12 Asian Women-Centric Films That Glimpse Into the Vast Array of Women’s Experiences13 min readReading Time: 9 minutes
Women have historically been portrayed or casted in films as supporting characters in relation to men. Often, they are limited by their gender stereotypes and roles — for instance, mothers, wives, sisters, romantic interests of the heroes — and as a result, they lack complexity. It’s as though they have no lives of their own, and exist purely for men’s sake.
But surely women exist more than just to prop up men’s place in the world. They, too, are human beings free to exercise their choices, free to pursue their dreams and desires. They also go through vastly different lives in comparison to men — what did they go through during their girlhood? How complex is a mother’s experience in managing her career amidst taking care of the family? What about women’s friendship or romantic relationships with other women?
Women-centric films can provide us with an insider look into the limitless number of experiences that women live through, all while granting women characters agency and multi-dimensionality. Although Western women-centric films have been on the rise globally — think Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Little Women — somehow Asian women-centric films don’t get as much attention or critical acclaim.
But Asian women-centric films are undeniably different from their Western counterparts. After all, Asian women face different realities from Western women, be it on a cultural, social, political, or interpersonal level.
And what better way to glimpse into and understand the realities that Asian women face in their respective countries than to watch Asian women-centric films? Below are twelve such films that span East, West, South, and Southeast Asia. To be more stringent, the majority of the women-centric films I’ve chosen in this list only cast women as the main leads, while men take up supporting roles.
20 30 40 (2004)
Dir. Sylvia Chang
Garnering several nominations from renowned film festivals such as Berlin International Film Festival and Golden Horse Film Festival, 20 30 40 tells three subtly-interlinked but separate stories of three women in different stages of their lives. 20-year-old Xiao Jie (Angelica Lee) is chasing her dream of becoming a pop star in Taiwan. 30-year-old Xiang Xiang (Rene Liu) is a flight attendant who is not only in an affair with a married man, but also in another relationship with a younger lover. 40-year-old Lily (Sylvia Chang) is a flower-shop owner who recently got divorced, and bounces back into the dating scene to give love another try.
20 30 40 is unabashedly a romance-comedy, full of hilarious and quirky moments, but it is in no way a frivolous film. Chang gives the limelight to her three women leads as they navigate through the rough emotional terrains of womanhood, and negotiate with the societal pressures placed on women in the early 2000s. Along the way, they take risks and make plenty of mistakes. But that’s expected of women who are pursuing their happiness, who have the choice to live the way they want.
20 30 40 is streaming on Netflix.
Dir. Leena Yadav
In the fictional town of Gujarat, India, four women try to live their lives amidst all of the heavy patriarchal laws and customs. Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow whose teenage son frequently rebels against her. Janaki (Lehar Khan) is a child bride who doesn’t want to marry Rani’s son, but is forced to because of ancient customs in the village. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is Rani’s close friend, and she is physically and mentally abused by her alcoholic husband. Friends with Lajjo and Rani is Bijli (Surveen Chawla), an erotic dancer working in a dancing troupe.
Parched tells the story of these four women who, despite all of the hardships, remain spirited and headstrong together. And no matter how oppressed they are, they still manage to find moments of happiness and laughter, showing how resilience and strength in women cannot be underestimated. Equally important is how unabashed these characters are when they talk about sex-related matters. The point, as Yadav expressed in an interview, is to normalise conversations about sex, especially within women’s friendship circles.
Dir. Sandi Tan
For what seems like a documentary, the premise of Shirkers is filled with highly suspenseful, implausible moments befitting of fiction. But the events that happened to the three women filmmakers in the documentary are as true as it can be. In this documentary, Sandi Tan traces back what happened during her teenage years with Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, trying to find out exactly what happened to their independent film — also named ‘Shirkers’ — after their mentor stole it.
