Alexis Tioseco's Favorite SEA Films of 2006

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Alexis A. Tioseco, editor-in-chief of the superb site Criticine, contributed a manifesto/essay to the Guardian's 2006 film issue. He's also compiled an annotated list of favorite films from Southeast Asia, which cites a number of emerging filmmakers, including the intriguing Edwin. Here's Alexis:

With the space limited to me, I’d like to run my list a bit differently, writing strictly about Southeast Asian cinema (lord knows it gets overlooked enough), and listing a feature, a short, and an older work for each major SEA filmmaking country: Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore (I cheat with Malaysia but that’s ok).

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Still from A Very Slow Breakfast, by Edwin

It was a banner year for Southeast Asian Cinema, with films from the region reaping awards in several major festivals (Pusan, Pesaro, Vancouver, Nantes, Fribourg, among others). The quality of the works not listed here—allow me to cite three briefly: The Last Communist by Amir Muhammad, that essays the life of Chin Peng by retracing, physically and in the present day, his early life; Love Conquers All, the first feature of Tan Chui Mui from Malaysia, whose short A Tree in Tanjung Malim is a favourite, that won two prizes in Pusan (I haven’t seen the feature yet), and Opera Jawa, the over-the-top Javanese Opera by Garin Nugroho that features wonderful installations— will give you an impression of just how interesting the year was for the region. Without further ado, my list goes as follows:

2006
Favourite SEA Films

Philippines
Feature:

Huling Balyan Ng Buhi: O Ang Sinalirap Nga Asoy Nila (by Sherad Anthony Sanchez)
(Huling Balyan Ng Buhi: Or The Woven Stories Of The Other)

I’ve written about the triumvirate of Lav Diaz, Raya Martin and John Torres elsewhere, so I’ll save space here and write instead about a special new film no one outside of the Philippines has seen yet, but I’m sure you will…

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Shera Anthony Sanchez, photo from Davao Today

Mindanao has many stories, and surely far more than the ones about violence and terrorism, barbarism and strife that the media love to feed us. Sherad Anthony Sanchez, a 22-year old Mindanao native completing his undergraduate degree in Manila, attempts to tell us one. With a 700,000 pesos (US $14,000) grant from Cinema One Originals, Sanchez, whose disturbing yet tender short-film Apple traveled to Rotterdam earlier this year, took time off school, armed himself with an HD camera and ventured to Cotabato, to shoot a film about the last ‘balyan’ (tribal shaman) of a fictional tribe, ‘buhi’ (‘life’, in the native vernacular). Sanchez shot the film with a cast comprised almost entirely of non-professionals (he bravely threw out entirely the footage that included well-known Filipino actor Bembol Roco, from Manila in the Claws of Neon fame, feeling it was false), in tenuous locations, and with an almost all-local crew. The resulting work is a devastating glimpse into a transitory moment in a culture hidden, with scenes, filmmaking, moments, and a score so raw and so tense, yet so focused and precise. Sanchez is mature beyond his years, and this film, the first feature to be shot entirely in Mindanao, with almost all cast and crew comprised of locals, is the single most important Filipino Film of 2006.

Short:
‘Plano, Saling Pusa (Tag Along), It Feels So Good To Be Alive, (by Antoinette Jadaone)
Antoinette Jadaone, an impressive fresh film graduate from the University of the Philippines (which is churning out fewer and fewer impressive film graduates in recent years), is one among a small underappreciated breed in Philippine cinema; the woman filmmaker. Her films are the freshest I have seen among young filmmakers in the Philippines, and are wonderful for their lack of pretension. There is a charm to her work that is inimitable, and that transcends boundaries of culture of language. While ’Plano and Saling Pusa appeal for their off-kilter humor (a tiny young girl in a proper dress addresses a character with an extended finger in one, and is playing a serious game of poker with middle aged men in the other), her brilliant experimental 3-minute experimental short It Feels So Good to Be Alive really causes one to take notice. Jadaone has related to me her desire to make feature-length commercial films in the Philippines, and she is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon, and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants. In the meantime—I can’t wait to see more of her shorts.

