Asia in the movies

The 2013 Pan-Asia Film Festival.

The Pan-Asia Film Festival, now in its fifth year, starts this Wednesday (6 March). The festival seeks to showcase Asia’s most exciting new cinematic productions, spanning countries from Japan to Iran. 

There are 12 films competing for the Inaugural Best Film Award. From satires and horror films, shorts to animation, festival director Sumantro Ghose, along with guest judges Nikki Bedi and Hardeep Singh Kohli, will have a challenging decision on their hands.

Some highlights

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che takes the all too familiar love triangle in a new direction in his 105 minute film GF*BF(2012). Set in Taiwan, and focusing on the democracy movement of the 1980s and 1990s - a period of immense social and political transformation - protagonists Mabel, Aaron and Liam’s shifting emotional loyalties form the basis of a complex and ambitious plot. GF*BF transports us to selected chunks of this decade in an attempt to convey the entanglement of political transformation and personal development. GF*BF  has been chosen for the opening night gala held at Cineworld Haymarket in London (Wednesday 6 March, 6.30pm).  

From Iran comes Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamanpira’s satirical debut feature 111 Girls (2012) which describes the journey of an Iranian diplomat to Kurdistan after receiving a letter threatening the suicide of 111 young women in protest at conditions in their village which have rendered them spinsters. With their fathers and brothers having either died or disappeared, and suitable men hard to come by, these women address the president with a four-day ultimatum stating they will jump to their death unless provided with an eligible suitor. The eccentric premise of this film is inspired by Kurdistan’s present situation. It is characterised by notably powerful visual imagery, shifting from dreamlike sequences to Beckett-esque dark humour. 111 Girls will premiere at Cine Lumiere in London on Wednesday 13 March at 8.30pm.

Thailand’s  Pen-ek Ratnaruang has devised a unique fusion of spirituality and film noir thriller in his film Headshot (2011). Based on the story of an honest policeman turned angel of vengeance, the film follows his quest to balance society’s moral compass. An accident during an altercation leaves the protagonist literally seeing the world upside down. The unique camera positioning used to elucidate the result of the accident is an effective vehicle for combining Buddhist themes of karma, rebirth and redemption with stylistic film noir tropes of spatial disorientation and a stark contrast between light and shadow.  Headshot is showing at  the ICA in London on Tuesday 12 March at 8.30pm.

A selection of short films from Hong Kong’s Fresh Wave Film Festival – a centre for cutting-edge film production – will also be shown for the first time on London’s screens under the title Fresh Wave Shorts. Fresh Wave Shorts will be screened at the ICA on Thursday14  March at 6.30pm.

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che (Photo: Getty Images)
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism