Wednesday, September 23, 2009

9th Asian Film Symposium: Notes and reviews

I was right where I wanted to be this past weekend. In Singapore of all places. Watching seemingly endless screenings of short films from throughout Southeast Asia as well as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It was the 9th Asian Film Symposium, which this year became a program under the formerly biennial Singapore Short Film Festival.

Held at The Substation, a powerful generator for independent cinema and contemporary arts and theater in Singapore, the symposium featured a forum discussion, screenings of the S-Express traveling short-film series and a tribute to the late Filipino film critic and programmer Alexis Tioseco and Slovenian critic and programmer Nika Bohinc.

Starting on Saturday afternoon, there was a panel discussion, "Film Associations in Asia", and "their functions, uses and lack of presence compared to our European and American counterparts." Panelists included the S-Express programmers from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand as well as filmmakers and programmers from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Southeast Asia, the film associations tend to be informal ones, such as the close-knit, often cross-pollinating independent film movements in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. The Thai Film Foundation's role was noted in fostering independent film with its annual Thai Short Film and Video Festival. Others noted included Minikino in Indonesia and Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia.

There are also schemes in the Philippines, such as Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals, that commission independent films, but the budgets offered for those projects are usually quite small, and, particularly with the Cinema One scheme, the filmmakers have limited rights to their own work.

Another school of thought being voiced was that the collegial, friendly associations that exist might possibly be prone to cliqueishness and ought to be formalized, with guilds formed for cinematographers, editors, directors, writers, etc.

Also noted was the lack of government support for filmmakers, or, if there is government support for film, there will be the "stupid" use of money. An example cited was one government's move to create a large budget that could potentially support dozens of independent films, but then the money was given to make just one film. Another example mentioned is a film-financing scheme that frequently awards only well-known commercial directors.

And then there are laws, such as Indonesia's new draconian film law that requires script approvals and other harsh measures -- more stringent than under the Suharto dictatorship -- such as a rule that members of film crews have to have certificates, despite there being only one film school in the country, and many on film crews simploy learning on the job.

"The best way to oppose the law is to ignore it," said one filmmaker. "What are they going to do? Arrest thousands of us?"

Well, they might.

Capsule reviews

S-Express: Indonesia
Curated by Varadila of the Minikino film club, the idea was to show the diversity of Indonesia film. The first, Drum Lesson by Tumpal Christian Tampubolon, was made while on a Young Asian Filmmakers fellowship in South Korea with the Jeonju International Film Festival. Filmed with a Korean cast and crew, it's the whimsical tale of an elderly woman who wants to learn to play drums for her church band, but the teacher she finds is the former member of a death metal band. Thou Shall Not Wait (Tak Kau Kunanti) by Riri Riza, is a look at work by an accomplished filmmaker. The poetical piece stars veteran actress Jajang C. Noer as an elderly woman who arrives in the city with her luggage and is waiting to be picked up by her son. New Couple (Pasangan Beru) by Salman Aristo has a young couple (another famous actress, former Indonesian Playboy model Andhara Early and film editor Cesa David Luckmansyah) who are faced with a burglar breaking into their home, but struggle with the absurdity of knowing the gossip about their neighbors but not their phone numbers, so they can't call anyone for help. The First Nation on Mars by Nala is a satire on the space race with American astronauts being bizarrely played by Frenchmen who sound like Russians.

S-Express: Malaysia
Curated by Amir Muhammad, this collection came from Amir's discovery of a group of Tamil filmmakers who organize an annual informal "under the bridge" outdoor shorts fest. Shanjhey Kumar Perumal's Machai, about a pair of hapless salted fish vendors -- do those poor guys ever sell anything? -- is full of energy, with a soundtrack that features a dizzying mix of American funk, R&B and blues with Tamil songs. The comedic story has its roots in the loss of a community -- Sungai Besi, an old-style, multi-racial kampong village that has since been redeveloped in the name of "progress", a living, breathing heart, ripped right out of Kuala Lumpur. Shanjey also offers Thaipoosam, a video diary of a traditional festival that's known for its colors, and men with spears in their cheeks and fish hooks in their backs. He films it in black and white, and I think it's even more beautiful. Director Sasitharan Rajoo was there to introduce 13:17, a single-take work about a guy who just bought a video camera and is showing it to his friend. But something is wrong with his friend's girlfriend. This is how Cloverfield should have been. And then there's 18MP by "Anonymous", and I think it is meant to be the final word on Amir Muhammad's beleaguered and banned The Last Communist -- statements by Malaysian politicians after they saw Amir's gentle and comic documentary. The more they talk, the stupider they sound.

