When curating this year’s Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, head programmer Kiki Fung had two key focuses: films that are conscious of treating their medium as an art form, and filmmakers who are trying to do something new and inventive with the language of film.

Kicking off Wednesday night with the highly regarded Indian drama Parched, the festival’s 2016 program pays particular attention to experimental cinema under the strand “A Matter of Form”, and a retrospective of Japanese masters. Both highlight the fact that BAPFF gives Brisbane audiences a chance to see cinema that is profoundly different to the usual big-screen experience.

Broadsheet asked Fung to identify her must-sees from this year’s list of more than 80 films. Here are six she thinks you can’t miss.

After the Storm
“This is directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, and it’s very refined and elegantly made. It’s about a family forced into close quarters and their bonding experience, but what’s special about Koreeda as a director is his films are never really about the story – they’re always about the characters. You can see so much in the small gestures and the way characters speak to one another. We see things unfold gently and in fine detail. This is a film about bonding but with a darker edge; we see how family can be a burden. Koreeda balances this sensibility very delicately. Many of his films have been in competition at Cannes, and for me this is up there with the best of them.”

Exile
“For me, Exile is a very special, unique cinematic experience. It’s very much like an installation art piece. It’s a mix of theatre, surrealist cinema, recitation of poetry and important cultural texts, juxtaposed with very rare archival footage. It’s a documentary about filmmaker Rithy Panh’s experience living under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When we think of documentaries we think of true events, but while a lot of the film is about history, Exile is also a personal meditation. It transcends personal experience into something bigger, and turns a documentary about a horrific massacre into more of a universal story about humanity.”

City of Jade
“Director Midi Z is a Taiwan filmmaker but was born in Myanmar, and this film follows his brother’s experience working in the jade mines. City of Jade is a real eye-opener about the lives of Myanmar people. It has a political aspect and you get a rare insight into the conditions these miners live under, but there’s also a personal dimension. Midi Z’s brother has been in the mines for a long time with no luck, but for some reason he can’t leave – it’s about persistence and hope, as well as obsession. Lim Giong is the sound designer, and what he’s done for this film is extremely beautiful – if there’s such a thing as a dreamlike documentary, this is it.”

Bangkok Nites
Bangkok Nites is a co-production between Japan, Thailand and Laos. It’s a very authentic depiction of sex workers in Thailand. The film is centred on a place where a lot of Japanese clients visit, and the sex workers have to adapt to the Japanese way and some have relationships with the clients that are beyond sex. It’s a very human film – none of the women are defined by what they do. I felt a very strong connection to the characters because they felt so genuine. It’s long, but it’s lively and immerses you in the world of these women. You feel their hardships and pain and their joy.”

The Academy of Muses
“This is a very playful film. Centred on a professor of literature and philosophy at the University of Barcelona, it’s a blend of fact and fiction because director José Luis Guerín actually went to a class and asked the professor and the students to play fictionalised versions of themselves. It starts with the professor as a very charming intellectual figure, talking about how he values poetry and the old tradition of women as muses, but by the end you see his hypocrisy through his relationships with his students. But the film isn’t judgemental; you see all the characters have inconsistencies and lie to themselves and those around them while trying to connect with one another.”

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
“If you’re only seeing one film in the Japanese retrospective (“Transcending the Inevitable: Japanese Screen Legends and Their Work With Masters”), I recommend this. Made in 1960, it was directed by true master Mikio Naruse and stars his longtime collaborator Hideko Takamine, who plays a struggling widow bar-owner in Ginza. Naruse’s cinema was always very much about women – he really identified with women and their plight in male-dominated societies. The stories are universal, though, exploring the kind of struggles everyone faces. The film is about everyday compromise, and how it’s still possible to maintain dignity and not feel guilty while dealing with these compromises.”

The Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival runs November 23 to December 4.