Asian presence at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

We present twenty Asian documentaries that will be screened at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) which will take place from November 20th until December 1st, 2019 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

About the festival:
The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is one of the leading documentary festivals in the world. Not only the meeting place for professionals, IDFA also draws a huge audience eager to check out the newest documentaries

Note: We also included some documentaries that talk about Asian issues.

A Boarding School

A Boarding School by Shalahuddin Siregar – Indonesia | 2019 – 105 minutes

In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, more than four million students attend more than 29,000 Islamic boarding schools. This film offers a rare insight into daily life at one such traditional school. From the students’ sporadic contacts with home, we gather that considerable sacrifices are sometimes made to finance their education. (2019 IDFA)




Aswang by Alyx Ayn Arumpac – Philippines, France, Norway, Qatar, Germany | 2019 – 85 minutes

“Aswang” is a term in the Philippines for witches, vampires, ghosts and werewolves—a collection of evil spirits that feature heavily in myths and popular films. But since President Rodrigo Duterte took office, they have been appearing in real life on the streets of Manila.

In Duterte’s drug war, death squads have shot, tortured and kidnapped tens of thousands of drug users, dealers and innocent bystanders over the past three years. Duterte gives police officers free rein to use brutal violence, which is particularly directed at the poorest sections of society. According to Amnesty International, this amounts to state terror and crimes against humanity. (2019 IDFA)



Ballad of Roaming Spirits

Ballad of Roaming Spirits by Li Xiaofeng, Kai Jia – China | 2019 – 81 minutes

Since his wife left him, Jun has been a wandering soul who wonders what purpose all his suffering serves. In a simple farming village surrounded by barren hills, he takes care of a small temple. He looks at his hands: his right is blessed, and his left is deformed. He believes he has healing abilities and goes from house to house to help the sick.

As the seasons pass, this gently-paced portrait of the wandering Jun is interwoven with impressions of village life, with its rituals and festivals, and poverty that makes many people desperate, and some defiant.

Two sheep, destined to be sacrificed, add a grimly poetic note to this uncompromising and moving meditation on fate and the search for meaning. The body cam worn by one of the sheep also makes for some surprising shots. Meanwhile, Jun’s musings gradually reveal more about the crises he has had to endure and the reason for his self-sacrifice. (2019 IDFA)




Bodyless by Hsin-Chien Huang – Taiwan | 2019 – 31 minutes

Taiwan was under martial law from 1949 to 1987, and throughout this period the secret police and the army kept a close watch on the population—they saw citizens as no more than numbers and functions. Director and artist Hsin-Chien Huang, who experienced the end of this period as a child, sees parallels with the modern-day use of big data, artificial intelligence and digital surveillance to monitor and manipulate the masses. In Bodyless, he interweaves childhood memories and ultramodern technology to create a surreal fairy tale environment through which we literally fly using VR technology.

The story begins with an elderly man who was subjected to a secret experiment when he was a political prisoner. In accordance with Taiwanese folklore, after he dies his spirit descends to the underworld. In the seventh month of the moon calendar, however, he returns to his family, but all he finds is an empty apartment. This is followed by a journey into the spirit world, where he sees humanity being ever further reduced to geometric forms that a computer can easily process. (2019 IDFA)




Ether by Velu Viswanadhan – France, India | 2002 – 101 minutes

In the 1970s, filmmaker and artist Velu Viswanadhan began his series of five films about the elements. This last part is about ether, the invisible essence of all matter. Setting out without a preconceived plan, structure or narrative, Viswanadhan’s film takes the form of a visual voyage through India, with the camera focused on the many aspects of life, both material and immaterial.

Long tracking shots through city streets and rural landscapes and slow zooms of people engaged in all kinds of activities are intercut with facial close-ups. The camera immerses us in the bustle of a city market and the tranquillity amidst the overgrown remnants of old temples; it shows us a funeral procession accompanying the body of a dead person to the cremation spot, and a group of women singing and dancing by the river. With no interpretations in the form of titles or voice-overs, these images provide a mesmeric film experience. (2019 IDFA)



Flower Punk

Flower Punk by Alison Klayman – Japan, USA | 2019 – 28 minutes

It’s the eccentric flower sculptures that steal the show in this portrait of Japanese artist Azuma Makoto. He first came to Tokyo with his punk rock band, but it was through a job at a flower market that he discovered the expressive and emotional power of flowers. For Makoto, music and flowers are “the same tool to express myself.”

