Whose Film Is It Anyway?

The Fifth Asian Film Symposium and Inaugural Forum on Asian Cinema took place at Singapore’s Substation from 9-18 Sep 2005 and a number of Malaysian filmmakers crossed the Causeway to join their Southeast Asian colleagues in a rigorous and engaging attempt to answer some key questions about the state of filmmaking in the region. How does film contribute to our construction and reconstruction of social memory? What makes a film ‘independent’? Is there an emerging Pan-Asian filmmaking tradition – or even Pan-Asian aesthetic? How is the ‘national’ positioned in relation to the ‘transnational’? Who can and cannot speak for a nation on screen? Does speaking about the nation in fact really matter at all?

Hosted jointly this year by the Substation’s Moving Images and the newly created Asian Film Archive, the 10-day symposium and forum involved participants from across the region. In excess of 50 films were screened from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and China. Retrospectives and associated forums took place that focussed on the work of both Singapore’s Eric Khoo and Thailand’s Pen-ek Ratanaruang. In a move that will hopefully be emulated in other countries in the region, the Asian Film Archive launched a collection of Singapore Shorts on DVD that not only highlights Singaporean independent filmmaking, but reminds us all of the importance of film to articulate and shape the social memory of a given time and place. There is clearly a strong justification here in Malaysia to anthologise on DVD the diversity of local short independent films and perhaps the new board at FINAS will look at backing such a project – even if only to disallow the Singaporeans the right to be Uniquely Singaporean on this occasion!

The Symposium and Forum were important for a number of very timely reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the organisers deliberately bridged the gulf between the practitioners – the directors, writers, producers, performers, distributors and exhibitors – and the commentators – the academics, writers, curators, critics, teachers and journalists. We may not have all agreed about the state of independent filmmaking within the region, nor upon what steps needed to be taken to keep the spirit alive, but after 10 days of screenings and 10 days of talking (and 10 days of eating and drinking – it was Singapore after all!) there was a feeling that we may just have asked the right questions – even if the answers were not always apparent or always definitive or indeed always agreed upon.

From Hot Pot to Hot Buns

The Symposium also launched the S-Express series of short films from within the region. This year sees the inclusion at last of the Philippines and China. Chinese independent films proved that their strength lies not just in the sumptuous cinematography that we have come to expect from Chinese filmmakers, but also in their strong sense of storytelling. Narrative strength was particularly apparent in Guan Na’s film Sen Yu Sen Sen (2004), a wintry tale of youth and folkloric myth at the rural fringes of China and in Du Peng’s Hot Pot (2004) set amongst gangsters and troubadours in the grit and grime of urban Beijing. The curator of the Chinese films Maggie Lee also gave a spirited and enlightening talk, “New Wines and Old Bottles: The Independent Filmmaking Scene in China” that revealed a lively and competitive Chinese scene. The avant-garde and the experimental in China were well served here by the screening of Jiang Zhi’s intriguing and surreal take on the city of Shenzhen in Post, Pause (2004).

Curator Alexis Tioseco assembled a richly diverse and provocative array of recent independent films from the Philippines – intensely personal and poetic works from John Torres; disturbing and confronting works from Sherad Anthony Sanchez; Raya Martin’s intriguing blending of quasi-supernatural myth and family in his riveting short Bakasyon (The Visit, 2004); and Lawrence Farjado’s dark and sinister look at gangs and butchery in his 21 minutes of Kultado (2005). The inclusion of the Philippines was timely to the Forum debate on what makes film independent and what gives ‘indie’ its sense of urgency. Gabriela Krista Dalena’s film Red Saga (2004) made with the group Southern Tagalog Exposure, reminded us all that the Philippines has a long and fine tradition of left wing, committed and politically engaged filmmaking.

Chalida Uabumrungjit of the Thai Film Foundation has put together a fine selection of contemporary Thai short films. From the hilariously well-paced sexual comedy of Araya Suriharn’s Pillow Talk (2004) to the gentle musing on the rhythms of time and labour and season in Uruphong Raksasad’s Harvest (2005), a range of Thai filmic experiences was on offer. The inclusion of two films made by filmmakers under the age of 18 bodes well for the future of Thai independent cinema. Tulppob Seangchraeon, a recent high school graduate now studying film in Chicago, shows incredible sensitivity and maturity in the film Sad Scenery (2005). The deliberate mentoring of young filmmakers in Thailand is to be applauded and one hopes that such projects will be emulated throughout the region.