Shirkers is by no means a film that directly addresses women’s issues. But it’s interesting and exciting to note how three young women filmmakers, hardly at the prime of their lives, followed their ambitions and guts and decided to make a film. In fact, ‘Shirkers’ was so well done that it could have “trail-blazed the Singapore film scene in the 1990s.” But clearly, this setback didn’t dampen their filmmaking spirit, with Sandi and Jasmine now trailblazing the local and international film industry.
Shirkers is streaming on Netflix.
Saving Face (2004)
Dir. Alice Wu
Before Alice Wu’s Netflix hit The Half of It (2020) there was her first feature-length film, Saving Face, that tackled similar issues of Chinese-American experiences and lesbian love. The film centres around three women characters: Wilhemina ‘Wil’ (Michelle Krusiec), a closeted lesbian who takes interest in Vivian (Lynn Chen) after a chance meeting, and Ma (Joan Chen), who is Wil’s mother. One day, Wil finds out that Ma was kicked out of her own house by Wil’s grandfather because she is pregnant out of wedlock.
The concept of ‘face’ will be familiar to any East Asians, referring to the social expectation to be respectable in order not to bring shame to the family. Wu’s women characters deal exactly with the danger of ‘losing face’ since homosexuality and pregnancy out of wedlock are considered shameful in East Asian culture. Saving Face will no doubt be relatable to any Asian women who struggle to vocalise their desires against a culture that prioritises public respectability.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, When Marnie Was There is a Studio Ghibli film that tells the story of the developing friendship between Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki) and Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). After Anna suffers an asthma attack due to stress, she and her parents decide to spend their summer break in Kissakibetsu, a seaside town in Hokkaido, where the air is cleaner. Over there, Anna meets Marnie in an abandoned mansion, an enigmatic blonde girl.
When Marnie Was There doesn’t deal exactly with women’s issues, but one cannot overlook the developing love and friendship between two young girls. Adolescence is also a difficult period of time for girls, not just because of the bodily changes but also the emotional turbulence, just like how Anna has to deal with her low self-esteem and loneliness. But women friendships can often be redeeming and emotionally uplifting, as seen by how Anna and Marnie inspire and accompany each other through their loneliness and angst.
When Marnie Was There is streaming on Netflix.
Dir. Jafar Panahi
Similar to When Marnie Was There, Offside also deals with girlhood. Here is an ensemble of girls who, wanting to watch the World Cup qualifying matches in Iran, tries to watch it in the football stadium. But here’s the catch: women are not allowed to enter football stadiums in Iran. Despite facing such insurmountable odds, these girls still try to watch the football match anyway.
Full of hilarious, poignant, and charming moments, the film spotlights the kind of discrimination that women and girls face from state laws. But clearly these girls don’t let the law stop and define them as weak women who need protection, and they are hell-bent on watching what is purely an enjoyable sport to them. Offside is not the only women-centric film Jafar Panahi has made. He has also filmed The Circle, which portrays more devastatingly how rules in Iran heavily limit women’s movement and actions.
Full Moon in New York (1989)
Dir. Stanley Kwan
Full Moon in New York tells the tale of three women, how their individual lives play out and how their lives intersect in New York. Zhao Hong (Siqin Gaowa) has just married an American-born Chinese and moved from China to New York to live with him. Hsiung Ping (Sylvia Chang) immigrated from Taiwan to pursue acting in American theatres, but she is stuck with extraneous roles. Feng Jiao (Maggie Cheung) comes from Hong Kong and is a restaurant owner and a real estate agent. She too has her own problems, struggling with relationships.
Unlike 20 30 40 where the three women protagonists never meet one another, Full Moon in New York shows how these women bond despite their cultural and political differences. This is a film that explores how empowering sisterhood can be when women can share their woes with each other, letting one another know they aren’t alone. Anyway, with such a star-studded cast, consisting of the likes of Sylvia Chang, Maggie Cheung, and Siqin Gaowa, who can resist watching this film?
