On Cinema

For Lubtchansky and Angell

If I were in New York last month for Orphan, I would have seen her present the newly restored Warhol films. Her works were truly illuminating and inspiring. Any filmmaker will feel most honoured knowing an angel has taken such tender loving care of  their works.

This is a moving tribute to Angell and her monumental work – http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/callie-angell-19482010-20100514

I’ve been teaching Asian Film History for almost 3 years now. That’s about 6-7 semesters of about 60 students each. Every semester, I’ll have at least one student who would fail the module. Usually, they are also people I’ve hardly met. This semester is no exception. Of course, I do not think that school or passing exams is top priority to everyone. There were probably reasons why they did not turn up for class. Something happened to their families; to them; break-down; disinterest; relationship problems; money woes; etc. I wish I can do more. I hope they are okay.

Mizoguchi on Ozu

One day, a journalist asked Mizoguchi if he liked his colleague Ozu’s films, and he replied: ‘Of course.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I think that what he does is much more difficult and mysterious than what I do.’ (3)

It’s Mizoguchi who says: what that gentleman does with these doors is more difficult than what I’m doing. There are the doors, once again!

Mizoguchi is the director of mysteries, of secrets, while Ozu is the director of doors, or windows, of entries and exits, of marriage, of very basic things. It’s as if Mizoguchi said: I who spin mystery with all of this fog, I’m nothing next to a fellow who films doors and back streets. That, that’s much more difficult and mysterious. That’s a statement of genius. That, to me, is the greatest compliment that one director can make to another, and the most beautiful definition of documentary, of fiction, realism, and the imagination.

–  A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing by Pedro Costa

3. See: Round-table Talk attended by Mizoguchi and Ozu, in Masazumi Tanaka ed, Ozu on Ozu 1933-1945 (Tokyo: Tairyusha, 1987), pp. 185-186 and Hideo Tsumura’s comment in Shindo Kaneko, The Life of a Film Director: The Chronicle of Kenji Mizoguchi, (Tokyo: Eijinsha, 1975), p. 368.

ne day, a journalist asked Mizoguchi if he liked his colleague Ozu’s films, and he replied: ‘Of course.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I think that what he does is much more difficult and mysterious than what I do.’ (3) That’s an enormous compliment because you know better than I that Mizoguchi is considered a poetic and mysterious director, and Ozu a very down to earth, very realistic director. It’s Mizoguchi who says: what that gentleman does with these doors is more difficult than what I’m doing. There are the doors, once again! It’s beautiful because Mizoguchi is the director of mysteries, of secrets, while Ozu is the director of doors, or windows, of entries and exits, of marriage, of very basic things. It’s as if Mizoguchi said: I who spin mystery with all of this fog, I’m nothing next to a fellow who films doors and back streets. That, that’s much more difficult and mysterious. That’s a statement of genius. That, to me, is the greatest compliment that one director can make to another, and the most beautiful definition of documentary, of fiction, realism, and the imagination.


The pure image is in fact the object that is stripped of all cinematic decorations that adorn it – left naked and exposed: it is a moment of cinematic grace created at a moment of temporarily lost control. A moment where the filmmaker stands frozen facing a reality more powerful than her; she can only observe the frame spread out before her, completely unable to react. It is a pure cinematic shot without its reverse shot, a cinematic shot that’s no longer attributed to a specific individual, not to the film’s protagonist nor to the director himself – but to cinema alone.

Gilles Deleuze

Southeast Asian Films (feature) @ Rotterdam

What I look forward to in Rotterdam 2010: Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien, Benning’s Ruhr, Claire Denis’ White Material, Coppola’s Tetro, Kore-Eda’s Air Doll, Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage. I can’t wait to see the African programme that Gertjan spent months of travelling in the continent itself to put together. Above all, I can’t tell you how excited I am by the many Southeast Asian films screening there. And these are only the feature films.

15 Malaysia (Various directors, Malaysia)
Project of fifteen short films, made by the new generation of Malaysian film makers. In a couple of minutes, they posit their vision of today’s Malaysia. Among them is Yasmin Ahmad, who died suddenly in 2009, and who in her film comments on racial segregation.

Adrift (Bui Thac Chuyen, Vietnam/France)
In the big city chaos of Hanoi, two newlyweds have to come to terms with life before they can be together. Atmospherically filmed reconnaissance of the shadow world of lust and loneliness, passion and pain.

Ante (Alix Jr., Adolfo B., Phillipines)
Raw and intense drama about the Filipino family Domingo, each of the members of which try to survive in their own clumsy way and wrestle with dilemmas in an immoral society.

At the End of Daybreak (Yuhang Ho, Malaysia)
TV news report about two murdered girls form the source of inspiration for this crime drama by Ho Yuhang, who has previously been to Rotterdam with Sanctuary (Tiger Award candidate) and Rain Dogs. A modern Malaysian film noir about the illegal relationship between a 23-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl.

