Raindance film festival: Toxic Beauty & Mossville: When Great Trees Fall


Q & A with the director of Toxic Beauty


After seeing two powerful documentaries at the Raindance film festival, I thought to myself that we all have to be activists in this day and age. Recently when I met up with different friends, we would talk about how the world seems to be heading towards a ‘wrong direction’. We are now battling against numerous man-made issues like climate change, pollution, deforestation, inequality, sexual harassment, human rights, religious extremism, refugee crisis, terrorism… the list goes on. The problem is that most politicians in power are not interested in tackling these issues because they care more about staying in power and/or profit-making. When we look at all the leaders around the world today, it is rather depressing and it makes me wonder if our planet has a future.

I think all women need to watch Toxic beauty, a documentary by Canadian director, Phyllis Ellis. The film interviewed a group of women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer as a result of their lifelong use of Johnson & Johnson‘s talcum/baby powder. In recent years, the company has been clobbered by thousands lawsuits alleging that it was aware of the baby powder being contaminated with asbestos, a carcinogen. Although the company has has strongly denied those accusations, it has been paying out billions to settle different lawsuits, including $4.69bn to 22 women ordered by a Missouri jury last year. Coincidently, this week, the company recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder in the US, after health regulators found trace amounts of asbestos in a bottle purchased online. The scary thing is that ever since I was a child, this product has been a staple at my home. This was a family-friendly and reliable brand that consumers trusted, but sadly, it is no longer the case.


TOXIC BEAUTY Trailer from WhitePinePictures


Parallel to the baby powder cases, the film also asked a medical student and cosmetics lover Mymy Nguyen to embark on an experiment to first measure the chemical levels in her body when she used her regular cosmetic products, then without any, and finally replaced them with ‘cleaner’ alternatives. As you can guess, the toxic chemicals in her body dropped significantly when she stopped using her regular cosmetic products.

The slight consolation for people who do not live in the States is that the EU has stricter regulations than the FDA in the US. The EU law bans 1,328 chemicals from cosmetics that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects. Meanwhile, the FDA bans or restricts only 11 chemicals from cosmetics. But what is more shocking is that the FDA hasn’t updated its cosmetic regulations since 1938, and relies solely on the beauty companies to regulate themselves (?!).

There is a misconception that all natural ingredients are good and all chemical ingredients are bad, which is not true at all. There are many natural ingredients that can be harmful too, so we can’t just blindly trust all the so-called ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ brands. With so many new beauty brands claiming that they are ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’, it gets very confusing for consumers who want to change and go clean. Usually clean products are notable to be free of the following ingredients: parabens, phthalates, and sulfates etc, but since preservatives play a very important role in products containing water, the clean beauty companies would have to replace them with natural alternatives. Recently I have downloaded an US-based app called ‘Think dirty‘, which is quite useful as I can check the ingredients of many cosmetics and skincare products on this app. Just like the food we eat, what we use on our faces and bodies are equally important, so we must be more cautious and protect ourselves from the toxic chemicals that hidden inside our expensive lipstick or face cream.


“Mossville: When Great Trees Fall” from Fire River Films


There were not many people at the screening of this fantastic documentary, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, yet it was one of the best I saw at the film festival. The film is about environmental racism, and one man’s fight against the industrial cooperations that have destroyed his hometown. Mossville in Louisiana is a town with predominantly African American inhabitants for generations. It was founded by Jack Moss, an ex-slave, in 1790. Yet chemical pollution emitted by the 14 petrochemical plants in the area has destroyed the town and killed many of its residents including the parents of the film’s protagonist. The South African energy and chemical company Sasol is behind the $21.2 billion industrial project, and in order to expand its massive petrochemical plant, it has issued buyout offers to everyone in town. While everyone has moved away from the site, Stacey Ryan took a stand against this company and stood his ground. He fought hard to save his house despite all the harrassements he had to endure initiated by the company.

It was quite heartbreaking to watch how Ryan health deteriorated as the film progressed, yet he was defiant until the end. Although he did sign the deal at the end, I don’t think anyone would accuse him of giving in too soon! Not only he lost his house, family time, but most importantly, his health, and all the money he got from the buyout deal ended up going towards his medical bills. Tragic.

I am not sure why this film received little attention despite the fact that it had won many awards at different film festivals around the world. I wonder if the protagonist was white, would it be more talked-about? I am not a pessimist by nature, but I have become one when I look at the state of our world today. How many Greta Thunberg is needed to rescue our sick planet? If we continue to allow greedy and powerful coorperations/ governments to run the world, the future of the planet will be bleaker than ever. All of us now have no choice but to become an activist in our own right. It doesn’t have to be attending protests every week, just find a way that suits you, no matter how small the action is.


A visionary’s mind: Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum

stanley kubrick exhibition


Although I haven’t seen all the art and design exhibitions in London this year, but out of all the ones that I have seen, I would say the Stanley Kubrick exhibition is the cream of the crop (alongside with Christian Dior at the V & A); it is certainly the best exhibition that I have seen at the Design Museum.