Starting out on this new path was difficult at first, but working together with his photographer friend he created the bold, slightly absurd and sometimes humorous body of work that has made him famous all over the world. (2019 IDFA)




Mizuko by Katelyn Rebelo, Kira Dane – USA, Japan | 2019 – 15 minutes

In Japanese there’s a specific word for an unborn life: mizuko, which means “water child,” is used for both miscarried and aborted pregnancies. In addition to the word, there’s a dedicated ritual accompanied by Buddhist figurines that represent the interrupted life and, like a grave, have their own place.

The narrator’s voice belongs to a Japanese-American woman who grew up in New York. She tells the story of her abortion, and reflects on the carefree summers she spent in Japan during childhood and young adulthood, and on how life and death are seen there. (2019 IDFA)



One Child Policy

One Child Nation by Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang – China, USA | 2019 – 85 minutes

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang was born in 1985, during the 35-year period of China’s one-child policy. When memories of her childhood surface after the birth of her first child, Wang returns from her home in the U.S. to her village in China.

In frank interviews with family members, villagers, midwives, officials and a journalist, she investigates the consequences of the draconian law and the still prevalent preference for having sons. Shocking stories are told with striking resignation. About baby girls killed at birth, or left to die along the roadside or at the market. About forced sterilizations and abortions, sometimes of full-grown fetuses. About the adoption industry, the trade in babies, and the deep-rooted corruption.

Gradually, it becomes apparent how everyone cooperated with these inhuman practices. And while the Chinese government describes the one-child policy as a success, it now uses murals, education and cheery propaganda films to brazenly dictate a two-child policy. (2019 IDFA)



Our Time Machine

Our time machine by Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang – China, USA | 2019 – 81 minutes

Our time machine by Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang – China, USA | 2019 – 81 minutes
When his fading memory isn’t failing him, Ma Ke can look back on an impressive theater career. He directed more than 80 Peking operas, and there would undoubtedly have been more had it not been for Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Ma Ke’s son, the well-known Chinese artist Maleonn, wants to work one last time with his father, who is suffering from dementia. In his studio, Maleonn and his team are building an ambitious puppet theater piece about a son who makes a time machine for his father to capture his childhood memories. Filmmakers Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang were able to film Maleonn and his father over a long period of time, both in the studio where the gifted artist is creating this amazing magical-realist world, and in his parents’ kitchen, as they grumble at each other affectionately.

The account of the complex creative process includes moving vignettes of the personal lives of Maleonn and his parents. We see how the frail Ma Ke’s memory loss is becoming increasingly concerning. When his wife blames his forgetfulness on self-importance and a fundamental lack of humility, he retorts, “If I were humble, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” (2019 IDFA)




Overseas by Sung-a Yoon – Belgium, France | 2019 – 91 minutes

How do you protect yourself against sexual harassment? How do you deal with abuse of any kind from a boss? And what’s the right way to serve a meal? In the Philippines, future housekeepers undergo training to handle demanding employers in places such as Dubai and Hong Kong. In static shots we see the trainees participating in role-playing games, alternating between the role of employer and subordinate. The resulting scenes are surreal. Soon to be separated from their own young families for many years, the women note down how to wash a baby in a tub, or help dress a woman who can’t do it herself.

Every year, these kinds of government¬-accredited training centers in the Philippines prepare 200,000 housekeepers for work overseas. The film also follows some of the women as they make preparations for life in a foreign country with a foreign family. They exchange experiences and horror stories about bizarre working conditions. Bordering on fiction, Overseas brings to light the question of modern servitude in our globalized world, while emphasizing these women’s determination, their sisterhood, and the strategies they find to face the ordeals that await them in the near future. (2019 IDFA)



Palace of colours

Palace of colours (Rang Mahal) by Prantik Basu – India | 2019 – 26 minutes

The earth originated from a deep, endless ocean, enveloped in darkness. Thakur Jivi has a dream of what the earth should be like, full of trees, birds and other living creatures. “This is our story, or rather, my version of it,” says the female narrator. Her hypnotic voice accompanies a series of images that are associatively connected with the creation story of the Indian Santhali people, which she is relating. Documentary filmmaker Prantik Basu is fascinated by these kinds of ancient, orally transmitted stories that have changed and adapted over time and are told in many versions. (2019 IDFA)



Pearl of the desert

Pearl of the desert by Pushpendra Singh – India, South Korea | 2019 – 82 minutes

Twelve-year-old Moti lives in the dusty Indian countryside—arid plains where goats and camels roam, and the land is still cultivated by hand. As a member of the Manganiar caste, he has grown up with music. Singing is part of his life, a way to tell stories and pass on traditions. Moti has considerable talent and attends a music school to get even better. It’s customary for his caste to perform for wealthy patrons, but Moti is uncomfortable with this. When he gets cast in a musical and goes on a world tour, his village treats him like a hero.

