These are thirty Asian films you shouldn’t miss at the International Film Festival Rotterdam which will take place from January 25 until February 5, 2023 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
To see the second part of this article, please go HERE
Anastasia Tsang’s feature-length directorial debut opts for a gentle, intimate angle. Centring on the widow of a Hong Kong neon-sign artist, who is determined to step into her husband’s shoes and overcome any obstacles to recreate a legendary neon sign that has been demolished, A Light Never Goes Out delivers a snapshot of Hong Kong life at its most ordinary. It expresses the sentimental attachment to Hong Kong, its architecture and social rituals, even if you have never visited it.
Boosted by the powerful performances of Sylvia Chang and Simon Yam, A Light Never Goes Out brings together the cultural identity of a place and its inhabitants, and ties the signature features of the city-state to private stories of ordinary Hongkongers. It captures the very essence of Hong Kong and shows what the people are fighting for, the “normal” that If We Burn (IFFR 2023) explores. – Cherry van der Stelt (IFFR 2023)
Taking its sardonic title from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ill-fated words, Teresa Braggs’ All Was Good drops us amongst eclectic student groups protesting the proposed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the city of Bangalore. They coin slogans, sing songs of resistance and discuss politics in a social-media-savvy, international lingo. The casual camera captures their weary eyes, hoarse voices and inked fingers, the imprint of long nights spent in barricaded streets and makeshift shelters.
In September 2019, Modi assured expatriate crowds at a Houston rally that everything was fine back home. Weeks later, protests broke out across the country against the proposed CAA, which sought to introduce a religious criterion to regularising illegal immigration. Combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the act would potentially denaturalise marginalised individuals unable to prove their citizenship. – Srikanth Srinivasan (IFFR 2023)
Amiko isn’t like other children. Her endless energy and curious eccentricities make her an outcast at school and get her in trouble at home. When a painful family loss disrupts her seemingly idyllic seaside life, her sense of isolation intensifies, yet it doesn’t stop Amiko from inviting people into her world.
Morii Yusuke’s directorial debut is a confident and compassionate story about a child’s imagination. The film balances sorrow with joy and harsh lessons with naive delight – much like growing up. Crucially, Amiko never forgets who is at the centre of the story. The wry humour and detailed compositions of small-town Japan, as well as the film’s hopeful tenor, are reminiscent of Ogigami Naoko or Kore-eda Hirokazu’s works. The gentle and languorous atmosphere is enriched by a score from upcoming folk star Ichiko Aoba. – Jessica McGoff (IFFR 2023)
Arnold Is a Model Student is a contemporary portrait of Thai culture captured through the lens of young-adult high-school experience. The excelling Arnold acutely understands the pressure placed on students, and the contradictory ethics associated with his education and success. His acumen allows him a pragmatic distance from growing unrest in the school, which eventually culminates in a student protest.
Sorayos Prapapan examines a school where systematic bribery and cheating pervade the education culture in the pursuit of perceived academic excellence and prestige. The image of success promoted by the headmaster is undermined by the rejection of the rigid implementation of rules, after a teacher physically punishes Arnold’s friends with a cane. – Ol Marin (IFFR 2023)
Kato is an aspiring screenwriter treading water. He spends his days pitching stories to offbeat agents and executives who are anything but impressed. Not that he has run out of ideas, they just don’t seem to go anywhere. Unlike his relationship with his girlfriend Zigzag – that one is going down the drain. Little does Kato – or anyone – know that life is about to take some seriously weird turns.
While out to buy the special brand of food for his girlfriend’s dog Cerberus, Kato discovers an abandoned convenience store that transforms his trajectory. A stumble into a refrigerator catapults him into a realm of fantastical inspiration boosted by an eccentric couple he meets along the way. Might this be the key to getting his mojo back? – Teresa Lobos (IFFR 2023)
Chris Huang Wen-chang’s DEMIGOD: The Legend Begins is a baroque puppet animation wuxia epic that synthesises traditional and modern storytelling techniques to sumptuous effect. It has everything: magic, madness, heaven, sin, love, treason, high emotion, heroic bloodshed and attractive-as-hell protagonists. All of which is integrated into an eye-popping, breathtaking world of kinetic action and bloody violence with the help of elaborate practical and special effects, bringing to life glove puppets from Taiwan’s traditional pò͘-tē-hì theatre. They burst with vital energy as the film carries you away with sophisticated cinematic language, multiplanar compositions and frenzied editing patterns. The characters are all voiced by the late Wen Tze Huang, and complemented by exquisite costumes, accessories and props.
