Portrayals of diaspora at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Encompassing genres of romance, deadpan humour and horror, the EIFF2023 film programme has no shortage of beautifully told stories about cultural displacement and diaspora. Film Programmer Rafa Sales Ross talks us through some of the highlights.

This year the closing night film of the Edinburgh International Film Festival marks the return of British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali to the city, thirteen years after his debut Frontier Blues played at EIFF 2010. In Fremont, a stylish, black-and-white deadpan comedy co-written with Italian writer and director Carolina Cavalli (Amanda), Jalali conveys the ever-elusive ache of diaspora. The film’s title refers to the small American town that has become the home of Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), a young Afghan refugee who served as an interpreter for the U.S. troops during the war and now works at a fortune cookie factory. Donya is unsettled by the overwhelming dichotomy between guilt and longing, her nights spent wide awake as dreams prove just as slippery in practice as they are a metaphor. Featuring a swooning performance by The Bear breakout Jeremy Allen White and an offbeat turn by the equally delightful Gregg Turkington, Fremont pulls at heartstrings with the gentlest of hands.

UK Trailer coming soon.

If Jalali reflects on the melancholy of displacement through a subdued, observational style, writer-director Paris Zarcilla finds in horror tropes the tools to explore the anger and frustration born out of unyielding systemic failures. Inspired by his own lived experience as a British-born Filipino, in Raging Grace, Zarcilla crafts a sharp riveting thriller following Joy (Max Eigenmann), a Filipina single mother working several jobs as a housekeeper to save enough to secure a visa for her and her small daughter, Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). When a too-good-to-be-true job comes along, the mother and daughter duo see themselves as unwilling participants in a multigenerational hunting game. A piercing social commentary delivered with skin-tingling suspense, Raging Grace is as vital as it is thrilling.

A woman stands in a dusty hallway, standing with concern off into the distance

Max Eigenmann (Joy) in Raging Grace

A critical sensation at both Sundance and Berlinale film festivals, Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives frames diaspora through a series of poignant what-ifs. South Korean writer Nora (Greta Lee) leaves her native country for North America as a child, bidding a bitter farewell to her first love and best friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). As time sharpens once-plump cheeks, Nora and Hae Sung play a heartbreaking game of missed encounters, their untarnished memories of youthful joy a fleeting balm to unhealing wounds. Playwright Song brings deeply fleshed-out characters to life, painting a vividly realised portrayal of displacement that welcomes the possibility of reinvention without ever denying the grief of what was once lost.

Playing as part of the Festival’s Cinema Under the Stars outdoor screenings, multi-Oscar®-winning epic Everything Everywhere All At Once sees directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert tackle the generational trauma of immigration. Out of love and a desire for a new start, Chinese couple Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) elope to the United States, where they have a daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and start a business of their own, a laundromat. Years of struggle harden the once-hopeful Evelyn and numb the quiet Waymond, their daughter slowly growing to resent the coldness that now permeates the family home. Things begin to change for the family during a tense visit to the American taxman, where they stumble upon a multiverse that will send the family through a ludic, sausage-finger-filled journey towards cathartic reconciliation.

There is no pinpointing what makes a Wayne Wang film a Wayne Wang film. The Chinese-American director traverses the borders of genre and style in a sprawling body of work that includes romantic comedies (Maid in Manhattan), historical dramas (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and indie ensembles (Smoke). What unites Wang’s oeuvre, however, is a burning interrogation of the diaspora and the complexities of the displaced identity, particularly when it comes to traditions inherited and acquired. With his dark comedy Life is Cheap... But Toilet Paper is Expensive, Wang once more delves into the divide between the West and the East, and Western imperialism, while telling the story of a man hired by gangsters to deliver a briefcase from the United States to Hong Kong. The film, a radically transgressive approach to form and narrative that spent almost three decades in a murky distribution limbo, now finds its way back to audiences in a gorgeous 4K restoration that does justice to the viscerally visual experience created by the maverick director.