Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 88, No 2

Wild Rose [Ye Meigui] 1932. Producer, Luo Ming You; director, Sun Yu; cinematography, Yu Sheng San; music, Donald Sosin; DVD producer and writer, Richard J. Meyer; translation, Mahlon D. Meyer. Reviewed by Chris Berry

Nowhere To Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing. Written and directed by Jocelyn Ford. Reviewed by Emily T. Yeh

Mallamall. Written, produced and directed by Lalita Krishna. Reviewed by Sandeep Ray

Unity Through Culture. Directed, produced by Christian Suhr, Ton Otto. Reviewed by John Barker

Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales. By Paul Wolffram, producer/director/cinematographer. Reviewed by John Barker


WANG RENMEI: The Wildcat of Shanghai. By Richard J. Meyer. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press; New York: Cornell University Press [distributor], 2013. xxv, 157 pp., [20 pp. of plates] (Illus.) + 1 DVD (Wild Rose) US$30.00, paper. ISBN 978-988-8139-96-5.

WILD ROSE [YE MEIGUI] 1932. Producer, Luo Ming You; director, Sun Yu; cinematography, Yu Sheng San; music, Donald Sosin; DVD producer and writer, Richard J. Meyer; translation, Mahlon D. Meyer. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013, 1932. 1 DVD (ca. 84 mins.) Silent film with musical accompaniment; intertitles in Chinese and English.

It gives me great pleasure to commend the latest in Richard J. Meyer’s book-and-dvd sets on Chinese film stars from the 1930s. After his biographies of Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan (also from Hong Kong University Press), we now have Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai. It comes with the DVD of the film that made her famous and gave her the “wild cat” nickname, Wild Rose. The Shanghai cinema of the 1920s and 1930s is probably the most aesthetically and politically significant and also plain enjoyable cinema that you have never heard of and never seen. Getting to know Shanghai cinema challenges the old idea of modernity as a Western cultural formation that slowly spread across the world. Instead, it suggests that by the early twentieth century multiple incarnations of modernity were already developing simultaneously in metropolises across the world. With his careful research, accessible writing and the provision of a quality DVD with English subtitles—courtesy of his Mandarin-speaking son, Mahlon—Richard J. Meyer is helping the world to get to know the cinema of old Shanghai. His latest book will be of interest not only to film scholars and China scholars, but also to anyone who enjoys movies.

There is an implicit logic to the choice of Wang Renmei for the third of Meyer’s biographies. If Ruan Lingyu is the best-remembered of Shanghai’s female stars and Jin Yan the best-known male star of the 1930s, then Wang was also a major female star and Jin Yan’s wife. The biography maps out her life in a straightforward chronological order. Wang’s life was both exciting and tragic. Initial great success was interrupted by World War II, after which her career never really recovered. She entered a decline marked by episodes of mental illness after the 1949 Revolution, and died in 1987. In an era when film scholarship overlaps with research on the creative industries and people are interested not only in film texts but also the circumstances of their production, Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai provides much important information and insight for future scholars as well as the general reader.

Wang Renmei’s sad fate could have been worse. As Meyer notes, her life was intertwined with that of Mao Zedong himself, who taught at a school run by her father in Hunan when she was a child. Later on, he shielded her from the political movements that destroyed the lives of so many other artists and intellectuals. Using regular Chinese published sources supplemented by interviews with her friends and colleagues, Meyer traces her road to stardom via membership of the Bright Moon song and dance troupe. Luo Mingyou, boss of Shanghai’s famous Lianhua Studios, used the Bright Moon Troupe in a couple of his movies. Wang was spotted on the set by leading director Sun Yu, and also her future leading man and husband, Jin Yan.

Sun Yu cast Wang Renmei as a country girl opposite Jin Yan as the artist scion of a rich Shanghai family in Wild Cat. Her vivacious energy, his dashing charisma, and the chemistry between them are all evident when watching the DVD that comes with the book. Unsurprisingly, the film shot her to overnight stardom. The country girl and the artist fall in love when Jin drives his convertible out into the countryside to paint a bucolic scene. But his father will not accept the relationship. After numerous trials and tribulations, the film ends with a Sun Yu signature shot of the pair joining a march of patriotic volunteers. Although it could not be specified because of the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist government’s policy of appeasement, the march is implied to be against the Japanese invasion of Northeast China.

