Festival Director: “I wanted entertaining films that also make people think”

A screenshot from Mina Walking. a film set in Afghanistan, to be screened at the Regent Street Cinema on 28 February

A screenshot from Mina Walking. a film set in Afghanistan, to be screened at the Regent Street Cinema on 28 February, as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2016

Festival Director: “I wanted entertaining films that also make people think”

16/02/16

By Naomi Canton

The Festival Director and Programmer of this year’s Asia House Film Festival says he has chosen films that are accessible and entertaining that demonstrate contemporary life in a broad range of countries in Asia.

“I deliberately selected “accessible, entertaining films that also make people think a bit,” Jasper Sharp said, in an interview with Asia House. This year’s Festival aims to both shine a spotlight on contemporary cultures in Asia, with a focus on lesser known Central Asian countries, he added.

The Asia House Film Festival, the only one of its kind in London that showcases films from across Asia, kicks off on 22 February and continues until 5 March at venues across the capital. The Opening Night Gala will take place one again at the Ham Yard Theatre inside the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho.

“I wanted entertainment, not impenetrable art films,” Sharp said “The Asia House Film Festival every year covers the entirety of Asia. We are not dealing exclusively with a handful of countries that are already pretty well represented in London film festivals. Instead what we want to do is encourage viewers to explore cinema in Asia more broadly and that is why I chose films from the likes of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Myanmar,” he said.

Sharp said he chose the diverse selection of films from countries ranging from Kazakhstan to Japan and from Mongolia to Myanmar, after attending various film festivals around the world with his own film The Creeping Garden (2014), co-directed by Tim Grabham. Grabham edited the Asia House Film Festival trailer.

“I was at a lot of film festivals last year and so that meant I was aware of what was out there,” Sharp said. “I looked at the websites of the film festivals I did not go to as well – and if you cast your net very widely there are many hidden gems. For example, I saw Factory Boss at Cleveland International Film Festival. It has had quite a lot of screenings in North America but far less exposure in Europe. It’s interesting how when films get on a particular circuit they stay on that circuit until they get on another circuit,” he said.

A screenshot from Factory Boss

A screenshot from Factory Boss

The meaning of this year’s theme ‘Breaking Boundaries’ is very broad, Sharp explained. “I think we’ve moved a long way away from those days of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘East is East, and ‘West is West’, and ‘never the twain shall meet,” he said referring to The Ballad of East and West, a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

“I wanted the programme to reflect how we live in a much more connected world now and cinema is an international domain and a wonderful communicative medium between different countries. Also, politically and economically speaking, in the UK today we are as affected by what happens in China or Afghanistan as by what happens in France,” he said.

Sharp said that he also “wanted to move away from national cinema and the fixed idea of what Asia is” and to demonstrate how films are often made via international collaborations between Europe and Asia.

A total of 19 films from Asia will be screened throughout the Festival, which is sponsored by Prudential plc, including 11 feature films, three documentaries and five shorts.

Six filmmakers who will participate in Q&As during the Asia House Film Festival. Zhang Wei, Diana Ashimova, Steven Dhoedt and Benson Lee will be present in person for Q&As and Yosef Baraki and Lauren Knapp will participate in Q&As over Skype.

Highlights of the Festival include the UK premiere of The Monk, a Myanmar/Czech co-production by a Myanma director being screened at the Regent Street Cinema on 28 February. “It’s great to get an inside view on Myanmar. It’s a relatively unvisited country,” Sharp said.

“It provides a vivid portrait of this rapidly changing country and how its traditions and religious institutions are reacting to the rapidly changing world,” he added.

A screenshot from The Monk

A screenshot from The Monk

He added he was also very excited about Mina Walking, the UK premiere of a film set in Afghanistan, which is being screened at the Regent Street Cinema on 28 February. “Afghanistan has rather slipped out of the news recently. People know little about what life is like there and instead they just have preconceptions and stereotypes which are reinforced by the media. We have no real idea of how it is to live in contemporary Kabul with the war still ongoing,” he pointed out.

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A screenshot from Mina Walking

Mina Walking is made by 26-year-old Canadian director Yosef Baraki, who will be doing a Skype Q&A after the screening.  The Canadian-Afghan co-production was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival 2015. “It shows a slice of life in Kabul focusing on a young girl who has to support her family but who goes against her father’s wishes and goes to school. It might sound like a serious film but there’s actually a lot of humour in it. It’s a very accessible and charming film,” Sharp said.

Another film Sharp wanted to highlight was 40 Days of Silence which is set in Tajikistan and is being screened on 25 February. “It’s a really beautiful film. It has three generations of women occupying the same space but not really communicating clearly with each other,” he said.

“There are no male characters so you can get to see what the lives are really like of women in Takjikistan. There is very little dialogue in the film as the main character takes a vow of silence. One relative spends her whole time texting an unseen man, so it also looks at the way we communicate with and relate to each other in the modern day. It has beautiful cinematography and amazing sound design. It’s a very sensual film with amazing images and it’s wonderfully shot,” he added.

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A screenshot from 40 Days of Silence

Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice, being screened on 26 February, is a brilliant example of how the modern world is encroaching on traditional ways of life, Sharp said.

“It’s a documentary about a small village in Laos opening up to the tourist trade for the first time and shows how the local people are all opening up cafes hopeful about the backpackers’ arrival,” he explained.

“But when they do come there is no real interaction between the backpackers and the locals. The village  increasingly develops with hostels, cafes and so on and then you can see the backpackers already thinking that their idealised paradise is getting spoilt somehow and it’ll soon be time to move on and find the next hidden spot,” he added. “The documentary demonstrates the gulf of misunderstanding between travellers and their hosts; it asks why do people travel and when people look at Asia what are they looking for and what are they seeing?”

