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March 28, 2013

Southeast Asian Independent Cinema


Edited by Tilman Baumgartel
Hong Kong University Press - 2012

By title alone, this book could be easily confused with the Asiexpo publication, Southeast Asian Cinema that appeared several months earlier. There is some overlapping, but not enough to warrant not having both books. The two books might be considered complimentary, as the Asiexpo publication is primarily historical regarding the cinema of the countries covered, while Baumgartel's book is more concerned with a more current state of filmmaking. While the Asiexpo book also includes countries with very little or no cinema, past or present, following a regional overview, Baumgartel concentrates on films and filmmakers from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The book is divided into three parts - Essays, Documents and Interviews. The first part is the most academic, with discussions based on identities and communities, real and virtual, local and transnational. Much of the idea of an independent cinema is that of filmmakers using relatively inexpensive digital tools and sometimes creating alternative forms of distribution and exhibition. One of the more intriguing chapters, by Nathalie Bohler, discusses oral and performance traditions of Thailand that most famously have been incorporated into the films of Apichatpong Weerasekathul, particularly, Mysterious Object at Noon. Indonesian cinema come under extra scrutiny with essays and interviews spotlighting the conflicts between the filmmakers, who identify as Muslim, and those representing religious and governmental authority.

khavn de la cruz.jpg
Khavn de la Cruz

The documents are from the filmmakers, their own stories and manifestos. Filipino filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz takes on Dogme 95 with his own Dogman 2000, followed by a Filmless Manifesto and his Digital Dekalogo. Among the commandments from the Dekalogo: "Work with what you have. Release the bricoleur within. You are not a studio. Accept your present condition. Start here." Of interest to those who write online film criticism, and a riposte to those who believe that only writers of printed media matter, is the essay by Singaporean Tan Pin Pin, and the selling of his performance documentary, Singapore GaGa. "Because the blogosphere was not monolithic and was perceived to be independent, there was a lot more room for conversation and discussion between the readers and the bloggers. Online conversations are just a more efficient way for word of mouth to spread."

With one exception, the interviews are by Baumgartel with Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Apichatpong Weerasekathul. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Nia Dinata, Eric Khoo, as well as one of the last interviews with Yasmin Ahamad before her untimely death at age 51. A common factor is that these filmmakers tend to be better appreciated outside of their home countries, with their reputations based on films that have traveled the international festival circuit. The filmmakers also discuss how they view their films in terms of qualifying the regional or cultural attributes sometimes misapplied or misunderstood by critics and viewers. Pen-Ek describes the people who most appreciate his films, as fans also of musicians "Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave".

This book is part of a series published by Hong Kong University Press, TransAsia: Screen Cultures, with other volumes on different aspects of Asian cinema. Baumgartel has the online blog, Southeast Asian Cinema which has news in English about films and filmmakers often not found elsewhere, as well as fascinating photos of what remains of many movie palaces from the region.

Tan Pin Pin.jpg
Tan Pin Pin

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 28, 2013 07:42 AM


I bought this as soon as I saw it on the City Lights bookshelf, and have recently begun digging in. It's provided some good context for my recent blogging on films from Singapore and the Philippines seen at CAAMFest (formerly the SF Asian American International Film Festival). And I expect to cite it when covering the Pen-ek retrospective coming to San Francisco next week.

Posted by: Brian at March 28, 2013 01:12 PM

I wish I could go to the Pek-Ek retrospective, if just to see Nymph. I haven't seen Ploy, but it's currently available on Netflix Instant.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 29, 2013 01:48 AM