What remains disputed is whether Wild Cat and other patriotic and class-conscious films of the era should be understood as a leftist cinema and part of the heritage of the People’s Republic, or whether they were in fact equally in tune with the ideology of the Nationalists. Perhaps wisely, Meyer does not get involved in this debate! Wang starred in other important films of the period, including Cai Chusheng’s Song of the Fishermen (Yu Guang Qu, 1934). This film won Chinese cinema’s first major international award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1935. When the Japanese invaded the rest of China in 1937, Wang and Jin fled south. However, they did not join Mao and the Communists in Yan’an, which meant they were not part of a trusted inner circle of cinema artists after the 1949 Revolution. A declining career of occasional minor roles was accompanied by divorce, bad remarriages, and poor mental health until her death in 1987.

As well as giving her biography, Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai includes synopses of every film, transcripts of the interviews that Meyer conducted with her friends and colleagues, and credits for all of her films, as well as some details on their availability. This meticulous scholarship makes the volume both an enjoyable introduction to the star for the general reader and an important scholarly resource. My only quibble is that this excellent work could be further improved by the inclusion of Chinese characters, at least for the names of all people mentioned in the text and the titles of the films. That’s something to hope for perhaps in the next book in this valuable series.

Chris Berry, King’s College London, London, United Kingdom


Back to top

NOWHERE TO CALL HOME: A Tibetan in Beijing. Directed by Jocelyn Ford. [China]: Stories that Matter, 2014. 1 DVD (77 min. or 52 min.) Institutions and Universities, US$300.00; Secondary Schools,US$200.00; Personal Use, US$15.00 or $4.99 online rental. In Mandarin, Rma Tibetan and English with English subtitles. Mandarin and bilingual versions are also available. url:

Veteran radio correspondent Jocelyn Ford has produced a poignant and important documentary that follows the story of Zanta, a rural Tibetan migrant struggling to make a living in Beijing. The film weaves together narratives of female suffering and agency under patriarchal gender relations with the little-studied phenomenon of Tibetan migrants in eastern China, and the account of a Western outsider wondering whether and how to get involved in a family dispute that she knows she has little understanding of.

After being widowed at the age of 28 in a village in the Gyarong region of Sichuan, Zanta’s life is made intolerable by her abusive in-laws, who will not allow her young son to attend school. She refuses to remarry, as expected of women in her situation, and instead migrates to Beijing where she tries to make a living by hawking jewelry on sidewalks. There she meets Jocelyn, who happens to buy a piece of jewelry from her. Two years later, she calls Jocelyn out of the blue, asking her to take and raise her son. Zanta’s life is too difficult for her to see any other way to enable him to attend school and thus have a chance at a better life.

Jocelyn starts supporting Zanta’s son to attend school in Beijing and becomes increasingly involved in their lives. While Zanta interprets this as evidence that the two were relatives in a past life, Jocelyn questions her own role and wonders on occasion if she is doing the right thing and what it means to try to help someone else who inhabits a very different social and cultural world. Their relationship gives Jocelyn—and thus the viewers of this film crafted over four years—a much better understanding of the discrimination faced by Tibetans in Beijing. As a Tibetan, Zanta is scoffed at when she applies for a job as a custodian, and is repeatedly turned away by landlords and harassed by police.

The film culminates in a trip back to Zanta’s home region and an encounter with her dreaded, violent father-in-law, who has withheld Zanta’s and her son’s national identification cards, contributing significantly to their difficulties in Beijing. He threatens to beat Zanta’s son if he does not come visit, and once he is there, refuses to let him go. Through Jocelyn’s presence and intervention, he eventually allows him to return to school in Beijing but also expels Zanta from his clan. Throughout, Jocelyn finds very discomfiting not only the severe injustices faced by women in the region, but also Zanta’s apparent fatalism; though the trip concludes in a happy ending from Jocelyn’s point of view, it seems less so for Zanta, who finds herself with “nowhere to call home” now that she belongs neither to her former husband’s family nor her own, and lives as a perpetual outsider in Beijing.

Viewers specifically interested in contemporary Tibet may find it provocative, as I did, to consider Nowhere to Call Home in relation to Tenzin Jinba’s recently published book, In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border (University of Washington Press, 2013). Indeed, it would be productive to teach the two together in classes on China and Tibet, as well as in women and gender studies courses, as they both concern gender relations and the politics of Tibetan identity in Gyarong, but depict what seem to be strikingly different situations. Jinba dwells on the complexities of ethnic identity for the Gyarongwa, who he argues are culturally and politically marginal to both dominant Chinese and Tibetan societies. Some linguists categorize Gyarong language as a Qiangic rather than Tibetan dialect, and many Tibetans do not consider Gyarongwa “real” Tibetans, though the Gyarongwa disagree. These cultural politics make even sadder the heightened post-2008 discrimination that Zanta faces in Beijing.

