Featuring Love Letters from:
Khavn De La Cruz
Khoo Gaik Cheng
Kiri Lluch Dalena
Lourd de Veyra
May Adadol Ingawanij
Tan Bee Thiam
Tan Chui Mui
Tan Pin Pin
Criticine: Love Letters.
The idea for the 'Love Letters' issue of Criticine arose at the end of a day spent driving across Manila in late November 2008. That year's edition of the Southeast Asian Cinema Conference had just wrapped. It was a Sunday. Alexis, relieved of his organizing duties on the conference, drove the three of us around the city - May, Ben and Davide. We were his guests, and he was keen to show us the city he loved. There were several destinations: Fully Booked (Manila's biggest book shop), a gated community where something needed to be dropped off - and we stayed for tea and sunset, a restaurant in a mall; but inevitably, because we were in Manila, we spent a lot of time in traffic. Stuck in the car, the conversation never seemed to stop. A long, rambling discourse full of gossip, anecdotes, character attacks and appreciations, rambunctious and enjoyable debates, jokes, rants, affirmations. It was frank and unselfconscious - some of us had only just met - but it didn't matter, we all knew Alexis, and he was behind the wheel. Mostly, cinema was the focus of the chatter - after all, we were film people.
Sunday became Monday, and we were still talking. This time in a franchised coffee joint somewhere lively at one in the morning. At that moment, Love Letters seemed like a natural idea to be discussing with the founder and editor of Criticine. As Raya Martin says of Alexis in his letter, "he never wrote about a film he hated, because he thought it was a waste of space. He was out there to champion." Although he didn't mention it that night, Alexis had already produced the mother of all love letters a few months before, the long, uninhibited piece about his relationship with film and the Philippines that he'd written for Rogue magazine, which took the form of a letter to his partner, Nika Bohinc. In it he wrote, "The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love."
The principle of Love Letters was: forget about being 'objective' or 'comprehensive', just get stuck in and say it loud - isolate the thing, the moment, the body, the fragment or memory. And write to it, the old-fashioned way.
After the idea had spent some time on the back-burner, finally, in July 2009, we sent out the following email to a list of potential contributors:
"It's not easy to declare your passions. To critique, tear something apart, find flaws and faults is often the first impulse. Even when we come to praise, we may dwell on weaknesses (and end up halfway up the fence in a sitting position). From "There are problems with. " to "It's absolutely dreadful because. ", we are often attracted to write about what fails far more than we are about what works, or more specifically, what works for us. Pinning down exactly why something succeeds, and better still, why we love it, is a tricky and interesting business, partly because it's so personal. Criticine: Love Letters is an attempt to address this lack of open statements of adoration about films, film-makers, actors, scenes, moments, images. That doesn't mean we are looking for gushy collections of superlatives. These 'letters' should be constructed with all the real rigor and careful thought you would put into a message intended for a loved one. We also hope your letter will speak of the things that you hold to be of real value in cinema. Contributors can write about anything related to SE Asian cinema that you have fallen for."
In the weeks that followed some of the first letters arrived. They were good stuff. Alexis was getting more and more excited about the issue. On 1 September, there was an email from him about the latest contribution that he'd been sent, "it turned out quite nice." A few hours later, he and Nika were gone.
One thing we knew, even on that first day of grief, was that Love Letters had to be completed. As an editorial concept, it was such a pure distillation of all that Alexis had been doing up to that point in regards to his writing on Southeast Asian cinema. The bringing to light, the articulating of qualities overlooked, the explication of context - the understanding.
When time had passed we got in touch with those who had submitted and those who had not. Of course, many chose to write their letters to Alexis himself. Now we have 21 letters, two poems and two short films. More letters will be added as they arrive. About half are addressed to or refer to Alexis. Together, they form a tribute to him and the energies that drove him to create Criticine. His unceasing passion for cinema and the places it could illuminate.
Thanks to all the writers.
Ben Slater & May Adadol Ingawanij, January 2010
Thanks to Darlene Lin for sending the Love Letters image.
From Amir Muhammad
Dear Ricky Lee,
Hello there! We've never met but we spoke on the phone two years ago. I was in the claws of neon then, in a car with two Filipinos who worked peripherally in film. It was around midnight; the macho dancers were still oiling up as we spoke.
I mentioned to my hosts that I'd always wanted to meet Ricky Lee. And one of them said, "I have his number!" And before I knew what was happening, I found an active mobile phone thrust to my face, with you on the other side. It was too late to meet up; you probably didn't even know who I was! And I was going back to Malaysia the next day. And you said that it's such a pity, it was sayang(1). But that you would drop off some DVDs for me at my hotel.
So imagine my surprise when the next morning I did indeed find a bulky brown envelope filled with about a dozen of your DVDs, as well as an autographed copy of your screenwriting book.
(Why was I surprised? Because film people always make airy promises they don't keep; it's part of their discreet charm!)
I first really noticed your name when I was nearing the end of my six month residency in Tokyo. It was December 2003 and almost all the people I knew in the city had gone away on vacation. I found myself going to the video resource room of the Japan Foundation(2) and watching Filipino films, every single day. Some of them had only Japanese subtitles (a language I still didn't know) but I didn't mind. They had many titles from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and several had your name on them. (Sometimes it was spelled Ricardo Lee, sometimes Rick Lee). I would watch these videos (on VHS!) until closing time.
What I got from those films was that they looked and sounded like the Malay films from those decades, but they were clever. I even said this revelation out loud, in Malay: "Macam filem Melayu, tapi pandai!"(3) Of course, even if there had been other people in the resource room, no one would have understood me.
According to IMDB you have written 126 films. I am sure I have seen at least a fifth of them. Sometimes I lose track of the titles, so I can't be entirely certain.
Why did I like what I saw? Firstly, through the similarities of language sound and landscape, they reminded me of home. Tokyo was getting miserable then; the air was like a malevolent wet noodle. Much less personally or sentimentally, I actually love the confident construction of your films. They had a neatness and rigor that reminded me of American cinema of the 1940s.
Don't take this the wrong way, but I especially love the fact that some of those films seemed obviously written for money: the unadorned corniness, the sometimes formulaic plot twists, these were things I cherished. How can one be a good writer if one isn't first a busy writer? And as the much less inspired writer for the screen F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "Work is the only dignity."
My favourite of your films is probably Himala. I hosted a screening of it in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago. Most of the 40 or so people who came were really enthusiastic about it. But there was a bunch of American college students who seemed quite restless. I was quite annoyed at them. I was already feeling quite protective of the film in some silly way.
So there you have it. We all know screenwriting doesn't get much credit but your career has been longer and richer than most of the directors and cast you have worked with. You’d probably be a much more fun dinner companion, too! Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the stories we can tell.
1. This word means ‘pity’ in both Tagalog and Malay. But in Malay it has the added meaning of ‘love.’
2. This facility has since closed, a victim of budget cuts. I hope all those videos are still being preserved somewhere. But then again, sometimes decay and loss have their own beauty, don't you think?
3. This sentence construction isn't an idiom, but I was startled when Yasmin Ahmad said something very similar to me years later, referring to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder: "Macam The Silence of the Lambs, tapi pandai!"
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For Alexis from Kick the Machine on Vimeo.
* from Azharr Rudin on Vimeo.
From Benedict Anderson
When I first went to Java almost 50 years ago, and almost immediately became a devoted fan of wayang (puppet plays) in their various forms, including comic books, I was stunned by the images of the aristocratic heroes. For example, the unmatchable warrior and endlessly successful lover, Ardjuna, had no visible muscles, an elongated torso, long, thin, and hairless legs, a black face, modestly looking down, with only a wisp of a moustache. Bare feet, an expensive sort of sarong, bare chest save for a small necklace, extended bare arms, except for a pair of simple bracelets, and long hair coiled up and held in place by a jewelled little tiara. The blackness of the face, explained my friends, meant a calm, honest, and self-controlled personality. Everything about Ardjuna was the complete opposite of the Euro-American models, from Batman to the Hulk, from Richard the Lionheart to Muhammad Ali. Conversely, most of the villains in wayang were giants and kings from outside Java. The giants could be three times the size of Ardjuna, with large hairy bodies, big moustaches and beards, a lot of overkill expensive clothes, and deep-red faces, bulging eyes, and puffy noses pointed aggressively along a horizontal line. The deep red meant, I learned, quick to anger, arrogant, and full of unbridled desires for power, riches and women.
Living in Indonesia for two and half years got me used to seeing in real life young men whom everyone admired or envied for their masculine beauty and sexual attractiveness, People would say, “a real Ardjuna.” Beautiful unblemished brown skins, large expressive eyes, and what Thais nicely call santat bodies, meaning everything in perfect proportion. (There were no gyms and fitness clubs in Indonesia in those days.) For the first time in my life I felt rather ugly. Lower legs too short, eyes too small, and skin the typical European mottled pink. It was then that I made my one and only contribution to the Indonesian language, by giving a secondary meaning to bule, the local word for ‘albino’ carabao: till today the commonest use of this word is for ‘white people.’
When I started to go to the Philippines in the mid-80s I expected something very similar, since Filipinos mostly belong to the same ‘Malay race’ as the Javanese, even though the country has no tradition of aristocracy. In those days, the popular counterpart of wayang was the very successful Filipino film. The industry had then far the largest output in Southeast Asia, as well as many now ‘classical’ film directors such as Peque Gallaga, Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, and many others. To my naďve surprise, almost all the famous male film actors were mestizo, with fair skins, Hitlerish moustaches, large pumped up bodies, and often heavily gelled hair, usually in jeans, with partly unbuttoned shirts showing off hairy chests. The American influence was obvious, but also the residues of the Spanish-colonial social system which put mestizos in a position far above that of the ‘native’ indios. You could say that the mestizos were a small pseudo-aristocratic upper layer in the social order of the Philippines. With the possible exception of Ramon Magsaysay, all the Presidents of postcolonial Philippines came from this mestizo class or caste. In almost all the successful films of the time, indio-looking actors and actresses served as servants, henchmen, villagers, comedians, and members of the vast population of the near-destitute.
The one spectacular exception to the rule was Nora Aunor, a brilliant actress with a very dark skin and a beautiful voice. She was very sexy, but not exactly lovely in the mestiza manner. She specialized, or was made to specialize, in ‘victim’ roles, abused maid, abandoned mistress, betrayed friend, and so on. A perfect india heroine, who held sway for more than two decades as the idol of what supercilious Manila liked to call the bakya (home-made wooden shoes like clogs) classes. But a male equivalent was very hard to find.
This may explain why Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancers had such an impact on me. The nominal hero of the film was a typical mestizo type, pale face, Hitlerite moustache, large-bodied and a tad overweight – no acting ability whatsoever. But the emotional core of the film lay with Daniel Fernando, playing the hero’s best friend. We see the two of them working on stage at a gay bar in Manila, and it soon is plain that Daniel is desperately in love with the innocent hero, who finds sexual solace with Jaclyn José, one of the great actresses of the era, who acts as a professional prostitute. Daniel discovers that his young sister has been forced into a brothel ‘protected’ by malignant police. The two men succeed in rescuing the girl, but, of course, Daniel is brutally killed in the process. There is only one short chaste scene in which Daniel confesses his love to his stolid comrade. He is, you could say, a victim of his doomed love and of his own courage and attachment to his sister. My Filipino Ardjuna? Physically, yes: he had a perfect santat frame, dark complexion, elegant arms and legs, and large expressive eyes. Otherwise no: he will win nothing, and he knows it. So he became my hero.
He had been discovered earlier on by Peque Gallaga, who starred him in the lurid 1985 melodrama Scorpio Nights. Here he plays the part of a poor student living in a tiny rented room. It turns out that the floor of this rickety flat has holes in it, which allow him to spy on the couple living just below: a brutal, abusive policeman and his attractive wife. Daniel gets in the habit of watching them have violent sex, and masturbating every time. He is drawn by lust and pity for the wife, and eventually starts a love affair with her. The audience knows what will happen, though the suspense is terrific. The husband finds them together and kills them. Once again an indio victim. Daniel is terrific in the part and one can barely look at the screen as the denouement draws near.
I had by then become a devoted fan and went to every movie in which he played. But the parts were trivial – always secondary, friend of a hero or of a villain. Then I read in the newspapers that Daniel was doing intensive workouts in a gym to enable him to try for hero parts. The result was the neglected and unsuccessful film called Huminga ka na hangga't gusto mo (Breathe So Long as You Want). The film is a typical Filipino melodrama about the revenge of a poor boy against a gang of Manilan spoiled young bourgeois rapists. Daniel plays the hero part of a young Igorot (’savage’ in Manilan eyes) from the Gran Cordillera in Northern Luzon, whose sister is raped and tortured by the bourgeois gang on holiday in Baguio. He descends on Manila only armed with the Igorot’s traditional weapon – a crossbow. One by one the rapists are killed. A memorable scene comes when Daniel, looking for a safe hiding-place, comes upon a group of destitute Igorots who are squatting on the flat roof of a tall residential building with marvelous views of Manila. Why did the film prove a box-office flop? One reason may be that there was now something slightly monstrous in his looks. The bulging muscles of his arms and chest destroyed his elegant santat figure, as if a native head was stuck on top of a quasi-mestizo gym rat body: what many Thai gays call na kliat (repulsive). Another surely was that spectators were not ready for a successful indio hero.
At the end of the 90s, President Ramos was spending large sums to celebrate himself as well as the 100th anniversary of the execution of number one national hero José Rizal by the Spanish colonialists. One major project was a television serial of Rizal’s great novel Noli Me Tangere. Parts of the serial were laughable: the atheist ‘philosopher’ Tasio is shown returning to Mother Church on his death bed; tragic heroine Maria Clara lives in a spick-and-span, flower-surrounded convent with a nice gentle Mother Superior; etc etc. But some of the best Filipino actors and actresses were recruited for the film and did themselves proud. The official hero of the novel, the young, naďve, foreign-educated mestizo, Crisostomo Ibarra, is played excellently by the mestizo star Joel Torre. But the moral center of the book, the enigmatic and doomed indio Elias, was rightly given to Daniel, and he made the most of it. Miraculously, he had shed the Batmanish biceps to be santat once again. Grave, haunted, idealistic, intelligent, and valiant, Daniel-Elias ends by sacrificing his life for Ibarra-Torre. A real mensch as Yiddish-speakers would say – but once again a victim.
How to explain all this? Many Filipino intellectuals like to blame everything ugly in the national society and culture (including films) on the brief period of American colonial rule and its aftermath. There is no doubt that Americans succeeded in marginalizing Spanish and installing American English as the language of status and the state. Hollywood’s influence has certainly been profound. But I think that Spain, over three hundred and fifty years, had a far more profound influence. Of the greatest importance was the successful implantation of Catholicism over most of the archipelago. In the Catholic version of the story of Christ, the crucified Christ, innocent of sex, and the Virgin Mary, the grieving mother who becomes the protector of those in trouble, are the central ‘victim’ figures. Colonial Spain created the racial hierarchy which gave mestizos a peculiar (legal) status – below real Spanish but above the mass of indios – which has never disappeared. (American racism, binary in character, offers no privileged place for ‘mixed’ people and American colonialists looked at Filipino mestizos with a good deal of contempt.) Spain also brought with it a ‘macho’ culture, which is still strong, and expects women to be subservient and tolerant of abuse. (The Philippines today has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and is the only country I know where you can hear men happily boasting of raping women.) Sometimes I think that the melange of American and Spanish dominance is one of the ugliest of such combinations anywhere. This situation made it possible for Nora Aunor, a mesmerizing actress, to become a superstar because she consistently played traditional female victims and had a huge (largely) female audience who could identify with her. Daniel Fernando did not have such cards, and so, despite his great gifts, never reached superstar status. But he represents something old and deep, like id in the national consciousness: maybe that is why in film he almost always has to die.
This is why I love him. He is a beautiful man, and the only male film star in whose eyes one always feels the real sadness of his country. I am sure Rizal would have loved him and would have been delighted that Daniel was the only one who could play Elias with a kind of simple indio grandeur. Dear Daniel, mahal kita.
Benedict Anderson is Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor of International Studies, Emeritus, of Cornell University. A specialist on Southeast Asia, his works include Imagined Communities; Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese; In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era; Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anticolonial Imagination.
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Five Letters: With Love from Singapore
From Ben Slater
1. No. 8 Jalan Ampas
I want you to go somewhere.
Tucked away off Balestier Road, just north of Singapore’s city center, you will find the neglected remains of a magnificent factory of dreams. This collection of buildings behind the gate at Jalan Ampas were built in 1947 by the Shaw Brothers for a million dollars. Runme and Run Run Shaw, two shrewd movie merchants from China had a plan for Singapore. They flew in talent from all over Asia, groomed and manufactured their own stable of stars, and in this highly systematic way, churned out a steady supply of commercial product – comedies, melodramas, musicals, horror flicks – aimed at the vast regional Malay audience. Each day the interiors of Jalan Ampas transformed into fully lit simulacra of Malay kampongs (villages) populated by actors as they argued, sung, danced, romanced, fought, joked and haunted each other across two decades and nearly 160 films. But by 1968 it was all over. After several sluggish years, the gates were locked, the staff let go, lighter equipment was hauled out, and the rest - left to rot. In P. Ramlee’s playfully self-reflexive Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961), Ramlee and his buddies turn up at Jalan Ampas, hoping to make it big, and are turned away by an Indian guard. Today, the loose chain on the green corrugated gate doesn’t keep anyone out, but few want to go in. A small plaque outside is the only indicator that this place is significant. Inside, a lone caretaker occupies what was once the front office.
This is what I want you to do. Go inside, walk around, listen hard for the sounds of the past - of stars and extras and directors and technicians who once toiled so that we might enjoy ourselves in the dark. Stuck on the office window is an old sign that once hung illuminated above a studio door. It says SILENCE.
2. Abu Bakar Ali
Can I tell you about the gardener?
In 1942, the Japanese took Singapore and renamed it Syonan-to, Isle of the Southern Light. One aspect of the physical, economic and cultural subjugation that followed was the making propaganda films, such as Shingaporu Sokogeki (1943), a celebration of Japanese triumph. Film director Yasujiro Ozu, a conscript in the imperial army, was sent to Singapore to help with the film-making effort. While there he stalled his superiors with long-winded discussions about a film he never made, and took advantage of his access to a stash of confiscated Hollywood prints. Citizen Kane (1941), he decided, was his favorite. Ozu’s pre-war films were shown to the Singaporean public to promote the greatness of Japanese cinema, along with films by other Japanese directors. They were being shown for the wrong reasons, but they were good.
I want to tell you about the young Abu Bakar Ali who was perhaps in the audience one of those nights. He might have passed Ozu himself on the way out of Ukikusa monogatari (1934), still absorbing the extraordinary beauty and clarity. Pak Bakar had the eyes, and he could see, not just the images, but the framing and the movement and the light. In the ‘50s he got a job as a gardener at Jalan Ampas, then side-stepped into a technician’s job and worked his way quickly up the photography line. As a cinematographer, he collaborated closely with the singer turned actor turned comedian turned film director P. Ramlee to develop a simplicity of style and look that allowed the comedy or the tragedy to breathe. He made horror films too, and invented ingenious optical effects. He picked up Asian awards for his ‘black and white’ even when many had turned to color. He had the best eyes on the island, everyone knew that. And then he ran out of things to see.
When Jalan Ampas closed he didn’t go to Malaysia with his director, who went to keep the dream alive up North. Pak Bakar stayed in the South with his family, getting pieces of work on government campaign films for television and commercials, but like the film industry, gradually, quietly, eventually stopping.
He tended gardens again.
We often talk about movies and vampires.
As you know, I’ve often wondered what it is that draws them close to each other. Count Dracula’s arrival in England coincided with the Lumičre brothers’ early screenings in Paris. Both were against nature – to animate a photograph was akin to reactivating a corpse – making an image that went beyond death. Then, there is desire. The vampire incarnates lust in the form of an attractive, sensual monster, all who gaze upon it are helpless to resist. In other words, vampires are movie stars. Malay cinema needed its own vampires and it found them in local folklore. There’s no shortage of Malay huntus (ghosts), but the most enduring is the myth of the pontianak, and that’s in part because of how it was embraced by cinema. Pontianak are female vampires, said to be women who have died in childbirth, they appear at night in a guise of beauty (although really they are hideous) and accompanied by a sweet floral aroma. Not only does the pontianak then suck the blood of entranced victims, but eats their intestines as well. Tamil director B. N Rao, a defector from Shaw to its chief rival, Cathay-Keris, another family movie company run by Ho Ah Loke, saw the potential of the pontianak to be the equal of Dracula in the west. His first attempt, Pontianak, was such a success in 1957 that Rao shot and released a sequel, Dendam Pontianak, before Christmas and a third film, Sumpah Pontianak, the following year. Dozens of remakes, reiterations and down-right rip-offs would follow. The robust pontianak could withstand even the most ungracious of resuscitations. Her oscillation between beauty and grotesquerie, victim and attacker, innocence and corruption, was too vividly cinematic to be left in peace. The original pontianak character, Chomel, was played by the luminous Maria Menado, a young woman from rural Indonesia who arrived in Singapore and won a beauty contest and a chance to be in movies. That too is an old story that you know only too well my love - one in which cinema is a vampire of sorts, reviving itself through the constant supply of new flesh.
In the 1970s, Ho Ah Loke had the first two Pontianak films thrown in a mining lake in Singapore. They say it was to free up storage space, but what a way to destroy an image forever!
4. Mat Sentol
Were you there that night when someone drunkenly tried to psychoanalyze Malay cinema? If P. Ramlee was the Freudian ego of Singapore’s golden age of film-making, the decent everyman striving to do his best, then they claimed pompously, Mat Sentol must be pure id.
Perhaps there’s something in that. A Dionysian trickster who’s driven only to parody, exaggerate and finally blow up everything he can get his hands on. Like P. Ramlee, Mat Sentol wasn’t satisfied with simply being a talent in front of the camera. He had regularly played the undernourished, clumsy doofus (appearing in Sumpah Pontianak and many others), an archetypal character for Malay cinema. But the comedian was curious as to how the gag could be constructed, not just how it might be performed. Mat Sentol saw the potential of the medium to be a magical toy box, and so, at their best, his films have a giddy sense of excitement about what only movies can achieve. Mat Tiga Suku, Mat Bond, Mat Magic, Mat Lanun and the others are Pop films, made on the run, in bursts of slap-dash slapstick creativity and fearlessness. Popular genres are roughly kidnapped and turned inside out. There was a taste for excess, and his films have a surreal, quasi-psychedelic strain of wild, anarchic imagery and bikini clad go-go dancers. Mat Sentol became one of Cathay-Keris’s major directors and stars, clinging on till the end of the industry in Singapore, shooting increasingly on location as the studios shut their doors.
