Quiet Icons

East Asian literature/film academic and Ann Hui fan Jessica Siu‑yin Yeung explores our newest official list—the 100 highest-rated narrative feature films directed by Asian women—where she finds quiet icons biding their time as the movie lovers of the world catch up.

In celebration of Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar wins, and to fill a major gap in film lovers’ lives, the team at Letterboxd has computed the 100 highest-rated narrative feature films directed by Asian women. The list is derived purely from ratings rather than popularity (a measure of all activity around a film), and there are several well-known directors on the list—Lulu Wang, Chloé Zhao, Mira Nair, Naoko Yamada, Alice Wu, Deepa Mehta—alongside many more waiting to be added to your watchlists.

Eligibility for the top 100 required that directors be of Asian heritage, regardless of where they were born, or where they make their films. It is, of course, a sweeping definition, encompassing directors of south, east and central Asian heritage from across the world (a list focused on west Asian filmmakers is still to come).

From such a wide net, it could be assumed that common ground may be hard to find. And yet, having watched the films and examined the list’s statistics, I’ve noticed interesting thematic discoveries that highlight the ways in which Letterboxd members have been watching—and appreciating—the endeavours of female Asian filmmakers from the last half-century.

I specify “last half-century” because the earliest film on the list is from 1982. By comparison, the earliest film on the official Letterboxd list of 100 highest-rated films by women is from 1926, and the earliest from the Official Letterboxd 250 is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., from 1924. As a comment on how the global film industry and film lovers alike have prioritized cinematic voices, this speaks volumes. In fact, just five films in the top 100 films by Asian women were released prior to this millennium.

Salaam Bombay! (1988), directed by Mira Nair.
Salaam Bombay! (1988), directed by Mira Nair.

Those five titles are from celebrated forerunners in their field. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Mississippi Masala (1991), Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982), Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku (1997) are united in their humanitarian concerns for local, marginalized populations. From children in Mumbai slums and Vietnamese civilians under communist rule, to a cross-race relationship, lesbian love in India, and a Japanese family dissolving in the face of modernity, Nair, Hui, Mehta and Kawase have brought their documentarian interests to bear on their narrative filmmaking.

By earning selection in major film showcases, including the Hong Kong Film Awards (Hui), the Vancouver International Film Festival (Mehta), the Venice International Film Festival (Nair) and the Cannes Film Festival (Nair and Kawase), these directors’ endeavors paved the way for newcomers. Early success on the global stage might have seen these filmmakers labeled as arthouse directors, much like their auteurist male counterparts, such as Satyajit Ray, Wong Kar-wai and Yasujirō Ozu, who made films with interrelated themes and consistent styles.

But a tightly defined style is not a virtue of these four women, who straddle the arthouse-commercial divide, work across diverse media (fiction, documentary, television, short and feature films), and genres (comedy, romance, animation, fantasy, horror, crime and action). It seems that to be an Asian woman behind the camera is to be realistic rather than idealistic about the artistic visions they bring to life, to be flexible in managing different budgets and project sizes, and to be content with being regionally popular—until the world catches up.

A Simple Life (桃姐, 2011), directed by Ann Hui.
A Simple Life (桃姐, 2011), directed by Ann Hui.

Genre-wise, the list’s 27 comedies and 35 romances testify as to how these shrewd directors have combined commercial appeal with their personal aspirations in order to build their careers. Accordingly, recognition has often come later in life than it did for their male counterparts. Take septuagenarian Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui. Of the more than 30 films she has made, two appear in the top 100: Boat People (1982) and A Simple Life (2011). The former, a socio-political feature, was banned in Taiwan and China, while the latter was an apolitical Hong Kong-mainland co-production, acclaimed by pan-Chinese and international audiences.

At 74, Hui is the same age as the Taiwanese New Wave male filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, who has enjoyed auteur status and critical attention ever since his film A City of Sadness won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in 1989. Having worked diligently over the past four decades, Hui, however, only received her Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement last year (it was a small miracle that she was able to attend in person, thanks to Venice’s commitment to a real-life festival event in 2020).

“Diligence is fucking useless!” bursts Hui, in Man Lim-chung’s recent and moving documentary Keep Rolling (2020), a timely celebration of Hui and her storytelling. Her frustration in navigating the highly commercialized movie industry as a humanitarian female filmmaker is evident—and somewhat universal. Geopolitical sensitivities notwithstanding, female Asian filmmakers like Hui are sincere in making the most of their opportunities to shine a light on peoples’ plights, especially those suffering because of their gender or sexuality.

A Silent Voice (聲の形, 2016), directed by Naoko Yamada.
A Silent Voice (聲の形, 2016), directed by Naoko Yamada.

The new generation of Japanese and South Korean female filmmakers approach these themes creatively. Naoko Yamada and Shouko Nakamura use their deep understanding of Japan’s edge as the hub of East Asian popular culture to approach sensitive subjects through animation. Nakamura-san’s Dou kyu sei (‘Classmates’, 2016), is a sweet, 61-minute boys’ love story, while the highest-rated film in the top 100 is Yamada-san’s touching and gorgeous A Silent Voice (2016), which addresses disability and school bullying.