The Day I Became a Woman (2000)
Dir. Marzieh Meshkini
The Day I Became a Woman comprises three vignettes of three different women. The first vignette centres around Havva (Fatemeh Cherag Akhar), a young girl who, in the eyes of Islamic law, is about to officially become a woman. The second vignette tells the story of Ahoo (Shabnam Tolouei) who is in a cycling race. Her husband threatens to divorce her if she doesn’t stop. The third vignette shows Hoora (Azizeh Sedighi), an elderly widow who recently inherited a large sum of money, and is thinking of how to spend it.
Meshkini’s film was banned when it was first released in Iran, which is unsurprising. Here is an unflinching film about the kind of lives that women have in Iran, from childhood to old age, and the kinds of setbacks and restrictions they face. But Meshkini didn’t let these setbacks pin her characters down. In fact, the more they are regulated, the more they want to exercise their choices and do what they wish to do, rather than submit obligingly. Since its 2000 release, The Day I Became a Woman went on to win multiple awards from internationally-renowned film festivals.
The Day I Became a Woman is available for rent here.
The Call (2020)
Dir. Lee Chung-hyun
We’ve seen a lot of horror and thriller films with male leads, but what about a thriller film with a female lead? Even better, a horror-thriller film with a women ensemble? The Call does exactly that, telling the story of two women, Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) and Young-sook (Jun Jong-seo), who live in different time periods but are connected through a phone call. Through this phone call, they can change their own fates as well as their mothers’, but they soon realise that every action and decision have their ramifications.
These women characters vary in personalities and are full of agency as they try their very best to better their own lives. As Park Shin-hye mentioned in an interview, they are “firm individuals, not swayed by others’ arguments.” Even then, in no way does The Call directly address women’s issues, but perhaps that in itself is powerful. Maybe women ensemble films need not address women’s issues, but rather, exist simply to cast more women talents and put them in the spotlight.
The Call is showing on Netflix.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) (2019)
Dir. Carol Dysinger
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) may be a short documentary, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful or riveting than the other feature-length films. This documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for its hearty and incisive look into Afghan girls who are learning how to skate in Kabul. They take part in Skateistan, a non-profit skating school in Kabul that not only invites impoverished girls to teach them how to skate, but also how to write and read.
In teaching these girls how to skate, Skateistan also hopes to teach them how to gain confidence and courage in a world that belittles girls. Films and documentaries tend to veer into fatalism easily if they focus too much on women’s oppression, but this documentary manages to avoid that by focussing on the optimistic aspects. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) will definitely be a source of inspiration to everybody, not just to girls and women, teaching us that circumstances definitely do not define nor limit us.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Dir. Pan Nalin
With a cast consisting of the likes of Sarah-Jane Dias, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Anushka Manchanda, Sandhya Mridul, and more, Angry Indian Goddesses explores a colourful and wacky ensemble of women who come together and bond during a bachelorette party in Goa. From the party to the night before the wedding, the film explores every character’s dreams and lives, up until something devastating happens to one of the characters.
Even though Nalin has claimed that the film isn’t outrightly feminist, he surely had good intentions behind the making of the film. Aware that Indian cinema is dominated by male perspectives, and that women often take up “decorative” roles, he attempts at giving a more “realistic portrayals of girls and girl-bonding.” The result is a film that shows women with a variety of personalities and beliefs, while also showing how their friendships with one another can be empowering and heartening.
House of Hummingbird (2018)
Dir. Kim Bora
House of Hummingbird doesn’t really have a women-centric cast, but that doesn’t mean it’s not women-centric. In this contemplative coming-of-age film, we follow the protagonist, Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo), as she struggles to find her place in the rapidly-modernising South Korea. We see how she is neglected and abused by her father and brother, how she forms a touching, student-teacher relationship with her Chinese tuition teacher, and how she negotiates with her budding bisexuality.
Semi-autobiographical in nature, the film explores how girlhood and adolescence can be a period of loneliness and angst. But just as important as Eun-hee’s girlhood is her relationship with the Chinese tuition teacher, Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk). Their relationship is full of tender moments that illustrate how formative and emotionally rewarding female student-teacher relationships can be in guiding young girls.
House of Hummingbird is available for rental on Anticipate Picture’s Vimeo.