When it was all over he created and starred in the popular and bewildering children’s TV show, Mat Yoyo, about cats (played by kids), which ran for 12 years and left an indelible impression on all who witnessed it. Especially you.
5. Yangtze Cinema
There’s one more place to go.
Down in Chinatown, at the top corner of a decrepit shopping complex called Pearls Centre you’ll discover the Yangtze. Its powerful name may once have been apt when the cinema, then a grand single hall, was opened by the Shaw Brothers in the mid 1970s. It specialized in Chinese martial arts movies at a time when they exercised an extraordinary grip on the minds and bodies of young Singaporean men. A decade later, the flood of these films became a drought. The venue failed to reinvent itself and the Yangtze closed its doors for several years.
An empty cinema is a crime. Develop it, convert it, but don’t just leave it so that the empty seats rot and the blank screen is gradually enveloped in dust. Cinemas are places for silent gatherings in front of images, even if it’s just a few people, or just the projectionist (Ozu in Singapore, secretly watching American movies alone). It shouldn’t be left for the ghosts.
In 1991 a surprising thing happened that brought the Yangtze back from the dead - classification of films was introduced. Prior to that films were either passed, cut or banned. Now, although the cutting and the banning wouldn’t cease, if you wanted to see some naked flesh you could under a new certificate - ‘Restricted’ for those 21 and above. Small-time distributors saw a fast way to cash in on a new liberty, importing erotic, softcore, exploitation movies from outside Singapore (sadly, nobody thought to make them here). They needed places to screen them. Someone found the keys to the Yangtze (and divided its big hall into two smaller ones), and the fun began. ‘Restricted’ didn’t last long, it mutated into ‘Rated (Artistic)’ - the same age restriction but now only for ‘city center’ (supposedly away from letter-writing parents) and the films were justified as ‘artistic’, an idea not strictly enforced (the censor can’t ever know art). The energetic young men who’d admired Gordon Liu at Yangtze two decades before were the tired ‘uncles’ now, flocking in to catch the steady flow of Filipino ‘bold’ films (you hated them so), Japanese pink-tinged sado-erotica, and American softcore thrillers that were now the repertory. Needing respite from the office or a cramped government flat, come to the Yangtze to escape for an hour or two, to be thrilled and disappointed by the coming attractions. The formula endures.
It’s also the last cinema in Singapore to commission painted signboards depicting the movies on show. There was a time not too long ago when all of the cinemas did this, but now it’s just at Yangtze.
In his living room, Mr Neo hand-paints a fresh batch each week. Ironically, there is an innocence in those artworks. They turn tawdry fantasies into tantalizing, sensual dreams. I see your face in every starlet, your eyes in every sultry gaze.
And now I wish you’d come back again and make it all come true.
A different version of this writing entitled ‘Singapore Cinema: Alternative Snapshots’ appeared in the catalogue for Ming Wong’s Life of Imitation (Venice Biennale, 2009).
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From Benjamin McKay
It was Hassan Muthalib who first introduced me to you. Do you remember? You had a preview screening of Sepet at Leo Burnett. I was sort of new to KL, having been coming here off and on for several years working on my, as you later put it, “tiresome PhD.” Tiresome or not (and you may well be right), those early years here allowed me the opportunity to slowly fall in love with your country. So much so that I moved in permanently and in my own romance with Malaysia, your films have helped to temper at times the ‘difficult patches’, those infuriating moments encountered in all such passionate and torrid affairs, and so therefore I thank you for your films Kak Min.
And dear Yasmin I also thank you for your charm, your wit, your courage and your generosity. We crossed paths (and several times crossed swords!) on a semi-regular basis over the subsequent six or so years – sometimes at screenings, maybe a public forum, occasionally over lunch. I even had to share the stage with you once at one of those public forums you did so well. And if I felt under-prepared and inconsequential at that event, it did not matter, because you did all the talking anyway, so that when I left at the end I felt that I had vicariously received some of your public triumph.
You could of course be difficult, but you were rarely petty. You would introduce me to people as that “Australian critic”, and when they asked for more information I might add that I teach film studies at Monash University here in Malaysia. Quick as a flash, and always on cue, you would interject with something like, “He does write quite well so I forgive him for wasting his life in a university!” For an intelligent woman you had a persistent and unbending mistrust of the academy and those who serve it.
We once amicably crossed swords with each other in a conversation that included this line – “I create; I construct; you academicians deconstruct. What does that make all of you? Destroyers?” I defended the profession lightheartedly as I knew you were not going to be convinced otherwise, but dear Yasmin, I now have a small confession to make. In my dark moments of self-doubt (which are, trust me, rare) I sometimes wonder whether in some ways you had a point. ‘Creation’ and ‘Destruction’ – if I had had the temerity and courage to have challenged your suspicions of the academy further, I might have invoked that most complex of multiple-personality Gods and mentioned perhaps, Siva. But I am glad I remained timid. You no doubt would have still won the argument by closing it brusquely with the suggestion that I stop “being a wanker.”
Each new film of yours added to our understanding of Malaysia. And of course when you bravely tread on contested turf you found you had your detractors. So, in each subsequent film you addressed your detractors bravely. You might have thought that ‘intellectuals’ were a suspicious lot, but in your public and cinematic engagement with those detractors you were in a sense something of a public intellectual – a sentimentalist, yes, but a thinker as well. On matters sentimental I have always loved the way you embraced it rather than apologized for it. In a country that often finds it hard to weep for itself, you cathartically spun magic. In a land of many races where mistrust and stereotype have become ingrained as false truths, you made your audiences weep and laugh and miraculously empathize with ‘their other’, the ‘other’ who dwells within. If that occasionally required some sturdy manipulation, then so be it.
You never read any of my ‘academic’ papers on your work and I think we are both grateful for that. You did however enjoy the criticism I wrote in the mainstream media and I was always pleased with the generous way you took the criticism I gave. When I mentioned sentimentality occasionally and of course manipulation, you perhaps secretly read it as a compliment – and perhaps in some ways it was. When a group of us caught a late night screening of Talentime, afterwards at the mamak stall where we had assembled for the obligatory ‘deconstruction’ (you might see it as a postmortem?) we decided to text you to say how much we had loved the film. Minutes later as we sat with our teh tariks, my phone rang. It was you, Kak Min, and you had wanted a full critique. I was being genuine when I told you that I thought it was your best work to date. I hope you believed me.
I am waffling again Yasmin and I doubt you are surprised. I do so however, because I am avoiding the substance of this letter to you, and so therefore please accept my apologies.
I simply cannot believe you have gone. When I had received the call to say you had had a stroke I immediately jumped online for some necessary confirmation, for it felt like an absurd impossibility. Such impossibilities paled into comparison with the news of your passing and the subsequent grief. The grief and shock was not only palpable in those who knew you and loved you, and those like myself who knew you and loved you from a peripheral distance, but the outpouring from those who said that they had never met you but felt that they knew you, made the overall sense of grief all that more profound.
Online, in the newspapers, on the radio and television and yes, in the kopi tiams and mamaks, your passing was met with deep sadness and shock. By the banks of the murky Klang River in the heart of KL a graffiti mural of you sprang up overnight and people went to lay flowers and to take photographs and to perhaps ponder how long it would be before the city council scrubbed your image away.
Well many months have passed Kak Min and your mural is still there, having been joined now by many dozens more. It, and the others stand defiant and I suspect the petty bureaucrats now just hope that both time and the weather ultimately do their job for them.
Directors, especially Southeast Asian directors, are not supposed to be national figures and while I had always sensed your importance, the public outpouring following your passing surprised me for its impact. You were loved Yasmin. All the battles with narrow mindedness and the banalities of having to always defend your art were not in vain. Those films are identified as your films, and while many who grieved for you perhaps thought the films were about a Malaysia that does not yet exist, it is clear that your Malaysia is one that many genuinely yearn for.
You only met my partner on two occasions Yasmin, but he remembers with fondness your remark to me when I first introduced you both. You said, “He really is quite beautiful Benjamin. Make sure you don’t destroy him!” I got your pointed barb, and loved it for the way it resonated consistently with your suspicions about us academics, but please be rest assured Yasmin I will do no such thing! On that same meeting you did allow me to run by you some ideas I had about the course I was developing for my students on Malaysian cinema, and you were generous again with your advice, even when your witty skepticism came to the fore. I thank you for that.
In the months since your death I have completed my first semester teaching that unit on Malaysian Cinema. By way of closing this letter of love to you Yasmin, might I share with you the dedication that preceded one of my student’s final research papers? The subject concerned your work, as did a great number of the papers I received this year. She wrote:
“I dedicate my essay to the memory of the late Yasmin Ahmad. Malaysia does not have many national living treasures so for us to lose one is very sad. Long live Jason and Orked.”
Yasmin, your work was all about love. I hope from this letter you understand just how much you were loved in return.
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Letter to Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook
From Cyril Wong
Dear Araya, I sing to the dead too;
my past self, ex-loves, the truly departed
to whom I offer this poem
like a song, acknowledging
my past in not as pure, perhaps,
a manner as how you smile
and nod, clear-eyed, at those bodies
draped lovingly in floral cloths, sudden
stars of milky frangipani and
inside their clear aquariums,
angled like sharp, undeniable facts
across the bare floor
of a brilliantly white room.
Once I was an optimist, Araya.
I could tell you about how a plane
sliced across the window-framed sky and
came so close it slowed to a languorous
arc over our flat. I was seven.
How I longed for each new day to behold
again that rush and triumphant roar,
ranging from that first, anticipatory
silence to that barely containable
crescendo, even as most days then
tarried at the initial end of that continuum -
nothingness happening over and over.
This was before my father stopped talking
to me, Araya, before I realised that love
meant I would always be the one
giving more. And I learnt how disappointment
too could swell to something as deafening
as a plane outside my window, that blizzard
of sound rocking the insides of my ears
and chest so hard and often that how
could I not help but begin to love that too.
I dream about my boy-self, Araya.
I watch him lay on the floor in my sleep,
lost in a book held up by his hand,
or simply staring at the window
like a cinema screen,
wondering if he is watching the same
old film of sky and clouds
replaying itself, as he was absent
at the movie's beginning. Or whether
the same scene is being played
backwards. Having seen this so
many times, he can close his eyes
and the images would occupy all
of inside him: start, middle or end,
backwards or forwards.
I have tried to say goodbye to my father
too many times, Araya. He might as well
be dead, the years I have spent
mourning his absence. He is watching
the news again, Araya. If I had been
born a girl and my sister a boy
it would have made more sense, as
then he would have no problem
loving us, Araya. Look at how
similar we are, observing our dead -
my father expired on the couch,
your bodies in their glass tanks.
Is it not true that a body without life
is like an empty page upon which
we may compose our own stories?
If I could sing I would too, Araya.
I would sing bittersweet love songs
from a throat already raw from rage
and crying to his sealed eyes
and mouth, not fearing if he would
awaken to scorn my womanly voice.
But for this, I would require him
to be really dead, Araya, as only then
could I truly begin to forgive him.
My grandmother is inside me, Araya.
I don't need to gaze upon her dead body
to remember her love, although
the sight again of ah-ma's split, bald
spot when they dug out the tumour
would re-invite that overriding sense
of horror and grief. In the stillness
of this early morning, I have entered
my grandma's deafness, and the very
nature of the love that must have
possessed her, when she saw me
staring at soundless images on television
in the living room, framed perfectly
by such a hush the same way
an empty room holds up your voice,
Araya, upon its open palm of silence,
or the way I love her now.
And then there are other losses.
Bad poems I did not try to save.
The same with certain friendships.
Long moments of lovemaking with those who would leave as my love would prove too demanding; such nights when a hand on my body would shift the contours of a heart's topography.
Rare few minutes after waking when I had no ideology, no name or any shadow of desire.
Old books I sold off or gave away believing I would never want them back.
That evening I came back after my first kiss, believing I would always remain this lucky, this impossibly light.
What I cannot return to or retrieve, I tell myself, mock me from behind time's two-way mirror.
You tell me otherwise, Araya.
You tell me death is nothing abstract.
You tell me, Smell the air, study the flies veiling their eyes, their shrunken lips colouring to a bruise.
You tell me we only remember what we want to, instead of what we should.
You tell me you agree - it is not enough that the dead thrive within us.
You tell me there is nobody alive who is not recovering from loss.
You tell me to sing into the face of the dead is to give loss back its home within our ever-waking present.
You tell me it is important to keep trying to see, not with double vision, but with two separate pairs of eyes; one for what we have left behind and the other for where we are going; one for loss, the other, gain; death, as well as life.
somebody who loves me
told me this story about a king
who asked some Sufis
to create something
that would make a man
sad whenever he was happy,
happy whenever he was sad.
Later they presented him
with a ring
that bore this inscription: This too
Note 'Letter to Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook' is based on such works by the artist as Thai Medley I, II and III, as well as Lament of Desire, showing looped video footage in which she reads and sings to corpses. She started using corpses in her works in 1998. By reading and singing to them, she felt that there was "communication between her and her memories of loss."
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Love Letter for a Drowned Film Archive
From Kiri Lluch Dalena
November 13, 2009
I have a confession. My first boyfriend was not my first kiss. There was another young man before him. I no longer remember his name nor his face. But I can tell you about that kiss that took place fifteen summers ago.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon, I was traveling with my sister down a highway in Zambales. We had spent the last few days location hunting for a short film in the lahar landscapes of Botolan and Iba. The ride was not memorable until we reached a turn overlooking a wide expanse of ocean. Traffic slowed. A jeepney began to cut into our lane. It was filled with half naked men, still wet from frolicking at the beach. Then I saw him. He was lying on the floor of the jeepney, face down. I noticed his feet first. The soles were very white, deathly pale. I asked our driver to stop and transferred to the jeepney.
It was 1994. I was 18 and on a break from being a student at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. I was already in my second year and had started to join student organizations. Red Cross Youth was my first civic organization. I was the batch leader and became a full fledged member after fulfilling the basic first aid training course. I knew how to administer CPR and I was armed with an ID.
He was on vacation with his family. And it was their first time to swim by that beach in Zambales. A younger sister ventured into deeper waters and was pulled down by the undertow. He came to her rescue. He was a good swimmer but was overcome by strong waves. He was already unconscious when his uncles and cousins pulled his body out of the water. His sister was still missing.
They told me he drowned fifteen minutes ago. I listened to his breathing. There was none. I struggled to find a pulse. There was none. I pried open his mouth and quickly turned his body to his side. Water from the sea, dark sand and bits of debris flowed.
His father hovered above us. His face was distraught, frightened. I asked him to help me put his son flat on his back. I placed my hands over his chest and started the compressions. Then I quickly moved towards his head. One hand holding his nose, the other to hold his chin firmly. I covered his mouth with mine and started to breathe for him. I remember that his lips were soft but cold. I remember the grains of sand. Their texture, the dark contrast against his white teeth. I remember the taste of salt from the sea as it slipped into my tongue. The jeepney continued to negotiate the highway, until we reached the nearest hospital.
That was my first kiss. It was his last.
When I learned that you drowned during the flood that hit our province a month ago, my heart broke. I had not seen you in a long time but you remained in my thoughts, always. You were young. You were meant to live a long life. With or without me, even without us. You were witness to the turbulent days of our generation, of my youth.
If this love story can be written differently and I was there when the storm came, perhaps it could have come out this way:
I would have swam to you and brought you to a safer place. I will find your heart and I would place my hands over it. I will find your mouth and I would seal it with mine. I would breathe for you. I would swallow the mud, the lilies, the floodwaters from the angry river that rose too swiftly and took you too soon.
That could have been your first of many kisses. I would not mind if it were my last.
Kiri Lluch Dalena is a visual artist and an independent filmmaker. She currently works and resides in Quezon City, Philippines. She studied BS Human Ecology from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos and 16mm documentary filmmaking at the Mowelfund Film Institute.
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From Kong Rithdee
Isn’t love blind? Isn’t a love letter a blind man’s letter? Blind like when you fall headfirst into the marsh of history. Blind like when you hear poetry being read in the dark. Blind like when a group of peasant children tilt their heads and widen (not squint) their eyes to watch a solar eclipse, unafraid of the bursting corona that will make them go, well, blind. Thinking about the possibility of blindness, I think of that eclipse scene from Raya Martin’s 2005 film A Short Film About Indio Nacional, as well as other scenes from that cinematic arcanum about the indio people of the Philippines during the colonial time. The scene is heralded first by a silent-film intertitle, in elegant long-hand writing. Then the children gather in the middle of a field, one by one, and they roll their heads back, pop their eyes and hang their mouths open in amazement, or superstition, or horror, as the beautifully ominous eclipse signals the dark times to come. Soon the mothers will come out to reprimand their children and shepherd them back to safety, leaving only the village bell-ringer alone to witness the terrible poetry of the sky. The bell-ringer doesn’t go sightless; instead he’s the one who sees it all and who realizes that those who go blind are those who stop looking, those who avert their gaze and pretend to look away from what’s happening. All of this takes place while Khavn De la Cruz’s dissonant, impromptu hyper-expressionistic piano music sharpens the sense of impending nightmare. Raya Martin has bled out the color from his 35mm film stock and the image in A Short Film About Indio Nacional is that of a faded postcard found stashed in the forgotten attics of the Spanish Intramuros in Manila.
The film is young Raya’s haunting forerunner to Independencia. It’s also an early manifesto announcing the filmmaker’s fixation with cinema as a means to reclaim the memory buried under centuries of colonial rules, a defiant pastiche of a generation that doesn’t wish to forget past suffering since it’s the key to their present, and future. I didn’t share the legacy of that suffering, but for a fleeting heart-swelling second while watching A Short Film About Indio Nacional, I had an epiphany, or I thought I had. The eclipse in Raya’s movie doesn’t make you go blind. Like love, it makes you see.
Yours, very truly
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From Lourd de Veyra
Dear Mr. Tioseco,
I still haven’t seen Johnny Guitar. But yes, I’ve seen In a Lonely Place and next to Treasure of the Sierra Madre I think it’s Bogart’s best—I was in a bad place then, and I don’t mean those places near Khavn’s house.
As I write, the TV is set to Cinema One, which is currently airing Horsey Horsey Tigidig Tigidig. This is not the kind of movie you’d fall in love with, I’m pretty sure of that.
I, on the other hand, can wax lyrical over such drivel (You should see Gary Valenciano’s high-waisted acid-washed baggy jeans). But you can’t call it appreciation when you’re laughing and pointing at something. I can pore over each and every silly detail, but I doubt if it’s the same kind of love that had always fueled your writing.
Many people will say that there is virtually no such thing as film criticism in the Philippines. Yes, there is, except that you don’t usually find it in the entertainment sections of the major broadsheets, where reviewers spend precious time and analytical toil on obscure art-house films like Transformers 2. To look for serious film criticism there is like going to Jollibee and looking for foie gras. Or watching Transformers 2 and decrying its lack of a discourse on the human condition. But most people wouldn’t even recognize film criticism if it slapped them in the face with Celia Rodriguez gloves. Most people wouldn’t be ready for serious film criticism. Most people wouldn’t even be ready for criticism, period. Especially most filmmakers, who would consider it a direct assault on their person and dignity when they’re not hailed as the next Bernal. “Let’s see you make your own film,” they would whine childishly.
You write the kind of criticism I am completely incapable of. Earnest, passionate but sober and circumspect. You make us take a second look at ourselves, we who have made a living out of hurling insults and peddling petty sarcasm, celebrating—with no small amounts of condescension—that which is shameful, trivial, and absurd. The again, after what has just happened, what do we know about absurdity? What this cheap business of mine all boils down to is cowardice. When it comes to that monolith called seriousness we are reduced to chickenshit, cowering behind that middling excuse called irony. I envy that frame of mind, that age when idealism burns bright, that ability to see the world in black and white, without the strictures of compromise and jadedness. Serious discourse demands courage.
Your wish list for Philippine cinema provides a roadmap for everything that is right and everything that is wrong about the industry. Excuse me, ‘Industry’ might not be the right word because you’re not exactly a big fan of the major studios. I don’t know if you were the one I told this to, but I think one should never write a review in a vacuum, both social and aesthetic. Now I can’t remember when and under what circumstances I told you that, but I’m pretty sure it involved something truly bad and commercial. And lots of alcohol. On my part, most certainly. That wish list is still on my mind. I don’t know. I just interviewed a young superstar actress for a magazine. When the feature came out, she complained to the editor that I got her age and award wrong (And believe me, it was definitely not Urian). Maybe that’s what you get from agreeing to write about people you shouldn’t have to write about in the first place. Again, that word, love.
In your letter to Nika, you said love was the primary motivation in film criticism. I agree.
Your inexhaustable energy and enthusiasm for this ever-expanding beast called independent cinema astounds me. Years back I’d sort of given up trying to follow every ‘must-see’ film. Maybe it’s a phase. I remember an earlier time in my life when I was gripped with a boundless appetite for the movies. This was before the digital camera, cellphones, and the internet. The only institution that was making independent (then interchangeable with ‘experimental’) films was Mowelfund. I don’t know what happened along the way. All of a sudden, there were just too many films, too many festivals and screenings. Too many malls. Too many cars in parking lots. Too much traffic. Too many filmmakers. Too many movies, then and now. It was hard to keep up. Life is short, Kieslowski’s Dekalog long. Love is sitting through a ten-hour film and never having to say you need a goddamned drink.
Those Criticine love letters, I think they’re a brilliant idea: to write something to a favorite piece of cinema, whether it’s a movie, a director, a scene, bars of musical scores, a cinematographer, an actor, etc. They’re exercises in apostrophe, that figure of speech where you address someone/something directly. The power of that word: you. Maybe the second-person point of view is the best, not only because it sounds disarmingly intimate, but also because it forces you to alter the way you think. All of a sudden the ego dissolves. But what an idea: To fall in love with a film, with a director’s vision. To fall in love with a scene, with an image, with a fragment of whispered dialogue, to note how light falls on an empty street, or how shadows move across a quiet house. To perceive a thing as it is and not as a commentary on your life.
I promised you that I would write my own love letter. But to which film, to which director I could not yet bring myself to choose. The constellation of options is dizzying, but rest assured Horsey Horsey Tigidig Tigidig isn’t one of them. Call it procrastination, call it laziness. But maybe the right word is ‘cowardice’.
I hate myself for doing this only now. But what I hate more is the fact that the letter had to be addressed to you, under such hideous circumstances. Which is why I have difficulty ending this. I’m delaying the inevitable. I’m still in denial. Something remains unsaid and I don’t think I’d want to talk about it anymore, especially seeing the report on the noontime news where you and Nika were reduced to grim pixels on the TV screen. I’m not very good with grief.
I’m not really sure how to end this. Something horrible has just happened and all I can do is talk to you about cinema? But at this point, what else do we talk about? We who know too much about films and too little about life? Johnny Guitar? I haven’t seen it yet. Tell me about it again.
