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The world comes to Northgate

A visit to the North End cinema where foreign film isn't foreign at all

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/2/2020 (228 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The man on the screen wears an orange jumpsuit.

His hair is jet-black, his smile is wide, and the audience seems transfixed by his every move.

His name is Joselito Gopez, and he’s been wrongfully accused of a brutal murder despite the fact that he’s never hurt a soul.

He’s played by Aga Muhlach, a former child-star in the Philippines who’s become a leading man akin to Leonardo DiCaprio, and just about every line he delivers is in Tagalog.

There are subtitles, but most people in Auditorium #8 at Cinema City Northgate to watch Miracle in Cell No. 7 don’t need them. They understand perfectly well.

Most, if not all, of the movie watchers are Filipino.

Down the hall, watching Chhapaak, a Hindi film about an acid-attack survivor, most of the audience has origins in India. Same with Khatre Da Ghuggu, a Punjabi comedy. Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, a historical epic, runs in Hindi—without subtitles — next door.

Of the multiplex’s eight screens, only three show films with English dialogue — the 11-time Oscar nominee Joker, the Clint Eastwood-helmed Richard Jewell, and Midway, Roland Emmerich’s forgettable war picture. Compared to the other theatres, those three are rather empty.

Dennis Esiyo, who moved to Winnipeg from the Laguna province of the Philippines eight years ago, saw Miracle with his wife, and was glad to see a film in his native Tagalog.

"It feels like you’re still in your faraway home," he said after the movie ended.

At this theatre, foreign film isn’t foreign at all.


For nearly two decades, Cineplex — the corporate theatre chain which was recently bought by the British company Cineworld — has hand-picked theatres around the country to screen films that would probably otherwise never see the light of day in Canada.

As immigration from Asia boomed in certain provinces, cities, and neighbourhoods, the company zeroed in, establishing profitable community hubs for the growing diaspora.

In Brampton, Ont., one theatre focuses on films in Hindi, a language more than one in ten residents knows and speaks. In Markham, Ont., where nearly 20 per cent of residents were born in China, and even more speak Chinese languages, Cineplex regularly draws crowds for Chinese film. One theatre in Mississauga shows a variety of films in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

"Whether we’re playing Russian films in North Toronto, whether we’re playing Hindi and Punjabi in Brampton, and we’re playing Chinese in Markham, each of our theatres is a microcosm of the community that they’re part of," said Rob Cousins, Cineplex’s vice-president of film.

What makes Northgate particularly interesting is the confluence of cultures and languages put on its screens, which reflects the makeup of the neighbourhood itself.

What makes Northgate particularly interesting is the confluence of cultures and languages put on its screens, which reflects the makeup of the neighbourhood itself.

According to the 2016 census, almost 40 per cent of Inkster residents were Filipino, and about nine percent South Asian. In nearby Seven Oaks, almost 30 per cent of residents were Filipino, and people of South Asian descent represented 13.5 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population.

Khatre Da Ghuggu is a Punjabi comedy.

Khatre Da Ghuggu is a Punjabi comedy.

Since then, those percentages have likely grown, and the community’s businesses have begun to further take advantage of its demograpy: when the city’s second Jollibee restaurant opened in 2017, it was in the Northgate parking lot; nearby, Save-On-Foods features extensive Filipino and South Asian grocery sections.

Cousins has had a hand in the company’s foreign film slate since 2002. For almost a decade, the company has focused on Filipino film at Northgate, a theatre which for the majority of its existence has been Winnipeg’s budget theatre, selling tickets for less than Cineplex locations at Polo Park, St. Vital, and McGillivray.

With more movie-watching options than ever before — Netflix, Apple, Amazon, the list goes on and on — theatre companies have had to try harder to get people into their auditoriums; in recent years, that’s meant the spread of Cineplex’s Rec Room entertainment centres and the introduction of alcohol sales.

Cineplex doesn’t disclose individual theatre sales figures, but based on the number of guests coming to see foreign movies at Northgate on most Tuesdays and wekeend nights, there is value in the cheap seats.

