News and Reviews
Educating About Asia Through Film    


Fall 2015    

Issue: #58    


In This Issue
Letter From The Editors
Film Review: Agrarian Utopia
Film Review: Bitter Seeds
Film Review: Cotton Road
Website: Digital Asia
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This issue of AEMS News and Reviews covers three documentaries that focus on the theme of global consumption and its impact on the local agricultural production in Asian countries as well as people's individual lives.
Agrarian Utopia (reviewed by Dr. Matthew Winters) sets its scene in the rice farms of Thailand depicting how two struggling peasants under a capitalistic pyramid scheme seek different ways out from under the changing economical-political environment.
Bitter Seeds (reviewed by Dr. Rini Bhattacharya Mehta) is the final film in Micha X. Peled's Globalization Trilogy, following Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue. It reveals shocking facts concerning Indian farmers, such as the high rate of suicides resulting from debt, and shows how these phenomena relate to the changes created by globalized industrial agriculture.
Cotton Road (reviewed by Ms. Joy Yang Jiao) traces the transnational movement of cotton and tells the stories of the day to day life of workers in a conventional cotton supply chain. This documentary ties these phenomena back to the US showing how the clothes we consume have their roots worldwide and travel through a global labor chain from raw material to finished product to store shelves. Therefore, showing that our clothing choices impact people's lives and the global ecomony far beyond the local store.
These three documentaries, screened in our AsiaLENS film series in the Fall 2015 semester, were very well received by audiences. We are fortunate to have the film discussants write these reviews as well.
Our next issue will include three documentary reviews on LGBT issues in Asian countries, and we will see how various Asian perspectives shed light on our understanding of the LGBT issues.
We will also be screening these documentaries during our Spring AsiaLENS series in Spurluck Museum. In the near future you can find more information on both of these on our website and through our listserves. Stay tuned and happy new year of 2016!
Elizaeth Oyler and Yimin Wang
Agrarian Utopia

Directed by Uruphong Raksasad. 2009. 121 minutes. In Thai with English subtitles.
Reviewed by Dr. Matthew S. Winters.

Five minutes into Thai-director Uruphong Raksasad's fictional, documentary-style film, Agrarian Utopia, we find ourselves watching a 2007 rally of the People's Power Party, a party allied with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  The male heads of the two farming households on which the film focuses for its two hours sit and listen.  One of them loses interest quickly and walks off, just as People's Power Party leader Samak Sundaravej comes to the podium.  As we follow the farmer winding his way out of the crowd, Samak laments that Thailand has suffered from a coup, despite having crafted a constitution in 1997 that he says was "among the world's most democratic."  He refers to the 2006 coup that removed Thaksin from office. 
Having found himself under a mountain of debt, the main character has already decided to take his family to the countryside and farm with his friend.  The remainder of the film follows the two families through two seasons of the rice crop, the first ending in a disappointing payout from the middleman that is mostly claimed by the landlord who needs to pay back a car loan of his own, and the second ending prematurely with the landowner announcing that he has sold the land and needs the farmers to vacate it for the new owners.  We watch through the two seasons as the families plant and harvest rice, struggle to train a water buffalo to plow the field, and scrounge for any available food source: snakes and rats from the fields, beehives that they find in trees and on the nearby temple.  We watch as their children bathe in rain puddles and split their time between helpful contributions to the families' tasks and play.  The slow scenes, what A.O. Scott in the New York Times called the "weary endurance" of the farmers, test the endurance of the modern film-watcher but also succeed in transporting the viewers to the wet-rice agricultural life that remains common to so many rural citizens of Southeast Asia.
Bitter Seeds
Directed by Micha X. Peled. 2012. 88 minutes. In Hindi with English subtitles.

Review by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta.

