Global Threats in the Young Cinema

in 44th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Gideon Kouts

In his very interesting article written twenty years ago and entitled “Local and global identity: Whither Hong Kong cinema” (1), Stephen Teo writes that “The world today is essentially a bifocal world. Filmmakers everywhere are concerned with their own national cinema, and then with Hollywood…,” and he tries to consider the Hong Kong cinema as a national cinema, on the one hand, and as a transnational cinema, on the other. “Questions will undoubtedly be asked,” he notes, “As to whether or not Hong Kong cinema possesses a global identity, just as there will be discussions on its national identity.” Twenty years later we may broaden the question to the whole Chinese and Asian cinema (2) – but also deal separately with the emerging “Young cinema” for which Hollywood is no longer the correct model, unless it’s hijacked…

The eight excellent movies presented at HKIFF 2020 in the framework of the “Young Cinema” section, three of them from non-Asian countries, each using its own cinematic tools, are a good illustration of this transnationality and globalization—notably in themes and symbols. Let’s take the theme of global “threats and dangers” as perceived, rather critically and subversively, by this young generation of filmmakers.

– First, the “other,” the stranger, but also “old” people from “old” generations who no longer represent “wisdom” and order, but often the notion of evil itself, and even while respectable, they deserve death.

– Sex is a source of danger and betrayal, and often embracing death.

– Traditional family is often perverted, or looking for new structures, and no longer assures love and protection.

– The human body becomes a socially constructed prison to young people’s soul and nature.

– Death is often violent without respect to the dead. They would better to disappear. The “preferred” way of burial is: cremation.

– Diseases and epidemics.

– Animals, real or supernatural, are a threat for humans, as well as carriers of mortal disease.

– And finally, the Authority: political power or rich people are Youth’s merciless enemies.

In Be Alive Just Like You (2020), Six is a disabled man who spends his days peddling lottery tickets and snacks on the streets. He is introduced to Noodle, a lonely young woman working in a run-down stationery shop, by the (aged) owner who regularly rapes her. Their gritty romance offers an exploration into the sexual desires of the disabled, who are defenseless against the cruelty of the “real” world, but only after the killing of the rapist….

The story of The Cloud in her Room (Ta fang jian li de yun, 2020) sees Muzi return home to the eastern city of Hangzhou to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. Her parents are divorced, her musician father has remarried and is the father of a young daughter, while her mother seems to drift between boyfriends in a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke.

She is in an unsatisfying relationship with an easygoing photographer, but a chance encounter with an older bar owner opens up new possibilities. And then there’s a female friend, of her own age, who pops up from time to time—she may perhaps be nothing more than a figment of Muzi’s imagination. Or, perhaps she is actually another lover…

The main protagonists of Dust and Ashes (Tuhk Ja Tolm, 2019) are put in the situation of ordinary people who are about to be mercilessly evicted from their homes. All the weight of responsibility is thrown on the frail shoulders of Hae-su, who must not only to deal with the sudden and painful death of her mother, but also with her brother’s denial and childish rebellion against the “oh so cruel” life. While Hae-jun is running from reality, it’s Hae-su who has to concentrate on carefully planning steps for turning the tragedy into their way out of misery.

The situation the young woman has to deal with is in the apartment bedroom where her mother had taken her own life. The woman’s lifeless body still has a thick rope around the neck, and the battle to make the suicide look like “death by natural causes” continues until the final cremation of her body.

In Wisdom Tooth (2019) Gu Xi faces an uncertain future. Her job as a hotel maid is threatened because of her status as an undocumented citizen; her relationship with her brother Gu Liang—her only family—is unsettled by the arrival of a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, an oil spill taints the coastal waters of the nearby Yellow Sea and corruption seeps into the community of the small East China fishing town where Gu Xi and her brother scrape together a living.

There’s a self-sufficiency in their existence. But then they meet Qingchang. She used to live in South Korea, the rich and politically different neighbor. Guxi’s jealousy begins to harm her relationship with her brother.

But in the three-way relationship which develops, Qingchang’s charm offensive seduces both brother and sister. And, as a stinging scene during Gu Liang’s birthday makes uncomfortably clear, Gu Xi’s clinging affection for her brother tips over into something sexually charged and grabbing.

There’s another layer of the film playing out simultaneously. Unable to fish because of the oil spill, Gu Liang and his friend work as thugs for a local big shot. But the discovery of a body draws unwelcome attention to underworld activities which implicate both Gu Xi’s hotelier boss, and Qingchang’s father.

The screenplay of Stoma (2020) by the late cultural icon Julian Lee is based on Lee’s own fight with cancer. The film follows an emotionally harrowing journey endured by young gay photographer Alex, after he is diagnosed with peritoneal cancer. Abandoned by his brother and his European lover, Alex is forced to face his mortality and the loss of his sexual identity through sheer resilience.

Heroes of Kala Azar (2020), Penelope and Dimitris are professional pet cremators. They roam the sprawling periphery of an industrial Greek town, retrieve defunct animals from their owners, burn them, and return their ashes. There’s a sense of urgency to their mission: kala azar, the infectious disease, is decimating hordes of canines all across Southern Europe, and the epidemic is threatening humans, too. But the couple’s pilgrimage also crackles with a certain compassion, an empathy that blurs their distance from the carcasses and complicates their role as undertakers. “You can include some of your pet’s favorite things,” Penelope tells a grieving woman before folding a handkerchief over her dead goldfish, rehearsing new condolences on her way to the next mourner: “We understand this must be a difficult time for you and your family….”

The little cash the municipality will pay for their services only covers the ashes of creatures formerly owned by humans for strict companionship purposes. But when their Jeep passes by discarded roadkill, the two can’t help but pick up the lifeless bodies and give them an illegal cremation in the dead of night.

Piedra sola (2020) unfolds in the majestic, sparsely populated highlands of northern Argentina. Llama herding is the main profession in these rugged parts. The local herds are being preyed upon by an unseen puma: So many years and we have not even caught a glimpse of it, one of the farmers sighs at a meeting. The bloodthirsty feline may indeed be of supernatural aspect, but in the case of the ancient culture depicted here, the boundary between the natural and supernatural is marginal or perhaps even nonexistent.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019): In the mountains of Lesotho, an 80-year-old widow named Mantoa eagerly awaits her son’s return from working in the South African mines, only to learn of his demise instead. Yearning for her own death after the loss of her last remaining family member, she puts her affairs in order and makes arrangements to be buried in the local cemetery. Her plans are abruptly upset by the news that provincial officials intend to resettle the village, flood the entire area, and build a dam for a reservoir. Mantoa resolves herself to defend the spiritual heritage of the community. Different countries, different approaches, but the same threats and dangers—a global young cinema. 

1) In Asian Cinema, Issue 7, June 2000

2) Michael Berry speaks about “Chinese cinema with Hollywood characteristics” in: Carlos Rojas (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinema, 2013. 

Gideon Kouts
Edited by Robert Horton