April’s digest looks to film as a vehicle for sociopolitical consciousness, with a wealth of diverse stories from West Asia. Working across the genres of documentary, horror and video art, filmmakers from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Palestine pry open fissures in the routines of everyday life, revealing what it means to live amid conflict and violence.
This month’s selection also throws the spotlight on female directors and protagonists. Sloughing off stereotypical representations of women as femme fatales or damsels in distress, the films show us that a woman can be anything—from a dauntless wuxia heroine, to a misogynist-eating vampire.
With podcasts on award-winning film composers and a film billed as a reverberating audiovisual extravaganza, we are reminded of the instrumental role of music in shaping our emotional responses to the images on screen.
Through the eyes of his 12-year-old nephew Haidar, filmmaker Abbas Fahdel captures the routines of everyday life amid the US invasion of Iraq. Winner of the Grand Prix at Visions du Réel 2015, Fahdel’s epic documentary is an intimate portrait of struggle and endurance. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, DAFilms is streaming the film for three months worldwide (excluding the US and France).
Seeking to implement penal reforms in Lebanon, actor, theatre director, drama therapist, and filmmaker Zeina Daccache centres the stories of inmates suffering from mental health conditions. Art and activism collide in her documentaries, 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), Scheherazade’s Diary (2013) and The Blue Inmates (2021), which are streaming on DAFilms.
Shot in a single take, Syrian director and theatre actor Rand Abou Fakher’s So We Live (2021) meditates on a family’s everyday life even as bombs rain down around their home. Nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear in 2020, the short film is now showing on the Criterion Channel.
For more than a decade, artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have been collecting online recordings of ordinary Palestinians singing and dancing. Bringing this archive together with performances by electronic musicians and a dancer, the project repositions these embodied acts as forms of resistance against erasure, against “various regimes of power that have rendered them uncounted, inaudible.” May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth (2020-), which was previously presented at MoMA and Dia Chelsea, now occupies a virtual platform.
In the city of Mashhad, a dauntless journalist traces down the religious fanatic on a quest to “cleanse” the nation of moral corruption—by luring out and murdering sex workers. Based on the “spider killings” that took place from 2000-2001, Ali Abbasi’s neo-noir crime thriller turns a critical eye on misogyny in Iran. Zahra Amir Ebrahimi’s outstanding performance in the film won her the Best Actress award at Cannes 2022. Watch the film on MUBI.
Speaking to Sight and Sound during the 2022 London Film Festival, Abbasi shares his views on censorship, and how filmmakers in Iran who adhere to the state’s directives are complicit in perpetuating its vision of society.
Wanting to ease things up at home with his staunchly traditional father-in-law, an unassuming young man seeks out a job. He finds one—at an erotic dance theatre, where he falls in love with his boss, a dazzling transgender woman. “Funny, forward, and bracingly political”, Saim Sadiq’s debut feature Joyland premiered at Cannes in 2022, winning the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize, before becoming the first Pakistani film to make the shortlist for the Best International Feature Film Oscar. Now streaming on the BFI Player.
In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Sadiq touches on the casting process, shares how transgender individuals in Pakistan identify with the centuries-old Urdu term khawaja sira, and reflects on the significance of the sea in the film. This episode of the Film and Lincoln Center podcast also features a Q&A session with the director.
Turning her gaze to those on the margins of society, Tamil poet, activist and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai examines issues of caste, gender and displacement, compassionately chronicling the humanity of her protagonists. Five of her films are streaming on MUBI for audiences in India.
As part of the exhibition Signals: How Video Transformed the World, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has made a selection of video art available online. Spanning the 1960s to the present day, the Signals Channel features works by a number of pioneering Asian artists, including Nam June Paik, Mako Idemitsu, Mona Hatoum, Yau Ching, Xu Zhen and Walid Raad. Don’t miss these seminal video works, which will be screening through 8 July 2023.
In his e-flux review, film critic and curator Dennis Lim weighs in on the exhibition’s central proposition that “Everything is video.” Lim considers how MoMA’s expansive survey attends to the medium as both political and self-reflexive: “video as a contestation with the world that video wrought, a world of too many images, too much information.”
