Toward New Ways of Seeing Southeast Asian Cinema
Feature by: Benjamin McKay

A conversation has commenced among those of us interested in studying and watching Southeast Asian cinema that attempts to address new ways and means by which we can write and talk about the cinema of the region. It is a conversation that has been fuelled by concerns that predominantly Western discursive practices - both in literature and the academe - shape the dialogue we currently have with the cinematic output of the region. Some of us have begun to ask whether there are not newer ways we can talk about films and filmmaking in what we call Southeast Asia. Part of that dialogue also includes practical and philosophical steps one might take toward mentoring a uniquely Southeast Asian critical mass and to support the growth of indigenous or local film criticism and scholarship.

Are there indeed possibilities for new ways of writing about Southeast Asian cinema?

We need to ask ourselves at the outset what it is we mean when we label the cinematic output of the region as 'Southeast Asian'. The term itself is laden with baggage - not the least of which is an acknowledgement that historically it was a geopolitical term coined in the Cold War as a premise for geographical and political containment. It became another 'theatre' of neo-imperial political engagement and as a result, a region to be studied and analysed by Western academies as a part of that wider containment. The fact that the nation states of the region now adopt the term for their own geo-political reasons still does not negate the legacy of the origins of the term 'Southeast Asia'.

In terms of cinema and film analysis we need to also ask ourselves whether using the overarching rubric of 'Southeast Asia' implies at the outset an agreed textual, contextual, and intertextual relationship with the cinematic output of the region. Where do we place the national and the transnational in our quest to lump these productions together under a codified geographical signifier? Are we artificially searching for commonalities of experience that legitimise pan-geographical identities? If we are doing that, are we also not therefore in a reactive and/or reactionary dialogue with the global hegemony of Hollywood - textually, intertextually and contextually? We might not be doing any of these things, but I believe the questions need to at least be asked.

At the 2nd Southeast Asian Cinema Conference: Cinema At The Borders held in Bangkok in August 2005, I was asked by a Thai delegate whether my attempts to address matters of hegemony in Singaporean cinema was not in itself hegemonic as I had positioned my analysis from within a Euro-American theoretical and methodological framework. The answer is probably yes. But it is a guarded yes, because I am still not convinced that we have before us a set of theoretical and methodological alternatives. Postcolonial theory and the idea of the subaltern aside, Film Studies, Film History, Cultural Studies, Sociology and all of the other disciplines that look at cinema are largely patterned from a Western university tradition and therefore it is difficult to avoid either a hegemonic or pedagogical stance. This problem is not one solely for the western academic or writer either - local writers and academics are largely informed by this tradition as well. So what, if anything, can be done?

I believe that there is a need at the very least for a new criticism when we approach the cinemas of Southeast Asia. If a newly emerging critical and analytical culture was to take hold from within this region, it may find that it can be applied to other, non-Hollywood cinematic traditions as well. But at the outset let us attempt to find ideas and practices that can best meet the needs of the region that we are currently engaged with. In formulating an argument for a new criticism and a more sympathetic and holistic academic engagement with the film cultures and industries of this region, we need to perhaps ask a number of salient and interrogative questions.

Firstly, we need to identify what it is that we actually find lacking in the current modes of analytical and critical practice as applied to the cinemas of the region. What needs to be jettisoned? What might we consider retaining? What can be refashioned to make it applicable to a local or a regional sense of identity/ies? How does one maintain intellectual, critical and analytical rigour while tampering with the very foundations that traditionally supported such rigour? How do we position ideology into the framework for a new critical discourse? Does such a new discursive practice speak to existing practices or does it attempt to bypass them completely?

These are of course all rather grand questions, but it cannot hurt once in a while to attempt to answer them. It may well be that it is merely a problem of application rather than a total systemic failure that sees us thinking and talking about the need for a change even taking place. Perhaps practitioners of analysis and criticism have been blind to change because they have not thought to think outside of their disciplinary boxes. There may well be adaptive strategies that can be undertaken through more adoptive awareness. Having said that, there still seems to be in our current conversation a sense that a multi-disciplinary, even interdisciplinary approach to analysis and criticism has still failed to truly speak to and speak of the cinemas of the region.

So what then needs to be done?

First of all, I would argue against the development of some form of critical manifesto. Manifestos have a tendency to limit or contain intellectual endeavour and they can of course, appear to be pompous. Rather, there is an apparent need for a critical debate and a forum for the articulation of that debate. I see this journal, Criticine, as having a possible role in this.

