North American film festivals too often lack the programming acumen to present a must-see selection of films and a variety of others that audiences may not see elsewhere on the continent—the sort of access that is especially important, given the geographical distance from the major independent cinemas of Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

This is precisely the kind of problem that the Vancouver International Film Festival, through its Dragons & Tigers section, has avoided. Now in its 17th year, Dragons & Tigers exists in two dimensions: as a survey and a competition. The survey provides an overview of new cinema, frequently new to the West, with a swath of work from eastern Asia that typically spans from China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan in the north, to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the south. To be sure, programming on a geographical basis is a worn and bedraggled practice, a reflection of an old way of thinking that flows out of such dubious models as the foreign-language Academy Awards submissions (limiting each country to one film) and programs that would categorize films purely by the nationality of their producers (Toronto’s hardly missed “Planet Africa” being a prime instance). Dragons & Tigers sidesteps these problems thanks to the always shrewd programming of Tony Rayns (an expert in Asian cinema and the conceiver of the section) and Shelly Kraicer (whose particular expertise in China, where he lives much of the year, has made him an invaluable contributor). But, as this year’s program confirms, it’s not simply expertise or knowledge that sets the slate apart, but rather an informed cinephilia that promotes artists over entertainers. (In fact, Kraicer told me a few weeks before the festival that he was surprised how many of the films he found and chose were “audience pleasers,” a phrase not usually associated with Dragons & Tigers.)

The festival’s second dimension is comprised of an eight-film competition culled from the survey. The criteria is twofold: each entry must be either a first or second film, or at least one made early in the director’s career. They must be “creative and innovative” works (per the introduction notes) that defy commercial norms and explore new film grammar and ideas.

The two aspects of Dragons & Tigers make for a viewing adventure quite unlike anything else a festival visitor can experience in North America. Masterpieces huddle alongside dreadful failures, fully conceived work alongside misbegotten projects, and discovery—that similarly shopworn festival term—is an actual element of the viewing experience.

The selection of Chinese films reconfirmed the fact that, right now, no country in the world is making more interesting and original work. To be sure, no country had a larger presence in the program (ten of 43 features), a range perfectly demonstrated by the fact that the same catastrophic and pivotal event—the 1976 Tangshan earthquake—was depicted both as melodrama in Feng Xiaogang’s box office smash Aftershock (unseen by me), and as a brief, abstracted nightmare in Xu Ruotao’s Rumination, an astonishing and radical re-envisioning of the Cultural Revolution. Xu comes to the cinema from the visual arts and confidently rejects many conceits of not just historical film genre, but also of the poetic, auteur-driven tendencies that dominate the current festival scene. He often aims to make the viewer reconsider what they think they know about the cinematic re-staging of history. His treatment of Red Guard units running amok in the countryside is alternately a dream choreographed as a riot, and a documentary of the ways revolutionary thought is turned into religion. For instance: during scenes of the soldiers’ chanting and recitation of Maoist cant—interrupted by beatings and the interrogations of innocents—a weirdly feverish ecstasy fills the screen.

But if this remarkable first film looks at the past, another Xu—Xu Xin—looks to more recent Chinese tragedies. The unbearably sad and moving Karamay examines various aspects of the 1994 incident in which 323 people were killed in a fire in Friendship Hall in the eponymous city while local Communist Party leaders were allowed to escape. Primarily comprised out of a series of soul-bearing testimonials of the parents who lost their children, the emotions evolve from sheer grief (still intense and evident 15 years later) to political outrage. The parents begin to openly question the legitimacy of a system that values the lives of political hacks over those of children. Xu sets his static camera to record the testimonials in a manner reminiscent of Wang Bing’s approach in Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, but the immediacy of events, the primal parent-child connection, and Xu’s use of video footage of the disaster and its aftermath result in a true landmark in non-fiction cinema.

Just as harsh a critique, though couched in utterly different terms, is Li Hongqi’s hilarious Winter Vacation. Honed to a dry Beckettian sharpness, Li’s comedy depicts a Chinese township in Inner Mongolia during deep winter, when school kids on holiday have absolutely nothing to do. A South Park comparison is apt, since Li focuses on youngsters framed in near one-dimensional stasis with their parents typically nowhere to be seen. Winter Vacation’s world of old and young folks killing time in a meaningless place is clearly a reductio ad absurdum of China itself—and the liberation of a new Chinese comic style.

It also represents the sort of independent filmmaking one expects from a Dragons & Tigers film, a quality clearly on display in Kazuhiro Soda’s lovely, handmade Peace. On the surface, this is a story about caregivers, specifically the husband-and-wife team Toshio and Hiroko, who provide services for the elderly and infirm in their Tokyo prefecture. But as Soda’s camera casually observes his subjects, the lack of insistence upon a central theme frees the film to become about everything: from the behavior of a group of stray cats Toshio cares for, to the ways in which certain Tokyo alleys grow dark and forbidding as night sets in. This type of cinematic freedom is embedded in today’s growing movement for more observational documentaries—think of Sweetgrass or Foreign Parts—and, with it, Soda has developed into one of the discipline’s most interesting, and freest, artists.

Soda’s fellow countryman Hirohara Saturo rightly won the Dragons & Tigers award (from an all-star jury made up of Jia Zhang-ke, Bong Joon-ho, and Denis Coté) for the relaxed yet increasingly disturbing coming-of-age drama Good Morning to the World! Already, with his first feature, Saturo displays an uncanny sense for finding just the right place for his camera, and a knack for bringing out the unexpected in every scene, as he follows a lonely high-school student’s mysterious, quixotic search for the identity of a homeless man who’s apparently been killed by young street thugs.

Even the more genre-driven South Korean selections tended to defy formula, and Rayns’s choice of eight Korean films demonstrated the multiple directions in which the country’s filmmakers are moving. One could shift from the rich action-movie satisfaction of Lee Jeong-Beom’s bloody and dazzling The Man from Nowhere to Park Donghyun’s rigorous consideration of government architecture, Kimu, a truly strange competition entry. Or sample the apocalyptic horrors, sans any effects, or any genuine plot per se, of Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal, and then contrast it with Metamorphosis, Lee Samchil’s brave but ultimately failed attempt to translate Kafka’s story to a contemporary setting viewed purely from the victim’s point of view. Or move from the assured storytelling artistry of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry to a Hong Sang-soo double-bill of Hahaha (kind of weak) and Oki’s Movie (supremely strong). The latter, in its fluid temporality, and the centrality of its female co-star as she determines the course of her life, not to mention Hong’s continued fascination with the love triangle, strongly recalls his earlier masterpiece, Woman Is the Future of Man. And for all of its signs as a student film, My Film and My Story, an omnibus film by seven filmmakers at Konkuk University’s Art and Design School (constructed, unlike the usual omnibus, as a continuous narrative), was cleverly paired in Dragons & Tigers with Oki’s Movie, whose stories center on students and their advisors in a film department.

Truth be told, there were a few disappointments sprinkled throughout the program. After several rousing years of deliciously wild and unpredictable output, Filipino cinema, this time around witnessed a dip in quality with films such as Chassis—a movie by the super-prolific Adolfo Alix Jr., a director who’s capable of much better than this repetition of tropes from Lino Brocka. Indonesia, a country seemingly on the brink New International Cinema status, still awaits its breakthrough film. Unfortunately, to judge from Riri Riza’s unmemorable The Dreamer, the wait continues. Riza’s effort is the second part in his ongoing saga based on Andrea Hirata’s novels of young men growing up and out of poverty. But such expectations are an example of the old one-film-per-country syndrome, and for all we know, young independent Indonesian filmmakers are making some terrific films right at this very moment. The fact that Dragons & Tigers can be counted on to find them when they do, and bring them to Vancouver, makes it a model to study, for North American audiences, critics, and programmers alike.