Over the past several years, San Sebastian IFF has slowly become one of the major European platforms for showcasing Asian Cinema. Priority might be given to Spanish language or Latin Cinema, but the shift towards Asian representation is noticeable – this year’s program featured the best-of-the-season titles (Hamaguchi Ryusuke, Pham Thien An, Trn Anh Hùng), as well as beguiling indie projects from the upcoming talent pool. Aside from the European premiere of Miyazaki Hayao’s latest Kimitachi wa dō ikiru ka (The Boy and the Heron) and a decent contemporary line-up, the 71st edition of the festival also marked something special for cinephiles – restored classics of Masumura Yasuzō’s Akai tenshi (Red Angel, 1966) and Ozu Yasujirō’s Nagaya shinshiroku (Record of Tenement Gentleman, 1947), as well as an impressive retrospective of Teshigahara Hiroshi, whose vast body of work included feature films, experimental documentaries, and short PR films.

That gradually rising attention towards Far East Asian Cinema became a global trend, but it’s been a while since any Asian filmmaker has won the main prize at SSIFF. The last time The Golden Shell awarded best picture to an Asian title was in 2016, when Feng Xiaogang enthralled the jury with his most experimental film to date, Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian (I Am Not Madame Bovary), a stylistic comedy starring Fan Bingbing and based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel. However, there was a moment in the early 2000s, when San Sebastian was an important platform for Chinese filmmakers of the fifth and sixth generation. This was when Chen Kaige and Zhang Yang were awarded for their accomplishments as directors with Silver Shell awards. 

That said, SSIF has established the status and a platform that, over the years, has given exposure to independent projects that do not necessarily follow the formula of arthouse aesthetics that has dominated the European landscape for years. This is to say, the films that have recently premiered in SSIFF’s program maintain an interesting status quo – they unfold as stories of unrepresented localities, but without resorting to superimposed poetics or aesthetics that funding policies require. The nature of these films offers divergence; there’s rare intimacy, a personal touch to the stories, and the filmmaker’s desire to provoke a discussion around valid questions, while confronting preconceived ideas or stereotypes. This seems especially true of the films that premiered this year, both in the main slate and the sidebars at the festival. 

Starting with the Official Selection, the competition included two films from Asia – Taiwan’s Chun xing (A Journey in Spring), directed by the artistic duo Peng Tzu-Hui, Wang Ping-Wen, and Japan’s Great Absence (Kei Chika-Ura), which premiered earlier in TIFF’s Platform section. The former is a standout in the festival program, deservedly granted the award for best directing for Peng and Wang. A Journey in Spring is a meditation on the themes of vanishing and imperfections – set in Taipei’s urban fringe area, it tells the story of an older man whose perspective on life alters once his wife passes away, revealing the concealed resentments of their relationship and repressed stories of longing that failed to find expression in their daily dynamics. Peng and Wang’s debut also resonates as a universal take on the generational issues of communication, underlined by the presence of a conflict between the father and his son, whose dazzling relationship is emotionally adrift, unable as they are to find their mutual language to overcome the seemingly longstanding trauma.

A Journey in Spring is not another mourning tale with an exploitative take on the image of senility. The main premise of the film seemingly revolves around notions of imperfections, which Peng and Wang strive to find in the record of the protagonist’s existence, whose daily pace is slowed due to a limp, which makes the observation of his errands an excruciating experience. The camera follows the man with a patient gaze, making every act of walking an act of participation. The visual side of the film, captured by an old Super 16 Camera is bound to be imperfect, too; the scratches on the surface of the image reflect the passing of time, reminding us of the transience of things or the fragility of memories. The more I looked at the graininess of the image, the more enchanted I felt by its unaffected visual quality – as if the film stock told a story of its own, embedded in the notions of the past.

The analogue nature of A Journey in Spring provides not only an aesthetic pleasure, but the film benefits from being immersive and tangible; big words aside, the presence of visual textures underscores the feeling of here-and-now in a reality that rejects any preconceived ideas that anything in life could be seen as certain. A constant feeling of serenity, which we can find in the storytelling or the quietness of the old man’s journey, foregrounds the participatory nature of the film, making the spectator indulge in the act of eye witnessing this record of a certain end – an experience that I found soothing in the most poetic and profound way. The award for Peng and Wang seems just right. 