The exhibition is dedicated to the fans of Kubrick, so if you have not seen his films, then you are unlikely to appreciate this exhibition. But as one of most iconic and revered directors of the last century, it would be odd to not have seen any of his films, unless you were born after 2000.


design museum


Initially, I was quite apprehensive about this exhibition, and I didn’t quite see the link between Stanley Kubrick and the Design Museum (I guess I saw him more as an artist). Yet the vast exhibition really blew me away since it enabled visitors to catch a glimpse of Kubrick‘s creative mind. As we all know, he was a perfectionist or so-called ‘obsessive’. Life is never easy being a perfectionist, because you would want to control everything; nothing is adequate enough, and you believe that there is always room for improvement. However, it was Kubrick‘s drive for perfectionism that provided his audiences some of the most mesmorising cinematic experiences of their lives.

I still remember the shock of watching the rape scene in ‘A clockwork orange’, and the anxiety felt when Danny was running away from Jack in the haunted hotel in ‘The shining’ (while feeling irritated by Wendy‘s screams). I didn’t quite understand ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the first time round because I was too young, but I was awed by his visions of the future when I watched it again (the restored version) a few years ago at the cinema.


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition


I had no idea that this exhibition had been touring around the world since 2004. It first started at Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, and has taken over 14 years to come to the country where Kubrick lived and worked for 38 years until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1999. It has been a long wait, but it was well worth it.

Curated by the museum’s curators with help from Pentagram’s designers, the huge archive was transported from Kubrick’s Hertfordshire home, where his wife still resides. With over 700 exhibits on display, including photographs, slides, cameras, lens, film posters, props, costumes, illustrations, sketches, personal letters, models, and storyboards etc; you could easily spend hours here and be astonished by the meticulous work that went on behind the scenes of all his films.


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


This comprehensive exhibition is almost overwhelming (in a good way) because there is a lot to take in… and when you see the attention to detail Kubrick applied to all his work, you would understand why he is considered as one of the greatest directors of all times. Unfortunately, we are now living in a fast-paced world where speed has become the priority, and this attitude has lowered the standards of everything around us. Perhaps Kubrick‘s work ethic can be seen as the antidote to our speed-driven society today.


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

Sketches of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) were sent to Stanley Kubrick, the original director and producer, but he later handed it to Steven Spielberg, and the film was made after his death


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition 

Spartacus (1960)


stanley kubrick exhibition Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975)


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

A Clockwork orange (1972)


Extensive research was crucial in all Kubrick‘s productions, and one of the most fascinating exhibits is the set of panorama photos of Commercial Road in East London (see below), which was originally considered as the location to recreate Greenwich Village in Manhattan for the set of ‘Eyes wide shut’. Although the majority of film ended up being shot in a studio, it was still amazing to see the scrupulous research done in preparation for the film.


stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

Eyes wide shut (1999)


stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

The Shining (1980)


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

Sketches for ‘Dr Strangelove’ (1964)


After seeing this exhibition, it made me want to watch his earlier and less well-known films, as well as rewatch his famous ones. I think that at different stages of our lives, we would interpret his films differently; but one thing for sure is that I am most likely to appreciate his work even more from now on.


stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition  stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

stanley kubrick exhibition

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)



Sustainable fashion and textiles – it’s not too late to change.

fashion from nature

fashion from nature  fashion from nature

Fashioned from Nature exhibition at The V & A museum


It is time to face the truth: the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. This is not fake news, it is a fact.

Confession 1: I am guilty of polluting the environment, and I have been doing it for decades without being fully aware of it. I think most of us have. Yet we cannot go on ignoring the consequences of our unintentional actions.

Confession 2: I have always loved fashion, and I even worked in the industry briefly in my 20s. I have bought countless of clothing and accessories at sales without wearing them, and I ended up selling most of my stuff on ebay or donating them to Oxfam.

fashion from nature symposium

fashion from nature

Fashioned from Nature: Designing a Sustainable Future conference at The V & A museum


Last year, I visited the Fashion from nature exhibition at The V & A museum and attended the Fashioned from Nature: Designing a Sustainable Future conference that accompanied the exhibition. Then back in Jan, I visited the Future Fabrics Expo orgainsed by the non-profit organisation, The Sustainable Angle. I figured that in order to be a better consumer/designer/retailer, I’d better educate myself first.

Over the last few years, I made a conscious decision to change the way I consume, and I went about it in several ways:

I unsubscribed myself from newsletters sent by most fashion companies, and I rarely go out to shop for clothing unless it is essential.

If I see fashion items I like in the shops or online, I would not buy immediately. I would wait a few weeks and if I love it THAT much, then I would check again to see if it is still available. Most of the time, the item would either be sold out or I have completely forgotten about it.

I always check the fabrics and materials. If you think cotton is good, think again. Cotton production actually requires huge quantities of land, water, fertilisers and pesticides, and has a negative impact on the environment. Organic cotton is a more eco-friendly option.

After I started to learn about natural dyeing, I became more aware of the negative impact that synthetic dyes have on the environment. Although natural dyed items requires a lot of water and are more expensive to produce, they are much preferable to the synthetic ones.

Go vintage… I rummaged around my wardrobe and found many hardly-worn items bought years ago that still look good today. Mixing old with new is what I like to do these days.

Mend or upcycle your clothing – I think it can be fun and creative. I have already put a pile of old cotton t-shirts aside to be dyed naturally. I can’t wait to redesign them!

