If the mark of a great artist is always having something more to say, the truly exciting directors are the ones whose best works have yet to be made, even though they already boast outstanding filmographies.
At the 28th Singapore International Film Festival, the following five international filmmakers will be featuring new, inventive films from a wide spectrum of genres, ranging from sports documentaries to murder mysteries. From Thai auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang to Argentinian art-house darling Lucretia Martel, these directors already raised the bar with their previous films—but this year they’re pushing it even higher.
1. The Brawler
At once a romantic melodrama and a biting satire, The Brawler is a triumph of South Asian cinema. Influential Indian director Anurag Kashyap’s latest film is set in a caste-bound, socially dysfunctional India, filled with the motifs of social realism and gritty urban drama that Kashyap has explored in his previous work (such as features Gangs of Wasseypur and Bombay Velvet). The film concerns a boxer who runs into trouble with his abusive boss—who happens to be an influential, tyrannical politician-mobster. With typical Bollywood flair, Kashyap bestows this production with throbbing music, wonderfully directed action and a precise portrait of one man resolutely struggling against a rigged and cruel system. The film also comments on the phenomenon of “cow vigilantism” in India, bringing a direct social satire on the religious division in modern Indian society.
WATCH THIS BECAUSE: You want to see Drive, Raging Bull and Bollywood intersect in one film; Kashyap’s previous films have been cited by Danny Boyle as a direct influence on Slumdog Millionaire.
2. Mrs. Fang
Chinese documentarian Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang, which took home a Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, is an astutely observed film about Alzheimer’s and its deteriorative effects. Through the use of so-called “slow cinema” techniques, like those of directors Tsai Ming Liang and Bela Tarr, the doc draws our attention to the distended passage of time experienced by the titular Mrs. Fang, as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The film’s painfully stark, unsentimental narrative can be challenging to watch, but the reward—a film so full of life, insight and artistic ingenuity—is worth any struggle. It not only works as a powerful, raw portrayal of death, but like Wang’s other films (such as his 2003 epic West of the Tracks), as a depiction of an economically downtrodden Chinese society. Throughout the film Mrs. Fang remains a mystery (her past is never revealed to us), allowing us to take in the enigma of her personality almost as an abstraction. We see in her the painful arrival of death and numbness. In Wang Bing’s hands, this awareness of mortality becomes stunningly spiritual and moving.
WATCH THIS BECAUSE: Wang, arguably China’s best documentarian, is willing to tackle heavy themes like death, grief and the passage of time without flinching.
3. A Skin So Soft
Denis Côté’s documentary A Skin So Soft opens with a series of vignettes of six extreme bodybuilders going about their morning routines, preparing themselves for a day of photo shoots and grueling gym sessions. As in most great documentaries, this draws us into their lives, and at the same time connects us with their humanity. These men, despite their hyper-masculine, intimidating veneer, are made vulnerable and human in front of Côté’s moving, fluid camerawork. The film beautifully exposes the dichotomy of bodybuilding as both an exemplification of masculine prowess and as an activity rife with deeply effeminate rituals of self-conscious cosmetics and posing. The film also allows us to perceive the raw physical power of the human body and the dedication required to maintain it, as well as the possibilities of the human physique when pushed to its limits. Side note: Côté, a perennially interesting and often controversial Quebecois filmmaker who has made both narratives and documentaries, sadly revealed earlier this year that he suffers from progressive kidney disease.
WATCH THIS BECAUSE: With French-Canadian moviemakers gaining a mainstream spotlight these days (see: Xavier Dolan, Blade Runner 2049‘s Denis Villeneuve), you should check out one who remains stubbornly art house; you really need a reason to renew your gym membership.
4. Samui Song
Leading Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s latest film, Samui Song, plays out like a stylised, psychologically gripping Raymond Chandler story filled with twists and delectably non-linear storytelling. The narrative, about a marriage that turns murderous, is pulpy and gritty; at the same time, it is deeply steeped in the fabric of Thai culture and religion. Starring Vithaya Pu Pansringarm of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives fame, this art-house thriller is filled with the kind of existential malaise and dramatic impetus that all of Ratanaruang’s films, such as critical hits Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves, are adept at conveying. Samui Song also works on the level of social satire, critically re-examining mixed-race marriages and the cultural role they play in Thai society.
WATCH THIS BECAUSE: The wonderfully twisty ending is sure to both disturb and amaze you.
Zama is a film about the fringes of a colonial empire. It’s a visual soliloquy about the existential torture of eponymous officer Don Diego de Zama, whose sole wish is to be to transferred to Buenos Aires and to get away from the slumming island he is trapped in. Adapted from the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, the film reminds one of the writing of J.M. Coetzee: in its critical examination of the history of racism and prejudice that underlies the colonial mission and its aftermath, as well as its dense, disquieting layers. The film’s convocation of buzzing insects, jungle noises and the sound of crowds discomfortingly recalls the atmosphere of a doomed colony as Joseph Conrad would envision it. Argentinian auteur Lucrecia Martel hit a critical peak in the 2000s with films such as The Swamp and The Headless Woman; she remains one of South American cinema’s brightest female voices.
WATCH THIS BECAUSE: This is Martel’s first film after nine years of hiatus, and is a wonderfully inventive, dazzling piece of cinema.
The 28th Singapore International Film Festival runs November 23 to December 3, 2017. Get your tickets here.