Comparing Chinese Death Beliefs with Disney/Pixar’s ‘Coco’

During opening weekend, I took my daughter to see the new Disney/Pixar movie, Coco.  It’s a movie she’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a year, since the trailers for the new movie came out quite some time ago.  I didn’t have much expectations for the movie, as I figured it would be similar to a previous animated film, Book of Lifeanother film centered around Día de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead.  But the movie is completely different, and definitely worth a viewing.  As I watched the film Coco with my 12 year old, I began to realize that many of the practices and beliefs that were being practiced by the Mexican families were similar if not identical to many practices that we performed for my deceased ancestors as a Chinese/Taiwanese immigrant family in the United States.

Before I make the comparisons, I’ll remind readers that discussing the dead, or customs and practices around death is generally considered taboo in Chinese culture.  But I have previously broken this taboo by writing about Chinese funerary customs, so I’ll wander again into dangerous waters.  If you’re from a Chinese family, you might want to refrain from talking about this topic with the elders in your family.  In fact ghosts and the supernatural are generally still considered forbidden topics in mainland China, and it was a surprise that Coco made it past Chinese censors without any edits.

One of the major Chinese holidays is also known as 盂蘭節 or Ghost Festival.  The holiday is sometimes called Chinese Halloween, and is very similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.  I remember when I was growing up, that my mom would set up an altar on major Chinese holidays, like the Ghost Festival, and the center of the altar would have the photographs of the deceased ancestors.  We would burn incense, and joss paper and lay out food offerings, typically oranges and cooked rice with other dishes for the deceased, so they would have food and money in the afterlife.  We would eat the food it had been left out for a long time, long enough for the deceased to partake their portion of the food.  It’s common for Chinese to burn paper replicas of cars, boats, houses, etc. for the deceased to have these things in the afterlife.

Similarly on the Day of the Dead, in Coco, there’s a strong importance to having the photograph of the family ancestor placed in the family ofrenda.  The belief in Coco, is that if your photograph is not in the family ofrenda, you won’t be able to pass over on the Day of the Dead to visit your relatives.  You’re essentially forgotten.  In Coco, if you’re forgotten, your spirit will disappear from the afterlife and cease to exist when the last person who remembers you dies in the real world.

Similar to Chinese culture, the Mexicans lay out food for the deceased, so they’ll have food in the afterlife.  The amount of food the deceased have in the afterlife varies by how much they were remembered and offered food in the real world.  So a popular singer, like the character Ernesto de la Cruz in the movie Coco, had an abundance of food in the afterlife from all his devoted living fans, while Hector, who was forgotten had none.

By the end of the movie, these similarities between the two cultures got me wondering if they arose from the same source.  My guess is yes, since at the end of the movie Coco, there was a disclaimer saying the beliefs around the Day of the Dead, had roots in Mexican and indigenous peoples. And with the knowledge that indigenous peoples traveled from Asia to settle in the Americas, I think we’re fairly safe in assuming these beliefs have a common beginning.

In case you haven’t seen Coco yet, won’t spoil any more of the movie for you, but I will say it’s one of the best kids movies I’ve seen in a while, and well worth the price of admission.




New Animated TV Series Tells Terrifying Tales from Filipino Folklore

Inspired by frightening favorites like The Twilight Zone, the first animated series about Filipino horror folklore, Umbra will feature creatures and monsters from traditional Filipino folklore retold in the modern-day Philippines. The series includes stories about a flesh-eating, shape-shifting monster; the lost soul of a dead bride looking for a new husband to join her in death; and the conquest to destroy a murderous mermaid.

I’m not into horror, but I’m down for anything bringing Filipino culture into the mainstream, and the animation looks promising. Umbra premieres Wednesday, October 11 at 8:00 Eastern on Myx TV. New back-to-back episodes air every Wednesday, with episodes available for streaming online the next day at

Film Review: ‘A Letter to Momo’ (2011)

A Letter to Momo (Momo e no Tegami) (2011)

Japanese subtitled version: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera.
English dubbed version: Amanda Pace, Stephanie Sheh, Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder.
Directed and written by Hiroyuki Okiura.

a letter to momo 1Twelve-year-old Momo has recently moved with her mother Ikuko from a condo in Tokyo to a tiny, rural island in Japan, where Ikuko grew up and where both try to deal with the recent death of Momo’s father.

