Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on September 14, 2012
Southeast Asian cinema is an area I’m not all that familiar with. I’ve only seen a small number of movies made in that region of the world and almost all of them have been horror films or unusual exploitation movies with limited appeal. This is partially due to the fact that horror is my favorite film genre and usually the first avenue I explore when I’m curious about a specific country’s cinematic output. But the restricted availability of Southeast Asian films combined with scant information about the movies being made there has also dictated what I’ve chosen to watch. Thankfully the various barriers that have limited my own appreciation of Southeast Asian cinema are slowly shifting as more and more films from the area are released in the US.
At the cusp of this sea change comes a welcome new book and accompanying DVD published by Asiexpo simply titled Southeast Asian Cinema. This bilingual book featuring both English and French text promises to shine some much needed light on the film history of the region as well as the people who make the movies and the numerous obstacles they face while attempting to reach a wider audience.
According to the book, Southeast Asia has more than 600 million inhabitants, which make up nearly one-tenth of the world’s population. A host of diverse ethnic groups, languages and religions have given rise the area’s rich film culture, which includes the cinema of Burma, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia as well as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Thai cinema is singled out as a viable role model because it has received lots of international attention thanks to the critical success of director’s like Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul (TROPICAL MALADY, SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, Etc.) as well as the commercial success of Thai boxing films such as the popular ONG-BAK franchise helmed by director Prachya Pinkaew.
This diverse collection of smart writing is broken down into 10 different chapters and each chapter includes a cinematic history detailing the major developments in each country (Burma, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) as well as a description of the local cinema industry and an individual perspective of select films. The book was compiled by 28 different Southeast Asian film authorities and includes a DVD featuring two hours of insightful interviews with locals involved in various aspects of filmmaking and distribution. Overall it’s an incredibly thorough and varied look at Southeast Asian cinema that should appeal to novices like myself as well as students and scholars eager to learn more about the complicated history of the Southeast Asian film industry.
Before going forward I must confess that I’m friendly with one of the book’s many contributors and familiar with a few others but if you’re as curious about the world of Southeast Asian Cinema as I am, I think you’ll find the book very rewarding. A few chapters that stood out for me included Noel Vera, Francis Joseph A. Cruz and Rolando B. Tolentino’s look at Philippine cinema because it’s an area I’m eager to learn more about thanks to my early introduction to the horror films of Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero (THE BLOOD DRINKERS, MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BRIDES OF BLOOD, Etc.). I was also fascinated by the chapters on Cambodia and Vietnam by contributors Annette Hamilton, Davy Chou, Lan Duong, Philippe Dumont and Tran Viet Van because I know next to nothing about the film output in those countries and have only seen that part of the world through the eyes of American directors who are usually engaged in making war movies. And last but certainly not least, I appreciated Kong Rithdee, Bastian Meiresonne and Peter Nellhaus’ take on Thai cinema which has become increasingly popular in recent years but it’s still an area that’s very new to me.
One of the highlights of the book, which I mentioned above, is the accompanying DVD that offers firsthand knowledge of the Southeast Asian film industry and features insightful interviews with individuals who share their concerns as well as their hopes for the future. Many of the people interviewed express very different ideas about how to attract an international audience while maintaining their own cultural identity. Will smaller, more intimate and artistic films bring much needed critical attention to Southeast Asian cinema? Or will crowd pleasing action orientated films gain them international acclaim along with financial success that could strengthen the industry and give it the ability to support more personal projects? Currently these types of questions also plague American and European filmmakers as movie theaters across the country struggle with transitioning to digital projection and Hollywood insists on more and more movies being released in 3-D. Although the book is an important document illustrating specific aspects of Southeast Asian filmmaking, I think western filmmakers, producers, industry insiders and critics might also find it surprisingly informative. While there’s no denying the numerous differences that make up every country and its culture, we all share a common thread. We love movies and we need to support and celebrate the people who make them if we want the industry to thrive.
If I have one compliant about the book it’s the lack of an in-depth index. The book is brimming with film titles and names that I’m sure I’ll want to easily cross-reference at some point but the book makes that impossible. This seems to be a common occurrence with many of the non-fiction books I come across lately and it can be very frustrating. I’m not sure why publishers have decided to not include an index but I suspect it might have something to do with the high cost of printing. There are also no images in the book so if you want to learn more about the films discussed in each chapter you’re going to have to watch them.
You can currently purchase copies of Southeast Asian Cinema directly from the publisher for 27,10 euros (about $35 US dollars). For more information please visit Asiexpo’s official site. You can also view a brief clip from the DVD documentary that accompanies the book on Youtube.
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