While this list focuses only on directors, it is important to note that, more often than not, these filmmakers also wrote their films, and that when they have worked with others, they are often loyal collaborators. A Silent Voice’s scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, for example, has worked alongside director Yamada for years.

This feels important in the context of the “epidemic of invisibility”, as documented by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which recently found that only 5.9 percent of the speaking roles in major box-office films from 2007 to 2019 were played by Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) actors. When writer-directors can shape their own cinematic worlds, stereotypes and under-representation become less of an issue. As a female Asian spectator, I find myself more likely to relate to characters in these 100 films, than in Hollywood representations of ‘Asian-ness’ such as Mulan (2020) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018).

Although East Asia is a stronghold for female filmmaking success—41 of the directors on the list are from the region—Southeast Asian filmmakers are up-and-coming. Films by directors from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam comprise eighteen of the list entries, and seventeen are helmed by Korean or Korean American directors (including Jennifer Yuh Nelson, making the list with Kung Fu Panda 2).

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, 2019), directed by Kim Do-young.
Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, 2019), directed by Kim Do-young.

Released between 2001 and 2020, the South Korean films in the top 100 epitomize that country’s belated feminist filmmaking movement. Kim Do-young’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (2019) sits at the forefront of the movement, and is especially representative of the multitude of roles held by Asian female creatives as they work towards film careers. The story of a woman who struggles to reconcile her gender expectations, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 was originally a novel written by television scriptwriter Cho Nam-ju, then adapted by Kim as her first feature film, after a career as an actress.

Before, and especially since Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Awards for Parasite (2019), he has made a habit of pointing film lovers towards female Korean directors, especially Yoon Ga-eun. Indeed, the Korean filmmakers on this list are well-celebrated at home: Lee Jeong-hyang’s The Way Home (2002), Boo Ji-young’s Cart (2014), July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (2014), Han Jun-hee’s Coin Locker Girl (2015), Lee Hyun-ju’s Our Love Story (2016), Yoon Ga-eun’s The World of Us (2016), Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat (2017), Bora Kim’s House of Hummingbird (2018), Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest (2018), Yoon Dan-bi’s Moving On (2019) and Hong Eui-jeong’s Voice of Silence (2020) have won or been nominated for the Blue Dragon Film Awards, also known as “the Korean Oscar”. I hope these filmmakers can also win major international awards someday—as long as voters can overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”.

A threshold of at least 1,000 ratings means that many films and directors who are highly celebrated by local audiences did not make this global list. This requirement explains why the godmother of Malaysian cinema, the late Yasmin Ahmad, is missing. Likewise, the list focuses only on narrative features, but that is no reason to sleep on the films of Vietnam’s celebrated documentarian, Trinh T. Minh-ha. A particularly surprising omission from this year: Jia Ling’s Hi, Mom. The hit comedy, the highest-grossing film by a solo female filmmaker of all-time, is a local phenomenon in China but yet to register with Letterboxd members.

Suzaku (萌の朱雀, 1997), directed by Naomi Kawase.
Suzaku (萌の朱雀, 1997), directed by Naomi Kawase.

The lesson here is watch, log and rate—if you can find the films, that is. To my surprise, Mira Nair’s Golden Lion winner Monsoon Wedding (2001) is the only film from the list currently in the Criterion Collection. As the ‘World of Wong Kar Wai’ box set, released in March this year, has become an instant bestseller, can we please also have the ‘World of Naomi Kawase/Mira Nair/Ann Hui’ and other younger filmmakers’ works, so that when we look up Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, we’ll not be offered Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960)? Educators, I believe, would especially welcome the move; teaching the art of female Asian filmmakers requires the availability of such resources.

In fairness, many of the films are available on streaming platforms, and some of the filmmakers on this list have been widely celebrated. There was Ann Hui’s Venice honor last year, and Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy (Fire, Water, Earth) was in focus at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival. Currently, Japan Society has Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers streaming, and from South Korea, Jeon’s Microhabitat features in Hong Kong’s Independently Yours Korean Women Independent Film Series (running until July) and Boo’s Cart is in Korean Film Festival Canada’s Women’s Perspective in Korean Film season-two program, from September 30 to October 30 of this year.

Dead Pigs (海上浮城, 2018), directed by Cathy Yan.
Dead Pigs (海上浮城, 2018), directed by Cathy Yan.

As international film festival programmers organize more retrospectives, and film archivists thrill at discovering prints from early- and mid-20th-century Asia, the boundless possibilities for showcasing more works by female Asian filmmakers remain largely unexplored.

For now, book yourself a ticket for Cathy Yan’s 2018 masterpiece Dead Pigs, number 64 on the list. Yan’s Birds of Prey predecessor is a social satire based on real events involving the Yangtze River, the aforementioned pigs, homing pigeons, noodles and class differences. Thanks to Film Movement, it’s in select real and virtual cinemas in the US now.

I look forward to seeing your lists of the ten, or twenty, or one hundred films by Asian women that you love the most.

Header image: Ann Hui, photographed with camera, during her school days.

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