We also need to discuss what areas of criticism, analysis and scholarship we believe needs to actually be informed by new critical practices. Do we limit our argument to the work of the academe or do we seek to embrace the work of film journalism as well? I feel that there is a strong case to be made for a broadly inclusive new critical discourse as there appears to be a regular crossover these days between practitioners from within the academe and from outside of the academe. Academics are writing for the popular media as well as for more obscure and harder-to-access academic journals and conferences. The debate I feel should therefore be inclusive and embracive.

I can identify two key areas where we might address apparent deficiencies in current critical and analytical practice. The first relates again to the problems of geography - it is a spatial, inter-spatial as well as cultural and inter-cultural dilemma that needs to be addressed. Can we even talk about a Southeast Asian cinema? What is a Southeast Asian film? What are the possible ties that bind? These may appear to be rather obvious questions, but I am not certain that they are actually being addressed.

The second deficiency in current practice is a failure to recognise that cultural production does not happen in a vacuum. Much of our analysis and criticism ignores modes of production, ideological patterns, and the very history of the film industries and cultures that it purports to address. Therefore in addition to the spatial, we need to also address the temporal realities of our engagement with the cinemas of the region as well as the economic and political imperatives that shape production and ultimately the cultural products themselves.

There is also the problem of seeing regional cinema as either a reaction to or an imitation of other more dominant cinematic traditions and industries - namely of course Hollywood, but also the film industries and cultures of Hong Kong, Japan and India. A desire to see this as a dominant strain in the discourse has largely been influenced by theories of Third Cinema. I would argue that both the world and cinema have changed remarkably since the 1970s and that the realities of contemporary cultural production make such a theoretical and critical discourse as Third Cinema problematic at best in this day and age and in this region. There is a tradition of oppositional cinema in the region that could be labelled Third Cinema - I can think of many such examples in the Philippines for instance - but by rigidly adhering to such theoretical discourses we are forced to largely ignore other equally challenging cinematic output and we may well be just speaking to the very theory itself rather than to the film culture of a given nation or a given region.

This journal, Criticine, supports what is commonly known as 'independent' cinema in the region. I am not fully convinced that we have found a definitive accord as to what it is we mean when we apply the term 'independent' to film. Maybe a definitive 'definition' is not needed. But we need to recognise that one person's independent is another persons 'mainstream'. Independent (indie) cinema in Southeast Asia is not necessarily oppositional to the mainstream commercial cinema of the region - it can be, but it is often not. And it was of course made possible by access to cheaper and more democratic forms of technology.

And while we are on the point of technology, I have over the last couple of years continued to be surprised by the number of times I have heard the issue of the “indigenousness of cinema” in the region raised at conferences and in academic papers. Many commentators still believe that film as product and industry, as art and artefact, are indeed Western practices that have been adopted in colonial and postcolonial societies and therefore somehow lack a certain indigenous integrity. This desire for indigenous integrity appears to be driven by another discursive practice of the Western academe – namely theories of National Cinema. It seems to me that in the inherent irony in the development of an argument about national cinematic cultures, there is still a sense that cinema itself is a form and practice that has been ‘introduced’ to colonial and postcolonial societies and nations.

Cinema as a site and as an industry that creates filmed products is largely the result of technology and capital practices that were forged at the height of the supposed Age of Empire and therefore, should be seen as an inherently global practice. The camera itself is NOT indigenous to either France or the United States for the same reasons that the Sony Walkman is not indigenous to Japan. If we are to continue to speak of National Cinemas and to perhaps widen that discourse to acknowledge the trans-national and the super-regional, then let us begin by abandoning this postcolonial cringe mentality when it comes to matters of indigenousness. Cinema and Film were always, and still are, global entities even when practiced at a local level.

We also need to inform a new critical practice with an understanding of the particularities of the region within which we wish to engage. This goes beyond ‘knowing’ ones own culture and nation and rather calls for a finely-tuned understanding of matters cultural, social, political, ideological and industrial. It is one thing to speak to and of a film as merely text, but when we speak of national or pan-national cinematic practices we need to also speak of context (not to mention of course, inter-textuality and possibly inter-contextuality). I would argue that possible truths and revelations lie at the juncture between text and context and if we are to be rigorous in our enquiry, then the two should be inseparable.

