Introduction to Criticine 6 by May Adadol Ingawanij
“And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners.” A passage by Chinua Achebe stands as an introduction to what would turn out to be Alexis’s last issue of Criticine. In it are the responses to the questions that he had sent, a few years earlier, to filmmakers, programmers, writers, film historians and researchers who live in Southeast Asia, or who still call a corner of this region their home: Why and for whom do you film/write/work today?
Achebe’s passage was Alexis’s answer to another, similar question, which he had placed at the beginning of that last issue. It’s the one whose time for asking has come again: Why and for whom does Criticine exist today?
Time is doing its work. This strange interval in which our task as stunned caretakers of Alexis’s publication was to finish off an outstanding issue we had promised to help him with, and to maintain the site’s continuing presence for the time being, can now come to an end. Thanks to a group of his compatriots, close friends and film critics who have pledged to continue this labour of love, future issues of Criticine will remain rooted in the Philippines.
What of its routes? One of the contributors to this site likes to cryptically ask his students to invert the telescope. That’s a life-long teacher’s old-fashioned way of telling them that to see is to be situated. To look into the eyepiece of an instrument of expanded vision that’s been flipped round is to see the same existing world with haunted eyes. We can no longer go back to the picture of our little pocket of the earth seen only from over here. As soon as we start following the arc of that roving instrument we’re pushed into comparing the views that now exist simultaneously inside us – our home from over here and our home from over there. The vertigo of seeing anew is the tough gift handed to us once we begin to stray from home.
Like many of the people he’d invited to write for Criticine, Alexis’s voice as a film critic was shaped by a peripatetic trajectory. The pieces that together make this publication come from migrants and voyagers. Many of them explore the creations of those who have come back. A fledging conception of “Southeast Asian film criticism” hovers faintly, instinctively, across this site. There are explorations of narratives and impressions of home made by those who don’t feel at home, and there are the criticisms of those who have left or who have returned. Probably above all, the voices on this site belong to those who commit themselves to the art of moving in time the better to transport themselves to a place that compels them to look again at an all-too-familiar landscape.
In this context, aligning Criticine with Achebe’s call for the “owners” to take responsibility for criticism isn’t to lay a claim to cultural ownership on the basis of a nativist assertion. Nor do the criticisms archived here seem to be especially drawn to that quintessentially post-colonial stance of the native’s “look back.” Looking inwardly through an inverted telescope, certainly. And more tentatively perhaps, we can also detect the beginnings of the act of looking across – engaging with films from nearby countries and taking an interest in their filmmakers’ struggles. Someone watches a Filipino film in Thailand. That instrument for teaching the ethical imperative of never being at home in one’s own home does a semi-circular turn. What does that person see? What resonates? The view is not the same as over here, but neither is that world so distantly, so angularly, over there.
Amongst other journeys, time travels and conversations, this long overdue issue of Criticine features a phantom film. Alexis and Nika were in Bangkok, only a few weeks before they were killed, to help out on Lav Diaz's retrospective. At the end of the event Lav impulsively added one more screening as a gift to the organisers, a work in progress at that time called Agonistes. On a sunny Monday afternoon a group of us crept into the screening room of a cavernous university library and hunkered down to watch the film with Alexis and Nika. They sat together in the front row, and at some point someone’s faint, helpless giggle charmingly crystallised our collective realisation that we’d be in for some hours watching three men dig god knows how large a hole. After the screening some of us waved Alexis and Nika goodbye for the last time in the fading light on the ferry pier next to the old university, and the rest took our guests from Manila to dine on a kitsch river cruise. We didn’t say much about the film, apart from some bemused joking. Was Lav doing a Warhol on us, or maybe a perverse Buster Keaton?
The next morning I was astonished to receive an email attachment from the Thai critic Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, aka Filmsick, who had been there at the screening. It was his note on Agonistes, accompanied by a message that he was so krataek [jolted, violently touched] by it he had to sit down and write this out. Agonistes has since morphed into a very different film called Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. But we’d like to start the issue with this phantom, and what it becomes in this particular piece of writing. The words that came to Wiwat that night, and are remade here in translation, go to the heart of what Criticine is about. Filmmaking is commitment to the continual process of truthfully distilling life. Film viewing is a penetrating look. Southeast Asian film criticism is that which remains to be done: our taking responsibility for articulating the sidelong glance in order to speak at all of home.
Criticine: Love Letters.
The idea for the ‘Love Letters’ issue of Criticine arose at the end of a day spent driving across Manila in late November 2008. That year’s edition of the Southeast Asian Cinema Conference had just wrapped. It was a Sunday. Alexis, relieved of his organizing duties on the conference, drove the three of us around the city – May, Ben and Davide. We were his guests, and he was keen to show us the city he loved. There were several destinations: Fully Booked (Manila’s biggest book shop), a gated community where something needed to be dropped off - and we stayed for tea and sunset, a restaurant in a mall; but inevitably, because we were in Manila, we spent a lot of time in traffic. Stuck in the car, the conversation never seemed to stop. A long, rambling discourse full of gossip, anecdotes, character attacks and appreciations, rambunctious and enjoyable debates, jokes, rants, affirmations. It was frank and unself-conscious – some of us had only just met – but it didn’t matter, we all knew Alexis, and he was behind the wheel. Mostly, cinema was the focus of the chatter – after all, we were all film people.