The subject of Bitter Seeds, the third and the final film in Micha X. Peled's (aptly named) Globalization Trilogy, is the continuing saga of debt-ridden Indian farmers committing suicide by consuming pesticide, a story that is heartbreaking, to the uninitiated, but familiar to the point of banal to readers of Indian newspapers. Focusing on Vidarbha, the cotton-growing region of the Indian state of Maharashtra, Peled follows a yearlong cycle of cultivation through the experience of one farmer's family - the purchase and sowing of seeds, caring for the plants, picking the cotton and the eventual transport of the cotton to the local market on a bullock-cart - with extraordinary attention to detail, and the result is a compassionate and realistic account of 'industrial agriculture' in the era of globalization.

Cotton Road
Directed by Laura Kissel. 2014. 72 minutes. In Chinese and English with English subtitles.

Review by Ms. Joy Yang Jiao.

From the tranquil cotton fields in rural South Carolina, to the buzzing metropolis of Shanghai, runs an ethnographic journey of something taken for granted: clothing.  Americans consume nearly twenty billion new items of clothing each year, yet few know or care to know how our clothes are made, much less who produces them.  This new documentary Cotton Road uncovers the transnational movement of cotton and tells the stories of worker's lives in a conventional cotton supply chain.  From rural farms in southern United States, to massive factory cities in China, the critical lens spans the globe to examine the industrial processes behind our rapacious consumption of cheap clothing and textile products. As it explores a contemporary landscape of globalized labor through human stories, Cotton Road raises the question: are we connected to one another through the things we consume? The film provides an opportunity to reflect on the ways our consumption impacts others and drives a global economy.
AsiaLENS Film Series

AsiaLENS is a series of free public film screenings and lecture / discussion programs -- organized by AEMS in collaboration with the Spurlock Museum and Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities -- presenting recent documentary and independent films on issues reflecting contemporary life in Asia.  Local and visiting experts introduce the films and lead audiences in post-screening discussions.

All AsiaLENS screenings are FREE and open to the public. Join us at Spurlock Museum, Knight Auditorium, 600 S. Gregory Street, Urbana, IL 

Upcoming Screenings:
Tales of the Waria
A film by Kathy Huang. 2011. 56 minutes. In Indonesian with English subtitles.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 7:00pm
Post-screening discussion by Leslie Morrow, Director, LGBT Resource Center, Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I Am
Directed by Sonali Gulati. 2011. 71 minutes. In Hindi and English with English subtitles.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016 - 7:00 pm
Post-screening discussion by TBA

Digital Asia Link

Digitial Asia, a website bringing documentary films on contemporary East Asia to the classroom, has been launched by the Asian Educational Media Service (AEMS). In providing free access to excerpts of scholar made films on Asia, along with downloadable curriculum materials, Digital Asia offers high school and college educators an easy way to incorporate today's issues in Asia as part of their lesson plans. Digital Asia can be found at:  


Digital Asia is funded by the Freeman Foundation of Stowe, VT., New York City and Honolulu and by the IL/IN East Asia National Resource Center funded by U.S. Department of Education Title VI.


AEMS invites our supporters to make targeted donations to enhance our holdings and public programs. A donation of $30 can be used to purchase a film for the AEMS library. $300 will sponsor an AsiaLENS screening on campus or in the Champaign-Urbana community. $500 will help underwrite a film and curriculum materials in Digital Asia. Donations for specific materials or events will be acknowledged both in News and Reviews and at sponsored events. Thank you for your ongoing support of AEMS.

Follow this link to make an online donation.

You will be directed to the CEAPS Giving page.

After clicking "Continue With Your Donation" you will find a Special Instructions section where you can highlight "yes" under the question "Do you have other instructions for processing your gift?"

A text box will open where you can direct your gift to the following:
AEMS - Asian Educational Media Service Fund -or- Digital Asia Fund

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Media Production Group
In addition to hosting film screenings, AEMS also produces and distributes its own materials under the brand name Media Production Group (MPG).  These are short educational videos and DVDs about an aspect of Asian culture suitable for classroom use and accompanied by curriculum. 

AEMS maintains a searchable database of over 6,000 films about Asia, including length, format, distributor and synopsis. 

The AEMS library, through its connection to the Illinois Heartland library system, circulates videos and DVDs locally from its collection of more than 2,000. Search our online catalog here.