Mainstream popular cinema demands serious critical and analytical engagement. It does not get it when we approach it merely from a textual analysis. A commercial film may in fact resonate with intertextual allusions and if it is a film that can speak across borders, then our criticism and engagement with it demands a degree of contextualisation. Indeed most commercial mainstream, popular films need contextual analysis. I see this as being a sad deficiency in the critical and analytical practices that take place in this region. I am guilty of this flaw as well. Let us discuss how we can address this deficiency.

The analysis and criticism of independent cinema needs to embrace the contextual and inter-textual as well, but perhaps for different reasons. A failure to embrace such analysis condemns independent cinema to the privileged ghetto of the well-educated and discursively adept film festival circuit at the expense of the broader audience it so clearly has the capacity to address.

We need to look at our current discursive practices and see what we can do to make sure that we are indeed seriously engaging with all of the cinematic products of our region of enquiry. We also need to question our regional specificity and make certain that we are comfortable in spatial assertiveness. We need to combine textual analysis with contextual analysis and we ought to be comfortable with inter-textual and inter-contextual considerations. Perhaps we might attempt to apply the same critical and analytical rigour to the supposed mainstream and commercial cinema that we also apply to the independent film movements of the region. And we need to make sure that we have a temporal understanding of the development of the cultures and industries that we intellectually engage with. If we acknowledge that cultural production itself does not merely take place in a contemporary vacuum then we also need to acknowledge that it does not take place in a historical vacuum either.

And we should perhaps be brave enough to assert in our writing our ideological, political and discursive positioning. Declare it for the record rather than cloak it in hyperbole and academic obfuscation. And while the call for a finely tuned ‘knowing’ of our engagement sounds like a Herculean task of intellectual endeavour, let us not be afraid to admit that every time we write about a film or a group of films we are in fact entering into a dialogue with that film or group of films. We are learning through the process of engagement rather than arbitrarily announcing definitive truths. The journey to understand and to articulate the text, context and inter-text of our chosen vocations is a lifelong process of learning. The critical mass that is so needed in the region to engender solid and rigorous intellectual engagement with the films of the region is not served by academic torpidity and disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) rigidity.

There are signs that change is taking place. At conferences, participants are asking that we look at last at hegemonic intellectual practices and at pedagogies too. Some are calling for new ways of approaching research methodology and others have called for a strengthening of the dialogue between the academicians, the journalists and the film practitioners themselves. That dialogue is taking place in Southeast Asia and it bodes well for the health and vigour of a developing critical mass. If people are nervous about the hegemonic weight of Western discourse, then there now appears to be a space in the debate to commence talking about newer and more appropriate local approaches to criticism and analysis. Those approaches need not necessarily abandon established discourse(s) but they may decide to refine such practices to best enter into an informed dialogue with the films of the region.

And there is an acknowledgement that there are better ways that we might approach the teaching of film in our schools, colleges and universities. How that will develop remains to be seen of course, but I am certain that so long as this debate is continued and that there is an acknowledgement that there is room for improvement then film education will change – both at a theoretical and a practical level. Indeed, the study of film in the region is beset by numerous problems, not the least of which is access to appropriate resources. One way that we might improve the teaching of film studies, cultural studies and filmmaking itself is to see the potential for crossover co-operation. This may also help to alleviate the problems of allocation of resources. The dialogue between practitioners and theorists and commentators should commence at the educational level. This cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices has the potential to actively engender the very critical mass and critical culture that some have identified as being vital to our understanding of the film cultures and industries of our region and that many have acknowledged needs improvement.

I said earlier in this article that we should avoid attempting to develop a critical and analytical manifesto and this article in no way attempts to articulate one. What it rather hopes to achieve is the commencement of a formalised debate on these issues and it rather humbly attempts to ask some of the questions that we might address in that debate. I do not pretend to have answers to the questions that I have raised and am happy for others to explore them further. There are a growing number of young and enthusiastic critics, commentators and academics to be found throughout Southeast Asia. I hope that a journal like Criticine can give them a voice to engage with this debate while at the same time providing them with a forum for their work and their scholarship. I also hope that the journal continues to provide a place for the thoughts and ideas of filmmakers as well and that perhaps this will be a site that helps to further erode the barriers between the theorists, the commentators and the practitioners. There are certainly exciting opportunities ahead for all of us in attempting to find new ways of writing about the cinemas of Southeast Asia. Let the debate on how such a new criticism and analysis might evolve begin to take place here.

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