Real-life events and non-professional cast used in some films during Asia House Film Festival

Line Producer Diana Ashimova and Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Jasper Sharp

Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Jasper Sharp in conversation with Line Producer of 'Stranger' Diana Ashimova after the screening of the film at the Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2016 at the Ham Yard Theatre. Image credit: George Torode

Real-life events and non-professional cast used in some films during Asia House Film Festival

15 March 2016

By Naomi Canton

The challenges of making films about real-life topics in Asia and of attracting a domestic audience to watch such movies was one of the leitmotivs that ran through the Q&As with filmmakers during the Asia House Film Festival 2016.

Some of the films screened at the Festival this year used a real-life non-professional cast to vividly portray the social issues the films were expressing. Many were international collaborations.

Factory Boss (2014) was screened to an almost packed house in London on the Friday of the Festival. It was the Chinese film’s European premiere at the Regent Street Cinema.

The movie is about a Chinese factory manager who, under pressure to make money in a difficult economic climate, accepts an order at his factory at a massively undercut price. The film shows the factory at breaking point trying to deliver the massive order and then some very unfortunate consequences follow.

Despite its positive reception in London, when screened in China it did not attract big audiences, lamented the director Zhang Wei who had travelled to London for the screening.

“Young people would not be interested in it and Chinese factory bosses would cry,” he said. “You need to do a lot of marketing of a film like this in China and I did not have time as I was already working on my next film. Soon I hope to have it on the Internet,” he said. He said it was made on a £1 million budget but had not made any money. “Good films don’t make any money,” he added. Wei said the film reflected a widespread problem in China from 2006 to 2008. “The situation in China is better now,” he said.

“After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis there were many repercussions in China and reports of people jumping from the top of factory roofs and I thought this would make a good topic for a film,” he said.

Only a handful of the cast were professional actors. The rest were genuine workers from four different factories.

Like many of the films shown during the Festival, it was an international collaboration: the cinematographer  was German, it was set in China and the music was by a British composer.

Another film to use a real-life non-professional cast as opposed to professional actors and depict real-life problems was Mina Walking (2015), set in Afghanistan. It was directed, shot and written by 26-year-old Afghan-Canadian Yosef Baraki who spent his childhood in Kabul. He shot the film in 19 days using a very small camera.

In a Skype Q & A before the screening at the Regent Street Cinema, he said: “There is no film or TV industry in Afghanistan and no actors. The people in my film are not actors. They are people we are using to portray a role. There was no script. When we begin shooting we just had an outline of where the story should go and the rest depended on what was available on any given day. We improvised with what was available, we rehearsed and then filmed it. The film gives you a unique look at a culture and people that you don’t generally get to see,” he explained. The film covers a poor Afghan girl’s desperation to go to school, echoing the story of Malala Yousafzai.

“It’s a story about Afghanistan’s street children who spend their lives on the streets selling various items to support their family. It all started on one of my trips to Afghanistan when I befriended a group of street children. They have a very unique advantage in telling the story of Afghanistan as they have access to everyone and everything – the mosques, the market and so on, so I knew that using the street child as a vessel would be perfect,” he said.

Seoul Searching (2015) was similarly based on real events. It is about expat Koreans sent to learn about what it means to be Korean at a summer camp in 1986.

The director Benson Lee, who took part in a Q&A after the screening, said it was based directly on his own experiences of going to such a camp aged 16 – and Sid, a punk Korean character living in the US, who features in the film, was based on him. “I knew nothing about the world then,” he revealed. So did he learn Korean values on the camp?  “I learnt more about the world than about Korea,” he said.

See a slideshow of the Opening Gala Night below:-

Asia House Film Festival Opening Night Gala

He said the teenagers he met had all had been raised in other countries but the one thing they had in common was “cultural conflicts” with their parents. He said he was still in touch with all the friends he made in the camp. “I think you remain friends with the people you have really good experiences with,” he commented. Many parts of the film such as a drinking game between the character Sid and a feisty female character were based on real incidents, he said.

“A lot of it did happen and was inspired by real people and real events. This film is more like an American film like Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club. I hated the depiction of Asian characters in Hollywood movies and it’s more like the kind of movie I had wanted to see when I was growing up,” Lee added.

The film also has an adopted Korean child character. “After the Korean War there were lots of orphans and a lot of them were adopted by people from abroad and they struggled a lot growing up,” Lee said. The film will be screened in the USA and Canada later this year.

State of the Play, also screened during the Festival, is a documentary about the highly pressurised lucrative world of competitive video gaming in South Korea. It shows how young people in Korea make a career out of playing the games in large stadiums being watched by hordes of screaming fans, usually girls. The players live together in houses where they practise 14 hours a day.

Belgian director Steven Dhoedt explained how he ended up making this documentary. He made his first film about online gaming and during that period he made his first trip to South Korea to interview a game designer and ended up in Seoul. “There people told me about these stadiums where you would have celebrity gamers competing and I had not seen anything like that before. So I went back to Belgium and I thought wouldn’t it be great to research it. But when I researched it I found very little about it. I just found stories of the top players and the glamour of being a player. Then I read a few articles about how you get into a team and that’s how it started,” he said.

“The striking thing when you visit these stadiums is that you expect a whole room of male nerds. Instead you see a kind of Beatlemania of girls who are in awe of what’s happening on stage. Once you get past that you ask yourself why would anyone want to be a pro-gamer?  I do think they don’t really know what it takes or what they are signing up for and the sacrifices they would have to make,” he added. He said the 85-minute documentary took two years of shooting and eight months of editing.