Mr. De Veyra
Lourd de Veyra is a writer from the Philippines.
This letter was originally published by spot.ph and is republished with kind permission.
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From Mariam Lam
To my Vietnamese film community,
During my last visit to London in the spring of 2009, the late beloved film lover and critic, Alexis Tioseco, bestowed upon me the nickname ‘MariMar.’ I had not seen the 2007 GMA Filipino television series of the same name, the bomba actress Marian Rivera who played the title role, the famed 1994 Mexican telenovela starring Thalía upon which our Philippine soap opera was based, nor La Venganza, the 1977 Mexican telenovela from which the latter was remade. I was simply flattered that this sweet kid brother-like Southeast Asian cinema muse Alexis had thought kindly to give me an alternative screen moniker, as he had done for others in the Association of Southeast Asian Cinema conference circle, such as ‘BenBen’ for Benjamin McKay.
The flattery was fleeting, for a second later I registered an odd look on BenBen’s face as he gathered his thoughts about the choice. In every subsequent exchange with Pinay, Pinoy and Pin@y friends to whom I mentioned this Tiosecian hailing, I would encounter a sly grimace, dour faced crinkling, or knowing eye-rolls. Soon after Alexis’ death, I web-searched ‘Marimar’ to find the commercially popular soap series about an impressionable and scantily clad orphan-siren who lives on a Manila beach with her loyal frolicking dog while looking for love in the all wrong places (in the form of an upper crust Sergio with evil parents)… almost a Pilipina Pacific coastal version of the cheesy Waylon Jennings country song. Here’s an excerpt from the Jennings lyrics, if you can find it in your heart to forgive me:
“I've spent a lifetime lookin’ for you.
Single bars and good time lovers were never true,
Playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win,
Tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again.
I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin’ for love in too many faces,
Searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces
Of what I'm dreamin’ of.
Hopin' to find a friend and a lover,
I’ll bless the day I discover
Another heart, lookin' for love…”
Good grief, Alexis. This is certainly not my life. I can’t even call him on it now that he is gone.
The more I thought about our past conversations - conversations in which Alexis insistently wanted me to answer why my colleagues appear to choose “bad Vietnamese cinema” to analyze and critique instead of encouraging, or better yet in his eyes adamantly demanding, Vietnamese filmmakers and producers to do better - the more I realized that my love and loss relationship with Vietnamese cinema is not so far removed from MariMar’s love for Sergio and begrudgingly similar to the Jennings cheese platter… a tortured serial romance. What Alexis has essentially bequeathed to me in the form of this nomenclature is a kundiman, a prayer, a love letter, for a better future romance plot with my beloved Vietnamese film community.
My humble telenovela upbringing began as an immigrant child learning English by watching not Sesame Street, but General Hospital, which I preferred over my mother’s favorite Guiding Light, because of what I argued were relatively stronger female characters. “Right, like rape victim Laura who falls in love with her rapist Luke is so much better than my blind and homebound lovelorn Eve?” my mother would retort. Quality comparative gender and cultural critique at age seven? Not so much. And not so dissimilar from the humble global stirrings of Vietnamese film criticism at its current juncture, with its limited and limiting perspectives on Vietnamese history, culture, politics and economics.
Fast forward thirty years to more ‘academic’ inquiries about representations of women in Vietnamese cinema crafted by Vietnamese directors - who at this point are still mostly male - and we find the same disturbingly familiar comparisons. When Alexis first commissioned this Criticine entry, he suggested I write to a favorite director, film, scene or character with whom I had fallen madly in love. I scoured the archives trying to nostalgically recollect loving portrayals of Vietnamese women. I found myself “lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces of what I'm dreamin’ of” in the true cinematic love and longing for strong, complex women - a love that would make these directors’ mothers and sisters proud, some Vietnamese Fanny Ardant or Katherine Hepburn, perhaps.
Alas, according to the GMA DVD, the story of MariMar “bespeaks a journey of a young lass who has been deprived of everything that was rightfully hers.” This description also sounds reminiscent of all the women in 1990s Đặng Nhật Minh movies, in which pathetically abandoned or widowed women nurture baby birds with their own saliva and inadvertently tempt pre-pubescent brothers-in-law while awaiting the return of a husband, war hero, nationalism, and/or her so-called life.
Oh, woe is me; when will our eleventh month come, so Vietnamese women can get on with it, so we can build our own rural textile co-ops and women’s loom production houses devoid of fallen patriarchs, as the female protagonist in Vũ Xuân Hưng’s Giải hạn/Misfortune’s End (1996) manages to accomplish, or ditch our doting buffalo boys as by the end of Nguyễn Vő Nghięm Minh’s Můa len trâu/Buffalo Boy (2004)? When will the inquisitive and imaginative little girl Můi from Tran Anh Hůng’s Můi đu đủ xanh/The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) not regress from adulthood into a mere vessel of cherry tree blossom cultural nationalist global etiquette?
I looked toward intellectually experimental works by Trinh Thị Minh-hŕ, but was “playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win, by tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again”- blinding myself to the glaring socioeconomic class differences found in order to champion a feminist avant garde Vietnamese auteur. I told myself I could sacrifice like a good Kiều and put up with portrayals of women’s stunted mental capacity in Tran Anh Hůng’s Můa hč chiều thẳng đứng/Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) or woman as incessant trope of nation in early diasporic films, as trade-off for cinematographic beauty and decadence.
I returned to the hip and happening homeland’s Gái nhảy/Bar Girls (2003) by Lę Hoŕng and Vũ Ngọc Đăng’s Những cô gái chân dŕi/Long-Legged Girls (2004), but “single bars and good time lovers were never true.” I fell briefly for actress Trương Ngọc Ánh’s performance in Lưu Hůynh’s Áo lụa Hŕ Đông/The White Silk Dress (2006), until its final protracted seconds of requisite bloody war propaganda.
So I turned to our female filmmakers, Phạm Nhuệ Giang, Việt Linh, Vũ Thị Thu-hŕ, Đoŕn Hoŕng, and Đoŕn Minh Phượng (with brother Đoŕn Thŕnh Nghĩa’s Hạt mưa rơi bao lâu/Bride of Silence, 2005), but found them too few and spread so far from sisterhood.
Meanwhile, my more immediate family of Vietnamese American filmmakers focuses much of its attention on the cross-over market potential of genre appeal with action in Dňng máu anh hůng/The Rebel (2007), horror in Buổi Sáng Đầu Năm/First Morning (2003), Oan hồn/Spirits (2004), or Thế Giới Huyền Bí/Mysterious World (2006), and comedy in Hồn Trương Ba, da hŕng thịt (2006) or Nụ hôn thần chết (2008). Dear brothers, I love a good action heroine, but seeking only pop sensation triple threats can interfere with quality control even in the U.S. Gigli, anyone? How about Glitter?
Well-intentioned industry enthusiasts, festival organizers and arts journalists rush to applaud the nation’s baby steps in filmic creativity and originality, as well as the diasporic attempts at what gets deemed as cultural reconciliation or uncritical, apolitical returns to the homeland. Recall that MariMar was separated from her real parents - the wealthy Gustavo Aldama and the poor Lupita - at a young age, and raised by a very old couple with very old, traditional values. In order to avoid dealing with the class conflict between a post-socialist yearning for equal access to creative cultural arts practices and global aesthetic resonance versus a neoliberal desire for market visibility for global south chic, many Vietnamese filmmakers today must choose to politicize or not to politicize. MariMar lives a modest and carefree life by the sea. Hŕm Trần (Vượt sóng/Journey from the Fall, 2006) does not.
So we beat on towards Gatsby’s green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us, like refugee boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past; “hopin' to find a friend and a lover, I’ll bless the day I discover another heart, lookin' for love….”
With undying hope for an exquisitely mind blowing future romance to come,
Mariam B. Lam is a professor of literature, media & cultural studies, and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California Riverside.
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From May Adadol Ingawanij
20 August 2009
Since your instinct for irony is very fine, and not very chai thai, you’d be amused to know the draft in my head of my letter to you reads like an obituary. You’ve been plugging away a long time now, putting out those wry, loving paperbacks. Filmvirus and Bookvirus – a wide open door to all things “Thais should see and read,” if only we could scrape the dayglo off this phrase. Before there were pirated DVDs, and when routine screenings at European cultural institutes began to fade away, you started up your ‘house of overlooked films’ in, of all places, an unfashionable suburban mall. I never made it to your filmhouse, but know people who had the grime lifted from their eyes there. If I had made a habit of going to this first madhouse of yours when I was still a green young thing, I might have known better than to spend eight years deconstructing (wishful notion) the slogan of ‘cultured films’ in this country. Now that we’re both getting on a bit and are each wondering if we’ve spent our time wisely, I can’t help feeling the grass on your side is a bit less brown than mine. How fantastically you’ve been striking against the moral pinkness that runs rampant here, by writing, so knowledgeably, so intuitively, and in that distinctive voice, about the many ways in which art inhabits cinema’s polymorphous world.
Of course, in cultured parts of the world you’d at least be able to get by doing this, and your natural home might have been the filmoteca in Madrid, with its grounding in modernism, cultish cinephilia, and historical awareness. But the price of being born in our narokland is to exist as a kind of superfluous man, which takes its toll. The afternoon we first met, in an interview that naturally gave way to many more hours of conversation, you surprised me by pointing to a friend who happened to walk by, saying she’d just finished translating for you Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Then, in that seemingly hesitant, softly laughing way, you said you might get it published soon as your cremation volume.
The problem is, as a mutual friend of ours likes to say, that the oyster produces a pearl only when it’s very irritated. I saw this at close range when helping your Filmvirus group and its friends organize Lav Diaz’s retrospective last month. What began as a casual reference to Tarkovsky and Lav on your blog turned boldly, crazily, into five weeks of screenings. The length of one rainy spell during which the curious could go to places in Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom and Phuket, to find out what Lav’s films are like – this body of work that exists, as the man who, like you, loves A Canterbury Tale puts it, “on the threshold of cinema, inside its history but pushes beyond it.” We broke a lot of rules the week the retrospective began. Ours was a sapling that grew new branches when others came on board, not least of which was Lav himself. Cocks crowed underneath the open shophouse windows of one of our venues, merging into the soundscape of Ebolusyon. An unfinished film graced our opening night. We probably broke our new, very pink, law too, by screening the two films whose sex scenes had already gotten them banned in the Philippines. All this to feel our way into letting Lav’s films speak to our historical debris, our broken spaces – so rarely do we in this country bear witness to the sorrow of those who can’t, yet will, go on – and in response to the intent, quiet, astonishing, concentration of the viewers who came, and who stayed.
It felt strangely tender, this experience. Not easy to describe the discreet shift that took place here, floating away forbidding words – elitist, difficult, austere, a struggle, a test of cinephiliac endurance – from the idea of a Lav Diaz retrospective. An image may or may not translate: I hadn’t expected to walk into the third day of the screenings to find water, coffee, snacks and rambutans, laid out at the back of the hall ready for the start of Encantos, or to see a pile of boxed up fried rice appear there hours later as it grew dark outside. Hadn’t quite realized that what you’d said the night before, about how it was for you, an organizer’s responsibility to be around at each screening, wasn’t just symbolic – the professional gesture of respect for the films and the artist who made them. Waiting at the back of that dark cavernous hall keeping an eye on the supplies, to ease our bodies’ limitations, was your idea of basic household care towards the people who took the time to come. In ‘cultured’ cities this would have been standardized into the fifteen-minute break every two-and-a-half hours.
The following afternoon you stole a rather lovely snap, now on your blog, of Lav reading outside the cinema, quietly waiting for viewers inside the whole duration of the running time. The same tender tone of a gift simply given, a film spontaneously added, an unobtrusive waiting. I wish I’d done the same of you the day before.
You recently described yourself as someone on the margins of the margin. You meant to speak of that persistent sense of absurdity that your life’s been taken over by cinema. Actually this puts you in the company of all the children of cinema I’ve come across, but there is another sense in which this distance fits you well. What separates you from the airy cupcakes that pass for indie here, and makes reading your film writings such a pleasure, always, comes down to that ambiguous gift: One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. You’re not easy to translate, with your effortless punning – your voice a place where old rhymes pass through, and amusing slogans, 10 satang stories, live dubbing, luktoong lyrics, countless other ghosts of obsolete forms. A case in point is the full name of your old filmhouse. ‘Home of overlooked films’ just sounds earnest in English, doesn’t it? Not capable of carrying your queer inversion of the slogan seeking charity for ‘poor little children with arrested development,’ which was a fine specimen of kitsch in the tape cassette generation you belong to, and that I caught the tail end of. You write about what we in the classroom pass around in the flat, conceptual language of 'the modernist preoccupation with medium specificity,' through merry allusions to the wondrous crystal island of Phra Aphai Mani, the weeping heroine of The House of Golden Sand, the underdogs in cheap serialized martial arts fiction – all this to come to Gorky’s “last night I was in the kingdom of shadows” in a dialect that belongs to here. And when you turn to translating, e.g. the phrase "sculpting in time," you trace an image of the idea Tarkovsky is referring to, perched on the sensual shoulder of classical Thai poetry. This makes you great to steal from, and I may as well confess here my latest theft – that precise, elegant phrase of yours for ‘cinematic narcissism.’
Lately you’ve been saying you won’t write on cinema anymore. I haven’t dared to ask why, but hope this has to do with the need to get started on the film idea you’ve been carrying around for some years – which would give me a reason to call your melancholia an attenuated passage. Are you moving closer and closer now to the water’s edge? The last headlong splash of the eternal child? You haven’t told me much about the film in your head, but I sense faint shapes and shadows. The knuckles on the left hand bear a monogram that says I’ve seen enough to hate this place properly. On the right hand there’s another, identical at first glance, which whispers back, and so I love what remains of it well.
In the uncertain knowledge that some waiting is not in vain.
With much affection,
May Adadol Ingawanij is a research fellow at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, University of Westminster. She is one of the curators of the 2011 Bangkok Experimental Film Festival.
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From Noel Vera
It was never love, ma'am.
No it wasn't.
I remember meeting you at a party (I think Teddy introduced us, or was with us anyway). Don't remember what you said or what I said, but did remember it was an easygoing, funny conversation, and you had opinions acerbic and otherwise about all kinds of films and all kinds of film people and I found myself laughing my head off. Sharp wit, the kind that slices belts and buttons without alerting the wearer, leaving them shuffling about with their pants round their ankles.
Then you said something offhand without thinking twice that I wish to this day I could remember but can't, not a single word, but I do remember stopping in my tracks. I remember staring, a brow – maybe both brows – raised.
I was thinking as I felt the blood rush and my cheeks warm: "that's not something a proper lady would say. Not something a respectable Filipina would say." And it wasn't.
Not disapproving – far from it. Not embarrassed, either – well, not entirely. Tell the truth I felt like one of your victims: pants round ankles, exposed for all to see, don't care, don't give a shit. Suddenly I understood the appeal flashing had for perverts in overcoats: they were exposed and in the grip of an incomparable high.
You never noticed, of course (thank god); you were chatting away. At least that's how I remember it.
I did research on your career – what, you thought my gonads were doing all my thinking for me? You were still an artist, albeit a more than usually interesting one, and a possible subject for an article or two, maybe an interview. Not an easy task at the time: IMDb was just starting out with barely a Filipino entry available, DVDs were not a common medium and few if any Filipino film were on commercial video anyway.
I managed to re-watch the films you helped co-write for one reclusive Filipino genius; this time taking a closer look at the women's roles, and at what I considered the weakest among your collaborations (for the longest time I had a low regard for him as a comic director). I remember you mentioning that your most substantial contributions went into this underrated picture, the silly, somewhat sweet wit involved (he had originally conceived of a much darker comedy). Saw the film you helped write for one of the leading filmmakers of Philippine cinema (about an adultery), noted the lead actress' dialogue, and how the story was told mainly from her point of view (also happen to know whose life the film is really based on, but that's another story).
I remember you once visiting my workplace, the head office of one of the country's major banks. Everyone's heads turned to follow as you walked past cubicle after cubicle to stop at mine. We talked; I think you gave me something, and left.
My officemate, usually laugh-out-loud boisterous, hissed at me in an awed whisper: "Noel, who was that?"
"Oh, a friend."
"She looked like a fucking movie star!"
He has asked me advice on love and women ever since.
I managed to snag video copies of the two films you are proudest of (don't ask me how). One was the portrait of two lovers too young to be married. The emotional intensity of it was painful; I remember you telling me how much personal experience went into that film, that some of it was about your marriage, and I think it shows.
As for the second –
"What did you think of it?" you asked.
"It's awful," I said. "Terrible film."
I remember your face going blank; I'd been too cruel. "Let me put it this way," I added. "It hit me where I live. I'll never be the same."
By some synchronistic coincidence I had recently read Pauline Reage's (a.k.a. Anne Desclos) short novel The Story of O. The intensity, the terror, the heedless, selfless sexuality – that was what I found in your film.
All evoked without a single nude scene, without a square inch of gratuitously exposed skin.
Feminists protested the picture, you told me; I don't know what they were talking about – the film's protagonist seeks the freedom to be a sexual being, even seeks the freedom to be self-destructive. That's about as powerful a feminist statement as I've seen anywhere, male or female, Filipino or otherwise.
If there's any basis to their objections, perhaps it's too powerful a statement – it wreaks havoc on their sense of political correctness, their desire for polite relations between sexes. It in effect mounts their assumptions from behind and brutally violates their comfort zone – that's why they hate it.
"What did you think the film was trying to say?" you asked.
"I don't know – that sex is a threat and a thrill? A drug perhaps? That a good husband means a life of boredom, an exciting lover a life of danger?"
"No," you said. "That women are expected to change to suit the men they're with."
And you were right – women are transmutable beings, chameleons, ever subject to change, said change (willingly or unwillingly) often subject to a man's approval (though some have learned the trick of shaping that approval to their advantage). Women are powerful and submissive, captive and manipulative, sometimes a combination of all at once. It was a revelation.
I remember our talks – our rambling, endless conversations as we told our stories and hopes and regrets to each other, me marveling at your soft, catlike laugh, you waiting patiently (or is it impatiently?) as I, for an embarrassing few moments (it must have been out of sheer exhaustion, or because we'd been at it till two, three in the morning), snored on the line. You should have hung up on me; always wondered why you didn't – why you simply waited for me to snap to.
I remember you telling me about your first time - how you never warned him that you were a virgin, and when he realized this he pushed himself away and walked out to wash away the blood. Never told you this, but I wished I was your first time - surprised or not, I'd like to think I'd have been more tender.
I remember at one point listening over the phone as you wrote the ending to one film, of a woman giving birth, how your nimble imagination leaped here and there, deciding: "no, that's not how it should go; no, it has to end now," trying to figure out a way to make the birth scene fresh, different. I remember the panties. "She has to take off her panties."
"I never thought of that."
"No one does. When they do the scene, they never remember the panties."
I remember contributing a bit of dialogue to the male lead, something cute and corny, and what a rush to hear it spoken on the big screen weeks later (not the first time; I've made more substantial contributions to other films, but it was your film and I was, however small the part, in it).
We don't see each other anymore; we don't talk over the phone. Once in a while I hear about you from mutual friends. From time to time I spot your name onscreen – your latest film, not quite so well executed by others, but inside the good-to-fair work I recognize the distinct influence of your hand, your sensibility taking a melodramatic situation or a classic religious theme and finding fresh perspectives within tired premises. I see your films, I know you're still around, still active, and I'm content.
It was never love, ma'am, just something cruder and sharper and not a little fiercer. Which was why I had to be careful – why I never wrote those articles, or did that interview, or allowed for any possible circumstance where I might reveal too much (even this letter feels dangerous).
No regrets for having met you (never), some regret for allowing you to slip away (I have my life, you have yours (and your son's), but still, but still). I stand here in my fashion, watching the bright spark of you burning half a world away, and I marvel at the warmth.
Image by Darlene Lin
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From John Torres
I look for you with all my might, and I am not even sure about names, about places, about dates, 00/00/0000. We meet this one time, only in a dream, to see that there are no words for broken things. He said, there are no words for broken things. Kaya huwag tayong magpapagamit. Do not look for us in history, and books written by the victors. They are exact. We are uneventful, and in between. Do not look for our story in myths, and apparitions, filling the gap. They are bridges. We stretch, and we fall. Do not look for us in this field. We shall not work for them. Do not look for us again in this dream. They shall make me a soldier for their war. And change how you see me. At the end of this, we will reject a revolution and arrive at love. He said, at the end of this, we will reject a revolution and arrive at love. Listen to their faces. Don’t take their words. Our romance lies at the timbre of their voice.
(Dre, because you never got to hear me record this, inspired by two poets I told you about. I kept the film from you, sorry about that. I thought we had all the time in the world. Reen sees the small changes that I make everyday. John)
John Torres entrusted Alexis with his films from day one. He will play guitar now once he agrees to freestyle.
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HARD LIFE, POOR LIFE
This Is Not A Love Letter
From Khavn De La Cruz
i’m about to cry
but that’s not true
what do you say again to a corpse?
what about two corpses
that a while ago were two living friends?
fuckyou alexis fuckyou
i don’t have anyone to greet along with lourd’s birthday while i’m in berlin
and you’re never here on my birthday but in canada every christmas
you’re lucky you’re dead
we’re still living
working for a living, looking for life
hard-life, poor-life, you often utter
you’re always facedown in your pictures
as if you were always meant to be the first to rest
that’s all there is to it right? who goes first
who goes last
long live the dead
because living can kill you
many are dying
in the world of the living
how many live
in the world of the dead?
in a few days, it will be the day of the dead
the living will light candles
for the dead! for the dead!
until their throats die
and silence comes back to life
sometimes something wraps around you
like the embrace of a ghost
you feel as if you were a gift
but for whom, you ask?
no one answers
you are still alone in the room
i’ve been writing this letter for a few days now
it’s been two weeks
and I still haven’t finished it
cyco said, i should just write about your drumming
how we argued about kicking you out of the band
my father, who’s the namesake of your father who passed away first, was laughing
we were playing under their room
you were more out of tempo than my nephew
we were playing the same song when we began
but you slowly drifted off into your own world
your own rhythm
a beat ahead of all of us
than headless, than cyco, than me
who would have guessed that you’ll be going before all of us?
last year, we gave a tribute to kidlat, rox, and lav
because they were the three old men of philippine cinema whom we respect
one foot in the grave, as they say
if i knew you’d be gone before them
we would have paid tribute to you
who would have guessed?
who would have guessed?