Sunday became Monday, and we were still talking. This time in a franchised coffee joint somewhere lively at one in the morning. At that moment, Love Letters seemed like a natural idea to be discussing with the founder and editor of Criticine. As Raya Martin says of Alexis in his letter, “he never wrote about a film he hated, because he thought it was a waste of space. He was out there to champion.” Although he didn’t mention it that night, Alexis had already produced the mother of all love letters a few months before, the long, uninhibited piece about his relationship with film and the Philippines that he’d written for Rogue magazine, which took the form of a letter to his partner, Nika Bohinc. In it he wrote, “The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love.”
The principle of Love Letters was: forget about being ‘objective’ or ‘comprehensive’, just get stuck in and say it loud - isolate the thing, the moment, the body, the fragment or memory. And write to it, the old-fashioned way.
After the idea had spent some time on the back-burner, finally, in July 2009, we sent out the following email to a list of potential contributors:
“It’s not easy to declare your passions. To critique, tear something apart, find flaws and faults is often the first impulse. Even when we come to praise, we may dwell on weaknesses (and end up halfway up the fence in a sitting position). From “There are problems with…” to “It’s absolutely dreadful because…”, we are often attracted to write about what fails far more than we are about what works, or more specifically, what works for us. Pinning down exactly why something succeeds, and better still, why we love it, is a tricky and interesting business, partly because it’s so personal. Criticine: Love Letters is an attempt to address this lack of open statements of adoration about films, film-makers, actors, scenes, moments, images. That doesn’t mean we are looking for gushy collections of superlatives. These ‘letters’ should be constructed with all the real rigor and careful thought you would put into a message intended for a loved one. We also hope your letter will speak of the things that you hold to be of real value in cinema. Contributors can write about anything related to SE Asian cinema that you have fallen for.”
In the weeks that followed some of the first letters arrived. They were good stuff. Alexis was getting more and more excited about the issue. On 1 September, there was an email from him about the latest contribution that he’d been sent, “it turned out quite nice.” A few hours later, he and Nika were gone.
One thing we knew, even on that first day of grief, was that Love Letters had to be completed. As an editorial concept, it was such a pure distillation of all that Alexis had been doing up to that point in regards to his writing on Southeast Asian cinema. The bringing to light, the articulating of qualities overlooked, the explication of context – the understanding.
When time had passed we got in touch with those who had submitted and those who had not. Of course, many chose to write their letters to Alexis himself. Now we have 21 letters, one poem and two short films. More letters will be added as more are sent. About half are addressed to or refer to Alexis. Together, they form a tribute to him and the energies that drove him to create Criticine. His unceasing passion for cinema and the places it could illuminate.
Thanks to all the writers.
Ben Slater & May Adadol Ingawanij, January 2010
To send Criticine your love letters, please email them to this address.
Why and for whom does Criticine exist today?
"My people speak disapprovingly of an outsider whose wailing drowned the grief of the owners of the corpse. One last word to the owners. It is because our own critics have been somewhat hesitant in taking control of our literary criticism (sometimes - let’s face it - for the good reason that we will not do the hard work that should equip us) that the task has fallen to others, some of whom (again we must admit) have been excellent and sensitive. And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners. If we fall back, can we complain that others are rushing forward? A man who does not lick his lips, can he blame the harmattan for drying them?"
- Chinua Achebe, from the paper Colonialist Criticism
[This issue is dedicated to Philip Cheah and the Singapore International Film Festival]
For what purpose does a film journal exist today? Is it necessary? What function should it serve?
These questions, seemingly simple but with answers that are fiercely debatable, are ones that I began to think about after listening to the podcast called "Tracking Film Cultures" from a recent CD-ROM issue of Vertigo. The podcast, a dialogue between Cahiers Du Cinema editor Jean-Michel Frodon and the editors of UK-Based film magazine Vertigo, spoke mostly in reference to print-film journals, but I believe many of the points addressed are relevant for online publications as well. Jean-Michel made a strong point, and one that I agreed with, standing firm that the critical journal:
.. is now more necessary than ever, because everything is more accessible than ever, which means that everyone is left... is not alone, but is left facing all the opportunities, and we know that none of us is alone, there is someone very close to our ear, and that someone is called 'the market'. The market is whispering in everybody's ear what [they] should see, and we know that the more things are accessible, the more everybody is tempted to see the same thing. And then facing that there are different structures, not only magazines but obviously magazines, to propose, to build the access to desire to other things than what the market is telling you to see at this very moment, which is showing in all multiplexes at the same time...
I do believe that with other bodies, including film festivals [and] including teachers, there is more work for us to do now than ever to build this alternative relationship with cinema.
And the other thing which has to be done, I think, which Cahiers is trying to do and I see Vertigo is also trying to do, is to use cinema to understand the world we live in.
