The Sundance Film Festival took place in Park City, UT, January 26 – February 2, 2020. International Examiner writer Misa Shikuma attended to provide coverage of select films featuring API stories, artists, actors and/or originating from API countries. Here she reviews: A Thousand Cuts; Ask No Questions; and Be Water.

A Thousand Cuts

Dir. Ramona S. Diaz

USA, Philippines 2020

A Thousand Cuts by Ramona S. Diaz, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Seasoned documentary filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz spent months on the ground in the Philippines covering the beginning of upstart Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, marked by violence, disinformation and an alarmingly dismissive attitude toward the free press. Weaving together the stories of key figures in Filipino politics and media, A Thousand Cuts is a taut, riveting exploration of what happens when democracy and the truth come under attack by the authorities that society is supposed to trust. For those of us living in the shadow of the Trump administration, it’s serves as both wake-up call and battle cry.

 

In 2016, Duterte comes to power on a platform of vengeance, promising to put a bloody stop to the nation’s drug trade. Within hours of his inauguration, the first bodies are discovered on the streets. No vetting or due process; just street-side executions. Leading independent news site Rappler immediately begins covering the deaths, questioning whether the president is waging a war on drugs, as he’s promised, or merely a war on the poor. The company and its founder and CEO, Maria Ressa, become targets.

 

Meanwhile, Duterte appoints internet-famous dancer-slash-singer Mocha Usun to what is essentially a government PR position, taking advantage of her millions of followers. Usun’s blog serves as an echo chamber, amplifying the false accusations leveled by Duterte’s team and encouraging right-wing trolls to come out of the woodwork, countering and trying to discredit Rappler’s work at every turn. 

 

Ressa, part of the group of journalists honored by Time for Person of the Year 2018 for their work combating fake news, retains martyr-like composure despite all the obstacles thrown her way, including being charged with ridiculous lawsuits on Duterte’s orders; getting arrested at the Manila airport upon returning from an international trip; dealing with trolls showing up at the Rappler office (ironically in a bid to prove that they weren’t trolls).

 

At almost two hours long, A Thousand Cuts provides an in-depth look at what publications like Rappler face under Duterte’s leadership, whilst offering nuanced observations on other topics like sexism. For example, conservative internet trolls coined the hashtag #presstitutes in an effort to mock Rappler’s status as a female-founded and led company (the majority of the staff are women, based on footage filmed inside the office). Usun candidly addresses the double-standards that she faces, which are eerily similar to the ways that the media has treated the young women employed by the Trump administration; focusing on their physical appearances rather than their accomplishments and experience. Usun has a university degree and dropped out of medical school to pursue a career in entertainment, yet the public treats her as though she’s an airhead. (Although, given that her blog is a hub for disinformation, it’s hard to extend much sympathy).

 

Cut from the same cloth as our own president, Duterte jokes about rape and the size of his penis in public speeches. The two leaders share a rhetoric of fear, hate and chauvinism, attempting to promote transparency by consenting to interviews, only to behave in a manner both condescending and volatile, particularly when their fragile male egos feel threatened. And yet, both men miraculously retain some level of popularity among their respective constituents.

 

In a world where incendiary messages rife with lies spread quicker and more widely than the fact-checked truth, people like Ressa and the Rappler team are even more crucial to maintaining balance in a democratic society. Like the fearless heroine at the center of the film, Diaz forces us to question our own complicity, be it retweeting a bit of fake news or inaction in the face of wrongdoing.

 

“First they came for the journalists,” says Ressa riffing on Martin Niemöller’s famous WWII poem during a speech. “We don’t know what happened after that.”

 

Ask No Questions [Slamdance]
Dir. Jason Loftus & Eric Pedicelli
Canada, 2020

Ask No Questions.

Premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival (founded by filmmakers who were rejected by Sundance but has grown into its own entity over the years), Ask No Questions revisits a widely broadcasted incident, crucial to the Chinese government’s crusade against Falun Gong, with fresh eyes and evidence. From the filmmakers whose previous documentary Human Harvest lifted the curtain on China’s shady organ transplant industry, this latest documentary plumbs the depths to which the Chinese government will go in order to retain centralized control.

If you live in a major city with a Chinese embassy, you’ve probably seen the protestors with banners proclaiming “Falun Gong is good” or something similar camped outside its doors. You’ve probably also been too preoccupied with getting your travel visa approved or passport renewed to pay them much attention. Little do urban passersby know, these peaceful activists are showing their support for a heavily persecuted group that continue to endure gross violations of their human rights.