Jinba’s book concerns a part of Gyarong that is the site of the “Eastern Queendom,” a legendary matriarchal kingdom used today as a local brand in competing for the ethnic tourism market. He argues that as part of this competition, local elite men in that part of Gyarong invert gender status, strategically valourizing women’s status (he calls this “self-feminization”) as a way of demonstrating their superiority to other Tibetan men vis-à-vis cosmopolitan, rather than traditional, gender norms. In Nowhere to Call Home, though, we bear witness to a diametrically opposite situation: a patriarchal culture that is violent and often abusive to women, a hyperbolic mode of traditional masculinity, rather than an inverted one. Domestic violence appears to be common, and women are severely devalued. Indeed, Zanta remarks that “women aren’t worth a penny” in the village, three of the four girls in Zanta’s own family have attempted suicide, and she herself says “If I could be reincarnated a man in my next life, I’d kill myself tomorrow.” In its depiction of actual gender relations within the families, the film provides a much-needed account of a little-told story.

More generally, the film is highly informative both about the harsh realities of life for Tibetan women in the countryside and Tibetan migrants in urban China today. Indeed, I found myself wanting to know more, especially about the thousand-some members of Zanta’s community who we learn are also trying to make their livings in Beijing, but also about where Zanta gets the wares she sells and how she is eventually able to exhibit at international bazaars indoors. In raising such questions for its viewers, the film travels far from the usual tropes of Tibetans that pervade public imaginations in China and in the West alike. Jocelyn’s own role also raises interesting questions for discussion. Both educational and moving, Nowhere to Call Home deserves a wide viewership.

Emily T. Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA


Back to top

MALLAMALL. Written, produced and directed by Lalita Krishna. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 2013. 1 DVD (74 min.) US$245.00, Institutional Use; US$24.95, Personal Use. In English and Hindi with English subtitles. URL:

Lalita Krishna’s documentary Mallamal guides us through that classic showdown: “Old India” versus “New India.” On the one hand are the 5000-odd vendors of the 250-year-old KR Puram street market (called sandi) in Bangalore that cater mainly to the majority poor, while on the other hand are a group of whip-smart consultants and collaborators who wish to build malls and retail stores all over the city for the aspirational and booming middle class. Will KR Puram street market be able to hold out much longer against the government injunction to vacate their lands? The documentary is a riveting look at two competing business and cultural models.

In his well-regarded book Provincializing Europe (Princeton University Press, 2000) social scientist Dipesh Chakravarty used the image of “time-knots” as a metaphor for the post-colonial condition: an illustration of an India that cannot be understood as a nation moving in a temporally linear, constantly juggernauting manner. Krishna’s film is full of these knots. We might be in a department store, a sleek design firm, or an air-conditioned car in one moment and then transported to a centuries-old farmers’ market, a rustic, low-income home, or inside a small grocery store in the next scene. Each of these locations and the people in them seem to be as “Indian” as the next. The documentary captures this constant ambiguity well—the camerawork is fluid and the fast intercutting effective because of the film’s back-and-forth storytelling style. The music is somewhat predictable: hip and fast-paced for the modernization segments, and more local-classical for the scenes covering the old markets and “traditional” themes. While somewhat clichéd, the trope does work.

Three strong, persuasive characters guide us through the documentary. Yele Srinivas is an articulate, confident street-store merchant advocating for his many hundred colleagues who are threatened by the government’s plans to seize their commercial land. Representing the capitalist dream is Anand Arumigam, a young, ambitious, MBA degree-holder who partners with a Canadian retail design firm Perennial and wishes to get bullish on the Indian retail market. He shares with us their aspirations to transform shopping in India into a sleek, convenient, air-conditioned experience. Nandini Sethuraman, recently returned from Canada, is an urbane, senior retail manager with a fondness for malls and cooking foreign dishes. Through her character we get a glimpse into the lifestyle of the successful executive who lacks little in material and Western-style comforts. At the same time, Nandini seems well-embedded in all of the disparate worlds around her—equally at ease planning elaborate dinner parties at her gated residential enclave, and in rolling down the window of her chauffeured car to give packets of biscuits to beggars. She is very possibly someone Anand would wish to be like someday.

What is striking about Krishna’s narrative construction is that all three characters are given the space to articulate their ideas and come across as genuinely believing in their aspirations and the ethics of their different lifestyles. There are additional commentators in the film, notably Dharmendra Kumar, the director of a foreign investment watchdog NGO who decries the Westernization of India’s business model from traditional-market-based individual sales, to large wholesale retail. Canadian marketing guru Scott Harrison thinks otherwise, he is convinced that this shift will jumpstart an already fecund economy. He is unabashedly in it for the money.

