Popwire’s Guide to World Cinema is a quarterly column, where film editor Hidzir Junaini spotlights underseen gems from around the world.
Seeing as August is the month where Southeast Asian neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia celebrate their respective National Days – we thought that this would be the perfect time to recommend a collection of movies that embody the spirit of Asian independence. Specifically, we’d like to spotlight MUBI’s wonderfully curated Viva Nusantara! campaign, which cherry picks 10 fantastic films that reflect the ideas of unity, bravery and freedom.
Mira Nair’s unflinching 1988 story of street children, prostitutes and drug dealers is a Dickensian portrait of life in the margins in the titular city. Nair and her screenwriting partner Sooni Taraporevala developed the film by talking with street children about their experiences, and then visiting the train stations, bazaars and red-light districts where many of them lived. Out of these interviews emerged a screenplay of composite characters, which were then performed by some of the very same children that were interviewed. The result is a stunningly authentic and naturalistic child’s-eye-view of Mumbai’s underclass.
This heart-wrenching documentary is the feature directorial debut of Wesley Leon Aroozoo. The film follows Yasuo Takamatsu, a man who lost his wife to the tsunami during the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011. Since that fateful day, he has been diving in the sea off the coast of Japan every week in search of her. I Want to Go Home is a short yet compelling glimpse into the fragility of human lives in the face of natural disaster. Juxtaposing the poignant memory of heartbreaking loss, alongside the unending love and resilience of Takamatsu, this hour long film is one that will devastate and inspire you in equal measure.
Co-directed by Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix, Jr. – Manila is a twinbill consisting of two evocatively shot black-and-white halves. The first segment entitled “Day” follows a young man grappling with drug addiction and his mother’s disappointment. The latter section, “Night” revolves around a bodyguard who falls for his boss’ girlfriend. Starring Piolo Pascual in two different lead roles, this thematically connected cinematic diptych is an inventive introduction into the genre of Filipino neorealism.
Adapted from a stage play by award-winning playwright Haresh Sharma, Fundamentally Happy follows Eric, a social worker who returns to Singapore for his father’s funeral. In the meantime, he decides to visit his childhood caretaker, Habiba, at her flat after not seeing her for nearly two decades. However, what seems like a happy reunion takes a dark turn when a painful secret from the past is gradually revealed. Taking place entirely within the four walls of Habiba’s house, this film by Lei Yuan Bin and Tan Bee Thiam explores thorny themes of sexual abuse and childhood trauma through a riveting, powerfully-acted chamber drama.
Wong Kar-wai’s oneiric 1994 foray into the wuxia genre remains as the most unconventional martial arts epic you’ll ever see. Redux is the remastered and re-edited version of the auteur’s most ambitious project. Set in ancient China, on the edge of a vast desert, Ashes of Time revolves around vagabond Ouyang Feng – a swordsman controlling a gang of assassins. Wounded and hardened by a love he neglected then lost, the film follows the aging warrior as he reflects upon his solitude. This slow-burning meditation on memory, regret and lost love is not your typical wuxia flick, but its ravishing visuals and poetic rhythm is mesmerizing.
This acclaimed biopic covers the major events in the extraordinary life of Mohandas Gandhi, the beloved Indian leader who stood against British rule over his country. Dedicated to the concept of nonviolent resistance, Gandhi’s gatherings of passive protest overcame even superior English firepower to help move India towards independence. Helmed by Richard Attenborough and featuring a powerhouse lead performance from Ben Kingsley – Gandhi is an uplifting and educational epic that will enthrall you for the entirety of its 188-minute duration.
Presented in three parts – “The Hill of Misfits”, “Song of Tomorrow” and “As You Were” – Liao Jieka’s magic-realist film presents St John’s Island as its centerpiece. From the island’s historical roots as quarantine center, penal colony and home for exiles – to its present perception as an idyllic escape from the relentless pressure of mainland Singapore – As You Were reconciles both states through the lens of childhood sweethearts Guohui and Peiling. As the pair reunite after years of being apart and become a couple – the duo spend their last moments together on the island as their relationship falls apart. This film is an intimate and dreamy rumination on the many ways that Singapore’s evolving society can shape our identities.
Coming in at a gargantuan five and a half hours, Lav Diaz’s hauntingly beautiful film chronicles the gradual decline of a small coastal barrio in the Philippines in the final days before president Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. Shot in stark black-and-white, From What Is Before exploring the final days of a tranquil religious community on the brink of collapse. Known as the king of longform cinema, Diaz’s lingering takes and observant eye takes its time to allow the viewer to absorb the contours of his setting’s landscape as well as the quiet spirituality of its people. Despite its languid pace, this film’s exquisite expression of the fragile interplay between nature and civilization presents a potent political allegory that earns every second of its runtime.
Mani Kaul’s 1973 magnum opus is a masterpiece of Indian Parallel Cinema. Based on the eponymous Rajasthani folk-tale written by Vijaydan Detha, Duvidha is a surprisingly complex story about a ghost in a banyan tree who falls madly in love with a newlywed woman. Taking the form of her husband, the ghost proceeds to take his place in the household when the woman’s real husband moves away to establish a business. Shockingly, even when the truth is revealed, the woman chooses to remain with the supernatural entity – preferring someone who actually makes her feel desired rather than remain faithful to a man who chooses wealth over her companionship. The woman’s act of rebellion against India’s oppressively patriarchal system is the crux of Kaul’s radical social commentary in this gorgeously avant-garde film.
Set in 2066, a survivor of an enigmatic cult recounts Singapore’s traumatic history in Daniel Hui’s dreamy film. Using the testimonies of ghosts from various eras in the country’s past, Snakeskin is a collection of narratives interwoven with one another to form a tapestry of haunting memories that form Singapore’s troubled national identity. From a political fugitive recounting his experience of running from the authorities, to a girl struggling with her feelings about her overly-prudish mother who judges her choice of partners – Snakeskin uses spirits to wander through, confront, and re-examine a country’s history, myths and events.