By Women, About Women: Embracing Multi-Faceted Voices in Film8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
From Cannes’ favourite Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and festival-commissioned films to the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, the 30th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has maintained its established reputation of bringing in a wide variety of films for the local audience. This year, SGIFF not only demonstrates its usual spotlighting of Asian films close to home, a quick scan of the programme reveals a strong focus on women in film.
And that is a heartening move.
Yes, if the situation were reversed and we praised it, it would have been controversial. But in a world where the Bechdel test exists, where we’ve had a long history of male-dominated films, this move seems necessary. Such an innocuous but loaded emphasis ensures that women are given equal representation in the films showcased.
I am delighted because through the recent films that I’ve caught, I’ve gotten exposed to not just more Southeast Asian directors but also to topics that resonate with the female experience. Think about it, can you name a female director? You’ve got one? How about an Asian female director? Or going even narrower, a Southeast Asian female director?
These films that I’ll talk about have made valiant attempts to give women agency in situations where they don’t seem to have any. They challenge everything that the male gaze dehumanises, refusing to eroticise the female body or sensationalise feminine pain. Instead, these films fervently celebrate the simple affairs of life, as experienced by women, giving them a voice when they were previously silenced.
Mouly Surya’s Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue is a short film set in the heart of Indonesia, following the preparations between the bride (Ayushita Nugraha) and her mother (Christine Hakim) that lead up to the wedding rituals.
In this short and intimate moment of connection between mother and daughter, the women of the family are given center stage — a warm picture of love, affection, and understanding. For Surya, this seems important as she notes in her interview with Sinema that “women in a traditional Indonesian wedding…are not actually involved; you basically don’t need to be there.” By providing a side to common traditional wedding practices that is not usually given much attention, Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue shows that a wedding is not just about the father giving the daughter away.
Instead, it is also about a mother saying goodbye to a dear daughter. The bride isn’t the well-worn caricature of a poor girl marrying up to a well-to-do family, but a successful career woman who has as much say in the marriage as her groom does. And to add to all that, Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue is a gorgeous and elegant film that gives a peek into Indonesian practices, and I really wished it were longer than it is.
Then there’s Gitanjali Rao’s two-year long project that presents a lush and vibrant animated film, Bombay Rose. Focusing less on intricate details and more on impressionistic strokes of colours that characterise the feature film, Bombay Rose is, on the surface, a love story. The film invites you to go along with the light-hearted affair between Kamala (Cyli Khare) and Salim (Amit Deondi), involving coy looks and showy dancing.
Yet, one soon realises that the Indian life in Bombay Rose is not a cozy bed of roses, despite the rose-tinted lens that the electrifying hand-painted colours provide. Prickly thorns stick out unassumingly, lurking on the edges of Kamala and Salim’s love affair. Issues of child marriage, child labour, Muslim-Hindu tensions, and prostitution haunt our protagonists, occasionally interrupting their relationship.
Ensuring a marked difference in painting styles between Salim’s dreams and reality, Bombay Rose illustrates that Kamala is not the Bollywood girl held in the villain’s chokehold whom Salim dreams of saving. Standing her ground and her choices, Kamala does what she has to do for herself and her family.
Marketed as a “feminist drama”, Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds revolves around fiercely independent Sheng Nan (Yao Chen) coming to terms with her recent diagnosis of late-stage ovarian cancer. With a bad-ass solo traveller figure who coolly fights injustices in her own way—and whose name could literally be taken to stand for “win men”—it’s not hard to see the strong feminist angle that the film proffers.
However, in a post-screening talk, actress and producer Yao Chen rounded off the session by expressing her hopes for Send Me to the Clouds to be able to be a form of comfort for women who can see themselves in Sheng Nan: a failed idealist who struggles and flounders. Feminism isn’t about winning men or not getting married. For Send Me to the Clouds, feminism means having the space to exist outside of biological demands to give birth and possess a sex drive (though, Yao Chen is cautious of the rising trend of filmmakers using ovarian cancer to incapacitate women).
With the common notion in China of single women above a certain age categorised as “leftover women”, the film is a tender portrayal of a leftover woman who sees through strength, failure and growth. Society may decide your worth based on your relationship status, but life’s too short to let that define you.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with its all-female cast, is a rarely-heard-of female space that introduces another angle to this conversation: women in art. A painter is commissioned to complete a wedding portrait of a young lady who is unwilling to pose. In this interview about the film, Sciamma shows she knows exactly what she’s doing. Talking about the male gaze that women have always been forced to adopt, Sciamma believes that this gives female artists a uniquely hybrid position that has experienced the male gaze and understands the female experience.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, recognises her disadvantaged position in the male-dominated art industry, when she shares that “they” don’t allow women to paint nude figures of men to prevent female painters from achieving more. However, that does not discourage her, as she cheekily confesses, “I do it secretly.”
Later, she becomes the only one to gain the trust of the lady and is recognised for her work, something that her male predecessor was not able to do. Their forbidden love affair becomes all the more subversive. Marianne demonstrates her ability to paint both the male subject that she’s not allowed to and the female subject that others are not able to, highlighting the special hybrid position of the female artist that Sciamma proposes.
When it comes to films directed by women and focusing on women-centric experiences, people cannot help but talk about the male gaze, or a purported ‘female gaze’. Reviewers have even gone as far as to say that “the world looks different when seen through a woman’s eyes”. By continuing to give these voices an international platform, hopefully more would recognise the importance of women represented in film. Like Scimma said, it’s a female ride, and you may choose to reject it, but it’s a path nonetheless that shouldn’t be ignored.