After a somewhat slow first half, with analyses on society and politics from various directions, the film settles on its core stories: the developments of the Canadian design firm with a branch in Bangalore trying to break into the Indian market, and the struggle of the sellers of sandi trying to hold onto their plot of land. Although their paths never cross in the narrative, their parallel stories are interwoven well. So convincing are the major players, that viewers might find themselves in an odd conundrum: rooting for both sides. It is the ability to bring out these contradictions with little bias that makes Mallamall an excellent documentary.

As the film progresses, we are privy to a number of intimate scenes in these various settings: the Canadian offices of Perennial where executives lock their heads together to work on their India strategy, a new Bangalore office where team members are involved in round-the-clock meetings to find new business, and Anand’s grass-roots organizing of his fellow shopkeepers so they can hold on to their market space in KR Puram. The camera is unobtrusive as emotions peak and the story gradually shifts from an analytical mode to a more dramatic unfolding of events.

Perhaps predictably, given Krishna’s remarkable lack of bias, in the end both sides seem to gain concessions. Anand cinches a deal for his fledgling Canadian-Indian branch. The government decides not to go ahead with the new mall in KR Puram. We are relieved not to have to witness failure on either end. It seems to be just a matter of time, however, before retail stores and malls do take over. A minor criticism is that viewers might have benefitted from some discussion around a sustainable economic model where both sides—the rising middle class, and the still enormous below-poverty-line groups—will manage to find a habitable balance.

With the recent elections and the ushering in of a government that has promised rapid economic development, Mallamall is released at an especially relevant time in India’s socio-political history. The film will make for excellent discussion in any course that studies Indian law, economics, politics, governance or sociology.

Sandeep Ray, National University of Singapore, Singapore


Back to top

UNITY THROUGH CULTURE. Directed, produced by Christian Suhr, Ton Otto. Watertown (MA): Documentary Educational Resources [distributor], 2011. 1 DVD (59 min.) US$219.00, Institution use; US$19.95, Home use. In Tok Pisin, Tok Baluan, and English dialogue with English subtitles.

STORI TUMBUNA: Ancestors’ Tales. By Paul Wolffram, producer/director/cinematographer; story devised by Patrick Toarbussi, et al; Handmade Productions Aotearoa presents. Watertown (MA): Documentary Educational Resources [distributor], c2012. 1 DVD (90 min.) US$245.00, Institution use; US$24.95, Home use. In English, Tok Pisin and Siar-Lak with English subtitles; closed-captioned in English.

Indigenous populations around the world have long self-consciously identified ancestral “traditions,” along with cognate terms such as “custom” and “culture,” as the foundation of their identities in a globalizing world. “Tradition” is often portrayed as the cultural David standing in brave opposition to the Western values undergirding globalization that threaten to homogenize cultural diversity. Yet projects intended to defend and strengthen indigenous traditions often subtly—and not so subtly—succumb to a related homogenization: a flattening of the distinctions between different local groups as they conform to regional stereotypes of “culture.” The two films under review here reveal different facets of tradition projects in two Papua New Guinea communities. Less directly, but just as importantly, they illustrate the ways that foreign researchers and film makers are themselves engaged in the process of affirming “tradition” in the face of the erosion of cultural distinctiveness.

Unity Through Culture deals with the tricky themes of tradition and change directly. It documents a six-day cultural festival organized on Baluan Island in Manus Province between Christmas and New Year’s in 2006. Cultural shows displaying local dancing and art forms date back to the early years of the colonial administration, usually in celebration of the opening of public buildings, church feast days or national holidays. The long-running Goroka Show in the Papua New Guinea highlands demonstrated the potential of cultural festivals to draw tourists as well as to engage young people with the more colourful aspects of their traditions and have been popping up across the country in recent years. The Balopa Cultural Festival is the brainchild of Soanin Kilangit, an enthusiastic advocate for the resurrection of local culture not only for its sake alone but as a way to attract outside attention to the region and, over time, entice tourists to visit. The festival has the full backing of the Manus provincial government including the Governor, who opens the festivities. The organizers are thrilled to have a Danish film crew present to promote the festival to Europeans.

