The adage holds true that cinema influences the way we view the world. Asian films have been playing a role to introduce Asia, its people and cultures to the global community, and the many stories unique to the region provide a representation of its identity and an illumination of the Asian commune.Asian filmmakers do not take this responsibility lightly. They are conscious that everything they present to the world is not a mere demonstration of their artistry – it is an opportunity to give a voice to Asia. Knowing the importance of standing out, each and every one of them has been challenging the norms of filmmaking.
ILO ILO (2013) by Anthony Chen
When Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s debut feature film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, it stood out as a fresh voice from Asia, and has since also put Southeast Asia in the world’s cinematic spotlight. Besides the coveted Camera d’Or, ILO ILO went on to sweep up an overwhelming multitude of awards and commendations such as the First Feature "Sutherland Award" at the 57th British Film Institute London Film Festival, Best Screenplay Award (Special Award) at the 50th Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, as well as Best Feature at the 11th Pacific Meridian Film Festival in Russia.
(Above) ILO ILO (2013) by Anthony Chen.Photo courtesy of Film Doo.
Set against the backdrop of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the film tells the story of a middle-class couple and their only son, all through the eyes of their Filipino domestic helper. The bond between the domestic helper and the child is poignant, as was inspired by Chen’s childhood memories. What is most remarkable was how it depicted the complex relationships of coexistence in a multi-racial country, especially amid Singapore's social and economic conditions during a tenuous time. ILO ILO received critical and popular acclaim, and this goes to show that its universal themes of love, loss and hope can connect with different audiences through good storytelling despite a context that might be foreign for some.
Chen is not alone in pushing Asian content to the world. We have always seen some truly impressive and innovative works from our regional filmmakers. Besides moving the audience, each film helped raised the bar in redefining Asian storytelling, and has also reiterated to global industry watchers of the richness of our region’s content.
Princess Raccoon (2005) by Seijun Suzuki
I still remember Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon that premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. A modern musical telling of a Japanese folklore love story between a Princess Tanuki (raccoon is translated as tanuki in Japanese) and a banished human prince, the intriguing story was told through the classical Japanese dance-drama format Kabuki, which is known for the impressive stylisation of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by its performers.
(Above) Princess Raccoon (2005) by Seijun Suzuki.Photo courtesy of Film Society Lincoln Center.
Suzuki applied Western rock music, Eastern rap and Busby Berkeley choreography to narrate a mixture of colourful scenes set against a theatrical backdrop sprawling with grotesque-character actors. The film is a fascinating blend of traditional and contemporary art forms, which echoes Suzuki’s signature style of jarring visuals, irreverent humour, and nihilistic cool and entertainment-over-logic sensibilities.
Suzuki, who passed away this year in February, bids us farewell and leaves behind a memory of an Asian filmmaker who dared to step across cultural conventions etched between the West and the East. His last film resonated as a mark of wakening a folk legend and transforming it into a stylish and innovative musical film, and ultimately an unforgettable and enduring novelty for the world’s cinema.
Happy Hour (2015) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Another prime example of reinvention to re-define filmmaking is Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Happy Hour was his winning film at 2015’s SGIFF Silver Screen Awards, and the film pushed the norm of a classic-melodrama narrative – and length – of filmmaking.
(Above) Happy Hour (2015) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.Photo courtesy of 26th SGIFF.
Running over 5 hours and 17 minutes, Happy Hour is a story of four girlfriends in their thirties and the changes their friendship experienced. Through the film, Hamaguchi reveals today’s deeply rooted riddle of people’s relationships, which have stemmed from parenting, cultural and social structures, as well as the educational system. As the four protagonists exhibit and experience the various changes in their relationships, the film also provokes an introspection of our own relationships vis-à-vis the fast-paced consumerism and the advents of online social platforms.
Hamaguchi and his scriptwriter have subtlety made each scene impressionnant by weaving in natural performances from the cast, leaving the audience touched by each character’s authenticity. Hamaguchi took home the title of Best Director at the Asian Feature Film Competition that year.
Diamond Island (2016) by David Chou
Screened under SGIFF 2016’s Asian Vision category, Diamond Island is a Cambodian film directed by Davy Chou. The film was also screened within the International Critics' Week section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and won the SACD Award. It tells the story of a group of idealistic teenagers who has travelled to find construction work in the newly created city of “Diamond Island” which is a mirror of Cambodia’s contemporary society.
(Above) Diamond Island (2016) by Davy Chou.Photo courtesy of 27th SGIFF.
The film encouraged the audience to explore the modern perspectives among the new generations of Cambodians filled with loneliness and fluttering fancies of life, through the new city and artificial materialism. It could be said that this is a Cambodian film that leveraged the country’s historical wounds to appeal to the international crowd. However, I believe that Diamond Island can draw international attention to Cambodia’s film industry, as it continues to produce multifaceted content and exciting contemporary films. The country is definitely making itself known as a fresh and influential driver of Southeast Asia’s film scene, and in the case of Chou and his directorial debut, it represented a new generation of burgeoning film talents for the Cambodia.
In my opinion, Asian cinema can continue its strong growth by using original narrative approach and developing it differently.
Court (2014) by Chaitanya Tamhane
The debut feature length film of Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane won Best Film at the Asian Feature Film Competition, held as part of the SGIFF Silver Screen Awards 2015. An independent Indian legal drama film that centered around the trial of Narayan Kamble, the courtroom drama examined the case of a 65-year-old Marathi folk singer and social activist living in Mumbai who had been oddly accused of having driven a labor worker to commit suicide through his songs.
(Above) Court (2014) by Chaitanya Tamhane.Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Instead of narrating Court according to the standard courtroom drama formula, Tamhane decided to reflect the absurd injustices often found in this film genre through diverse points-of-view. Although there is no one protagonist in the film, the viewer is still able to observe the daily life of each main character – from the defense lawyer, the prosecutor and even the judge – outside the courtroom. Through these observations of their behaviors and way of life as set against ordinary daily conditions, audiences could comprehend each character’s motives behind the decisions they made – all of which culminated into more than a simple exchange of courtroom terms. The film remains an astute examination of the Indian legal system.
Films can be mediums for which social critique can be expressed through ingenious means and countless paths, and in its translation audiences can come together and connect, understand and communicate. Court is one such example from Asian filmmakers, and by extension, Asian cinema.
SGIFF’s theme this year is “The Future Is”. I suppose when I look forward into the future for Asian filmmaking, it would be a reflection of us as individuals, a society and culture in relation to the global changes around us, as we also challenge the traditional ways of filmmaking.