Ecuador is pinning its Oscar hopes on “Emptiness,” a trilingual film about illegal aliens–Chinese smuggling Chinese into Ecuador with one hoping her “China dream” of New York will be realized. Presented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, the film gives a human face to Latinos and Asians on the run and undocumented as the past reflects upon the present.
Growing up in San Diego, it wasn’t uncommon for my classmates to cross the border, but I never went to Tijuana until I was finished with my first master’s program. My first visit was not as a tourist, but as a journalist. On a busload of journalists looking at Japanese maquiladoras, I was confronted with an issue that the White reporters were not: I was viewed as a foreigner. Like the Japanese nationals, I was expected to have my passport. The White US nationals only had their driver’s license. I insisted that the border patrol listen to my speech. Didn’t I sound like a US citizen?
At the time, Chinese illegal immigrants were using Tijuana as a gateway into the United States. Historically, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later, the Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) which totally excluded immigration from Asia, the immigration flow diverted to Latin America, including Mexico and Peru. The number of illegal immigrants of Asian descent has continued to be a concern decades later.
- Growing Number of Chinese Immigrants Smuggled Through San Diego Border (23 September 2017)
- Chinese Migrants Pay Higher Fee to be Smuggled into the United States
- Chinese Migrants Found Hiding in Appliances at US Crossing (10 December 2019)
Mexico is not the only Latin American country affected by an influx Asians in contemporary times. Director Paúl Venegas has written (with Martín Salinas and Carlos Andres Terán Vargas) about Ecuador and the Chinese community there. San Diego, CA to Quito, Ecuador is 3,389 miles, but the film is actually set in the port city of Guayaquil, a seven-hour drive south from Quito. Using non-professional actors who are Chinese immigrants, the film has a subtle weariness and an aching authenticity between the people trying to communicate while trying to get what they want.
Beginning in Shenzhen, China, two of a group of immigrant hopefuls, Lei (Jing Fu) and Wong (Lidan Zhu) talk in the dark shipping container in which they are hidden. She tells him, “Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you win. Because when you are truthful to your principles, there is no other option but to escape. Even if it breaks your heart.”
It’s unclear what Wong really means, but she tells Lei that only a woman can truly understand what she feels. Lei is an attractive woman who is used to attracting unwanted attention, but she also knows her appearance is a valuable asset in the mercenary world she has fallen into. Her “China dream” is to go to New York, but there’s no fixed concept of what she’ll do when she gets there. Unlike previous generations, she doesn’t seem interested in sending money home to her family, if she has any.
Her fate will be decided by Da Chang (Day Min Meng), a man with long hair who has a slithery way of looking at women and targets Lei for special treatment–he takes her out to dinner and offers to set her up with a business in Ecuador.
Smiling, Chang asks, “A lovely lady like you, do you have a China dream?”
Lei is very clear. Her dream is New York. She thought she had paid for that, but she tells Chang, “The men in China always were a mask. It’s hard to have true friends. There’s always some interest behind. And you? What do you want from me.”
Chang replies, “I just want to help you,” but he also offers, “I could also help you set up a beauty parlor here.”
Lei develops a flirtatious relationship with a local Victor (Ricardo Velastegui), who takes her dancing and also works for Da Chang, and she comes under the kind guidance of Mr. Lu (Baode Yin), a man who has been in Ecuador for many years and dreams of being buried in China. The white-haired Mr. Lu manages the apartment where Lei and Wong live and he teaches Chinese calligraphy them.
Wong is reticent, hard-working and seeming obedient, all of which Da Chang seems to appreciate. He forms a tentative friendship with Lei, but is aware that she gets special treatment from Da Chang. We slowly learn that he hasn’t been totally truthful. Another woman, Ping (Meizhen Peng), who shares their living quarters warns Lei that she also had another destination in mind, but has been there for four years. She urges Lei to use her youth and beauty to get what she wants, but can Ping be trusted?
Title cards with one calligraphic Chinese character each divide the film into sections: Desire, Nostalgia, Desillusion, Flamming and Emptiness. Are these stages that each of these illegal immigrants face? And is emptiness a good thing or a bad thing? The Chinese character used for “emptiness” (空 Kōng)is the character also used for “sky” (天空 Tiānkōng) or air (空气 Kōngqì). The films original title was “Montevideo” but it is also known as “Vacío.” The Spanish word, vacío, means “emptiness”, but also means “vacuum” or “void.” In Buddhism, the concept of Śūnyatā is translated into “emptiness” in English and “vacío” (as well as “vacuidad” or”vaciedad) in Spanish. It is considered a positive state and a spiritual goal or meditative state.
In the director’s notes, Venegas wrote:
Since the 80’s, a new wave of Chinese immigration has been settling all over the world. Over the last decade, many arrived in Ecuador to stay, or use it as a transit point to other destinations, like the USA. Not all migrate for economic reasons, many are sent to enlarge their communities, becoming pawns of a larger structure. Others have existential motives, such as the pressure of living in modern China, the environment or just feeling overwhelmed by its population size.
It’s within the Chinese community of Guayaquil that I cast the main characters of the film. With these natural actors, who are immigrants themselves, I explore the real emotions and experiences that give form to the film’s characters. As well as the anguish and despair of the immigrant when contemplating the uncertainty of the future.
I see “Emptiness” as a film about the subconscious in all of us, where the eyes say much more than words. An emotional trip of a woman struggling to overcome a corrupted male dominated society. I am interested to see how the viewer will perceive our main character, Lei. A woman that unwillingly is forced to use her charms and beauty to realize her independence? Or, a manipulative vile person who will do anything to achieve her objectives? While there is also a chauvinistic male that, despite his power, is a lonely soul. Their condition will challenge the audience to explore the limits of their own empathy.
The film seems to be shot in a cold, blue light, but director Venegas never gives us the feeling that Lei nor Wong are in mortal danger. Chang is sinister, but more in the sense of your overly friendly local lothario and not in the serial killer or ruthless pimping drug dealer way. This film is more about the emotional journey of a determined migrant woman and the differing experiences reflected by the other migrants she meets. As such “Emptiness” is an interesting look into the continued travails of the ethnic group who were the first designated illegal aliens to the United States and a different aspect of the Chinese presence in the Americas.
“Emptiness” had its world premiere in China (19 February 2019). It made its premiere in the Americas on 24 January 2020. The film was shown at the Busan International Film Festival (23 October 2020) and at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in Japan (6 March 2021). In 2019, it won Best Film at the Festival Internacional de Cine de Guayaquil and in 2021, Best Film (Latin American Competition) at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. The film is Ecuador’s entry into the Best International Feature Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards. In Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and some English with English subtitles.