This Is Not A Love Letter
pero hindi ito totoo
ano nga ba’ng sasabihin mo sa bangkay?
paano kung dalawang bangkay
na kamakailan lang ay dalawang kaibigang buhay?
tanginamo alexis tanginamo
wala na kong babatiin kasabay ng kaarawan ni lourd habang nasa berlin ako
at madalas ka ring wala sa kaarawan ko dahil papunta kang canada pag pasko
mabuti ka pa, patay ka na
kami buhay pa rin
hirap-buhay, madalas mo ngang sambitin
lagi kang nakatungo sa litrato
para bang nakaplano talagang mauuna kang hihimlay
yun lang naman yun di ba, unahan
mabuhay ang patay
dahil mahirap ang buhay
sa mundo ng buhay
ilan ang nabubuhay
sa mundo ng patay?
ilang araw na lang, araw na ng patay
magtitirik ng kandila ang mga buhay
para sa patay! para sa patay!
isisigaw ng mga buhay
hanggang sa mamatay ang lalamunan
at muling mabuhay ang katahimikan
minsan may babalot sa iyo
parang yakap ng multo
pakiramdam mo isa kang regalo
nag-iisa ka pa rin sa kwarto
ilang araw ko nang sinusulat ang liham na ito
pumalo na ang dalawang linggo
hindi pa rin nabubuo
sabi ni cyco, ikwento ko na lang daw ang pagtatambol mo
kung paano namin pinagdebatehan na tanggalin ka sa kombo
natatawa ang tatay ko na kapangalan ng tatay mong naunang yumao
nasa ilalim kasi ng kwarto nila ang tugtugan natin
mas wala ka pa sa tiyempo sa paslit kong pamangkin
sa simula ng kanta, nakakasabay ka pa
pero unti-unti kang tutuloy sa sarili mong mundo
nauuna ka sa lahat sa amin
kay pugot, kay cyco, sa akin
sino nga bang mag-aakalang mauuna ka talaga sa amin?
noong nakaraang taon, binigyang pugay natin sina kidlat, rox, at lav
dahil sila ang tatlong matatanda na nirerespeto natin sa pelikulang pilipino
mas malapit sa hukay, ika nga
kung alam ko lang na mauuna ka
e di ikaw na lang sana ang pinag-alayan
Khavn is not a film-maker.
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From Richard Bolisay
Abad Santos Station
So as not to inconvenience you I will keep this letter brief, but direct and to the point I cannot promise. There are many things running through my head right now, some walking so far behind I cannot keep up with them, and some drifting past the line I cannot reach to bring them back. I hope I can just turn off my mind when it goes like this. Anyway I am waiting for the train booth to open, in about thirty minutes or so. The sun is about to come up and I'm in quite a good spot to see it.
I have missed you, and by you I mean your films. As I was preparing my things for the trip today I suddenly stopped in front of my bookshelf because I felt something was missing. When I checked, the books were in order but the DVD case of Bayaning Third World was out of place and when I opened it, the disc was not there. Who could have borrowed it? I could not remember. My phone rang and my colleague was asking me to hurry because the service was about to leave. I told her I'll just take the train and she could just wait for me in the bus station and she hung up. It took me thirty minutes to leave the house shaking the thought of you missing in my own room.
How could a part of you leave my place without me knowing it?
I know it doesn't feel right when people equate you to your films. But maybe it isn't far from the truth, right? I assume Tarkovsky's a very contemplative man; Hitchcock a naughty and sinister guy with unbelievable taste in women; Brocka a dream fighter of the common people; and you, M, I wonder, what do I make out of you from the films you made?
I imagine when I finally meet you I will scratch my head and say, "Hey Mister, you are a man of few words."
It sucks, I know. I feel ashamed that I will use that phrase to describe you, M. You are more than a common phrase. I won't take it back though, 'cause it's true. And in addition, I believe you are a man of silence too. I remember when I was seven or eight, it was Holy Week and all we had on TV was a bunch of shows on religious themes, the usual fare of Himala and Mat Ranillo's Kristo , the life story of the Pope, some family movies, and in the afternoon when everyone was taking siesta I came across Itim . That part when Jun prints the photographs, or when he and Teresa walk across the room holding a cross, it is too silent. I thought the TV was broken. I could hear myself asking, Ba't walang tokis, sira ba ‘tong TV, ano'ng nangyayari, may nangyayari ba ("Why is there no sound, is the TV broken, what's happening, is there something happening"), but my eyes were so glued to what I was seeing that the inconvenient silence did not bother much. Later that night I told my mother that I saw the film and she also expressed her wonder in the creepy noiselessness of your first work.
The silence in your films is not just silent. It is an amplified hush of volumes of themes and conversations that your characters are not allowed to speak of; silence is their prison, and it is their only way of communicating to us, your audience. We understand their dilemma because of the silence you bestow upon them. The simple movement of the eyes, the placement of one hand onto another, the eerie hallway that witnesses a séance—they all hold your thoughts of imprisonment. Sometimes when one of your characters screams or calls for help I cannot help but think that I only imagine her speaking. I do not really hear her at all.
Once, someone pointed out to me that what sets your films apart from the others—and by "set apart" he meant both literally and figuratively—is that they are rather heartless, sometimes even lacking "human emotions". The evil that pervades most of your films is somewhat closer to the reality of things, and that scares the hell out of him. My parents said that during the Marcos regime Batch '81 was the first time they experienced ‘seeing’ their own fear after Martial Law was proclaimed. They had fear then but they never realized it as fear. Your ‘fear’ astounded them more. Likewise, the characters in your films are very vulnerable; they are often middle-class people whose problems are more than their restraint can handle; they are intelligent, curious, and witty, just like you I suppose. But how could other people not see the heart in your heartlessness? The emotion in your emotionlessness? And the light in your lightlessness? Maybe, as my father would unwittingly point out to me, I really have a peculiar pair of eyes.
My very first memory of watching films is when I was four, but I only started watching them seriously when I was in college, fourteen or fifteen years of age. Not that taking them seriously was such a big deal. I was still pretty much the same, understandably appreciative to humble works and strongly hostile to boring bogusness. I am twenty-one now and I wonder, in that short period of being a fervent follower of cinema and seeing some of the most beautiful facets it can ever show to me, how could I be so sure that yours is the most important figment I have ever seen? How, in my relatively young and therefore superficial understanding of the arts, could I validate my judgment of your works as exceptional and therefore worthy of a book that I plan to sweat years on doing, without any idea of how much it would need from me emotionally? And in such a streak of thought I ask, how could I ever express to you, fully and honestly, and without the natural disappointment of hearing sincere but inappropriate words, that in the years when you’ve been hurtfully inactive, I long for a film that is uniquely yours—a film that only you, of all the countless filmmakers this world can give, can make? How else could I say that without sounding too selfish? How could I hide the priceless pleasure of just imagining that you are now working on your next film?
I miss your films, but I cannot lie and say that I don’t miss you too. In fact, I miss you more. I miss you so much that I wish the feeling wouldjust go away. And God forbid I can’t help but feel that if you pass on I believe it will be the most hurtful missing I could ever go through in the lifelong commitment that I promised to cinema. Because I need to let go of the possibilities, of the worldly possibilities of you continuing your craft, making another film, speaking to us. The voice can only come from you—the careful balance of fearless political criticism, the distant yet truthful mockery of the system, and the patience it costs you for them to deliver. That voice has been keeping us in a steadfast belief that there will come a time that we will hear it again, even through a whisper.
Should I really cling so much to you? Am I being impossible?
Especially at this time when independent cinema is booming, your absence is remarkably felt. I remember seeing you in the launch of Dr. Tiongson's book on Manuel Conde, and it stunned me, really, just seeing you there, attending, walking, hearing even a syllable of your words. I hesitated to approach you, of course. I didn’t want to ruin your rare public appearance. Shall we see more of you after that? (It sounds rhetorical, but I would still ask it, if only it would sound less rhetorical when put in paper.)
Oh, my iPod just went off. It sucks when you have a very long trip ahead and you can’t use it. By the way, do you remember that Robyn Hitchcock song? The one that starts with the lines, I often dream of trains when I'm alone / I ride on them into another zone / I dream of them constantly / Heading for paradise / Or Basingstoke or Reading.
That was the song I was listening to before it snapped. And then I don’t know what kind of current turned this long-unused light bulb on in my head. Then I suddenly realized one important thing. You are actually that single train I often dream of. The train that I never had the chance of stepping into because whenever I dream of it, it is that moment when the door closes and its sound lingers to push me awake. Yes, I remember, I always miss it. Every time it passes I always miss it. There is always a reason to miss it. But maybe we'll meet one night, out in the corridor of that dream that I used to have. Maybe. You've been gone for so long it feels like you're never going back.
Hey, sorry if the writing's hurting your eyes. The booth just opened, and the sun is up. It’s remarkably hot as always. I can feel the day starting to wrap me in its heat. Hope this reaches you.
Richard Bolisay is a dreamer from Manila.
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To King Kong with love
From Rolando B. Tolentino
I was a pre-schooler when I had my first experience watching in a moviehouse. It was a sudden decision by my parents to take us kids along. As they were dressing us up, we were told to behave properly. No tantrums, no getting scared in the dark, no wanting to go home in the middle of the movie. I do not remember being told, however, not to be scared by the movie.
Alongside these prohibitions, we were also told about the film. “A blockbuster,” my mother told us, we would “surely enjoy it.” The late evening invitation was welcomed. The only time we dressed up was to go to mass on Sunday evenings. There was something exciting in the preparations, not as ritualistic as the Sunday affairs.
I remember snippets of the evening. We entered in the middle of the movie. It was pitch dark, and I had to hold my mother’s hand tightly. Or she was holding my hand tightly. Me walking in the dark cavernous space, sitting by myself in a large reclining cushioned seat. I had to kneel in order to see the giant screen in front of me. Loitering after some time in the dark moviehouse. And tagging along with another adult to buy donuts.
I remember the donuts, packaged in pairs. One was sprinkled with sugar-coated bits, the other was covered with shredded coconut. The colors were bright, but I remember not liking the taste. Tasted like cough syrup flavors. I had to decline from finishing my share.
I remember snippets of the movie. It was the black-and-white King Kong. The giant ape caught my attention only when I was seated in my chair. I was too busy with the newness of the experience that I could only remember the giant close-ups of the gnarling beast. Or his climbing up the Empire State Building, fighting for dear life amidst the savagery of fighter planes pounching him with bullets.
It was a dream-like night. I remember talking with others who also watched the film as we drove back home. I remember discussing the film again as we undressed and changed to pajamas. It was a night like no other night.
As a teacher of film now, I will ask my students about their ‘first time.’ They too have vivid memories of their first encounter. Almost sexual—but always remembered in a pleasant way—watching a film for the first time remains part of our own primordial memory. A social memory of sorts, something we all share even though we have come to contact [with cinema] in different times and spaces.
I was not scared by King Kong, as I was seduced into the image and experience of my first film. Hazy, in bits and pieces, maybe embellished with what I had wanted to actually remember, or even forget, the first time is always remembered with fondness and wonder. It was a simple moment in an already complicating era of my life.
My parents had just uprooted us from provincial Nueva Ecija to study in the more progressive Manila area. Like most middle-class, this was the natural flow of all aspirations. A decade later, people would be going overseas, primarily to look for work, or to study, including myself, again in the national portrait of things and events.
King Kong would be this ghastly yet gentle agreeable beast who would draw me back to the moviehouse over and over. Returning to the experience of what I would later learn as modernity over and over.
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From one ordinary viewer to Lav Diaz – man of the digital people
From Sonthaya Subyen/Filmvirus
Goodness! You actually did it. You were crazy enough to take up our invitation to come to Thailand. Astonishing to think that a passing reference to you and Andrei Tarkovsky on my blog could deliver you to us like this.
Wasn’t it great though? The cinephiles in Bangkok surprised us all with their response to your films. Before the retrospective began I had to battle with the dreaded thought that us organizers would have to double up as your viewers. You’d turn up and get angry about how badly your retrospective was going – hardly any viewers, inadequate sound system and projector. I was already preparing myself in case we got raised eyebrows from our main venue, who made us rent our own equipment to use in their auditorium, and I resigned myself to getting an earful from you as well. Not so as it turned out. Our viewers were far more engaged than I’d anticipated – they were actually prepared to sit, or recline, for hours and hours watching your films. They even laughed along with the humorous moments in them. And you were far easier to talk to than I’d expected.
I guess I could blame my pal Filmsick for stressing me out before you turned up. He’d posted a terrifying image of you on his blog, the one of you leaning fiercely over a table taken at the Venice film festival. The posture was so alarming I had to imitate it for you the night we went to that bar by the river. Based on that photo, whenever people asked me whose retrospective it was that I was organizing, I would reply “Carabao”. I hope this doesn’t offend you. I’m not talking about the word for buffalo in Tagalog. I’m thinking of a Thai band famous for their ‘music for life’ style. In fact, I even joked to my friends that if you blew us out at the last minute I’d invite any of the Carabao band members to come and make an appearance instead. You guys look alike enough – long hair, jeans, goatee – we would have gotten away with it. The only catch being we would have had to pay these Carabao guys some several hundred thousand baht, whereas you and Alexis turned up out of your own pockets. Your coming to Bangkok was a sincere, friendly gesture, and we Filmvirus people loved you for that.
I can still vividly recall those amusing stories you told us, about how some student once accused you of not using hair conditioner, about how you accidentally featured a pop-up umbrella in a film you were working on, set in the Japanese occupation period. These memories are as deeply etched inside me as the afternoon we took you to see Khrua In Khong’s temple murals, hopping on a bus at Wat Arun, an afternoon which extended well into the night. That night ended memorably too with a ghostly encounter – all of us heard the same eerie, spectral moaning from one of the speakers attached to a public lamppost. And let’s not forget the consensus we stumbled on – all five of us around that table seemed to find Pen-ek’s films uniformly hollow. You really surprised me with your friendliness, and your entertaining conversations. You even bothered to ask me about my publishing projects, and the state of my health, about which you advised a daily dose of Wonderbra. Sorry! Wonderplant leaves. Of course I also discovered your intense cinephilia. You watch the classics – Mirror, Last Year at Marienbad – and the contemporary films – Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis. If I hadn’t happened to pop into a bookshop to buy Tarkovsky’s diary translated into Chinese, and the novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, I would never have found out about the extent of your knowledge of other people’s films. No wonder you got my joke about responding to Nicole Kidman the way Roberto Rossellini did to Ingrid Bergman – if Kidman ever wrote to you asking for a job.
There’s one thing I’m really curious about. Before you started turning your back on the market, on the majority audience, you used to make fully commercial films. I’m really curious about these films, made before Lav Diaz became Lav Diaz. Can’t begin to imagine what they’re like. Probably melodramatic, wildly emotional, am I right? Are they anything like those excessively dramatic radio soaps you show in Evolution of a Filipino Family? I’d really like to know too what you make of Filipino films in general, and what you think about those chaotically energetic entertainment films our hot humid region of Southeast Asia churns out. (If you ever want to know what would happen if you crossed the Famous Five stories with superstition, sci-fi, Seven Samurai and the TV series Six Million Dollar Man, don’t forget to check out a Thai film called Yod manut computer/Supercomputer Man. It’s a great example of the cultcult Thai movie.)
The Philippines probably has its fair share of over-the-top, cultish horrors. As far as I’m aware, Filipino filmmakers used to make B-movies for the Americans – mostly low budget gross-out horrors and women-in-prison shockers in the style of Roger Corman, or some such. Before you enrolled at that Goethe workshop with Christoph Janetzko (teacher of Raymond Red and our very own Paisit Punpreuksachat, also Pimpaka Towira), before you got into films, like Lino Brocka’s, that scraped the hard skin underneath the feet of politicians, was there ever a part of you that loved home-style entertainment movies? I get the impression there are many similarities between our national film cultures. So perhaps before you became the Lav Diaz who makes films at the very limit of our idea of cinema, before you became our digital hero, you may once have fallen under the spell of the 100% entertaining entertainment film too.
Since we both share a common ancestry, our dubious parallel heritage of nonsensical, instant noodle films, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about the Thai films of days long past. The films that were made before consciousness, morality, aesthetics, or plain old affectation took over, resulting in the robotic standard of propriety that imposes itself on Thai films today.
Back then Eden was filled with cheapie home-style movies, sincere in their transparency of purpose: to make a bit of dough by getting stars to do whatever they did most lovably in front of the camera. That was more than sufficient, economically speaking. The consciousness of the director as auteur was about a zillion kilometers removed, the demand for serious content was met, backhandedly. Miss Morality was always wheeled out, hurriedly, in the final closing minute – that was enough fodder for social decency. (Don’t get me wrong, the filmmakers meant well enough. It’s just that amusement went the opposite direction of aesthetics, and refused to exit the garden of infantile pleasures.) These were the days before the mass arrival of new waves figures such as Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, Cherd Songsri, Khunnavutr, or Permpol Choei-arun, whose socially responsible films earned them the sacred halo of quality. Before they took over, we could boast of films once so ‘primitive’ that foreigners who get the chance to see them today would begin to understand that the stork didn’t deliver Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Thailand. We needed more help than that – perhaps some artificial insemination concocted by the gods of cinema.
Well, let’s face it, Thai films back then answered only to their own odd logic. Kids these days probably can’t begin to imagine what they were like, these films which were held captive to the monogamous coupling. Whoops! The monopolistic pairing of the leading man and lady. They’d also have to get used to the theatrical style of the voice performers, who gave our leading couples exaggeratedly crystalline intonation. This was the same period as the first generation of TV soaps, broadcast in black and white and performed live. Viewers bore witness to everything, the mistakes, the whispered prompting which sometimes had to be repeated several times before the actors could pick up where they left off. It’s true that, when compared to the TV soaps, the films of this period could at least edit out the mistakes. At least they used actual locations for background, rather than cheap wooden boards painted the texture of the sky or sea. But if we were to go further and speak of the 'lighting composition' of these films, we’d have to admit that the light did all the composing. All the human hand had to do was to shine as much light as was maximally possible onto the set. The heroines were over-the-top too, going to sleep in full makeup in a bedroom electric bright all the way from the foreground to the background. (This was the reason why this cinema’s biggest star, Petchara Chaowarat, went blind.) And what about the camera? With its love of the rapid zoom in and out, it made viewers travel through space faster than even the time machine itself.
The members of the cast: the mother and father, the minor royals, the major dignitaries, the servants, the baddies, the jealous mistress, the comedians positioned by the throne and the spittoon ready to massage and humor their masters, and don’t forget the sex bombs. All of these characters would line up in a single file in front of or behind the sofa, mouthing the longest dialogues – the lines that set sail and got lost, drifting further and further into distant water. The unfunny formula of getting the lines wrong then right then right then wrong again and again and again. (Just like what I wrote.) The lines that sometimes strayed below the belt (literally), playing for time while the couple inched their way back to their abode. That’s right, the taproot of likay folk opera runs deep in Thai cinema. This is a truth not recognized by the new wave army just mentioned, or the teen filmmakers of the Tai Entertainment era (mid-1980s to 1990s), intent as each of them were to scrub Thai films clean of their primitivism. This trajectory they call progress has since delivered us the company GTH (Gmm Tai Hub), whose films display not an iota of awareness that the more they try to create decorative, trendy mise-en-scenes, the further their films stray from the lives of ordinary people. This is why us oldies, who have fallen out of the trend, have had to flee into the embrace of TV, both as viewers and producers.
But once upon a time there was a pair of stars I followed passionately, called Sombat Methanee and Aranya Namwong. Their names resonate so strongly still among the folks of my generation. Every time I think of the first Thai film in my living memory their faces come to mind. Up to the 1980s, Thai cinema was a cinema of a handful of stars, coupled off in pseudo-romantic pairs. The last of these was the pairing of Jintara Sookkapat and Santisuk Promsiri. There wasn’t the kind of inflation of stardom you see now. Mit Chaibancha and Sombat each starred in god knows how many movies a month. They literally had no time to sleep. Every time a scene was shot of the hero climbing up to a helicopter, whoever financed that film would reach for the nearest prayer book. (Back then the stars did their own stunts. No sling, no stunt – we had that long before Ong Bak laid claim to it. In fact that was how Mit, the number one leading man before Sombat came along, met his death – plunging off a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter mid flight.)
At the height of his fame Sombat could probably be compared to Gérard Depardieu, the French ex-superstar. He could star in any genre – drama, action, but was in his element in smutty comedies. You could say of all the James Bonds he was most like Roger Moore. Even better was the fact that he had a fine voice, and had been a singer before he became a star. Compared to Sombat, Mit was a leading man in another style – polite, modest, a gentleman both on the screen and off. He was probably more like Sean Connery.
As for the content of films Sombat starred in, there wasn’t much to worry about. In those days if the filmmakers didn’t adapt, or mangle, a novel, they’d make up their own plot. In most cases they’d steer clear of realism or serious content. The stars were so busy working on so many films at the same time they didn’t have time to change their hairstyles to suit each role. And why bother? When their fans loved them as they were, wanted to see them in the kind of stories they were used to, and devoured the sight of their smiles and body language in a manner that they could identify with. Intellectual affectation really wasn’t an appropriate accessory to these films.
The first love is always the best love, right? Although I came to admire male stars like Pairoj Jaising, Pairoj Sungwoributr, Kanchit Kwanpracha, Yodchai Meksuwan, Sorapong Chatree, and Thoon Hiranyasap, each for different reasons, Sombat still remains the number one for me. The fact that he’s been in all sorts of atrocious films (including that one, Tears of the Black Tiger) doesn’t change the way I feel for him. Once I even went as far as to seek out his biography, called Pen phra-ek sa jon dai/A Star at Last. It claims he’s been entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who’s starred in the greatest number of films, more than 617, and opposite at least 87 leading ladies.
So are you beginning to see now how much of this rubbish is in me, Lav? This wasn’t the side of me I revealed during our conversations. How I would like to have a go at making a film in this primitive style, the type of film that might end with a twist revealing the hero to be a police captain in disguise, sent on an undercover mission. I’d especially like to lay my hands on our very own kind of romcom. But there would be no point in doing this only to pay sentimental homage to the films of the past, or to express a yearning for the good old days. And of course there would be no point at all in satirizing them. Anyone who wants to cite these films in the present would have to do so with understanding and attachment. They can neither blindly elevate the films nor raise themselves above them. And let’s hope the result would differ from Tears of the Black Tiger and The Adventures of Iron Pussy (although I do like this film of Apichatpong’s).
Is my letter getting too long for you, Lav? I hope not, since you make 11-hour films. Like I said to you in person, sitting through your films made the tender skin on my buttocks so sore I had to rub Tiger balm on them (true story); to which you replied, “Sorry man”. So consider this my turn to claim your time.
The point of telling you my shaggy dog story is this: I wanted to let you know that Sombat Methanee has directed films too, 16 in total if I’m not mistaken. No, they’re not particularly good, but I expect many Thais remember them still. The most memorable one for me is Salakjit, with Sombat in the leading role opposite the young Jarunee Suksawad (think of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade). But let me tell you about his fourth films, Yae nuad sua or, in English, Operation Black Panther.
