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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: “Cuties,” NIKI, and more

Sep. 14, 2020
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Watch: #Alive (2020, dir. Il Cho)

South Korean zombie flick #Alive is better if you don’t go in knowing it’s a South Korean zombie flick. Compared to the more well-known Train to Busan, this movie is more introspective and smaller in scale.

That doesn’t make #Alive less horrifying. It creates tension not through panic but constant looming dread—counting the days until life is back to normal, dealing with isolation and the possibility of being the only survivor, worrying about distant family. Protagonist Oh Joon-wo (played brilliantly by Burning’s Yoo Ah-in) is a tech-savvy twenty-something living alone, and the first half of the movie is just him navigating his new normal. He rations the very little food he has, uses selfie sticks and drones to get a cell signal, and deals with the psychological repercussions of prolonged isolation. Perhaps it’s overkill to use zombies as a metaphor for corona, but what he goes through while on the verge of an unprecedented catastrophe is a resonant depiction of quarantine.   

It helps that the setting feels very current—most zombie films are set already in the midst of the apocalypse (think the wasteland of Zombieland, or the empty streets of 28 Days Later), but this film deliberately positions the outbreak as a disruption to millennial Joon-wo’s life. Social media plays a prominent part, as it would if a virus of any kind hit the 21st century. And I guess after getting jealous of every movie character I see who can freely roam outside, there’s a sad comfort in watching someone else deal with the sudden necessity to isolate.

#Alive is streaming on Netflix.

Watch: Cuties (2020, dir. Maïmouna Doucouré)

Anyone who condemns Cuties hasn’t seen it. French-Sengalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré’s directorial feature debut, after previously receiving glowing reviews during its Sundance premiere, suffered from bad press after Netflix released a poster that took one of its scenes out of context and ultimately misrepresented the film. The streaming platform then released a statement, clarifying that the film is a “social commentary against the sexualization of young children” and “a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up.” Had concerned audiences who signed petitions to remove the film from the platform’s catalog heeded Netflix’s call to simply watch Cuties, perhaps the movie, which is directed by and stars a Black woman, would be known for its actual merit rather than its undeserved bad press.

Cuties follows 11-year-old Amy, who seeks a sense of belonging in a dance troupe at her school. In trying to navigate her conservative home and her comparatively more provocative peers and media, she begins to lose her grip on her already fickle sense of identity. It’s a nuanced portrait of migrating to the West, shedding light on the difficulty of trying to stitch together two identities that seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s also critical of hypersexualized media’s erosion of girlhood: the girls in the group often compare themselves to those much older, and they weaponize sexuality because they’ve been taught it’s the only way to be taken seriously. It’s so baffling that a movie receives so much flak for being against the same principles audiences are allegedly protesting. If anything, the fact that a young girl’s coming-of-age has become the avenue for yet another culture war is a testament to the fact that women onscreen are too often objects to be voyeured, mere mirrors of cultural obsessions. 

Cuties is streaming on Netflix.


NIKI, with a voice as smooth as silk and songs about complicated, unlabeled love, has been making waves for years as the internet’s favorite R&B princess. Along with Rich Brian and Joji, the Indonesian singer and multi-instrumentalist has become the face of 88rising, a mass media company known for supporting Asian artists who release music in the U.S. While her EPs and singles mostly touched upon relationships, her debut album MOONCHILD is more about self-discovery. She got the name from all the nights she spent making the album: “I realized that I generally feel most creatively stimulated and energized at night! At one point in time, I was staying up till the crack of dawn writing songs,” she told Wonderland.

MOONCHILD, which is divided into three phases aptly called the crescent moon, half-moon, and finally the full moon, progresses like a parable of NIKI’s growth. She said in the same interview that the album is lyrically more metaphorical, and which bleeds into the sound as well—early on it establishes a dreamy atmosphere that all ten tracks maintain. Upbeat tracks like “Nightcrawlers” take the songs NIKI is known for and elevates them, while reflective ballads like “Lose” reveal a more vulnerable side to her artistry. If the hook of her 2019 hit “lowkey” somehow didn’t reach your radar, don’t let NIKI pass you by a second time.

Stream MOONCHILD by NIKI on Spotify here.