Aurora (Alix Jr., Adolfo B., Phillipines)
In the heart of the jungle, the social worker Aurora is kidnapped by a group of Moslem rebels. Her name means ‘first light of day’, but it remains the question whether she’ll ever see it again. The productive Filipino Adolfo B. Alix Jr tackles a political subject for the first time.

Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) (Khavn de la Cruz, Philippines)
Musical and experimental film maker Khavn noticed that Filipino film makers are highly regarded in Cameroon – thanks to a popular Filipino soap series. He was grateful to exploit this as he made his portrait of this country. And he also wrote some real ‘soap’ into his story.

Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, Phillipines)
Story of two brothers who fight in a Filipino slum against ubiquitous gangs and government supported death squads, which summarily execute dozens of teenagers every year. Raw and realistic first film.

Flooding in the Time of Drought (Sherman Ong, Singapore, Malaysia)
A full-length feature with many documentary elements follows eight immigrant couples in Singapore who play scenes from their lives, often shot in their small dwellings. These immigrants are the basis of Singapore’s success, but get the hardest knocks when things go wrong.

Independencia (Raya Martin, Philippines)
Clever and ingenious film that imitates the style of early Filipino cinema: shot in the studio with painted sets as background, in black-and-white and beautifully melodramatic. Ideally suited to tell the story of the American occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century.

Malaysian Gods (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia)
Ten years ago, after the dismissal and the arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the first protest movement emerged in Malaysia. Amid Muhammad visits the locations where people demonstrated and investigates what has changed since. Cannot be screened in Malaysian cinemas.

Manila Skies (Raymond Red, Phillipines)
Based on a true story: a Filipino hijacks an aircraft and then jumps out with a home-made parachute. What drives someone to something so absurd? Realistic portrait, filmed with the very sharp Red One system, in reaction to the grainy, hand-held style of Filipino independent cinema.

Memories of a Burning Tree (Sherman Ong, Singapore Malaysia, Tanzania)
A film maker who makes friends quickly settles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Because he can’t afford to pay any actors, he teaches his new friends to act. Because he hasn’t written the screenplay, he asks his new actors for stories. Because he can film, the result looks great.

Mundane History by Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand, 2009)
Scriptwriter and director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s short film Graceland (2006) became the first Thai short film to be included in the Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival. Her feature film début Mundane History is a family drama about a paralyzed son, an elusive father and the male nurse hired to take care of the wheelchair-bound patient. Suwichakornpong’s second feature project By the Time It Gets Dark is selected for CineMart 2010.

My Daughter by Charlotte Lay Kuen Lim (Malaysia, 2009)
Charlotte Lay Kuen Lim worked for numerous TV commercials after completing her studies in broadcasting and was an assistant director for various films. She directed several short films, such as Escape (2008), screened at IFFR 2009. Her feature film début My Daughter is an intimate study of the mutual dependence between a slovenly hairdresser and her insecure teenage daughter.

Nymph (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)
Hallucinating film by the Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, Last Life in the Universe) that is largely set in a forest inhabited by female ghosts. The story is about a marriage that has cooled and then is shaken up when the man disappears into the forest for a brief period.

Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song (John Torres, Philippines)
John Torres films fragments and diaries. He set off and looked at his own country, the land outside the city, like an alien. He posed questions to himself about grand themes such as inequality and colonialism, but kept it personal. Read along with his diary.

Reincarnate (Thunska Pansittivorakul, Thailand)
In separate sketches, Thunska Pansittivorakul shows the homosexual love between a teacher and pupil more explicitly than ever. Several cryptic scenes refer to the oppressive Thai political situation. A clear reaction to the new law that subjected his previous film, This Area Is Under Quarantine (2009), to censorship.

Stone is the Earth (Mes de Guzman, Philippines)
Topical issue wrapped in a small family story: on the day when Vergel returns from the mines, the calm life of his little brothers and his sister is disrupted. When gold is then found on their agricultural land, his caring slowly changes to greed.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water (Woman on Fire Looks for Water, Malaysia)
Father and son wrestle with love in a small Malaysian fishing village. While father looks up an old lover he should have married years ago, his son faces a dilemma. Will he choose the girl he’s in love with, or the daughter of his boss?

* Synopses above from the International Film Festival Rotterdam.


“I am not really creative; I just collect memories and other people’s memories.” – Yasmin Ahmad (1958-2009)

The last time I travelled up north to specifically watch a film in KL was nine years ago for Amir Muhammad’s debut feature film – Lips To Lips.

When the film screened in Singapore at the Singapore International Film Festival, I was having my exams. Later, it opened in KL in a small artsy theatre. I went up with a fellow classmate from Malaysia who also put me up. I remember we were lost and had to brave past two fierce dogs before we found the place. Amir was in Vancouver then but Zalee, the editor of the film, was kind enough to fetch us to the nearest bus station after the screening.

