Looking for a Shared Identity in Southeast Asian Cinema8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has consistently championed Southeast Asian films, providing a space for filmmakers from this often-ignored but surprisingly-vibrant region to showcase their works alongside other more internationally-recognised films. The 30th edition is no different; from organising the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition to inviting filmmakers for post-screening sessions, SGIFF has continued to provide a platform for movie-goers and festival junkies to get exposed to films that originate from close to home.
At a focus panel organised as part of the 30th SGIFF offscreen programmes, with the theme Stories We Tell: Myth, Dreamscape and Memories in Southeast Asian Cinema, the panelists talked about the stories they tell, how these stories came about, and the difficulties of pinning down a Southeast Asian identity. Featuring Filipino filmmaker Raya Martin, film producer of Vietnamese film The Tree House Guo Xiao-dong, Indonesian filmmaker Yosep Anggi Noen, Singaporean filmmaker Sun Koh, and moderated by SGIFF programme director Kuo Ming-jung (have a read on her interview with Sinema here!), the insightful panel discussion debated over the need for a Southeast Asian identity, among other things.
A final consensus revealed that the dynamic nature of Southeast Asia requires an equally fluid and malleable Southeast Asian identity. But the question remains: is it even necessary to identify one in the first place? Martin and Yosep talked about how the Philippines and Indonesia are made up of hundreds of islands and consist of many dialects. With their countries already struggling to assert an all-encompassing national identity, what more is finding a Southeast Asian one? Koh adds that perhaps a rough idea of what it means to be Southeast Asian will be good to keep in mind, but it cannot be one that is set in stone.
I had the opportunity to catch a handful of Southeast Asian short films at the 30th SGIFF and some stood out to me in terms of common themes. Of course, while the issues in these films cannot be simply said to stand for all Southeast Asian films, it is interesting to see how similar concerns crop up and root these films together, regardless of geographical boundaries.
In an interview with Sinema, Kuo shared that the beauty of Southeast Asian short films is that you’ll never know what to expect. Even though I’ll only be scratching the surface through these examples, these films provide an insight into some of the messages that filmmakers from this region are keen to express.
Urgent Environmental Crisis
In the Southeast Asian Short Film competition this year, Lidia Afrilita and David Darmadi’s Diary of Cattle is a short documentary that follows the lives of a herd of cattle on a rubbish landfill. Without dialogue, the short film lingers on shots that alternate between showing the cattle grazing on plastic waste and carrying out carnal activities. Mimicking life cycles of the cattle in a 24-hour day—with baby cattle sucking on teats for milk, male and female cattle mating and finally to a dead, unmoving carcass—Diary of Cattle becomes a poignant picture of animals removed from natural green pastures to finding a home on man-made waste heaps.
Though playfully responding to questions about the filmmaking process in a post-screening discussion, director and producer Darmadi hinted at the inevitable relationship between Man and animals. Talking about how he had to get to know the cows, ask about their day and for the permission to film, and get them to trust him, Darmadi revealed the rapport needed to be built in order for the documentary to be made. Unfortunately, the current relationship which Diary of Cattle reflects is not so rosy. In Darmadi’s words, that where there is Man, there is rubbish, and where there is rubbish, there is the cattle. A sad, twisted correlation.
This focus on animals and nature continues in Yeo Siew Hua’s Incantation (2019), one of the three SGIFF-commissioned films. In a symbolic dance sequence that depicts the interaction in wildlife between predator and prey, Incantation is steeped in, well, incantations—indecipherable murmurs and various voices. The putting on of animal masks by the actresses (Eng Kai Er and Chloe Chotrani) in the short film alludes to the pervasiveness of animalism in pagan rituals that are popular in Southeast Asia. This intertwining relationship between Man and animals takes on another layer when the actresses, after dancing in the animal masks, remove them to find a tree burning. The voices slowly culminate, becoming louder and clearer, until only one voice remains, one that repeats relentlessly, “We’re running out of time.”
Keeping Alive Cultural Practices
With so many languages and cultures existing in Southeast Asia, there is no lack of inspiration to represent an aspect of cultural practices or rituals that remain close to the heart of modern-day citizens. Another SGIFF-commissioned film, Anucha Boonyawatana’s Not a Time to Celebrate, is a meta-commentary on the filmmaking process and film festival circuits (have a look at our interview with the director here!). Yet, what stood out to me was a silent moment by the protagonist (Puangsoi Aksornsawang), who plays a director and carries out a ritual alone, blessing the success of her film.
The flowers used for the ritual were passed on from a friend to another friend before finally reaching the hands of the protagonist, who ponders on it for a while before deciding to listen to her friends’ advice. This passing on of the practice is literally demonstrated on screen, moved from hand to hand, becomes a physical manifestation of how cultural practices are kept alive. Different people need to believe in their purposes and carry them out with sincerity.
Duong Dieu Linh’s Sweet, Salty (2019) follows a pregnant lady who is determined to confront her husband’s mistress. The title is taken from a common Vietnamese saying that is reiterated in the short film: if you’re pregnant and you have cravings for sweet food, the baby will be a girl; if you have cravings for salty food, you’ll be having a boy. This becomes a motif that is quickly established and understood by everyone, both in the film and in the audience. Through this cultural belief, the characters in the short film are able to relate to each other and form connections. Such an old wives’ tales become a common language with implications understood by all, building a community of people that understands the reference.
Southeast Asian Films = Experimental?
During the focus panel, Kuo shared that she received an interview question asking if Southeast Asian Films are defined by being experimental. The word came out again at the post-screening discussion of Contemporary Vietnamese Shorts, when an audience member commented that HIẾU (2019) was less—a short pause—experimental than the other shorts screened and asked what director Richard Van thought about that.
I get it, though. As an average moviegoer, when we say ‘experimental’ it usually serves as a euphemism for non-conventional narratives that may be slow, inexplicable, or even downright confusing. While watching Blessed Land (2019), short/cut (2019), HEY U! (2019), In Bloom (2019) and HIẾU for Contemporary Vietnamese Shorts, I found myself struggling to find a common thread amongst all of them, apart from language. There isn’t an easily identifiable theme or genre, and topics range from a golf course, to a flower, to a haircut, and to cancer.
But just as the panelists question the need to identify a Southeast Asian identity, perhaps it is counter-productive to try and fit all Southeast Asian films under one umbrella. We call things ‘experimental’ because they may be things that we are not familiar with and are quite unlike mainstream popular films.
And maybe that’s why championing Southeast Asian films is the very embodiment of what SGIFF stands for: to provide a chance to try films that are different from those that we are used to. There are many ways we can try to group films together, either by themes, time period, or region. But looking at Southeast Asian films, perhaps we shouldn’t be too preoccupied with fixing labels or having groupings. Like what Kuo believes, the great thing about having no fixed formula or boundary is that you’ll never know what to expect. Grab the chance to catch them, take them all in and enjoy the films as they are.