The Diversity of Southeast Asian Cinema

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There isn’t really such a thing as Southeast Asian Cinema. What we have in this programme is a collection of films that hail from that geographic region, but there is little else that ties them together.
That’s because one will find in Southeast Asia a huge diversity of cultures that developed independently of each other, taking on different colonial influences, and forging their own specific relationship to cinema. The Philippines, for example, is made up of almost a hundred distinct ethnolinguistic groups, was colonised by Spain and America, and has been making films for a hundred years. Contrast this with, say, Singapore, which is a singular city state that broke off from the Federation of Malayan States, was once ruled by Britain, and didn’t have a serious film industry until the 90’s. Differences in language, population, education, government policy and levels of economic development create vastly different cinemas, in spite of the vaunted interconnectedness of the region.

Such diversity is immediately apparent in the horror anthology series Folklore, produced by HBO Asia, which enabled Southeast Asian filmmakers to retell ancient supernatural myths in the context of modern life. These four episodes harness the power of their ghost stories to address specific issues in each locality: the plight of migrant workers, economic inequality, political malfeasance, and the dominance of Western culture.

There are several films in this lineup that deal with some form of romantic relationship, and it further highlights the differences in the concerns of each culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Rainbow’s Sunset is a family melodrama centring on a married, elderly politician who is revealed to have a lifelong love relationship with another man. The film goes into the very particular way homosexuality is treated in the Philippines: both as plain fact while still being the cause of scandal, even in present day.

The Third Wife, goes back in time to the 19th-century Vietnam, detailing the sexual awakening of a young woman forced into an arranged marriage. But it is just as much a movie of the now, wrestling with the larger issues of patriarchy that persist over a century later. Both films redefine roles of the masculine and the feminine, but they are informed by completely unrelated national contexts.

Even within one country, there is a great range of cinematic themes being explored. Indonesia’s Aruna & Her Palate and Ave Maryam are two very different romances. The former is a bubbly romcom that’s very modern and notably secular in its approach to relationships. Ave Maryam, on the other hand, is a high-minded drama that details forbidden love between a nun and a priest. The films together offer a complex portrait of Indonesia: a nation of contradictions, struggling to reconcile tradition, colonial influences, and the demands of progress.

Guang, from Malaysia, reckons with progress from a different direction. It documents the struggles of an autistic adult and the brother who takes care of him. Autism is still widely underdiagnosed in all of Asia, and the film sets out to bring awareness to what is generally viewed as a modern problem. The Pool, from Thailand, crafts potent horror out of the trappings of progress, as it tells a grueling survival story of a man trapped in a drained swimming pool on top of a building.

There is always a temptation to define a region’s cinema as a singular thing. But it is ultimately more rewarding to celebrate the differences, particularly with the films coming out of a region that comes alive in its diversity. Any trip around Southeast Asia offers up a wealth of stunning landscapes and cultural experiences. The cinema, when it’s doing things right, delivers the same.

Philbert Dy