The film includes wonderful scenes of festival dance and drumming performances as well as a lovely choral piece celebrating local heritage in the closing credits. The excitement felt by the young performers, many of them school students, is enthralling. Yet Otto and Suhr make it clear from the beginning that they are not interested in providing a simple promotional video. Indeed, the documentary is consistently, if gently, subversive. Early in the film, we are introduced to Pokowai Pwaril, a village elder who draws a sharp distinction between “custom”—which comes from the ancestors—and “culture,” which comes from the West. His complaint is given some validity as we learn how the various dances have been modified for the festival in part because no one clearly remembers how they are to be performed but also to make them more exciting for the audience. The film visually underlines the point: dance groups performing on a mounted stage before a panel of judges, awnings advertising Pepsi in the background, and (especially) a discomforting beauty pageant featuring young bare-breasted girls speaking into the microphone about their embrace of culture. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, a string band sings a warning to the promoters of culture not becoming “slaves of tourists.”

Keenly aware of the complaints, the festival promoters argue that to survive, culture must adapt and change. They are speaking in defense of the “improved” dances which have angered some elders and, for different reasons, church pastors. Yet the film reveals the continuing innovative operation of “custom” at less self-aware registers. Pwaril suffers an accident which he and others attribute to the ancestors being unhappy with tensions in the village; a spat between organizers that threatens to derail the festival is dealt with by a compensation payment of a pig followed by a public shaming and reconciliation ceremony; care is taken to make sure all dance groups and candidates for Queen receive prizes and that the gap in prize money between the winners and everyone else is minimal. While the performances at times take on the features of ubiquitous Pacific Island floor shows, the film depicts a story that could only unfold in its particulars in a rural Melanesian setting.

Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales takes a very different approach to the theme of tradition and change. Unabashedly romantic, it presents the story of a young New Zealand ethnomusicologist who has traveled to live for three years among the Lak people of southern New Ireland, “one of the most isolated and unique corners of the earth.” In the opening minutes, Paul Wolffram speaks of being “welcomed into the lives of these remarkably generous and curious people.” The narration then takes an onerous tone: “I also became enmeshed in events that resulted in bloodshed, death, and threatened the existence of the entire community. What’s more, I was held responsible.” For the next fifteen minutes or so, we follow Paul as he participates in ordinary village activities, records traditional stories and music, and travels along the coast to witness the famed mortuary ceremonials of this area. But soon a dark note enters the story. An old man has disappeared in the forest, leaving only his bag behind. Villagers are convinced that he’s been taken by the “Song,” a wild man of the forest. Paul is skeptical, but impressed by the seriousness with which the Lak consult their elders and customary knowledge to work out what has happened and what needs to be done, he becomes obsessed. His determination to capture the Song on video leads to a climatic confrontation in a hidden jungle valley in the dead of night.

Spoiler alert! While the mythology of the Song is real and common in much of rural Papua New Guinea (albeit with many local variations), Paul’s adventure is purely fictional: a contrivance worked out between the film maker and his hosts so that audiences can experience “their mythology the way they wish you to understand it.” And this underlines a larger theme. The gifts of the ancestors—song, dance and mythology—infuse the lives of the people. The culture is living.

It’s a good message and a clever means of delivering it. And the film itself is quite lovely with lingering shots of the gorgeous countryside, lively people and beautiful wildlife (particularly insects), all set to a compelling soundtrack of local music. I suspect, however, that it works best for people with little knowledge of Papua New Guinea. On the first viewing, I found the unfolding story increasingly implausible—not that Lak people believe in the existence of the Song but that they would risk engaging with it as they do in the film. The denouement didn’t come as much of a surprise. On the second viewing, I found myself bothered by how much of the film is dominated by Paul’s story. There is no doubt of his admiration for the Lak people and their way of life, but we learn surprisingly little about even the core subjects of Wolffram’s research: their music, oral traditions and rituals. Finally, I wonder about the exoticism of the film. By Papua New Guinea standards, southern New Ireland is not all that remote and signs of “modernity” can be spotted throughout the film, although mostly ignored. One is left to wonder how the “living culture” of the Lak people articulates with the world of money, schools, churches, healthcare, the lure of the towns, extensive clear-cut logging in the region and other challenges of modern life.

Stori Tumbuna presents an engaging if somewhat simple introduction to rural Melanesian life which should appeal to undergraduates. Unfortunately, at 83 minutes, it is too long for many classes. Unity Through Culture presents a more sophisticated and complex picture of the contradictions entailed in the celebration of cultural heritage by and for Indigenous peoples. It would work well in classes focused on the Pacific as well as courses dealing with heritage, economic development and globalization.

John Barker, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada


Back to top

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia

Faculty of Arts
Buchanan A20
1866 Main Mall,
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1, Canada
Tel: 604-822-3828
Pacific Affairs
#376-1855 West Mall,
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z2, Canada
Tel: 604-822-6508
Fax: 604-822-9452

Emergency Procedures | Accessibility | Contact UBC  | © Copyright The University of British Columbia