That’s right, black panther, though on the credit titles roams a pink panther in the style of a Blake Edwards’s Inspector Cluzot film. In Sombat’s film the Black Panther is the name of a terrorist organization up to no good as usual. In films like this one, if terrorist organizations are not bent on conquering the world then they’re busy killing this or that person. Think of Dr Fu Manchu or James Bond. Everyone in the Black Panther organization wears a mask. The punishment dealt to those lower down the line of command includes the 007 trick of throwing them into the panther’s cage.
What does our hero Sombat have to do with this sinister organization? Well, the nonsensical pretext is that our hero happens to be addicted to mystery novels of the Sherlock Holmes, Arsčne Lupin or James Bond varieties. By a series of mishaps the Black Panther takes him for one of their assassins, so our unwitting hero has to carry out the tasks assigned to him.
The assassin from Harvard falls at the first hurdle. He turns up late for work forgetting to load the bullets in his gun. For this piece of stupidity our assassin becomes the man wanted by the organization.
It’s the moment Sombat appears in one particular scene that I would like to make you, Lav Diaz, party to history (this history which is so important to me). It’s the moment of his arrival in Siam Square.
Do you remember Siam Square, Lav? On it sits New Light restaurant where our 20 strong group ended up, on its third floor, after the opening night of your retrospective. Thirty odd years separate the New Light we ate in and the New Light in the film, but in terms of its architecture and atmosphere not a great deal has changed. The shops around it have though – god knows when the Hard Rock Café suddenly cropped up. Back then the clothes, the hairstyles and the taxis looked very naff, but Sombat’s car more than compensates for these lapses in taste. It’s a car that doesn’t look as pretty as Herbie, and at best it’s only a distant relative to the Mini Cooper. But what it has that the other cars lack is two front parts. That’s right, two front parts facing the opposite direction with one steering wheel in each part.
Better late than never as they say. The comical honking of a car horn announces the arrival of Sombat’s silly yet useful vehicle. He may be late for his assassin’s job, but the compact size of the car means our hero can squeeze into the meagre gap that passes for parking space in Siam Square’s crowded hive. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the square that never gets lonely, whatever the age.
Here we are in the parking space in front of New Light restaurant. The spot where Thailand’s leading politician, the arch enemy of the Black Panther, is about to get popped off. He will walk out of the restaurant after his meal and get into his car right here.
Meantime Sombat is waiting opposite the restaurant, the same side of the square as the Doungkamol Bookshop. In the frame you get a crystal clear view of the shop’s sign: D.K. Bookhouse, the original branch of the book company I used to work for, the company that used to publish good books for generations of readers. The company that gave a space for D.K. Filmhouse (Filmvirus), those good people who brought to you astonishing, unusual films (aren’t we modest!) – films like Lav Diaz’s (boundless loyalty).
Next up the chase scene, the universal part of cinematic language that’s been around right from the start, in the films of cinema’s forefathers the Lumičres and especially in D.W. Griffith’s films. The scene we’re watching right now records the chase across Bangkok from Siam Square to the Golden Pagoda.
No matter how hard the villains chase him Sombat always eludes their grasp. His weapon is the pocket car’s time saving genius. Whenever he finds himself hounded into a tight corner, Sombat would jump across into the other seat with the steering wheel. In this way he could drive off the opposite direction without wasting time reversing the car. Little Red’s double fronted model is a marvel of motor design giving the car the agility of a town mouse.
This was Thai cinema’s answer to the James Bond or other spy thrillers of that period, its effort to match the genre’s formula featuring the talented, charming hero, the ladies’ man with his latest technological or motor gadgets. The gadget in Sombat’s film was novel enough for me at least. The kid that I was then was dumbfounded by the sight of it, which made me fantasize about getting my very own toy version to play with.
Fast forward to the end of the film, the hero and heroine now sit behind each steering wheel taking turns to drive Little Red through narrow lanes dodging the enemies hot on their heels. The end arrives for this trusty little car when action girl on the enemy’s side has a stroke of genius and shoots multiple bullets down the middle of the mini where the two front parts are joined. Oh what a shame, amidst the shower of bullets raining down on it, our little mini becomes almost crippled. The steering wheel still works all right, but the back part of the car now trails limply scraping the road surface. Our hero has no choice except to rely on brawn, and pure luck, to get him out of this final tight spot.
Of course no hero of this period could be a hero without martial arts skill. The other more interesting skill that heroes also needed to have, and Sombat had in spades, was sex appeal. In both the films that he starred in, and the films that he directed, Sombat didn’t shy away from bringing out this quality of his. Every now and then during a film’s running time, ladies adorned with only the bottom half of their two-piece would cling to him (in a manner that no grade-A Thai films these days would dare to do). He’d show off his toned muscles posing in small underpants, the color of bright canary yellow in some films. Sometimes he’d receive multiple blows from the villains, who’d end the lesson dealt to him by stripping him down to his red underpants. Even more astonishing still are the details in the biography I mentioned earlier. Sombat freely discloses in this book his tricks for the love scenes, his experiences in brothels (regarded as acceptable in those days), and even his tete-a-tetes with homosexual men – in the kind of saucy details that beggar belief that a leading man would dare to reveal this much of his life.
Oh yes, I could carry on for days and days telling you more nonsense of this kind, Lav. But I don’t know if you yourself have any fondness left in you for silly, obsolete movies like this. (Or is your foot now itching to thwack the tender spot on my buttock where Tiger Balm was applied?) Yes of course the good old days are only a myth. Knockabout films like Luk sao kamnan/The Henchman’s Daughter, Mue peun nom sod/Fresh Milk Gun Man, or Kai luk khoei/Son-in-Law Eggs may have been part of the sweet scent of my past, but I have long been carrying this immense anger against Thai cinema too. Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much from something that’s as close to me as this. Maybe I should accept what’s real, make peace with Thai cinema in all its limitations, and give up nursing the hope that one day this thing will change into what it isn’t. But then again I’m probably blind to the value of Thai films as a kind of social barometer. I could try harder to fall in love with lowbrow kitsch, to delight in writing about them as a kind of alchemic reinvention – the kind of film criticism that Filmsick does so brilliantly. But then again I lost my head so long ago to the films cultural institutes of the west used to show. I guess you could call my submission to their activities a form of ‘colonial’ inculcation.
As I write this sentence a strangely bitter laugh wells up inside me, yet brings with it a warm glow I experience so rarely in life – a sudden feeling of safety and belonging. Who knows what this is all about – perhaps it’s a sign of the last remaining thread that still binds me to this nation of mine. It’s only a strange thread, though, neither like Spiderman’s nor the web of the Black Widow.
What about you, Lav? Have you ever been in this position? Have you ever had to work through bittersweet attachment like this one? Please send some advice. Tell me how you manage to stay on your feet in the business of cinema that’s so far removed from the realities of Filipino society.
and proud to have met you,
Sonthaya Subyen founded Doungkamol Filmhouse, or D.K. Filmhouse, in 1995. D.K Filmhouse continues to program screening tours around university campuses in Bangkok and other provinces. Sonthaya writes film and literary criticisms for several magazines and is the publisher of the Filmvirus and Bookvirus paperback series.
Translated by May Adadol Ingawanij
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A love letter for a friend
From Tan Bee Thiam
As Morrissey puts it, this year, my life has been a succession of people saying goodbye. I had not expected you would be one of them.
The last time I met you was in Manila, end of last year. You invited me to a panel on Film Archiving Think Tank: Challenges and Ideas, as part of the Annual Southeast Asian Cinema Conference. It was at the same conference five years ago that we met in Singapore. Both of us just graduated and with no immediate plans. After the conference I went away to backpack in India. We kept in touch through email correspondence and online journals, sharing what we saw, our lives, families, dreams and hopes. We also shared ideas of what we thought should be done for our community. By the end of 2004 I put together a proposal for an Asian Film Archive and you put together one for Criticine. As Godard said, cinema is the goodwill for a meeting. We had many and these are my hazy memories of how our paths crossed over the years:
March, 2005: You invited my little short film to a festival you programmed, .MOV (founded by Khavn) and hosted me at your place when I was in Manila. We talked for a long while before you popped in a DVD, A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang. But we fell asleep soon after.
April, 2005: You came to Singapore again, this time round to attend your first Singapore International Film Festival. I hosted you at my place and we ran from screening to screening, watching films, meeting people and talking about films at the end of the night. Hou Hsiao Hsien was in town for his retrospective and we met him for an interview. I was your translator. I interviewed Lav who was in town to screen Evolution of A Filipino Family. Khavn, Rox Lee, Quark (I think), Yuhang and Chui Mui were also in town. I also interviewed Pin Pin after her world premiere of Singapore GaGa. We met Wenjie at Substation and he gave the Focas books to you.
June, 2005: Mike de Leon approached Erwin and you to ask if the Archive could help to preserve his materials. This marked the first of many other Filipino films you would highlight for the Archive to assist in their preservation.
September, 2005: You curated a programme of shorts that will become S-Express Philippines. It was the year that the Substation helped launch the Asian Film Archive through co-hosting the Forum on Asian Cinema and the Asian Film symposium. At the opening, we also launched the Singapore shorts Volume One DVD. I was so glad you were there to share that moment with me.
During that trip, one night, we went up the rooftop of Esplanade and talked about the future of Criticine and the Archive. What would it take to make those dreams happen? How could we balance that with our responsibilities to our families and loved ones? It was a heavy night. The hopes were heavy. We promised to lend each other an arm, a leg and a shoulder.
When you got back, you forwarded an article to me. You told me to read it when I was free. It was an interview with Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker who started a film magazine – Film Culture and the Anthology Film Archives.
June, 2006: Your dad passed away. I lost my dad a few years before. You told me how you would secretly record your conversations with your dad when he was in the hospital. You reminded me we were supposed to make feature films about our fathers. But we got sidetracked and became fatherless children, working for orphan films.
July, 2006: We met in New Delhi for the Osian’s Cinefan International Film Festival. It was the first time you came to India. It was a bit surreal showing you around where I had been two years ago, the same places I was telling you about in my emails, where I walked for hours by myself, thinking about life. And it was at this festival that I met with Tsai Ming Liang.
September, 2006: You were in Singapore for the S-Express Philippines for Substation. I put together a program of medium length films for the same festival.
October, 2006: Paul brought us both to Hawaii for the international film festival. You were doing jury work for Netpac and I was doing the same for the international short film section. We were hosted by Anderson, Christian and gang at a nice hotel by the beach. Paul brought us out one night to a far-away beach, less touristy, and we hung out with Sharifah Armani and Elyna. Jajang and Nia were also there. As we were debating the films we would fight for, Jason and his girlfriend joined us at the fast food joint.
December, 2006: The conference on Southeast Asian Cinemas moved from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. This time round, it was a bigger congregation. Benjamin, Tuck Cheong and Chris were our hosts. I stayed with Amir who, with Raya, John, Edwin and Yuhang gave workshops on filmmaking. Martyn was there too. Of course Gaik, Hassan, Tito, John (Badalu), Dimas et al were there as well.
July 2007: We were back at the Osian’s Cinefan. This time round, Amir, Apichatpong, Mui and Tuck Cheong were there too. I gave a paper on archiving early cinemas in Asia as part of the conference that Nick put together. You spoke about film criticism.
September 2007: You were back in Singapore, your adopted home after Manila and Vancouver.
October 2007: I was in Manila again to judge the Southeast Asian section of Cinemanila International Film Festival and the jury awarded the prize to Mukhsin by Yasmin. It was here that I first met Nika, who charmed me instantly. She was so full of energy and there was an unmistakable glint of purpose in her gaze. She was someone who had found her calling and found love. I remembered one night when I swung by and you were with Lav, Raya and John.
December, 2007: I invited you to Singapore to speak on a panel on film criticism and programming in the Symposium on Southeast Asian Digital Cinema. Ben (Slater and Mckay), Khavn, Gertjan, Mui and Mirabelle were there too.
June, 2008: We also met in the later half of the year. So this was early. I was in Manila again to attend the SEAPAVAA conference. You had taken an even more active role in film archiving and joined Sofia, one of the co-organizers of SEAPAVAA that year. We met up twice. We spoke about Nika; we spoke about setting up a free film library space that would hold reference copies of the films in our collection and books about films; you spoke excitedly about how that could be a project to draw Nika to Manila and both of you could work on it. We also spoke about our dads. Raymond joined us later and we talked about how we would miss Osian's in 2008.
November, 2008: It was Manila’s turn to host the Southeast Asian Cinema conference, five years after it was first held in Singapore. You were the key person coordinating this, working with Bono, Kiri, Rolando, Tilman, and Merv. You chaired the panel with me and Clodualdo on film archiving, an area you had also become increasingly concerned with. There is so much to be done, yet people in power or who have the resources were clearly not investing enough to create fundamental changes to the state of archiving. You related what you felt were pertinent questions for the Philippines film archives. I related what I had seen in Jakarta and the region and also more positive examples of how even with very little resources, we could still make a difference. Later when I stayed at your place, you showed me an article you wrote, a love letter that would encapsulate your love for Nika and your wish for Filipino cinema. We spoke about our dream project – the film library. You said you had spoken to Nika and she was excited about it too. I remembered others at the week-long conference and evening gatherings: Kidlat, Lav, John, Khavn, Red, Raya, Tengal, Teddy, Bobby, Ben (Anderson and Slater), Philip, Tito and others.
And that was the last time we hung out. At your home. We used to imagine that the film community is like a big family, one that cares, forgives and loves one another. It is. The outpouring of tributes since your passing has shown just that. I am sure many more of your friends, our friends, have very fond memories of you too. The friend who was there to talk about cinema and fight for it. In you, we’ll continue to find strength in this work that you have started for us.
Goodbye for now as we board our planes. We will meet again.
Tan Bee Thiam is the founder and Executive Director of the Asian Film Archive.
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Replying Alexis, and to all my Filipino friends
From Tan Chui Mui
On Sat, Sep 26, 2009 at 7:07 PM, chuimui TAN wrote:
I am sorry I’m always bad at replying to email. I’m sorry I took so long to reply to your email. Some friends think I am nice and sensitive, but I think I must be a very cold person, to not write a few nice words to you, after you lost your father.
And you are probably the only person in the world who could write something like this, “It has been a very very difficult week for me this past week. My father has just passed away. I am certain that what I am going through is nowhere nearly as difficult as what you had to, but it hurts and is very difficult all the same.”
You are too nice.
And I couldn’t comfort you. Because I didn’t want to talk about how painful it was to lose someone so dear.
I just couldn’t. I think I am still in denial, about the death of my younger brother. I could tell my new friends, my father passed away in a car accident, but I couldn’t tell them, my younger brother died in the same accident too. He was 25.
Even after so many years, I still talk about my younger brother, as if he is still alive, living in my hometown.
He was young, good looking, with a nice girlfriend, and the family business.
It is always sad to lose someone young.
And now you.
And of course one doesn’t get used to a thing like this.
I can’t imagine I will not see you anymore. And I can’t imagine how I could gather the courage to go to Cinemanila. You are my first Filipino friend. And it was you who showed me around, the first time when I went to Manila.
We were closest in year 2005, in the SIFF workshop. But we don’t talk that much about films. We were quite childish. Once we were in a Ramen restaurant, you and Khavn challenged me to take the spiciest Ramen. it turned out to be no problem to me at all. You were impressed; or we skip some screenings and spent time in the Starbucks. Talking nonsense and taking silly photos. You complain the photo I took of you, about your nose; and you took a funny photo of me holding a water bottle, like I was holding a light saber; The worst photo was in Rotterdam 2007, I was in the Brockas futsal team. And you ask me to make a stupid pose, to my regret.
all those silly photographs you took of me, can I have them back?
And how you always greet me, ”Tan Chui Mui, ni zhi dao shen me?". And how I always joke to you, ” I don’t like Filipino. But I like you Alexis, you are not Filipino.” Which you were of course offended by. Yes, how I liked to tease at you and your ‘Filipinoness’.
because I don’t see you fitting into the Filipino characteristic I get to know later, from Khavn, Lav Diaz, John Torres, Arleen, Raya, Tikoy and others. I think, they are romantic, fun, unorganized, wild and crazy. Or to put it this way, I could not imagine how you can fit into the Brockas Band. No offence, but can you really play drums?
You are gentle, polite, and too nice. You are sort of a Singaporean.
Yes, I’m full of prejudice.
Indeed I was really surprised by your open love letter to Nika. I should realize earlier you can be romantic too.
I want to let you know I will take back my words. (Yes, like Raya did.) I am sorry my reply comes so late, and it comes in this way.
You are Filipino! And I like Filipino.
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From Tan Pin Pin
Singapore film culture and community cannot be written about without mentioning Toh Hai Leong. He seemed to be at every major Singapore film milestone by sheer force of will. I have yet to meet anyone who loved films and was as passionate about it as Hai Leong was. He was Singapore film's most ardent supporter.
I first met him at the Singapore Film Society screening of Citizen Kane in the early 90s. He was then the secretary of the Society at a time when film culture was defined by film societies such as these. I didn't have the money to buy a membership but still wanted to watch Kane, so he sneaked me in. I have never forgotten that moment of kindness. From that time, sensing a kindred spirit, everytime we met, he would talk about the latest film he had seen, his writing (reams, long hand) and the latest festival he had been invited to (Hong Kong usually). He spoke very fast, spoke non-stop and spoke always about film. He was and still is my most intense brush with cinephilia. It was as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did.
When film culture shifted gears into the video era in the late 90s, and film watching (and filmmaking) democratized beyond the Goethe Institute and the Film Society, many of us gathered around the Substation, an arts space which programmed our films. Hai Leong was there too. He hung with us wannabe-filmmakers, most half his age, drinking tea at the shabby S11 after screenings. He still spoke fast, and he still talked film with an intensity that could be scary. There was a hunger in him for friendship, for a community and it seemed that he found that in films and amongst filmmakers. By then, he was supporting himself as a security guard and living hard but he came, and there was always a seat reserved for him at the Substation. We met again at the 2003 Bangkok International Film Festival. He could not afford the plane fare so he had bussed overland for two days to Bangkok.
This is not an obituary but it is in the past tense. Hai Leong was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes a few years ago and, how should I put it? He lost the will to look after himself. He forgot his injections and he had to be retrieved from the brink several times. Something just snapped, perhaps his illness caused it, but along went his will to enjoy, to love and to care, not just for films, but for himself. Needless to say, he stopped showing up.
He now lives in a full-time care-center to ensure that he is fed, that he takes his meds and injections on time. I cannot bring myself to visit him but I am glad some of us in the film community still do.
This picture was taken by Ho Choon Hiong at Hai Leong's 52nd birthday on 21 Mar 2007. Some friends in the film community took him out for dinner.
Back row : L-R Mdm Kwa P Y, Jasmine Ng, Zhang Wenjie, Charles Lim, Wee Li Lin, Kristin Saw, Yuni Hadi, Philip Cheah
Front row:L- R Ho Choon Hiong, Toh Hai Leong, Chew Tze Chuan
In 2007 Chew Tze Chuan made a documentary about Hai Leong's struggle with his illness, called F. It premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival.
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This Is Not An Elegy
From Vinita Ramani Mohan
News of Alexis and Nika reached me on September 2nd some time around 12pm. It was a hot day and I was waiting to take a bus to some place to have lunch. I was starving. When the phone call from Asia Europe Foundation’s David Ocon came, I was excited. I’d been slowly trying to re-connect disparate threads in the arts community. I wanted to tell them, “I’m back!” I wanted to do it before they could ask me the proverbial question: “When are you leaving?” I’d somehow gotten the reputation for always leaving. Singapore had become a transit stop, not a home, and friends had become acquaintances. I’d always been thirsty for community, but I was always building transient ones.
David stopped my thoughts with a despondent re-telling of what he had heard and read in the news. I hadn’t seen him in well over a year, but I could see his face as he spoke. Melodramatic cinema has a way of portraying the reception of bad news – the whole world around you falls silent, as if someone suddenly threw a vast woollen blanket over you and shut it out so that it is just you and your internal universe. Everyone moves slowly, everything seems further away, incidental, inconsequential.
When I heard the news, noises just seemed to increase. The traffic was loud, the air dense and oppressive. I could not hear David clearly. I could hardly hear myself think. People arrived at the bus-stop. They glanced at me, they saw something was wrong and they looked a few seconds longer than they should have. Then they boarded their buses, and they got on with their lives. Nothing stopped.
I felt nothing. I waited. I got on a bus and my hands were shaking, I searched in my bag for my MP3 player. I had to hear something other than everyday sounds. I put on Arcade Fire’s Funeral – an album of songs the band had written following a year of unexpected deaths: parents, grandparents, friends. The song, Neighbourhood #2 (Laika) came on:
“Come on Alex, you can do it.
Come on Alex, there's nothin' to it.
If you want somethin' don't ask for nothin’,
if you want nothin' don't ask for somethin'!”
And then I cried.
On August 30th, we’d exchanged emails and we had planned to meet at the Asian Film Symposium in Singapore, from September 18th to 22nd. We were excited about meeting and curious to see where our lives had taken us. Different conversations were coming together. A week before, I’d spoken to Wenjie about the things I missed most about the Singapore International Film Festival, in the incarnation I remembered from four to five years ago. I missed the sense of community and I missed the friendships I’d built around the festival – like dancers in a carnival bonding for no other reason than the ecstatic pleasure of congregating and loving the same thing.
I missed coming in to work every day, my head full of images from the various films I’d taken home to watch the evening before. I missed the distinct scent, sensation and energy of those mornings – walking out with Philip Cheah to get a cup of coffee and talking about what I’d seen, or what I had read by a writer or critic on a film or a series of films I had watched. All that mattered then was to watch these films, to learn as much as I could, to write and read. The more difficult task of persuading others to care about some of what I’d seen aside, I felt I was in the right place at the right time.
I hadn’t seen Alexis in a while and was looking forward to experiencing that feeling again, only this time, with him. My conversation with Wenjie was in the back of my head and I knew Alexis and I had many stories to share, well beyond cinema. In an essay called ‘The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person’ written for Rogue magazine on his life and his loves last year (2008), Alexis wrote: “Because one of the greatest joys I believe one can feel is to share that which they find beautiful with someone who otherwise wouldn’t have noticed it, and to see it appreciated.”
I wasn’t merely looking forward to seeing Alexis again because I wanted to catch up on our old discussions about cinema. He’d have known I required no persuasion and of course, I didn’t need to tell him about cinema.