Of the multiplex’s eight screens, only three show films with English dialogue. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Of the multiplex’s eight screens, only three show films with English dialogue. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Winnipeg filmmaker Jim Agapito, 39, grew up in the Northgate area, and often hung out at the theatre. But back then, it only showed standard Hollywood fare. Now, it’s become a meeting place for newcomers, long-time residents, and visitors from other countries looking for a slice of home.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, a historical epic, runs in Hindi, without subtitles.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, a historical epic, runs in Hindi, without subtitles.

"My mother and cousins are there all the time, probably every two weeks," he said. "She likes to see action movies, always has. And for her to be able to go see a Tagalog movie and make a night of it, that never happened until Northgate started doing it."

"Commercial films are exported out of the country to cater not to non-Filipinos but Filipinos who either have migrated or are working in foreign shores," said Oggs Cruz, a film critic for the Philippine publication Rappler.

Chhapaak is a Hindi film about an acid-attack survivor.

Chhapaak is a Hindi film about an acid-attack survivor.

"The dent any commercial film would make outside the Philippines is an extension of its success in the Philippines."

A hit in Quezon City is a hit in Los Angeles or New Jersey, where the Filipino diaspora is large, he said. The same is illustrated in Winnipeg, where the 500 million Philippine peso-grossing (CAD $125 million) Miracle consistently fills the room.

Deanna Wong, executive director of Toronto’s Reel Asian International Film Festival, grew up in Winnipeg in the 1980s and early ‘90s, but doesn’t recall seeing any Asian movies in the city other than ones programmed at Cinematheque, the Winnipeg Film Group’s one-screen downtown movie house, which still frequently shows Asian film; a recent run of Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean thriller Parasite —which just became the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for best picture — sold out every show.

So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi in Parasite, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Neon).</p>

So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi in Parasite, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Neon).

"Frankly, we try to show good work," said Dave Barber, Cinematheque’s senior programmer. "The key is always to show quality and diversity."

It was exciting to see movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon excel at the box office, Wong said. But there was a validation that came with seeing Asian characters living "regular" lives who don’t exist as tokens, she added.

She recalled a 1998 movie called Yellow, starring Asian-American actors who spoke with no accents. "That’s all I remember," she said. "Nothing about the plot, just how much I loved watching that movie."

Inderbir Singh (from left), Deepanshu Arora, Vishaldeep Signh and Dilpreet Singh are at Cinema City in the Northgate Shopping Centre to see the movie Panga. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Inderbir Singh (from left), Deepanshu Arora, Vishaldeep Signh and Dilpreet Singh are at Cinema City in the Northgate Shopping Centre to see the movie Panga. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

That sort of representation has become slightly more common, with films like Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe, which cast Randall Park and Alli Wong as romantic leads, and 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast in decades.

Watch the trailers

Click to Expand

Trailers for a selection of foreign-language films recently playing at the Northgate Cinema.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior: a Hindi historical epic:

Chhapaak, a Hindi drama about an acid-attack survivor:

Khatre Da Ghuggu, a Punjabi comedy:


Find out what's playing now at the Northgate.

Movies playing at Northgate offer a different representation. The characters don’t necessarily lead regular lives, but they’re often living in places like Manila or New Delhi, speaking languages spoken by millions of people living in the South Asian diaspora.

"I am not a movie-goer," Harpreet Panag said before walking into a screening of Chhapaak. For her, seeing movies with her family is a way to stay connected to the language and culture of India.

Karla Atanacio, 19, moved to Winnipeg in 2014, and didn’t expect to see any movies from her home country playing here.

"The thing that entices me about Cinema City is the fact I could sit down, look around, and see people like me touched by the story," she said. "There’s that kind of intimacy."

It’s something that makes Melody Caluag and her mom Daisy Santiago actually go sit in a theatre to watch Miracle in Cell No. 7 in an era when a torrent or stream is a few clicks away.

"I’m very excited," said Santiago, who was attending a screening at Northgate for the first time.

They walked in to the lobby together, laughing.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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