S-Express: Philippines
It's interesting how the context of real-world events affect how films that aren't related to those events and shape the way those films are viewed. That's about all I could think about while watching curator Alexis Tioseco's latest and last batch of eclectic and highly experimental works by Filipino filmmakers from the past three decades. The death of Alexis and his partner Nika at the hands of robbers in their home in the Philippines last month has shaken the film community worldwide, but the grief has been especially profound I think in Southeast Asia, where Tioseco championed and chronicled the region's independent cinema on his website, Criticine. Not only is it hard to look differently at the films he's chosen, I also wondered how time had changed the first piece, Ang, Magpailanman (Eternity), which lives up to its description as "possibly one of the strangest Filipino films ever made". Made in 1983 by Raymond Red, it has the jumpy quality of a silent film, and a very old one at that, with the film purposefully marked on and distressed as part of the process. I think it's probably improved with age. Auraeus Solito's 1995 work, Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy (The Brief Lifespan of Fire):, Act 2 Scene 2: Suring and the Kuk-ok is also pretty jumpy, but that's because it's a mostly stop-motion photography piece that revels in the beauty of its actress and the natural surroundings. Director Tad Ermitaño was on hand to talk about his short, 1996's The Retrochronological Transfer of Information, in which a scientist (Ermitaño himself) seeks transmit a picture of the present back in time to communicate with slain Filipino independence hero Jose Rizal. The transmitter is a video camera with the lens shooting through a sliced-up Filipino banknote bearing Rizal's likeness. I think the experiment worked. Last was the most disturbing bit, Surreal Random MMS Texts para ed Ina, Agui tan Kaamong ya Makaiiliw ed Sika: Gurgurlis ed Banua (Surreal Random MMS Texts for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscape with Figures), made last year by Christopher Gozum. The narrated dialogue is Filipino-American writer-activist Carlos Bulosan’s 1942 poem Landscape with Figures over surreal, random and found digital images, including footage that must be like Buñuel's and Dalí's Un chien andalou, which I'll never know for sure because I'm too squeamish to look.

S-Express: Thailand
Curated by Sanchai Chotirosseranee, this is nearly a "best of" this year's Thai Short Film & Video Festival. The exception is Jakrawal Nilthamrong's Man and Gravity, a short that was in competition in Rotterdram earlier this year (another of Jakrawal's shorts, his Japan-shot Man and Gravity: Plateau was in competition at the Thai shorts fest). For this second viewing, I appreciated the otherworldly landscapes captured as a man on a wheezing motorcycle attempts to cross rugged terrain while hauling all his worldly possessions. It's karma on wheels, too weighed down to move. Thawatpong Tangsajjapoj's Abtakon represented the animated shorts. It's a colorful music video from the singer Yui about a young woman coffee shop worker trying to get a male customer's attention. Appropriately, there was Nattapong Homchuen's university-student film Red Man, which covers Thailand's color-coded political divide. Instructively, it was showing on the anniversary weekend of Thailand's September 19, 2006 military coup. This year, to observe the anniversary, pro-coup yellow-shirts stoked nationalist sympathies by storming the border areas of Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple, declaring the land is Thailand's. Meanwhile, anti-coup red-shirts rallied in Bangkok. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit was there to introduce Francais, his poignant documentary-style drama about a blind college student who has to study for a French philosophy exam but her materials haven't been translated into Braille.

