Special Pages | Asian Women in Cinema II

Deepa Mehta (b. 1950)

Though born, raised and educated in India, Deepa Mehta’s film career took off only after a momentous move to Canada. The daughter of a film distributor, a post-collegiate Mehta worked on short documentaries before meeting, marrying and following filmmaker Paul Saltzman to his native Toronto. While she is revered and reviled in both countries where her films have come to be eagerly anticipated cultural events, her films have received polarized responses as they have tackled India’s struggles with arranged marriages, misogyny, homosexuality, rape culture and religious strife, among other issues.

Divorcing Saltzman and later marrying producer David Hamilton, with whom she co-founded their own independent film company, Mehta rose to international prominence with her first feature, Sam & Me (1991), which received Honorable Mention in the Camera d’Or first-time directors category at Cannes. A tale of multiculturalism in Canada, it preceded her best-known achievement: the Elements Trilogy. Composed of Fire (1996), groundbreaking in its portrayal of homosexuality in India; Earth (1998), about Indian independence and religious identity; and Water (2005), which explores Indian society’s ostracization of widows, the Trilogy was met with acclaim from critics and vitriol from many Indian audiences, some of whom firebombed, protested and shut down movie theaters screening the films.

Mehta’s films and the controversy surrounding them have encouraged a national dialogue about the topics explored and about freedom of speech regarding cinema. Though she received Canada’s greatest artistic honor, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, in 2012, many of her films shot in and around India are still produced in protective secrecy, as was the case with her adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (2012), which required cast members to sign a secrecy clause. That an acclaimed Indian author like Rushdie would sell her his novel’s rights for $1 and that, controversial as they are, her films are recognized as important conversation starters solidify Mehta’s status as an incendiary filmmaker.

 

Trinh T. Minh-ha (b. 1952)

A filmmaker, writer, composer, theorist and professor who has received awards, grants and fellowships from the American Film Institute, Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Trinh T. Minh-ha does not identify as either Vietnamese or American. Despite growing up in Hanoi during the Vietnam War and spending her university years in the States – where she now resides – her extensive travel through Africa and Asia have shaped her into someone who, in her own words, “cut[s] across national borderlines.”

Deeply involved in the world of politics, feminism, culture, post-colonialism and the arts, Min-ha’s work has a sociocultural appeal distinct from most ethnographic works that can be felt throughout both her filmic and written works. Her 16mm film, Reassemblage (1982), she “speaks nearby, not about” her Senegalese subjects – an ethos that lends the work, and the ones that followed, a fascinating air of intellectual empathy.

Aside from her more scholarly work, Min-ha has also composed two pieces of music and seen several of her installations at major museums and galleries. Currently a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies, as well as Rhetoric, at the University of California, Berkeley, she continues to make works that examine cross-cultural, as well as inter-cultural, interactions, with her broad interests and experiences informing the dynamic way in which she approaches her subjects.

 

Mira Nair (b. 1957)

Throughout her life, Mira Nair has sought to combine her love and curiosity of the world with her desire to be heard through the most dynamic and personal medium she knows: film. A former student of sociology, the Indian filmmaker brings a sense of worldly charm to her movies, which often deal with multiculturalism in and out of her native country. Her first experience with film came through photography during her time at Harvard University, and she made her name on a series of documentaries before breaking out onto the world stage with Salaam Bombay! (1988), which she co-wrote and directed. Listed by the New York Times as one of the “Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made,” the narrative film follows the lives of Bombay street children (played by actual street children) in an authentic, compassionate manner that earned Nair the Camera d’Or and Audience Award at Cannes, as well as Oscar, Cesar and BAFTA nominations for best foreign feature.

Keen on bringing different cultures to cinematic life for world audiences, Nair followed with Mississippi Masala (1991), a Southern drama about an interracial romance between an Indian-American and a Black man, played by Denzel Washington, that won both the Golden Ciak and the Golden Osella at Venice. Nair also heads her own production company, Mirabai Films, which has released all her films.

