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September 18, 2012

Southeast Asian Cinema

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Vietnamese movie posters on a wall in Ho Chi Minh City

Southeast Asian Cinema / Le Cinema d'Asie du Sud-Est
edited by Jean-Pierre Gimenez
Asiexpo Edition 2012

Yes, I wrote a chapter to this anthology, one of twenty-eight entries. Even if editor Jean-Pierre Gimenez describes those who contributed as experts, I would hardly claim to be one. I will only claim that my knowledge of Thai cinema, which I wrote about here, and Asian cinema in general, is above average.

I should also admit to having communicated with three of the other authors in varying degrees in the past. Noel Vera and "Oggs" Cruz both have links on this blog. Noel Vera has written a noted book on Filipino cinema, Critic After Dark. I have also exchanged emails with Kong Rithdee, film critic for the Bangkok Post. Should I also mention that Wisit Sasanatieng, Thai filmmaker most famous for Tears of the Black Tiger, who appears in the DVD supplement, is a Facebook friend?

It's not a perfect book. Some of the English translation or writing in English is a little awkward. Some of the writing gets redundant with the repetition of film history in some of the countries. Some of the chapters are more academic than others. And yet . . .

It should be noted that the countries covered here are generally the ones that are usually overlooked when discussing Asian cinema. There were times when I was thinking that the people who should really be reading this are the ones who think all Asians are the same, or are culturally the same. What does link these countries though are similar problems: money, censorship, cultural differences within each country, the challenges of a global market, and the domination of Hollywood.

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Joko Anwar

The countries covered are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. My favorite chapter is by Davy Chou. Chou's grandfather was a film producer in Cambodia, during what was considered the golden age, from the Sixties through the mid-Seventies. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, the film industry was totally destroyed, and many of the people in the Cambodian film industry who were unable to escape, died. Chou's documentary of the movies and the film artists, Golden Slumbers has been appearing at several film festivals. His chapter consists of diary extracts from his meeting with filmmakers sharing their memories, as well as collectors who have saved films or film fragments.

There is also discussion of the films by Norodom Sihanouk, who found time between acting as King of Cambodia to also make a fair number of dramatic films, usually starring members of the royal household. The briefest entry is by Kong Rithdee, writing about how one defines Thai cinema. Interestingly, in one of the chapters of Laotian cinema, one of the writers considers Apichatpong Weerasethakul closer to Lao culture, in part due his being from the northern part of Thailand, as well as due to certain spiritual elements in Uncle Boonmee.

Certainly one aspect of Southeast Asian Cinema, and Asian cinema in general, that needs to be addressed more thoroughly would regard genre films. Horror and action films are discussed by some of the writers with ambivalence at best, and scorn at worst. This is not simply a matter of aesthetic tastes. Genre films have historically been the most easy to import, whether you are talking about films coming from Hollywood, or more recently, Asian films seen in western countries. The downside is that often those are the only films exported. The problem and solution lie both in what is made available in the marketplace as well as audience demands. One possible solution, if financially viable, would be to make more films available through streaming devices, as theatrical release is too costly and the DVD market has its financial limits as well. To some extent, this is being done through Asia Pacific Films. Even if films like Ong Bak from Thailand, or The Rebel from Vietnam, are produced more for commercial than artistic purposes, they have introduced more people to films from Thailand and Vietnam respectively, hopefully opening the way for audiences to investigate other films.

The DVD contains interviews with various filmmakers, archivists and historians, in their home countries. Among the better known filmmakers including Wisit, are Eric Khoo and Joko Anwar. Just as the book is bilingual, with French alternating with English, the DVD has subtitle options of French and English. The quality of the interviews is mixed, but most of the discussion adds to understanding of the state of cinema in the respective countries in the past year.

An except of the DVD is available on Youtube. The book was published in conjunction with Asiexpo's annual film festival held last October. The direct link to purchase from Asiexpo is here.

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Eric Khoo

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 18, 2012 07:21 AM