How Asia Is Coming To Dominate The Film Noir Genre

By Melissa Twigg

From China noir films feted at Cannes to Singaporean award-winners, Asia is leading the way for this artistic, tension-filled genre

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Cover  A scene from The Wild Goose Lake

Like the French themselves, the Cannes Film Festival has an enigmatic air to it, one that is imbued with enough mystery and intellectualism to make the Oscars and the Baftas feel almost staid by comparison. This is partly because it is set on the glorious Cote d’Azur on France’s south coast, but mostly because the jurors at Cannes tend to gloss over the blockbuster romances and star-led adaptations to laud the filmmakers who examine the grittier side of life.

Despite being Europe’s most illustrious film festival, Chinese-made movies have never gained a real foothold at Cannes before. Europe’s most famous gathering of cinephiles is known for celebrating films with stark, post-modern themes—themes that were, until recently, rarely examined on the Chinese silver screen.

Over the past two decades the Chinese film market has gone from barely existing to producing around 600 films a year with box office receipts now topping US$8.5 billion—second only to the American market’s US$11.4 billion.

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Above  The French poster for the Wild Goose Lake

And for the last two years, the Chinese independent film industry and the French judges at Cannes have been having a major love-in. Stories exploring the darkness under the surface of modern Chinese society have turned heads on the Cote d’Azur, showing the world that the second-largest movie market is transforming itself into a hub for sophisticated, stylish filmmakers.

What is Noir?

Much like American film noir, which emerged in the 1920s, and reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s when the country’s morals were strictly policed by the notorious Production Code, its Chinese Mainland reincarnation also centres on stories around crime set mostly in the less appetising fringes of acceptable society.

Similar to America’s one-time draconian censors, China recently introduced regulations that require filmmakers to be handed a “dragon seal” of approval before films are permitted be shown at festivals, ensuring films needed to be subtler than ever. 

As a genre, noir is difficult to classify. A Western is identifiable by people on horseback; a musical involves singing and dancing; a war movie shows war—so far so simple. But even the directors who worked in film noir’s heyday 70 years ago didn’t use that term to describe their work. But while noir is meant to illuminate the shadowy fringes of society, it is also all about subtlety. They are essentially psychological narratives where the action—however violent or fast-paced—is less significant than faces, gestures and words of the characters.

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Above  A scene from The Wild Goose Lake 

The rise of China noir

Noir is popular around the world, but last year was the first time China noir was feted in the champagne-soaked parties and sea-front meeting rooms of Cannes. This was thanks to Ash is Purest White, Jia Zhangke’s meditation on the country’s transition to capitalism—and the subsequent brutal overhaul of people’s lives told through a deeply moving tale of disappointed love and female resilience.

This year, the Diao Yinan-directed crime thriller The Wild Goose Lake is going head-to-head with Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Set in the provincial crime underworld, The Wild Goose Lake has the hallmarks of a classic fugitive thriller—a runaway gangster, a prostitute caught up in his flight, a policeman hunting him down. But Yinan has made it so much more than a classic popcorn muncher thanks to a detailed exploration of the dimly lit maze of alleyways in rural China, the sweatshops that still populate it, and cramped housing blocks where the action unfolds.

Similarly complex themes are explored in director Zu Feng’s Summer of Changsha, which was meant to compete in the more edgy ‘Un Certain Regard’ section against well-known indie directors such as Michael Angelo Corvino. Set in the oppressive heat of a Changsha summer, it tells the tale of a complex love story between a policeman, a surgeon and potential murderer. However, five days into the festival on the 20th May, it was abruptly removed. An official announcement on the film’s Weibo account stated it was withdrawing from all Cannes events due to “technical issues”, but the suspicions have, as ever, fallen on the State.

Noir around Asia

And while the newfound intellectualism and talent in the China noir movement is making headlines around the world, China is not alone in expanding the noir genre. In Singapore, critically acclaimed A Land Imagined tells the story of a Chinese labourer who goes missing while working on a building site, and we follow the subsequent efforts of a world-weary detective to track him down. Through his story, we learn about the nearly 300,000 foreign workers who live in Singapore and work in gruelling conditions to build the glittering skyscrapers and residential high-rises the city is known for.

There is an increasing consciousness on the role of art and cinema in society
Boo Junfeng

The film debuted last August at the Locarno Festival in Italy, where it won the top prize. Singaporean director Yeo Siew Hua said he hoped it would raise awareness about the lives of migrant labourers who are still regarded as outsiders in the city they live in. “When we talk about the migrant workforce in Singapore, there is a certain blindness, especially in mainstream society,” says Yeo. "The film tries to show them as humans, as people with hopes and dreams."

And then there is fellow Singaporean and Generation T honouree Boo Junfeng. His 2016 noir film, The Apprentice, was lauded at Cannes three years ago for tackling the complex path a young prison officer has to go down when he is offered the role of chief hangman in a Singaporean jail.

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Above  Boo Junfeng

“I believe good stories have the power to inspire empathy, and filmmaking is the perfect medium for doing that,” Jufeng says. “I sometimes make films that deal with sensitive topics because I believe it is important not to see them as issues, as but human stories. The more we are able to see that, to empathise with others, the better a place the world will be.”

Compared to the other film industries in Southeast Asia, Singapore’s is still in its infancy, but Jufeng believes that with the advent of independent films and a move towards the noir genre, it could provide an entirely new cultural output for the city. “Things are getting more and more exciting," Jufeng says. "Many young filmmakers coming up with interesting projects are patiently developing them through project markets and film labs. And there is an increasing consciousness on the role of art and cinema in society.  I just hope that artists will be free from censorship, and self-censorship, so that art in Singapore can speak truthfully of our times.”

If filmmakers in Asia continue to excel in the complex world of noir cinema—where the psychology of characters is paramount and life-threatening themes are addressed head-on—it will be a victory for art and culture, and possibly even a step in the right direction towards creating a kinder society for all of us.

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