There is considerable range and variety in the works this year from Indonesia. From Edwin’s delightful amalgam of myth, cinema and music in what is being hailed as Indonesia’s first indigenous ‘silent’ film, Dajang Soembi: Perempoean Jang Dikawini Andjing (Dajang Soembi: The Lady Who Is Married To A Dog, 2004) through to the slightly manic and twisted comedy of Robin Moran’s Romantic (2004) we see independent filmmakers grappling with difficult subjects in new and interesting ways. In Ivan Poetra’s Mengejar Terbit (Chasing Terbit, 2004) Jakarta becomes a canvas for a uniquely Indonesian rendering of Queer noir. Sometimes polemical, sometimes intensely personal, independent Indonesian films are not afraid to tackle issues such as human cloning, abortion, suicide, poverty and constructions and subversions of traditional power relationships in their work, even if they do so with varying degrees of success.

Zhang Wenjie and Yudi Hadi kicked off the S-Express series with their showcase of new works from Singapore. K.C. Tea’s The Bus (2005) was an interesting take on power relationships and authority in the city-state held together by a neatly organised and tight screenplay. Yee Chang Kang’s Dai Bao! (2005) managed to harness the cityscape of Singapore with considerable originality in telling a tale of loneliness infused with the warmth of hot steaming buns and the quirkiness of a collection of characters apparently at odds with the conformity of the city they inhabit. Kan Lume’s rather disturbing and intense I Promise (2005), a film about a brief and horrible affair, is ultimately worth watching for the seriously good performances of its two strong leads.

Malaysia, Truly Universal

And not to be outdone, Malaysian independent cinema again proved that it is a force to be reckoned with. Indeed it was Malaysia that provided the Forum with this year’s Opening Film – Deepak Kumaran Menon’s feature length Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road, 2005). The audience was captivated by this film – not just because it was the first ever Tamil feature from Malaysia, as important as that is – but more for the manner in which the film so gently and naturally marries the personal with the social, without ever having to resort to polemics or rhetoric.

As the Forum developed and the debate about what makes a film a statement of a given nation and a given people took place, Deepak’s film loomed large in the collective imaginary of the delegates. If the powers that be in Kuala Lumpur do not have the good grace or intelligence to deem this film Malaysian because it is seen merely as a film about one sector of Malaysian society and that it boldly utilises so beautifully the language spoken by that community, then so be it. It is of course a shame that a film made in Malaysia but not in Bahasa Malaysia cannot receive the tax rebate that should be its due, but then so be that too. For many of the delegates from around the region who assembled in Singapore, this film spoke above the hollow platitudes of nation and identity and reaffirmed for all the very reason we support independent cinema. This film is of course Malaysian. To say otherwise is an absurdity and only highlights the very real need for a closer look at Malaysia’s official cultural policies.

Tan Pin Pin, the Singapore director, in her address at the Roundtable discussion on Independent Film in Asia told us that independent films are those films that need to be made. And Deepak Kumaran Menon’s film needed to be made.

Indeed director Bernard Chauly introduced the Malaysian contribution to the S-Express program with a talk, “Malaysia, Truly Asia?” where the audience was asked whether we need to even answer the question as to whether a film is intrinsically Malaysian (or indeed Singaporean, Filipino etc). The films on show from Malaysia perhaps best answer that question. Curated by Amir Muhammad, this year’s shorts from Malaysia do truly reflect the diversity of life and culture as experienced in Malaysia by Malaysians in ways that the proscribed and prescriptive cultural policies can only dream of truly achieving. Indeed these films also talk to a universality of shared experience and therefore offer Malaysia a great opportunity at engaging outside of its borders with audiences elsewhere.

When we talked throughout the Forum and Symposium on matters about developing a Pan-Asian cinema (whatever that might still mean) and about films speaking globally, there appeared to be a common consensus that film is, and always has been, a global enterprise. I do not have to be Malaysian Chinese to know that Tan Chui Mui’s sublime short film A Tree in Tanjung Malim (2004) speaks to me, and while the film will definitely become an important part of the social memory of this place and this time, whether the establishment realises it or not, it can also transcend the social by becoming part of the personal memory of those who have been fortunate enough to have watched it. For that reason this is an important Malaysian film.

