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The latest edition of the Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors section, which highlights new projects and fresh voices from Asia, feels like a culmination in more ways than one.

After an entirely remote affair last time around, Open Doors is adopting a hybrid in-person and online approach this time around, welcoming more than half of the filmmakers and producers to the Swiss fest. The section is also entering the final year in its three-year focus on Southeast Asia and Mongolia specifically.

“This one is much more the result of the exploration of the region and the collaboration we have been building with talents over the last two and a half years,” explains Open Doors director Sophie Bourdon. “On the co-production side, it’s only first-time feature directors with one exception, but many of them have had shorts featured at the festival.”

Bourdon admits the last couple years have been difficult for Open Doors. Back in 2019, Bourdon and her team traveled around Southeast Asia and Mongolia for three months, meeting filmmakers and producers, and building a talent-spotting network. While that helped scratch the surface of the region’s up-and-coming filmmakers, in an ideal world, Bourdon would have returned each year to refresh her contacts and discover even more new voices.

“The biggest challenge this year was that we were not able to scout the films, projects, talents on-site,” Bourdon says. “It has been difficult and disappointing not to be able to do that. Cinema is an adventure and scouting projects from a distance through Zoom meetings is not the same.”

Nevertheless, Bourdon is still highly enthusiastic about the Open Doors 2021 crop of projects and talents.

Development highlights include the feature debut of Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Sompot Chidgasornpongse, and the second feature from rising Vietnamese director Le Binh Giang. The projects tread an interesting line between arthouse and genre cinema, reflecting a general desire to appeal to a wider audience while retaining an indie spirit, per Bourdon.

“We have a diversity from experimental cinema, like ‘The Water Garden’ from Mongolia, to more genre cinema like the Vietnamese entry ‘Who Created Human Beings.’ I think there is a wave of new voices in the region, and I think they want to speak about their country as it is, they want to show something different and to move away from the same kind of stories you’re used to seeing,” Bourdon says.

There is a clear focus on women’s issues and inclusivity among the projects, with one centering on a young woman experiencing a particularly painful menstruation cycle, and another depicting an illegal abortion clinic. Bourdon says almost all of this year’s projects deal with topics which “are still taboos in those countries.”

“There are a lot of stories about the importance of human relationships and inclusivity in terms of family, gender, and even religion,” she says. “These filmmakers are trying to open the audience’s eyes and show that life can be different. For some of them, it’s important to reach a larger audience at home because they’re contributing to the development of their contemporary society.”

Open Doors co-production selection:

“9 Temples to Heaven”

Thailand, directed by Sompot Chidgasornpongse

After hearing an alarming prophecy that his mother does not have much time to live, Sakol proposes a one-day merit-making trip to nine temples, from dawn till dusk, as a solution. Just two weeks before her birthday, the authoritative Sakol not only takes the grandmother of the family on this pilgrimage, but he asks the whole family to join, nine members in total.

“A Useful Ghost”

Thailand, directed by Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke

March and Nat are a happily married couple in their mid-30s, with Dot, their seven-year-old son. March runs the family-owned vacuum-cleaner-manufacturing factory. One day, Nat dies of respiratory disease caused by air pollution. Saddened by the death of his wife, March is worried that the same fate would fall upon his son, who gradually develops similar symptoms. Concerned with her son’s health, Nat returns as a ghost haunting the vacuum cleaner at the house. While everyone is afraid of her as the possessed vacuum cleaner, only her husband sees this as the chance to reunite the family.

“Don’t Cry Butterflies”

Vietnam/Singapore, directed by Dieu Linh Duong

Housewife Tan accidentally discovers her husband’s affair. Instead of confronting him about it, she decides to follow a con artist’s cult. She ends up spending a lot of money on voodoo rituals, while also engaging in hilarious attempts to seduce her husband, believing firmly that a baby boy will solve their marriage’s issues. Meanwhile rebellious Ha is fed up with her parents’ deteriorating marriage. While the two women are busy running away from reality, the House Spirit has evolved into a monster-like creature that ends up haunting both of them.

“Our Son”

Indonesia, directed by Luhki Herwanayogi

Faced with family and societal pressures to have children, two couples confide in one another and form close bonds. When the son of one couple gets dengue fever and requires a blood transfusion, things become complicated as all four realize they must save his life and future, while their own homes are in shambles.

“Sam”

Philippines, directed by E Del Mundo

Sam and his boyfriend Adam visit an abandoned mountain village. There, Adam sees his boss Popoy who invites them to participate in a project of the governor’s. Arriving at a checkpoint, Sam sees a hundred men commandeer a convoy of eight vehicles, leaving him to face disastrous choices and deal with the consequences.

“The Beer Girl in Yangon”

Myanmar/Philippines/Indonesia , directed by Sein Lyan Tun

Lily, a 17-year-old girl, is going through a phase in which she suffers from a painful menstrual cycle coupled with nightmares, possibly resulting from the psychological trauma of witnessing her father getting tortured in front of her. She works as a hostess in a sleazy bar where underage prostitution is a constant temptation. Lily’s relationships with her co-worker and factory worker mother begin to complicate as she dangerously navigates her life alone with her own intuition.

“The Water Garden”

Mongolia, directed by Ikhbayar Urchuud

After the tragic death of his young daughter, Galaa got divorced from his wife Undarmaa. Galaa escapes in drinking and dating a prostitute, while Undarmaa tries to start a new life with her now only son Itgel. While Undarmaa tries to keep Itgel away from his unstable father, Galaa takes Itgel to their summer house – the place where their daughter died – without Undarmaa’s approval. Itgel attempts suicide at the house. Now it’s time for both parents to realize that the trauma is unresolved and can’t be ignored any longer.

“Who Created Human Beings”

Vietnam/Singapore, directed by Binh Giang Le

Sinh, a policeman, is hanging out with his girlfriend Linh when he gets a call to the crime scene. It’s a murder case: a headless body is found with another person’s head inside the stomach. The head belongs to Hang, a prostitute, and Sinh identifies two suspects. Meanwhile Linh is pregnant, but she cannot communicate to Sinh, who constantly gets carried by other events. She pressures Sinh to marry her but according to the unwritten law in Vietnam, policemen aren’t allowed to marry Christians: Sinh would have to convert to Catholicism. Sinh struggles between resigning and breaking up with Linh.

Producers’ Lab selection:

Ines Sothea – independent producer – Cambodia

Gugi Gumilang – Studio Rumah Kedua – Indonesia

Benji Lim – Kinovisuals – Malaysia

Bat-Amgalan Lkhagvajav – Media Crackers LLC – Mongolia

Myo Thar Khin – Only One But Rat Film – Myanmar

Lin Sun Oo – Tagu Films – Myanmar

Stelle Laguda – KT House Productions – Philippines

Pom Bunsermvicha – Vertical Films – Thailand

Nguyen Thi Xuan Tran – Lagi Limited – Vietnam