A spiritual form of self-care that emphasized meditation, light stretching and movement, Falun Gong steadily rose in popularity during the 1990s. By the end of that decade practitioners numbered in the millions, causing the communist party to feel threatened even though, at that point, a number of party members were followers themselves. Not to mention that Falun Gong is neither religious nor political.

In 2001, a small group of people self-immolated in Tianenmen Square, and the Chinese State TV immediately put footage of the event on blast, claiming that they were all Falun Gong practitioners. To a shocked public, the incident blended seamlessly with the government’s smear campaign, but to those who actually understood Falun Gong, it made no sense.

While Ask No Questions offers compelling evidence that the whole incident was staged by the state-run media, the true heart of the story is Chen Ruichang, a television network employee at the time and Falun Gong practitioner. Like those working for the government and its subsidiaries, Chen was asked to denounce Falun Gong. When he refused, he was sent to a “reeducation center,” a nightmarish 1984-like facility whose goal was to forcibly retrain the mind to reject Falun Gong. Some did not survive the center, or would later die in the forced labor camps they could be sent to for further punishment, or perhaps died in the initial raids that the government conducted to purge practitioners from society.

As China continues to ascend on the global stage, films like Ask No Questions become more significant because if world leaders aren’t held accountable for their actions, we risk making the kind of dystopia that normally exists only in fiction a reality.

Be Water

Dir. Bao Nguyen

USA, 2020

A still from Be Water by Bao Nguyen, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

 

Premiering in the U.S. Documentary competition, Vietnamese American director Bao Nguyen’s Be Water is an intimate and timely origin story of martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

 

Born in San Francisco to a famous Chinese opera performer, Lee was raised in Hong Kong and returned to the U.S. as a teenager. Throughout his life and career, as he worked on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, he never felt like he completely belonged in either place. Friends and early students of his in Seattle, where he first developed his school and practice, recall having to teach him how to act on the streets. Later on, as an adult trying to break into the Hong Kong film scene, his wife Linda Lee Caldwell noticed how the local film crews were initially skeptical of him, even though he had been a child actor there. For Asian Americans today, it’s a familiar portrait of otherness.

 

While Lee is a household name, perhaps few realize that it was only at the end of his career that he achieved just a fraction of the recognition that he has today. Be Water, whose title is an homage to Lee’s philosophy, unpacks in painstaking detail just how much the late star had to hustle to get the gatekeepers of the entertainment industry to give him a chance. And even then, he was never regarded as being on equal footing as his costars. Sure, the studio executives were impressed by his physicality and athleticism, but his accent precluded him from receiving more speaking roles, and he experienced significant pay discrepancy particularly on the show The Green Hornet.

 

In today’s world, where representation is a constant buzzword, Lee’s struggles in the industry are a cautionary tale for how much further we have to go. Asian men are still one of the most underrepresented groups in mainstream media, and it’s deeply rooted in our cultural DNA. From the time of pro-Chinese Exclusion Act propaganda, Asian men have been portrayed as caricatures all the way up to and including Mickey Rooney’s godawful role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which is essentially the live-action version of the racist cartoons that have existed for decades. Asian men, in other words, solely existed to be the comic relief; or, more specifically, the butt of the joke. Not to mention that they weren’t even played by real Asians. And while Asian women have long been eroticized and fetishized, roles for Asian men have historically been stripped of any semblance of sexual appeal. In recent years we’ve been given Keanu Reeves, Daniel Dae Kim, Randall Park and Steven Yeun; but the list is conspicuously short.

 

As Lee’s daughter, Shannon, says in the film, her father failed to appreciate (or perhaps chose to ignore) just how much of a “behemoth” this prejudice in the industry was. Regardless, his frustrating experience in Hollywood bolstered him to return to Hong Kong in 1971 where, after some initial obstacles, he completed four feature films in two years: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). These films catapulted his reputation to unprecedented heights in Asia and beyond but, unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the fruits of his legacy.

 

In her introduction before the film’s screening, Sundance’s director of programming, Kim Yutani, noted how pleased she was at the “high concentration of Asians” in the audience. We probably showed up for a myriad of reasons, but, deep down, we all crave the opportunity to see a hero on the big screen that looks like us.

 

Vivos

Dir. Ai Weiwei

Germany, Mexico, 2019

A still from Vivos by Ai Weiwei, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ai Weiwei.

 

In his latest documentary feature, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei turns his gaze on an incident that sparked international outrage when it occurred in 2014 but has since largely been forgotten by the international community. Focusing on the families of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College students attacked in Iguala that fateful day in September, Vivos captures the pain of the parents and siblings who have had to live in limbo without their loved ones nor any answers regarding their fate.