Sell unwanted clothing and accessories online – I have been doing it for years and have sold many items that I no longer wear on ebay and other websites. If the item has sat in the wardrobe untouched for over 2 years, then it’s time to review it.

Buy good quality and timeless pieces that would not look outdated in 10 or even 20 years’ time. Luckily, I have never really been into fast fashion, so I have items from 10 to 15 years ago that I can still wear without cringing about them.

Buy from sustainable fashion brands that actually care about the environment and workers.

Last but not least – simply buy less.


future fabric expo

future fabric expo 19

future fabric expo 19

future fabric expo 19

future fabric expo 19


In the last few years, there are many interesting sustainable fashion brands that offer consumers alternative options, and even the big fast fashion brands are making changes or introducing new eco lines. Aside from pioneers like Stella McCartney, People Tree, Komodo and Patagonia, there are others like Bethany Williams, Aiayu, Ecoalf, Beaumont Organic, Thought, Armedangels, Lowie, Bibico, PIC style, Vildnis, EKO, G-Star Raw, King of Indigo, Lemuel MC and Veja… to name a few.


Bethany williams  aiayu

future fabric expo 19


You can also learn more about the issues and secrets of the fashion world through the following documentaries:

The true cost directed by Andrew Morgan.

Riverblue directed by David McIlvride and Roger Williams.

Dirty white gold directed by Lee Borromeo.

China Blue, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town trilogy and Bitter seeds are part of the Globalization trilogy directed by Micha Peled

The Machinists directed by Hannan Majid and Richard York

Machines directed by Rahul Jain

The next black on the future of fashion (free to watch)

Alex James: Slowing Down Fast Fashion

Stacey Dooley Investigates Fashions Dirty Secrets


It is never to late to change our buying habits, and if we all become more aware of what and how we consume, it will inevitably bring about changes and have a more positive impact on our planet.


Raindance & BFI film festivals 2017

anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar performing live for the 1928 Indian silent film – Shiraz: A romance of Indian at the Barbican


I saw 8 engrossing films and documentaries in total at the Raindance and BFI film festivals this year, and I feel that the overall standard of the films I saw this year is exceptionally high. Although I chose mostly documentaries, the few feature films I saw also deal with social and political issues that are important today. These are not big budget films, but they reflect more of what is happening in the world today than the big budget and rather unrealistic Hollywood films. Some of these films are grim and disturbing like “Venerable W”, but they are pertinent and they reveal in-depth stories that are often omitted from the news.


“The receptionist” is a low-budget drama based on a true event and it is directed by London-based Taiwanese director Jenny Lu. The film was shot mostly indoor – an illegal massage parlour where young Asian women work as prostitutes to support themselves and their families. It is depressing and realistic, but slightly too long. The acting from the almost-all-female cast is strong, except for the lead, whose face is not very expressive, and her inconsistent performance is a let down compare to the rest of the cast.

The film addresses issues of sex trafficking, exploitation, immigration, loss of innocence, and loneliness. Even though we might be aware of these issues, yet few of us are powerless to stop it, which makes it more saddening and bleak.


“The Receptionist” directed by Jenny Lu


Renown celebrity photographer Michael O’Neill started practising yoga after being told by doctors that he could never use his arm again. Not only did he managed to use yoga to fix his arm, he also became fascinated by this ancient practice. He spent 10 years photographing yoga masters and gurus for his book “On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace”. This documentary is based on the book, with Michael interviewing yogis, yoga practitioners, and spiritual teachers on life and death. I found some of the contents of these interviews very profound and inspiring. Perhaps it is time for people in the West to understand that there is no separation between the mind and the body – both are the same thing. And the practice of yoga is one of the many methods that can help us to reach our full potential and develop higher consciousness. This is a beautiful and poignant film.


“ON YOGA The Architecture of Peace” directed by Heitor Dhalia


What would you do if you discovered that your favourite aunt used to work as a secret agent for a dictator? Worse still, an agent who tortured innocent people and ultimately caused their deaths. “Adriana’s Pact” is a Chilean documentary made by Lissette Orozco, who initially embarked on this project hoping to prove her aunt’s innocence. After years of investigating, interviewing and filming, Lissette had to confront her worst fears – that her aunt might not be innocent after all. This first documentary by the young film maker is courageous and powerful. Sometimes life can be incredibly cruel, but it is also through the tough times that we find our true selves, even though we have to pay a high price for it.


“Adriana´s Pact” a documentary by Lissette Orozco


I have been practicing mediation and studying Buddhism (Soto zen for the last few years) for almost a decade now, yet sometimes I still feel reluctant to call myself a ‘Buddhist’. I felt quite disillusioned after spending 6 months going to a ‘cult-like’ Buddhist group, but meeting my current teacher changed everything. Buddhism is not a dogma, yet it hasn’t stopped different groups or leaders from turning it into a dogmatic practice. As in all religions, problems arise when people misinterpret the teachings and twist the meanings to suit their hidden agendas. And now, Buddhism’s non-violent reputation has been tainted by what is happening in Myanmar thanks to the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu.

This timely and disturbing documentary by Barbet Schroeder is the last of his “Trilogy of Evil” series. It is shocking to see how one monk could incite some much racial hatred towards the Muslims in his country. It also shows that Buddhism is not exempt from violence, brainwashing, and the craving and abuse of power.

