A young south Asian girl with short hair and a dark top rests her chin on the shoulder of a south Asian woman in a red top on a motorcycle.

Seven Asian stories from Sundance to look out for this year

The Asian and Asian American films at a particularly strong Park City festival

From left, Preeti Panigrahi and Kani Kusruti in "Girls Will Be Girls."

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Sundance Film Festival has, over the last two decades, become less of an indie and experimental showcase and more of a pipeline for Hollywood acquisitions. However, its 2024 edition was a remarkably strong year even within those confines. As sponsors and brand partners descended upon Main Street in Park City, Utah, so too did the first ever set of movies programmed by the festival’s new director, New York Film Festival alumnus Eugene Hernandez, under whose leadership the event’s 47th edition turned out a stellar lineup of narrative and documentary films from every corner of the globe.

Among the best of these works were unique Asian American stories and numerous Asian co-productions. The fest’s various sections—from its World and U.S. Documentary competitions, to its dramatic debuts, to premieres from established filmmakers—ran the emotional and stylistic gamut, previewing a wide array of what’s to come for this year in cinema as the program selections are slowly but surely picked up for distribution.

Sundance is where the year in cinema begins, and few beginnings could have been as strong as this list of seven films to watch out for in the coming months:

1. Agent of Happiness
Bhutan, Hungary
World Cinema Documentary Competition

An Asian sits on a chair looking at a white man and Asian man sitting on a couch, in a room with light green walls.

From left, Kinley Tshering and Gunaraj Kuikel and Amber Kumar Gurung in "Agent of Happiness."

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Known for its “Gross National Happiness” index, Bhutan is placed under a microscope by directors Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó, who explore and challenge the South Asian kingdom’s self-image through the eyes of chipper government agents tasked with gauging the nation’s contentment. However, their mathematical surveys fail to capture the full scope of the nuanced, complex humanity on which Bhattarai and Zurbó camera often falls. Their melodic documentary weaves together a patchwork of subjects from varying socio-economic backgrounds before they turn their lens on Amber, one of the agents in question, whose own struggles help peel back the country’s political frustrations in the process. (Full Review)

Acquisition pending.

2. Black Box Diaries
Japan, USA, United Kingdom
World Cinema Documentary Competition

Journalist and director Ito Shiori in profile, with shoulder-length hair, pearl earring and a dark top, with a blurred-out person in the foreground.

Ito Shiori in "Black Box Diaries."

Tsutomu Harigaya

A daring documentary in which the director becomes the camera’s subject, Black Box Diaries sees journalist Ito Shiori chronicling the investigation into her own sexual assault at the hands of an influential political figure in Japan. Through intimate selfie vlogs, and covert recordings which have no choice but to focus on the corners of rooms, the young journalist-turned-filmmaker imbues her images with a riveting sense of weight and intensity as she brings us along her harrowing journey, making us co-pilots on her mission to not only expose patriarchal laws and attitudes, but to offer a greater and more vivid understanding of what it means to speak out as a survivor. (Full Review)

Acquisition pending.

3. Dìdi
U.S. Dramatic Competition

An out of focus closeup of a young Asian boy with braces, with his mouth open excitedly, with a gray street in the background.

Izaac Wang in "Didi."

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sean Wang crafts a new coming-of-age classic with Dìdi, his late-aughts chronicle of a 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy in the Bay Area suburbs as he deals with the struggles, foibles, and absurdities of growing up. From familiar Asian American family dynamics, to era-appropriate exchanges between young multicultural friend groups, the film is thoughtful in its construction, energetic in its telling, and loaded with both wistful and intentionally cringe-worthy nostalgia. It’s steeped in the early YouTube and MySpace era, with its brand new avenues for impressing people and rebuilding one’s own identity, no matter the personal fallout. The winner of both the U.S. Audience Dramatic Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble, Dìdi is a wonderfully vivid trip through time that pulls no punches.

Acquired by Focus Features.

4. Girls Will Be Girls
India, France, USA, Norway
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Set in a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, Shuchi Talati’s impeccable debut Girls Will Be Girls is an intimate but electric feature debut about the sexual coming-of-age of a teenage girl, Mira (Preeti Panigrahi), who she gets involved with a charming young classmate. However, things get complicated—to put it mildly—when Mira’s nominally accepting mother begins using the freedom she grants her daughter as a proxy for the adolescence she was once denied by her much stricter parents. Gentle but unflinching, Girls Will Be Girls took home both the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award as well as the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting, for Panigrahi’s performance, a dramatic highwire act whose quiet introspections go hand-in-hand with the film’s daring inquiries into the social taboos that prevent Indian girls and women from fully seeing themselves. (Full Review)

Acquisition pending.

5. Love Me
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Actors Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun lay on a bed with white bedding, looking at each other in "Love Me."

From left, Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun star in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance "Love Me."

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Directed by married couple Sam and Andy Zuchero, the sci-fi odyssey Love Me—awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for works about science or technology—takes a page out of Pixar’s book by presenting a WALL-E-esque romance between a sentient buoy and a satellite long after humanity’s demise. After scouring the Internet and becoming self-aware in the process, the newly minted couple communicates remotely and begins to exist as human avatars in a shared cyber-space, where they’re played by Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun. However, what begins as a zany, tongue-in-cheek techno-romance soon evolves into a reflection on humanity’s imprint through the Internet, and a meditation on the expectations and insecurities underscoring modern relationships. It’s a film unmoored from time, but with an intense focus on the ways in which people—or the artificial intelligence mimicking them—resist and ultimately accept growth and change. (Full Review)

Acquisition pending.

6. Nocturnes
India, USA
World Cinema Documentary Competition

Moths of varying sizes and colors against a gray backdrop.

The documentary "Nocturnes" follows moths and the people who study them.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

From filmmakers Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan, the Indian ecological documentary Nocturnes takes a minimalist approach to its subject matter—moths, and the people who study them—but in the process, crafts a poetic and compelling argument for the creatures’ preservation. With melodic night time shots of moths congregating on a hung bedsheet under bright lights, the film is imbued with a romantic quality as it captures the process and focus of a handful of scientists, whose passions are placed front and center before the movie ever explains the “why” of their meticulous studies. By the time this is revealed, near the end of the movie’s mere 82-minute runtime, the audience is already likely to be convinced of the preservationist mission at hand, thanks to the camera’s alluring focus on texture, mood, and motion, an aesthetic presentation that turns moths into the most beautiful and vital creatures on Earth.

Acquisition pending.

7. Presence

Callina Liang in "Presence," with long dark hair, stands in a dark room, with three people blurred out in the background.

Callina Liang in "Presence."

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A familiar horror premise with a unique twist, Steven Soderbergh’s haunted house movie Presence turns the camera into a disembodied specter that observes its characters—a mixed-race Asian family of four, played by Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang and Eddy Maday—from closets and darkened corners, usually at a distance, but occasionally from close enough to raise the hairs on your neck. The rapid movements of the frame are jarring and unsettling, as this “presence” captures snippets of this family’s story, which evolves from wryly humorous to downright bone-chilling as the full picture slowly but surely creeps into view. Ingeniously made on what appears to be a shoestring budget, the film (from the maestro behind Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike) proves to be a surprisingly spiritual marriage of story and cinematic form, en route to its unexpected and unforgettable climax. (Full Review)

Acquired by Neon.

Published on February 2, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter