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)



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.


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.


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

Hong Kong International film festival 2014

The 38th Hong Kong’s International film festival took place from 24th March to 7th April, and I was able to see some films that are yet to be released or may not even get general releases.

As always, with so many films and limited time, it was hard to narrow the selection down. I wanted to see about 20 films but ended up with 9 only and here are some of my favourites:


Jodorowsky’s Dune

As a fan of art house and foreign films, I was a bit surprised not to have heard of the Paris-based Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky before the film festival. And having seen Dune before, I remembered clearly that it ( a commercial and critical flop) was made by David Lynch and not Jodorowsky. Out of curiosity I booked a double bill to see both Jodorowsky‘s new film followed by this documentary, and I was quite blown away by what I saw.

Directed by Frank Pavich, this documentary is about a vision of an artist and the most influential and ambitious film that was never made. I am sure like everyone else who saw this would wonder, “what if this film was actually made? Would it have been as successful as Star Wars or as disastrous as David Lynch’s Dune?”. Yet even though it was never made, the creative team Jodorowsky had assembled for the film, including Moebius and Swiss artist H. R. Giger (who died last week) brought their ideas and visuals to films like Star Wars, Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jodorowsky himself is a passionate, eccentric and inspiring character, and the reason why I have never heard of him was because he has not made a film for the last 23 years. The documentary’s director attended the Q & A session, and answered many audience’s questions including the whereabouts of the mysterious storyboards that thought to have indirectly inspired other directors. Twenty copies of the hefty art book were produced to show to potential backers, and now only two are known to exist, so what happened to the rest? Like the fate of the film, we shall never know.



The Dance of Reality

La danza de la realidad ( its Spanish title) is based on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiography of the same name. Not only this is Jodorowsky’s first film is 23 years, it is also co-produced by former Dune producer, Michel Seydoux whom he hasn’t been in touch with for 35 years. Thanks to Pavich‘s documentary on Dune, the two old friends reunited and broke the silence after all these years. Interestingly, the actor who plays Jodorowsky‘s father is his real son, Brontis and Alejandro plays a small part as himself.

This film has to be one of the most bizarre, surreal, dark, comical and beautiful films that I have ever seen. I would love to see Jodorowsky direct my favourite novel by Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, which I think shares many similar qualities as this film. Jodorowsky is an artist, and this film is a peek into his artistic mind. It is not without flaws ( I think 130 mins is too long), but it is not to admire the director’s creativity, passion and courage to be so ‘open’ about his past and relationship with his father. The film is made for ‘himself’ rather than aiming to please the audience, I wonder how many working directors are able to do this these days? Being true to your own vision and going against the grain is never easy, but sometimes it is the only way to find peace within yourself.




Directed by Hong Khaou, and starring Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei Pei, this low-budget BBC productio set in London is a sensitive and touching story on grief, communication and human relationships. It is rather slow paced but there are many funny moments, mostly provided by Peter Bowles. The performances by the two leads are excellent, esp. Whishaw, who is very convincing and shows great depth and vulnerability that is rare to find on screen in today’s macho culture.



Blind massage

Directed by prominent Chinese director Ye Lou, this film is based on a novel by Bi Feiyu about a group of blind masseurs/masseuses working and living together in a Nanjing massage centre. The film reveals issues that the sight-impaired have to deal with on daily basis, including emotional, financial and sexual ones. Although some of the actors are sightless, most of the leads are not, yet the acting is convincing and captivating. My only complaint would be some of the over-dramatic/gruesome scenes, I am not sure if they are necessary apart from making the viewers feel uneasy. But the overall tone and pace work well, and the cinematography is creative and at times allow the viewers to ‘sense’ the impaired vision.



Journey to the West

After the disappointing ‘Face (Visage)’, I was a bit hesitate about seeing Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming Liang‘s new film. Luckily this new documentary is not only intriguing, it is imaginative, meditative, and beautifully shot. Inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who trekked from China to India for 17 years in the seventh-century. The documentary follows a Buddhist monk ( played by his long-term collaborator/real-life partner, Lee Kang-sheng) practising walking meditation in different parts of Marseille. For about an hour, viewers follow the monk around the city, and get a glimpse of the city life, its people and their reactions (or non-reactions) towards the monk. Tsai‘s slow-paced directing style is not for everyone, but I found it quite insightful and fascinating and I can’t wait to watch his previous award-winning feature film, Stray Dogs.



Villa 69

Directed by Ayten Amin, Villa 69 is Egyptian drama about illness, death, memories and intimacy. Shot entirely in an old but beautifully-designed house, the film follows Hussein, a terminally-ill man who chooses to live (while waiting to die) in isolation. His life is turned upside down when his sister and her teenage son move in regardless of his objection. Egyptian heart-throb and activist, Khaled Abu Al Naja (still good-looking and charming beneath the make-up) plays a role who is about 20 years older than his actual age, but manages to deliver a convincing portrait of a grumpy, lonely, eccentric, snobbish and charismatic man. However, I wonder if his role is played by someone less good-looking and charming, would the audience still be as sympathetic towards his character? I think Khaled is very good actor, but he is probably a miscast in this film… Since I am not familiar with the Egyptian cinema scene, I would pick someone like Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley or Om Puri (British Asian) as the Western equivalents for this role. Khaled is simply too ‘perfect’ for this!