The result is a creative, crafty and opulent wuxia fantasy that moves at breakneck pace, featuring swashbuckling warriors, scheming vassals and benign demigods. And yes, there will be blood. – Srikanth Srinivasan (IFFR 2023)
You wake up in a shabby hotel room with no idea how you got there. You can’t recall your name. You discover there seem to be other young women in other rooms in the same predicament, though one of them seems to know your name: Anne. After an unpleasant encounter with a rather large cockroach, you have a screaming fit. That’s when the nurses arrive to sedate you. And by the way, when night falls, you’ll need to escape from a killer demon with the bloodied head of a deer.
Faces of Anne relies heavily on elements of the slasher film – and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. But the film is also a puzzle, whose central question – Why is Anne here? – allows us to explore theories as to its solution until the very last moment. Are we inside a video game? An escape room? The mind of someone with multiple personalities? The elaborate and nihilistic fantasy of a deranged serial killer? It’s nothing new to remark that the best horror films are often those that reflect the fears of society; this film builds a clever – and viscerally terrifying – analogy of some of the difficulties faced by today’s young people. – Nicholas Davies (IFFR 2023)
Sony is a kind man, a good Christian. He is always willing to lend his fellow villagers a helping hand, assist struggling children with their school lessons or organise volunteer activities. When an outcast family is struck by tragedy, he negotiates with the Church to rehabilitate them financially. Sony is not just the connective tissue, but the beating heart of this small Catholic village. Under his genial exterior, however, lurks something dark.
Don Palathara’s (Everything Is Cinema, IFFR 2021) sensitive social drama Family is a nuanced, finely observed portrait of a devout Christian community in Kerala in Southern India. Piecing together vignettes of everyday life in the village, seen largely through Sony’s eyes, the film reveals the paradoxes and hypocrisies that animate close-knit rural existence: details of people’s private lives become public knowledge instantly through unseen networks of gossip, while uncomfortable truths are buried in the name of common morality.
Mediating these social relations is the Church itself, which both holds the village together as a family and entrenches its inequities. Just as Sony’s increasing participation in public life feels tender and horrendous at the same time, the insidiousness of the community’s self-preservation mechanisms turn out to be inextricable from a sense of its fragility. Palathara’s film offers a complex picture of a quotidian conspiracy with no easy answers. – Srikanth Srinivasan (IFFR 2023)
Raghu is a small-time journalist working at a radical online media outlet in the linguistically polarised town of Belgaum in Southern India. He doesn’t mind the meagre pay, for he is committed to his cause, posting inflammatory, dubious content attacking his opponents. Objective news reports plant seeds of doubt, but he responds to this cognitive dissonance by redoubling his fanatical outpourings on the internet, with tragic consequences.
With a razor-sharp sense of place and culture, Harshad Nalawade’s astute, compassionate drama Follower makes us intimate with the diverse sources of Raghu’s radicalisation, relatively minor hassles in themselves, but all accumulating into a general feeling of being stuck in life. Every time Raghu sticks his head out, he is pulled back to be shown his place. Follower is a rare work that taps into the frustration of having to feel like an outsider in one’s own home. Yet the film refuses to reduce Raghu to these harsh experiences alone, giving him a nuanced, finely textured social life in the form of two close companions – upper-class YouTuber Sachin and a Muslim single mother, Parveen. Theirs is a relationship not exhausted by their identities but still susceptible to crack under external pressure. In their beautiful friendship, Follower reminds us of what is at risk of being lost. – Srikanth Srinivasan (IFFR 2023)
Sawako began exploring her sexuality in her teens, opting for men considerably older. Now in her 20s — and still living at home with her parents — her fascination continues through her scrapbook, where she keeps a collection of photographs and observations of older men. Somehow, she’s always found it easy to exchange with them. When she eventually falls for Mori, a former co-worker her age, she experiences a different kind of sexual and emotional awakening as well as a newfound sense of inner power.
To celebrate 50 years since the start of Roman Porno production, Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, released three titles in 2022. While observing the rule of an erotic moment every 10 minutes, Matsui Daigo’s (Japanese Girls Never Die, IFFR 2017) adaptation of Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s 2007 novel of the same name is a bright and witty observation of a woman’s self-awareness, emotional and sensual pleasures of seduction and sexual experience. Likewise, Sawako conveys an intriguing and sympathetic perspective of older men, exploring the inner fragility that can be hidden behind the role of virile protectors and mentors. Yet she never pities or diminishes them, nor does she solely assume the role of a pupil, though she still takes an opportunity to learn.
