Festival Reports

Asian Cinema at BIFFES: Linked by an Unusual Thread

System Administrator Sunday February 12, 2017

In the nine years since it was born, the Bengaluru International Film Festival has seen a gigantic growth of its footprint – from a mere 600 delegates to over 6,000. Films – over 200 from 60 countries in 16 sections shown on 15 screens - are far more diverse that before. Women filmmakers have stamped their personalities on the event (this time with a massive 31-film package called “Women Power in Filmmaking”) and book releases and master classes are held. Significantly, the lesser known languages and dialects of India were celebrated this year in the category “Unsung Incredible India”. Above all, BIFFES, organised by the Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy and led by its Artistic Director N Vidyashankar, is now as much a Bangalore as a Mysore event ever since the two cities began to jointly host the festival a year ago. The opening ceremony which brought together hundreds of people in the state capital Bangalore, was a grand event held in front of a spectacularly lit Vidhan Soudha (the Karnataka Legislature).

Apart from country focuses and retros, BIFFES paid homage to those in the film world who have passed away recently: Andrej Wajda, Abbas Kiarostami, Paul Cox, J Jayalalitha, Om Puri, Jacques Rivette, Raoul Coutard, G V Iyer and M K Indira, among others.

Two NETPAC awards were conferred in two categories – Asian Competition and Kannada Cinema Competition. Fourteen films from eleven countries made up the Asian Cinema package. As I began watching them, something curious struck me: while the films were, quite naturally, very different in theme and tone, somehow, a thread linked many of them – the thread of death. Death –both natural and unnatural. In some cases a person’s death becomes the trigger for the story; in other cases, death is where the story ends. The competently made Iranian film, A House on 41st Street (dir Hamid Reza Ghorbani) begins with a murder in a family over a bounced cheque. As the story proceeds, ideas of justice and relationships among family members revolve around this unforeseen murder.

In Letters from Prague (Indonesia; dir Angga Dwimas Sasongko), an old, ailing mother – whose relations with her daughter had never been harmonious - dies early in the film. She bequeaths all her assets to her daughter but also leaves behind a will where she demands that the daughter hand over a box to someone in Prague. The daughter’s meeting with an unknown man in Prague and the letters he had once written to the deceased mother, hold the key to past events which had shaped the lives of the protagonists in this film of nostalgic hues.

In the delicately and intricately developed film, Lost Daughter (Taiwan; dir Chen Yu-Jie), a young girl (who we don’t see) dies while scuba diving. Why did her step-sister and her swimming trainer who were with her, not help her? Layer upon layer of family bonds are peeled off in this compelling film, and we are left asking whether everyone was in some psychological way, guilty of her death.

A Father’s Will by Bakyt Mukul and Dastan Zhapar Uulu (Kyrgyzstan) received the NETPAC award in this category “for the spiritual roots that underpin the story” and for its “cinematic excellence” – the one film, I daresay, that tried to do something cinematically new (Kyrgyzstan’s Dalmira Tilepbergen’s Under Heaven had won the award last year). The death of a father – that’s where the film begins – but the father has died a year ago in the US (where he and his family had migrated some fifteen years earlier) and the son has returned to Kyrgyzstan to repay his father’s debts to people in his village. Amongst other things, this film is also the portrait of a village - quietly pretty, but from where people are migrating since no one wants to work in rural areas any more, but where traditional generosity and hospitality are intact.

What is the youth in Israel like today? Land of the Little People (Israel; dir Yaniv Berman) gives you a frightening glimpse into the lives of adolescents in a society steeped in a culture of war. The young kids - whose fathers are away, probably fighting, and whose mothers are watching television – play deadly games in the woods and fields. They are harsh and arrogant, violent and brash, hardened and unfeeling. They don’t hesitate to shoot to kill, and kill they do – at the end of the film. It is a terrifying sketch of a society that has no space for anything human.

Red Butterfly Dreams (Sri Lanka; dir: Priyantha Kaluarachchi) packs into its story a contract killer, a preacher at a shrine who seems to practise weird rituals, and a girl searching for her sister who has disappeared in the country’s protracted civil war. As the men hunt for hidden treasure, she is ‘ritually’ sacrificed, for only the killing of a virgin – or so they believe - will lead them to the treasure. The Road to Mandalay (Taiwan- Germany; dir: Midi Z) is a very well-crafted film on Burmese refugees crossing over illegally into Thailand, facing bribery and corruption along the way as they try to acquire new identity papers. Things go wrong and then seemingly right for the girl, but for the boy who loves her, her aspirations for a better life in Bangkok are more than he can take. A murder and a suicide provide a rather unexpected finale to the film.

The problem of autism - worrisome and more widespread in China than one realises - is beautifully brought out in Destiny (China; dir: Zhang Wei). The story of a mother trying fiercely to safeguard the interests of her 9 year-old autistic son (who gives an outstanding performance), even as the grandmother of another, older autistic boy, gives up the fight (and life) is both tender and heart-wrenching.

Just how complex can a father-son relationship get? The Narrow Path (India; dirs.: Satish Babusenan and Santosh Babusenan) brings out the bitterness, hurt, twisted sarcasm and yet the playfulness between a young man and his wheelchair-bound father who he must nurse. He makes plans to leave town with his girlfriend for better prospects in the city, but cannot tear himself away. And the father, in a final, astonishingly moving and uncharacteristic act of gentleness, lies down beside the son, caresses him and commits suicide. An intricately woven psychological thread binds the two, in life, and even more, in death.

In U Turn (India, dir. Pawan Kumar), a young girl is a trainee reporter, trying to write a piece on how people break traffic rules. By mischance, she gets entangled in a murder case which appears to be connected precisely to the story she is investigating. And then another death…and yet another… The Sri Lankan film Light Arose (dir: Chathra Weeraman), is the story of Buddha’s dispensation which was written down after centuries of being orally transmitted. Set against a background of invasion and war, the overthrowing of a king and of his return to power, Light Arose is a film of violence and killing even when the aim is to preserve and pass on the Buddha’s non-violent message.

Death was not a leitmotif in the other films – By the Time it Gets Dark, White Blessing andFour Chinese Poems. Powerful in their own right, these films were experimental, enthusiastic and cinematographically stunning in turn.


- Latika Padgaonkar


Jocelyne Saab (30th Apr, 1948 - 7th Jan. 2019) Jocelyne Jocelyne Saab, widely considered one of the most important contemporary Arab filmmakers, passed away after a brave and difficult battle with cancer on 7 January. Although death had long been hovering, many of us in contact only through texting or phoning, were taken by surprise, as the usual season's greetings had been exchanged with no hint that this beloved member of our film community would leave us within a week. Read More...