Together with Zakir Hossain Raju from Bangladesh and Kan Lumé from Singapore, I had the pleasure of ‘attending’ (though virtually) the 24th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, an event renowned not only for its splendid location (Tallinn is the capital of Estonia), and its hospitality but also for its generally fine selection of Asian films. This year, it seems, festival director Tiina Lokk and her team excelled themselves. Either the Asian films were generally good this year or the festival was ‘lucky’ because these films had not travelled as much as they would have earlier due to the prevailing, unpleasant circumstances. Be that as it may, this year’s jury had the privilege of choosing among 14 high-quality films – all the more remarkable since the prolific film-producing countries such as India, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan (except for one co-production with Malaysia, Come & Go by Lim Kah Wai) were not even represented. Apart from Lim’s feature, there were three films from Iran, two from the PRC, and one each from Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Syria, Turkey, Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines.
No fewer than seven of the 14 films in the NETPAC Competition were world premieres, gathered from the different sections of the festival. Three of them were first films and also competed in the ‘First Features Competition’ where Wang Yiao’s film Great Happiness (China) deservedly won the Main Award. To illustrate how good the films were, it should be mentioned that in the jury deliberation we found ten of the 14 films (more or less) eligible for the Award whereas usually, as everyone knows, it is the other way around.
In the end, after some serious head-scratching, we went for Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Ulbolsyn. The prolific Kazakh director’s eighth film won the NETPAC Award (to quote the jury citation) “for being a vibrant, stylised, playfully innovative—genre-based but also genre-bending drama; a subtle ‘women’s’ film with a fresh but sincere take on traditional life in a Kazakh village full of humane humans.” The eponymous heroine who lives a ‘free’ Western-style life in Almaty comes back to her native village for her 16-year-old sister who she wants to send abroad for education. What Ulbolsyn doesn’t know is that the girl is on the verge of being married off to a much older man – the traditional way. The ensuing conflict of rural vs. urban life-styles and opinions results in a highly dramatic, sometimes funny and in the end, a surprising story. Assel Sadvakassova who produced the film, gives a spectacular performance as the headstrong Ulbolsyn.
There were several strong contenders, though: The Kyrgyz film The Road to Eden by Dastan Zhapar Uulu and Bakyt Mukul is a moving story about an old man’s search for peace late in his life. In Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl (Philippines) a young woman gets to know her favourite movie star. Much to her disappointment he is not as glamourous and as pleasant as she thought him to be. At first glance, Zhang Dalei’s Stars Await Us, his second film after his much-lauded debut Summer Is Gone (2016), tells a run-of-the-mill gangster genre story of a man recently released from prison and searching for the woman he used to love. As it turns out, Zhang manages to do much more. Set in the widely unknown Russian - Chinese border area, the film displays the director’s incredible feeling for moods and locations. And the film features an extraordinary soundtrack of sentimental Russian pop songs (the film’s title stems from one of them). Rana Kazkaz’s and Anas Khalaf’s Syrian - European co-production, The Translator is a rousing story of a family almost torn apart in the tragic political events which later lead to the civil war in Syria.
The Translator is a first feature, and so is Great Happiness by Wang Yiao from China. Wang immediately establishes himself as a voice to be heard among independent Chinese filmmakers. The story takes place in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province close to Tibet. It portrays a group of nouveau-riche young people born and raised in the era of riotous Chinese capitalism. The whole province, it seems, is cluttered with innumerable stretches of high-rise apartment complexes in which nobody seems to live; quite obviously they are mere objects of speculation and overtrading. While the values of the older generation(s) have long faded, there are no new ones in sight.
Last but not least, Lim Kah Wai’s Come & Go should be mentioned – the Malaysian-born, Osaka-based director masterfully assembles a variety of foreigners in the Japanese seaport. All of them are Asians, some of them are (temporary) residents, some of them tourists. Lim tells multiple episodic stories some of which overlap, and some of which don’t.
It will be interesting to see which of these fine films will travel to other, maybe even bigger festivals and which ones will be picked up for distribution. All of them certainly deserve a lot of attention.
Andreas Ungerboeck (Austria) – Chairperson, NETPAC Jury
Edited by Latika Padgaonkar