Recommended Asian Films on Poverty


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (2010): extremely well received and formally creative film about reincarnation, political and personal transformation. Winner of Palme d’Or at Cannes.


 Kami (2008):  a teen film about struggle to survive, based on a TV show.


Euphoria (2006): romance set in poor provinces; festival winner, praised for cinematography.

Leviathan (2014): drama widely perceived as critical of Putin’s Russia; set in fishing village, describing struggles of poor resident vs. corrupt local officials. Won best screenplay at Cannes and was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature.

The Thief (1997): historical film about poor woman trying to provide for her son in post-WWII USSR, getting involved with difficult officer.


Himalaya (1999): a drama celebrating Nepali culture in context of extreme environment and economic deprivation. Maybe too distantly related to themes of course, though. Oscar nominee.


Transit (2013): drama centered on Filipino domestic workers in Israel and the effects of laws requiring their children to be repatriated. Variety calls it “constantly engaging and frequently moving.”


Salaam Bombay! (1998). A collaborative fiction film made with the participation of streetchildren it depicts. A good contrast to the less positively received (in India) Slumdog Millionaire. It is a Dickensian story of boyhood survival and wits and winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Born into Brothels (2004). Another effort at collaborative documentary filmmaking, this time set amongst the children of prostitutes. Oscar winner for best documentary. Hugely popular on Rotten Tomatoes and has stimulated some good critical responses.


White Balloon (1995). A winner at several international festivals, including Cannes’ Camera d’Or, this family drama tells story of a girl who has money to buy a goldfish and her misadventures in the street. 


White as Snow (2010). A lyrical drama of boy selling hot drinks to travelers to support his family during the 1970s. Includes a lot of sensory detail and indirect commentary on political repression. Received several festival awards for the music.


Lilya 4-Ever (2002). Ukrainian girl living in former USSR waits for her mother to take her to USA, gets drawn into prostitution in Sweden. A forceful drama.


Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). Twelve-year-old boy becomes head of household in a Tokyo apartment after being abandoned by his mother. He successfully cares for self and orphaned cousins. Won Best Actor at Cannes. A bittersweet comedy.

Departures (2008): Academy-Award winner. A downward mobility narrative. Well appreciated, moving story of a cellist in a local orchestra that is disbanding. He seeks work and tries to pay for his instrument.

South Korea

Sad Movie (2005). A star-studded romantic comedy that compares the fortunes of four couples distributed across social and economic spectra. Well received by audiences and explicitly sentimental in tone and story.

Crying Fist (2005). A boxer’s career goes into decline, and he must struggle to survive; reinvents some Hollywood clichés about uplift via local realist sensibility. Won FIPRESCI award at Cannes.

Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East? (1989). Award-winning drama about three monks in a monastery. At different phases of life, they wrestle with desire to join and leave world of suffering and poverty that surrounds them.


Kinatay (2009). A controversial thriller by indie director Brillante Mendoza, derided as poverty porn, concerning gang murder of a dancer. Won Best Director at Cannes.

Pila Balde (1999). A slice-of-life film set in Manila slums. Focus is teenage love triangle. Made with an explicit contrast to melodramatic “poverty porn.” English title: Fetch a Pail of Water. Available in full on Youtube in Tagalog.

Kubrador (The Bet Collector) (2006). A starkly realistic slum narrative centered on illegal betting. Features an older protagonist. Big winner at international festivals—including FIPRESCI at Moscow.


After This Our Exile (2006). Visually beautiful Hong Kong drama from a reputed director (Patrick Tam) about a desperate gambler who turns to his young son for help as his life falls apart. It was a winner at several big Asian film festivals. Filmed in Kuala Lampur but Cantonese dialogue.

One Night in Mongok (2004). Underworld gang thriller set in Hong Kong. Critics praise the exciting camera work and play with noir genre conventions in this tale of mainland villagers finding their way on the mean streets of the postmodern urban jungle.

Suzhou River (2000). A romance set in Shanghai where the titular river becomes a meeting point for poor lovers and potential criminals. Influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film has a distinctive and poetic visual style organized around hand-held, point-of-view shots. Several reviewers note the contrast it creates with the lushness of Fifth Generation costume dramas.

Last Train Home (2009). A narrative documentary, this film follows migrant workers in China as they return home to children they left behind in Sichuan in the north while working in factories in Ghangzhou. Situates one couple in a much larger social movement for intesnely dramatic narrative feel. Director has made several other documentaries on related subjects; point of view of the film is described in NYT as “melancholic humanism.” Epic in scale.

Little Big Master (2015): a classroom melodrama featuring the usual heroic teacher advocating for her students. Exposes class divide in Hong Kong and perhaps useful for its reflection on role of education in economy.

24 City (2009). This formally ambitious and visually impressive docudrama blends interviews with non-actors and actors in order to sketch the transformations of the consumer-oriented Chinese economy. Using hyperrealist digital images, it shows the results of a factory closing in order to build high-rise luxury apartments in Chengdu. The filmmaker Jia Zhanke rose from the underground film scene to a carefully modulated relation with state institutions, so there are interesting political compromises to explore. Trailer:

The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006). Described by some critics as a sloppy example of “poverty porn,” this documentary about the sale of blood from AIDS orphans was acclaimed in the west and received an Oscar. (first of three parts)


–Caren Irr

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