Images Festival presents a slate of online screenings, including a collection titled Once a Prison, Now a Portal, which begins on 14 April, 12.00 am EDT. Part of the programme is Pakistan and U.S.-based filmmaker Madyha Jan Leghari’s Choose Your Own Father (2021), a short essay film exploring the connections between the filmmaker’s father, and the British artist John Latham, who was born in the colonial protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now the Republic of Zambia).
The University of Washington Taiwan Studies Arts & Culture Program presents a series of documentaries by pioneering anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Hu Tai-Li. Spotlighting the lives of indigenous communities and villagers amid drastic social changes in Taiwan, the four films will be available for free from 18 April to 8 May 2023. Register for the online programme here.
Hong Kong International Film Festival returns this year with a hybrid in-person and online format. Soi Cheang’s Diamond Hill (2000) screens for free as part of HKIFF’s Filmmaker-In-Focus segment. (Only for audiences in Hong Kong.)
Tracing its roots to stories of wanderers and assassins from as early as the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE, the wuxia genre has spawned an entire cinematic tradition of gravity-defying, swords-wielding heroes on a mission to restore justice to a treacherous world of criss-crossing loyalties. Where do women belong in this alternate universe? Focusing on four actresses from the 1960s-70s, TaiwanPlus’s online film festival looks at how female wuxia protagonists complicate gender stereotypes within the genre. The lineup of 9 films includes legendary director King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) and Raining in the Mountain (1979).
From documentaries to comedy and a coming-of-age drama, JFF+ Independent Cinema, the Japanese Film Festival’s free online screening platform, presents a new slate of films through 15 June 2023. Among the selection is director Toyoda Toshiaki’s Shiver (2021), an immersive music film born out of a collaboration between contemporary composer Koshiro Hino and the Sado Island-based Kodō, a travelling taiko (Japanese percussion) troupe.
In tribute to legendary composer, producer, pianist and activist Ryuchi Sakamoto, who passed away in March 2023, this episode of the New Sounds podcast brings together highlights of Sakamoto’s in-studio performances, live concert recordings and interviews.
Writing for e-flux, Xenia Benivolski weaves together a moving eulogy peppered with Sakamoto’s lyrical musings (“Music is like a city”; “Living life is a gift, but also bittersweet”; “Will the squids that will conquer the earth after humanity listen to me?”) and philosophical reflections on time.
Elsewhere, accounts of Sakamoto’s prodigious output—“I wrote forty-five music cues in one week,” he revealed, recounting working with Bernardo Bertolucci on The Last Emperor (1987)—and his distaste for insipid background music, paint a fond picture of the late composer.
Hear from composer M.M. Keeravani, whose “Naatu Naatu” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, becoming the first Indian—and the first Asian—nomination to do so. In this podcast episode, Keeravani shares about the process of scoring the epic Telugu-language blockbuster RRR (2022), a swashbuckling tale of two revolutionaries who join forces against British colonialists in the 1920s.
Mike de Leon on Itim (1976)
In an exclusive for CNN Philippines, Mike De Leon reflects on the restoration of his extraordinary debut feature film Itim (1976), a gripping psychological drama shot in the oppressive darkness of his family’s ancestral house.
“In my mind, darkness was one of the major characters of the film,” De Leon shares in an interview at Cannes. The film, which opens with a young girl possessed by her dead sister’s spirit in a séance, was screened as part of the festival’s Classics section in 2022.
Catch Itim at Oldham Theatre on 16 April 2023. This will be followed by a rare public appearance of De Leon for a conversation with MoMA film curator Josh Siegel, who first conceived and organised the retrospective Mike De Leon: Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker. Tickets here.
Launched in 2020 by Open City Documentary Festival, the journal Non-Fiction has published its fifth and latest issue. Through “video essays, scholarly research and diary-like writings”, “Non-Fiction #5: The Obsolete and The Resurrected: Archaeological Cinema in Asia” looks back on archival film, recovering forgotten, non-linear histories of film. The dossier brings together reflections on a 16mm “docudrama” by the Isaan Film Group, amateur travelogues shot by Japanese tourists in colonial Korea and Manchuria, a 36-minute film by independent Filipino filmmaker John Torres, and more.
