Edinburgh 2014: ‘Letters from the South’ review


Six directors presenting six separate encounters from four Southeast Asian countries, Letters from the South (2013) explores the fluid relationship between the Chinese diaspora and their homeland. Shot across Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar, this fascinating anthology depicts the crisis of identity that accompanies international migration. China has a long history of migration across Southeast Asia. Foreign invasion, starvation and the Cultural Revolution have resulted in numerous waves across the continent. Letters from the South is a lyrical series of meditations on Chinese identity, varying in style and tone while covering the social and spiritual consequences.

In Aditya Assarat’s Now Now Now and Sun Koh’s Singapore Panda, we’re presented with two lighthearted but affecting studies of lives lived away from the mainland. The former is a charming evocation of teen identity, focusing on two cousins: one a famous photographer who lives in China, the other a student in Thailand. The pair are reunited at a university party in Bangkok. The younger of the two becomes jealous and reflects on how her elder cousins has changed – no longer the shy inverted girl from China who once longed to have her own fashionable dresses and material things. Koh’s film is a far more playful affair, using the proposed buyout of a Singapore radio station by a Chinese conglomerate as the backdrop for a heartbreaking radio play about a panda who struggles to integrate with a congress of orang-utans.

Exploring the globalising impact of America on the Chinese diaspora, Koh’s amusing Singapore Panda discreetly shifts from carefree childish frivolity into a tale of overwhelming sadness about the vanishing identity of migrant communities in global cities. Meanwhile, a far more melancholy approach is favoured by directors Midi Z and Royston Tan, who provide us with two incredibly tender reflections on the erosion of tradition in spiritually displaced communities. In Midi Z’s Burial Clothes (an excerpt from his latest feature, Ice Poison, also screening at Edinburgh this year) we witness a young girl return from China with her grandfather’s burial outfit in what translates into a heart-achingly poignant deliberation on the difficulties of returning home after so many years away in a far-off foreign land.

Tan’s Popiah is slightly more complex. A beautifully presented meditation about how kinship is evoked through traditional food, Tan examines the generational shift of identity through the discourse between an old-fashioned father and his iPhone-obsessed son. Perhaps the most maudlin of the six films, the sentiment involved in Popiah’s father-son dynamic never feels forced, thanks primarily to some assured direction that permits moments of gentle comedy to garnish the film’s genuinely breathtaking cinematography. The final two episodes of Letters from the South shift dramatically into the realms of fantasy and high art. Tan Chui Mui’s A Night in Malacca investigates the colonial past of Malaysia in a nightmarish monochrome film-essay comprised of haunting visuals and a palpable sense of oppression. Revisiting the sentiments of exiled writer Yu Dafu, we take a surreal trip through the humid streets of Malacca as Yu’s words punctuate this frantic mosaic of stark, invasive imagery.

While Mui’s segment is perhaps the most stylistically divergent of the six shorts, Tsai Ming-liang’s Walking on Water is perhaps the most challenging. Another edition of the director’s series of short films that expand Lee Kang-sheng’s thirty minute ‘slow-walking’ performance, Walking on Water is a deeply personal meditation on belonging, with Lee’s Buddhist monk ‘slow-walking’ through the halls and stairwells of the Kuching housing block Tsai once grew up in. A contemplative and tonally diverse collection of deeply affecting tales, audience’s enjoyment of Letters from the South’s stories will depend greatly on their openness to the varying styles on offer. However, as an impassioned and intensely personal series of dispatches to the north, this omnibus of short films superbly articulates the forlorn voices of the displaced.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble