Itsuko Hirai

Born in Tokyo and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Thailand, Itsuko Hirai is an entertainment journalist and film curator whose work bridges East and West.  In 1996, she earned a BA in Political Science and Economics from Meji University in Japan. She began her career working as an editor for the monthly entertainment magazine, CUT, in 2000.  She relocated to New York City in 2006 to continue her career in entertainment journalism. Taking on other pursuits, she moved to Los Angeles after accepting the role of Vice Consul of the Consulate General of Japan from 2015 to 2018.  She not only worked as a diplomat but also as a cultural attaché working to promote Japanese films and culture in Southern California and Arizona.  Since 2018, Hirai has been employed as the LA correspondent for Japan’s Movie Walker Press, and is also the film curator for Japan House Los Angeles.  She was selected for the first inclusion Initiative Press Corps at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019.

  • Festivals

Breakthrough Asian Films Broaden Local Issues to a Global Scale – 76th Cannes Film Festival

The 76th Cannes Film Festival marked a major breakthrough for films by Asian filmmakers. In the Competition, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster and Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring) were screened, while the Best Director award went to Tran Anh Hung for The Pot au Feu.

Notable among the Asian films screened in the various sections was Tiger Stripes, winner of the Critics’ Week Grand Prize. It is the first film by Amanda Nell Eu and the first Malaysian film by a female director to be screened at Cannes. Tiger Stripes is the story of a Malay schoolgirl who observes strict Islamic commandments but is unable to come to terms with the physical transformations that happen to her. Then her dilemma soon turns into a body horror story.


Director Nell Eu says in an interview for Critics’ Week, “How I got the idea was very much from my own body and my own experience with puberty. I remember when I was going through it. One day you are one way and then the next day you wake up and there’s things that have grown on your body and you sometimes don’t know why or how come it’s so fast? It’s like overnight. And when I was young, I used to wish that this didn’t happen, like quite violently. I would punch myself, punch bones and things away and try to shave everything off. And so, I had this idea, which is also kind of my dark sense of humor. OK, let’s make a body horror about puberty and have a young girl turn into a monster.”

Referring to her homeland, Nell Eu points out, “I think we still have problems with gender equality in Malaysia on a political scale and socially. But, although this story is set in my country, there is still a huge issue universally regarding social views on women.”

The Critics’ Week is a section for first and second films by directors, and last year’s Grand Prize went to Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun whose actor Paul Mescal ended up getting an Oscar nomination.

The Breaking Ice in Un Certain Regard is the latest film by Anthony Chen, the Singaporean director who won the Caméra d’Or for Ilo Ilo in 2013. “I was looking to liberate myself from my old ways and challenge myself outside my comfort zone. I thus forced myself to make the film in an unfamiliar country, terrain, and to make the film in an unfamiliar country,” the talented Cannes-discovered director said in an official interview. Chen, who was born and raised in the tropical country of Singapore, chose to set his new film in an extremely cold region on the border of China and North Korea. The story is a love triangle between a tourist from Shanghai, a tour guide, and a restaurant worker. Says Cheng, “Creativity is sparked when you are forced into a corner. The magic happens when you least expect it.”


Also, in Un Certain Regard, first-time director Zoljargal Purevdash’s If Only I Could Hibernate became Mongolia’s first film to be officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. This is the story of a teenager living in the Yurt district of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. He dreams of winning a physics competition and pursuing higher education but is forced to sacrifice his youth and talent to save his siblings as their mother abandons them.


“Ulaanbaatar is the world’s most polluted capital as more than 60% of the population live in the Yurt district where there is no heating system or infrastructure and they burn coal to survive the brutal -35°C winters,” director Purevdash describes the Yurt district where she still lives. She stresses that it is not the residents of the Yurt district who are to blame but their ignorance due to poverty and lack of education. “Whenever I see kids living precariously, I dream that I can bring them positive feelings thanks to my film being shown on TV. I felt the power of cinema and I was astonished to see to what point it could change people. As a teen, I started working to make my dreams a reality and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go study directing in Japan.”

While these three Asian films strongly depict the local circumstances of the regions in which these are set, they are universally connected to the problems faced by young people around the world.