I was waiting for something more than that: I was waiting for a conversation about the trajectories our lives had taken and why it all still somehow connected back to the soul, to our souls and what moved us. That conversation was cut short. And so, as with Alexis’ letter to Nika, I write now, a letter to Alexis; a letter that I hope will express what I’d intended to share. I suspect Alexis would have hated elegies. He’d have preferred letters, essays and a sincere, passionate struggle to find the right words to express the most difficult of thoughts. It is what he loved in Nika and it is what he expected of me, of many of us for whom he created a space to inhabit as writers. So no elegy. No eulogy even. Just a letter.
Who came up with “Jack of all Trades, Master of None”? It’s a pathetic aphorism that tells us more about modern society’s need to create dutiful servants and acquiescent staffers to fill offices than it does about an individual’s ability to learn, to grow, to change.
It doesn’t take much digging to quickly realize that what our predecessors aspired to was diversity, plurality, difference. How else can you explain the fact that ancient civilizations would send out their young to learn astronomy, art, languages, physics, mathematics, philosophy, painting, building – all of it, all at once? Everything was linked, but distinct. Now, everything is fragmented, guards policing the borders of our minds, academic disciplines, arts, countries. But I digress.
This is just my elaborate and obtuse way of telling you I’m sorry if it appears as though I have abandoned cinema and writing about cinema. If I started out being passionate about it, I should’ve stuck to it and my disappearing act has probably left some members of the film community thinking, “Ah, she always was a fickle one...had her hand in too many things.” Or maybe not.
I know you won’t hold it against me, but I have this need to always provide context and rationalize my position to everyone I know. One day, I hope to outgrow it. But until I do, I want to tell you a story about the roads I’ve taken.
I have not abandoned cinema.
Cinema, like everything that came before it and led me to it, just led me to other things.
The directions I take, the things I do - it’s a bit like those Russian Dolls: I look at something, I spend time with it, I then open it and find something else inside: a variation on the theme, a distinct theme altogether, a new avenue that I couldn’t have arrived at without taking the road before it.
In high school, literature was all that kept me sane. It was the only discipline in which my penchant for using ‘big words’ was accepted. In every other class, I was made fun of for acting too smart. Literature led me to public speaking and debating (more words, more of the joy of working with them, articulating, weaving and disassembling ideas to put together new thoughts). I felt literature had been like a spiritual guide to me, protecting me and opening my eyes to the world, without asking anything in return.
So in university, it let me go off and explore everything else that was out there. It’s as though literature said, “I am in everything, so you can’t really depart from me.”
Literature led me to film studies, cultural studies and philosophy. Everything embedded in those disciplines began making me think of identity, of difference, of culture and social memory. Everything in those disciplines exposed me to how people were telling stories about themselves; how people remember, forget, understand and struggle to understand their place in the world. Cinema was filled with it; philosophy was filled with it. All of that led me to social justice and jurisprudence, because so many of the stories I read or watched onscreen articulated a struggle to comprehend injustices in the world. So for my Masters I studied just that. I studied about ethnic minorities and the law; about identity and plurality, social justice and culture. And so, it’s all come full circle. Cinema was a rotating, 360 degree doorway and it is always there, it is always about the stories people tell about the universes they inhabit.
And something in the Southeast Asian films I’d seen began triggering something in me; a desire perhaps, to enter that world beyond the screen. A desire to understand why it is that some filmmakers kept wrestling with their countries and why it is that their country’s struggle had somehow become their own – something they’d make films about, something they’d die feeling deeply. And I wanted to know what was beyond particular portrayals of Southeast Asian countries – why only particular kinds of stories were being told about particular cultures. Why, with the incredible plurality of stories, with versions of reality beyond our imagining, some film industries, some filmmakers compromised and told the version they knew would be saleable. What was beyond the screen? What if I wanted to step out of the theatre and into that reality? What then?
And that is why, two years ago, a week after my wedding, which you attended, I left for Cambodia with my husband, to begin what was to become a long learning process on how to work with survivors of genocide. Everyone thought we were misguided. During the wedding, relatives and colleagues of my husband’s parents advised them to not allow us to go. “It’s dangerous,” they said. “It’s a lawless country. Most of these developing countries are.” We in Singapore have gotten used to rationalizing our existence, our very being and identity as a success by pointing to the political failures around us. “Yes we’re staid and controlled. But think of how much worse they have it,” people seemed to say in their own, indirect manner.
Others were flummoxed by our decision. Brows furrowed, they jokingly and a little worriedly asked, “Is this your idea of an extended honeymoon?” We smiled, we shook our heads and we tried to use the words that would make sense to people for whom the decision was senseless. You called yourself a film critic because that was all that made sense to the audience, to the public. We called ourselves ‘volunteer workers’ because that was all that made sense to our audience. Same difference.
And so we spent six months living in Cambodia and we began learning about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. We began learning about how people read and felt about an event in history that so many had written about, but which was still poorly understood because the stories of the people in the villages are not the stuff of history books. And that was it. In those six months, we began cultivating trusting relationships with the NGOs we worked with. Inside jokes and unspoken understanding. Somehow, we’d found points of cultural resonance, somehow there was a sense of connection. They liked us because we were from ‘Undiah’, which is how they said ‘India’ in Khmer. That we were Indians from Singapore only made it better – we were related to them from another time, and we were close to them geographically in the current context. Win-win.
In those months, Mahdev changed and I shifted with him. He’d somehow found another ‘home’ and he had finally found purpose, a situation where he could put his desires to become a public interest lawyer to use. He could finally be the lawyer he’d dreamt of being in university.
In the villages, the survivors would ask if the “maytiehvi from Undiah” (lawyer from India) would work with them, if he would petition the courts to do right by the survivors. And Mahdev could do nothing but answer questions, give out leaflets and go back to Phnom Penh. He felt how inadequate that was.
Meanwhile, I began gathering stories of survivors in the provinces and in the city and realized that their narratives, their world-view, their ritual universe and their idea of justice and peace, of forgetting and remembering, was not being reflected anywhere in the public domain. In the fight for funding, in the fight for recognition when the judges and jury are powerful western donors, if Cambodian NGOs did not speak the discourse of western human rights, reconciliation and of memory and remembrance as it had been written about by Holocaust scholars and survivors, they could not be heard.
Gaps. Everywhere, we saw yawning chasms. And everywhere we turned, we were the only Singaporeans in the social justice arena; I don’t say this to say we were heroes, or that we are champions and pioneers. Everywhere in Southeast Asia and beyond, there are countless Singaporeans doing charity work through church missions; others are engaged in developmental work and plenty of silent community workers keep at it, dedicatedly. But still, powerful discourses dominated. There were particular ways of thinking and for thinking in those ways, you could be sure to receive donor funds and support.
Parallels. You couldn’t use the word ‘critic’ anywhere, because to criticize is anathema to the spirit of community, you’d been told. We couldn’t employ particular discourses either, because there was no room for it as it was anathema to the spirit of charity. Charity was acceptable, activism and engagement using indigenous discourses were a little too new, a little too strange.
Support: no support for what you’d undertaken to do because you felt compelled and joyous when you worked for and with cinema in the Philippines. So you taught yourself. And that is where we found ourselves as well – doing work no one particularly cared for because it had no religious backing, no political sense and no strategic value. So we taught ourselves. And the more we did, the more we shared with friends, the more people wanted to come on board and help. The more the team grew, the more we realized we had to function cohesively. We’d existed so far as a couple doing our own work and that would always be the case. But we realized the work deserved more, if it was to become sustainable, meaningful; if it was to out-live us and our own dreams. So last year we set up Access to Justice Asia, an NGO dedicated to representing victims of mass crimes in Asia and we’re now neck-deep in our work in Cambodia, our sights set on other countries in our region.
Because we’d opened the door and stepped through; because the stories I’d seen in dark cinemas, the stories I’d afterwards written about and discussed with the filmmakers who’d written and directed these films – all these stories were now alive before me, moving every day, shifting in unexpected ways. As Judith Butler had written, the narratives were showing themselves to be what they actually were: ‘unnarrativizable.’ Always incomplete, always subject to take you by surprise.
And I think of Marcos, Suharto, I think of the Burmese military dictatorship; I think of Hun Sen and Arroyo. I think of the stories I’d heard and seen. I think of the filmmakers who would respond to these political realities cinematically. I think of the filmmakers who tried to tell other stories. And that is what I dreamt Access to Justice Asia would be about – the stories I’d seen in the films, the stories I have yet to hear and pay witness to.
Our organization Access to Justice Asia is aspiring to be your Criticine – elevating the discourse on Southeast Asia (cinema, social justice, writing). And that is why, in a not-entirely-unexpected turn, I’ve begun writing plays: because of those very same stories. Because of Wole Soyinka’s Yoruba ritual-filled universe in which he hangs dictators out to dry; because of his jail sentence. Because of Tawfiq El-Hakim’s portrait of Egypt as a magical place not rife with cultural contradictions, but cultural paradoxes; because of Tomson Highway’s plays of the indigenous Cree living in northern Canada, living to tell tales of tricksters and hybrid Indians beyond the tales of abuse and assimilation and genocide; because of stories.
Everything has changed, but you see, nothing has changed.
Literature led me to philosophy and cinema, which led me to justice and jurisprudence, which led me to social justice work, which has led me back to literature and....
And that is how the cycle will go and it will not stop and like the people of old, I’d like to think it’s all there, linked. And like the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, I’d like to think all of time and all of place is linked like a chain of mountains, and if you could step back far enough, you would see it all – connected. And so Alexis, if we had met on 18th September 2009 in Singapore, I would have asked you to bring me up to speed on what is happening in the Philippines; what is happening with your curatorial work and what you and Nika have planned for the future. But I would not have felt disconnected from that world, though I exist in it so infrequently these days.
Because it all connects and because, like you, I owe my debts too. I owe it to literature, to philosophy, to cinema, to social justice. Like you, I owe it to the countries that have invited me in, allowed me to learn.
But we can’t have this conversation.
So here is my picture of the world, the one which I inhabit. In my ritual universe, you had a great deal of work left to do: many dreams left to fulfill and many plans for the Philippines and beyond.
In my ritual universe, Shiva is seen by conventional scholars as the “God of Destruction.” That’s what you get with western dichotomies: destruction and creation. In my universe, he is the greatest of all gods because he represents dissolution. Without dissolution, nothing would begin again and continue, indefinitely.
In my ritual universe, you will both begin again. Alexis and Nika have passed, but only as Alexis and Nika. I know you’ll both return and I know you’ll continue the work you began, because you were not finished. And in that spirit, I know we all have an obligation, a debt we owe to you, to continue that work as well. So we will, in our own ways, with our own stories.
And to go back to Vonnegut: the Tralfamadorians believe that all time is like that chain of mountains. Everything is happening now, all at once. Here, at the east end of the chain, you were born and you were a child moving from the Philippines to Canada. Over there at the other end, you and Nika passed. Over here in the middle, you are both traveling, writing, filling your lives and ours with your thoughts, your ideas. You are both always eternally there.
In the world of the Tralfamadorians, you are not gone. Death is a moment taking place over there, but every other moment is as significant, as potent, as present as all the other moments. You are not over, nor is Nika. You both persist, exist. That is a universe I read about when I was 16 years old and I have always hung on to it because it made sense somehow. Always already there. Always persisting, always vibrant, always resonant.
So this is the story I wanted to tell you – a story of trajectories, spiraling away and spiraling back; a story of always persisting and always staying alive and open to change, to possibility. This is your story. It is Nika’s story...a story we all write and which never ends. And now we have to find a way to make your legacy persist too – because you see, death can come so quickly and so suddenly. What will happen with the work I do and what you had intended: all that unfinished work? How will I see it through when the people I look to and need are so few and far between and when they can be taken from me, try as I might to keep them alive and present?
Lav Diaz once read me Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend, many years ago. And I know he’ll have picked it up to read it for you. So I ask you this:
“If you’re still nearby, if somewhere in this darkness
there’s a place where your spirit
resonates with the shallow sound-waves
a solitary voice can stir at night
in the currents of a high-ceilinged room:
Then hear me: Help me. You see, we slip back,
without knowing it, from our advance,
into something we didn’t intend; where
we can become caught up, as in a dream,
and where we could die without waking.
No one went further. It can happen to any of us
who raise our blood to an extended work,
that we can’t hold it at that level,
and it falls of its own weight, worthless.
For somewhere an old enmity exists
between our life and the great works we do.
So that I may have insight into it and say it: help me.
Don’t come back. If you can bear it, stay
dead among the dead. The dead have their tasks.
Then help me in a way that won’t distract you,
as what is farthest sometimes helps me: within me.”
Love and Peace,
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Paisit Punpreuksachat’s plastic string
From Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa
Begin. Scene One:
A director who’s lost his mind now lives in an old, abandoned train. He’s hiding from ‘them’, his persecutors, who possess an extra powerful satellite capable of seeing through dense iron. At least that’s what he tells the alien who interviews him. Both of them are making their way out of the train carriages in the blinding heat of day. Suddenly he flings himself at the pile of colourful plastic strings used for fastening things, which have been left in a messy heap in one of the carriages. “Ha! These are film,” he cries.
We might begin here, with this scene, to talk about how Paisit Punpreuksachat narrates, explains, defines the property of film, and reveals to us the essence of filmic perception.
It’s a small scene from his one-hour video, Tough Creatures Who Burden the Earth. An hour of strange, disjointed narration, which shows us a director who slowly goes insane while running for dear life from the woman who wants to kill him – a lesbian who may be the new girlfriend of his old girlfriend. The whole video is constructed from shots of abandoned places, fragments of run-of-the-mill narrative films, footage spontaneously recorded, and other images of immediate reality which let our imagination roam free, morphing from one thing into another. Sound and image don’t always go together in this video, they fray at the seams revealing the beautiful pattern of the stitches themselves – a multiplicity of possible paths leading from the same starting point.
Paisit calls himself a videographer because he’s never used film for his work. His day job is as a soundman for other filmmakers, but he has been consistently making his own work for many years. He once recorded footage of the daily routines of a friend and turned that into The Cruelty of Soy Sauce Man. In Happy Existentialism he shoots a chopping board so that it becomes a secret military base. His idea of adapting an old short story is to layer a voice reading the story over images of the same places the voice is referring to, shot 200 years after the time of the story’s action (Manus Chanyong: One Night at the Talaenggaeng Road). Paisit’s moving images are always strangely affecting – like entering a universe with its own logic and reasoning, like the plastic string that’s become film. It’s not often you come across someone who combines the ability to draw from his rampant unconscious childlike stories in images, and to convey them through a fully formed aesthetics – an artistic vision unto himself.
The name Paisit Punpreuksachat is not internationally known (and even in Thailand he’s a filmmaker who exists under the radar). But if I had to choose to write about someone who represents the very definition of pure cinema, Paisit’s plastic string is the first thing that comes to mind.
Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa is a film critic whose writing appears in several Thai film magazines and on his blog He is a member of the Filmvirus group, which organizes film screenings, seminars and film book publications in Thailand.
Translated by May Ingawanij
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A letter from a fiction writer/scholar-wannabe to the post-Suharto generation of filmmakers*
From Intan Paramaditha
I am writing this letter to you, the post-Suharto generation of Indonesian filmmakers, who in the past decade have revived Indonesian cinema and made the film scene more vibrant than ever. People watch and talk about Indonesian films everywhere: mainstream cinemas, cultural centers, galleries, film festivals, kine-clubs, and universities. Despite, or rather because of, my love for you, please allow me to make an unromantic statement: the more I think about the current problems you are facing, the more I am preoccupied with cartography. This letter is the beginning of an ongoing process of situating you on a map: the larger context of post-authoritarian cultural production in Indonesia.
Before you raise your eyebrows, my beloved friends, let me begin by expressing my feelings about the crucial issue that I encountered upon my return to Indonesia this year for my dissertation research (some of you might already know how I feel, but love letters are always performative; they tend to underline emotions that have always been there). In September 2009 the new film law was passed, in haste, by the Indonesian government, to replace the 1992 law as the legacy of the New Order regime under Suharto. After many of you – under the umbrella of the Indonesian Film Society – protested against censorship last year, the government admitted that the 1992 film law was no longer in sync with the development of the film industry and the spirit of post-Suharto Reformasi. But we were all questioning the good will of the government to reform, as the draft contains problematic articles that still reflect the old repressive paradigm. In addition to regulations that maintain bureaucracy, the famous Article 6, as you are all aware, states that films are prohibited from depicting pornographic acts, provoking violence or conflicts between social groups and races. You were wondering why filmmakers are suddenly seen as criminals vis-ŕ-vis society.
The law was passed despite much protest, and I shared your feelings of anxiety, frustration, and anger. When Criticine asked me to contribute to their ‘love letters’ project, I was thinking of using the opportunity to write a letter to the government to say that their effort of performing democracy (involving you in a hearing at the House of Representatives and incorporating your suggestions in the revised draft) does not conceal the underlying paradigm of the new law. The law is not intended to support but to police the Indonesian film industry.
While writing such a letter might channel my concerns on this issue, I decided not to take that direction. Perhaps it is hard to locate the affective dimension of what’s supposed to be a love letter when you write to the government. But more importantly, having followed the efforts for advocacy to protest the law before and after it was passed, there are two main reasons that stopped me. The first is related to the issues of agency and “speaking on behalf of the other.” As someone who spent four years abroad and is engaged with Indonesian cinema from a certain distance, I might be falling into the trap of appropriating the voices of those who have been fighting for Indonesian cinema – those who have always been here and are there now. Secondly, the opportunity to attend the meetings for film advocacy – to discuss strategies of how to deal with the state, and to witness people getting drained mentally and emotionally – has made me reflect on my own position. I realize that the film law is not only about film; it is about how we, the post-1998 generation, think of our place in the transitional age, with paths leading in various directions that are not yet clear to us.
My beloved friends, you might wonder what relationship exists between us, or whether we should be related at all. Why do I care so much about Indonesian cinema other than for the purpose of writing my dissertation? As I mentioned earlier about map, I am trying to situate you within the dynamics of post-authoritarian socio-political contexts. On the one hand, we witness the rise of youth movements and the euphoria of Reformasi and its promises (post-authoritarian democratization, decentralization, freedom of expression, etc); on the other hand, secular youth cultural activism has grown side by side with the stronger influences of Muslim groups and their visibility in the public sphere. I believe other people – especially the so-called scholars in Asian Studies or, more specifically, Indonesian Studies – have similarly tried to map this situation. At this point you might say that you have no interest in cartography, but map-making is inevitable. Recent edited volumes on Indonesian arts and culture indicate different ways in which Western academics label their maps: the ‘post-Suharto Reformasi’ map, the ‘popular culture’ map, the ‘media and culture’ map, and so on. As a Ph.D. student working on Indonesian cinema in the United States, I initially thought that with these maps I should assume the position of Dora the Explorer. Our little heroine always carries a map in her backpack whenever she ventures into new territories. But this is not a map of some strange land for me. This is a map of Dora’s house, and Dora is included in the map.
How could I detach myself from the space that you are in? As a fiction writer, I must say that I have been shaped by literary circles that have gained prominence after 1998, as well as those celebratory and exhausting discussions on post-Suharto ‘women’s writing.’ As a researcher, I am a part of the broader sphere of public intellectuals where formal academic institutions are not adequate to capture the complexity and the urgency of post-authoritarian cultural movements. While some young independent researchers established cultural studies and film studies groups such as KUNCI, Rumah Sinema, and Rumah Film, some prominent academics are pulled out from the ivory tower and are pressured to become activists.
The fact that I, too, have been produced by the same socio-political sphere in which your experiences are located, affects the way I see my study on post-1998 Indonesian cinema and the research methods of film studies in general. The relationship that exists between us is much more than the relationship between the object of study and the researcher (a distant observer who categorizes and labels phenomena so that they are legible by Western academics). This letter is an attempt not only to map you, but also to see how you and I are connected within the map. The questions I pose to you are the questions that I pose to myself.
Like many of you, my beloved friends, I grew up in the 1990s, watched MTV, listened to alternative rock, and was saddened by the death of Kurt Cobain. My younger self testified to how much Suharto’s foreign policy influenced consumer culture. I watched Hollywood films in theaters (we did not have much choice anyway, thanks to the New Order monopoly practices) and affirmed my taste for film and fashion by watching Academy Awards ceremonies on television. When I watched Kuldesak (1999), I felt that my generation spoke to me, not only about how inspirational Pulp Fiction and Nirvana were, but also about our teenage angst and rage toward paternalism. In the 1990s, paternalism infused various relationships from the domestic to the political levels. The world we knew was the world of our fathers, bureaucrats and the state. (And of course Suharto claimed himself as “the father of national development”, addressing his subordinates as "children", and we were all the children of the nation and so on.) But even the arts, which one might consider as potentially subversive, were not free from this. Film culture was paternalistic; you could never be a filmmaker unless you became an apprentice of powerful (male) directors.
So when the students brought down Suharto in 1998, it was like a symbolic killing of the father by the child. Your films are populated with young people, fractured families, single mothers, and helpless fathers. Talking back to the father – and its many faces – using the voices of mothers and daughters is also a recurrent theme in my fiction. And it was not a coincidence that the student movement in 1998 was supported by Suara Ibu Peduli, a group of feminist activists and intellectuals who call themselves ‘mothers.’ Reformasi was the moment to challenge the New Order constructions of mother-ism and the apolitical-middle class families. Issues of gender and sexuality should be out in the open. Thus, for the first time in the history of Indonesian cinema, we have a gay and lesbian film festival (Q Film Festival) and a women’s film festival (V Film Festival). And there is nothing more exciting than to see the burgeoning of women filmmakers and women producers such as Nan Achnas, Nia Dinata, Mira Lesmana, and Shanty Harmayn. Though literature and film have only begun to intersect lately (you probably do not know that I write fiction, as most people in literature do not know I am a film researcher), both are actually on the same trajectory. Recent literary critics have diverted their attention from the great male authors and their grand ideas of nationhood to how women writers explore issues of gender and sexuality.
Like many of you, my frameworks and aesthetic taste are shaped by global cultural references. We seek for languages outside because the language at home – the language of our fathers – has become the marker of the old time; it evokes the trauma of being forced to speak a language that does not represent us. The older generation’s taste for realism, highly influenced by modern theater, as many of them came from theater tradition, made you want to do something else. Thus we see a different kind of realism in Riri Riza’s films, or even an allusion to film noir in Joko Anwar’s. But the desire for a new language is not exclusively yours. In late 1990s young public intellectuals learned cultural studies – by themselves – because they wanted to talk about tattoos, hip hop, underground music; in short, their everyday life. Even theater – which you associate with the world of the old filmmakers – is presenting before us a different stage. Traveling is important for us. While we consume global images, we have also become transnational subjects circulated by capital. You went to schools abroad, sent your films to international festivals, and after 2006 some of you chose not to participate in the national film festival. You do not ask support from the state. You provide your own funding or – like what happens in many arts communities and NGOs – you rely on transnational funding network. Of course, as we become older and wiser, we also learn that our fathers’ references were also transnational even though they were obsessed with “the real face of Indonesia.” And they, too, have traveled. But as young people elsewhere, isn’t it almost imperative to feel that what we do is completely new? A touch of naiveté is to some extent forgivable.
