"Learning about island Southeast Asia through film"

opinion March 24, 2014 00:00

By Gerald W Fry

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In last month's column, I discussed films about mainland Southeast Asia. In this column I have reviewed films about island Southeast Asia.

Some argue that Indonesia is the most important country about which we know the least. To gain an understanding of Indonesia and its Dutch colonial past, the film “Max Havelaar”, is an excellent introduction. The novel upon which this film is based has been called the “book that killed colonialism”.
A critical incident in modern Indonesian political history was the so-called “Night of the Generals” (September 30, 1965) when Sukarno and the Indonesian left lost power to right-wing generals. Some argue that this was a critical turning point in the political history of modern Southeast Asian. 
Two films about this incident are: “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt, and “The Act of Killing” (2013), a documentary joint venture between the UK, Norway and Denmark. The Gibson movie was actually filmed in the Philippines. Thus, the impressive cultural and physical landscapes shown are actually of the Philippines,
Indonesia has also produced many indigenous films. Among some of the most noteworthy are “The Stabilizer” (1986), “Singing on the Cloud Denias” (2006), “Love for Share” (2006), and the “The Rainbow Troops” (2008).
The indigenous films of Malaysia share a similar language, Bahasa Malaysia, with those of Indonesia. One of Malaysia’s most prolific film directors was Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr. P. Ramlee who produced seven award-winning films. 
Among those were “My Mother-in-Law” and “Three Wives”. Among his other noteworthy films were “Three Bachelors” (1957), “Rivals Three” (1964), and “Labu and Labi” (1962).
On October 31, 2010, the History Channel Asia produced a 90-minute documentary on the life of P. Ramlee and his tragic death at the young age of 44. In addition to being an award-winning film director, he was also a prominent singer, actor, and composer. Given his ancestral roots (Aceh in northwest Indonesia), he is an icon of entertainment in Malaysia, Singapore, and Sumatra.
Another noted award-winning Malaysian film director is U-Wei Haji Saari. He gained international attention in 2011 with his film, “Almayer’s Folly”, inspired by a novel by Joseph Conrad. It was filmed on location in Kuala Lipis and Pekan in Malaysia. Among his other important films are “Woman, Wife, and Whore” (1993).
Brunei is also part of the Malay-speaking world and only recently has started producing feature films for the first time in 48 years. One of these is titled “What’s So Special about Rina” directed by Harlif Haji Mohammed and Farid Azian Ghani. Interestingly Mohammed married a Thai woman who went on an exchange programme in Malaysia.
Another important new Brunei feature film is “Yasmine”. It’s about a Brunei woman who aspires to become a champion at silat, a Brunei type of kung fu. It was done by Brunei’s first ever female director, Siti Kamalueddin.
Singapore’s primarily known for its successes in development, finance, education, and multiculturalism, but also has produced some noteworthy films. 
Eric Khoo has directed at least four films featured at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, namely, “12 Storeys” (1997), “Be with Me” (2005), “My Magic” (2008), and “Tatsumi” (2011). 
The first one is boldly political and provides special insights into the Singaporean mindset. Each of the other three films was in a different language, reflective of Singapore’s multilingual, multicultural society.
Three other prominent Singaporean films are “881”, a musical comedy drama (2007); “Already Famous” (2012); and “Ilo Ilo” (2013), all of which were submitted for possible Oscar nominations as best foreign film. Also noteworthy are “Army Daze” (1996), “Money no Enough” (1998), “Chicken Rice War” (2000), and “I not Stupid” (2002).
Among the island Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines has produced the most films. Given his great importance in Filipino history as the brilliant and visionary “father of his nation”, the film “Jose Rizal” (1998), directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, is particularly important.
Two of Rizal’s most famous novels have also been made into films, “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch Me Not) (1961) and “El Filibusterismo” (The Reign of Greed) (1962).
Among other noteworthy Filipino films are “The Rites of May” (1976), “Manila in the Claws of Brightness” (1978), “Oro Plata Matu” (1982), “Magnifico” (2003), and “Death in the Land of Encantos” (2007).
Noel Vera has created a valuable website describing the 100 best Filipino films, http://www.pinoytumblr.com/post/848835886/100-best-filipino-films.
Among noteworthy documentaries about the Philippines is the extremely important and well-done PBS film, “People Power” (1989), describing in vivid detail the people’s revolt against Marcos and the emergence of Corazon Aquino as the new female leader of the Philippines.
It is quite likely that East Timor will become the 11th and newest member of Asean. East Timor has recently produced its first ever feature film, “Beatriz’s War” (2013), which is in the local Tetum language.
There is also a fascinating new documentary “Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution” (2013) about the life of the Australian Kirsty Sword Gusmo, who actively supported Timor’s fight for independence and who fell in love with resistance leader, Xanana, who later became the nation’s first president.
These films viewed critically can enhance knowledge and understanding of island Southeast Asia, while at the same time promoting critical thinking, English proficiency (both listening to some English dialogues and/or reading English subtitles), and opportunities to study and to listen to diverse Asean local languages.
Gerald W Fry 
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy and Development, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota