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Sunday, June 22, 2008


the Pagodas of Burma

Right, so I said I was going to take a brief hiatus to force myself to write for my new short film. I might have underestimated my own writing skills since it took me only one night to finish what I need to write.

I went to the 3rd Annual Refugee Film Festival in the past two days (Friday and Saturday) and attended the screenings held at NHK Fureai Hall. The Tokyo Refugee Film Festival is organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and it screens films that draws attention to the human side of refugees (theme of the World Refugee Day's this year)

On Friday, with my new friend, aspiring writer/ filmmaker Yvonne J. Miller (she's actually Japanese), I saw two documentaries, the first was Irene Marty's feature-length IN THE SHADOW OF THE PAGODAS: THE OTHER BURMA (2004), which was followed by Matt Blauer's 30-minute long PRAYER OF PEACE: RELIEF AND RESISTANCE IN BURMA'S WAR ZONES (2007).

Since both are documentaries, there really isn't much I can comment. It is heart wrenching to see the plight of the Karen people (an ethnic group in Burma and Thai) being driven from their home during decades of war, and many are forced to live in refugee camps to avoid the threat of the Burmese military. For me, the most chilling part in THE SHADOW OF THE PAGODAS: THE OTHER BURMA was when a few children were interviewed and they described how their parents were beaten to death, or shot by soldiers. There's no anger, no sadness, just a bleak acceptance of fate.

I grew up knowing Burma as Myanmar, and calling it that. But perhaps it's time for a change.

For more details, you can read Japan Times' article about the filmmaker Irene Marty and this film.


Excerpts of the film, and interview with the filmmaker (in the 4th minute mark)

I was haunted by the images captured in PRAYER OF PEACE: RELIEF AND RESISTANCE IN BURMA'S WAR ZONES, which is about ethnic relief workers aiding those suffering under the Burmese army. This can be viewed as the companion piece of the previous film (although that's most likely why they were screened back-to-back). It focuses on a female medic and a pastor/ human rights cameraman.

The film is largely in Burmese, and has Japanese subtitles, which I still can't read that well. So I was more caught up with the visuals. Especially these images: And a father braving through the war zones, carrying his toddler daughter to seek medical help in a refugee camp. The toddler's body was grotesquely misshapen and swollen by her illness.

She had cancer.

An excerpt of Prayer of Peace: Relief and Resistance in Burma's War Zones

This is the production blog of this film.

Looking at the series of tragedy that befall upon the nation of Burma over the years, the military dictatorship, the needless massacre of the innocents, and then Cyclone Nargis, is there no relief for the pain that the people there have to endure?

On the following day (yesterday evening), I saw JUN-AI, a Japanese-Chinese co-production.

Jun-Ai poster, starring Peng Bo and Keiko Kobayashi

Unlike the previous two films, this one's fictional. 8 years in the making, it was largely the passion project of its executive producer/ scriptwriter / lead actress Kobayashi Keiko, who was at the screening and whom I spoke to briefly when the film ended.

This is its summary:

Summer. 1945. And the end of a long world war.
Most of the young Japanese who had gone to settle in China had been left behind.
The dreams that carried them there had been crushed the moment Japan surrendered.
Ai, Shunsuke and the other settlers were hanging in a balance of life and death as
most Chinese villagers had lost loved ones to the Japanese military.
Shanron and his aging mother helped these two Japanese, accepting them unconditionally.
Inside of each of them was the beginning of a friendship beyond borders,
the start of a love worth risking one’s life for.
This film is not an attempt to show the tragedies of war.
This film’s theme is a true love that is eternal despite the changes of time.

The film won a number of awards at the Monaco Film Festival, including Best Producer, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Independent Spirit Award and Angel Peace Award.

Proceeds of the film go to the Kobayashi Keiko Foundation. Back in 2004, during production of the film, the Foundation built Kibo (Hope) Elementary School at the foot of Mt. Tai in Shandong Province, China, and the school is now attended by 600 students. The organization strives to bring more benefits to the children, and to build more schools.

Normally, when you see a film with such aspirations, it's really hard to evaluate their quality. Because to criticize such a well-intentioned film is like kicking a puppy, you'll be demonized for being heartless. So many times in film festivals and such screenings, as much as I can respect the intentions of the filmmakers, I choose not to remark anything about the actual quality of the film that they've made.

Fortunately, JUN-AI is a decent film in its own right. Well-acted, well-shot, nicely-directed (from Chinese director JIANG Qinmin) and emotional. It's a compelling watch that overcame my initial cynicism and reservations, and I have to admit that there was a scene towards the end that made me choke back a little. Film sheds light upon the tense relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese just after WW2, for some reason, when faced with a group of outraged Chinese villagers wanting to kill them, the two Japanese protagonists cried out in Chinese, "we're not soldiers! We're just normal Japanese people!", and it reminded me how civilians then were often unjustly dragged into war, which were really the affairs of their government, and not them.

Despite the limitations of the DV camera, the rural settings in the film is just as lush and picturesque, and Peng Bo's performance as Shanron justifies how he is gradually thrust into the center of the film, into the interracial Japanese-Chinese love story.

Trailer of Jun-Ai

See? It's emotional stuff. I like the music that came in at the 1:30 minute mark a lot.