How does one go about facing this challenge, of building this alternative relationship to cinema? First by covering and writing about it (this issue includes new reviews of Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist, Azharr Rudin's The Amber Sexalogy, Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road, a feature on Uruphong Raksasad and a reflection on recent highlights from a foreign SEA cinema chronicler), and then trying to make it come alive (with engaging pieces on older films that deserve an audience wider than the ones they have gotten, like Apichatpong's Tropical Malady- which has never shown in the Philippines- and Mysterious Object at Noon, Lino Brocka's Bona, and the cinema of Thai experimental filmmaker Sasithorn Ariyavicha), but also to look at what is happening critically (as is done in the review of the film Singapore Dreaming and the newly pressed book Singapore Cinema, and a piece that looks critically on the current cinematic resurgence in the Philippines).
Criticine is proud to announce a new partnership with the Thai language film journal Bioscope (http://www.bioscopemagazine.com), a wonderful journal whose activities and reach extend beyond the written page into the organization of screenings, contest organizing, book publishing, DVD producing, and film commissioning. Criticine will be translating into English selected Bioscope articles on Thai cinema, and Bioscope in turn will have permission to translate selected Criticine articles into Thai for their publication. An exciting exchange, and I feel an important one, that is directly in the spirit of the vision we have for Criticine.
With the release of this fourth issue this November 2006, Criticine celebrates its first birthday. We'd like to thank all of our contributors for their challenging ideas, our copy-editor and translators for their gracious service, and our readers for making it all worthwhile. We hope we've helped you understand the world we live in just a little bit better, and look forward doing so more in the future.
Alexis A. Tioseco
[This issue is dedicated to Leonardo Lilles Tioseco.]
Representation is a huge issue in Southeast Asia, and while it encompasses cultural diversity, it certainly isn’t limited to it.
What guides our lines of sight? The politics that decide what we see, and the obstacles that block us from seeing more.
What gets represented? The honesty (or dishonesty) in the images we do see, and the sins of omission.
How to make visible corners that are blind? The dual challenge of re-shaping perspectives through works that matter, and seeking an audience for them.
Criticine 3 tackles a few of these issues.
The reviews section features three pieces you won't find in other places: Noel Vera is given space to continue his chronicling of the oeuvre of Filipino auteur Mario O'Hara, with his review of the forgotten classic Uhaw Na Pag Ibig. Short filmmakers never get any attention! Hassan Muthalib introduces you to the kinetic energy of the work of Aaron Chung, one of Malaysia's up and coming cinema artists. Khoo Gaik Cheng addresses some topics programmers and critics have brought up with regard to Ho Yuhang's 2004 Min, but never elaborate on.
Thailand is a country that has been severely underrepresented in this journal, and there's a reason for that. Thailand has never been colonized; a fact they are quite proud of. Perhaps because of this, they are far less bi-lingual than most other major SEA filmmaking countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam), and therefore a large part of good writing about Thai cinema by Thai authors appears only in Thai language. Meaning: we are deprived of insight into Thai cinema from a local perspective. We are taking steps to correct this, one article at a time. For this issue, we have fresh translations of a trio of interviews by Thai filmmaker Thunska Pansittivorakul with leading figures in contemporary Thai cinema: the brilliant director Apichatpong Weerasetheakul, critic and translator Kong Rithdee, and Suparp Rimtheparthip and Thida Plitpholkarnpim, editors of the Thai-language film magazine Bioscope.
While news broadcasts and political leaders continue to throw around the word "terrorism" with reckless abandon, constructing images of fear about the other>, Philip Cheah reminds us of a different kind of horror: state-led terrorism. We reprint two articles produced for the catalogue of Spaces and Shadows, a two-month programme on contemporary Southeast Asian Art culture held at the House of World Cultures in Berlin. The first is Cheah's introduction to Whose Terror is it Anyway? the programme he curated, the second Shaheen Merali's interview with him about it.
The topic of terrorism comes up again in the work of Filipino filmmaker John Torres, but in a completely different context. Where Cheah talked about state-led terrorism, Torres brings it to a much more intimate level: terrorism of the heart. In my interview with him, Torres opens up about the making of his first feature, Todo Todo Teros, and about the pain we inflict on the ones we love.
In another personal piece, Maguindanaon filmmaker Teng Mangansakan recounts how he fell into and for cinema, his first forays into filmmaking, and the challenge of re-shaping a Moro image that has been grossly misrepresented by popular media.
For the final journal entry of his residency in Cannes Cinefondation before returning to Manila, Raya Martin sends us a series of diary entries, scattered but no less engaging, touching on a number of topics, including how he was received in France.
Tan Pin Pin's Singapore GaGa, a brilliant 55-minute sketch of a Singapore often ignored, has audiences paying attention. Special films require special methods of distribution; Pin Pin generously outlines hers. Tracking the journey of GaGa across Singapore, her piece serves as a testament to the resolve and fortitude independent filmmakers need to adopt in order to ensure their works get seen. Your work isn't done when the final dub is finished.
Alexis A. Tioseco