The Asian Stories and Filmmakers at Sundance

An insider's look at the 12 films to look out for in 2023

Every January, Park City, Utah kicks off the year in major global film festivals, with a crop of low-key independent gems from the United States and elsewhere. It’s where the year’s award season conversation begins (even though the previous year’s awards are still underway, with the Oscars taking place in March), and with Sundance 2021 selection CODA winning Best Picture in 2022—the first Sundance premiere to do so—that’s unlikely to change.

It isn’t just the narrative features that gain critical attention. Four of the five nominated documentary features at the upcoming Academy Awards premiered at Sundance last year: Navalny, Fire of Love, A House Made of Splinters and All That Breathes. This isn’t a novelty, either. The Utah-based festival, established in 1978 under a different name, has been premiering future Oscar winners since the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984, the first year it used the Sundance name.

Today, it’s a one-stop shop for a world of independent documentaries, narrative features, shorts and other experiments hailing from an enormous cross-section of experience. And, with the festival continuing to have a strong online component in the wake of the pandemic, it’s more accessible than ever before (at least to viewers across the United States; it unfortunately remains geo-blocked for the rest of the world). The 2023 lineup continued to widen the fest’s programming horizons, with a significant number of Asian, AA+PI, and other Asian diaspora stories and directors entering the spotlight, and even winning major accolades. We’ve listed twelve of them here, some of which have already been acquired for distribution, with the rest likely to be purchased and released sometime this year.

1. The Accidental Getaway Driver

A still frame from “The Accidental Getaway Driver.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: English, Vietnamese

A British director with Hong Kong roots, Sing J. Lee was awarded the Sundance jury’s U.S. Dramatic Directing Award for The Accidental Getaway Driver, in which elderly Vietnamese driver Long (Hiệp Trần Nghĩa) gets roped into a California heist. However, what seems like a thriller in concept ends up biding its time, through moody scenes of Long not only bonding with his captors, but also getting lost in resurgent memories of his estranged family, and times of war in decades past, the effects of which still linger with him today.

2. Against The Tide

Koli fisherman Rakesh (right) checking his catch in “Against the Tide,” directed by Sarvnik Kaur.

Courtesy of Snooker Club Films

Country: India
Language: Hindi, Koli, Marathi

A documentary shot like an independent drama—the result of director Sarvnik Kaur spending years getting to know her subjects—environmentalist portrait Against the Tide is a moving depiction of two best friends belonging to Mumbai’s Koli caste, a fishing community impacted by climate change. It was awarded the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking, a term used to describe documentarian realism without artifice, though it arguably doesn’t apply to Against the Tide, given its carefully composed, almost fictionalized staging as it captures the difficult dynamic between tradition and technological progress, each represented by Kaur’s main subjects, Ganesh and Rakesh. It’s a piercing tale that examines what culture even means in a world where capital is king.

3. Drift

A still frame from “Drift.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: France, Greece, United Kingdom
Language: English

From Singaporean director Anthony Chen, Drift slowly unravels the tormented past of a Liberian refugee, Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), after she ends up stranded on a tropical tourist island in Greece. Her encounter with friendly American tour guide Callie (Alia Shawkat) helps her find reflection, familiarity, and vulnerability, but Erivo’s pained performance makes it clear that the devastation of the past won’t soon allow Jacqueline to un-hunch her shoulders, or easily expose herself to caring about other people.

4. Fremont

A still frame from “Fremont.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: Cantonese, Dari, English

A sardonic black-and-white comedy, Fremont, from British Iranian director Babak Jalali, follows a young Afghan translator for the U.S. military who now finds herself unable to sleep, in her new California neighborhood. Donya—played by real Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada, who turns in a delightful first-time performance—lives among other Afghan immigrants, but finds comfort in the simultaneous foreignness and familiarity of her Chinese coworkers at a fortune cookie factory. Reluctantly in therapy, Donya begins sending out covert messages within the cookies in the hopes of connection, leading to unexpected turns.

5. In My Mother’s Skin

A still frame from “In My Mother’s Skin.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan
Language: Tagalog

A creeping period piece in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth, the World War II-set In My Mother’s Skin—from Filipino director Kenneth Dagatan—turns the scars of military conflict into a horrifying children’s fairytale steeped in Catholicism and Filipino folklore. Rumors of hidden Japanese gold turn a local affluent family into a target. With the mother severely ill, and father nowhere to be seen, their young daughter Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) is compelled to seek the help of a deceitful, witch-like figure living in the forest, whose amber glow disguises the rot of war, in a tale of possession and animalistic violence, rife with practical effects that are skin-crawling in unsettlingly literal ways.

