“Only the River Flows.”

The Asian Films You May Have Missed at Cannes

The world’s premier film festival played host to compelling movies from all over the continent and diasporas—including these four underrated gems

“Only the River Flows.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The list of prizewinners at this year’s Cannes Film Festival saw a number of Asian names. The Best Actor trophy was awarded to Yakusho Kōji, whose quiet joys give way to hidden depths in German maestro Wim Wenders’ Japanese slice-of-life movie, Perfect Days. Likewise, Best Actress was awarded to Merve Dizdar, for her compelling and layered resilience in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s rural Turkish drama, About Dry Grasses. The Best Screenplay award was bestowed upon Sakamoti Yuji for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s winding, delicate Japanese point-of-view thriller Monster (which was also awarded the independently adjudicated “Queer Palm” award for LGBTQ film playing at the festival), while the prize for Best Director was handed to Vietnamese-born filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, for his delectable French food-and-romance period piece, The Pot-au-Feu—and these were just the films programmed in the main competition. There was also so much on offer.

The accolades continued all the way down through the festival’s other sections, with the Caméra d’Or prize for best debut feature going to Vietnamese-language film Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Bên trong vỏ kén vàng) by Pham Thien An, a highlight of the Director’s Fortnight program. The Asian selections were widespread, making it a banner year for films and filmmakers both from Asia and from various Asian diasporas. Crime filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy, one of the festival’s “Midnight” genre selections, became the first Indian film in decades programmed at the historic, 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière, the venue for Cannes’ most lavish premieres. Meanwhile, on the more sobering side of things, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing returned to the festival with his electrifying, epic-length competition movie Youth (Spring), or Qing Chun (Chun), a France-Netherlands-Luxembourg coproduction spanning three and a half hours, as it follows the multifaceted lives of Chinese textile and garment workers.

However, while plenty of Asian films and filmmakers rightly found themselves in the spotlight, the lineup across Cannes’ numerous programming sections was so varied that a handful of works were bound to fall through the cracks, despite being equally accomplished in their own right. We’ve highlighted four of them here, with the hope that they’ll soon find widespread distribution so audiences can get a more complete sense of just how well 2023 is shaping up for Asian cinema on the global stage.

Agra

“Agra.”

Still frame from “Agra”

Country: India, France
Language: Hindi
Seeking distribution

Kanu Behl’s Agra—named for the city that’s home to the Taj Mahal, a timeless and sprawling monument to love—is a constricting, claustrophobic, and wildly idiosyncratic sex farce about the fight for physical and emotional space in modern metropolitan India. Delivering a visceral and hilariously twisted performance, Mohit Agarwal plays Guru, a desperately horny and lonely 20-something, whose joint family living situation poses complications for any sexual or romantic prospects he might have, leading to legal rigmarole when the possibility of reconstructing the family residence arises. With occasional detours into abstraction amidst its otherwise frenetic approach, Agra unpacks the entire spectrum of modern Indian male frustration, from the sympathetic to the simply pathetic, in a Director’s Fortnight Entry that’s as nuanced as it is absurd.

The Breaking Ice

“The Breaking Ice.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Country: China, Singapore
Language: Mandarin, Korean
Seeking distribution

After his Sundance migrant drama Drift, Singaporean director Anthony Chen delivers his second great film of the year in the form of The Breaking Ice. Part of Cannes’ Un Certain Regarde selection—a parallel competition, whose title translates to “a certain point of view”—Chen’s latest is a tale of three young-adult characters in unique cultural circumstances, set emotionally adrift in northern China. Two of them, upbeat tour guide Nana (Zhou Dongyu) and frustrated restaurant worker Han Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), are residents of Yanji, a frigid township bordering North Korea with majority Korean residents. Their new comrade, the depressed urban office drone Haofeng (Liu Haoran), visits from Shanghai for a Korean-Chinese wedding when he meets them, and they become more spiritually entangled than he’d expected. The trio finds themselves in a state of emotional transition, an idea Chen frequently compares to the constant melting and solidifying of the region’s ice, capturing the unpredictable flux and ennui of modern Chinese youth through a tale of three lost characters finding each other (and finding themselves) over a handful of days in a place where culture itself seems to shift with every glance. 

In Flames

“In Flames.”

Still frame from “In Flames”

Country: Pakistan, Canada
Language: Urdu
Seeking distribution

In a stylistic and thematic flip-side to Agra, Canadian Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Kahn crafts slow-burn horror drama In Flames as an inside-out psychological exploration of male imposition, as experienced by modern Pakistani women. While it deals similarly with the intersection of property and family in South Asia, the Director’s Fortnight selection largely follows Karachi med student Mariam (a quietly captivating Ramesha Nawal) through a fledgling romance gone awry, and through everyday interactions with men at all levels of society, in ways that seem mundane on the surface. However, each one comes laced with unsavory implications that soon become inseparable from the film’s larger tapestry of grief and trauma as experienced by Mariam and her widowed mother, Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar). A film whose creeping soundscape and eerie vistas blend the real and the surreal, In Flames is a fine-tuned, socially oriented character drama in the shape of a supernatural thriller, with personal demons that take the form of cultural fanaticism, as a woman struggles to make her voice heard in a society hellbent on suffocating her.

Only the River Flows

“Only the River Flows” is a police procedural set in the 1990s.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Seeking distribution

Another Un Certain Regarde entry, Wei Shujun’s Only the River Flows (He bian de cuo wu) is a police procedural set in the mid-1990s, but it evokes the time period through numerous aesthetic and technical specifics that make it immediately appear as though it were actually shot in the era. A throwback to ’90s Hong Kong and Chinese cop films at practically every turn, the movie’s self-reflexive nature grows as winding as its central murder mystery, which sets rural police chief Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu) down a rabbit hole of coincidences and circumstantial evidence, which makes him doubt the case’s seemingly obvious suspect. Meanwhile, his police station takes up transitory residence in an abandoned movie theater, turning Only the River Flows into an overt but effective metaphor for the obsessive nature of cinematic details—not unlike fellow mysteries Zodiac and Memories of Murder, which similarly focus on detectives’ lives being consumed by murder cases—before eventually becoming a treatise on the need for carefully constructed narratives, as vital ways to fill in the psychological and emotional gaps within every human being. It’s an ode not just to a particular style of cinema, but to the idea of cinema itself, as a form of storytelling that completes a cultural and personal picture.

Several films have already been sold to distributors out of Cannes, whose palm leaf-shaped stamp of approval on posters and trailers has become synonymous with superlative artistry. Ideally, it won’t be long before these four underrated gems are similarly picked up for theatrical and/or streaming releases in the not too distant future—developments which will be updated in this article.

Published on June 1, 2023

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