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The Best of New Southeast Asian Cinema: Four Busan Film Fest Highlights

The Best of New Southeast Asian Cinema: Four Busan Film Fest Highlights

Shut out of the fest hits currently circuiting Europe and Asia (“Winter’s Sleep,” “Mommy”, “Leviathan”) which all sold out before the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) homepage could even load, I headed for the festival’s Southeast Asian offerings. Here are the highlights of my visit to this under-seen nook in world cinema: three fictional films that transported me from Hoang Lien National Park in Northern Vietnam to the Agusan del Sur marshlands in Mindanao to the apartment flats of Singapore along with a documentary which surveyed Southeast Asian cinema as a whole.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian Cinema: When the Rooster Crows” follows four directors from four different countries: Brillante Mendoza from the Philippines, Eric Khoo from Singapore, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang from Thailand, and Garin Nugroho from Indonesia. Confronted with budgeting censorship and an overall lack of independent filmmaking in these nations, Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso’s documentary showcases the burgeoning directors of Southeast Asia and the problems they face trying to spark a independent moviemaking in their own cultures.

Interviewing directors, critics and actors in Southeast Asia’s film community, Lombroso etches out themes of alienation and cultural isolation in creating art-house, independent cinema within countries that lack the academic literature, the festivals, and the industries to support such endeavors. At the same time, “When the Rooster Crows” suggests that with a lack of social stability in the Southeast Asian governments and societies there is an equally abundant upside in the freedom for idiosyncrasy and innovation.

At a fundamental level the documentary provides a gateway to the filmmakers in Southeast Asia who aspire to create daring cinema and who tailor their works toward global festivals and audiences. Using interviews and clips from Brilliante Mendoza’s work, Lombroso catalogs the Filipino auteur’s handheld virtuosity and immersive POV in the energetic fervor of Manila. The dark underbelly of Filipino life is the subject of most of Mendoza’s films. “Serbis” is a film about a matriarch managing both a tumultuous family life and a porn theater in the seedy provinces of Manila. “Kinatay” follows the media’s hysteria after the tragic and horrific murder and decapitation of a kidnapped woman. “Captive” details a group of hostages harrowing trials after Mindanao jihadists kidnapped a group of tourists from the island of Baracuay. “Lola” examines the plight of the impoverished elderly in properly burying their kin. Mendoza captures the chaotic frenzy through visceral techniques that are so believable that one of his early films was mistakenly labelled a documentary category at a European festival.

It’s disappointing that the documentary neglected “Joe” Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand, especially after his recent art-house successes, including the 2010 Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” But strictly abiding by the structure of a single director per country, “When the Rooster Crows” instead chose the romantic whimsicality of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Thai cinema that spurred a Southeast Asian New Wave in the late ’90s. The doc traces the auteur’s evolution from emotionally resonant indie rom-coms like “Last Life in the Universe” and the nostalgic “Monrak Transistor” into his latest political and polemical effort, “Paradoxocracy,” which was banned by Thai theaters in fear that it might incite fighting in the audience.

In Singapore, Eric Khoo’s edgy “Mee Pok Man,” and the provocative festival hit “My Magic” about a rogue carnivalesque magician, provide ideal examples of filmmaking bravado in the tiny multicultural nation. It is fascinating to learn about the ways in which editing and censorship from governmental regulations on multicultural sensitivity infringe upon the works in these nations. With a population and a dogmatic decree for ethnic cooperation between the native Singaporeans, the Chinese, and the migrants from India, the interviews with Khoo and other Singaporeans in the local film industry reflect heavily upon the institutional pressure to acknowledge every race equally and justly. Clearly Southeast Asian cinema still undergoes heavy scrutiny from the government and their narratives waver upon the volatility of local standards in free expression. Indonesia’s regulations are perhaps the most stringent, with a governmental agency in place for overseeing all stages of production. Still, Garin Nugroho’s performative cinematic work “Opera Jawa” and his biopic about a famous oratory poet named Ibrahim Kadir, aptly titled “A Poet,” reveals the ability to transcend the silencing forces of religion and despotic authority to create authentic cinema.

