The Sundance Film Festival is usually a gala event that stretches over 11 days. This year’s version comes with an abbreviated line-up that covers only a week and it’s virtual. Meaning anyone could buy tickets and watch the movies at home democratizing what was once a glitzy exclusive affair. The festival also has a new director. Tabitha Jackson who worked
for years as director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute was hired. She becomes the first woman, the first person of color and the first person born outside the United States to head the festival. She had previously worked at Channel 4 Television in London before joining Sundance. Our correspondent viewed a few of the Asian films at this year’s festival and filed this report. ~ Introduction by Alan Chong Lau, IE Arts Editor

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Writing with Fire
Directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

A film about the Khabar Lahriya, a newspaper run by Dalit women in Utter Pradesh, Writing with Fire is an engaging documentary about the power of giving voice, represented here in the success of the paper to raise the profile of Dalit women (from the “untouchable” caste) by training them to become reporters. Through their reporting, the women tell stories of harassment and violence suffered by Dalits as well as women in India.

Meera, a Dalit woman and Khabar Lahriya’s chief reporter, is a powerful advocate with ambitions for the paper and the women they train. Along with the publisher, she hopes to move the paper to the digital space in order to remain competitive and reach a wider audience. This frightens the neophyte reporters, many of whom are afraid to use a mobile phone much less utilize features for recording interviews, taking photographs and shooting footage.

Meera’s husband Shivbaran doesn’t expect the women to succeed, but after fits and starts, succeed they do. As Meera observes, Dalit women aren’t expected to become journalists, but she believes that they can “redefine what it means to be powerful” by reporting on rapes against the Dalit women, lack of access to toilets in homes forcing women and children to use the outdoors, and illegal working conditions in the local mines.

A young promising young reporter, Suneeta, writes about the terrible conditions faced by the miners including threats against victim’s families by the mining “mafia” who control the illegal mines that pollute the surrounding villages with dust. Men, women and children work in the mines under backbreaking conditions resulting in deaths due to negligence. Suneeta notes that reporting on the mines comes at great personal risk, and in the past, a mining company owner had threatened her. Yet she persists, inserting herself in the midst of strikes, forcing herself to the front of meetings, and asking workers to tell her their stories.

Suneeta, like other young reporters, must balance their work with family expectations toward work and marriage. Her father complains that it can be a struggle to find a husband for their daughters as men that want an educated girl but won’t let her work after marriage.

Khaba Lahriya debuts online on Youtube and, over time, attracts millions of viewers. The company expands and grows with Meera now a bureau chief in charge of a cadre of reporters. For the first time, they cover an election in Uttar Pradesh despite pushback from everyone, including the sketchy political operatives invested in the success of a party that actively discriminates against castes by creating dissension between religious groups such as the Hindus and Muslims. The women are also afraid that the ruling BJP party will polarize reporting and harm female reporters who cover hard-hitting topics.

An increasing number of women journalists are being killed for reporting on religious nationalism. Writing with Fire throws light on the brave women relegated to the lowest strata of Hindu society who surmount incredible odds to educate themselves and raise their voices to report on social injustice by forcing a hostile and patriarchal society to account for itself.

Fire in the Mountain
Directed by Ajitpal Singh

Vinamrata Rai appears in Fire in the Mountains by Ajitpal Singh, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Admidst fierce competition for hotel guests, Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) and her husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht) struggle over how best to take care of their son, Prakash who seems unable to walk, despite his doctor’s reassurance that there is no medical reason for it.

The essence of the conflict lies in whether a traditional jagar ceremony, a ritual pracitisced in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in northern India. Invoking the gods through music, supplicants ask for favors, in this case, Dharam hopes the ceremony will successful restore Prakash’s ability to walk. He is egged on by the local pundit, priest, who demands to know who is the “boss” in the family, as well as his widowed sister (Sonal Jha) who lives with them.

The ceremony requires a significant amount of money, which Dharam doesn’t have. A charming dreamer, he squanders the little money they earn from tourism on failing business ideas and drink, creating strife in his marriage. Chandra complains bitterly that she is forced to work herself to the bone supporting their family, which includes a teenage daughter, Seema (Harshita Tiwari).

The sumptous scenery of the region keep tourists coming to the area, however, the couple’s hotel, Switzerhland Homestay, lies along a steep hill that can only be accessed by foot, posing a problem for potential guests and Prakash, who must be carried by piggyback further limiting his mobility to leave the house.

Chandra begged the village head to apply for national funds earmarked to bring roads to villages but so far he has refused as doing so would take business away from his hotel which lies next to a busy road. Unlike Dharam, Chandra puts her faith in doctors to find a cure for Prakash’s mysterious condition. She secretly saves money for his treaments and refuses to give Dharam funds to pay the jagar ceremony, arguing that modern medicine is the way to go. Their children are caught between the couple’s stormy relations and the film reveals the Chandra favors the son and Dharam dotes on daughter.

Prakash is a dreamy child, forced by circumstance to stay away from school, and by inclination to do the work he is sent by his teachers. He love to draw however, and happily covers the walls of his home with beautiful portraits of his family. Unfortunately, the local boys at his school bully him for being a mummy’s boy. A brutal scene in the playground late in the film makes clear the reason for Prakash’s unwillingness to attend school, and (spoiler alert) the reason for the pretense that he can’t walk.