They are grieving, each in her own, private way. Ikuko busies herself with trying to find a new job, leaving Momo to spend her days doing homework and making friends with other children on the island. In private moments, Ikuko kneels at the household shrine, looking through photo albums. Momo’s alone-time is often spent staring at a piece of paper, blank except for the words, “Dear Momo,” the beginning of a letter written by her father’s hand shortly before his death at sea.

a letter to momo 2Momo doesn’t tell anyone, but her last words to her father were shouted in anger, a horrible expression of childish disappointment that she can never take back. As she tries somehow to manage the guilt, grief, loneliness, pain, and adjustment of this new life, mysterious things happen in her house and neighborhood. Small personal belongings disappear. Orchards are raided for their fruit before it is ready for harvest. Snacks disappear from the kitchen with only trash left in their place. Momo sees strange shapes and movements out of the corners of her eye as Ikuko leaves each morning, but nothing’s there when she turns her head to get a better look.

Continue reading “Film Review: ‘A Letter to Momo’ (2011)”

“Cars 2″ Goes Drifting into Tokyo

It looks like our favorite Disney animated feature film about talking automobiles with hearts of gold, Cars is international for their sequel. Based on the new theatrical trailer, it looks like they are spending some time in Tokyo.

OK. I have to admit that the title of this post is totally misleading. I don’t think there is any “drifting” (a la Fast and the Furious) but there is a definite Asian presence. Even so, what do Asian animated cars look like? And are the cars in the original racially ambiguous? Well, if you really want to stereotype, we can say that the buck-toothed, Southern accented tow truck is representing the Caucasian set — I’m just saying.

Nonetheless, in the trailer above we see flashes of sumo wrestling cars and even geisha cars. I wonder if they considered having an Asian gang of cars with body kits, oversized spoilers, heavily tinted windows, and bad accents?

8 Questions for Bang-yao Liu, the creator of DEADLINE (Post-It Animation piece)

Bang-yao_LiuI found myself wanting to know more about the person behind that awesome video DEADLINE, so I reached out to the creator, Bang-yao Liu (劉邦耀), who was kind enough to answer 8 Questions (the first in a new series) for 8Asians.

It turns out that he’s actually a graduate student getting his MFA in Taiwan, but was in the US taking undergrad classes as a part of his scholarship. He shares more with us, including some exclusive behind-the-scene photos, too… thanks, Bang-yao!

8Qs for Bang-yao Liu
1 ) What part of Taiwan are you from?
I was born in Hsinchu city and study in Taipei.

2 ) Do you plan to return to Taiwan after you are done with school or to stay in the United States?
Actually, I am a graduate student in Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA). I am a transfer and visiting student to SCAD for one year because of a scholarship from Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE); this program only lets me to take undergrad classes at SCAD, but that is still good though.

When I finish this scholar(ship) program, I will have to go back to Taiwan. I can not stay here over one year. However, I would like to work in United States or other country if I have the opportunities, but I have to finish my MFA degree in TNUA and one year military service first. It sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

3 ) What are your career aspirations?
I wish I can be a filmmaker someday, it is a long road to go, I think. I will just keep learning, create more, and have fun with doing animation.

4 ) What color of Post-Its did you use most of?
Pink and blue.

5 ) Did you run into any unanticipated problems while producing DEADLINE?
A lot. The biggest problem is “time”. Actually, the original animatic is longer than the final film. Why did not finished it is because where I shoot is a classroom; I only can use it on weekends. So it took us two weekends, almost four days unsleep, to finish it. After that is the final of the quarter.

6 ) Did you have a lot of leftover Post-Its and what did you do with them?
Part of them I gave to my friends, and other were throw away. It depends on the post-it is still sticky to use or not.

7 ) Can you share any other “behind the scenes trivia” about your production?
I want to share some photos of my friend. We have fun with that. [See below]

8 ) Do you have any future projects planned or anything else you’d like to share?
I already have a new concept in my mind, it is quite different. I will start to plan it later.

Bang-yao was nice enough to share exclusive photos of Chun-yao Huang, Jay Tseng, and Kelly Wang — some of the many people who worked on DEADLINE! 謝謝, Bang-yao!