Their feature debut is a fascinating collaboration – in the sense that they have a relationship that derives from being complementary to each other. Peng’s background is in the field of intermedia art, in which she explores notions of time; Wang has already shown, in her short films, that she’s preoccupied with the theme of familial bonds. According to Peng and Wang, with whom I talked in San Sebastian, they found a perfect aesthetic formula to render their desired perspective on the shortcomings of life: “Everything in our film is meant to reflect the concept of wabi-sabi, whose ultimate idea is to find beauty in the imperfections marked by the notions of time.” As cheesy as it might sound, the film does it right – A Journey in Spring resonates as a somewhat fragile contemplation on the obscurity of human experiences, cinematic and poetic in their own rights, and during which one can only dream of being immersed till its very end.

Great Absence 

Chika-Ura’s Great Absence also resonated as a worthwhile narrative on the topic of familial bonds, with a particular focus on the relationship between father and son, with the former’s sanity questioned by progressing dementia. The two haven’t seen each other in 20 years, so when the father, Yohji-san (Fuji Tatsuya), calls for an emergency that requires assistance from the elite police squad, his son can reunite with him, albeit in a scenario that is without bonding or reconciliation. The void is seemingly filled with question marks for theatre actor Takashi (Moriyama Mirai), but his father does not have the answers. Still strong in his body, Yohji-san’s mind is, however, long gone. After many years absent, walking all the way down the memory lane, with his father’s progressively worsening condition, the future looks as if to hold nothing for the two.

Henceforth, Takashi’s quest will be to find answers from the past. Trying to form his father’s memories from scratch, he will embark on the almost impossible – a reconstruction of the trajectory of a life that has gone astray, from the remnants found in the stories of others. For Takashi, it becomes a path filled with ambiguity, revealing his father’s presence after all these years spent in a glut of doubts that cast a shadow over his persona, slowly revealing the image of a cruel, domineering husband and a man of despicable tyranny.

Chika-Ura’s strength lies in rendering an image of the father-son relationship that is based purely on notions of absence. After years apart, the father has become only a figure, a mere silhouette that no longer connects with the life that unfolds in front of him; there’s not even a slight chance that the lost time could be reclaimed, as time cannot be rewound. The tragedy for both Yohji and Takashi is that they will never have a chance to catch up. In that sense, the film renders a somewhat dystopian ambiance. Filled with the ambiguity of surroundings and people who built the landscape of contemporary Japan (more specifically, between North Kyushu and Tokyo), with its take on aging society, Great Absence echoes the distanced approach of Hayakawa Chie’s Plan 75 (2022), although Chika-Ura’s take is more melodramatic in the latter part of the film, bringing the gravity of unnecessary sentimental tones that somewhat disturb the impact of the piece.

The New Directors sidebar at SSIF also highlighted two films that stayed with me – Liang Ming’s Xiao yao you (Carefree Days) and Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light, both scrutinizing the relationships between young adults and their parents. Caught adrift between the insecurities of adulthood and traumas of the past, the protagonists of both films venture themselves into a physical journey – to facilitate the process of getting over the loss of their mothers.

In his sophomore Carefree Days, Liang focuses on a young woman in her early 20s, Xu Lingling (Lu Xingchen), who suffers from uremia. Set against the backdrop of a decaying city, Shenyang in Northeast China, it tells a story of old premises and new chances. Once the girl discovers her illness, she must face the new circumstances that redefine even the tiniest detail of the mundane structure of her life. Not only does she have to struggle for every opportunity to enjoy the remnants of her youth, but also figures out how to reconnect with her father in the aftermath of her mother’s sudden death. There was never much love between the woman and her father, so the task itself becomes yet another struggle. Following a brilliant debut, Ri guang zhi xia (Wisdom Tooth, 2019), Liang proves himself as a strong voice among upcoming indie filmmakers, who seems to have found himself comfortably located amid the snowy landscapes of Northeast China.

Carefree Days

Inasmuch as the setting of the film is dominated by a ubiquitous sense of cold, Liang’s ability to connect with his character abounds in warmth: delicately, and intimately. Carefree Days has much in common with another youth film of the season – Anthony Chen’s Ran dong (The Breaking Ice) – as both films feature a love triangle, scenes of breaking ice (characters even chew ice cubes as an act of helplessness), the desire of characters to escape somewhere far and distant, and sequences of being ‘in the moment’ that capture the ephemeral beauty of being young.

