Tilman Baumgartel wrote a book called SOUTHEAST ASIAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA published by the Hong Kong University Press in 2012. In the same year, Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications published a book called GLIMPSES OF FREEDOM, INDEPENDENT CINEMA IN SOUTHEAST ASIA edited by May Adadol Ingawanij and Benjamin McKay that features essays by an eclectic group of writers.
Much has happened since then. Whilst many of the directors mentioned in the books are still making films, there is an upcoming group of directors from this region that is making their mark in Southeast Asian cinema and especially so in festivals.
Yes, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Eric Khoo, Riri Riza, and heck, even Amir Muhammad are still making films, there is a group of new directors particularly in The Philippines and Indonesia that is making their rounds in festivals.
In this post, I would like to talk about a few recent films from this region.
Before I get into the films themselves, this is what I feel about Malaysian “independent” cinema at the moment:
Malaysian “independent” cinema: Many people separate recent Malaysian independent cinema into Yasmin Ahmad period and before and post Yasmin Ahmad after her untimely demise in the year 2009. After her death, to many people, Malaysian cinema felt like it died with her.
(note: the word “independent” is very sensitive and some directors/films mentioned here are not exactly independent. Maybe what I really mean is Malaysian cinema minus those local films with very, very long and stupid names, if you know what I mean)
I wrote about The Malaysian New Wave back in 2008 (I left the industry in late 2008 and just recently got back mid of last year). Most of these “New Wave” directors are still making films but unfortunately there seems to be no successor in sight although there are many attempts.
Young directors like Nik Amir Mustapha are trying to make a mark with the very promising first feature KIL in 2013 and followed up with TERBAIK DARI LANGIT in 2014 which did not live up to expectations although it also travelled to festivals and Chris Chong made the excellent KARAOKE in 2009 which went to Cannes in 2009 and got itself nominated for the Golden Camera but have not made another film since then. Another director Chiu Keng Guan who started with WOO HOO in 2010 and made the box office hit THE JOURNEY is one who aspires to make films for Malaysians reminiscent of the late Yasmin Ahmad but his film has yet to enjoy much critical acclaim despite being box office hits. His upcoming film OLA BOLA is slated for release on 28 January 2016 and we await anxiously for that film.
The lack of Indian directors in Malaysia is also another noticeable vacuum. Deepak Menon who made the critically acclaimed CHEMMAN CHAALAI in 2005 but has not been heard since after he made the equally successful CHALANGGAI in 2007. Daven Raghavan made the excellent HIS FATHER AND HIS CELLULOID in 2002 and recently made the Malay language CCTV in 2015 but unfortunately CCTV did not gross well in the cinemas nor travelled much in festivals. However, recently Shanjhey Perumal who won the BMW Shorties for his work MACHAI in 2009, made JAGAT which is a Tamil language film which I found very promising although the box office potential is rather perilous. JAGAT is due for release in Malaysian cinemas in December 2015.
In summary, since the so called “New Wave” or “Little Cinema” directors, and after Yasmin Ahmad, there did not seem to emerge a new batch of directors with a strong voice that is consistently making films that travels and gets awarded in major film festivals. There are new directors of course, such as Charlotte Lim who has immense potential. But until these new directors make a bigger wave and make films consistently, we still have to look at the “old” “new wave”, so to speak.
In The Philippines, Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza are both still making films and they are still really good. Lav Diaz’s FROM WHAT IS BEFORE (2014) and NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013) are sweeping awards all over the world, with NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY being nominated for Un Certain Regard in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Brillante Mendoza’s TAKLUB (2105) was also nominated for the Un Certain Regard in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and it is not his first time in Cannes, having won Best Director in the 2009 edition of the Cannes Film Festival for his film KINATAY.
The Filipino directors are really carving a name for themselves, not far away from Thailand who has poster boy Apitchatpong Weerasethakul winning the Palm d’Or for UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and again nominated for the Un Certain Regard in for his CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR in 2015. Thailand has a long history of successes in international festivals. Even Singapore has gotten the Golden Camera for ILO ILO in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
This is not to say that festival wins are everything but it does say something when your film gets a major award at a top international film festival especially so in the so-called big three of Berlin, Cannes and Venice. The key is winning, not merely nominated although getting nominated is no small feat and is an achievement in itself. But all directors wants a win at at least one of the big three, no matter what their mouth says. I have a caveat here in case people misunderstand me. A film that doesn’t win awards does not mean the film is not good. We all know how this works, so don’t bitch.
Okay, back to some recent films from this region. You may google the titles. Some of the titles below you will be able to watch on Astro A-List channel 456 accompanied by interviews with the director hosted by renown film critic and historian En. Hassan Muthalib.
SWAP (2015) by Remton Zuasola. Philippines. Remton is a very interesting director, not only because of his personality but also his storytelling method. He is known for his one-take technique and has a very strong voice. Watching SWAP is like watching a very well-choreographed stage play. Surely a director to look out for from the Philippines.
JAGAT (2015) by Shanjhey Perumal. Malaysia. As mentioned above, Shanjhey is the most interesting new director coming out of Malaysia right now, in my opinion. This film is a great effort to tell the story of ethnic Indians in Malaysia and is full of visual subtext although the general story is very apparent. I hope he keeps making films consistently.
A COPY OF MY MIND (2015) by Joko Anwar. Indonesia. Joko’s personal philosophy is very well mirrored in this film. Social justice and injustice, of dreams and hope but ultimately what it means to live in a system of corrupt politicians, a capitalist society mostly devoid of morality. This is part of the intended trilogy, the next being A COPY OF MY SOUL. Can’t wait to watch that.
SNAP (2015) by Kongdej Jaturaransamee. Thailand. Kongdej has a commercial touch to his films, or at least his recent films, important stories told in a way that is “commercial” in execution. In this new world of social media, we are not who and what we really are. Our social world and our real world can be really different. In a way, our online life is sort of like Second Life but what is really going on in the real world?
2030 (2014) by Minh Nguyen-Vo. Vietnam. What does it mean to live in a place that is victim to climate change. The human instinct to cling to our land even it is submerged in water. And what does love mean in this situation? Is love as fickle as climate change or is love a universal feeling no matter how the world changes? How to live and die, and love when the world that we know no longer exist.
DREAM LAND (2015) by Steve Chen. Cambodia. We see how Cambodia comes out into the capitalist world. The old world is nowhere to be found and a kingdom so ancient, with Angkor Wat and all is now no more. All you see are new developments, new houses. New condominiums. A relationship is waning and the feelings of the past is not so sure anymore. Everything seems to be in the line of fire. How does one deal with this changing landscape, both externally and also in the heart? A refreshing film.
There are many more films to talk about, such as 7 LETTERS from Singapore, Mouly Surya’s WHAT THEY DON’T TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LOVE, Yosep Anggi’s PECULIAR VACATION AND OTHER ILLNESSES, Apichatpong’s CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, Brillante Mendoza’s TAKLUB, MEN WHO SAVE THE WORLD by Liew Seng Tat, THE MISSING PICTURE by Rithy Panh and such.
Actually, South East Asia is a very rich place full of stories and talent. It is an exciting place to be and this is true not just of now but has been an exciting place to be for centuries. Let’s watch some South East Asian films!