Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Asian films at Rotterdam

The Village Voice's Dennis Lim follows up on the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which featured a slough of Southeast Asian films this year.

Keenly anticipated among trend-chasers, the Southeast Asian focus was more than a little spotty, though there's no denying the uptick in independent-minded activity in the area, on the fringes of film industries that not long ago were dormant to nonexistent. Quintessentially Rotterdamian specimens included Thai youth-culture chronicler Thunska Pansittivorakul (Happy Berry) and Filipino mondo terrorizer Khavn, whose "brown comedy" The Family That Eats Soil seemed to be a fast-forward favorite at the festival's video library. Much slicker, Filipino American two-man crew Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's brilliantly resourceful Cavite (made for little more than the cost of two plane tickets to Manila) uses a wireless, real-time ransom countdown to orchestrate a stricken tour through the slums just outside Manila.

With Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul having graduated to art-house stars (and a next wave yet to fill the void), the regional buzz has migrated somewhat to Malaysia, home to a small, close-knit group of emerging filmmakers. James Lee (The Beautiful Washing Machine) and Ho Yu-hang (Sanctuary) practice a wry, oblique minimalism derived from Malaysian-born Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang. Their cohort Amir Muhammad is a wholly distinctive voice in Southeast Asian movies. Essayist, activist, and sociologist all in one, he deploys whimsical humor and sharp analysis to hack away at the contradictions and willed amnesia endemic to Malaysian culture and politics (as in his '04 Sundance entry The Big Durian). At Rotterdam, he premiered two records of trips abroad: the experimental tone poem Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year of Living Vicariously, a digressive meditation on rebellion and nationalism in the guise of a making-of doc, shot on the Jakarta set of a period biopic, against the backdrop of Indonesia's first direct presidential elections.

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee recently returned and found plenty to learn from (temporary link). He points out that the focus on Southeast Asian films paints a picture that isn't exactly clear.

Rotterdam's selections, adventurous and open-minded, juxtaposed the various sensibilities of this multi-ethnic region and suggested one vibrant, happening cinema scene. For us Thais, it reminds us how little we know or care about the cinematic traditions of our neighbouring cultures _ and one can't help wondering if Bangkok, looked up to by other [Southeast Asian] nations as a leading force in the region's cinematic revival, shouldn't take up a more central role in gathering Asean filmmakers and save us all the trouble of flying to Europe to see Filipino indie flicks or Indonesian shorts.

"Our 'SEA Eyes' section was motivated by two different things, one positive and one negative,'' said Gertjan Zuilhof, a festival programmer who toured this corner of Asia last year looking for movies.

"The positive impulse came from several films by directors who're still not well-known enough [though they deserve to be], and the negative motivation is related to [the fact that] even though Rotterdam has a name to defend in the field of screening important Asian cinema, it happens that part of Asia, the tropical part, has always remained underrepresented.''

Perhaps not Thailand though. At least one Thai movie has travelled to this Dutch cinefest every year since 1999; and in the recent episode a record eight Siamese titles joined the panoply.

Leading the pack were two hot-iron pictures from last year: the brooding man-tiger meditation Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the patriotic xylophone flick The Overture, by Itthisunthorn Wichailuck (Apichatpong's The Adventure of Iron Pussy was also picked). Meanwhile Ekachai Uekrongtham's gender-shifting Beautiful Boxer once again proved itself an irresistible crowd-pleaser, ranked 12th in the audience poll that rated 190 feature films.

But Rotterdam's reputation comes largely from its ardent support of independent movies, and two Thai indie fares of 2004 that hardly any Thais have seen secured their slots in the fest's busy schedules: Birth of the Seanema, by Sasithorn Ariyawicha, and the funky Happy Berry by Thunska Pornsittivorakul, both emblematic of made-on-the-fringe Thai movies done with petty money and progressive thinking. And beside feature films, eight short movies by young Thai directors were also selected into the festival's sidebar section.

Short films indeed constituted the majority of the SEA Eyes programme, and that reflects the common situation in all Asean countries where there's no solid structure to encourage the making of 90-minute artistic films. The mainstream film industry of, say, Malaysia or the Philippines is made up largely of sticky melodramas and homespun comedies with low standards of production. And the burgeoning, more "sophisticated" film culture of the region is brewed up henceforth by a slate of upcoming New Wave directors who scrape money up from wherever they can get their hands on it. Sure enough, they make movies that are less popular yet much more ambitious.

Following the lead of the Thai talents, the Malaysian indie filmmakers have squeezed themselves into the possible Next-Big-Thing checklist of global critics.


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