Unfortunately, the West had projected too much of their hopes onto Aung San Suu Kyi (who has little real political power) and now they are bitterly disappointed and are lining up to condemn her. I think the political situation is more complex than we could comprehend, and I don’t think she has the power to end this horrific atrocity.

Myanmar is a beautiful country and yet it has endured so much political unrest throughout its history. Is this its fate? Suddenly, I remember our friendly vegetarian young Buddhist driver from Mandalay telling us in broken English that he dislikes Muslims because they are not like Buddhists. Watching the film gave me the chills, while the words of the driver echoed quietly in my mind.


“Venerable W” – a documentary directed by Barbet Schroeder


I have always been fascinated by Iranian films, especially films by the late Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaaf, and Asghar Farhadi. And I would love to watch some oldies from the pre-revolutionary period.

Israfil” is the third feature by the female writer and director Ida Panahandeh. It focuses on the lives of two women and how they are intertwined through a man they are/were involved with. The film revolves around grief, loneliness, family responsibilities, loss, and love. It is particularly interesting to see an Iranian film directed by a female director as it is not very common in Iran. Without consciously aware of it, 50% of the films I picked were written and directed by female directors. I didn’t choose them for this reason, but it appears that women are quietly making their footprints in the global film-making world, which I think is very encouraging.


“Israfil” – a film directed by Ida Panahandeh

Chinese cinema has evolved a lot over the last few decades, and this subdued, understated and eloquent film is quite distinct from other contemporary Chinese films. It is the second feature by female writer/director/producer Vivian Qu, and it focuses on two teenage protagonists, who both delivered convincing performances.

I saw the powerful Chinese documentary last year – “Hooligan Sparrow” (I then wrote a blog entry here) – and this film address the same issue: government officials sexually assaulting children and using bribery to cover their crimes. The timing of the film is apt, as it was shown during the week when Harvey Weinstein’s sex scandal broke out. It turns out that Hollywood is not so different from the Chinese officials depicted in this film.

I think the laidback and dreamy seaside setting works well in this film, as it acts as a sharp contrast to the dark subject matter. Yet the most devastating aspect is that the film is based on true events, and there are countless of child victims and voiceless families in China that would never see justice being served. Whether you live in a capitalist or communist society, it is money and power that talk. End of story.


“Angels wear white” – a film directed by Vivian Qu


“Becoming who I was” is my favourite film at the two festivals. It is a simple story/ documentary of a young Buddhist boy (who claims to be a reincarnated rinpoche from Tibet in his previous life) and his relationship with his godfather/teacher/guardian. It took South Korean directors/producer/cinematographer, Chang-Yong Moon and Jin Jeon, 8 years to shoot the film. The result is a stunning, touching and authentic film. The love between the boy and his teacher is palpable and moving, and I could see both men and women next to and in front of me wiping off their tears at the end. The ending is heart-breaking and yet very positive. Since there is no ‘acting’ involved, it makes the film more endearing. The young rinpoche is cute, smart, playful, and a delight to watch. While I watched the children playing in the snow, I realised that these children are more innocent and happier than the ones living in the wealthy first world countries who are surrounded by materialistic things. If you don’t believe the saying: “money can’t buy you happiness”, then I urge you to watch this film.


“Becoming Who I Was” – a documentary directed by Chang-Yong Moon and Jin Jeon


Last but not least was the special archive gala screening of the Indian silent film “Shiraz: A romance of India” (1928) at the Barbican, with live film score by Anoushka Shankar and her team of musicians. The film was painstakingly restored to its full glory by the BFI restoration team, and I think the set designs and cinematography are exquisite. The Anglo/German/Indian production is unlike the Bollywood films we see today, and it was further elevated by the mesmerising East-meets-West music.


Hooligan Sparrow

hooligan sparrow

The Chinese human rights activist Ye Haiyan


Last week I attended the opening night of the Human Rights watch film festival to watch a new documentary called ‘Hooligan Sparrow‘ by young Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang.

The filmmaker originally wanted to make a film about the abuse of sex workers in China, but ended up filming and following a group of activists – including the prominent human rights activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow) – who were involved in protests over child sex abuse allegations in 2013. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, the filmmaker had to smuggle the film out of China, and she may have to face the possible consequences of not being able to return to her homeland after this.

Most of us living outside of China are aware of their human rights issues, but we are probably unaware of the extend and the acuteness of this issue. This film highlights the injustices that are happening in China today; it is shocking, distressing, and so compelling that I was almost moved to tears at the end. The ghastly tyrant state described in George Orwell‘s famous dystopian novel ‘1984’ is not dissimilar to the current Chinese Government. The secret surveillance, deception, use of power and harassment are all depicted in the film as the filmmaker dwelt deeper into the issue. This film, I suspect, is unlikely to be released in China for obvious reasons.

I have never walked up to a filmmaker at any film screening before, but I did it at the reception after the screening. I wanted to congratulate the courageous young filmmaker for making this significant documentary, which I think needs to be seen by the world and especially by ordinary Chinese citizens. Human tragedies – like the case where young girls were raped by their school’s headmaster in Hainan – could happen to ordinary Chinese citizens at anytime, hence they need to realise that their lives are at stake, and it is unlikely that their government would be on their sides when shit hits the fan!



