Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region

David Hanan (ed),
Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region.
Hanoi: SEAPAAVA (South East Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association), 2001.
ISBN: 0 642 705 1 7
AuS$40.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by SEAPAAVA)

Uploaded 20 September 2002

David Hanan’s edited collection, Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region, provides an important first anthology on the largely unacknowledged cinemas of the countries of South East Asia. The volume is published by SEAPAAVA (South East Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association), in association with the Vietnam Film Institute and ScreenSound Australia (formerly the National Screen and Sound Archive of Australia).

Ten countries from the region are profiled – the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia. While there has been much popular and academic interest in “Asian cinema” of late, this focus has tended to be on the films of Hong Kong, mainland China or Japan. With the success of Ang Lee in the West, Taiwanese cinema has also gained some recognition. However, the cinemas of the South East Asian nations have on the whole been underappreciated or almost entirely overlooked. This is despite the vibrant and diverse film cultures that these nations present, as well as their considerable output. The Filippino film industry, for example, was the third largest producer of films in the 1990s after India and the U.S – a rather surprising revelation when we consider how little is known of the industry and the films it produces (both from within the region and outside of it). There is also the recent success of Vietnamese directors such as Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya 1993, Cyclo 1995 and Vertical Ray of the Sun 1999) that has not seen a corresponding interest in Vietnamese national cinema as a whole.

This lack of interest and awareness is due in large part to the poor archiving of films from the region – both nationally and collectively. Seeking to rectify that, the book functions in itself as a work of archiving, in its (re)construction of the film histories of these South East Asian nations.

The individual chapters are, on the whole, presented as straight-forward chronologies – some from the first arrival of film in the nation, others beginning at the point of decolonisation. It is important to note, as most of the authors do, the status of these nations as former colonies of European powers. Thus they seek to describe the renaissance of a postcolonial film culture. For example, the history of French colonial resistance through revolutionary cinema in Vietnam is articulated by Pham Ngoc Truong, and the slow recovery of the Laotian film industry is relayed by Bounchao Phichit. One of the chapters on Thailand also begins from the time of the Japanese introduction of films to the country, telling of the destruction of many prints during World War II. The book is saturated with this sense of history, and the colonial and political contexts and traditions out of which these national cinemas emerge.

Two interesting case studies are Jonathan Dennis’ chronology of the New Zealand film industry, and Deb Verhoeven’s whimsical reconstruction of the origins of film’s arrival in Australia. They don’t seem out of place in this volume, particularly given New Zealand’s self-positioning as a Pacific nation, and its creation of a distinct Maori national identity, and Australia’s recent political (re)engagements with the Asia-Pacific region both economically and politically.

The essays as a whole adhere closely to the notion of a “national cinema”, and the need to maintain or preserve this. The book does play out the tension between the need for a regional (“collective”) archive and the importance of a ‘national cinema’ – although not entirely convincingly. Hanan’s introduction, and indeed the stated objectives of SEAPAAVA, show a great concern with increasing collaborations between the nations in South East Asia and in the construction of a regional perspective, as the book’s subtitle – “views from the region” – would seem to suggest. That the book is a “co-operative effort” is stressed by Ray Edmonson, the President of SEAPAAVA (7).

SEAPAAVA aims to be a “regional forum for addressing common issues related to the collection and preservation of, and provision of access to, the audio-visual heritage of member countries”, with the stated objective of “promot[ing] awareness and development of audio-visual archiving at the national, regional and international levels.” [1] . While the national and the international are well attended to (the latter through the acknowledgment of International Film Festivals in the promotion of Asian cinema), the collection would have been strengthened by the acknowledgment of increasingly regional links between the individual industries. There is a brief editorial note by Hanan before the chapter on Singapore that ties it to the preceding chapter on Malaysia. That chapter itself, by Baharudin A. Latif, does begin with an interesting discussion of the cross-over work (between Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia), of the well-known Shaw brothers. More of these editorial “notes” or prefaces would have been useful in linking the chapters together to create a sense of the unity of the collection, despite the historical, linguistic and representational uniqueness of the various national cinemas. Thus, while noting the importance of preserving and maintaining national cinemas, it is also worthwhile to create a shared, collective sense of a regional film history (particular as the films from these nations are often neglected for precisely the same reasons). The International Film Festivals from some of these nations themselves often include a “Regional Focus”; Melbourne’s International Film Festival does so every year, and the Singapore International Film Festival screens over three hundred films from thirty-five different nations – half of them from the region (202). This is only one of the ways in which the regionalising of cinema is made manifest.

I make this observation only because, on their own, the chapters stand as somewhat idiosyncratic versions of film histories by the individual authors, all of whom approach the histories from very diverse speaking positions and interests (as critics, as academics, as film historians, as festival directors, or as filmmakers). There is a very enjoyable chapter by Eliza Romey on the rather quirky King of Cambodia, Norodan Sihanouk, who was also a prolific filmmaker. Also fascinating is the account of the dubbing of Thai films (Thailand has arguably the best sound laboratory in South East Asia, through its industry’s technical advancements in the post-synchronisation of sound). Thus, the diversity of the chapters is indeed also a strength of the collection that could have been enhanced with some editorial assistance.

As is intended, the collection is introductory and descriptive, providing a broad historical overview of the cinemas of these nations. Many include a list of “significant films made in… and a list of further readings. The fact that this material is made available to an English-speaking audience in a single collection for the first time is indeed something to acclaim. Hopefully, more texts will soon follow, providing further, alternative “views from the region”.

Olivia Khoo

[1] SEAPAAVA website (20 July 2002).

About the Author

Olivia Khoo

About the Authors

Olivia Khoo

Olivia Khoo is a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Monash University. She is the author of The Chinese Exotic: Modern Diasporic Femininity (2007) and co-editor (with Sean Metzger) of Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures (2009). Olivia is a Chief Investigator (with Audrey Yue and Belinda Smaill) on an ARC Discovery Project on the History of Asian-Australian Cinema.View all posts by Olivia Khoo →