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Still from The Moises Padilla Story

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The Moises Padilla Story (by Gerardo De Leon)
Known in the west as a director of B-Movie and Blood Island films, in the Philippines, among the informed, De Leon is revered. Sadly, most of the films on which his reputation in the Philippines had based (Daigdig ng mga Api / The World of The Oppressed, Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo, among others) are gone, a sad sign of Philippine archiving woes. This past December, as part of a local Human Rights Film Fest, his 1961 film The Moises Padilla Story (with a charismatic supporting performance by disposed president Joseph Estrada) was screened in 35mm print. In by no means excellent condition (though, for a Filipino film from its time, by no means bad condition), the film, for one such as myself little exposed to De Leon’s major works, was a revelation. As equally impressive for its brilliant composition and blocking as for the complex psychology of its character, The Moises Padilla Story is an important work that should be made available for the world to see. Sadly, however, the film is missing close to 10-minutes, including I am told, a crucial sequence in which Estrada orders the gauging out of the eyes of the lead protagonist. Un-restored because of lapses in communication, the missing minutes of the film are in possession of Filipino film historian-cum-detective-cum archivist Teddy Co, who is willing to return them should proper arrangements for their restoration be in place. Are you listening?

Thailand
Feature:
Syndromes and a Century (by Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The second half of Tropical Malady was an intense, dark vision, set as deep in the jungle as in the recesses of the heart. Syndromes, Apichatpong’s first feature since, is decidedly lighter in tone and much more straightforward in it’s telling, though no less mysterious and enchanting. Though Apichatpong appears to be experimenting, working on instinct, improvising when necessary and following his impulses and bemusement, his intelligence and focus, his understanding of his craft and the unique perspective with which he perceives both cinema and the world around him, ensure the vitality of the finished work. He is one of the most important artists working in cinema today.

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Still from Syndromes and a Century

Combination of shorts:
Stories from the North (by Uruphong Raksasad)
More of a compilation of shorts or countryside sketches than a proper feature Uruphong is unique in Thai cinema and unique in his own countryside. A seasoned editor, he knows when to keep silent and allow for pause. Stories from the North is charming in its simplicity, it doesn’t glamorize the countryside, but simply shows it to us, and with an intimacy and familiarity only attainable by one for whom its soil is home.

Shorts:
Tsu (by Pramote Sangsorn)
Bangkok In The Evening (by Sompot Chidgasornpongse)
‘Tsu’ is a poetic, moving tale that was made as part of an omnibus of films about the tsunami. An exquisite expression of anger about lack of an efficient warning system, the film at the same time sheds a sober tear for the destruction and death caused. It begins with a beautiful 6-minute long tracking shot, where all you see is a foot limping along the sand, and all you hear is the soft sounds of water in the distance.

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Still from Bangkok in the Evening

Everyday at 6pm, chaotic Bangkok sits still, as its inhabitants take a moment to listen to the National Anthem. Sompot, a collaborator of Apichatpong, documents this peculiar moment in Bangkok in the Evening, substituting the National Anthem for melancholic Satie, resulting in a soothing work that acts as, in the directors own words, a kind of requiem or love serenade for the city of Bangkok.

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Sombat Metanee in Tears of the Black Tiger

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The films of Sombat Metanee
One of the few nice things about the 2006 Bangkok Film Festival was its tribute to Thai actor/director Sombat Metanee, which included films ranging from action-camp-comedy The Holy Hoodlum, to the sometimes more serious (but still occasionally campy), The Hell of Tarutao.

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Still from Love for Share

Indonesia
Feature:

Love For Share (by Nia Dinata)
If her career path is any indication, Nia Dinata appears to enjoy pushing buttons. She tackled issues of race in her first film, Cau bau kan, issues of homosexuality in her second, Arisan, and now with her third, Love For Share, she confronts head on ‘polygamy’, or the act of having more than one spouse. Dinata does two things especially well in the film, the first is maintaining a light mood— smartly delivering her point through humor rather than a straight index finger— and the second is maintaining balance, an especially delicate aspect to consider when making a film about such sensitive subject matter. Love for Share is able to essay the issue through stories of three couples, each with different religious beliefs, social standing, and circumstance, yet manages to avoid the feeling of being calculated or contrived.

