Thanks to epic wuxia (“martial hero”) films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, as well as the sheer scale of India’s Bollywood and Japan’s anime industry, Western audiences have developed a general awareness of Asian cinema in recent years.
Digging a bit deeper, some are even familiar with Japanese greats like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, whose name has been dropped in laudatory tones by Hollywood luminary George Lucas on numerous occasions.
But the story of Asia’s burgeoning film industry is much bigger than this. As seen at the recently concluded 2013 Sundance Film Festival, one of the most renowned independent film festivals in the world, Asia is also home to a diverse, thriving and relevant independent film scene.
Indeed, by some accounts Asia’s film industry is the most exciting in the world today. Creative writing instructor Robert McKee, made famous for his “Story Seminar”, has said that “the most impressive and creative film culture in the world right now is in Asia.”
At this year’s edition of Sundance Film Festival, chaired by American actor Robert Redford and held annually in Park City, Utah, Asian cinema put on a strong showing. From documentaries to love stories, films from Cambodia, South Korea, Afghanistan and the Philippines took home prizes in four categories.
From Cambodia, A River Changes Course won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary. Directed by Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam, who was the cinematographer for the 2011 Academy-Award winning documentary Inside Job, A River Changes Course delves into the depths of the havoc caused by rapid development in Cambodia.
The film follows three Cambodian youths struggling to cope with the effects of deforestation, overfishing and debt, and documents the resultant exodus of modern-day Cambodians exodus to the factories of Phnom Penh. The film was produced by the U.S.-based Migrant Films and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.
In the World Cinema Dramatic category, the Grand Jury Prize went to South Korean film Jiseul. This film, which features amateur actors, tells the story of the tragic post-WWII massacre that took place on director O Muel’s native Jeju Island between 1948 and 1954.
During this period, approximately 30,000 residents of Jeju were killed by the South Korean military, acting on the belief that Jeju had become a Communist stronghold for North Korean sympathizers.
O Muel’s treatment of the infamous incident explores the reactions of Jeju Island residents and occupying soldiers, and is appropriately shot in stark, high-definition black and white film. The film is scheduled to open at cinemas in South Korea in March.
Metro Manila proved to be a crowd pleaser and was chosen for the Audience Award. This drama, filmed in the Philippine capital and directed by the UK’s Sean Ellis, tells the story of migrant rice farmers who leave the countryside to find work in the big city after rice prices plummet.
The film receives a positive review in the Guardian, which praises its realistic glimpse of Manila’s underbelly. What begins as the simple story of farmer Oscar Ramirez, twists and turns into a dramatic tale of a heist in which the scrupulously honest Oscar becomes embroiled through his work as a security guard.
Finally, Wajma (An Afghan Love Story) won the Screenwriting Award for World Cinema Dramatic. This film, written and directed by Afghanistan’s Barmak Akram, takes audiences into Afghanistan’s harsh social reality through the story of a young waiter named Mustafa who charms an attractive student named Wajma.
When word gets out of Mustafa and Wajma’s secret affair and Wajma is pregnant, her father must choose between his daughter and the social pressure to uphold family honor. The film uses this story as a lens to examine complex issues like the lives of women and the realities of modern courtship in Afghan society.
Although this small number of films barely scratches the surface of Asia’s cinematic output, it provides a starting point. And if these award selections are anything to go by, McKee’s sentiment has been vindicated.