The eighth edition of the Festival opens once again at the Ham Yard Theatre this year with the European premiere of Stranger, Kazakhstan’s official submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. “I was hunting around for the emergence of new Kazakh cinema and I did not know anything about Kazakhstan except for the Borat movie (featuring Sacha Baron Cohen) which completely misrepresents Kazakhstan,” Sharp said. “Stranger played at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and I was really impressed by this outdoors adventure-style epic which deals with Kazakhstan history,” he added.

Stranger has excellent production values and uses Dolby Atmos sound, Sharp said. “There are only about 15 venues in the UK that can handle that and the Ham Yard is one. The system is mostly used for big-budget Hollywood films like Star Wars.”

It was through Stranger that Sharp stumbled across Little Brother, by the same director Yermek Tursunov. Little Brother is being screened on 25 February. “It’s a very different film. It’s a hitman thriller which deals with the question of national identity.  How do Kazakh people see themselves and react to the post-Soviet era identity? We don’t get much information on Kazakhstan from the media – for example how cosmopolitan a city like Almaty is. The film shows how the country is a melting pot of Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians and Uyghurs, not some sort of backwater like how it is portrayed in Borat,” he said.

A screenshot from Litle Brother

A screenshot from Litle Brother

Two documentaries are being screened at Asia House during the Festival:  State of Play and Live from UB. These deal with a very modern transnational scene, Sharp said.

Live from UB looks at the question of how do musicians survive in a country like Mongolia where no one speaks the language outside of Mongolia? Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state at the time of the Beatles – this documentary shows how they took elements of these modern international pop trends from outside and melded it with their own music traditions and came up with something truly unique,” he added.

State of Play, being screened on 23 February followed by a Q&A with director Steven Dhoedt, looks at the competitive world of professional video gaming in South Korea.

Meanwhile Factory Boss, being screened on 26 February, looks at the dynamics within a factory in China and the pressures on management to create products for western consumers, Sharp explained. “It looks more closely at this idea of sweatshop labour and the global dynamics that contribute to it. It is a fiction film even though it’s the kind of subject you think would be more suited to documentary.  It’s a very compelling drama, well structured – I was smitten by it.”

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A screenshot from Factory Boss

Sharp said the most “accessible film” of the Festival was Seoul Searching – a comedy set in the 1980s about Koreans raised outside of South Korea coming back to their country to learn about their culture. “It looks at what it means to be Korean if you live outside of the country. It’s a great slapstick romp and one that anyone can enjoy,” Sharp added. The director Benson Lee is attending a Q&A after this film, which is screened on 27 February.

Five short films are also being shown at the Festival. One of them Panchagavya explores the life, plight and contradictions of a cow’s life in India. “Anyone who’s been to India will notice the cows and ask who their owners are and probably never got a satisfactory answer,” Sharp said. “This opens up a cow’s eye view of India. It’s a simple film but brilliantly done.”

A screenshot from Panchagavya

A screenshot from Panchagavya

Sharp said he chose the historic Regent Street Cinema as the venue for the bulk of the films this year as it has “very adventurous programming showing lots of older films and international films.”

Just around the corner from Asia House, it was the first cinema in Britain to show moving pictures when in 1896 the Lumière brothers Cinématographe was demonstrated there. At that time it was the Regent Street Polytechnic, in 1970 renamed as the Polytechnic of Central London. In 1980 the cinema closed down when cinemas were closing down all over the UK and it became a lecture hall. However it reopened as a cinema inside the University of Westminster (formerly the Polytechnic of Central London) in May 2015.

“The Lumière Brothers in France used to send delegates to Asia to film street scenes and other images of local colour to show to European audiences, so this was the first place where the first moving images of Asia would have been shown in the UK too,” Sharp said.

As for the choice of the Ham Yard Theatre in Soho for the Opening Night Gala, he said: “We used the Ham Yard last year. It is a beautiful and amazing venue and very easy to work with. It has state of the art facilities like 4k Ultra HD projection that other venues do not have so the cinema there offers a top dollar viewing experience,” Sharp said.

The Festival closes with Singaporeana Day which will take place at the Cinema Museum on 5 March. Last year marked 50 years since the Republic of Singapore was formed.

“Singapore is now a significant international cultural and economic force in the world,” Sharp said. “The 1950s and 60s were when Hollywood first really made a point of overseas location shooting in colourful far-flung places and Singapore provided one such exotic backdrop.”

Three films specific to Singapore will be screened to demonstrate how the international gaze has changed, he said.

“These films tend to portray naïve or blinkered British/American characters in a culture they don’t understand or think they are above. Pretty Polly (1967) and The Virgin Soldiers (1969) are original 35mm films from the British Film Institute. They are from the late 60s and neither has been screened for years so it is a great chance to see how cinema has progressed. The other one, Saint Jack (1979), has been out of circulation for years too. Few people have seen it. Its director Peter Bogdanovich is a Hollywood director who directed The Last Picture Show in the 1970s,Sharp added.

A screenshot from The Virgin Soldiers

A screenshot from The Virgin Soldiers

The trio of films will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ben Slater, Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who will discuss film representations of Singapore over the years.

“I hope this Festival gets all these films in circulation and gets people to think about the wider world, not just from a British perspective, and how whatever country we live in, most of us lead very similar lives with similar pressures. Cinema is an international medium in which there are no borders, and I really hope this programme reflects that in every sense of the word,” Sharp added.

naomi.canton@asiahouse.co.uk

The Asia House Film Festival takes place from 22 February to 5 March at various venues across London. For more information and to book tickets click here.