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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:23PM   |  7 comments
Still from Letter to Uncle Boonme by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

A film movement is emerging in full force in Southeast Asia. And it is transnational, experimental, and jacks us into a new sense of time and place.

Last Friday on March 5, I popped over to the National University of Singapore(NUS, the other major university in Singapore)  with my NTU (Nanyang Technological University) colleague Nikki Draper for a screening of five Asian short  films from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. 

With about 200 people in the audience, the screening was part of the NUS Arts Festival (NAF) 2010. The  festival, which includes music, theater, dance, literature,  and film, probes the cultures and debates of what it terms “global Asia.” The place buzzed with people. 

Before the screening, we ambled around the opening exhibition of influential Singapore painter Cheong Soo Pieng  (1917-1983) at the university museum, a few steps down from the theater.

Cheong’s work hybridizes early European modernism with Southeast Asian painting and compositional styles.  Many of the paintings are vertical, referencing Chinese scrolls. But the style is expressionist, exploding in rich oranges, greens, and reds. The paintings claim a different sense of time to absorb their complex compositions, their stillness, their groundedness in everyday life of people, buildings and land in Southeast Asia.  In many ways, the paintings provided a template for the screening to follow.

Long takes, tableau shots, complex sound designs, and details of everyday in interiors characterize this new film movement. 

Cosponsored by the  Asian Film Archive (AFA) to celebrate its fifth anniversary, the screening featured new works by  Lav Diaz (Philippines), Hong Sang-soo (Korea)Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia), Christopher Chong Chan Fui (Canada/Malaysia), and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand).

Curated smartly and aggressively by Bee Thiam Tan from AFA , the screening was demanding and rigorous. The films insist on a different temporality from commercial cinema with their long shots and long takes.  They required concentration so  the eye can learn to scan the frame and the spectator’s body could settle into a slower pace.

My colleague  at NTU, Adam Knee, a specialist in Southeast Asian cinema, connected with us during the intermission.  He pointed out that this Southeast Asian film movement is transnational and fluid, with filmmakers from different countries working on each other’s films, and some filmmakers working in Canada and elsewhere but linked back to the region.

Many of the filmmakers trained at art schools in Southeast Asia and the United States. They appear to be influenced by structuralist experimental filmmaking but torque it with a unique Southeast Asian mise-en-scene and atmosphere. 

Here,  narratives unfold in space rather than propel forward.  As Nikki observed, this is a cinema that rejects the adrenalin-pumped, close-up infused classical Hollywood narrative style.  It is a cinema where the frame always has characters together, interacting in space. The films operate in the liminal zone between narrative, documentary and experimental film. 

Butterflies Have No Memories (Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-Paro, Lav Diaz, 2009) is a 45-minute narrative chronicling the fissures between economic difficulties in the Philippines and the return of a Filipino ex-pat living in Canada.  It was commissioned as part of the Jeonju Digital Project in Korea, a major new initiative to stimulate independent filmmaking in Asia.

In Everyday Everyday (Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia, 2008), Sook Chen leaves her job and fantasizes about going to Peru.  Long takes and careful compositions allow the interactions between the characters as they sleep and eat to function as the topography of a relationship.

The final two films in the program were  formally challenging, conceptual  standout works  that seem to suggest that space and place trump time. A Letter for Uncle Boonmee (Apichatypopg Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2009) features a slow tracking shot through a home on stilts in northeastern Thailand, concentrating on photographs, bowls, wooden walls.  In voice-over, we hear young soldiers recite a memorized letter to Boonmee.  

Block B (Christopher Chong, Malaysia, 2008) is composed of one long shot of a multistory housing project, with the elevator shaft splitting the screen in half. People move around the balconies, women discuss cooking, and hang their laundry out.  A sari falls to a lower floor.  The film evokes Warhol, but instead twists us to learn small details of interaction between residents from a distance. The sound is proximic while the shots are distant. This conceptual strategy suggests that larger housing landscapes conceal microterritories of narratives . The film unfolds human-scaled actions that the large state-financed structures obscure.

Intrigued, I asked Adam what factors propelled this new independent cinema movement.  "1997 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) did not precipitate a movement away from feature production but rather marked the start of a rise in local production in both features and experimental and short works, " he explained. "Not a movement away from features, but a new push to create a local alternative to Hollywood product in the wake of the financial crisis and IMF interventions."

The diffusion of lower cost digital video increased access to production and stimulated regional voices. 