Aside from film, she founded the Salaam Balak Trust Currently in 1998 to help street children in India and established the Maisha Film Lab for aspiring East African filmmakers. An adjunct professor at Columbia University, Nair directed Queen of Katwe (2016) for Disney, and is now working on adapting Monsoon Wedding, based on her 2001 Golden Lion winner, as a stage musical for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre later this year.

 

Park Chan-ok (b. 1968)

First noticed on the international shorts circuit, Park Chan-ok worked as assistant director on others’ projects before fully coming into her own as an auteur. The South Korean filmmaker wrote, directed and edited her first feature, Jealousy Is My Middle Name (2002) – about the relationship between a graduate student and her editor at a literary magazine – to great acclaim and was awarded top honors at the Busan and Rotterdam film festivals. Though her next project, Paju (2009), struggled to find financing in a declining Korean cinemascape, it went on to become the first ever Korean film to compete at the Tribeca Film Festival and to open the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Both of Park’s films explore Korean society and lives through the eyes of fiercely independent women in complicated relationships with men. Paju, for example, uses its foggy titular setting near the inter-Korean border to accentuate the complex ties between a schoolgirl and her mysteriously-deceased sister’s husband. The grim sociopolitical background of the precarious border city intensifies what Park describes as the “emotions shared by two people who are similarly alone.”

With Variety describing her work as “Bergmanesque” and Paju earning her the honor of “Woman Filmmaker of the Year” at the 10th Women in Film Korea Awards, Park remains an intriguing figure to watch, though she has worked only as a production consultant in the last few years.

 

Mouly Surya (b. 1980)

A rising Indonesian cinema star, educator and former musician, Mouly Surya is part of a surging wave of women filmmakers in her home country. Shifting her focus away from media studies while studying in Australia, Surya returned to Jakarta and co-founded Cinesurya, a production company through which she began work as an assistant director. Three years later, she wrote and directed her first feature, Fiction (2008), which went on to win Best Picture at the Citra Awards, Indonesia’s highest film honor.

A fierce advocate of education and open discourse (In classes, students don’t hesitate to argue with their lecturers. It’s not about who is right or who is wrong, but about backing up your arguments.”), Surya teaches a directing course in Jakarta in addition to her production work. Her filmmaking career has nevertheless continued gaining momentum, with her second feature, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013), being the first Indonesian film to screen at Sundance. A tale of love and friendship between visually impaired teens, it continues Surya’s proclamation that all of her films will feature women leads.

Her upcoming film, Marlina: The Murderer in Four Acts, a reclamatory subversion of the rape-and-revenge genre, received funding from the French Ministry of Culture and is set to premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. On top of this, Surya is already drafting a script for her next project, The Fandom Diaries, which will explore Internet-based connections across Indonesia, Japan and the United States.

 

 

Anocha Suwichakornpong (b. 1976)

At the blurry boundary between dreamy surrealism and laser-sharp documentation is Anocha Suwichakornpong, a Thai director, screenwriter and producer whose career is on a sharp incline. Receiving a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fellowship upon graduating Columbia University, she saw her thesis film, Graceland (2006), become the first Thai short to be screened at Cannes. Her success only continued after co-founding the Electric Eel Films production company, which has produced both of her films and supported independent Asian cinema since its creation.

Her debut feature, Mundane History (2009), explores Thai social classes and patriarchy in an ethereal way that eschews linear storytelling in favor of expressive meditation. The first Thai film to be given the country’s most restrictive rating because of its depiction of male nudity, it went on to win the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

By the Time It Gets Dark (2016), Suwichakornpong’s latest film, is an evocative, phantasmagoric tale about a filmmaker trying to document political activism in her native Thailand, despite the country’s strict censorship and tough military regime. It premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival to great acclaim.

 

 

 

 

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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