News and Reviews
Educating About Asia Through Film    


Spring 2016    

Issue: #59    


In This Issue
Letter From The Editors
Film Review: My Way
Film Review: I Am
Film Review: Tales of the Waria
Website: Digital Asia
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This issue of News and Reviews brings together three striking films that raise questions about identity, gender, and sexuality in a variety of Asian contexts.
My Way follows two male actors in the Cantonese Opera as they try to pursue careers as Qian Dan, or males playing female lead roles.
In I Am, a filmmaker returns to India, a country she had left twenty-one years earlier following her mother's death there, and through a reverie focused on old photographs explores how laws against homosexuality and restrictive social norms shaped her own life as well as those of a series of people who have come out in India.
Tales of the Waria is a nuanced exploration of four waria, "men who live as women believing they were born with the souls, feelings, and instincts of a woman."
All three films present complex realities, where individual lives play out in contexts that embrace both long-standing traditions and new ways of thinking about identity and the ways we define gender. Revealed are worlds where both tradition and new, often Western labels ("gay," "transgender," etc.) are revealed to be descriptors that do not do justice to the web of relationships, experiences, and desires that make up individuals.
Elizaeth Oyler
My Way

Directed by Cheung Cheuk. 2012. 72 minutes. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Reviewed by I-In Chiang.

A male Dan, or Qian Dan, is a female character in Chinese opera portrayed by a cross-dressing man. The documentary My Way depicts the dreams of two Cantonese Opera actors, Hau-wei Wong and Wing-Lun Tam, and their desire to become male Dan. My Way follows them over seven years, from 2004 to 2010, as they encounter various difficulties on the road towards their dreams. This documentary makes people think, "Which way is it? Are Wong and Tam on the same path?"

The male Dan is a tradition in Chinese opera, especially well-known in the Peking Opera. One of the most famous male Dan in modern history is Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), who was popular in the early 20th century, not only China but also in Europe, the United States, and in other parts of East Asia as well. Mei was famous for portraying female characters, "Dan," usually playing the female protagonist. Because Mei toured around the globe as a male Dan, his popularity left people with the impression that male Dan are a common practice in Chinese opera. However, the practice varies in regional theatres, and Cantonese Opera has no such tradition. In Cantonese Opera, male impersonators are often more popular than female impersonators but sometimes both the male and female leads are performed by women. One of the most famous couples in Cantonese Opera was Maestra Kim Fai Yam (1913-1989) and Maestra Sheut Sin Bak (born 1926), with whom Wong compares Tam and himself. It becomes an interesting comparison given that Tam and Wong comprise a couple played by men, whereas Yam and Bak are both women. The "way(s)" that Wong and Tam desire to take are, consequently, not conventional ways.
I Am
Directed by Sonali Gulati. 2011. 70 minutes. In Hindi and English with English subtitles.

Review by Alice Huang.

After the passing of her mother, filmmaker Sonali Gulati leaves her girlfriend in the US to travel back to India, a country that only recently abandoned the law that criminalized homosexuality. She returns to empty out the home where she and her mom once lived together for twenty-one years.
The title I Am is both unfinished and complete. Invisible ellipses stand in for Sonali's unspoken words, the missing object at the end. In the meantime, the title is a complete sentence, a matter-of-fact statement about identity, needing no modifiers.

Tales of the Waria
Directed by Kathy Huang. 2011. 56 minutes. In Indonesian with English subtitles.

Review by Leslie Morrow.

Tales of the Waria explores the stories of Indonesian nationals Suharni, Mami Ria, Tiara, and Firman, four waria, or men who live as women believing they were born with the souls, feelings, and instincts of a woman. According to the documentary, waria is derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man). Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population, and director Kathy Huang says that her first inclination was to explore how the waria negotiated the role of Islam in their lives. But her interview subjects were not interested in that topic. Instead, they desired a film exposé that would explore how to find lasting love. Huang first discovered the waria via a news story in 2005 through the waria supermodel pageant, which opens the film. A few years later, a news story revealed that President Obama had spent some time as a child growing up in Jakarta, in the care of a waria, which prompted Kathy to want to learn more. After taking some Indonesian language classes and seeking the counsel of a well-known anthropologist known for his work with the queer community in Indonesia, she traveled to the town of Makassar, the primary setting for the film.
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:
My Fair Wedding
Directed by Jang Hee-Sun. 2014. 94 minutes. 
Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 7:00 pm
Post-screening discussion by Robert Cagle, Ph.D., Department of Cinema and Media Studies, University Library, UIUC

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

Previous issues of News and Reviews:

Electronic newsletters -  September 2010 - Winter 2015

Archived print newsletters - Spring 1998 - Fall 2009

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.