Gazing with Fresh Eyes
Feature by: Gertjan Zuilhof
For the 2005 International Film Festival Rotterdam, I put together the special SEA Eyes programme about independent and new cinema in Southeast Asia and I have continued to follow the filmmakers ever since. It's been a pleasure.
It's also been a delight to see the filmmakers of tropical Asia penetrating further and further into the agendas of international film festivals. On this occasion, I shall restrict myself to the recent editions of Locarno and Venice, both old, honourable European festivals that are still models for festivals wherever in the world and for which the selection has always been influential.
I could say something in general about the programming, but I'd rather start with a single film which meant a lot to me. Also a film that, to my mind, demonstrates what is specific or even special about Southeast Asian cinema. It's about Tai yang yue (Rain Dogs, 2006) by the young Malaysian filmmaker Ho Yuhang. In Malaysia itself, they continue to stress the fact that he is Chinese and not Malay.
The Malay-Malaysians have shaped politics and culture for themselves. Only Malay Malaysian films are eligible for government support and until recently, hardly any Indian or Chinese films were made in Malaysia, despite the fact that the Indian and Chinese make up a significant portion of Malaysian society. The digital revolution has achieved a lot and one of the things is that quite a few Chinese Malaysian films are being produced. Defined by production, they are independent, but the nice and unusual feature is that this Chinese Malaysian cinema is also very independent in an artistic sense.
It may sound silly to outsiders, but I do need this brief ethnic-political introduction to say something about Ho's third and latest film. His earlier films were beautiful and sensitive, but in this film, alongside beauty and sensitivity, he also displays a self-assurance and easy narration that makes the film his best so far. As with the best stories, it looks as if the story of Rain Dogs has been told many times before. The young Tung, between secondary school and university, has arrived from his home village in the big city of Kuala Lumpur. He looks for his criminal elder brother and finds him. Before he returns home, the indolent Tung has already been robbed twice. At home he is awaited by a confrontation with his mother's lover who lives with her, after which he is taken in by his uncle and aunt. Until that moment, the film is atmospheric and full of melancholy observations of grim gambling dens and the wrinkled countryside, but in the house of his auntie, the film tackles more real issues. The role of the aunt is beautifully played by the filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad. She brings warmth to the story and her Malaysian background helps her to make the permanent ethnic division in everyday life visible and tangible. Tung, on the other hand, burns himself on the warmth and still has to grow up.
The melancholy profundity of Rain Dogs on its own is enough to justify international attention for the cinema of countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and in Locarno that was channelled in a so-called Open Doors programme of workshops, screenings and generous production prizes. The Philippines was not invited and Singapore was, and you could question the choice, but that does not detract from the fact that a young and upcoming cinema with conditions often difficult for productions received concrete help. The programme also made it clear that the international reputation of, for instance, Indonesia is no longer purely dependent on Garin Nugroho (who, by the way, established his mastery in Venice with his Opera Jawa) while that of Thailand does not only depend on Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who also revealed in Venice, with Syndromes and a Century, that he is a modern master), but that Riri Riza, Ravi Bharwani, Nan Achnas, Wisit Sasanatieng and Ekachai Uekrongtham are increasingly becoming familiar names internationally.
Talking of familiar names, Tsai Ming-ling is regarded as a great Taiwanese filmmaker, but not without good reason. He shot his last film Hei Yan Quan (I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, 2006) (also shown in Venice) in Malaysia. This reminds one that Tsai has Malaysian roots and apparently he spends a lot of time in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo). It is a special film (just as all Tsai's films are special), but there is something to be said for regarding it as a special Malaysian film. Not only because he shot in powerful locations in Kuala Lumpur, but because he based his story on the foundations of ethnic divisions in this society. The story is reminiscent of the Good Samaritan. An immigrant living in barren conditions cares for a Malaysian man who is beaten up in the street and left there. A story filled with darkness and perverted lust, but despite its almost Dante-like approach, it is also a story rooted in today's world of immigration and divisions between populations.
Tsai found his most important location, the foundations of a never-completed skyscraper facing the Padu prison, the way other filmmakers find protagonists. After seeing an ink-black pool of rotting water on the fourth floor of the ruins, he immediately knew he would shoot his film here. He saw what he hoped to see in his vision.
Should there be something specific about the cinema of Southeast Asia apart from the older and more recent ethnic migrations, then I would seek it in a sense for geographical space. Ho Yuhang's Kuala Lumpur is the city housing the huge and chaotic Puduraya bus station where people flood in and out of the city every day. It is the city of out-of-order public telephones and obtrusive prostitution, of skyscraper districts and corrupt real-estate agents. Every location is authentic and every extra is one who fits seamlessly in his context. That looks simple and logical, but it displays a matter-of-fact nature that can no longer be found in much of Western cinema. When his protagonist stays with his uncle in his home area somewhere in Perak state, then the border area with Thailand becomes tangible in a casual way. The uncle has a pistol and he lives by crossing the border by sea, not that anything else is said of this. In most cases, the location expresses more clearly the boundaries and possibilities of existence than the dialogue, because they skirt issues, just as in real life.
In another and more stylized way, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a master of geographical space. In his latest film Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006) the story is also told based on places in a way. First there are the pleasant, sunny and green surroundings of the rural hospital belonging to the female psychiatrist Toa. This is a role that Weerasethakul bases on his own mother, the way she was before his childhood, according to the filmmaker. You would think that you wouldn't be able to remember that, but that's no problem in the fantasy world of Weerasethakul. He returns to the surroundings of his (pre) childhood in Khon Kaen, the town in the northeast of Thailand, closer to Laos than to Bangkok. And he allowed the rural surroundings to shape the tone of his almost cheerful sketches. In the second half of the film, it shifts quite a distance in time and space: to a cold contemporary hospital in Bangkok. The surroundings do not change the look of the film, but the whole tone and approach becomes alienating. Within the spatial logic of Weerasethakul, it's not even strange that the film ends beyond the present time in a fairly frightening picture of the future.
In light of this, saying anything about what may be the most striking Southeast Asian film to be premièred in Venice, Opera Jawa by Garin Nugroho, could appear contrived. In his richest, almost opulent film, Nugroho conjures up a nonexistent world, one that had never existed. It is a world made up of ingenious production design, of old stories passed down and sung dialogue; a film in which imagination takes the helm. That seems to deny all geography even though everyone has to admit the film is also deeply rooted in very specific Indonesian forms of music and dance.
Apparently film does not need to be contemporary and realistic in order to breathe the mood of authenticity. Extras in inventive costumes can also evoke an everlasting image.
Now I have an impression of several films from one festival. They do not directly need major conclusions. One minor conclusion is that I shall continue to follow developments within Southeast Asian cinema with much pleasure. There are enough fascinating talents. Enough of their own stories told in their own surroundings. It is a stimulating, authentic and yet also really modern cinema—a cinema to embrace.
Article translated from Dutch by Martin Cleaver)