The Asian movies premiering at the Cannes Film Festival 2021

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Toko Miura in a scene from Drive My Car, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguch. It is just one of the Asian movies that will be in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
PHOTO: Bitters End

The Cannes Film Festival is back after a fallow year, when it was reluctantly cancelled due to the pandemic, and has moved to July from its usual May slot.

Artistic director Thierry Fremaux has gathered an impressive roster of movies by art house auteur filmmakers, with the likes of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch ), Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta and Sean Penn’s Flag Day in competition to win the coveted Palme d’Or for best film.

Assessing these and other entries will be a festival jury led by Spike Lee and which includes South Korean actor Song Kang-ho, back in Cannes two years after Parasite started its incredible journey to festival honours there.

And what of the Asian titles playing in the official selection? Fremaux recently lamented “we don’t have enough”, specifically referring to Chinese films in competition, but look around the entire selection and there are still plenty of exciting titles being unveiled at Cannes this year.

1. Drive My Car (Japan)

Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has only just screened his last film, Wheels of Fortune and Fantasy , at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize.

Now he returns with an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, starring Hidetoshi Nishijima as an actor-director nursing tragedy from his past as he travels to Hiroshima to mount a production of Uncle Vanya.

Drive My Car, which has a running time of three hours, is said to revolve heavily around the lead character’s relationship with his driver – a young woman (Toko Miura) appointed to drive his own Saab 900.

It is the second of the director’s films to feature in official Cannes competition following his 2018 romantic drama Asako I & II .

2. Memoria (Thailand)

Tilda Swinton in a still from Memoria, directed by Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or for his spiritual odyssey Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in 2010.

Now he’s back in competition with Memoria, an international production starring Tilda Swinton (who also features in The French Dispatch and The Souvenir Part II , which plays in Director’s Fortnight).

Set in Colombia – and filmed in the mountains of Pijao and Bogotá – Swinton plays a woman from Scotland travelling through the region whose mind begins to unravel. Confronting issues of memory and identity, the director is seemingly continuing his career-long exploration of body and soul.

3. Gaey Wa’r (China)

Featured in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, Chinese crime drama Gaey Wa’r is the debut feature of director Na Jiazuo, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy.

The story is set in the early 2000s, and follows Dongzi, a small-town 21 year-old who becomes a henchman to a debt collector to pay off his father’s medical bills. As the director puts it: “Life on the streets may be tough. But it can also be a springboard to the universe.”

The film stars Li Jiuxiao, who has just appeared in the mega-hit The Eight Hundred.

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4. In Front of Your Face (South Korea)

Veteran South Korean Hong Sang-soo appears in Cannes for the 11th time with his 26th feature, In Front of Your Face. Like Hamaguchi, he’s just been at the Berlin Film Festival launching another movie (the spry family drama Introduction ).

Now he’s one of ten filmmakers featured in the newly created Cannes Premieres section dedicated to new films by established auteurs (Andrea Arnold and Mathieu Amalric also feature).

Korean actress Lee Hye-young stars in this film, although the plot is under wraps for now. Even Frémaux gave little away about it, noting that Hong’s films “are very minimalist and personal movies ... they are creative, inspiring and crystallising something that shaped today’s cinema”.

5. Emergency Declaration (South Korea)

Song Kang-ho in a scene from Emergency Declaration, which will screen out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2021.
PHOTO: Wooju Film Co., Ltd

Featuring in an out-of-competition slot, this Korean disaster movie should give a jolt to audiences who might well be craving some thrills and spills amid the festival’s usual diet of art house fare.

Directed by Han Jae-rim, the film stars Cannes jury member Song Kang-ho (who previously featured in Han’s 2013’s film The Face Reader ), alongside Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid ) and Lee Byung-hun (I Saw The Devil ), making it one of the juiciest Korean casts ever assembled.

An airborne thriller, the story sees an emergency declared after an unprecedented terror incident occurs mid-flight.

6. The Year of the Everlasting Storm (Various countries)

An anthology film featuring the work of seven directors, The Year of the Everlasting Storm has been shot in secret across the globe – in the US, Iran, Chile, China and Thailand.

Apichatpong will feature, alongside Singapore’s Anthony Chen (who made the award-winning 2019 film Wet Season ). Others include Iran’s Jafar Panahi and American filmmakers Laura Poitras and David Lowery.

Playing as a Special Screening in Cannes, it has been billed as “a love letter to cinema”, with each director shooting highly personal segments during the pandemic.

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7. Ripples of Life (China)

Featuring in the Director’s Fortnight strand, Ripples of Life is the second feature from Wei Shujun. The Beijing-born director made his feature film debut just last year with Striding Into The Wind – a film that was chosen for Cannes 2020’s official selection before the festival was cancelled.

This sophomore feature, starring Yang Zishan, takes cinema as its subject, as a film crew arrive in the isolated town of Yongan. Arguments erupt between the director and writer, while its star is brought back to the place where she grew up.

8. I’m So Sorry (China)

Chinese documentary director and multimedia artist Zhao Liang was last in Cannes 12 years ago , with 2009’s award-winning Petition , which dealt with the Chinese government’s persecution of those who protest. Now he’s returning with a timely non-fiction film, I’m So Sorry .

Presented in Cannes’ Cinema for the Climate, a special strand programming films with an environmental theme, the subject is the dangers of nuclear energy.

Zhao’s first international project, the film sees him visit the locations of nuclear power stations in Ukraine, Belarus, Japan, Kazakhstan, Germany and Finland.

9. Moneyboys (China)

The debut film from writer-director C.B. Yi, Moneyboys is playing in the Un Certain Regard strand – and will be in the running for the Camera d’Or awarded for best first feature.

The plot revolves around a street hustler named Fei (Kai Ko Chen-tung), whose life implodes when he realises his family will take his money but won’t accept his homosexuality.

Intriguingly, Yi has teamed up with cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard, who previously shot Apitchatpong’s 2004 feature Tropical Malady.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from July 5 to 17.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.