Film Review: Letters From the South

By Joy Chiang Ling

“Diaspora” is a term commonly used to describe Jewish people living outside of Israel, but it is also used to include a wide range of groups who have been dispersed from their homelands. One particularly large diaspora includes the Chinese in Southeast Asia. Millions of Chinese people have made countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore their home – and by doing so, have alienated themselves from their motherland and adopted new cultures. Letters From the South examines this phenomenon through several story arcs, each directed by a different person.

The first arc, directed by Aditya Assarat, tells the story of a meeting in Thailand between Paula, her Chinese cousin Mumu, and her friends. The second arc follows Royston Tan from Singapore, who shares the special meaning of the Popiah dish that has been traditionally made by his family for generations. The third arc is about Midi Zhao from Myanmar, who witnesses her grandfather’s death and gives him a Chinese burial. In the fourth arc, Chinese-Singaporean Sun Koh is a radio host who lends his voice to a children’s story about a panda who moves to Singapore. The fifth arc is a poetic reflection on Tan Chui Mui’s wanderings in Malacca. The sixth and final arc, directed by Tsai Ming-liang, details his observations of his childhood apartment in Malaysia.

These little snippets of people’s lives help give viewers a good idea of what life as a displaced Chinese person is like. All of these people have experienced culture differences, assimilation and estrangement – which are common things for any member of a diaspora to experience. One highlight of the film is shown in Sun Koh’s arc, where he describes his grandchildren and how they have grown to be so different from him. They speak English rather than Chinese, thanks in part to the growing influence of American entertainment in Singapore. Will future generations of Chinese people forget about their motherland’s culture and assimilate fully to the country in which their ancestors have migrated to? Issues like this will undoubtedly intrigue a wide audience, particularly Chinese people such as myself who are living overseas.

What was disappointing about Letters From the South, however, were the final two arcs, which took on an entirely different tone and style from the ones preceding it. Tan Chui Mui’s story about Malacca is told like a silent, abstract film. The editing, which jumped from one scene to another and back very rapidly, was nauseating to watch. The one following it, directed by Tsai Ming-liang, took on a similar approach. It made use of very long, drawn out shots that will likely bore viewers before any action occurs.

This film will be interesting to people who want to learn more about the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, but Chinese Malaysians will probably be disappointed by the lackluster final arcs that were meant to represent them.

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