I am not sure if human rights lawyers like Wang Yu (one of the activists in the film) could predict their future i.e. imprisonment when they first embarked on their career. Instead of prosecuting the criminals, the lawyers are the ones who get arrested by the state; justice in China is such an ironic term.

The filmmaker told me that she is trying her best to get the film screened globally including Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I hope she will succeed. This film is not just about human rights, it is about the bravery and determination of a group of human beings who are willing to sacrifice their lives for justice, equality and freedom of speech. Sometimes fate and circumstances can turn ordinary citizens into ‘accidental heroes’, and when this happens, you have no choice but to keep fighting.


Hong Kong International film festival 2015

While in Hong Kong, two major culture festivals were taking place, so I took the opportunity to attend the Hong Kong Arts Festival, where I saw a China and Hong Kong collaborative play ‘The Crowd‘ and listened to traditional Korean music reinterpreted by contemporary groups Jeong Ga Ak Hoe & Su:m.

However, as I am a foreign documentary and film buff, my favourite annual festival is no doubt the Hong Kong International film festival. Since the ticket prices at this festival were much cheaper than the one in London (about 1/2 the price), I could easily watch a bundle without breaking the bank, though my only limitation was time!

Here are the ones I saw at the festival:

A Pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (Sweden/Norway/France/Germany) Directed by Roy Andersson (2014)

Eccentric Swedish director Roy Andersson‘s latest film is the final one of his Living Trilogy; and it is bizarre, beguiling, dark and fun. There are multiple stories (and layers), and nothing is what it appears on the surface. It is impossible to write about it nor even make much sense out of it, but the experience is utterly mesmorising.


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Trailer) from Roy Andersson 


Borderless (Iran) – directed by Amir Hossein Asgari (2014)

This film won the ‘Best Asian Future Film Award’ at Tokyo International Film Festival, and it was one of my favourites at the festival. The film is gripping, powerful and it is accompanied by outstanding (and non self-conscious) acting. The young boy (central character) effortlessly steals the show. At the Q & A, the director mentioned that he shot the film without the kids realising it, hence he was able to capture the kids’ most natural state. This is a tremendous triumph for the director as it is his first feature length film.


Borderless Trailer from TaaT Films


Ixcanul Volcano (Guatemala/France) – directed by Jayro Bustamante (2015)

One of the reasons why I love foreign cinema is because it can broaden my horizon and enable me to understand different cultures around the globe. This simple fable-like story on a young teenage girl is set in the the Guatemalan highlands near the volcano; it is low-key, refreshing and eye-opening esp. regarding the superstitions and rituals of the Indigenous culture. This film also won the ‘Alfred Bauer Award’ at the Berlin International film festival.


Ixcanul Film Trailer from Archipel Productions


Sworn Virgin (Italy/Albania) – Directed by Laura Bispuri (2015)

Another intriguing story (based on a novel of the same name) about a woman from the highlands, and this time, she is a ‘sworn virgin’ from Albania. Played by well-known Italian actress, Alba Rohrwacher (who somehow resembles Tilda Swinton), the film is a sensitive study of her self discovery. The actress’ subdued acting is convincing despite her feminine facial features. Nonetheless, it is the subject matter that really fascinates me esp. after finding out that there are only around 100 sworn virgins left in the world now!


Sworn virgin trailer from ERAFILM ALBANIA


ATA (China) – Directed by Chakme Rinpoche (2014)

The sole reason that I picked this film was because it was directed by a Tibetian lama Chakme Rinpoche, who is also the ninth incarnation of Gyalwa Cho Yang. The title ATA comes from Sanskrit, which means “to heal the pain”. The film is about a blind boy and his single mother’s dream for him to become a ping-pong champion. And it is only until the boy vanishes one day that the mother begins to understand his world.

The film is beautifully shot with an emphasis on lighting. The message of the film is subtle and yet insightful; however, it did not touch me on the same level as the other films did at the festival. I found it hard to develop strong empathy for the mother, and I felt quite detached throughout the film. Despite the good intention and effort, I was slightly disappointed with the director’s first feature film.



The look of silence (Denmark/Indonesia) – directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (2014)

American director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s ‘Act of killing’ is one of the most powerful and harrowing documentaries that I have seen in recent years. This second companion piece is equally haunting, and again it probes the nature, conscience and morality of human beings. In human history, there had been numerous genocides that took place, some were commemorated, while others were forgotten. In Indonesia, most of the government officials and perpetrators would use propanganda to make the public forget. It is horrific that all the these perpetrators dismissed past events, and insisted on looking to the future!

Both Oppenheimer‘s documentaries are important not only for the relatives of victims, but they also act as reminders that by choosing not to confront history or our past actions, they will continue to haunt us (even on a subconscious level) and history may repeat itself unless we are conscious of our actions and behaviour.


The Look Of Silence / Teaser from Intermission Film


Jia Zhangke: A guy from Fenyang (France) – Directed by Walter Salles (2015)

Jia Zhangke is regarded as the leading figure of the ‘Sixth Generation’ movement of Chinese cinema. My initial encounter with the director’s work was ‘Still life’ in 2006, and have watched several others since then. This documentary made by Brazilian director Walter Salles is warm, captivating and it reveals Jia‘s struggle as an uncompromising director working in China today. Jia comes across as mild, down to earth and introverted, yet he is also an artist who is passionate about storytelling and documenting social issues that affect his country today. Not only I have great respect for the director, and I am eager to watch his earlier works like ‘Platform’ and ‘Unknown pleasures’ if I can get hold of them.