My beloved friends, you have shown to the world that, as the wayward children of the New Order, you learned to walk and speak precisely during your father’s absence. And now, you are wondering, after everything has flowed on its own, why the state wants to re-enter the game with the new film law. This is a unique case for film people, as film is arguably the most successful in creating its followers, its own market. There is no law for literature or theater simply because there is not much money at stake. You are the enviable child and everyone wants to be your stakeholder. But what haunts you reveals something that does not only concern you: state paternalism does not die. It assumes different masks that complicate its presence. Sometimes it strictly controls you, especially with regards to financial investment. Sometimes it gives you freedom: you ‘may’ (as the law suggests) engage in some fun, create-your-own-activities (festivals, film discussions… you can even make your own film archives and film schools!), but the state has no legal obligation to give support. It reminds us of how the state views education policy: do your own thing with your education institutions, we will help a little. Sometimes the state plays hide and seek: the Censorship Board will not cut your film as they did in the old days, but they can pull your film from theaters if there are protests from ‘society’ (“It is not us who’s censoring. It’s the radical Muslim group”). When censorship is disguised as protection, does it not echo the recent debates on the Pornography Bill?
My beloved friends, as we all become wary of this long struggle, there is the chance that a preoccupation with details will consume us, and we are forced to prioritize some things over others. Perhaps we need to constantly remind ourselves that it is not only the film law articles that we need to problematize, but the very logic behind the existence of that law, which returns us to the map where we are all interconnected. In this map, you are not alone. And you should not be. But how do you convince yourselves of that, and how do you convince others? How do we draw our map together, opening up a space for dialogues where we learn from one another and decide where to go from here? How do we open up possibilities to expand – using your term – the ‘stakeholders’ of Indonesian cinema? If the film law is a part of the long project of reimagining ‘Indonesia’, how do we locate ourselves in the project? My letter does not offer a simple solution, but let’s ponder these questions together.
I have written too much. This is where I should stop. And this is where we might begin.
* I would like to thank Ugoran Prasad, who is also a post-1998 fiction writer/researcher, for extensive discussions on cartography and its problems.
Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian fiction writer and a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University. She is currently doing research on film culture, sexual politics, and (trans)nationalism in post-authoritarian Indonesia. Her collection of short horror stories, Sihir Perempuan (Black Magic Woman), was published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Khatulistiwa Literary Awards in Indonesia.
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From Raya Martin
Alexis was going to update his website Criticine real soon after years of inactivity. He commissioned film people for a project called Criticine: Love Letters where everyone had to address their passion for anything related to cinema. He thought that the problem with our culture is that we always on first impulse find weaknesses, flaws. This was one of the reasons why Alexis published just a few articles even if he had all the means and opportunities. He never wrote about a film he hated, because he thought it was a waste of space. He was out there to champion.
This is my love letter.
I don’t know where to begin. You probably were expecting me to write about something obscure. An excerpt from a script by Tarkovsky that he didn’t get to shoot or a scene from a lost Ishmael Bernal film or a famous critic even the buffest of film buffs had never heard of. You know me very well even with this. I was always out there to impress the people and I know you hated me more and more as this happened, but some day pards you will see me come back to where we were and what it was.
Remember the first time we met. I know you remember it very well judging from your perfect pitch impersonation of me trying to impress the 2bU panel with all the sex talk. Then I approached you on the way to the parking lot trying to make small talk. But I already knew you were into film, and at that time I was so frustrated to transfer back to Manila and study film. I was not trying to pick you up sir.
Writing this on a rainy Saturday morning thinking I’m never going to see you again or get those invisible messages as soon as I wake up or when I get home drunk as hell or those random emails links quotes. Millions of emails that we kept sending to each other, every hour, every half-hour, sometimes real time, sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other. Links to film essays. MP3s of songs that touched you. Crazy pictures of Jessica Alba, one of your pathetic attempts to make me straight. I could be straight for you for one day, even if you were gay so many times for me. I taught you your first gay lingo and it was so successful for a time all you could say was chos. I miss you ate.
We were going to conquer the world together. You were my partner in crime every time everywhere. I was just watching Antonioni’s Red Desert some days after I last saw you. Did you remember when we were running like crazy in Berlin to catch the screening because the theater was so far and it was raining. Wet snow everywhere, and we were balancing trying not to slip, a bus, a kilometer run, we were just on time. But first you had to get some food of course, chips, M&Ms. It was so quiet in the theater that it was difficult to eat those chips. It was also so cozy inside. We were taking turns waking each other up. In the end, I saw the first half and you saw the last one.
You were supposed to move out of the house the day your dad died. We were going to be housemates, a house full of DVDs and books and all those lovely things that we called cinema. I was going to shoot every second every minute of every day and you were going to write beautiful things about beautiful films made by beautiful people. We were going to publish the quintessential Filipino film magazine. We were going to write love letters to Hammy Sotto. We were going to make fun of bad films all day, and when we’re tired we’ll just walk to Lav’s place for some wine and diss some more. Khavn was going to pick us up, Arleen, John, Sherad, we’ll drive to the end of the world. We’ll travel the world festival after festival after festival celebrating. I was going to watch girls with you and you were going to watch boys with me. We would find our inbox filled with mails from every famous critic in the world nagging about your article deadlines. Peranson wrote last night checking on all of us here. I’m so happy we got to do that pards, best English film magazine in the world, your first published article and you wrote about me. Tangina pards, I’m so happy for us we were always taking these steps together. Which is why I can’t imagine life without you now. I can’t imagine not getting any of those emails before my premieres saying how proud you are of me. I was hoping finally we would be in Cannes together soon. Apichatpong wanted to meet you finally.
I never told you how great your eyes were. Those eyes saw the truth.
I’ve always said that someday when I find a boyfriend, he will only be second to cinema, you know that pards. I love you more than cinema.
I miss you so much pards. The gang misses you so much. We were always arguing but I hope you know that we were always here for you. You had issues with each other but Khavn was first to arrive at your house that night. And John, after all that trouble, you and John now have the loveliest loves in the world. Lav and Sherad are having a discourse and never sleeping. And maybe I am going to sleep with Arleen one day, to try just for you.
I love you pards. Chos.
Let’s meet on the big screen soon, you Nika and I.
PS. I take it back. You are Filipino and the country misses you.
Originally read at a memorial service for Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, 5 September, 2009, Santuario de San Antonio, Makati City.
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From Erwin Romulo
Dear Cesar Hernando,
I was never your student although I met you while you were teaching (At the University of the Philippines’ College of Fine Arts, where you still teach now.). I never enrolled in your class—all my friends signed up to someone else, the burden of peer pressure still carried a lot of weight back then—but I nonetheless became one of your regulars, visiting you at your desk at the faculty room or going to the screenings you cajoled or even arranged at U.P. Film Center or at our college auditorium. All we did was see movies and talk about them—see other movies, and talk about them even more.
You nodded with approval that I knew all about the nouvelle vague, the Italian neo-realists, Japanese filmmakers such as Ozu and Oshima rather than just Kurosawa. At that time, I really hadn’t seen most of them but had read about them in the school library. I knew a lot of trivia, like you did, and we exchanged a lot of that. But our conversations and the things you taught me were never trivial.
You would frequently bring up-and-coming and semi-famous starlets for your nude sketching classes as well as an impressive number of working filmmakers to lecture in your classes. Here, you offered us both enticement and instruction—the flesh and muscle that filmmakers should acquaint themselves with. You organized the forming of a film student organization, the Cinema as Art Movement, with a couple of my friends in our college. You credited me as one of its founders but you were only being gracious. (In reality, I only joined months later when things were beginning to get interesting.) Not only did you make us watch Eisenstein, Chaplin, Kubrick and Lang, but you screened for us films like Roxlee’s Lizard, Raymond Red’s A Study for the Skies and RA Rivera’s Chicken Soup to name a few. You showed us that we make cinema too.
The education we were getting was lost on many of us; but for those who appreciated your efforts no film school in the Philippines (then and now) could give us a better schooling in the artistry of cinema, the skill and craftsmanship involved, the sheer wonderment of these visions and dreams, as well as the painstaking costs it took to realize them.
There were no digital cameras, nor was there any burgeoning ‘indie’ scene back then. Film was still shot in either 16mm or 35mm and—if it was called anything—it was “underground” or “alternative”. You remain the epitome of this movement, even if you’d surely balk at that description. Even mainstream or industry people held you in high esteem because most of them had passed through your tutelage or had engaged you while they were still working their way to their respective careers. You had obviously been around, had worked and been part of one of the most fertile periods in Philippine cinema. You could’ve done the same thing and joined many of them in the industry if you wanted. But you never did. I suspect you never thought of making a career. All you cared about was making films.
Those were exciting days, looking back at them a decade later. I knew you were impressed by the fact that I had seen and remembered a lot of movies that you thought nobody my generation remembered, much less seen, especially Filipino films from the 1970s and 80s, the films of Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Eddie Romero, Joey Gosengfiao and Mike de Leon. A lot of which you either had a direct or indirect hand in making; and, despite all the disappointments and heartaches, you always betrayed a fierce fondness for.
A famous Filipino director once told me that you were the “unsung hero of Philippine cinema.” I’d agree with that wholeheartedly—as would many others, including our friend, Alexis Tioseco, who asked me to write this. But, now, I’m not sure if that’s how I see it. (I’m certain you wouldn’t.) You never did care much for acclaim or glory but only sought the satisfaction of working and being surrounded by people who were there on your sets because they believed in your work. Proof of this is that you’re currently working on another film (your own) and that certainly is something to hold our breaths for. After all, it ain’t over until Marilou Diaz-Abaya sings.
To say that you’re unsung is to neglect the fact that there are still enough of us around to sing your praises.
To say that you’re a hero should go without saying. But—oops—I just had to go and say it out loud.
No matter, time will prove everything.
With much love,
Erwin Romulo is an editor and journalist living and working in Manila. Currently, he is editor-at-large for The Philippine Star, executive editor for men's lifestyle magazine UNO and associate editor for the Philippines Free Press. He won the Don Carlos Palanca Award for Literature in 2004.
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Om Pao, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut
From Eric Sasono
Jakarta, June 10, 2010
Om Pao, how are you? Do you realize that we rarely meet and so we talk awkwardly every time we do? I hate that awkwardness. I hope that this letter can be a replacement for a conversation, even if it’s only from my side.
I haven’t given you any comments about your film, Yasujiro’s Journey, have I? I watched it at JIFFest 2005 and I remember that you were angry after the screening, saying that it hadn’t finished when it was replaced by your other film, Aries. I was surprised. But I think the projectionist couldn’t tell whether it had ended or not. Don’t you think the sequels look the same whether it is in the middle or the ending of the film?
I was joking, Om. :)
I believe that every second you put on the screen matters, regardless what you said about the film before you shot it. I remember you said, “I want to make a film, 62 minutes long, but what matters are the first and the last minutes. The audience can leave the cinema and do something more important with their lives during the rest of the film. After the first minute, they can go to prayer, or eat outside, or do whatever they want to do, and then return for the last minute of the screening.”
You laughed when you said it. I also laughed.
“What is the film about?” I asked.
“Here it is,” you said, “The film will begin with a caption: ‘In 1942, during World War II a Japanese airplane crashes in Indonesia. The pilot—Yasujiro Yamada—survived but has never been found’. At the end of the film, there will be another caption: ‘Forty years later his grandson, also named Yasujiro Yamada, went to search his grandfather. He is also missing’. So what matters are the captions at the beginning and the end of the film.”
Again, you laughed after that. I know you were teasing me.
Om Pao, you are an avid admirer of the Japanese filmmaker, Ozu Yasujiro and your film may refer to him. At least, I gather that the name Yasujiro in the title is a homage to that Japanese master. After seeing your film (this time complete from caption to caption), I realized that Ozu’s credo is the underlying premise of your film. Yasujiro’s Journey shows: whatever is off-screen has the same importance as the picture on the screen. Would I be wrong if I concluded: cinema (what is on the screen) is of no more importance than non-cinema (what is off the screen = life itself)?
I know that you make films because you value life above everything else. I feel that we share that. I also believe cinema is as beautiful as life itself. But you said this belief has made your life lonely, Om Pao. How could that be?
Well, we might have friends and acquaintances from our involvement in cinema, but what do we really share with them? I remember your statement when I interviewed you: “My film is about a search that is full of loneliness and memories.” Then I recall our conversation when you gave me the proposal for your film after Yasujiro’s Journey (the proposal was written as a three page poem). “Why is it also about searching?” I asked. Your answer: my life’s theme is "let me know if you have already found God".
I don’t know you too well, but you seem like a person who looks at something clearly in the distance yet you miss the things nearby. It is similar to how Yasujiro Yamada (Nobuyuki Suzuki) looks at the world in your film. You walk and leave traces but at the same time you seem to search for belonging somewhere far away.
Don’t you think that is a privilege, Om, to be able to stare at something in the distance without thinking about how to get food for your family, like most people of this country? Do you think this has made your loneliness become something that belongs to the elite? I know you feel lonely as an experimental filmmaker. But look: filmmaker + experimental. Don’t you think one is not enough to keep you away from the crowd in this country?
The ‘cinema narrative’ is not very developed in Indonesia. You said that if we look at the cinema in Europe, there’s been experimentation since the 1920s when cinema had already developed. I believe your decision to be experimental surely alienates you from your own people.
And look at your films: what is exactly the meaning of the candlelight dancing in your short film, Poem/Light? Why do you shoot an extreme close up of a poster of famous actress Dian Sastro and then you developed the film in particular way until the picture became an abstract painting in your other short, Dian Sastro?
That is your risk, isn’t it, Om? Who do you think watches your films? You told me that in Europe there were 200 people in the cinema and they stayed until the Q&A session while in Jakarta, there were 8 people in the cinema and half of them left in the middle. I remember when I saw Yasujiro’s Journey more than half of the audience walked out.
Look again at this one: what is the meaning of Yasujiro searching for his grandfather from desert to desiccated forest? Who understands those pictures besides yourself, Om?
Maybe even you don’t know the meaning of your shots. Maybe you do it instinctively, or maybe you feel those particular shots just fit perfectly into these scenes, who knows? But you know what, I don’t give up on your films. I don’t know why but I feel something inside me when I see them. Moreover, I even enjoy it. That’s what matters, isn’t it?
What I like about Yasujiro’s Journey are a few strong images. The most captivating moment is when Yasujiro reaches a black water lake which occupies two-thirds of the screen. In that scene, Suzuki who plays Yasujiro, shifts his body a little bit as if he’s hiding from some other person's view. Who is he hiding from? Is he hiding from the owner of the whispering voice in that lakeside? Who is the owner of that whisper? Was it a supernatural being? Yasujiro’s Journey is not a horror film or a mythical film, but Yasujiro’s search becomes mythical in that scene. Maybe that black water has made him look at the other side of life, the supernatural side. Maybe that black water has made him look at his ‘dark side’, hidden under the bright daylight of the desert and desiccated forest where he belongs.
This lakeside scene haunts me, even when I watched the film again recently. It made me ask myself about my own searching. Have I also heard ‘whispers’? Was there any moment I reached that dark lakeside and asked a huge question about myself and then I heard a whisper?
This is how a ‘cinema narrative’ is established, isn’t it Om Pao? Narrative does not exclusively belong to the film’s construction but also to the audience’s perception, since you and I believe an audience is always active in watching film, right?
I thought that lakeside scene was the final scene of Yasujiro’s Journey. Then I realized it was the turning point where the Yasujiro’s search changes from being self-assured (Suzuki’s gestures seem to say “Soon I will find what I’m looking for, I just need to find the correct place.”) to become more uncertain (“What exactly am I looking for here?”). Yasujiro then becomes more relaxed with himself.
After that shift, Yasujiro sings Kimigayo, the Japanese National Anthem, facing sunset rather than sunrise. I easily understand this kind of symbolism, Om Pao. You’ve played around with a belief that this anthem (and the construction of Japan as a nation) is based on worship of the god of the sun. By putting the song against the sunset, you de-glorify the concept of that worship. That’s quite predictable. However, Suzuki’s voice makes a totally different impression on the song. The sound of desperation rather than glorification.
I don’t know why but that scene reminds me of the story about the Japanese soldier found in Morotai Island, Indonesia, long after World War II ended. My father told me the story. This soldier, Nakamura, was found in 1972. Cut-off from civilization he had forgotten how to interact with other people. He was found naked by a rescue team, cutting bamboo trees, ignoring anybody who approached him. Then they sang Kimigayo. Hearing the song, Nakamura responded. He stood up for the song. This shows how big the love of a Japanese soldier is towards their national anthem.
My father told me the story to make me love the national anthem. I found it quite moving at the moment I heard it. But now, I perceive it as part of the success of Japanese propaganda during their occupation of Indonesia. This is the thing about Kimigayo in Yasujiro’s Journey. It made me recall a childhood memory, which also I believe to some extent, becomes the nation’s memory, at least to my generation; to our generation, Om Pao.
Om, all the impulses that appear after watching Yasujiro’s Journey, I believe, belong to middle-class people like ourselves, right? We are people who believe that consciousness is important to be stimulated with these type of amusements. While for commoners in our country, they have different impulses to be catered for—at least according to the film producers. Those producers provide emotional manipulation, and instant gratification through carnivalesque shows, that generate a response similar to seeing freak shows in the 18th century. So, film is utilized in the same ways, displaying people with ugly faces or weird body shapes or transvestites. I don’t say this just to make myself feel better, Om. I am still grateful that Indonesian films are watched by Indonesians. More than 50% of the box office sales come from Indonesian movies. Those freak shows sell and have a financial logic.
I believe that cinema works on different levels. Some films attempt to manipulate emotion (the majority of films we see), some films try to target our cognitive faculty (didactic and propaganda films), some films try to engage in a dialogue with our intellect, and some films try to reach our subconscious (maybe this is Yasujiro’s place), and some try to challenge our gut (for this type, you must see Christopher Gozum’s Surreal Random MMS Text for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscape with Figures. A short film that will really challenge you. Gozum has a long-take extreme close-up of eye surgery. This is perhaps the most visceral scene I have ever seen. Gozum pays homage to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and at the same time—I feel—he ‘teases’ Bunuel about being too restrained in delivering a scene of violence towards a human eye).
Sometimes cinema works on several different levels at the same time. Why must cinema be limited to ‘drama’ or ‘story’ as an Indonesian senior film critic told me recently when he commented on how “hollow” experimental films are? Why is image, the essential element of cinema, not sufficient for enjoyment? Why must observation and shared-experience be shown in a conventional opening-conflict-resolution construction?
So, I don’t want to limit myself before watching film. The loss will be mine if I give up. Cinema is all about possibility and I don’t want to shield myself from possibilities. It’s similar to a story in Dr. Seuss’ book, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut. It’s impossible to read a book with your eyes closed isn’t it, Om? Yes, but that’s not Dr. Seuss’ point. He just mentions a bare fact that the character in his book can read with his eyes closed. If he can read with eyes closed, it would be much better if he read with his eyes open, wouldn’t it? I think this also applies to cinema. If I can watch a film with my eyes closed, it would be much better if I watch it with my eyes open, wouldn’t it? :)
That’s my letter for now, Om.
I’m thinking about working with you again someday, like when you helped me shoot my short film. You think it’s possible to help me once again since now you are one of the most sought-after cinematographers in this country? Ah, you can always make time for this kind of request, can’t you Om? The question is for me rather than for you, right?
Om Pao is the nickname of Faozan Rizal, Indonesian cinematographer and filmmaker. Om is Dutch word for ‘uncle’. But sometimes people use this word to address someone they admire and respect.
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From Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
To Khon graab maa/My Teacher Eats Biscuits
Observers of Thai cinema identify 1997 as a major turning point, the successes of which have defined the ensuing decade. It was the year that an advertising director called Nonzee Nimibutr released his debut feature, Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, scripted by Wisit Sasanathieng, a film whose distinctive look accounted for its tremendous box-office success. Another ad director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, completed his debut feature in the same year. Although Fan ba karaoke didn’t make as much money as Nonzee’s film, Pen-ek’s debut was still something of a stylistic departure. The brothers Oxide and Danny Pang, while not Thai by nationality, also completed their Thai film debut, Who Is Running?, in that same year. 1997 introduced these male filmmakers to the public, before their follow up films catapulted them to the limelight: Nang Nak, Tears of the Black Tiger, 6ixtynin9 and Bangkok Dangerous respectively.
1997 also saw the inauguration of the Thai Short Film & Video Festival. The event provided a platform for the early works of some filmmakers who have since gone on to produce fresh, novel works for Thai cinema. They are, for instance, Parkpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter), Chukiat Sakveerakul (The Love of Siam), and independent filmmakers Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Thunska Pansittivorakul (Happy Berry).
History has often shown that social crises can unleash artistic creativity. One of the driving forces behind the emergence of this handful of good films in 1997 was surely the economic crisis that had begun to unfold in July that same year. The economic downturn must have badly affected the advertising industry, which then provided the impetus for these ad directors to try their hands at feature filmmaking. (The temptation must have been even greater after Nonzee’s first two films demonstrated how much revenue could be reaped from a commercially successful film.) At the same time the crisis also brought to the screen stories of ordinary, struggling people, such as the people in the films of Pen-ek (only the first two though!) This is the other impact that the economic crisis had on cinema. In the first place it drove the success of nationalistic films such as Nang Nak, Iron Ladies (Yongyoot Thongkongtoon) and Bangrajan (Tanit Jitnukul). (This past year, as Thailand is undergoing its current political crisis, Tanit has just released Bangrajan Part 2.)
This brief account is a history as written by the victors, whether in terms of the films’ revenues, the prizes garlanded on them, or even the acclaim granted to them by the wider public. The losers have disappeared, not having been graced by much historical documentation. A prime example of this fate is the filmmaker Ing K.
Ing K, or Samanrat Kanjanavanit, is often omitted from the inventory of Thai female filmmakers. (There is in any case only a handful of them; yet, still, she often doesn’t figure in the list.) This is probably because Ing K is not generally known as a filmmaker in Thailand. Few of her films have been shown here, and she’s more widely recognised for the other things she does: as a journalist, a painter, or a writer. (She is the author of a bestselling book called Khang lang postcard/On the Back of the Postcard, written using the nom de guerre ‘Laan Seri Thai’/‘granddaughter of a Free Thai’.) Ing K is also an activist, one who uses the documentary form as her main weapon, in fact. She has made Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993) and Casino Cambodia (1994). The title of each of these documentaries gives one a sufficient flavor of the menaces that they set out to explore.
