The third Asian Hot Shots Festival for Film and Video Art at Berlin's Moviemento came to a close with Green Chillies awards going to films from India, Thailand and Singapore.
"Supermen of Malegaon" highlights the importance of cinema in India
There was a full house for the opening of Berlin's most exciting Asian film festival with a typically eclectic audience of diehard fans and a large contingent of guests from Singapore, this year's special focus.
"I am delighted to have the chance to meet 16 young and talented filmmakers from my country," Jacky Foo, Singapore’s ambassador to Germany, told the packed cinema. He added that although Singapore’s movie industry had been around since the 1930s, there had been a "remarkable development" in the past 10 years.
This view was corroborated by Mathias Ortmann, a specialist on Singapore cinema who co-organized the four-day event. "Our mission as an independent film festival is to salvage Singapore productions from near obscurity," he said. "These films are our recommendations to you as an audience."
Glen Goei's Blue Mansion set the tone
The first recommendation went down extremely well. Glen Goei's "The Blue Mansion" is a Shakespearean drama about the intrigues triggered by the sudden death of a pineapple business tycoon and tyrannical family head.
Singapore provided the focus for this year's festival
The local police quickly start snooping around thinking a murder might well have been committed, exacerbating tension between the siblings that is already electric. In a comic twist, the dead tycoon, in limbo as it were, is able to observe the preparations for his funeral and is thus exposed to certain unwelcome truths about his children – they cannot stand him, one of them is alcoholic, another one is gay and the third has a lover…
Those who know Singapore well will immediately get the references to the island nation’s politics, society, media and censorship. This is perhaps why the film has not yet been given a commercial release in Singapore, where it is rumored the authorities were none too keen on it getting more exposure.
But even an international audience unversed in the intricacies of Singapore's politics can appreciate the acting, the comedy and the examination of rivalries known to all those who belong to a family.
Shedding light on the universal through a local lens
Thus, the film sheds light on universal matters through a local lens and one of the aims of the festival is indeed to bring Asia to Europe and point out the parallels while insisting on the specifics.
Tina Lange, one of the festival organizers, told Deutsche Welle that "Asian filmmakers have their own style, their own way of dealing with what’s going on in their countries and they also use new digital aesthetics."
She added that the festival offered young filmmakers in particular a platform, where they could show their movies and discover other Asian directors, who like them had often studied in Europe or the US, creating a third product that was exciting for everybody.
80 films were shown during the four-day festival
"Supermen of Malegaon"
One film that especially highlighted how exciting cinema can be is Faiza Ahmed Khan's "Supermen of Malegaon," a charming documentary about a man who sets out to re-make Superman ("Mollywood-style") in a small city in Maharashtra, which is plagued by poverty and social strife.
The movie underlines the importance of cinema in India at all levels of society and the relief it can offer in times of disenchantment. It is also a very encouraging indication of what one can do with little money but a lot of passion.
For Sheikh Nasir manages to make his film despite the obstacles and keeps the viewer fascinated by the process all the way.
"Karma Calling" by Sarba Das, meanwhile, is about an Indian family trying to keep its head above water in Hoboken, New Jersey and about Indians in New Delhi trying to get to America.
The Raj family is falling to pieces and at risk of going bankrupt. The son dreams of becoming the next biggest hip-hop producer, the older daughter dreams of a more fulfilling job than selling "artificial plants which look real" and the youngest daughter dreams of becoming the first Hindu girl to have a Bat Mitzvah.
Their parents are overwhelmed by the circumstances. Like any American household, they are hounded by phone calls – the least welcome are from the creditors. Those making the calls are thousands of miles away, perfecting their accents and their knowledge of American geography.
Once again, the themes are universal – the protagonists are dissatisfied with their jobs, they cannot afford the rent, they live in overcrowded conditions. They all yearn for something more from life.
And with some help from the gods, Ganesha to be precise, their problems are "miraculously" solved, giving a happy Hollywood ending to this amusing drama.
India is perhaps the most film-loving nation in the world
"Made in Pakistan"
But not all the films at the festival are funny. "Made in Pakistan," a documentary by Nasir Khan, gives an insider view of the supposedly "most dangerous country in the world". The director follows the lives of four Pakistanis – a very successful PR and events manager, the editor of a cultural magazine, a lawyer and a politician over a short period in 2007.
It is a film that contrasts deeply with the snippets of information about Pakistan that are often to be found in the Western media and brings this misinterpreted nation to life.
The film was shot in 2007, ending with Benazir Bhutto's assassination in December that shocked the protagonists but did not unsettle their faith in their country's future.
"Mother is a Whore"
Lee Sang-Woo’s "Mother is a Whore" is an extremely disturbing film ostensibly about an aging prostitute whose pimp is her own son. The viewer is at first repelled by the circumstances but soon realizes that the son does not do his job voluntarily.
A still from the disturbing South Korean drama "Mother is a Whore"
His tender attitude towards his mother is touching and it turns out she is not his victim at all – indeed she apparently likes her job as it allows her rare moments of affection. In a parallel plot, the son's estranged father is revealed to be a brutal rapist of young boys.
The South Korean director does not spell anything out, however. Instead, he challenges his viewers to question any moral certainties they think they might have. It is not a film that leaves the viewer unscathed.
The mark of a good film festival is that the selection raises thought and debate. Of 80 exciting productions from all over Asia, eight competed for the Green Chillies award. "Green because they are not quite ripe but still they are hot and Asian," Lange put it with a smile.
In the end, the audience chose "Agrarian Utopia" by Thai director Uruphong Raksasad and "White Days" by Lei Yuan Bin from Singapore.
Next year's festival will also take place at Moviemento but as yet it is unclear which country will provide the focus.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Arun Chowdhury