Subtle in its expression, Hand hides more than meets the eye, while bringing a powerful female character that maintains agency over her body and her choices to the forefront. – Felicia Maroni (IFFR 2023)
Oshii Mamoru has long been celebrated for his achievements in anime (Patlabor the Movie, IFFR 2000) and live-action cinema (Avalon, IFFR 2002); his work has been regularly showcased in Rotterdam since 1996. Oshii has also worked, as a writer and producer, in manga, novels and television. The Ghost in the Shell and Jin-Roh franchises rank high in his legacy. Now in his 70s, Oshii returns to the premise and characters of the anime TV series he created in 2020, Vlad Love, and reworks it as a live-action feature, I Can’t Stop Biting You.
Highly stylised and essentially comical in tone, the film portrays the four, very different teenage members of a ‘Blood Donation Club’, schoolgirls who have alienated themselves from the dreary, conformist pack through their unusual obsession – regular blood donations. Into their lives crashes the dangerously beautiful Mai Vlad Transylvania, a vampire ‘teenager’ who happens to be unable to attack humans. A mix of satire, mystery, cartoonish frenzy, delightful goofiness and teenage drama, I Can’t Stop Biting You is a playful and touching piece of work to enjoy. – Adrian Martin (IFFR 2023)
Hundreds of thousands of men and women fill the streets of Hong Kong, wielding umbrellas as armour. Police brandish batons, and tear gas canisters explode. It is June 2019, and the city’s governor Carrie Lam is attempting to pass a bill allowing China to extradite people to the mainland for trial. Up to a million people march in protest and If We Burn plunges you into the heart of this vast civic uprising, its fervour building as the police backlash grows.
With much of the footage coming from cameras weaving through the crowds at eye-level with protestors, If We Burn brings viewers viscerally close to the pro-democracy protest’s frontline, where violence and chaos unfold on screen as if in real time. James Leong and Lynn Lee deliver an excellent work of documentary filmmaking that marries the urgency of its topic and high cinematic qualities.
Collaborators for over a decade, Leong and Lee have forged a reputation for their penetrating documentary work, gaining accolades from human-rights and film organisations alike. The film marks a striking return to Rotterdam for the Singapore-based duo, following an earlier work-in-progress version (If We Burn, IFFR 2020). – Imogen Greenhalgh (IFFR 2023)
Flies buzzing, flesh tearing, laboured breathing. The gruesome opening sounds of a body being torn apart immediately draw you into the nightmarish world of In My Mother’s Skin, the beguiling second feature from Filipino writer-filmmaker Kenneth Dagatan.
Set in the Philippines in the final months of World War II, we follow Tala, the young daughter of a merchant suspected of stealing gold from the occupying Japanese soldiers. Fearing for his family’s safety should the gold be found, the father leaves to seek help and strands Tala, her younger brother, and their sickly mother to fend for themselves in their isolated mansion. As they wait with growing despair for the patriarch’s return, the mother’s condition rapidly deteriorates, leading Tala to accept the aid of a carnivorous fairy whose offering leads to unexpected and insatiable carnage. – Sophie Tupholme (IFFR 2023)
Joram opens with an idyllic glimpse of young love in the tribal interiors of Jharkhand, Eastern India, and jarringly jumps forward to gritty labourer life in Mumbai. Some years after leaving the village of their tribal community, Dasru and Vaano are working and sleeping at a construction site with their infant daughter, Joram, clinging to their backs. The thriller unravels through flashbacks, portraying the promise of big-city successes shattered by the realities of modernity and power.
A suspicious encounter with a political leader from their region, Phulo Karma, culminates in brutal violence and forces the soft-spoken Dasru to flee into Mumbai’s evening smog. Desperately navigating the city’s underbelly and exhaustively fending for Joram, Dasru is trailed by the stoic and overworked Mumbai cop, Ratnakar, who begins to understand parallels between his own life and the man he is pursuing. Filmmaker Devashish Makhija masterfully plays with cinematic convention as Dasru and Ratnakar’s adrenaline-raising journey back to Jharkhand intertwines a thriller with subtle noir and western tropes. – Olivia Hărşan (IFFR 2023)
Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat’s Kamli develops this simple, fairy-tale premise into an affecting romantic melodrama that examines the role of tradition in shaping women’s fears and desires. In the emotional economy of the film, happiness becomes a zero-sum game governed by the dictates of religion. Constantly juggling contrasting sentiments, Kamli makes us both cheer for Hina in her search for love, and understand Sakina’s cruelty as a product of deep-seated insecurity.
The film draws energy from the idioms of both realist drama and Bollywood musicals, balancing the two to prevent the film from collapsing into either grimness or frivolity. The charming song interludes serve to stylise the emotions, which are kept in check by a story grounded in everyday reality. Elegantly shot with a special attention to fabrics, Kamli offers an exceptional work from an underrepresented region of cinema. – Srikanth Srinivasan
To see the second part of this article, please go HERE
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