Sunday, January 8, 2006

Southeast Asian film wackiness

Quite few pan-Asian items to share in this post.

First, there's a new organization in Singapore, the Southeast Asian Cinemateque, which is launching monthly screenings of vintage films from Singapore, Lumiere works from Japan, Indochina and France, and films from Malaysia and Cambodia.

Agence France-Presse has a story about it. Among the offerings will be the "lost" 1958 production by Malaysian filmmaker L Krishnan, The Virgin of Borneo, as well as a recently unearthed 1973 Singapore movie, Ring of Fury, which was banned for many years due to its violent content. There's also the Asian-exploitation Singapore-Philippines co-production, They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong, about a sexy secret agent in charge of smashing a drug triangle.

Among the newer films will be Rice People by Cambodia's Rithy Panh.

Films by foreign directors that feature Southeast Asia locations or subjects will also be screened. Among them will be 1967's Five Ashore in Singapore, starring Errol Flynn's son, Sean Flynn, who later went missing while on a photography assignment in Cambodia and is presumed dead.

Cambodia's film industry, at one time dominated by King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, is covered by the Associated Press, which reports that filmmaking is making a comeback after being wiped out in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge and decades of war.

But at a recent national film festival, many of the films shown were locally made low-budget horror films, such as Nieng Arp, or Lady Vampire, about a flying female head with internal organs dangling beneath it. It's a common Southeast Asian ghost story. Thailand has its own version, made a few years back, called Kra Sue, or Demonic Beauty. Hey, they have to start somewhere.

Armed with video cameras, a legion of filmmakers sprang up in the 1990s to churn out low-budget movies and karaoke videos.

"We make movies to suit the domestic market and the demand of our youths," says Korm Chanthy, the manager of FCI Productions, which made Nieng Arp. "They like to watch horror movies because they make them feel excited, thrilled and terrified."

The government wasn't impressed. The filmmakers "injected too much hallucination and superstition" into their work, complained Culture Minister Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth. "Their understanding of moviemaking is that it's just business. And they have this misperception that, without training, they can still make movies."

But in the absence of a school, they'll just keep trying. Another producer, 29-year-old Heng Tola, was looking to diversify his computer business when he founded Campro three years ago with several friends.

Making a movie takes Campro about three months and costs an average of $30,000, including about $1,000 for the lead actor.

Despite the current taste for horror movies, Heng Tola believes a more serious trend is emerging, prompted in part by the resentment many Cambodians feel about its colonial past and toward domineering neighbors such as Thailand and Vietnam.

One of the festival entries was a nationalistic epic about a peasant protest against high tax imposed by Cambodia's colonial rulers, the French.

"The Cambodian movie is being reborn after a long absence. Its existence has been up and down, and the question now is how we can make it really stand," Heng Tola said.

The best movie trophy went to The Crocodile - a tale of the heroism of a man who killed the beast responsible for the deaths of several people in his village.

It starred Cambodian pop singer Preap Sovath and cost more than $100,000, making it perhaps the most expensive Cambodian production ever, said Eng Chhay Ngoun, whose Hang Meas Video made it.

More pan-Asian goodness can be found in Issue No 14 of Firecracker Magazine, which covers the Metro Manila Film Festival, Korean films A Bittersweet Lifeand Drink, Drank, Drunk, overlooked Kurosawa films, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and more.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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