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Still from A Very Broing Conversation

Short:
A Very Boring Conversation (by Edwin)
Edwin [no last name] is, bar none, my favourite short filmmaker in Southeast Asia, and the one whom I am most excited to see make his first feature. His ‘No Trilogy’ is a trio of shorts about “dandruff, love and desire” with no real connection other than having all been shot on 16mm, and of course, being different levels of brilliant. While the first, A Very Slow Breakfast, about the deterioration of the modern Asian family is, I think, the masterpiece of the three, the second (Dajang Soembi: The Woman Who Was Married to A Dog), a b/w silent film based on an old Oedipal-like Indonesian fable) and third (Kara, Daughter of a Tree, which features a Ronald McDonald bench statue falling from the sky into a hut in rural Indonesia) are no less impressive and daring works aesthetically. What makes A Very Boring Conversation, an exercise film that takes place in real-time that depicts a possible change in the relationship between an older woman and a younger man, an exciting transition for Edwin, is that in this film the absurdity level drop (however slightly!), and for the first time we get to hear his characters speak! While Edwin has been consistently brilliant in his mastery of film language, with Boring Conversation we see how well he works with actors. Edwin is currently seeking co-producers for his first-feature, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, a very personal film about Chinese-Indonesians. I’ve read the treatment (in prose and with sketches), and seen the 3-minute trailer (shot on 35mm film, with the purpose of showing his intentions with the project), and I can say with confidence that this will be an important work. A producer reading this would be smart to get in touch with Miles Files (the Indonesian production company supporting the project). This is one project we will be hearing a lot about soon.

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Still from a film by Gotot Prakosa

Old:
The Short Films of Gotot Prakosa
I was in Indonesia this past November as a judge for the inaugural Slingshort, a festival of Southeast Asian short films. A nice intimate event, it gave me the opportunity to briefly meet Gotot Prakosa, who is touted as the ‘Godfather of Independent Film’ in Indonesia, and to see his works thanks to a compilation of his shorts passed to me by Alex Sihar of Konfiden (www.konfiden.or.id), the group that compiled Prakosa’s work and transferred them to DVD (not commercially available at moment, though I do hope they consider putting it out). The collection of works, covering roughly his work from 1975-1984, includes animation films (Koen Faya Koen) with images hand-painted or drawn onto the celluloid (Meta Meta, Family Planning), stop-motion animation (Dialogue, The Line, Genesis, Genesis), and avant-garde works (Meta Ekologi). One viewing certainly isn’t enough; I’m looking forward to exploring these works again in the near future.

Malaysia
Feature:

Rain Dogs (by Ho Yuhang)
Ho Yuhang won Best Director in Nantes for this film, and rightfully so. A former engineer, the precision with which Yuhang calculates the composition of his shots, camera movements, and cuts is scary, and even more so when seen in the context of his diverse resume (the Dardenne-like photography of Sanctuary, Yuhang’s previous feature, is starkly different). There is a strong level of pathos circulating in Rain Dogs, about the exploits of a young fuck-up without a father, and Yuhang’s use of music (he himself plays the classical pieces heard in the film, and his repeated use of Odetta’s haunting classic version of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" hits home each time).

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Still from Majidee

Short:
Majidee (by Azharr Rudin)
Azharr Rudin is a stalwart in Malaysian cinema, having edited several films of “the funniest Muslim filmmaker in the world” Amir Muhammad, and completing several impressive experimental shorts, including the challenging Garden in My Sink. Earlier this year Azharr finished a neat sextet quite of films, which he titled 'The Amber Sexalogy’. Six scenes, each crafted with exquisite care, each confronting different stages in remembering and forgetting, the maturation of a single character as he deals with his loss. From the silent first episode, Forgetting Amber, I was hooked, and my intrigue only increased more after each further one (which often featured a different actor in the lead), until the final, truly impressive one, Majidee, left me speechless. In one take, with two characters, and a relentless Dardenne-like handheld camerawork by James Lee, Rudin manages forces us to look at the everyday with a questioning eye, confronting and laying naked through our interpretation of the ending, our own cynicism or optimism about the world around us. As a stand alone short, it works beautifully, in the context of the ‘Sexalogy’, it’s a brilliant ending, and one that implies, in the lead characters selflessness, that maturity and closure are not far off. Rudin directs with such understated confidence, with a style always at the service of his thesis, a sure sign that this is one young filmmaker we must keep an eye on.