This is the story of a boy who’s the first person in his village ever to go abroad and spread the spirit of his people. Divided into chapters and punctuated by traditional Manganiar songs, Pearl of the Desert provides fascinating insight into the traditions, customs and etiquette of this Muslim caste. But above all, for Moti the adventure is a stage in his journey to find where he belongs. (2019 IDFA)



Rising from the Tsunami

Rising from the Tsunami by Helene Robert, Jeremy Perrin – France | 2019 – 68 minutes

In March 2011, the east coast of Japan was hit by a tsunami that claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people and caused vast devastation. A trip along coastal communities, ending on Mount Osore—where in the Buddhist tradition the dead souls find sanctuary—reveals how traumatizing the disaster has been, and how people are dealing with it.

Many residents have lost loved ones. They exchange stories about the spirits of the dead, who visit the living in their dreams, or are said to have been seen on a bridge or near a tree that miraculously survived the tsunami. Years after the disaster, some residents still don’t know where they will be relocated to. Meanwhile, work is underway on the construction of new dikes and huge concrete breakwaters that block the view of the sea.

Fairylike jellyfish are superimposed over images of a man in a dark forest, like transparent ghosts. We witness a small community marked by sadness, where the dead still have a powerful presence. (2019 IDFA)



Shadow Flowers

Shadow Flowers by Seung-jung Yi – South Korea | 2019 – 109 minutes

The North Korean Ryun-hee Kim unwittingly ended up in South Korea in 2011. Returning to the neighboring enemy country turns out to be more difficult than expected.

The camera follows Ryun-hee as she goes about her life in the capitalist South, far from her husband, daughter and frail parents. She’s mostly focused on various strategies to get out of South Korea. She goes to the Vietnamese Embassy to apply for political asylum, and during the 2017 Ice Hockey World Cup she runs up to the bus waiting for the North Korean team. She even starts spying in the hope of being extradited, but the South Korean government won’t let her go. When the tensions between the two countries start to relax, there’s a glimmer of hope, but then her situation becomes hopeless again. We follow Ryun-hee through all these ups and downs.

After years of bureaucratic wrangling, she gets a South Korean passport—along with a travel ban that gets extended every month. A disturbing story that turns our ideas about North and South Korea on their head. (2019 IDFA)



Smog Town

Smog Town by Meng Han – 2019 – 80 minutes

Langfang, about 40 kilometers from Beijing, is one of the most air-polluted cities in China. But at the local environmental protection bureau, deputy chief Li and his assistant Hu are working hard to change this.

There’s intense pressure from the leadership in Beijing, and far-reaching measures are needed to combat the fog laced with smoke and exhaust fumes that regularly blankets the city. The steel mill has to close down, teams of inspectors visit environmental offenders, and spray trucks attempt to curb the smog.

This observational bureaucratic drama highlights a situation that parallels the global environmental crisis: the urgency to tackle the problem is obvious, but who will pick up the tab? The Chinese government’s strict environmental policy, which includes imposing sanctions on the mayors who are responsible, puts the employees of the environmental protection bureau in a difficult position. How do you navigate between the divergent interests of government, industry and employees affected by the policy? (2019 IDFA)



The Kingmaker

The Kingmaker by Lauren Greenfield – USA, Denmark | 2019 – 100 minutes

The 90-year-old Imelda Marcos looks out sadly at the poverty in Manila through her car window. How different things were in the Philippines between 1965 and 1986, she says, when her husband Ferdinand Marcos was still in power. The former first lady takes out a thick wad of cash to hand out to beggars as she passes. And when she pays a visit to some young cancer patients, she produces another stack of banknotes.

Director Lauren Greenfield, who previously explored her fascination for the rich in Generation Wealth, now delves into the opulent life of the Marcos family. Imelda, a modern-day Marie Antoinette, says she wants to make the Philippines a paradise again. But where does she actually get all that money from?

While Marcos herself constantly advertises her own virtue, activists and political opponents talk about the devastating corruption in the Philippines. The contrast with Imelda’s proud, patriotic story becomes increasingly painful. The Kingmaker shows how money and power sustain each other, and how dark history repeats itself. (2019 IDFA)



The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer – Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland, UK | 2014 – 98 minutes

Director Joshua Oppenheimer continues his exploration of Indonesia’s handling of the mass murder of a million communists and suspected communists in 1965 and 1966. In his award-winning The Act of Killing, he interviewed a number of perpetrators, who continue to be regarded as heroes by the Indonesian state. In The Look of Silence, he lends a voice to a survivor: the optometrist Adi Rukun.