BFI London film festival 2013

October is a month full of cultural activities in London, not only there is a dozen or so art fairs for art lovers, but there is also the London film festival for film lovers. With so many films to choose from, it was almost impossible to choose just a handful… after spending hours/ days going back and forth, I finally picked several feature films and documentaries that brought me to India, Poland, Russia, Germany and Laos ( all in a week’s time).

Interestingly, out of the five films I picked, two of them won the best film ( Ida) and documentary ( My fathers, my mother and me) awards at the festival, so I guess the hours spent on studying the brochure paid off!

Here are the five films I saw at the festival:



Siddharth is film inspired by a true event in India directed by Canadian director, Richie Mehta. It tells a moving tale of a man searching for his 12-year old son who went missing after he was sent to work ( by the father) as a child labour in another city. The film reveals many social issues in India today: poverty, child labour, abducting and trafficking of children etc, and the saddest part is that we all know that this man’s tale is not the first and will not be the last. A very well acted, well paced and genuine film.



My personal favourite at the festival was The Rocket, directed by Australian director ( also a documentary maker), Kim Mordaunt. Set in Laos, the film is about a ‘cursed’ boy’s adventures after him and his family were evicted because of a new dam project. It is a very heart-warming story that I find quite inspiring, and the setting of Laos makes the film even more special. It was also intriguing to hear the director spoke about his casting choices and experience filming in Laos at the Q & A afterwards.



“Ida” is one of the most beautifully shot film that I have seen for years! Set in Poland during the 60s, the film was shot entirely in black and white, which worked amazingly well with two sensitive subject matters: religion and the Holocaust. Directed by U.K.-based Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski, the film is sublime, well-acted, subtle and yet powerful, a well-deserved best film winner.



“My fathers, my mother and me” examines the controversial sex commune in Friedrichshof founded by Austrian artist Otto Muehl in 1972. The documentary’s director, Paul-Julien Robert spent 12 years of his childhood there and in the documentary, he revisits his former “home”, interviews his childhood friends, potential and biological fathers and confronts his own mother. Some of the footage from commune’s archive is quite shocking. It is a courageous, horrific and devastating documentary, and the Q & A with the director after the screening brought more insight to the whole saga and its effect had on the victims.



“Pipeline” is a documentary directed by Vitaly Mansky, focusing on Russia’s Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhhorod pipeline, which transports gas from Western Siberia to Western Europe. The film has no real narrative, it simply follows and examines different people/ communities on route. Although the subject is interesting and the cinematography is impressive, it was difficult to engage fully and sit through it for over two hours ( some even walked out of the cinema). A slightly disappointing one out of all the films I saw at the festival, despite its well intention.



I really wanted to see “Like father like son” at the festival, a film directed by Hirokazu Koreeda who is regarded as one of the best Japanese directors working today. But knowing that it is going to be shown right after the festival, I waited and watched it afterwards, and I was completely blown away by it. Aside from sobbing away at various moments during the film, I also felt quite emotional after the viewing. The only flaw of the film is that it is slightly too long, otherwise, it would be almost flawless ( though I am aware that this film is not everyone’s cup of tea). It is subtle, insightful, sensitive, heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, and the acting is natural ( the kid Keita is just too adorable) and convincing.

I would include this in my top four favourite films of the year, along with The Rocket, Before Midnight, The act of killing and Go Grandriders. If you have not seen it, go and see it, but be sure to bring some tissue with you.


Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013

With so many film festivals taking place in London all the time, it’s hard to keep up with all of them. I recently found out about the Terracotta Far East Film Festival despite it is already in its 5th year.

The festival showcases a range of current films from different parts of Asia with a special spotlight on Indonesia this year, as well as a special memorial section honouring the two Hong Kong superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui who both passed away 10 years ago ( Rouge is a daunting love story with outstanding performances esp. from Anita Mui, who subsequently won several best actress awards for her role in the region).

Last night, I attend the first UK screening of Sang Penari (The Dancer) with a Q & A with the director Ifa Isfansyah. I am not familiar with Indonesian films, so this was an eye-opening experience for me especially to learn about its traditional culture and dark political past. This beautiful, brave and engaging film was inspired by rather than adapted from ( as the director said at the Q & A) an Indonesian trilogy novel by Ahmad Tohari titled ‘ Paruk Village’s Ronggeng’ (or Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk). The film was not a box-offfice hit in Indonesia and many scenes were cut due to its political subject and sexual content. Despite this, the film received critical acclaim and received several top awards at the 2011 Indonesian Film Festival. Here is the trailer of the film:


Sang Penari (The Dancer)


There are a few more Indonesian film being shown until 15th June, so don’t miss out on this rare opportunity to see more films made from this part of the world.


