5 Movies Dealing with Contemporary Social Issues in Asia

Wikimedia Commons/CC/KIYOUNG KIM from Seoul, South Korea

By Beatrice Loh

The Asian entertainment industry is slowly gaining global popularity with the likes of glitzy South Korean music bands, exciting Japanese animated cartoons and cute romantic comedies from Thailand. Gone are the days when Asian movies were synonymous with poorly made martial arts films with terrible special effects. The world is beginning to see the diversity and richness of culture that Asia has to offer through film. Movies have also become a great medium through which social issues can be discussed.

Here is a list of 5 movies that highlight certain social issues in Asia:

  1. Ilo Ilo, Singapore

Ilo Ilo first premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Camera d’Or award, becoming the first Singaporean feature film to win an award at the festival.

Set in 1997 during the Asian Financial Crisis, the movie tells the story of the Lim family, a regular middle-class ethnic Chinese family in Singapore. They have just hired a new maid, Terry, and each member of the family must adjust to her arrival, especially ten-year-old Jiale, who spends the most time with her.

The movie highlights the weak parent-child relations that many families in Singapore suffer due to the busy working hours of parents. In many cases, the domestic helper becomes like a second mother to the child and forms a closer bond than the parents themselves. In recent years, more and more Singaporean companies have begun to emphasise work-life balance and introduce schemes to promote family time.

Watch the trailer here.

  1. 200 Pounds Beauty, South Korea

Based on a Japanese manga, 200 Pounds Beauty is a 2006 South Korean romantic comedy musical that became wildly popular upon its release.

The movie follows Kang Hanna’s transition from an overweight ghost singer to become a pop sensation after undergoing intensive plastic surgery. Hanna starts out as the ghost singer for Ammy, a famous pop singer who actually lip syncs. She develops a crush on Sang-jun, the son of the owner of the entertainment company in which she works. After being humiliated by Ammy in front of Sang-jun, she decides to undergo plastic surgery to become slender and beautiful to catch the eye of the man she loves.

200 Pounds Beauty targets the plastic surgery market in South Korea and its implications on oppressive beauty standards and negative self-image. Whilst some critics think the movie does not give a very clear stance on the issue, it is an important step to raising awareness of an issue that is negatively affecting the way girls view their bodies in South Korea.

Watch the trailer here.

  1. Slumdog Millionaire, India

A British drama film directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire is set in the slums of Mumbai, India. The movie was a sleeper hit. It was widely acclaimed for its plot, soundtrack and direction.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik, a young man from the Juhu slums of Mumbai, who makes it to the final round of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Before the $20 million question, he is detained and tortured by the police, who suspect him of cheating because they think it is impossible for him to know the answers as he is a mere “slumdog” with little education. Jamal recounts, through flashbacks, various incidents in his life that provided him with the answer to each question.

The movie highlights the harsh conditions of urban poverty in India. Jamal’s flashbacks give foreign audiences a glimpse into the tough struggle for survival for those living in Mumbai’s slums.

Watch the trailer here.

  1. Sang Pemimpi, Indonesia

A 2009 Indonesian film, Sang Pemimpi is adapted from the popular novel of the same title by Andrea Hirata. The movie came in second in the Indonesian box office in 2009 with a total audience of 1.9 million people.

The movie is a coming-of-age tale of three boys, Ikal, his cousin Arai, and their friend Jimbron. The title of the movie Sang Pemimpi means “The Dreamer” in English. It refers to the big dreams of Ikal and Arai as they enter high school. Although the boys are from one of the poorest villages, they want to go to Sorbonne University in Paris. The movie follows the boys as they chase their dreams, deal with love and struggle in their adolescent search for identity.

Although it is set in the 1970s during one of Indonesia’s roughest periods in her modern history, the movie still raises many contemporary issues about inequality and the lack of educational opportunities for the poor and those who live in more rural areas.

Watch the trailer here.

  1. A Touch of Sin, China

A Touch of Sin is a 2013 Chinese drama film directed by Jia Zhangke. In the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Jia won best screenplay whilst the movie was nominated for the Palme d’Or.

Set in the present and allegedly loosely based on events that have happened in the recent past, the film presents four vignettes set in vastly different geographical and social milieus across modern-day China. Each story is about a person driven to violence by the pressures of society.

The movie clearly raises several social problems that are plaguing China and shows the disturbing trend of using violence as a solution. Some issues brought up include economic inequality, social instability and a weak social safety net.

Watch the trailer here.