Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 2017 by Cynthia Webb

APSA entered its second decade this year, with a line-up of breathtaking films in the nominations for the awards presented on 23rd November 2017. Even before the awards night and after watching quite a large number of the nominated films I was thinking that this year the standard is the highest ‘across the board’. In previous years there has been a bit more of a variation between the winners and some of the others. But this time, all of the nominees are of a close to similar standard. I was glad I wasn’t part of the Jury, although I did choose correctly in some categories, such as Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography.

Having not seen Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country” (Australia) which was the winner of Best Feature Film, I didn’t try to guess that category. I had already noted its excellent reviews from overseas. Warwick Thornton has won this award once before at APSA for his “Samson and Delilah”, and he made a powerful acceptance speech, talking to the other nominees and everyone in the room, telling us that we all have stories within us, and we don’t really need the cameras, we can share them in the old ways too. As an indigenous Australian (the world’s most ancient surviving culture) he knows that the spoken word can echo down through millenniums.

The Jury had so many superb films and actors to choose from, that they awarded:
Jury Grand Prize to Alexander Yatsenko, (Russia) for his work as an actor in “Arrythmia”. This is one of the most wonderful acting performances I’ve seen in a very long time and is one of the films that left me ‘gasping’.
Best Actor Award, went to Rajkummar Rao (India) for “Newton”.
A Special Mention in Best Actor category, for Navid Mohammedzadeh (Iran) for “No date, no signature”.
A Second Jury Grand Prize, to Ana Urushadze (Georgia). Ana directed the stunning film, “Scary Mother” Mentioned above.
In Best Cinematography, I was happy to be correct in giving my personal award to Pyotr Dukhovskoy and Timofey Lobov for “The Bottomless Bag”. This was a most unusual film, in sublime black and white, telling old tales from the Russian culture… and in which the whites were radiating light. It reminded me sometimes of “Rashomon” – just the look of it, or other even earlier black and white films from Russia. It was full of exquisite images.

Structured like the Hollywood Academy, the nominees and winners become life-long members of the APSA Academy, and APSA’s Academy now has a membership of over 1015 of the greatest film makers of its region. The APSA Awards are chosen each year, first by a preliminary process of finding the best of the films, which is done by an international group forming the Nominations Council. There were 42 nominations. The winners of the various awards are announced at the Ceremony in Brisbane each year.

This year around 300 films from 47 countries were submitted from the vast region.

In 2015 and 2016 there was also a film festival running simultaneously with the APSA lead up period and the public were able to see the nominated films. Q & A sessions could be held as the directors were often already in Brisbane. This seemed like an excellent idea, as each year from commencement of APSA in 2007 people would ask, “But how can we see the films?” However the two year experiment has been abandoned in favour of going back to the previous Brisbane International Film Festival, now a separate event again. Perhaps the film-fare of APSA nominations was just too esoteric for the general audience, who like to be seeing something a bit more familiar, work by directors whose names they know, such as famous Europeans.

APSA certainly takes the film-lover out into the new territories of world film-making, and believe me it is a thrilling journey. This year the nominated APSA films enabled us to experience the lives and cultures of Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Ukraine, Bhutan, Iran, Israel, India, China, Japan, The Philippines, Indonesia, Turkey, Syria, Russia, Korea, Australia, New Zealand. Many of the films left me gasping at their power, their originality, their depth of exploration of the human experience. These films have such courage and they show great confidence in their audience, that they will offer their open heart and mind to go on these journeys that can sometimes be challenging. One such film, was “Loveless”, from Russia, directed by Andrey Zvayagintsev, who won Best Director for this master-work of heartbreaking bleakness. Another one, “Scary Mother” contained great maturity of emotional content, and was directed by the surprisingly young Ana Urushadze. The remarkable actress, Nata Murvanidze in “Scary Mother” won the Best Actress Award, and rightfully so. She was breathtaking.
If Nata’s performance hadn’t been there, another wonderful young Turkish woman, would have won I think, Ecem Uzun, for her heart-rending performance in “Clair-Obscure”. Young Ecem Uzun was in another of the nominated films too, “A Big Big World” (Koca Dunya).