Rukun is hoping to bring history into sharper focus for the perpetrators. He watches footage from Oppenheimer’s interviews with death squad members. The interviewees admit to being under the command of the Indonesian army and—often with amusement—show in detail where and how they murdered their prisoners, including Adi’s brother Ramli. When he personally confronts the guilty parties, they point to others, angrily cut the conversation short or threaten him with violence. (2019 IDFA)



The two lives of Li Ermao

The two lives of Li Ermao by Jia Yuchuan – China, UK | 2019 – 87 minutes

Li Ermao was born a boy, but has lived for many years now as a “ladyboy.” She performs in clubs, but yearns for true love and acceptance. The film follows her life for 17 years, in which she displays resilience and vulnerability in equal measure, and repeatedly encounters prejudice and even aggression.

She and her boyfriend move to the countryside. There, they try to build a new life in harsh conditions on a plot of land inherited from her family, but she is once again met with rejection. She returns to the city, where it looks like she might very well collapse under the pressure of life as a transgender person in China.

As the years progress, filmmaker Jia Yuchuan increasingly drifts from his position as neutral observer. He gradually becomes part of the story, like an older brother to his protagonist. In voice-over he shares his concerns, and when Ermao hits troubled waters, he’s there to help. This subjective style only adds to the story’s impact. (2019 IDFA)



Towards fragmented anatomy

Towards a fragmented anatomy by Sachin Yaduvanshi – India | 2019 – 15 minutes

Technological and economic developments have never moved as rapidly as in the last 50 years. The consequences are felt most strongly in developing countries, which have been catching up at lightning speed since the turn of the century.

Sachin Yaduvanshi condenses the growing pains of his native India into a narrative that unfolds over a single day. We start in unspoiled nature, with morning sunshine drenching the fields and wind in the trees. The green wilderness makes way for agriculture and eventually gray buildings. In long, meditative shots supported by a restrained but effective soundtrack, always with a single dominant sound, we see the world taken over by bricks and mortar, and birdsong replaced by honking traffic.

The evening at the end of this collective coming-of-age story is ominous. Set against the age of the earth, the history of humanity is no more than a breath. Yet in that short time, we’ve managed to change everything. (2019 IDFA)




Transition by Kana Ohashi, Daijiro Mizuno – Japan | 2019 – 20 minutes

As Terasu grows from a beaming baby into a mischievous toddler, a tragedy unfolds in his young family: the boy’s mother Mie is suffering from terminal stomach cancer. From Mie’s diagnosis during her pregnancy in 2017 to her death three months after Terasu’s first birthday, her husband filmed their lives with his phone. Swiftly paced excerpts from home videos and baby photos show an utterly normal, carefree family life. Later, in scenes edited at a calmer tempo, Mie’s tubes and IVs appear in the background. Then come the inevitable shots of the 45-year-old Mie’s lifeless body being carried out of the house, followed by the funeral and mourning. But little Terasu has to carry on, and so does his father.

The second half of this cinematic photo album, when Mie is no longer in the picture, is the story of how life goes on. This “transition” is both soberingly and movingly portrayed in collage-like form, without comment. (2019 IDFA)




Tungrus by Rishi Chandna – India | 2018 – 13 minutes





Yasukuni by Li Ying – Japan, China | 2007 – 123 minutes

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine was founded in 1869 to commemorate all those who have died in service to the emperor and the nation. Within the temple, a special sword symbolizes the two-and-a-half million “national heroes.” Since 1978, they have included 14 convicted war criminals, and the temple has increasingly become a place of pilgrimage for right-wing nationalists. In 2006, Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to the temple sparked international outrage. Meanwhile, China and South Korea believe their former occupier has never properly apologized for its past deeds.

Li Ying’s documentary about the temple and the smith who made the ceremonial sword reveals how in Japan—unlike in Germany—the nation’s wartime past has remained largely unaddressed, and is still a highly sensitive issue. Born in China, the director is the first person in Japan to make a film about this subject—it took him 10 years to make. Li Ying’s style is neutral and observational, but he often moves with his camera among the worshipers, demonstrators and riot police. The premiere of the film, which extremist politicians initially attempted to ban, took place under heavy guard. (2019 IDFA).

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