The Gravel Road, the first Tamil-language feature from Malaysia's third largest ethnic group, is an indie about a road that leads to a rubber plantation where a girl's Malaysian-Indian family works -- but she sees it as the way out to getting a rare university education. Director Deepak Menon acknowledges the influence of Satyajit Ray in his use of available light and location shooting, making for tender moments edged with harsh choices. Of Love and Eggs is more maudlin, set in Jakarta's teeming marketplace as three children yearn for missing relatives under the shelter of a mosque awaiting its cupola.
Sepet is distinguished by the funny, sharply observed dialogue of contemporary Malaysian teenagers in a love story between a Malay girl and a Chinese-Malay boy, who bond over their enthusiasm for Hong Kong films. The title refers to a derogatory Malay term for the Chinese, meaning "slit eyes." Sadly, several scenes depicting affectionate family life were inexplicably cut for Malaysian viewers. Reaching back into the realm of 15th-century legend, the lavish epic Princess of Mount Ledang also epitomizes the multicultural foundations of Malaysian culture in its romance of a magic princess and the men who pursue her.
Shape of the Moon, directed by Dutch documentarist Leonard Retel Helmrich, at first suffers from an undue emphasis on squalor and heavy-handed animal symbolism (one gecko attacks another in relentless crosscutting as a usurer demands payment). But this movie grows in eloquence as it follows a Christian grandmother caring for her granddaughter as her son converts to Islam. The elderly woman's return to her village exposes the cataclysmic changes that have occurred not just in Indonesian cities, but also in the countryside, where her search for peace and pastoral comfort is more elusive than expected.
Monday Morning Glory is a fascinating, unnerving look at a police chief seeking professional vindication by staging a re-enactment by the suspects of a nightclub bombing as an exhibition for journalists. The re-enactment blends into flashbacks of unspecified Southeast Asian Muslims planning, rehearsing, and carrying out a terrorist act similar to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, in which more than 200 people died. The terrorists are depicted not as wild-eyed religious fanatics but as ordinary young men faced with such details as shopping for a lot of chlorine bleach in one trip to parting with a girlfriend for the last time.
Monday Morning Glory was produced by Amir Muhammad, called the godfather of Malaysian independent cinema. Pictures in the festival that he directed include Tokyo Magic Hour (unseen by this reviewer) and The Year of Living Vicariously, an experiment in split-screen political filmmaking. Muhammad follows Indonesian director Riri Riza (Eliana, Eliana) as she shoots a biopic about Soe Hok Gie, an Indonesian-Chinese student activist during the chaotic transition from Sukarno to Suharto in the 1960s. The year of the title is 2004, when Indonesia experienced its first direct presidential election -- a tsunami almost as sweeping, if not as destructive, as its watery counterpart.
The Gravel Road: Sunday, May 1, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Of Love and Eggs: Thursday, April 28, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 2, 6:30 p.m., Aquarius; Thursday, May 5, 8 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Sepet: Saturday, April 30, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 10 a.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 5 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Princess of Mount Ledang: Thursday, April 28, 8 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 1:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Shape of the Moon: Friday, April 29, 4:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Monday Morning Glory: Sunday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Tokyo Magic Hour/The Year of Living Vicariously: Friday, April 29, 8:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki