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The Southeast Asian Film Movement
Sunday, March 7, 2010

A film movement is emerging in full force in Southeast Asia. And it is transnational, experimental, and jacks us into a new sense of time and place.

Last Friday on March 5, I popped over to the National University of Singapore(NUS, the other major university in Singapore) with my NTU (Nanyang Technological University) colleague Nikki Draper for a screening of five Asian short films from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand.

With about 200 people in the audience, the screening was part of the NUS Arts Festival (NAF) 2010. The festival, which includes music, theater, dance, literature, and film, probes the cultures and debates of what it terms “global Asia.” The place buzzed with people.
Before the screening, we ambled around the opening exhibition of influential Singapore painter Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) at the university museum, a few steps down from the theater.

Cheong’s work hybridizes early European modernism with Southeast Asian painting and compositional styles. Many of the paintings are vertical, referencing Chinese scrolls. But the style is expressionist, exploding in rich oranges, greens, and reds. The paintings claim a different sense of time to absorb their complex compositions, their stillness, their groundedness in everyday life of people, buildings and land in Southeast Asia. In many ways, the paintings provided a template for the screening to follow.

Long takes, tableau shots, complex sound designs, and details of everyday in interiors characterize this new film movement.

Cosponsored by the Asian Film Archive (AFA) to celebrate its fifth anniversary, the screening featured new works by Lav Diaz (Philippines), Hong Sang-soo (Korea)Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia), Christopher Chong Chan Fui (Canada/Malaysia), and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand).

Curated smartly and aggressively by Bee Thiam Tan from AFA , the screening was demanding and rigorous. The films insist on a different temporality from commercial cinema with their long shots and long takes. They required concentration so the eye can learn to scan the frame and the spectator’s body could settle into a slower pace.

My colleague at NTU, Adam Knee, a specialist in Southeast Asian cinema, connected with us during the intermission. He pointed out that this Southeast Asian film movement is transnational and fluid, with filmmakers from different countries working on each other’s films, and some filmmakers working in Canada and elsewhere but linked back to the region.

Many of the filmmakers trained at art schools in Southeast Asia and the United States. They appear to be influenced by structuralist experimental filmmaking but torque it with a unique Southeast Asian mise-en-scene and atmosphere.

Here, narratives unfold in space rather than propel forward. As Nikki observed, this is a cinema that rejects the adrenalin-pumped, close-up infused classical Hollywood narrative style. It is a cinema where the frame always has characters together, interacting in space. The films operate in the liminal zone between narrative, documentary and experimental film.

Butterflies Have No Memories (Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-Paro, Lav Diaz, 2009) is a 45-minute narrative chronicling the fissures between economic difficulties in the Philippines and the return of a Filipino ex-pat living in Canada. It was commissioned as part of the Jeonju Digital Project in Korea, a major new initiative to stimulate independent filmmaking in Asia.

In Everyday Everyday (Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia, 2008), Sook Chen leaves her job and fantasizes about going to Peru. Long takes and careful compositions allow the interactions between the characters as they sleep and eat to function as the topography of a relationship.

The final two films in the program were formally challenging, conceptual standout works that seem to suggest that space and place trump time. A Letter for Uncle Boonmee (Apichatypopg Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2009) features a slow tracking shot through a home on stilts in northeastern Thailand, concentrating on photographs, bowls, wooden walls. In voice-over, we hear young soldiers recite a memorized letter to Boonmee.

Block B (Christopher Chong, Malaysia, 2008) is composed of one long shot of a multistory housing project, with the elevator shaft splitting the screen in half. People move around the balconies, women discuss cooking, and hang their laundry out. A sari falls to a lower floor. The film evokes Warhol, but instead twists us to learn small details of interaction between residents from a distance. The sound is proximic while the shots are distant. This conceptual strategy suggests that larger housing landscapes conceal microterritories of narratives . The film unfolds human-scaled actions that the large state-financed structures obscure.

Intrigued, I asked Adam what factors propelled this new independent cinema movement. "1997 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) did not precipitate a movement away from feature production but rather marked the start of a rise in local production in both features and experimental and short works, " he explained. "Not a movement away from features, but a new push to create a local alternative to Hollywood product in the wake of the financial crisis and IMF interventions."
The diffusion of lower cost digital video increased access to production and stimulated regional voices.

Most importantly, contends Adan, numerous film festivals showcasing shorts, experimental works and documentary have developed in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines in the last decade, serving to nurture this filmmaking community through screenings, dialogues, and connections.

These films challenged me to consider how this Southeast Asian regional, transnational cinema movement unsettles our film study categories of genre, style, shorts, and the national. I want to see more.


By Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and Co-Director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival



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