Broken Hearts and Hidden Histories

in 51st International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Ana Sturm

At the end of January, for the second year in a row, we were stuck at home on our couches, far from the vibrant city lights and big screens of the 51st International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). For a painstakingly selected festival programme, one that usually presents a wealth of visually bold, edgy and inspiring films that include all genres and forms of expression, online screenings are not the preferred format. They feel (and are) more like an emergency exit. Despite less than perfect circumstances, some films still managed to move us in the most unexpected ways. Among those screened in the Tiger Competition, which offers “innovative and adventurous spirit of up-and-coming filmmakers from all over the world”, I would like to highlight the works of three young Asian authors.

The youngest of them is Chinese screenwriter and director Gao Linyang, who received the Special Jury Award and the FIPRESCI Award for his feature debut. To Love Again (2022) is a tender and poignant observation of two deeply wounded souls, a portrait of a generation haunted by the traumas of the past, and a delightful, bittersweet slice of everyday life of an elderly couple in contemporary China. To Love Again is a mature, tender and moving film, full of subtle humour brought in by amusing events from everyday life – from broken fridges to runaway cats. The meticulously crafted, ascetic script “skilfully mediates between feelings of tenderness and pain, hope and disappointment, love and loss, patiently waiting for a glimpse of fragile hope, for a chance to love – and to be loved – again.”

If pain and unpleasant memories of the harsh and chaotic past are dwelling just below the light-hearted surface in To Love Again, they take front and centre stage in the animated documentary Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish (2022). The Chinese-born filmmaker and animator Lei Lei found inspiration for his feature debut at home, in the tales of his grandfather Lei Ting and father Lei Jiaqi. Their story is set in the time of economic and social reforms known as the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62), a five-year economic plan executed by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, and the consequent Chinese cultural revolution (1966-76). In Lei Leis film, personal (hi)stories, recorded in an audio interview, are intertwined with a collective memory and highlighted by richly layered visual images. Weaving together intimate personal accounts and inventive ways of reimagining documentary material – from archival footage to photographs, family albums and pop culture images – Lei upgrades his simple, yet effective animation created in a variety of techniques, from collage to stop animation, and takes us through the turbulent decade of Mao’s China.

The long shadow of history, in this case loosely connected to the Japanese-South Korean relations, also lurks in the background of Yamabuki (2022), a Japanese and French co-production by Osaka-born director Yamasaki Juichiro. The story, intertwined between two parallel destinies, relies a little too much on the narrative of the “series of (un)fortunate events”, loosely meandering between the fate of a former equestrian athlete for the South Korean national team, who ends up as a migrant worker at a quarry in the Japanese mining town of Mianwa, and the daily street protests in the same city by a quiet and stoic teenage girl named Yamabuki – Japanese rose. A slightly flawed script is balanced here by the enriching visual aspect of the film and the director’s refined sense of aesthetics, especially by the deep, intensely saturated colours of the 16-mm film strip.

It seems that as personal and collective memories threaten to sink into oblivion, a period of confrontation with their own history preoccupies young directors of Japan and China. They are ready to encounter and defy the weight of the past and the pain that still haunts the older generations and society as a whole. By researching and questioning their own (hi)stories, interests and identities within the always complex socio-political relations, they are carving out a place for themselves through their work.

Ana Šturm
Edited by Pamela Jahn