I am the people/ Je suis le peuple (France) – Directed by Anna Roussillion (2014)

An intelligent and insightful documentary on Egypt’s political changes in past few years, seen from the perspective of villagers from a rural countryside. Despite all the turmoil taking place in the country, life goes on as usual for these poor villagers. It is fascinating and compelling. This film also won the documentary award at the film festival.


The London Korean Film Festival

10 minutes


A while back I wrote about the Japanese soft power on the world, but within the last decade, the world has witnessed how South Korea managed to conquer the world through technology, design, cosmetics (including surgeries) and pop culture in a relatively short period of time. The transformation is staggering because South Korea was never seen as ‘cool’ in the region; Japan was the trendsetter for decades, then one day it lost its crown… It shows what determination and investments could do to a nation that needed an image fix.

Not only Korean soap operas are hugely popular in Asia (and surprisingly, in Cuba), Korean cinema has also been gaining international acclaim and respect since the late 1990s. And this year at the 9th The London Korean Film Festival, it is the biggest yet (you can tell by the thick brochure) showcasing 55 films including a special focus on one of the most well-known and controversial director Kim Ki-Duk.

I only picked three films due to my schedule, but hopefully, I can watch more on DVD in the future. The first film I saw was “10 minutes”, directed by Lee Yong-seung about a hard-working university student’s nightmare-ish internship at a government office. For those who have worked as an intern or junior staff in an Asian office environment would certainly resonate with the character. The film reveals the Korean/Asian working culture which is not often depicted in Asian films, but at times I found myself feeling frustrated by the main character’s behaviour. The film is engaging, but I feel that it lacks surprises, and the opening ending is unnecessary because my empathy for the character is not strong enough, so this ending is more of an anticlimax for me.



The second docufilm “Manshin: Ten thousand spirits” is directed by artist and documentary maker Park Chan-kyong, the younger brother of the famous director Park Chan-Wook (famous for Oldboy). It is a part documentary and part biopic of Korea’s ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ – Kim Geum-hwa, a National Shaman.

I knew nothing about Korean shamanism before I saw the film; it was fascinating to witness the rituals and see how this tradition has survived and evolved over decades. However, the film is essentially about one woman, the strong-willed and slightly mischievous shaman and her adventurous and dangerous life. The film is visually enticing and very well-edited; the character is played by three actresses, but the shaman also appears in the film along with some rare archival footage. But the film is also about Korea’s history and culture, and at the Q & A after the screening, the director commented that he wanted young Korean people to be interested in the traditional culture again. However, he didn’t want to make ‘judgements’ on this tradition, so the film invites the audience to judge for themselves. This is a colourful and compelling film, but most importantly, it is a story about courage, survival and human nature.



The last film “Bitter, Sweet, Seoul” is the world’s first crowd sourced documentary sponsored by the Seoul government and helmed by brothers Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong (using the name PARKing CHANce). With over 11,852 submissions from the public, the directors eventually used 154 clips and edited down to an hour.

The documentary is about Seoul, and if you have been to Seoul you would know that this large metropolis has many sides to it. The title suggests that although Seoul is often depicted as a modern, high-tech and wealthy city, it also has its darker side and a bitter history. The film doesn’t try to sugarcoat the city, it includes archival footage of past historical events, as well as interviews of tourists, expats and locals. It is extremely hard to create an ‘authentic’ portrait of a city in a promotional film, so finding a balance and being objective is very important.

At the Q & A after the screening, director Park Chan-kyong revealed the challenges they had to overcome in editing the vast amount of material (and I am not surprised). But I think the hard work has paid off and the directors have done a brilliant job in capturing the different faces of the city and the people who make this city special.

The film is also available to watch via Youtube:




BFI London Film Festival 2014

I am not sure how other film buffs pick their choices at the BFI London Film Festival, but usually by the time I finish ‘studying’ the brochure, all the films that I intend to see would sell out!

Like always, I would pick the less popular films or films that are less unlikely to be screened in the cinemas. This year, I picked 2 feature films, 1 documentary and 1 docudrama.

Another Year – I have seen many masterful but mostly bleak and somber films made by Russian filmmakers, so I was interested to see a film set in contemporary Moscow about a young married couple directed by Oxana Bychkova. Based on a play, the film is essentially a modern-day love story, but it is realistic and depicts the vulnerability of relationships in this day and age. The film’s young newlyweds are not only different in personalities, but they are pursuing different goals in life. Slowly, we see the breakdown of their marriage due to increasing conflicts. The film also reveals the hipster lifestyle of 20-somethings in Moscow, which is not so different from London, Paris or New York. It shows how globalisation has changed our world. Aside from being slightly too long, the film is engaging, realistic, but not grim. The acting is natural and convincing esp. by the lead actress. If you are interested in contemporary Russian cinema, then this film is certainly worth watching.