Writing for Seen, researcher Isabelle Ling examines how Brooklyn-based filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri grapples with diasporic memory, creating instances “in which time and space are completely obliterated.” As a second-generation immigrant, Sanzgiri bridges the distance to his ancestral homeland through his father’s memories of growing up in the Portuguese-occupied state of Goa, India. Working through his encounters with glitch aesthetics, Sanzgiri navigates intergenerational histories through speculative storytelling, tapping into the past in order to envision decolonial futures.
In an essay for the Criterion Current, Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park traces the “meteoric rise” of director John Woo, who not only mastered the wuxia genre, but also established his own interpretation of the youxia—wandering vigilante warriors who are ever ready to sacrifice their lives for loyalty and brotherhood. Magnan-Park delves into the history of these tropes, which spanned over two thousand years of Confucian orthodoxy and survived Communist censorship.
Twenty years after his death on 1 April 2003, beloved actor and Cantopop superstar Leslie Cheung’s legacy lives on. Affectionately known to Hong Kongers as “Gor Gor” (big brother), Cheung led some of the most iconic films of Hong Kong’s Golden Age, becoming an emblem of the era’s creative flourishing. EasternKicks.com revisits his storied career with a feature on his life on stage and screen, and with a podcast episode on the classic wuxia film The Bride with White Hair (1993) which stars Cheung alongside Brigitte Lin.
Through the theoretical lenses of narratology and structuralism, Georgian scholar Khatuna Maisashvili analyses The Other Bank (2009), Tangerines (2013), and Corn Island (2014), which grapple with cross-border relations between Georgia and Abkhazia. Maisashvili argues that here, narrative serves to create different, even opposing cultural discourses that feed into cinematic memory.
In this essay from the Sight and Sound archive, writer Eric Rhode examines how Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) melds the realism of “ordinary everyday happenings” with the uncanny supernaturalism of the fable, vividly realising the mind’s unseen movements on screen.
Ajou University (Korea) presents a series of online seminars as part of an interdisciplinary research project, “The Historicization of Excavated Footage and the Future of Archives.” Focusing on new approaches in film archiving and database construction, the series looks at how alternative histories can challenge often misguided public narratives. The next two sessions will take place on 14 April and 2 May 2023. More information here.
Busan International Film Festival (BIFF)’s Asian Cinema Fund (ACF) aims to support Asian independent filmmakers in script development, production, and post-production. Applications in the different funding categories are open, with varying deadlines from 20 April to 15 May 2023. Find out more here.
Singapore Shorts is an annual showcase celebrating the best of local short films. Featuring bold new works selected by an esteemed panel, the programme lineup includes discussions with the filmmakers, critical writings, and a special guest-curated segment. Submit your short films here by 17 April 2023.
Filmmakers born and currently residing in Japan, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Taiwan, and South Korea are invited to submit their works to the East Asian Experimental Competition section of the 37th Image Forum Festival. Application guidelines here. The deadline is 21 April 2023.
Docs by the Sea (DBTS) is an international documentary lab and forum that offers mentorship and pitching opportunities for emerging filmmakers from Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and other Asian countries with documentary projects in any stage of completion. Eligibility guidelines apply. Submit your applications by 24 April 2023.
In partnership with Momo Film Co, Objectifs will provide five selected Southeast Asian filmmakers with mentorship and a valuable support network as they work on their scripts. After the workshop, a cash prize of SGD$1,000 will be awarded to the most promising participant or team. The incubator runs from 6 July to 23 August 2023 and will be held entirely online. Submit your applications here by 30 April 2023.
YIDFF 2023 is accepting entries for the International Competition and New Asian Currents. The deadlines are 15 April and 15 May 2023 respectively.
The Journal of Chinese Film Studies is accepting proposals for a special issue on Science Fiction cinema from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora. The deadline for abstract submissions is 1 May 2023.
This edition of the Asian Cinema Digest was compiled by Sheryl Gwee.