In My Mother’s Skin was acquired for distribution by Amazon Prime Video.

6. Jamojaya

A still frame from “Jamojaya.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: Bhasa Indonesian, English

Indie director and former Twilight actor Justin Chon has made some unimpeachable gems (like Gook and Blue Bayou), a trend that continues with his latest, which examines yet another delicate cross-section of Asian experience in America. Jamojaya is the dreamlike story of teenage Indonesian rapper James (Brian Immanuel, aka rapper Rich Brian) and his caring but overbearing father (Yayu A.W. Unru), who accompanies him to the United States. The duo’s relationship is fraught thanks to a tragedy in their past, but Chon, with his deft eye for staging, guides the drama through simultaneous angst and intimacy, resulting in quiet sorrows that give way to euphoric joys.

7. Joonam

A still frame from “Joonam.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: English, Persian

A stunning film about language and fractured identity, family-portrait documentary Joonam chronicles three generations of Iranian women living in rural Vermont. American-born filmmaker Sierra Urich only speaks English, her world-weary grandmother only knows Persian, and her once rebellious mother translates for them, acting as their linguistic and cultural bridge, as Urich undertakes the complex task of making a film about her family history while still learning their language. An examination of the past as both place and memory, Urich’s feature debut is a disarming self-portrait and an act of discovery, of the ways longing and nostalgia can take hold, even for somewhere we’ve never been.

8. Kim’s Video

A still frame from “Kim’s Video.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: English, Italian, Korean

In the 1980s, Yongman Kim went from running a dry cleaning business to creating an unparalleled VHS library in New York’s East Village, filled with esoteric (and not always legally acquired) cult movies. In 2008, Kim’s Video was forced to close, and its 55,000 tapes languished after being donated to a small town in Italy, where they were largely neglected. Filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin chronicle their search for the lost tapes, and their guerilla attempts to retrieve the collection, in a real time, first-person documentary that lives at the unexpected nexus of South Korean immigrant saga, Italian political intrigue, and ode to the spirit of independent cinema.

9. Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV

A still frame from “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: English, German, Korean

Part documentary, part critical essay, Amanda Kim’s debut feature chronicles the life of video virtuoso Nam June Paik, from his days as a classical musician (and then, experimental noise artist), to his manipulations of visual art, which revolutionized the electronic image. Tracing Paik’s journey across Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Munich, and eventually, New York City, Kim captures not only the strange works Paik and his collaborators made—whose ripple effects are still being felt today—but the events that shaped Paik himself, as if to craft a defiant counter-narrative to those who would easily dismiss his contributions.

Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV was acquired for distribution by Greenwich Entertainment.

10. The Persian Version

A still frame from “The Persian Version.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: United States
Language: English, Persian

Winner of both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, The Persian Version begins as a snappy, self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical tale of director Maryam Keshavarz, and her life as a queer Iranian American torn between culturesvia her on-screen avatar, the ferociously funny Layla Mohammadi as Leila—before blooming into moving family portrait. The only girl in a house full of brothers, Leila is constantly at odds with her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), but while trying to dig up dirt on her past in Iran, she ends up witnessing (and in some ways, weaving) an empathetic tapestry, which Keshavarz drapes across the film’s eye-popping period details and heartwarming humor.

The Persian Version was acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

11. Polite Society

Priya Kansara as Ria Khan in “Polite Society.”

Focus Features

Country: United Kingdom
Language English

Nida Manzoor’s British Asian comedy Polite Society is often scattered, but it creates a shining action-comedy superstar in newcomer Priya Kansara, who plays teenager Ria Khan, a girl hell-bent on saving her older sister from marriage using her skills as a stuntwoman and martial artist. A tale that turns gossipy Pakistani aunty-ness into a villainous force, the film plays with Ria’s perspective while creating a genre pastiche that, though it doesn’t always commit to its gimmick, moves with unyielding energy.

Polite Society was acquired for distribution by Focus Features. It will be released on April 28.

12. Shayda

A still frame from “Shayda.”

Courtesy of Sundance

Country: Australia
Language: English, Persian

After starring in one of last year’s best films, Holy Spider, actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi once again tackles a vital and difficult role that speaks to the current moment of Iranian gender politics. In Shayda—from first-time feature director Noora Niasari—Embrahimi plays a mother on the run from her violent husband in Australia, in a work that blends looming fears of assault, blame and judgmental eyes, via its tale of a women’s shelter that allows for both temporary respite, and a sense of resilience and community. Niasari’s narrow aspect ratio is intentionally constricting, but Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia (the immensely talented child actress who plays her daughter) breathe life into every frame, even in suffocating moments.

Published on February 6, 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