour of Bollywood, all lavish escapism, tight zooms and elaborate choreography. We’re treated to a bit of a history of the last hundred years of India’s prolific (the most prolific, actually) cinema, with some prominent films name-checked and some great shots of Amitabh Bachchan in his earliest work. Quite some time is devoted to a discussion of the changes that have taken place in recent years, in particular with regard to the depiction of women (the lead can now be the vamp, as one interviewee exclaims) and and the addition of “issues” to the genre formula. Most of this episode concentrates on mainstream Bollywood fare, but there is some mention of modern films outside the masala genre, such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Aparna Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer.
The final documentary, Iran, covers a cinema industry that I knew virtually nothing about, save that it’s often a strong presence at film festivals and that Abbas Kiarostami is its most famous director. This one is fascinating, covering the slow rebirth of Iranian cinema after the Revolution — the Iranian New Wave, which begins with 1969’s humbly titled The Cow. The puritanical censorship exerted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has meant that Iranian filmmakers have built themselves a distinctive cinematic style: swapping sex, violence and special effects for humanist stories of everyday life. One feature that seemed particularly prominent was the use of child protagonists to tell stories that wouldn’t be permitted with adult characters under the Ministry’s oversight.
Looking at the series as a whole, there is one thing I’m curious about. I thought the fact that Hong Kong was almost completely ignored was, well, weird. Even if it might not warrant its own episode, it went almost completely unmentioned save for brief allusions to its existence as a competitor in the action genre. Come to think of it, Japan is rather conspicuous in its absence, too, and certainly has its share of unique features and iconic directors.
For the countries it covered, though, Cinema Asia is worth a watch, whether you’re after a chunk of historical context, a list of Films You Should See, or just a blizzard of clips and eye-candy.