Bonus (replacing the Old Film):
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (by Tsai Ming Liang)
Master Tsai Ming Liang leaves Taiwan to return to the country of this birth to offer up his portrait of multi-racial Kuala Lumpur. Tsai brings with him his regular players, Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen Shiang-Chyi, and they stick out (as we know them from previous Tsai films. For those familiar with Tsai’s work, it’s a funny moment the first time we see Lee) as much as they fit (their change in looks does blend well with the setting). This isn’t the Kuala Lumpur seen in advertisements, nor the same one we’ve seen depicted in the films of Ho Yuhang and James Lee. It’s all Tsai’s own, and he captures the texture, filth, and feel with a loving disgust. I’m interested to see Tsai shoot here more.

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Still from I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Singapore
Feature:

The Art of Flirting (by Kan Lume)
In 2005 at the The Substation in Singapore’s annual The Asian Film Symposium, I saw Kan Lume’s 20-minute short I Promise…. Engaging, and with great, highly improvised performances by its two leads (Leonard Yeo, and luminous discovery Marilyn Lee), the elliptical film about the meeting, engagement, and unexplained disconnection between a sports star and a young journalist, left one curious: both the story and its telling felt decidedly un-Singaporean (having seen many Singapore shorts, this is a good thing, believe). The intense Lume, he of the peculiar FILM (top) MAKER (under) tattoo on the back of his right hand, declared that he loathed explaining his films, name-dropped Eric Rohmer, Kieslowski and Von Trier as inspirations, and said he was shooting several hours of footage. A year later Lume brought an extended version of I Promise…, now titled The Art of Flirting – As Told in Four Chapters, to the Singapore International Film Festival. As a short, you felt the same frustration and puzzlement as Lynn (Marilyn) when left by Leo (Leonard)—in terms of emotion, it was straightforward what the director wanted to evoke, but in the newly expanded 80-minute version, scenes that were abbreviated in the short are allowed to play out, conversations extended, and pasts revealed, and while the film follows the same general arc, the effect is drastically, drastically different. The transparency of intention dissipates, and you are left to your own devices to determine how you feel about the characters and the events that took place. What was a neat elliptical film in I Promise… becomes a haunting chamber-piece in The Art of Flirting.

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Still from I Promise

Short:
4x4: Episodes of Singapore Art (by Ho Tzu Nyen)
Academics are usually boring, stuffy people locked up in rooms who prefer theory over practice and are content to write in jargon few people in the real world are interested to read. Ho Tzu Nyen, currently completing his M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies (focus on Singapore Art History) at the National University of Singapore, is not one of these academics. What I love about Tzu Nyen’s work is that they engage you directly intellectually, but without compromising the beauty of the medium chosen to express the ideas—i.e. Tzu Nyen is as in love with history, ideas and theories as he is with the moving image as an art form. I previously cited Tzu Nyen’s short Utama: Every Name In History is I, an experimental narrative about the possibilities of re-writing/re-interpreting the founding of Singapore, in a Best-Of Poll for Senses of Cinema in 2004, and don’t hesitate to cite his 4x4: Episodes of Singapore Art series produced for Singapore TV now. 4x4, the television aspect, is one part of a greater conceptual work that has four parts (information dissemination, television program with four parts, open forum, and later dvd distribution). Each of these four episodes attempts to discuss an important moment or piece in Singapore Art History by recreating the work live and recording it, with two separate hosts commenting on it live, during the recreation. Tzu Nyen touches on 4 different types of art: from painting in Episode 1, a blank canvass in Episode 2, Performance Art in Episode 3 (a personal favorite), and conceptual art in Episode 4. I wish I had teachers like Tzu Nyen when I was a student.

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Lobby card for They Call Her Cleopatra Wong
Old:
Cleopatra Wong (by Bobby Suarez)
Wrong is so many ways, They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, the Singaporean co-production (i.e. classic B-film) helmed by Filipino director Bobby Suarez and shot in various locations in the Philippines on a miniscule budget, is an absolute treat to watch.

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