In addition to Tan Chui Mui’s film, delegates and audiences in Singapore also saw the new James Lee short, Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (2005) – the filmmaker’s first attempt at utilising Bahasa Malaysia on screen. Clearly the language has influenced the cadence and rhythm of the narrative and it is a testament to James Lee’s skill as a director that he has embraced these challenges and utilised the spoken language on screen to enhance his own film language. Perhaps that is a uniquely Malaysian capacity! A multilingual country that can harness language(s) to tell multiple and layered stories about the complexities and diversities of experiences here – shared or otherwise. Kanna Thiagarajan’s Chitappa (2005) skipped nicely between languages – a reflection of course of the way people actually speak in Malaysia. And Ng Ken Kin went one step further in terms of language and had his quirky short film 28 Hours Later (2005) ‘speak’ directly to another film, another culture, another country – a post modern, perhaps post colonial game, that the director pulled off with no small amount of aplomb. The attempt itself one could argue remains somehow intrinsically Malaysian – this is after all not a country trapped in a cultural vacuum.

The mainstream is not the enemy

Earlier in the week at the Panel discussion on Asian Filmmakers and the Call of Social Memory, Anwardi Datuk Jamil gave a paper “Malaysian Cinema: Filem Kita Wajah Kita (Our Film Our Image) – Social Memory or Selective Memory”. According to the presenter most Malaysian commercial cinema gives a warped sense of the society it purports to represent. If that is indeed so then there is clearly a hope that the spirit of the very gifted independent filmmakers of Malaysia will begin to infuse the mainstream Malaysian cinema with their breadth and depth.

And that hope is not without possibilities. While we never agreed fully on what it is that makes an independent film an independent film, we did agree that there is now a cross over into the ‘mainstream’ across the countries of the region. Pen-ek Ratanaruang has in many ways made the transition from small scale independent filmmaker to a leading player in Thai cinema and even told us how he may well be soon making a film in Hollywood. He discussed the compromises that need to be made to still make what you do on the screen personal as you move more into what we like to call the ‘mainstream’. Bernard Chauly has made that step here in Malaysia with his recent film Gol & Gincu (2005), as did Yasmin Ahmad with Sepet (2005). Others are doing it elsewhere. The mainstream commercial cinema is not the opposition or the enemy. It is the site that needs transforming. Perhaps as independent filmmakers imbued with a sense of Tan Pin Pin’s need enter the mainstream they will indeed transform it – making it again relevant to the manner in which audiences construct their social and personal memories and are able to also be simply entertained in ways that are not an affront to their intelligence.

And as those filmmakers make the cross over it is in their interests and the interests of the industry at large to begin mentoring younger independent talent and seeing that new voices, new vernaculars and new visions find their need fulfilled. I am still not so certain whether in Singapore we really answered the vexed question of a Pan-Asian cinema, but I think events such as the Asian Film Symposium and Forum are vital to the dialogue. Indeed if nothing else it is an opportunity to bring people together to reflect upon the state of the medium.

A positive development is that there is talk of independent filmmakers working in co-productions with their colleagues across the national boundaries within the region. When more of that begins to happen, the issue about what is or is not a ‘national’ film will hopefully become more and more redundant. And hopefully those people who might still stupidly believe that a Tamil language film set on a Malaysian rubber plantation with an all Malaysian cast and crew telling a tale about the lives of Malaysian citizens is somehow NOT a Malaysian movie and is deemed therefore to be ‘foreign’, will themselves become increasingly redundant too. Their redundancy is all our need.


Copies of the Asian Film Archive Collection DVD, Singapore Shorts are available at The Substation, the Singapore History Museum and selected outlets (retail price $S30 with proceeds going to the preservation of Asian cinema at the Asian Film Archive). For more information visit their web site at www.asianfilmarchive.org


Benjamin McKay is completing his thesis on a social history of 1950s and 1960s Singapore and Malaysia as revealed to him by the locally produced films of that era. When he is not here in Kuala Lumpur, he is at home in the northern Australian city of Darwin – a place that may well not confirm a number of the theories of its namesake, Charles Darwin.

First Published: 21.09.2005 on Kakiseni

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