Most importantly, contends Adan, numerous film festivals showcasing shorts, experimental works and documentary have developed in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines in the last decade, serving to nurture this filmmaking community through screenings, dialogues, and connections.

These films challenged me to consider how this Southeast Asian regional, transnational cinema movement unsettles our film study categories of genre, style, shorts, and the national. I want to see more.



What did you think of Hong Sang Soo's "Lost in the Mountains"? I thought the voice over narration was especially effective in explaining what the protagonist was thinking about! One of the most straight forward and least sexually explicit Hong Sang Soo film that I have seen.

I also liked the Malaysian accented Chinese spoken by the protagonist in "Everything Everything"! The philosophical question posed by her towards the end was particularly interesting in my opinion!

Hi Patricia!
really glad that you enjoyed the screening. Did not know that you are also currently located in NTU. ACDN who provides the services and equipment for the screening is also located in NTU. If you have some time, please drop by at our office and I can give you a tour! We are in Research Techno Plaza!

Dear Prof Zimmermann, hope you could come this Saturday, for a s screening of two contemporary feature films from Singapore: FLOODING IN THE TIME OF DROUGHT by Sherman Ong and WHITE DAYS by Lei Yuan Bin.

Date: Saturday, March 13, 2010
Time: 2:00pm - 9:00pm
Free admission
Register here: or!/event.php?eid=375093181350&ref=mf.
Location: Shaw Foundation Alumni House Auditorium, National University of Singapore. 11 Kent Ridge Drive, Singapore 119244. (

2pm – Screening of DROUGHT
4pm – Screening of FLOOD
5.45pm – Panel Discussion with filmmakers Sherman Ong and Lei Yuan Bin, moderated by NUS student film critics Daniel Koh and Chris Yeo Siew Hua
7.00pm – Light bites (provided by NUS Office of Alumni Relations)
7.30pm – Screening of WHITE DAYS

Dear Prof. Zimmerman,

If you would like to get a more academic sense of Southeast Asian Cinema, we're holding our 6th Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference this year in Ho Chi Minh City, 1-4 July. Please do try to come. Our program, registration information, etc. should be up by next week at

Alternatively, you (or anyone else who is interested) may contact me at for more details.

best regards,

Gaik Cheng Khoo
6th ASEACC coordinating committee

Thanks for sharing the contents of the films.

There could be another reason besides explicit retaliation against Hollywood production values and high production budgets.

In a review article by The Straits Times' senior writer Andy Ho, he described the investigation on the Toyota recall crisis held by a United States congressional committee for Toyota's president, Mr. Akio Toyoda.

During this event, there was a clear disparity in communication styles. Speaking in Japanese, Mr. Toyoda's response "was articulate in Japanese - which is characterised by indirection, the avoidance of direct speech or personal pronouns as well as a degree of opacity and inscrutableness. But the elliptical subtlety was lost in translation."

Quoting from a 2002 study in the journal Cognition & Emotion, the article described how "(w)ith low-intensity expressions, Japanese were inclined to believe that the subject was, in reality, harbouring much more intense emotions than he let on."

There is cultural relevance between this article, "Taking emotions at face value", and the screenings. A parallel between the films screened is the subtlety in multi texturing and layering, and leaves much to the individual to perceive and interpret. This is alike the implicit expression in Mr. Toyoda's communication style, which necessitates much inference by listeners to be able to discern his true emotions.

It is important to realise that given the historical, social, economic and political prowess that Hollywood wields as an icon of cultural imperialism, the habit to compare everything to Hollywood media products is a justified and understandable one. However, it is crucial that another link be established and explored, and that is the likeness between media products and the culture of their origins. In this way, the films screened can also be understood alongside the communicative tendencies peculiar, or at least common in, Asian cultures.

Frankly speaking, I have yet to learn how to appreciate Southeast Asian Films (ironically). The Picturehouse ( is certainly a great platform for film lovers (like you and i) but for me, being an undergraduate with limited funds, have yet to catch a film.

From what you have told us in class on Monday regarding the publicity of documentaries, which is rather limited, I was wondering why hasn't anything done to promote the industry as much as that of the pop culture drama series and films. Maybe a cable channel can be set up.

Well.. we do have access to various cable channels that show documentaries such as Nat Geo, Discovery Channel and History Channel. However, these channels show documentaries which focus on wildlife, historical theories and scientific researches. I think that's a reason why we are so interested in watching all the documentaries which you have showed us so far. Hopefully, there soon will be one which airs documentaries about social, political and environmental issues around the world.

I must say you had done a tremendous job,I appreciate all your efforts.

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