Letters From the South: Busan Review

"Letters From the South"
An uneven but contemplative collection of migrant tales.

In a portmanteau of six short films, Southeast Asian filmmakers explore the links between the Chinese diaspora and the Middle Kingdom itself.

Letters are only meaningful when they are meant to be two-way communication – and the significance of the six shorts in the omnibus film Letters from the South could be gauged by their abilities to contemplate the ever-shifting relationship between the Chinese diaspora ("the South") and China (the roots in "the North"). Posting a mix of melancholic and comic questions, this Malaysian-produced portmanteau offers substance rendered in a range of styles, and will inevitably be of interest to film programs examining either China or migration issues.

The six shorts could be roughly divided into three groups: the first pair, Aditya Assarat's Now Now Now and Midi Z's Burial Clothes sees different generations casting glances northwards. Assarat's Thai-Chinese schoolgirl reflects on how her mainland Chinese cousin has transformed herself from a shy nobody into her current alluring, artistic self; for the Myanmar-Chinese director Z, it's all about the hopes of returning home, as a granddaughter helps realize his grandfather's final wishes by bringing the funereal attire he left in his ancestral village back in China.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans Sun Koh and Royston Tan offer tales closer to home. The former's New New Panda using a pending Chinese takeover of a Singaporean radio station to reflect on how one of its veteran production staffers positions himself culturally; the latter's Popiah, which looks at how kinship is fostered through traditional cooking.
The final two episodes are leaps into fantasy: in a whirl of quick edits of nocturnal images in the titular Malaysian city, Tan Chui Mui's A Night in Malacca reflects on the possibility of revisiting the nostalgic sentiments of exiled Chinese writer Yu Dafu; as he described how memories subside in the tropical Southeast Asian heat.

But at least Tan's conversing with someone or something with her entry: the same couldn't be said of Malaysian-born Tsai Ming-liang's Walking on Water, which is nothing more than a love letter to his hometown of Kuching. It’s a shame the film ends with a letdown since the what comes before shapes up to be a contemplative collection of affecting migrant tales.

A Window on Asian Cinema, Busan International Film Festival
Production Company: Da Huang Pictures
Directors: Aditya Assarat, Royston Tan, Midi Z, Sun Koh, Tan Chui Mui, Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Lulu Huang, Wu Kexi
In Thai, Mandarin, Teochew, Cantonese and English
105 minutes