This was in Best Youth Feature Film, which are not films for young audiences, but films seen through the eyes of young people, or about young people.
In that category which always contains wonderful films, the winner was the exquisite “Sekala Niskala” (The Seen and the Unseen) by Indonesia’s Kamila Andini. This was Kamila’s second time to win the award in this hotly contested category. Back in 2012 her film, “The Mirror Never Lies” was the winner. No other Indonesian has ever won a second award at APSA. So far. Her film’s title refers to the cultural/religious tradition of Bali, where the two worlds, seen and unseen, are as real as each other for the people. So when the closeness of twin children is being torn apart by the fatal illness of the little boy, his sister is devastated, and finds her courage to interact with him through the unseen world, because reality has become too terrible for her. The film takes us into her world of Niskala ( unseen) and lets us have a usually forbidden glimpse of that secret place, through her eyes. Those scenes are truly moving and unforgettable. Ghost children wait for him, as the sad-sister dances under Balinese culture’s all-important full moon, under which many the temples ceremonies take place in that culture. The Balinese calendar and life, is linked to the moon, via an ancient calendar from India, via Java. The film has very little dialogue, and it is not needed and not missed, because this film is a spiritual experience. Kamila told me five years ago, about this film being in her mind. Since then she has married, had two daughters, and made a film about an hour in length, “Following Diana”. Now she has worked with her Producer /Director husband, Ifa Isfansyah, on “The Seen and the Unseen”, which has also had very good reviews internationally after being shown in the PLATFORM segment of the Toronto Film Festival a couple of months ago.

This year APSA had a heartening number of films about women, and directed by women. That’s why, as mentioned above, the Best Actress Award was so very strong this year. Indonesia’s Cut Mini was also nominated in “Athirah” (Mother) in which she gave a very different style of performance than the two previously mentioned women. This role expressed the quiet, dignified and internalized way in which the protagonist, Athirah, was coping with her life. A Muslim woman is suffering the agony of trying to accept her fate when her husband leaves his family to go and live with a second and younger wife. This film, directed by Riri Riza, is based on the life story of the mother of Indonesia’s Vice-President, Yusuf Kalla, who is in his early teens in the film, observing his brave mother’s journey.

Another leading role for a woman was in “Marlina, the Murderer, in Four Acts” directed by a woman, Mouly Sourya of Indonesia. This is a most unusual film to come out of Indonesia, a kind of ‘Western’ in form but set in the very rural, dry and spacious island of Sumba, (it is situated four islands to the East of Bali) where there is a very different culture, and where they have a death ritual called Paraing Marapu, and where the deceased is wrapped in a traditional textile and sits in the house with the family for a long time before burial. In this film, one can observe this, but it is not explained. However, murder of the title, is caused by a local custom which seems to allow the local men to feel free to do what they will with the widow Marlina (played by Marsha Timothy). However, Marlina is not a woman to be trifled with. The film has the feeling of a spaghetti western, from the sixties, and there is more than a pinch of black comedy mixed into the dinner that she prepares for her male visitors, and for us the audience.

2017 has been the best year yet for Indonesia at APSA, with three nominations . It is a country still developing its Post-Reformasi ( post 1998) film industry, with no assistance so far from the government or any other organization. Indonesia’s government have yet to understand the immense benefits that a strong film industry can bring to a nation, respect in international eyes, and in tourism, by promoting awareness of the cultural richness, of which Indonesia is particularly endowed.

The Cultural Diversity Award (UNESCO) went to “Dede” (Mother) from Georgia, directed by another young woman, Mariam Khatchvani. She was so surprised and thrilled to win, that she was unable to speak for quite a length of time, when she went to the microphone to accept her award. The story is shot in the highest village in all of Europe, during winter, when deep, deep snow is on the ground. The young protagonist’s destiny is to be unlucky in love, and lose her beloved husband. This puts her into conflict with the remote location’s old traditions, which mean that her child must now go to live with his family, the grandfather and others. Also it means that her husband’s brother will now marry her. He happens to love her too, but she doesn’t love him and refuses. Like any mother, she only wants to be with her little son.

Also in this Category – (the UNESCO Award for Cultural Diversity), a Special Mention went to “Lady of the Lake” (India).

For “Die Beautiful” directed by Jun Robles Lana, from the Philippines, there was no award, but it deserves a mention as a film of heart and love, about a different kind of women. It was about three transvestites and the little girl one of them has adopted – battling their brave way through life. The performance of Paulo Ballesteros was nominated in Best Performance by an Actor, and was full of courage and strength of character.

Before you go to http://www.asiapacificscreenawards.com to read the full results list, I will list the titles of some of my other special favorites not yet mentioned in my article above:
“A Man of Integrity” (Iran) director, Mohammad Rasoulof. His passport has been confiscated by the Iranian Islamic regime, for making yet another film that clearly criticises the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Wajib” by Palestinian Anne Marie Jacir (this film was developed with a grant from APSA Academy-MPPA Film Fund)
“Foxtrot” (Israel) Samuel Moaz
“Centaur” (Kyrgyzstan) directed by Aktan Arym Kubat
“Your Name” (Japan) Amimation Category, by Makoto Shinkai, for the gorgeous hand-drawn animation that he is famous for.
“Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web” by Annie Goldson, A documentary film from New Zealand, telling a most complex and interesting topical story, that’s not quite over yet.

copyright Cynthia Webb November 2017

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About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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