Liang’s contribution to the underrepresented depiction of the Northeast China reveals a landscape of longing. Those who inhabit a distant Shenyang seem to exist as emotional castaways; they long for touch that would free them from the feeling of coldness. Among them, we observe Xu, whose dream is just to have a normal life filled with carefree days, or to meet with her dead mother, even if just for a while. The idea of reunion becomes embodied in a moment of pure fantasy. All of a sudden, Xu finds her mother among a group of dancers on the street. They dance together in a public square; in a sequence that resembles Jia Zhangke’s magic realism, they share a spark of joy, a rare feeling of togetherness that resonates for its tragedy but that also reflects the inner state of the protagonist in the most poignant way – the longing is there.

Then, in Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light, echoing a personal interpretation of Fukushima trauma, a young girl (Shirata Mihaya) from Singapore decides to embark on a trip to reunite with her native roots (she’s half Japanese, half Singaporean) to meet her Japanese mother, whom she hasn’t seen for over a decade. Barely remembering her presence, the sole record of the woman’s existence remains captured in either dreamy visions that haunt the girl or the recordings she has – she keeps playing her mother’s voice messages on a loop. Once she arrives in Tokyo at her uncle’s place (Nagase Masatoshi), she sets off with him to reach the distant North to find her mother’s whereabouts.

Woodford’s debut unfolds as a road movie, in which characters mediate their presence through the lens of ghostly past. The tragedy of Fukushima might never be addressed directly nor literally, but it becomes an apparent context when the characters navigate the coastal landscape of Japan’s East; the zone that was once known for its natural surroundings and which, after 3/11, became a massive anti-wave concrete wall, becomes an almost a static element in the car’s rear view. 

The watery nature of the film is substantial for its contextual rendition of Fukushima’s trauma – the sounds of droplets of water or sea waves fill the sonic ambiance of the film, making the traumatic notions speak through the presence of water. The audiovisual layer of the film is its evident strength; the distinctive, visual leitmotifs – light waves that reappear in the character’s vision throughout the narrative – are reminders of the trauma that lives within the characters. Woodford’s take on the poetics of loss gains beauty in compound – the shadows at first light make the film uncannily sensorial, even if the story’s dramatic cues might seem overly familiar. The story might resonate like many others, and sometimes it becomes a bit overdramatic, but the lights and shadows speak through the senses.

Last Shadow at First Light

For some reason, all of the Asian films premiering in San Sebastian share a common stance – they strive to depict different perspectives on parenthood, oftentimes from the standpoint of a young adult who’s trying their best to comprehend the misdeeds of their caregivers. Told by young filmmakers, these stories unfold as an attempt to overcome the burden of adulthood. Through storytelling, these filmmakers revisit traumas of all sorts – untangling the past through cinematic language that grasps a sense of inevitable; that some matters do not belong to the here-and-now anymore.

There’s a sense of lost time that floats through the emotional substance of these films; that sort of feeling that renders the notion of loss – the parents won’t be young anymore, the kids have grown up, and there’s no chance for making up for the lost opportunities, no coming back to a sweet place in time where the child belongs and when everything seemed innocent, devoid of conflict, toxicity, and the vulnerability of longstanding regrets. In some way or another, it’s like watching a reverse of a coming-of-age film – instead of searching for answers regarding sexual awakening or forming a rebellion, the now-adults seek ripples of consolation that would soothe the wounded inner child.

The absence of parents translates to the great presence of the children – strong as ever, they seem to strive for opportunities while embracing the differences that come with generational voids. Insofar as the attempt to reconnect with familial bonds might feel like an excruciating or draining task, there’s a sense of awakening that comes with the whole process. The repressed traumas become rediscovered, retranslated, and perhaps even rejected. As in the ending of Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light, the characters embrace a certain perspective; that they possess loss, inasmuch as loss possesses them.

San Sebastian International Film Festival
22 – 30 September 2023

About The Author

Łukasz Mańkowski is a film scholar and critic writing on Asian Cinema, a Japanese language translator, and festival programmer for Five Flavours Film Festival in Poland. In 2023, he defended his PhD thesis on Japanese New Wave Cinema. Łukasz has been selected for many critics’ talent labs, including the 2021 & 2023 IFFR Young Critics Programme and Berlinale Talents 2022. His writing on Asian Cinema includes bylines in: Senses of Cinema, MUBI, Sight & Sound, Asian Movie Pulse, ALT/KINO, Asian Film Archive, and elsewhere.

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