 

“I don’t have much purpose in my life,” confessed the director during the post-premiere Q&A, in reference to his career as a visual artist. 

 

Perhaps that helps explain his documentary work in the past several years. Both The Rest (2019) and Human Flow (2017) examined the global movement of refugees. When asked what drew him to this particular story, which is so enmeshed in Mexico’s sociopolitical climate, Ai stated that he very much related to what the families and the Mexican public are going through, having grown up in communist China; the constant fear and uncertainty coupled with mistrust of the government and military. 

 

Vivos spends much of its time entrenched with the families of the victims, comprised mostly of poor and indigenous farmers. Tearfully, parents recount how their sons had enrolled at Ayotzinapa in order to try to improve their families’ lives. But instead, while traveling through a nearby town, their buses were attacked – six students died, a dozen injured, and 43 disappeared. Several years on, the victims’ families’ sadness has only transformed into despair as the lack of answers and accountability have denied them closure and an opportunity to move on. Some try to maintain optimism that the missing students are still alive. They are emotionally paralyzed, for with no bodies they cannot grieve fully.

 

While initially the Mexican government cooperated with third-party investigators into the incident, once it became clear that the official account of what happened (that the 43 were incinerated by cartels and dumped into a mass grave) was false, those who sought the truth found themselves completely shut out. In the aftermath of the lies, the families have mobilized, staging protests, hunger strikes and sit-ins but, thus far, to no avail. It’s not lost on anyone that were they not a rural and marginalized community, the outcome would probably be different. Perhaps the attack would not have happened at all.

 

Although Ai brings in a few experts to provide context to the current state of affairs in Mexico, the central focus is the families, whose steadfast heroism is even more heartbreaking in the face of the government’s apathy. The film’s tone is surprisingly muted, given the director’s reputation for outspokenness, but in discussing the drug trade it is difficult not to feel complicit as an American. After all, many experts agree that the most likely scenario is that the students accidentally boarded buses that were meant to deliver heroin to the border. 

 

Quietly compelling, Vivos is a testament to love and faith, but whether those virtues are enough to prevail against deeply rooted corruption remains to be seen.

 

Save Yourselves
Dir. Eleanor Wilson and Alex Huston Fischer
USA, 2019

Sunita Mani and John Reynolds appear in Save Yourselves! by Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Clegg.

“What if you turned your phone off, and something really bad happened?” asked Eleanor Wilson, who co-wrote and directed Save Yourselves with Alex Huston Fischer. The comedy, which premiered to raucous fanfare, follows a millennial Brooklyn couple dealing with the aftermath of an alien invasion that occurs during their self-guided retreat (read: sans laptops and cellphones) in upstate New York. In a year where the festival’s program was dominated by dark subject matter, a reflection of the times we’re living in, Save Yourselves was a welcome respite.

The film’s opening scene is a familiar one; Su (Indian-American comedian and actress Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) lounging on their couch at home on their phones, rather than interacting with each other. Inspired by an old friend who they run into at a party, the couple decides to embark on a digital detox of sorts, heading to a remote cabin where they can reconnect with each other and reestablish their personal goals. (Millennial existential dread remains a subtext of the film throughout; the looming sense of adulthood being thrust upon you but not being emotionally prepared for the consequences).

For viewers close in age to the protagonists, Su and Jack’s constant impulse to grab their phones coupled with a longing for the instant gratification of being able look up an answer online will hit close to home. So, too, does their sense of futility when confronted with the prospect of surviving in nature, away from civilization.

“We don’t have any skills,” laments Su, after news of the alien invasion has reached them and the realization that returning their former lives back in Brooklyn is impossible. Such is the generation that grew up learning how to master technology but not any practical skills for when said technology is unavailable.

With skillful levity and grace, Save Yourselves is a surprisingly affective comedy – an adult coming-of-age story of sorts – grounded by Mani and Reynolds’ performances. Through Mani’s expressive eyes we see Su’s vulnerability; her fear of not living up to her full potential. Opposite her, Reynolds’ measured deadpan delivery gradually peels back the layers of Jack’s insecurity. And, though it ought to be able to go without saying in this day and age, it’s refreshing to see an interracial couple onscreen without race being a plot point.

With their first feature-length film, Wilson and Fischer successfully give an age-old sci-fi premise a modern treatment that resonates, at times goofy and others poignant.

