Asian Women in Cinema I

Editor’s Notes: Speaking of women working in cinema, whom would you think of? Agnes Varda? Sofia Coppola? Chances are they probably come from the Western Hemisphere. Inspired by our Elements of Cinema screening of Autumn Moon (1992) by Hong Kong director Clara Law this month, we want to draw your attention to some Asian women in cinema. We have put together 18 names from 10 countries, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. We are painfully aware of our own limitations, so if there are names you think we should know, please feel free to join the conversation and leave the names in the comments below.

Text by Juan Ramirez

Sylvia Chang
(b. 1953)

Dropping out of high school to become a radio DJ might have been the first step out of bounds taken by Sylvia Chang, but it would not be the last. At 63, the Taiwanese artist has added director, writer, actress, philanthropist, singer, producer and even stuntwoman to her impressive and ever-growing list of accomplishments. With over one hundred acting credits, Chang began work as a film actor before making her directorial debut on Once Upon a Time (1981), after the original director was killed in a car accident. Since then, she has enjoyed a decades-spanning, multifaceted career in film.

The films she has worked on often feature complex, empathetic portraits of women at their center – a way of remedying Hong Kong and Taiwan’s male-dominated film industries, which she says seldom include positions for women. Arguably her most famous film, the Golden Bear-nominated 20 30 40 (2004) – which she directed, co-wrote, and starred in – explores the lives of three Taiwanese women and grew out of short stories written by its three leads, who also performed the title theme.

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Believing “animation or special effects shouldn’t just be limited to science-fiction films and their ilk,” Chang’s works are known for regularly introducing magical realism to drama, which makes for fanciful films unburdened by conventionality. Her contributions to cinema have been recognized by numerous film festivals and awards ceremonies, and secured her the distinction of being the 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival’s “filmmaker in focus,” with thirteen of her films being screened in celebration of her illustrious career.

T’ien-wen Chu (b. 1956)

Chu is best known for her collaborations with director Hou Hsiao-hsien, for whom she has written a total of thirteen scripts, to great acclaim. Their 1993 work, The Puppetmaster, based on a celebrated Taiwanese puppeteer’s memoirs, won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was hailed by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll as one of the greatest films ever made.

Born to a prominent literary family, her work is noted for its complex, philosophical style that verges on decadence, such as her 2015 novel, Fin-de-Siècle Splendour, for which she became the first woman to win the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.

Her poetic writing often deals with Taiwanese culture, troubled history and relations with other countries, such as her screenplay for Hou’s A City of Sadness (1989), a Golden Lion winner about the terrors faced by Taiwanese people from China in the 1940s. For writing at the heady intersection between evocative lyricism, personal experience and national heritage, Chu has been recognized by many as an essential voice of East Asian literature and cinema.


Esther Eng (1914–1970)

At a time when Asian-Americans were systematically oppressed, with the Chinese Exclusion Act and several immigration bans in place, Esther Eng made a name for herself as a filmmaking pioneer and became the first woman to direct a Chinese-language film in the United States. Born and raised among San Francisco’s prosperous Chinese artistic community, Eng began producing films for her father’s production company at 22. Just a year later, she wrote, directed, produced and distributed National Heroine in Hong Kong, which was awarded a Certificate of Merit from the Kwangtung Federation of Women’s Rights.

Working ambidextrously both in China and the United States, Eng, who was openly lesbian, produced an impressive output of work, most of which featured women – who were often underrepresented in times of war – at their centers, such as It’s A Women’s World (1939), which depicted the lives and labors of Chinese women. Her film Golden Gate Girl, an immigrant saga set against the Second Sino-Japanese War, has since become the subject of a documentary feature and starred an infant Bruce Lee in his first film role.

In 1950, she left cinema to pursue restauranteering in New York, which she did successfully until her untimely death from cancer in 1970. Despite most of her work having been lost or damaged throughout the years, Eng’s growing legacy as a groundbreaking figure in early cinema stands today as a towering achievement, especially in the face of such adversity.

 


Cathy Garcia-Molina (b. 1971)

In stark contrast to the rest of the world, the Philippines’ box office is regularly dominated by women directors. Considered the queen of popular Filipino cinema, Cathy Garcia-Molina has seen seven of her films enter the list of highest-grossing in her country’s history in little over a decade, with three in the top 10.

Starting as an assistant director for various productions before helming her own television series, Garcia-Molina first took the director’s chair with Bcuz of U (2004), a romance in three parts. Most of her films have been wildly successful romantic comedies that make use of the same pool of frequent collaborators, some of whom also star in Garcia-Molina’s television soaps.

 

Ann Hui (b. 1947)

After graduating from the London FIlm School, Hui wasted no time in shaking up the Hong Kong film world. Born in mainland China, she lived briefly in Macao before her family settled in Hong Kong – a dizzying shift in scenery that would affect her worldview and color her artistry. Producing and directing controversial films for the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Hui knew from the start she wanted little to do with the conventional cinematic mainstream, which dealt mainly in larger-than-life gangsters instead of the more pressing matters she wanted to explore.

Her Vietnam Trilogy, for instance, explores the troubling experiences of Vietnamese refugees while The Way We Are deals with two women who help each other stay afloat while struggling to support themselves and their families. For tackling social issues including cultural displacement, class systems, family conflict and women’s role in contemporary Asia, both Hui and her films have been honored by the Hong Kong Film Awards and Hong Kong Film Critics Society a total of fifteen times and nominated for awards at Cannes and Venice Film Festivals.

Despite difficulties securing funding in Hong Kong’s typically conservative, male-dominated market, Hui has managed to stand out as an acclaimed member of the Hong Kong New Wave and, in 2012, became the first woman to win a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Asian Film Awards.

 

Naomi Kawase (b. 1969)

Born out of Japan’s richly forested Nara prefecture is Naomi Kawase, a writer/director whose pure, intimate sensibilities reflect the peaceful surroundings in which she grew up. Blending the documentarian style she excelled at from an early age into her better-known fictional works, her films are deeply personal reflections on Japanese life and nature, and are often inspired by her own experiences and family.

Her first feature, 1997’s Suzaku, which focuses on the hardships of a rural family in a tough economic climate, featured mostly amateur actors – a practice she often employs in order to achieve naturalistic results – and won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Also garnering a Grand Prix and a Carrosse d’Or over the years, Kawase was made Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2015, securing her place in the canon of world cinema.

A filmmaker who has made herself at home in various genres, formats (she has long championed the experimental qualities of 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film, as well as video) and countries, Kawase’s natural, self-reflexive artistry continues to highlight the beauty and complexity of Japanese culture and tradition.

 

 

 

 

Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.

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