His deception slowly tears the family apart and forces Chandra to make a difficult ethical choice, which is witnessed by a horrified Prakash. Mounting tension over the best way to treat Prakash, and the priest’s exhortations to Dharam to take control of his family life, drives him into a violent confrontation with his wife over the money she secreted away. A subdued and battered Chandra arrives to participate in the ceremony which asks the gods to reverse a curse or bad fortune.

The frenzied dancing of the jagar ceremony as a method for releasing severe mental strain, an exorcism, takes on new meaning when Chandra joins the dancers. Her bizarre behavior terrifies Prakash, who rises from his chair to rush to her side and so reveals himself as “healed” — or perhaps, as a little boy forced to lie to protect himself from hate about anyone that is different. Ajitpal Singh shows subtletly in his direction of Fire in the Mountain, a gorgeous film with beautifully developed characters and amazing performances from the cast of first-time and non-professional actors.

I Was Simple Man
Directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi

Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu appear in I Was a Simple Man by Christopher Makoto Yogi, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Eunsoo Cho.

A family drama spanning generations, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I was a Simple Man shows the consequences of blinding grief on three generations of a family from Hawaii’s colonial past to the present time. Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is dying, and he doesn’t seem to care. Despite his doctor’s (Angelica Quin) suggestion that he quit the booze and cigarettes, Masao carries on, relying on his grown children to care for him despite his failure to raise them after the untimely death of his wife, Grace (Constance Wu). He dumped the children on their aunt while hiding out in the countryside, and they continue to resent him for the abandonment.

Alone with his dog Moki, Masao’s existence reeks of sadness as he lives out his final days in a run-down house where he indulges his vices, and in quiet domestic duties such as watering the potted plants surrounding the shack. His daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) grudgingly arrives to attend to him but can’t persuade her brother Henry, who lives on the mainland, to help her. Busy with her own large family, Kati can’t rely on local sibling, Mark (Nelson Lee) who has an unspecified medical condition and requires assistance to manage himself.

I Was A Simple Man’s a ghost story haunted by the memories of violence, familial and cultural, with oblique references to colonization and its fallout on generations of Hawaiians. Masao’s Japanese parents return to Japan after never feeling at home in Hawaii. They too create suffering as they forbid Masao from dating Grace, an ethnic Chinese, forcing him choose her over them. His decision precipitate his parent’s departure from Hawaii and their complete rejection of him. However, their death launches Masao into a spiral of guilt and heavy drinking that marks the begining of the end of his young family.

A dying Masao finally reflects on his life in a reckoning about the consequences of his behavior, prompting Grace’s ghost to say, “Dying isn’t simple, is it?

While visually stunning, the film starts to bog down with one too many flashbacks focused on supernatural elements that don’t always add to the story. Still, when Masao finally replies to Grace’s repeated refrain about dying the film abandons all pretense of a tradional narrative and leaps into achingly beautiful visuals of the natural world as Masao becomes one with his beloved Hawaii.

One for the Road
Directed by Baz Poonpiriya

Tor Thanapob appears in One for the Road by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Ostensibly a buddy flick, One For The Road directed by Baz Poonpiriya wanders through a dull beginning and middle where Aood (Ice Natara) and Boss (Tor Thanapob) the buddy left behind in New York City, travel through one Thai city after another on a final road trip so that a dying Aood say can goodbyes to his ex-girlfriends. In a complicated set-up, the farewell tour establishes the relationship between the women and Aood as well as the two men when they lived in New York as ambitious young things out to make their mark on the world.

It chafes Aood that he never said goodbye to his father, a well-known Thai DJ, when he died, so the road trip becomes his way to arrive at closure over his failed romances, a final goodbye. The awkward reunions are interrupted with flashbacks to heady days in New York when Boss and Aood had dreams to open a bar. Well, Boss now runs a bar and uses his good looks to bed an ever-changing lineup of attractive female guests that frequent his establishment.

Okay, let’s just stop right here. Do these ex-girlfriends deserve Aood’s emotional baggage over their break-ups, and the stalker-ish way that he approaches? His battle with leukemia — and refusal to contemplate chemotherapy — coupled with his unresolved feelings towards his father are a heavy load for anyone to deal with much less a former lover. Yet Aood’s limpid eyes glisten with unshed tears after each interaction, forcing us to love him, and Boss to question his motives.

If their reactions are anything to go by, Aood wasn’t the best of boyfriends. Even Boss struggles to understand why he was asked to come all the way from New York just to chauffeur Aood in a trip rife with pain, literally and emotionally. Aood passes out from pain after a particularly difficult non-reunion.

And here is where the film really begins, with a slow reveal that the rich and handsome Boss, despite his blithe attitude to life and love, suffered deeply after his girlfriend, Prim (an excellent Violette Wautier) betrayed him. Except betrayal extends to his family, and to his best friend, Aood, who harbors a secret that led to a devastating act which turned everyone’s life upside down.

Ice Natara gives a lovely performance as Aood as he physically transforms himself from a healthy young man into a stick-thin cancer patient. His face registers even the tiniest shade of emotion as he slowly and tragically falls in love back in NYC, and after he finally reveals to Boss the true reason for calling him back to Thailand.

If the ending of the One For the Road doesn’t fulfill the promise of its later, darker set-up, well at least Poonpiriya lifted the veil of a facile road trip movie to stare at something deeper, if only briefly.

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