Another year/ Esche odin god (2014)


Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait – Some documentaries are not made for comfortable viewing, they are made to tell the world what is going on in the forbidden or war-torn zones where outsiders cannot reach. Before seeing this film, I was prepared for it to be harrowing and gory, but it is actually more distressing than I had expected.

Directed, edited and narrated by Syrian director Ossama Mohammed (now an exile in Paris), with music by Noma Omran, most of the footage in the documentary is provided by a Kurdish young woman Wiam Simav Bedirxan based in Homs. The footage is not shot in high quality, most of the time it is blurry, shaky and frantic, but it does not diminish the content, in fact, it enhances the urgency and desperation of the filmmaker.

Most of us are aware of the civil war going on in Syria for the last few years via the media, yet it’s hard to understand the scope and exigency until you watch this documentary. I am aware that sometimes documentaries can be quite biased, but I think this film’s aim is to reveal the horrors and brutality of this ongoing war. Instead of a few minutes of air time on the news, we see faces of innocent children, soldiers, dead people (including babies and children), injured animals and grief-stricken civilians. The courage of the Kurdish young filmmaker is admirable, and if it wasn’t for her bravery, this film would never have been made. This film won The Grierson Award for the best documentary at the film festival, and it needs to be watched by more people even if it is raw and unbearable. Yet this is the true face of war, and the most tragic of all is that there is no foreseeable end to this conflict.


Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014)


Walking under water – This beautifully-shot docudrama is written and directed by Polish artist-turned director Eliza Kubarska (her first feature film). The film is about the Badjao tribe, a group of sea gypsies living in Borneo with no nationalities nor rights nor stable homes. They are exceptional free divers, yet their unique way of life is threatened with extinction. The film follows a compressor diver (the only one left in their tribe), and his young nephew who loves the sea and wants to learn more from his uncle.

The cinematography is stunning, and it is fascinating to watch the simple life that the Badjao tribe live. Yet their struggle with modern civilisation and the threat of tourism mean that they are unlikely to survive if they continue to live in their traditional way.

The director and producer are now raising fund to help build a school for the Badjao kids, so you can pledge your support via their website above.


Walking under water (2014)


Flowers (Loreak) – Of all the film I saw at the festival, this Basque film that links the lives of three women by the presence of flowers is my favourite. I was also glad to hear the two directors Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga talk at Q & A session afterward the screening.

This is a very intelligent, sensitive, subtle, and insightful film on women, human nature, memories and bereavement (the two male directors seem to understand women very well). The flower motif is a clever metaphor and tactfully used in this film. As the director mentioned at the Q & A, a bunch of flowers can bring joy to one person, yet it can be threatening to another. As with memory, one person tries to forget ends up remembering and another who tries to remember ends of forgetting. Life is full of irony and unpredictable circumstances, and most of the time, we are not in control of what is happening to us. Sometimes we try to escape or forget, and sometimes we cling onto memories or hope.

I felt very touched by this film, and I like the fact that it is full of suspense, which makes you keep wondering what will happen next. It is well crafted with excellent performances by the entire cast. The film also question people’s perception, we often judge at face value, yet this can be wrong as we only see partial of the story. I highly recommend this film if you can get a chance to see it.


Flowers/ Loreak

London design festival 14: V & A Museum

Zaha Hadid's Crestcrest by Zaha Hadid carousel wall

Top & bottom left: Crest by Zaha Hadid Architects; Bottom right: Carousal wall by David David and Johnson Tiles


Another year, another design festival… unlike the previous years, I didn’t have the time to do much planning beforehand, so I missed many talks especially at the V & A because they were booked up very quickly.

Judging from the ever-growing festival, it’s not hard to tell the design industry means big business (even their booklet is much bigger and heavier this year). A few years ago, media coverage focused mostly on the London fashion week (which takes place at the same time), but this year, the London design festival received almost the same amount of coverage and attention as the fashion week thanks to the marketing and PR team.

V & A museum has been the hub of the festival for as long as I can remember, and it is always interesting to see site-specific installations by international designers/artists at the museum.

One of the main attraction is Zaha Hadid Architects‘ ‘Crest’ in The John Madejski Garden, commissioned by Melia Hotels International ( the sculpture will stay there until 24th October, then it will be installed as a permanent feature within the ME Hotel in Dubai). The shell-like aluminium structure works surprisingly well with the historical architectural environment, it reflects the sky, the water and the movements surrounding it. It’s a shame that this installation will find its permanent elsewhere!


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Top and 2nd row left: Barber & Osgerby‘s ‘Double Space for BMW: Precision & Poetry in Motion; 2nd row middle: Kyouei Design’s Magnetic Field Record; 2nd row right & bottom: 3D fabric installation Dream-Land by The T/shirt issue


Another major installation is Barber & Osgerby‘s ‘Double Space for BMW: Precision & Poetry in Motion’ (until 24th October), a kinetic sculpture that creates an immersive experience for the viewers in the Raphael Gallery. The two huge mirrored panels, constructed like an aircraft wing, have one flat side and one convex side, and they would rotate slowly above the viewers. There was a lot of hype about this installation before it was revealed, but I felt slightly underwhelmed by it as the installation reminds me of some large distorted mirrors except that it costs a lot more to produce. Although it is an interesting experience to view the gallery in a new perspective, personally, I think French designers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec‘s ‘Textile Field‘ (2011) worked better in this gallery space.


