By Brian Hu
First of all, for cinephilic completists in Southern California, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is essential. There’s a reason I’ve gone pretty much every year since 2006. PSIFF plays a lot of movies from around the world and many of them are ones I’ve been waiting months to see.
Since joining the SDAFF team, I’ve been privileged to see a lot of films from Asia. Not all are great, but they’re surely diverse in subject and style. Seeing this huge corpus of films makes it pretty easy to detect the values, knowledge, and — somewhat cynically — the funding sources for any given film festival just by looking at what Asian films they decide to include — and leave out. I’m not going to surmise any of that for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, but check this out:
By my count, this year there were 21 films at PSIFF set in East, Southeast, and South Asia. Many I’d seen before. Going to the 2014 edition, I was able to catch a handful that I hadn’t seen at other festivals. Those titles really stood out. What’s up with all of the poor, lost Asian kids?
Let’s break it down. Of the 21 titles, four had nothing to do with poor, lost Asian kids:
The Grandmaster (martial arts)
The Great Passage (heartwarming comedy)
Lootera (lavish romance)
The Wind Rises (dramatic animation)
Of the remaining 16, we’ve got films in the following categories:
CENTRALLY ABOUT POOR, LOST ASIAN KIDS:
Faith Connections (precocious nine-year-old runaway)
The Good Road (runaways and other missing children)
Juvenile Offender (teen discovers mother who once abandoned him)
Lakshmi (girls abducted into prostitution ring)
Siddharth (child abduction)
Transit (siblings without papers lost between cultures)
The Rocket (outcast kid and his orphan friend)
CONTAINS LOST, BUT NOT NECESSARILY POOR, ASIAN KIDS:
Han Gong-ju (exiled teenager)
Ilo Ilo (bad son left to be raised by housekeeper)
Like Father, Like Son (sons switched at birth)
The Mercury Factor (haunted by memory of dead son)
Montage (kidnapped children)
Nightingale (rich kid learns what it’s like to live on the “other side”)
What’s going on? Asian cinema has long suffered in the west from stereotyping along the lines of poverty, national trauma, patriarchal oppression, etc. Think of Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” from the 1950s or the Chinese Fifth Generation in the 1990s. But never have I seen such a sustained use of one character type to dramatically embody all of those stereotypes. I’m not necessarily faulting the filmmakers. Many of these films have a basis in actually-existing conditions and histories, and these stories need to be told. In fact, there are some real gems here. Like Father, Like Son was one of my favorite films of 2013. Siddharth is one of 2013′s best films by a North American of Asian descent. But together, all of these films don’t reveal an Asian cinema as diverse as the one I’ve come to love.
Today, filmmakers and commentators speak of “poverty porn” to describe the exploitation of destitution, especially when the non-west is involved. More specifically, we’re seeing in the PSIFF selection a tendency to equate the developing world with being undeveloped (hence the association with children) and in need of saving (hence they start out lost). As anybody who’s been there would tell you, the audience at the PSIFF is quite the opposite (old, financially stable) and it’s from that disjuncture that the possibility of an imperialist, white liberal gaze rears its head and makes the few minorities in the audience groan. That and the fact that PSIFF’s flyer advertising their Asian cinema slate is entitled “EXOTIC ASIAN STORIES,” or that the festival’s Argentinian selection Rabbit Woman literally ends with a militia heroically gunning down the invading, diseased, and procreating Chinese population. The unease is especially unfortunate because many of these are excellent films that deserve as large an audience as possible. (Well, not the xenophobic Rabbit Woman.)
And of course, going through this makes me wonder what our audiences see as Pac-Arts’ values when it comes to Asian cinema. The trouble with “Asia” is that it belongs to everybody and nobody, yet there are populations at the center of the free-for-all who stand to lose from the land-grab. And if anything, figuring out that trouble is what motivates SDAFF’s selections. Now somebody call us out when we don’t do it right.
(UPDATE, Jan. 13, 2014: Lakshmi, which is about young girls sold into prostitution in India, has won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at PSIFF.)