The documentary is more of a slight essay than a thorough treatise on the culture and qualities of Southeast Asian cinema. But given the marginalized obscurity of the topic, “When the Rooster Crows” deserves to be watched simply for its power to introduce viewers to new directors and unheralded cinematic movements from exotic and remote regions. But Southeast Asia remains at a preliminary stage of a New Wave: it still awaits the limelight, dormant but active at the threshold of breaking through and into the global circuit. 

Vietnam

Kim Quy Bui’s “The Inseminator” heralds a rare and powerful female voice in Southeast Asian cinema. Kim Quy Bui mitigates heavy-handed visual metaphors of procreation with her immaculate compositions. The film’s opening shot reveals a mentally challenged Vietnamese boy named Maize (yes, as in “corn”) mimicking the sound of a frog after provoking the frog to make noise by spitting in its face. Squeamish uncertainty is a common reaction while watching “The Inseminator.”

Maize believes that he is a frog. His father Mr. Boi believes he is a man who needs to pass on the genealogical seed, subjecting his sister to chauvinism. She becomes an accomplice, a victim. From this central conflict the film provocatively explores reproduction, the tyranny of patriarchy and the familial perversions that are byproduct of Mr. Boi’s obsession that Maize harvests a suitable woman from the “Love Market.”

“The Inseminator” is both feminist statement and scathing satire of patriarchy. Filmed at Hoang Lien National Park in Vietnam, “The Inseminator”‘s fertile, verdant landscape is apt. In one shot, blatantly symbolic yet aware of its own obviousness, the camera lingers on an earthworm swimming around two eggs in a bowl, transcending cliche by virtue of its inventive, formal beauty. One hallucination shows red babies floating down a river, while another reveals said baby beneath the husks of a corn. Such over-the-top whacky and unoriginal art-house exploits that nonetheless work in “The Inseminator,” which has the uncanny tone of familiar cinematic tricks of shock and awe revamped in unsettling and unfamiliar settings. Its lurid images, theoretical rumination and hints of a mythological heritage in Vietnamese folklore work together to gestate an embryonic breakthrough for Vietnamese cinema and for the film’s young female director Kim Quy Boi.

The Philippines

Bwaya,” a Filipino film by Francis Xavier Pasion, chronicles the process of grief and personal tragedy of a Manobo family, through the mother Divina (Angeli Bayani, from “Norte, The End of History“) and the father Rex (Karl Medina) whose daughter Rowena is killed by a crocodile. As Rex searches the Agusan del Sur marshlands for the body, Divina confronts her resentment toward the schoolteacher (R.S. Francisco) she blames for the accident and deals with the exploits of the media. Gripping, emotionally charged, and featuring a sublimely exotic milieu with naturally beautiful cinematography, “Bwaya” is an incisive retelling of the horrors of a recent tabloid-producing tragedy in the Philippines.

“Bwaya” begins with voiceover about the ancient mythologies of two crocodiles who became separated when the pregnant female could not leave a narrow channel to the sea as a sweeping camera introduces us to the Agusan marshland community on the islands of Mindanao. The prologue soon settles into a schoolhouse setting with the unique detail being that the schoolhouse dwells on water. Like the student’s home, the classroom is a floating bamboo shelter. The schoolteacher reminds the children a stipend needs to be paid before they can graduate, a fact of life in poorer regions of the Philippines where education is not funded by the government. Playful, exuberant Rowena and a friend canoe home. Teasing the inevitable, the girl’s jump into the water for a swim, arrogantly unworried that it is infested with crocodiles.