Assassins
Dir. Ryan White
USA, 2019

A still from Assassins by Ryan White, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In 2017, the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in a busy airport in broad daylight made headlines worldwide. But, as the orchestrators of the attack escaped back to North Korea that very same day, two unwitting young women were forced to bear the consequences. Assassins, from director Ryan White, follows their convoluted narrative in extraordinary detail, with as many twists, turns and villains as a James Bond movie.

Prior to that fateful day at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Siti Aisyah and Doan Huong had never met, though they had both been primed for months for what they believed to be a prank video to be uploaded online. Immigrants to Malaysia in search of better opportunities (Aisyah from Indonesia, Huong from Vietnam), the young women quickly realized that, without wealth or education on their side, options for making it in the bustling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur were limited. So, when the offer to partake in filming joke videos for several hundred dollars per shoot arose, it was a no-brainer when the alternative was sex work.

Over the course of months, as the women’s lawyers explain, a small team of North Koreans based in the Malaysia capital filmed videos with them that, in hindsight, were clearly practice for the attack on Kim Jong-nam. The “joke” involved the woman approaching a stranger from behind in a public space, rubbing lotion on him, and running away. Whether or not they actually found it funny was irrelevant; they were getting paid regularly for relatively little effort, and were even given opportunities to travel by their Korean handlers.

The stunt at the airport seemed no different at first; the women arrived at the appointed time, were shown the target, and then converged on him one after the other. But, of course, the target was Kim Jong-nam and lotion contained deadly NX nerve agent. Within an hour, he was dead, and the Koreans who had seemed so invested in Aisyah and Huong had swiftly disappeared. Without the possibility of extraditing the real criminals, the Malaysian judicial system, which punishes those found guilty of murder with death by hanging, needed someone to blame, and for two years it seemed inevitable that Aisyah and Huong would suffer the utmost consequences.

Though Assassins was just one of many films at this year’s festival that explored what it means to be a young woman on social media in this day and age, it is perhaps the most extreme. One of the deepest tragedies of the film is how easily Aisyah and Huong were taken advantage of; how their vanity and aspirations for fame exploited. Aisyah, once returned to her hometown thanks to intense negotiation by the Indonesian government, remarks how painful it felt to realize how expendable she was to her Korean handlers. But as another source illustrates, it could have been any one of the other young women White shows earnestly snapping and uploading selfies in public; the source had asked hundreds of girls if they wanted to film the prank videos – Aisyah was just the first who said yes.

Under White’s direction and Helen Kearns editing, Assassins plays like a taut political action thriller, drawing empathy for the naive girls who became pawns in a dangerous game, and continues to linger long after the credits roll. Because it’s impossible to shake the most chilling aspect – that this is a true story.

Cedric Cheung-Lau, director of The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alexandra Byer.

The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me
Dir. Cedric Cheung-Lau
USA, 2019

Eight years in the making, Cedric Cheung-Lau’s debut feature The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me is an evocative vignette about the unlikely meeting of two strangers set against the dramatic backdrop of the Annapurna Mountains in Nepal.

When Hannah (Alice Cummins), an older Australian woman trekking the mountains alone, crosses paths with Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong), a Nepali youth en route to Dubai via Kathmandu for a fresh start that he’s ambivalent about, there’s a moment of quiet recognition. They exchange pleasantries, as hikers do, he expresses polite concern about whether she’ll be able to reach her destination before dark, and ultimately gives her his walking stick. But something about Hannah’s resolution, her self-contentedness, intrigues Tukten and he decides to push onward through the mountains rather than head to the city as he’s supposed to do.

Cheung-Lau’s film is practically the opposite of everything an audience would expect of a story set in the Himalayas – there are no avalanches, no ill-advised bivouacs or near-death experiences. The massif features heavily in the cinematography, but in this context is calm and majestic, rather than an oppressive force to be defeated by man’s willpower. It also provides a glimpse into the lives of the locals, and how much they rely on tourism.

Yet for all the stunning shots of the mountains, where the film really shines is in its ability to capture the transient nature of the cross-cultural bonds forged between travelers. For even in their shared moments of silence Hannah and Tukten are still united by the sense of awe instilled by being in the presence of something sublime – in their case, the mountains. Their connection is less contingent upon sharing and knowing the most intimate parts of themselves and more about a feeling and sense of kinship.

In the age of social media, bucket list travel and derivative pics-or-it-didn’t-happen attitude, the film is also a meditation on what it means to be present. Hannah’s journey serves as a reminder  of why we travel, and why we ought to do so without the added filter of our phones and gadgets. In a world obsessed with documenting the minutiae, we lose the ability to actually enjoy what’s in front of us.

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