The wish list The wish listThe wish listThe wish list The wish listThe wish list The wish list

The wish list project – Top left: Zaha Hadid & Gareth Neal’s wooden tableware; Top right: Terence Conran & Sebastian Cox’s Cocoon office; 2nd row left: Paul Smith & Nathalie de Leval’s garden shed; 3rd row left: Richard Rogers and Xenia Moseley’s special ladder; 3rd row right: Alex de Rijke and Barnby & Day’s round laminated dining table; Bottom: Norman Foster & Nori Matsamoto’s pencil sharpeners


The Wish List is a collaboration project between 10 top designers/ architects and 10 emerging design talents. Each pair would work together to design and produce something they have always wanted, but never been able to find. The final pieces can be seen at the museum until 24th October.

Elsewhere at the museum, there are also various exhibitions including Disobedient objects(until 1st Feb 2015), ‘A world to win: posters of protest and revolution’ (until 2nd Nov)and ‘Shakespeare: Greatest living playwright’ (until 28th Sept).


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Top row: ‘Disobedient objects’ exhibition; Posters from ‘A world to win: posters of protest and revolution’ exhibition; The rest: ‘Shakespeare: Greatest living playwright’ exhibition


While I was at the museum, I attended a screening and Q & A session of a digital project called ‘1000 Londoners‘ produced by Chocolate films. The aim of the project is to improve understanding and community cohesion by enabling Londoners to learn more about the people who share their city.

Each week, a profile of a Londoner is posted on their home page. The profile contains a 3 minute film that gives an insight into the life of the Londoner, as well as their own personal photos of London and some answers to crucial questions about their views on London life.
At the screening, 10 short films were selected featuring London designers/ designer makers of various disciplines. I like the concept a lot, and the fact that some of the films selected are via open submissions and competitions. If you are a Londoner, and would like to get involved in the project or learn more about other Londoners, then check out their website above to find out more.

Street life in Paris



This summer, a few overseas friends who visited both Paris and London told me that they enjoyed London much more than Paris. When I asked them the reasons, they said that the streets of Paris feel unsafe and chaotic, whereas London feels more vibrant and safer. I wasn’t surprised by this as I have also noticed that Paris is not what it used to be anymore, hence, I have not had the urge to cross the Channel in the last two years. Interestingly, new figures also suggest that London has beaten Paris, to become the world’s most popular city for tourists.

However, Paris is still one of most beautiful cities in the world and it is always inspirational, so it would hard for me to stay away from it for long. And since I know the city quite well, I try to stay away from touristy spots, so my experiences would most likely differ from my friends’. And somehow, as a Londoner, I feel the need to defend Paris because I think the city still has certain characteristics and charms that London lacks…

First of all, I think Paris is a more walkable city than London because it is much smaller and easier to navigate. I love walking in Paris because it is like a living museum. Aside from the beautiful historical architecture and inspiring shop window display, you can always find something intriguing on the streets including the following:

Art & dogs – Random art pieces (see above) and anything related to dogs…


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People – Parisians are actually not as unfriendly as people imagine, in fact, I have come across many friendly people. And for me, the best places for people watching are food markets and parks…




Architecture & landmarks – On the surface, historical buildings seem to dominate Paris’ cityscape, yet new contemporary architecture is being added ‘discreetly’ in recent years. However, these new buildings are not as obvious and as imposing as the ones in London, you will need to seek out them out amongst the old (which I will write about in one of my next few entries)…


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Markets – I love food markets esp. in Paris where I can spend hours just wandering… I love the colours, smell, variety of food on offer and the interactions between shoppers and with the stall vendors…


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Graffiti and street art– In one of my old entries, I have mentioned about Paris’ graffiti and street art scene, and like London, it is now part of the urban landscape. Nuisance or art, it’s up to you to decide…


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Not only Paris has more elegant looking Vélib’ bikes ( compare to Boris‘ more masculine bikes in London) with their bike sharing scheme, they also have Autolib‘, an electric car sharing service that was launched as a complement to Vélib’ in 2011 ( a scheme which will also be introduced in London soon). With the wide boulevards, Paris streets are definitely safer to cycle than London, though what you need to be careful of is the mad and quick-tempered drivers!


paris parisparis parisparis paris


On a more serious note, both London and Paris have their issues of homelessness. While the British government has recently launched ‘stricter’ rules to combat the issue due to an increase of Eastern Europeans entering the country; the French Government has adopted a more tolerant attitude and so homelessness is becoming more problematic all over France.

It is hard to avoid begging gypsies with their young children in the centre of Paris, and even temporary street dwellings are on the rise. According to a memorial book compiled by campaign group “Les Morts de la Rue” (Dead in the Streets), a total of 453 homeless people died on the streets of France last year, and the numbers are likely to increase unless some drastic measures are put in place to tackle the problem.

This issue has even been highlighted in a multi-award winning short film directed by Bernard Tanguy. Je pourrais être votre grandmère ( I could be your grandmother) is inspired by a true story of a young business lawyer, Joël Catherin, who helped and wrote hundreds of cardboard signs for the homeless people in his posh Paris neighbourhood. You can watch the short film below (though there is no English subtitles):


Je pourrais être votre grand-mère (2010), directed by Bernard Tanguy


To be continued…