Rowena’s home life is startlingly sparse: Rex and Divina’s floating house has no furniture, and sleeps five or more family members, including a grandmother and other siblings of Rowena’s. Dinner is plain noodles cooked with boiled water taken from the lagoon. “Bwaya” quickly dives into Rowena’s world and the plight of her family. When she asks for the 800 pesos to graduate she can’t do so in writing because both her parents are illiterate. Too poor to pay, Divina must canoe to beg for donations from neighbors. Rowena’s 13th birthday is the next day and an Aunt gifts her a medical toy set. Rowena plays doctor with her siblings, and sings a memorized graduation song. The film confronts the dire economic resources (yet resilient humanity) of the Manobo people.

The father eventually discovers Rowena after an undisclosed interval of days. What is obvious in regards to the time between the death and the recovery is that Rowena’s corpse, bloated and pungent, has decayed long enough to become such a health hazard the local guards demand that she be buried immediately.The scene where Rowena’s body is recovered from the thick marshland foliage is shot initially from the canoe before cutting to a slow zoom-out shot from an aerial angle. The vastness of the marshlands at a bird’s eye angle respects the privacy of the moment while simultaneously illuminating how minuscule humanity is in relation to the environment.

Interspersed with the fictionalized account of Rowena’s tragedy is the actual documentary footage of reporters interviewing Rowena’s parents. There is footage of the real burial ceremony of Rowena as she is transported from her first gravesite to a proper casket later. Unsympathetic to the sensitivity of grievance, the interviewers rudely pry into a scandal involving whether the parents stashed donations for the funeral rites away for themselves before begging the local government for more help. The director also (twice) includes authentic footage of Rowena being excavated from the original makeshift burial site which was hastily formed to rid the stench of her decomposing body from infiltrating the town. “Bwaya,” which means salt crocodile in the local Filipino Manobo dialect, is both a vindictive and sympathetic account of the disconsolate, hysterical, and sorrowful states Rowena’s family must face to overcome the horrific reality of nature’s lethal elements.

Singapore

Lei Yuan Bin’s “03-Flats” is a documentary about the high-rise public housing blocks that renovated 85-percent of Singapore’s slums into affordable apartment flats. It’s shot in wide angles, with a static camera and flat composition, mirroring the geometrically precise apartments on display. The film follows three particular flats—Queenstown, Sembawang, Eunos—and the three single women who occupy these spaces. The women’s ages and lifestyles vary: one woman is an artist, one has a cat, and one is geriatric. But the fact that single women are the only demographic showcased in the film is perhaps its biggest flaw: the lack of diversity leaves the documentary feeling myopic, slanted by its narrow focus.

Statistics from Singapore’s Ministry of Public housing and quotes from the Prime Minister intersperse throughout the documentary detailing the immense bureaucratic motivations of the housing projects. Most incentives are aimed at domestic families, though they do mention that singles, while excluded from some prioritized perks designated for family units, are not without consideration from the selection process in filling the apartments. Speaking like an ambassador for an utopian state with formulaic political credence, a TV Broadcast near the end has the Prime Minister robotically urging the citizens toward progress. There’s a dystopian bent, aimed solely at the support of procreation and the nuclear family. Why not show this demographic: the effects of the cramped apartment of a Singapore flat as inhabited by a family of four? Was the choice of only single woman in the film an active decision or a result of finding only a few participants willing to allow their lives to be filmed? Such questions lingered throughout “03-Flats” and the loss of a variable cast of characters weighs heavily.

Here are the women cooking; Here they are cleaning; Here they are entertaining themselves. Yet again, there is a limited array of things to do living alone in a flat, so it likely wasn’t hard to find commonalities to merge between the different subjects. The use of long shots from a static camera allows ample time and space for the eye to immerse itself in the setting: to notice the type of cereal on the counter, the strange way that hangers dangle from the kitchen cabinets. Some images loom with an eerie hints of temporal imprisonment. None express the monotony of a pendulum better than a close-up on a barred window shut off from the outside and sitting just above a bland clock ticking slowly, like the lulling rhythms of the film itself. In fully entering the quotidian intrigues of what transpires inside Singaporean flats, Lei Yuan Bin demands your patience.

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