Toward New Ways of Seeing Southeast Asian Cinema
Feature by: Benjamin McKay
A conversation has commenced among those of us interested in studying and watching Southeast Asian cinema that attempts to address new ways and means by which we can write and talk about the cinema of the region. It is a conversation that has been fuelled by concerns that predominantly Western discursive practices – both in literature and the academe – shape the dialogue we currently have with the cinematic output of the region. Some of us have begun to ask whether there are not newer ways we can talk about films and filmmaking in what we call Southeast Asia. Part of that dialogue also includes practical and philosophical steps one might take toward mentoring a uniquely Southeast Asian critical mass and to support the growth of indigenous or local film criticism and scholarship.
Are there indeed possibilities for new ways of writing about Southeast Asian cinema?
We need to ask ourselves at the outset what it is we mean when we label the cinematic output of the region as ‘Southeast Asian’. The term itself is laden with baggage – not the least of which is an acknowledgement that historically it was a geopolitical term coined in the Cold War as a premise for geographical and political containment. It became another ‘theatre’ of neo-imperial political engagement and as a result, a region to be studied and analysed by Western academies as a part of that wider containment. The fact that the nation states of the region now adopt the term for their own geo-political reasons still does not negate the legacy of the origins of the term ‘Southeast Asia’.
In terms of cinema and film analysis we need to also ask ourselves whether using the overarching rubric of ‘Southeast Asia’ implies at the outset an agreed textual, contextual, and intertextual relationship with the cinematic output of the region. Where do we place the national and the transnational in our quest to lump these productions together under a codified geographical signifier? Are we artificially searching for commonalities of experience that legitimise pan-geographical identities? If we are doing that, are we also not therefore in a reactive and/or reactionary dialogue with the global hegemony of Hollywood – textually, intertextually and contextually? We might not be doing any of these things, but I believe the questions need to at least be asked.
At the 2nd Southeast Asian Cinema Conference: Cinema At The Borders held in Bangkok in August 2005, I was asked by a Thai delegate whether my attempts to address matters of hegemony in Singaporean cinema was not in itself hegemonic as I had positioned my analysis from within a Euro-American theoretical and methodological framework. The answer is probably yes. But it is a guarded yes, because I am still not convinced that we have before us a set of theoretical and methodological alternatives. Postcolonial theory and the idea of the subaltern aside, Film Studies, Film History, Cultural Studies, Sociology and all of the other disciplines that look at cinema are largely patterned from a Western university tradition and therefore it is difficult to avoid either a hegemonic or pedagogical stance. This problem is not one solely for the western academic or writer either – local writers and academics are largely informed by this tradition as well. So what, if anything, can be done?
I believe that there is a need at the very least for a new criticism when we approach the cinemas of Southeast Asia. If a newly emerging critical and analytical culture was to take hold from within this region, it may find that it can be applied to other, non-Hollywood cinematic traditions as well. But at the outset let us attempt to find ideas and practices that can best meet the needs of the region that we are currently engaged with. In formulating an argument for a new criticism and a more sympathetic and holistic academic engagement with the film cultures and industries of this region, we need to perhaps ask a number of salient and interrogative questions.
Firstly, we need to identify what it is that we actually find lacking in the current modes of analytical and critical practice as applied to the cinemas of the region. What needs to be jettisoned? What might we consider retaining? What can be refashioned to make it applicable to a local or a regional sense of identity/ies? How does one maintain intellectual, critical and analytical rigour while tampering with the very foundations that traditionally supported such rigour? How do we position ideology into the framework for a new critical discourse? Does such a new discursive practice speak to existing practices or does it attempt to bypass them completely?
These are of course all rather grand questions, but it cannot hurt once in a while to attempt to answer them. It may well be that it is merely a problem of application rather than a total systemic failure that sees us thinking and talking about the need for a change even taking place. Perhaps practitioners of analysis and criticism have been blind to change because they have not thought to think outside of their disciplinary boxes. There may well be adaptive strategies that can be undertaken through more adoptive awareness. Having said that, there still seems to be in our current conversation a sense that a multi-disciplinary, even interdisciplinary approach to analysis and criticism has still failed to truly speak to and speak of the cinemas of the region.
So what then needs to be done?
First of all, I would argue against the development of some form of critical manifesto. Manifestos have a tendency to limit or contain intellectual endeavour and they can of course, appear to be pompous. Rather, there is an apparent need for a critical debate and a forum for the articulation of that debate. I see this journal, Criticine, as having a possible role in this.
We also need to discuss what areas of criticism, analysis and scholarship we believe needs to actually be informed by new critical practices. Do we limit our argument to the work of the academe or do we seek to embrace the work of film journalism as well? I feel that there is a strong case to be made for a broadly inclusive new critical discourse as there appears to be a regular crossover these days between practitioners from within the academe and from outside of the academe. Academics are writing for the popular media as well as for more obscure and harder-to-access academic journals and conferences. The debate I feel should therefore be inclusive and embracive.
I can identify two key areas where we might address apparent deficiencies in current critical and analytical practice. The first relates again to the problems of geography – it is a spatial, inter-spatial as well as cultural and inter-cultural dilemma that needs to be addressed. Can we even talk about a Southeast Asian cinema? What is a Southeast Asian film? What are the possible ties that bind? These may appear to be rather obvious questions, but I am not certain that they are actually being addressed.
The second deficiency in current practice is a failure to recognise that cultural production does not happen in a vacuum. Much of our analysis and criticism ignores modes of production, ideological patterns, and the very history of the film industries and cultures that it purports to address. Therefore in addition to the spatial, we need to also address the temporal realities of our engagement with the cinemas of the region as well as the economic and political imperatives that shape production and ultimately the cultural products themselves.
There is also the problem of seeing regional cinema as either a reaction to or an imitation of other more dominant cinematic traditions and industries – namely of course Hollywood, but also the film industries and cultures of Hong Kong, Japan and India. A desire to see this as a dominant strain in the discourse has largely been influenced by theories of Third Cinema. I would argue that both the world and cinema have changed remarkably since the 1970s and that the realities of contemporary cultural production make such a theoretical and critical discourse as Third Cinema problematic at best in this day and age and in this region. There is a tradition of oppositional cinema in the region that could be labelled Third Cinema – I can think of many such examples in the Philippines for instance – but by rigidly adhering to such theoretical discourses we are forced to largely ignore other equally challenging cinematic output and we may well be just speaking to the very theory itself rather than to the film culture of a given nation or a given region.
This journal, Criticine, supports what is commonly known as ‘independent’ cinema in the region. I am not fully convinced that we have found a definitive accord as to what it is we mean when we apply the term ‘independent’ to film. Maybe a definitive ‘definition’ is not needed. But we need to recognise that one person’s independent is another persons ‘mainstream’. Independent (indie) cinema in Southeast Asia is not necessarily oppositional to the mainstream commercial cinema of the region – it can be, but it is often not. And it was of course made possible by access to cheaper and more democratic forms of technology.