Little People Big World

News

Since Asians are perceived as a minority in The Netherlands, CinemAsia has for years championed their rich identities through films on the immigrant or refugee experience, such as last year’s Meditation Park and Passage of Life. This year, we flip the mirror to shed light on minorities and marginalised groups in Asia, with a special focus on children, to explore how they are affected by their “difference.”

With histories spanning thousands of years, Asia is not populated by homogenous races but made up of myriad diverse communities, which often have maritime connections with each other. Taiwan’s indigenous race (or “aboriginals”) claim their ancestors sailed from the South Pacific and Polynesia.

Long Time No Sea by Heather Tsui offers a rare glimpse of the Tao indigenous people, who number only around 3000 but have lived on beautiful Orchid Island for over 800 years.The film highlights how poverty and remoteness of the location force adults to work in Taiwan’s big cities, leaving behind children and old people. While expressing this grim situation, the film also emphasises their cultural heritage, dramatised by the boys’s education, from shame to pride at wearing thongs to perform a tribal dance in a heritage competition.

Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 confronts us with a far bleaker reality about two teen aboriginal girls whose coming-of-age is scarred by poverty, alcholic parents, abuse and poor relationship choices. There’s nothing “exotic” or racially-tinged about their deprivations, which are tragically recognisable in any corner of the world. However, the director’s ironic strain can be detected in the insertion of vintage government propaganda footage that represent Taiwan’s aboriginals as “primitives” who should be grateful to be “civilised.”

Ala Changso tracks an anti-social Tibetan boy’s journey to reconcile with his family while accompanying his sick mother on a grueling year-long piligrimmage to Llasa. Unlike many films on Tibet, which skew toward political or religious angles, Qinghai-born Tibetan director Sonthar Gyal integrates the protagonists’ spiritual outlook towards death with their thoroughly human behaviours of guilt, jealousy, fear and resentment of abandonment.

Another minority that’s becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing demographic are offsprings of multiracial unions. Canadian documentary Mixed Match raises awareness about medical issues they face due to their complex genetic makeup. Director Jeff Chiba Stearns who is half-Japanese and half-European uses this subject to explore identity, shows how the mixed-race communities can help each other through donor banks for cancer patients, and punctures the belief that there is such a thing as racial purity.

The programme’s theme “Little People. Big World” extends beyond ethnic minorities to tell stories of other disadvantaged or marginalised groups. Malaysian film Guang based on director Quek Shio-chuan’s own brother, does not conceal the stigma, abuse and harsh economic realities autistics suffers. This may be quite disturbing for audiences from countries with better social services, but it’s all the more important to see and empathise with what people with special needs face in countries with inadequate welfare or public awareness.

Adoptees who form a distinct and sizeable sub-group in the European Asian community may have emotional connection with Baby which examines the consequences of China’s One Child Policy. Following an adoptee’s crusade to save a baby girl born with the same congenital disease as herself from being left to die by her father, Liu Jie’s masterpiece is a humanist outcry against ingrained discrimation against daughters and children with disabilities or medical dysfunction.

Marginalisation can take many forms. Sometimes, possessing special skills rather than disabilities can result in an alienating and maladjusted childhood. In China, millions of children from poor, rural backgrounds are plucked at a tender age to train in national athletic teams, under severe conditons. Wushu Orphan is set in director Huang Huang’s hometown Henan, where the countries’ biggest martial arts school stands. It’s a dream factory of action superstardom, but beyond scenes of amazing synchronised kungfu displays lies a sarcastic critique of a results-obssessed education system and a society that promotes conformity.

 

Maggie Lee