Take a rebellious village girl with developing dance skills. It's hard to believe the radiant Vanaja is the feature-film debut of South Indian director Rajnesh Domalpalli, it's so beautifully wrought. Its open-ended plot strands are in the best Satyajit Ray neorealist tradition, but the brilliant coloring and solo dance sequences make it fresh. Vanaja is an unsentimental depiction of a feisty, devious young girl whose battle against caste barriers is expressed in her kuchipudi dance.
Ancient rebels out of Hindu mythology dance in modern dress in Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's ambitious and spectacular Opera Jawa, although it's a little jarring to see contemporary-looking installations and protest signs saying "Down with exploitation!" in the story of Rama and Sita.
Performance, not in the form of dance but in the form of impersonation, also plays a role in rebellion in the South Korean Ad Lib Night. As a patriarch lies near death, his family members debate the morality of bringing in a ringer for his estranged daughter, whom it was his dying wish to see. The young woman, as enigmatic as Vertigo's Kim Novak in her blankness, puts on an eerily masterful act as the family rebel.
Another remarkable narrative feature debut is novelist/documentarist Xiaolu Guo's road movie How Is Your Fish Today? Despite the wacky title, this is a serious meditation on a China undergoing massive changes. A failed Beijing screenwriter obsesses on the murderer-protagonist in his screenplay, tracking his character's flight to the Russian border. In a collision between real and narrative worlds, they come together at the end of the line in the remote "Northern Lights" village of Mohe, whose severe yet generous landscape suggests an Eden for starting anew.
Koreeda Hirokazu (Nobody Knows)'s first samurai film Hana is disappointing, but then bland period "message" films are the chronic undoing of formerly idiosyncratic Japanese directors who have achieved fame. When it isn't laboring with inane dialogue to convey the colorful life of an 18th-century Edo tenement and the rebellious samurai in hiding there, it's wrecking that very period atmosphere with a Riverdance-like soundtrack.
As for a portrait of true rebellion, Im Sang-soo's The Old Garden is more politically astute than the recently overrated Summer Palace from China. Americans might lack the historical background to appreciate fully such an honest account of the consequences of political commitment in 1980s South Korea but they'll recognize a true rebel when they see one. Frako Loden
Vanaja: Saturday, April 28, 5:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive (PFA); Wednesday, May 2, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; Friday, May 4, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki; Sunday, May 6, 3:30 p.m., Aquarius
Opera Jawa: Friday, April 27, 4:30 p.m., PFA; Sunday, April 29, 12:30 p.m., Castro; Monday, April 30, 3:45 p.m., Kabuki
Ad Lib Night: Monday, May 7, 9 p.m., Kabuki; Tuesday, May 8, 3:45 p.m., Kabuki; Thursday, May 10, 5 p.m., Kabuki
How Is Your Fish Today?: Sunday, April 29, 8:15 p.m., PFA; Saturday, May 5, 12:30 p.m., SFMOMA; Monday, May 7, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki
Hana: Saturday, April 28, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki; Saturday, May 5, 5:45 p.m., PFA
The Old Garden: Thursday, May 3, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki; Saturday, May 5, 9 p.m., Kabuki; Wednesday, May 9, 6 p.m., Kabuki