There is another film that Ing K has made, a film so controversial that it has been ‘disappeared’ from history. It’s called, in Thai, Khon graab maa, which literally translates as ‘man prostrates to dog’; though the official English title is My Teacher Eats Biscuits. The film has been described as an insult to Buddhism, an insult to all religions in Thailand, in fact. And it’s been accused of social depravity. Khon graab maa was meant to be screened at the 1st Bangkok Film Festival in 1997, but after an anonymous complaint was mysteriously faxed to the police an investigation took place resulting in the banning of the film. Ing K went to parliament to defend her rights and to clarify her artistic intention, but she was severely attacked with various allegations. In the end she decided to stop fighting for the film to be shown and, for a while, turned her back on filmmaking. Instead, she threw herself into environmental campaigning, most notably the protest campaign highlighting the environmental havoc caused to Maya Bay, Krabi province, by the shooting of Danny Boyle’s The Beach in the area.
Since only a handful of people have had the chance to see My Teacher Eats Biscuits, the accusation about the film’s so-called depravity has come to be taken as accurate. The fact that Ing K is a straight-talking woman who refuses to bend to the creaking conservatism of Thai society also encouraged people to believe the worst – they imagined the film to be very aggressive and violent. Twelve years after this debacle, I finally had the chance to see the film for myself. I now realise that to call My Teacher Eats Biscuits a dangerous, depraved film, is the equivalent of the Thai government accusing Pink Flamingo of national treachery, or of clinging to the logic that the films of Paul Morrissey have the power to destroy religion.
That’s because My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a 'cult' film in the spirit of John Waters. It’s low-budget, stars friends of the filmmaker, and is shot in the back of somebody’s house. The resulting film is one that had myself and a group of friends helplessly laughing every five minutes when we finally got to see it. The film is about a man (played by the Eurasian Krisada Sukosol, who's since become a famous rock star and actor) who hopes to win back his estranged wife. He and a farang friend disguise themselves in order to go join a strange sect that his wife belongs to. The people in this sect dress in white, live in the same ashram, and worship a sacred dog (a particularly cute dog as it turns out). They eat dog food and dog shit, and imitate the movement of dogs. The inhabitants of this ashram are both Thais and farang. The leader, who acts as a kind of right hand person to the sacred dog, is a beautiful woman played by Ing K herself. There’s also a sub-plot involving a necrophiliac monk who claims that having sex with corpses is a form of education in dharma, and in any case there is nothing sinful about such intercourse with the dead since the corpses happen to be male! The film is shot on 16mm with 70% of the dialogue spoken in English. Despite the low budget, production quality is actually very impressive.
Khon graab maa makes serious fun of the superstitiousness that has long taken root in Thai society. Thais are no longer clear whether Buddhism or animism constitute the national religion. Ing K makes precisely this point, while adding another layer, which is the exoticism of Buddhism as a kind of rehab center for Westerners. (Though there is more to it than that. In the film Westerners are investors in the ashram but the picture isn’t one in which Thais are deceiving Westerners. Thais and Westerners are co-operating with each other in order to pull a fast one on Thais and Westerners alike.)
What lifts Khon graab maa above the usual satirical cult movie is its climax: a monologue by Ing K herself on the benefits of deception. All members of the sect are well aware that the ‘sacred dog’ is a nonsensical conceit, yet all are willing to remain within this fictitious world. On this point the film is comparable to the social parables of Satyajit Ray.
Though the canon of contemporary Thai cinema has been constructed out of the films of Nonzee, Pen-ek and Wisit, I regret the exclusion of Ing K’s film from it. If Khon graab maa had been shown at the time of its completion the consciousness of the younger generation of filmmakers might have been much better challenged. It is a truly powerful film that to this day cannot be circulated freely. Despite the fact that we only got the chance to see it a decade or so after its completion, my friends and I still found the film hugely engaging. More importantly, Khon graab maa is still truly relevant. The acuteness of its theme is probably even more powerful now that Thailand is at this point of major change.
How different Ing K’s film is, in its exploration of the commodification of Thainess, from those films by Nonzee, Wisit, or others – films that deliberately sell Thainess. If Khon graab maa had been shown 12 years ago, it’s possible that we may now have more films – both mainstream and indie films – that set their sights on radically questioning the rotten foundation of Thai society. (Two years ago Ing K returned to filmmaking with a documentary called Citizen Juling, which questions the prejudices with which Thais regard the violence in the far south of their country.)
One wonders what was swirling around in the subconscious of the officials who ordered the banning of Khon graab maa. Perhaps they truly believed the reasons they gave; or it could be something as shallow as the fear of a film whose dialogue is largely in English. The real reason might have been fear of the unknown: state officials in those days would not have come across ‘independent films’ before, and therefore would not have known how to deal with them. Or we could be talking about deeper forces at work: the characters in the film may have reminded the censorship board of the highest of Thai high society. Or this one image from the film: man prostrating to dog, might have struck them as a representation of that which has the potential to shake up the whole of Thai society. The real reason could well be something bizarre, such as the coincidence that one of the characters happens to look like a well-known aristocratic woman.
There are many cult filmmakers in Thailand. Every year at the short film festival, around 40% or so of the submissions are, variously, zombie films, slasher films, or crazy comedies. But at the end of the day they remain the type of film that Alexis Tioseco described as 'complaint films' (when he was in Bangkok with Lav Diaz in a conversation with Thai cinephiles about cinema and politics). That is, they're films that are content only to make short, forgettable statements of complaint. Khon graab maa teaches us that cult movies are capable of piercing through to the cancerous cells that for hundreds of years have been poisoning Thai society, and still continue to do so.
Translated by May Ingawanij
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From Khoo Gaik Cheng
It wasn’t a case of love at first sight. I’d made an early career of following your film journey, watched you grow through your artsy short films and your features. Sometimes I fell asleep. I remember the first time I watched Ah Beng Returns, (2001) in a small art space somewhere in KL. I was dying for a pee. It seemed interminably long because it was so painfully artfully slow and oblique. I cursed you under my breath. And that strange ending on the highway! What was that all about? I escaped to the loo when the credits rolled.
But through the years I always gave you more credit than others did. Call it blind faith. Or call it a foolish kind of loyalty.
I decided your films needed to be studied. That way, I’d stay awake, playing and re-playing certain scenes on my computer, figuring out composition, watching characters eat their way through their everyday lives from day to day, meal to meal. Could they really be this bored or this boring? Surely there must be meaning behind these banal scenes of purposeful non-acting?
Then I met The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004). I didn’t fall asleep the first time I watched it in Singapore. I remember coming out of the cinema thinking, wow. I remember the buzz of excitement among the Singaporean viewers as they slowly trickled out from the cinema still digesting the film, thinking aloud and discussing it and I distinctly felt proud to be Malaysian. I didn’t really get it then. I couldn’t answer their questions as to what happened. All I knew was that The Beautiful Washing Machine was an enigma, a puzzle I was drawn to, a mystery to be solved and I was rapt.
I guess that’s how love begins. With an enigma. I didn’t watch it again until much later when I had to teach the film. I don’t know about you but I like first impressions. And I cling on to good first impressions, not wanting to spoil them with subsequent viewings that will erase my initial positive encounter. Each viewing experience is almost sacred depending on the time, place and who you experience it with. I remember my viewing of Eliana Eliana (2002) at the GSC in KL one afternoon in a cinema with only a handful of others. Another breathless experience that left me thinking, what have those other viewers who didn’t come missed out on? Or even watching Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) for the first time on television when I was young and telling my father, I know what happens next on the train. A déjŕ vu.
Yet, I was wrong that subsequent viewings would change my feelings for your Beautiful Washing Machine. In fact, my feelings have grown stronger, partly from showing the film to my students and learning to appreciate you all the more from their essays about it. You should see what they write about your muse: that she’s an alien from outer space, the voiceless victim of male oppression, or perhaps a ghost of the machine. At other times, I had to defend you to them when they got vexed. In justifying why the film is the way it is, and why things turned out the way they turned out, some of which I had no answers for, I grew cognizant of the film’s multi-faceted personality, its subtle nuances and complexities. I may not agree with the choices you make but I can live with them. I can live with unaccountable gaps in logic: partly because they are symptomatic of something else that still eludes me. In fact, I love that I keep learning new things about The Beautiful Washing Machine each time I screen it.
Perhaps naively, it has taken me some time and reflection to realize that this film is a result of calculated logic. Take the order of the scenes, of how the three vignettes come together. If we watch closely enough, I’d tell my students, you’ll find out who she is or who she could be—there are clues along the way. But at the same time of course James, the film isn’t perfect and neither are some of the others. Your endings are given to irrational impulses, quirks that only make sense to you alone: Bok Lai showing up on the porch after the beautiful washing machine kisses Berg at the back of the house. You can’t help sabotaging yourself. It happened in the highway scene in Ah Beng Returns and it happened again in the final scene between Thien See and Sunny Pang in Call If You Need Me (2009). But perfection needs neither loving nor defending. It’s imperfection that keeps me intrigued and brings out my maternal critic’s instincts. It’s imperfection that requires work like most human relationships. Perfect objects only require admiration and adoration. And that’s just plain boring.
Your works on the other hand require patience and understanding. For all your cleverness, sometimes it feels your films lack passion and spontaneity. Your deadpan characters are cruel to each other and relationships detached. I’m not defending a certain strain of misogyny that others have noted in The Beautiful Washing Machine. I’m a feminist and I’ve had to reconcile my own ideological beliefs with the representation of the mute woman. But there are so many ways to read the film, and love is blind. So we choose an interpretation that makes this relationship possible. For example, the mute woman has often been read as your helpless representation of womanhood: passive sex object, domestic slave, silent in the face of prostitution, rape and finally murder. But I prefer to think of her, the ghost of the washing machine or the alien, as the becoming-woman. According to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their concept of the rhizome, becoming-woman is a necessary starting point for both men and women to deterritorialize themselves in order to transcend the hierarchies (of humankind over animals; of men over women, of the first world over the developing world, etc.) that have led to various oppressions and inequalities. It is a world where humans relate to each other and with nature and technology laterally or rhizomatically, relationships branching out sideways and everywhere as opposed to only vertically or from the centre to the margins. This decentering of human subjectivity (and power) gives way to an alternative way of conceptualizing human identity and social relations; one that is more ecologically-based and anti-capitalist.
In other words, The Beautiful Washing Machine is much more than a film about gender relations and gender politics. It critiques the alienation of capitalism and its creation of a non-sustainable oppressive society driven by the constant manufacture of desire for consumption: the supermarket shelves laden with goods, the tightly packed racks of clothing, the advertisements on the radio for a particular sauce all beckon the consumer but never quite fulfill what they promise. The mute woman can alternatively be an alien, the ghost of the washing machine or a silent fantasy given flesh by the male characters in the film who need her either as a substitute girlfriend/domestic helper or female companion. Her birth into becoming-woman/human in this unhappy capitalist consumer-driven modernity is shaped by the introductory image of her consuming instant noodles, that symbolic modern commodity that fills one’s stomach but does not quite fulfill one’s desire; that one eats out of convenience and only provides temporary satisfaction. This recounts the nature of the capitalist machinery itself, i.e. to continuously generate endless desire, which lies at the heart of Oedipalism. While her mysterious silent presence is seemingly irrational and left unexplained, she provides the material body/cipher that connects the isolated male characters to significant women or men in their lives, whether sexually or emotionally. However, the instant noodle in this film nevertheless connotes empty filler for the lonely bachelor (played by Berg’s character) Teoh who is unable to make that process of becoming woman. By this, I mean he is unable to deterritorialize: he cannot cook or use a washing machine or the microwave and is reluctant to learn whereas we see her vacuuming, cooking and hand washing clothes, in other words, becoming woman/becoming technology.
In the film’s conclusion, she is stabbed by Mr. Wong’s jealous daughter in the kitchen. The moment of spilling blood and realizing mortality is her “becoming-imperceptible” (Deleuze & Guattari 278). But rather than leaving a wounded bloody body in the kitchen, she disappears just as suddenly and mysteriously as she had first appeared, becoming “a piece in a puzzle that is itself abstract” (Deleuze & Guattari 308). To be physically wounded and to die would be to end that process of becoming, to stop short the gesture of deterritorialization. It would be to make her a real gendered human, fully subjected to all the oppressive dichotomies that structure what Deleuze calls “arborescence” rather than the more liberating and anarchic “rhizome.” To be fully human connotes being stuck at a point. Instead, the mute woman/ghost is “a line of becoming” which “has only a middle” (Deleuze & Guattari 323), rather than a beginning or an end. The Beautiful Washing Machine teaches us that before becoming-animal/insect/imperceptible, first we have to become-woman.
I know this sounds tremendously academic and is probably far from what you envisioned in your creative capacity. You’re probably scratching your head and smiling in a puzzled way. But it’s my reading of a film that I offer up as a public love letter because I still think it is your most memorable. The Beautiful Washing Machine encapsulates what you tried to articulate in your works prior to this film, and links the theme of human alienation with a strong indictment of capitalism and its workings. But at the same time, it does it with such originality that I can’t wait to teach the film again.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Transl. Brian Massumi. London; New York: Continuum, 2004 edition.
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From Yason Banal
Offset print on black paper, glue, dead fly
15 cm x 21 cm
Yason Banal is an artist from the Philippines. Every month he will be submitting a new artwork as a 'Love Letter' on this page, so keep checking back.
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From Epoy Deyto
been reading articles at Criticine for a while now, and I saw the Love Letters segment there, so I decided to make one with the same format as I saw. I just hope I'm doing it right. Thanks for taking your time reading this.
No, you don't know me. But I do know a part of you from your writings and from writings about you. I'm just another film buff who follows every critic like you who writes their views on cinema. It is such a shame for me getting into films just now.
Cinema, as mentioned by my classmate, Mikey Yalung a month before, might be the purest form of art. It's beautiful, adorable, lovable. Un Chien Andalou is my first love, with beauty that can't be put into words. Thanks to the film makers that they were never selfish to share that beauty to the world, and thanks to the critics and analysts that they point people out what the most beautiful of these beauties.
It's a good thing to know that such beauty exists in this economically-deprived country of ours. It was again thanks to critics like you, that I've been seeing beauty in the eyes of Filipino artists. Critics being there to support our own artists is just a great sight, we just hope that the government would have love for cinema as big as people like you.
Because of this love of mine, I started writing again: though Kawts Kamote is not that famous, at least I've been trying my best to share my views. Furthermore, I also began making my own digital films. On my short film-making experience, there was rejection and acceptance. I would never forget which of my works has been rejected on a certain competition. I would never forget how Jonas Mekas has liked one of my works that has competed at an online film festival. And I would never forget the way John Torres reacted upon seeing my work for Kontra, I still don't know if he liked it or not.
Thanks to you Alexis, an understanding between Lav Diaz' films and my consciousness have been established. His films, though most of the times depressing, are enlightening. Thanks to Noel Vera for suggesting Pangarap ng Puso and for letting me know the cinema of Mario O'Hara deeper. Thanks to Oggs Cruz, Richard Bolisay and Dodo Dayao for their support to our artists by letting their works be screened once a month at the Tioseco-Bohinc film series. Thanks to Whammy Alcazaren and the rest of UP Cinema for publishing KinoPunch (if I'm not mistaken, the only magazine in the Philippines devoted for cinema alone). Thanks to those film makers whose works I love: Kidlat Tahimik, Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, Khavn dela Cruz, Mike De Leon, Mario O'Hara, I hope to see more from you (I'm still hoping that Mr. de Leon would make a new film). To the late Masters: Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Joey Gosiengfiao; thanks to the inspiration to the new generation. And thanks to the new breeds of film makers and film-makers to be: never stop dreaming.
I write, but I would never admit that I'm good at it. I don't know if people would understand where I'm heading to. I just hope that this letter would reach you. If so, please tell me your views about it: kung wasak ba o hindi.
It's such a shame that I haven't got a chance to meet you while you're still around. But then again, it was thanks to you, and all the other heroes, that Philippine cinema is being saved.
Epoy Deyto is a psychology student and (small-time) film-maker. He currently resides at Pasig
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From Charmaine Peralta
When I was about four or five years old, do you remember when I constantly asked for your permission to watch Back to the Future? We had the boxed set of the trilogy (including the behind the scenes) on VHS! I would watch it every weekend as a reward for doing my homework or attending a mass. The ritual of rewinding and inserting the “VHS” into the player was like a childhood game to me. The thin black strip, the sound of rewinding, the smell of the “amag”, all of them tickled some part of my brain that brought back good times. I clung to the medium even if it was already high noon for the digital format. I thought that ritual would never end until that day you told me that our VHS player was beyond repair (and obsolete, for that matter). I wonder if I had the same feeling Chaplin had when the talkies arrived.
Now, I am two days away from knowing the results of the shifting exam I took weeks before. I have decided to study film, a decision that ruined my plans (and yours) for my life. For that, I am so sorry.
In between those two events, I have lost you or I have lost myself. I don’t know. I became preoccupied in rediscovering cinema, while you are too with work. This is what I have said to a friend one afternoon, “I was so busy trying to be a good student, I forgot how to be a good daughter.” We seldom talk, we were always tired, I guess, but through this letter let me explain my reasons for taking the path never in my life I have thought of pursuing.
I was in first year high school when you introduced me to Charlie Chaplin. “Si Chaplin ‘yan. Pinapanood ko ‘yan noong bata pa ako eh! Doon sa luma naming TV, pero mas gusto ko pa ring panoorin ‘yung The Three Stoogies.” But I guess I was romantic enough to have stayed with Chaplin and not the Stoogies. Ever since that scene (which I have later recognized as the spaghetti scene in City Lights), I have spent a lot of time searching for films made by the ‘ultimate auteur’. I have loved him even more when I stepped into college. I got to read his autobiography, some political allegory on his film, the serenity and pureness of the tramp, the socialism in his films, the humanist in Chaplin. You know, most of what I am today, I owe to his idealism. You should watch Chaplin’s speech in The Great Dictator, and let us pick up where we left off.
It was also because of you that I have a fair share of Tagalog movies on my bank. You are sucker for action and horror films. We spent some of our lazy weekends watching Fernando Poe Jr. films, such as Epimaco Velasco story, Pitong Gatang, Kalibre 45, Roman Rapido, Isang Bala ka Lang and, of course, our all time favorite, Ang Probinsyano and Ang Pagbabalik ng Probinsyano. We scared ourselves to death watching all sorts of evil beings, from aswang to manananggal to tiyanak to kapre, ect. Remember when we bought the VCD of the digitally restored Gabi ng Lagim (was it Gabi ng Lagim)? It was made decades ago but we still enjoyed watching it (with the really young Paquito Diaz, bless his soul). Goodness! I almost forgot about Vilma and Sharon drama films. We laughed at each other when we saw ourselves crying in the scene where Sharon sings ‘Ikaw’ to the dying Ariel Rivera. There was still the comedy films of the 80’s and 90’s but I think what I have said was enough to experience again how it was back then.
In college, I took a film class and, interestingly, I can still remember my first day. It was very cold, literally because of the intolerable air conditioning and figuratively because of my diminutive knowledge of the cinema outside of Hollywood. I never knew that it would be the first of the countless lectures that I would learn to love. It changed everything I knew about cinema. Before it was just a pastime which turned into a hobby, now it is my passion which later in life, I would want to be my cause.
I was introduced to Kieslowski, Van Sant, Von Trier, Antonioni and to Godard, Truffaut, Bazin, Astruc and to Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick, Coppola. I would love to talk about them with you but then you have to watch their films first and read the Cahiers. On second thought, I know you don’t have any interest in these kinds of things so you don’t have to, but at least you know what I have been doing for the past 11 months. Movies can change people, you see. I have changed a lot, Pa.
Having seen films from different place, I have developed this introspective thinking of the Philippine Cinema. I have never seen it so elegant and beautiful before. From Malvarosa and Biyaya ng Lupa, to Kinatay and Engkwentro, everything was breathtaking. Brocka’s Orapronobis, de Leon’s Bayaning Third World, Bernal’s Manila By Night and Kidlat’s Mababangong Bangungot are some of my favorites. I am also enthusiastic with the independent cinema here in the Philippines, we are in the safe hand of talented young directors, though I am still not sure with the producers. No one ever told me that the film-makers here in the Philippines are one of the greatest in the world, I drowned. But like in Run, Lola, Run, love breathe new life to me and there was nothing more we can do with love but to share it. And that is what I plan to do for the rest of my life after college. I am going to pursue film studies and then I am going to teach and write about films. If everything else fails, at least I have my undergrad to save me from hunger. That was the plan and blew it up.
Pa, are you still reading? Good, cause everything gets better from here on.
It was a Sunday, around one in the morning. I was chatting with a friend about the usual stuff people talk about: philosophy, films, dreams, future. Then she introduced me to this person named Alexis Tioseco. I said, “I don’t know him, Who is he?” then he linked me to a wikipedia page about that guy. I knew him, I knew his face. He was everywhere. In magazines, in the news, in posters, but I never gave any thought about who he is. That morning, I read some of the features, reviews and love letters of Criticine. It was rediscovering a new face of the cinema all over again, and just like before, I drowned in my own tears. The waves pushed me to the middle of the sea and the only way to survive is to swim until you reach the other dry land. No, I am not a coward. I may be idealistic, impulsive, impractical, even crazy but I am not a coward. I’m betting all my chips when I said to my friend, “I shall shift to film.” For those who knew better, those who may be saying that this was just a product of my ‘teenager angst’, I say to you ‘Long live Philippine cinema!’
That same morning I told you about my new plan. You had a hard time understanding my reasons, in fact, I can’t even remember if I had stated one. You were so frustrated and I got scared. I went back to my room and said to myself that I won’t shift, you over film. I cried all my dreams, I cried for my passion, I cried because it was all I can do. I cried myself to sleep. I tried and I lost.
When I woke up, you called me. “Ano ba talagang gusto mo?”, you asked sincerely. Thoughts came rushing down my mind, but I brushed them all away and answered your question with all the courage I can muster. You asked for the truth, I gave it you, “Film.” I knew you were disappointed but you let me through anyway. I know you drowned, too, but your love for me saved you. For letting me do this even if it requires loans and shattered dreams of my steady salary, thank you. You will never know how much this means to me. Ma, Pa, thank you.
I am still not sure if I would get a slot in the course. I am nervous, uncertain and at times even afraid, but whatever happens, I have already committed myself to films. I don’t know what will happen to me, studying film could be a wrong decision, writing for film may not give me a big house or a nice car and I could even die of hunger trying to find a producer (hyperbole, don’t react too much) but at least I chose the path that I have always loved.
The paragraph before this was supposed to be my last, but I forgot to say something, the reason why I wrote this letter. I love you, Ma and you, too, Pa. Films will always bring me back to you.
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