The return of Taiwanese cinema

Taiwanese cinema enjoyed its peak from the early 80s until mid 90s. This was the New Wave and second New Wave period during which many talented directors made their marks. Apart from the art house cinema’s favourite, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, there are also Wu Nien-jen, Tsai Ming-liang,now the most famous Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, and my personal favourite, Edward Yang.

Unfortunately, Taiwanese film industry went into decline from mid 90s onwards due to foreign competitions, piracy and simply a change of the audiences’ taste. Finally, in the last few years, several local films like Cape No. 7, Monga, Seediq Bale and You Are the Apple of My Eye etc were able to enjoy huge box office successes in Taiwan ( and even in Hong Kong). Hence, Taiwanese cinema is now enjoying its revival with many new directors offering something fresh and poignant back to the local cinema.

Recently I saw three very different Taiwanese films but all immensely enjoyable:


Go Grandriders ( directed by Tian-hao Hua) – this wonderful and touching documentary follows 17 octogenarians ( their average age was 81) who took a 1,178km trip around Taiwan by motorcycles within 2 weeks. Although the film is not overly sentimental, I was moved to tears by the riders’ courage, passion and determination. The positive and “young at heart” attitude is admirable, and it makes you realise that it is never too late to follow your dream. I highly recommend this to everyone especially elderly who suffer from illnesses because it will bring hope and forgotten dreams back.



Touch of the light ( Directed by Jung-Chi Chang) is a feature film based on the director’s previous short film, “End of the Tunnel,” about the life story of blind Taiwanese piano prodigy Yu-siang Huang, who also plays himself in the film. Although not a groundbreaking film, it is sensitive, funny, down to earth and inspiring. Both leads ( including actressSandrine Pinna) are natural and likable, and have good chemistry on screen. It is rare to see films depicting the difficulties and prejudices that blind people face in their everyday lives, so it is commendable for the director to do so without turning it into a soppy melodrama.



Will you still love me tomorrow? ( Directed by Arvin Chen) is the second feature by the American Taiwanese director and after receiving critical acclaim for his first feature, “Au Revoir Taipei”, expectations are high on his new film. Fortunately, this film did not disappoint, it even reminds me of Ang Lee‘s “Wedding Banquet” because of the topic and style. It is a romcom yet it deals with issues such as repressed sexuality, betrayal and traditional family values. The acting of the entire cast ( most are well-known singers in Taiwan) is superb, but I thought Mavis Fan is particularly outstanding. A difficult and unusual topic to handle esp. in the rather conservative Chinese society, but the director has done a great job and the ending is surprisingly “sweet and comforting”.



It’s too early to predict if Taiwanese cinema will continue to flourish in the years to come, but with these new talents and investment and support from the government’s cultural department, things are definitely looking up and I look forward to seeing more good work from Taiwan.


Films about SUSHI

This blog entry actually coincides with my trip to Japan… the land of sushi!



The variety of sushi USB in Japan…


I remember the days when many English people would cringe at the thought of eating raw fish, but those days were long gone and now sushi has become so popular that it would seem ‘odd’ if you don’t eat it.

The popularity of sushi is almost global now and even in cities like Moscow, which is land-locked, you are most likely see sushi on menus than beef Stroganoff ( even in Russian, Indian and Chinese restaurants). Though it would probably horrify the Japanese to see salmon with cream cheese sushi on the menu!

The sushi effect seemed to have spread to the film world and in the past year, three very different films/ documentary on sushi were released:


Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I saw this intriguing documentary on the three-Michelin starred sushi chef, Jiro Ono, and it made my mouth water on the way through. Jiro is a perfectionist, who at 85 years of age, still believes he can improve his skills and be a better chef. It is fascinating to watch his relationship with his eldest son, who will eventually succeed him ( though it’s hard to predict when it will happen). The film is not just about sushi, it also gives an insight into the Japanese culture, its traditional and lost values, and work ethics that can rarely be seen in our contemporary society.



Sushi in Suhl was a big hit in Germany last year. The film is about the real-life story of Rolf Anschütz, an East German chef who decided to open a Japanese restaurant in East Germany during the Cold War period. The restaurant became a huge success, but with the end of the Cold War, the restaurant lost its appeal and was largely forgotten. The release of this film triggered nostalgia for the restaurant among many former diners, and even a Facebook page was created to celebrate a restaurant that was exotic, unique and quintessential.



The most bizarre and wacky one is the Japanese comedy horror film, Dead sushi, directed by Noboru Iguchi. I am not sure if I would want to eat sushi right after watching this!



Last but not least… this is one of the most interesting videos on sushi is called ‘Lost in a moment’ made by sound designer, Dennis Wheatley in Tokyo. A camera was placed on the conveyer belt insde a sushi bar, whichcaptured the behaviour of the customers with most of them completely unaware of it and the result is quite fascinating…