Friday, December 28, 2012

Book: Southeast Asian Independent Cinema

Tilman Baumgärtel, a German film and media studies professor who until recently was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, released a book this year, Southeast Asian Independent Cinema, published in Singapore by NUS Press.

Adding to slim selection of English-language books on the subject, it's a collection of scholarly essays and interviews with the region's notable indie film figures, including Thai directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Filipino indie godfather Lav Diaz as well as Brillante Mendoza, Singapore's Eric Khoo and the late Malaysian visionary Yasmin Ahmad.

Academics grind away on the very concept of Southeast Asian cinema – is a regional cinema even possible? John A. Lent asks the question: "Independent of what?" in pondering the meaning of "independent cinema". Natalie Böhler surveys Mingmonkol Sonakol's 2002 indie feature Isaan Special, as well as the early shorts of Apichatpong in "Fiction, Interrupted: Discontinuous Illusion and Regional Performance Traditions in Contemporary Thai Independent Film."

The interviews are snapshots in time.

Apichatpong is interviewed in 2009 in Munich where he was exhibiting his Primitive art installation. This was before he blew up big with a Cannes Palme d'Or win in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He covers his career up that point, from his days of learning to make 16mm films at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to have Syndromes and a Century censored in Thailand.

Pen-ek is interviewed as he was working on his 2009 forest thriller Nymph. This was before last year's Headshot went on to be one of his most-successful releases in a few years. In keeping with the book's theme, he ponders the term "independent".

"I am not really sure what independent means for a filmmaker, because you always have to depend on somebody." He goes on to talk about various times people have tried to hire him to direct an industry film. "There have been three or four attempts to do something like that, but it never worked out."

He also talks of his experiences making the pan-Asian productions Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves, which featured actors from other Asian countries and a multitude of backers from across East Asia.

"My way of working had to be compromised. You can say I had to step out of my comfort zone to work on both of those films. But nobody forced me to do that. I accepted both project and the liabilities, delightfully, as a challenge and an experiment. On one film, I did quite well, on another, not so well. But that's life."

Other fun parts of the book are the "Documents", mainly from filmmakers. Filipino director Khavn de la Cruz offers his "Four Manifestos". Here's a sample:

"In film, as in life, you make your own rules. You can shoot without a script or follow the words to the hilt. It's your film, it's your life."

Also: "Film is dead. Please omit flowers." Which Khavn uses to make his case for digital filmmaking, which has been wholly embraced by Filipino indie directors.

Baumgärtel includes his "devil's advocate" view in "The Downside of Digital", which according to him was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in September 2066 and "caused such an uproar ... that the newspaper felt obliged to print a number of statements by directors and producers," which are also included.

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