S-Express: Singapore
Now here's an interesting concept -- a multi-segment ensemble piece in the form of a short film. That's the 16-minute We, the Real People of Singapore, by Ghazi Alqudcy, with vignettes taken from real experiences. The stories bleed right into one another seamlessly. I'm still thinking about the husky boy on the bus, and the two women who are making fun of his weight, believing he can't hear them. But he's listening and understanding every word and just smiling. Next in the program by curator Low Beng Keng, or just BK, is National Day, another "uniquely Singaporean" piece about a family that has finally collected hard-to-come-by tickets for the National Day celebration at the stadium, but the family's patriarch and biggest patriot has just died. The family is going to stay home and wait for his spirit, according to Chinese custom. But what to do with those tickets? Kissing Faces by Wesley Leon Aroozoo features a karaoke hostess who wishes her life was like those karaoke videos. And then there's A La Folie by Sanif Olek, who loosely adapts an episode from the Ramayana in telling a comic story about a young urban couple, Sinta and Arjuna, who've gotten back together after a break up, during which Sinta spent time with another man, Rawana.

S-Express: Chinese
Yes, it really is "Chinese" -- shorts from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, curated by Maggie Lee, who's best known for her work as a critic for The Hollywood Reporter. Her selection is a mix of brief animated works and longer live-action pieces. There are two by China's Chen Xuegang, Spallation of Ardour and Tremble, that Lee thinks might cause audiences to have seizures because of the strobe-like flashing of them both. Ardour is a parade of Chinese Communist-inspired pop art while Tremble laments the rapid bulldozering, backhoeing and jackhammering in the rush to modernize China's ancient cities. Audiences who had seen the Thai shorts got another look at sight-impaired person's life in The End of the Tunnel, a medium-length drama about a blind piano student at a Taiwanese arts academy who becomes friends with a dance student. The girl dancer, played by Miao Miao's French-Taiwanese actress Yung-yung Chang (or Sandrine Pinna), treats the blind boy to his first trip to the beach since he lost his sight. Lee brought with her a pair of young Hong Kong independent animators, Chui Chun-yu and Chan Wai-yee, who made Yim in their spare time -- away from their day jobs preparing motion graphics for a TV station. It's an interesting work about the karma of a devilish man who sinks in a submerged city. In the discussion forum, the pair related that it's pretty hard being an independent filmmaker in a city where commercial filmmaking is everything, and doubly hard being pure animators in an industry where live-action and CGI pretty much rule. More animation comes in the stop-motion piece, The Empty Body by Wong Sze-ming from Hong Kong. The program wrapped up with Life Must Go On, a documentary-style video diary by Hong Kong's Sham Ka-ki that captures bored teenagers hanging around housing projects, a little boy who's 3 going on 5 and a mist-enshrouded city that looks like a rainforest.

Out of all the programs, I think I enjoyed S-Express: Malaysia the most, just for the spirit of entertainment and it's feeling of new discovery.

And it was pretty cool to meet Maggie Lee, Amir Muhammad, BK, the Asia Film Archive's Bee Thiam, Indonesian director Tumpal and the Malaysian guys, Shanjhey and Sasitharan.

Earlier programs I missed were the opening films, She Shapes a Nation, a short documentary by Dana Lam from Singapore on the role of women in the city-state's first five decades, and At Stake, an anthology on women in Indonesia by Ani Ema Susanti, Iwan Setiwan & M. Ichsan, Lucky Kuswandi and Ucu Agustin.

And there was 9808, an anthology reflecting on 10 years since the 1998 "reform" movement in Indonesia by directors Anggun Priambodo, Ariani Darmawan, Edwin, Hafiz, Ifa Isfansyah, Lucky Kuswandi, Otty Widasari, Ucu Agustin, Wisnu Suryapratama and Steve Pilar Setiabudi. It's also showing in this week's Bangkok International Film Festival.

Having already returned to Bangkok on Monday morning, I missed that afternoon's tribute to Alexis and Nika, as well as the closing program, Edwin’s Short Film Retrospective and Malaysian director Azharr Rudin's Punggok Rindukan Bulan (This Longing).


  1. I like YIM, LIFE MUST GO ON, and SPELLATION OF ARDOUR very much. I'm sad I didn't have time to go to see the Malaysian and Indonesian ones when they were shown in Bangkok.

  2. Heya. Just a fact check: On Philippine funding bodies cum festivals for "independent" projects, it's actually Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals. There's no Channel 1. That's all. Keep up the good work!


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