“They tried to get a female league off the ground but it didn’t work. They would have had to set up female team houses. I think they could not find enough women to make it sustainable and it died out,” he said.

Like many sports it is a young man’s game, he added. “They start around 16 years old and peak at 21. If you like you can continue to 30-35 but that’s an exception. Then you can become a coach. Most gamers quit around 26 to 27,” he explained.

The documentary had previously been shown in Korea to an audience of gamers. “It was fascinating as it seemed like they were watching a comedy. There are quite a few scenes where they don’t live up to their public image and that’s unheard of on Korean TV channels. It made a lot of people laugh,” he said. Like other films at the Festival State of Play was an international collaboration: it was co-produced with a Korean TV channel which allowed them not only to get funding from the Seoul Film Commission but also to “have a proper co-production” rather than being a European company outsourcing production services,” he said. “Now we share the rights and it feels like a proper collaboration,” he added.

Kazakhstan’s official submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards Stranger (2015) opened the Asia House Film Festival at the Ham Yard Theatre. The film was also based on a real-life story, explained line producer Diana Ashimova, who took part in a Q&A after the screening.

Guests enjoyed complimentary drinks and canapes at the Ham Yard Hotel on the Opening Gala Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

Guests enjoyed complimentary drinks and canapes at the Ham Yard Hotel on the Opening Gala Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

Set in 1930s Kazakhstan, and with echoes of The Revenant, it is about a villager Ilyas who retreats into a cave to live off the land and refuses to fight in WWII. Ashimova said Stranger was inspired by a real story from director Yermek Tursunov’s childhood. There was a man in his village who refused to go to war and lived in a cave in the mountains but unlike the protagonist in Stranger he was a thief, so parts of the story were fictionalised but the story was real, she said.

“Yermek wondered if the story was too old for today but the story is very topical in today’s society where success is the main goal. In this film the hero leaves society to have freedom and live alone and even today there are people with these thoughts but they are usually neglected by society and not accepted,“ she said.

Apart from the main actors the other actors are all real villagers in a small village in Kazakhstan. Yerrmek is very fond of Scorsese and maybe you can trace his style to Akira Kurosawa, Ashimova said.

There are many real animals, including wolves, in the film. “He always gives us a very difficult task because he likes to have real animals and children in his films,” she said. “He does not like computer graphics. He likes it to be real. We have a coach who trains wolves in our movies.”

The film also demonstrates how hospitable the people of Kazakhstan are to people of different nationalities, she pointed out.

Line Producer of Stranger Diana Ashimova with Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Jasper Sharp at the Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

Line Producer of Stranger Diana Ashimova with Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Jasper Sharp at the Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

“More than 125 nationalities live in Kazakhstan. During WWI and WWII many people of different nationalities were deported to Kazakhstan. The film is also a parable about someone striving for freedom. Can someone be happy living alone? What is happiness? In the final scenes he can’t live alone and still wants someone close to him,” Ashimova said.

But similar to the fate of Factory Boss in China, this film too failed in its home market of Kazakhstan.

“Teenagers prefer to talk not about serious stuff rather more entertaining films. It was more successful abroad but in our country it failed,” she said.

The Opening Gala Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

The Opening Gala Night of the Asia House Film Festival. Image credit: George Torode

Another film showed by Yermek Tursunov at the festival was Little Brother (2015), which is part of a trilogy, others being The Daughter-in-Law (2009) and The Old Man (2012). It was shot in Kazakhstan, Thailand and Majorca. “Often his films have questions about life,” Ashimova said. “This film is the only film he makes about city life. I think this movie makes you think about modern life and what we are doing in cities nowadays,” Ashimova said.

Director Lauren Knapp was fortunate in that she faced no challenges making her music documentary Live From UB (2014) which is about the rock scene in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar (referred to as UB). “I had been living in China in 2006 to 2007 and I happened to go into a record shop and found an album of traditional Mongolian music and couldn’t stop listening to it and was transfixed. So that made me make my first trip to Mongolia,” she said. “I travelled around the countryside and I was blown away. In early 2011 I got the opportunity to move to another country and document something about music in that country using a Fulbright grant and I wanted an excuse to go back to Mongolia,” she said.

“Before I knew it I was meeting record producers and pop star from the 80s. I was prepared for struggles to access people but in reality it was easy. I met a big star from the 1980s and 90s in first week and he gave me phone number of more people and it snowballed from there,” she added. “I met the band Mohanik at a ski resort and they were playing their early rock ‘n’ roll songs there. I asked if I could see them practise or perform and they invited me to a concert the next week and then I decided I wanted to stay with them and we started going to festivals and at that time they just trying to figure out their new album so it ended up being really serendipitous,” she said.

The Asia House Film Festival 2016 screened 19 films, including five European and six UK premieres, over a period of two weeks at the Ham Yard Theatre, the Regent Street Cinema, the Cinema Museum and Asia House in London. It was sponsored by Prudential. For more details on our film programme click here.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival takes place from  from Wednesday 4 May until Wednesday 18 May at Asia House in London. Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off in 2015, will open this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival with a discussion about integration and identity in the UK. To see the full line-up of events click here. 

To find out about all the arts and learning events taking place at Asia House click here.