Last week, I flew up to KL again and this time round it was for your Muallaf gala screening, courtesy of Thomas. You were not there too. I’ve seen the film with you in Singapore but I need to see it on the big screen again. And I did that twice on the same day – at the press screening and later at the gala itself. Orked was worried that the print was not good enough. She wanted the way people remember you, to be as illuminating as possible. I assured her it was the best screening of Muallaf for me – to see it in the company of your loved ones, who lingered long after the credits rolled, clapping as each familiar name scrolled by. One of the loudest applauses was reserved for Thomas, who made the release in Malaysia and Singapore possible. I’ll savour these memories of you and your memories of people around you. I even tried memorising some of the lines, thinking when I returned the next day, perhaps the film can still replay in my dreams.

Two days ago, I passed by our window at Mt Emily, the one that the moon stuck her tongue at us, our first of many more nights that followed, sometimes with draks joining us. Amir, Richard and Alfian were there too on the rainy night of a December Saturday to have lunch before Amir’s book about you and Alfian’s play inspired by you. Yesterday, I was telling another friend about you – how every night, you would forgive people who have hurt you. I told someone else too I like that even the stepmother in Muallaf  has a short scene where we see her loneliness in the family. I tried to look for the verses in the Koran that was quoted and read a bit more too, putting a note on some that I could share with you when we meet again.

Like Amir, I am reluctant to remove you on my blogroll. Now and then, I like to miss and think of you.
A song of longing I’m hoping to use for the ending in Wasurenagusa. 5 months ago.
Dear Film Development Council of the Philippines. 3 months ago.

Muallaf opens in Malaysia this week and I hope you will go see it too. Details are here.

Amir’s book on Yasmin Ahmad’s films is also available in good bookstores in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Amazon.

By the Sun and his  splendour;
By the Moon as she follows him…

On 2 or 3 things

She said, “A story that is full of humanity will eventually lead you to religion.”

He said, “In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.”

Q: What do you think of death?
Welles: As a marxist, I never give it any thought.

for the more loving one


Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

W. H. Auden

A love letter for a friend

Dear Alexis,

As Morrissey puts it, this year, my life has been a succession of people saying goodbye. I have not expected you would be one of them.

The last I met you was in Manila, end of last year. You invited me to a panel on Film Archiving Think Tank: Challenges and Ideas, as part of the Annual Southeast Asian cinema conference. It was at the same conference 5 years ago that we met in Singapore. Both of us just graduated and had no immediate plans. I went away after the conference to backpack in India. We kept in touch through email correspondences and online journals, sharing what we saw, our lives, our families, dreams and hopes. We also shared ideas of what we thought should be done for our community. By the end of 2004, I put together a proposal for an Asian Film Archive and you put together one for Criticine. As Godard said, cinema is the goodwill for a meeting. We had many and these were my hazy memories of how our paths had crossed over the years:

Mar, 2005: You invited my little short film to a festival you programmed, .MOV (founded by Khavn) and hosted me at your place when I was in Manila. We talked for a long while before you popped in a film, A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang. But we fell asleep soon after.

Apr, 2005: You came to Singapore again, this time round to attend your first Singapore International Film Festival. I hosted you at my place and we ran from screenings to screenings, watching films, meeting people and talking about films at the end of the night. Hou Hsiao Hsien was in town for his retrospective and we met him for an interview. I was your translator. I interviewed Lav who was in town to screen Evolution of A Filipino Family.  Khavn, Rox Lee, Quarks (I think), Yuhang and Chui Mui were also in town.  I also interviewed Pin Pin after her world premiere of Singapore Ga Ga. We met Wenjie at Substation and he gave away the Focas books to you.

Jun, 2005: Mike de Leon approached Erwin and you to ask if the Archive can help to preserve his materials. This marked the first of many other Filipino films you would highlight for the Archive to assist in its preservation.

Sep 2005: You curated a programme of shorts that will become S-Express Philippines. It was the year that the Substation helped launch the Asian Film Archive officially through co-hosting the Forum on Asian Cinema and the Asian Film symposium. At the opening, we also launched the Singapore shorts Vol. 1 DVD. I was so glad you were there to share that moment with me.

During that trip, one night, we went up the rooftop of Esplanade and talked about the future of Criticine and the Archive. What would it take to make those dreams happen? How do we balance that with our responsibilities to our families and loved ones? It was a heavy night. The hopes were heavy. We promised to lend each other an arm, a leg and a shoulder.

When you got back, you forwarded an article to me. You told me to read when I was free. It was about an interview with Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker who started a film magazine – Film Culture and the Anthology Film Archives.


June 2006: Your dad passed away. I lost my dad a few years before. You told me how you would secretly record your conversations with your dad when he was in the hospital. You reminded me we were supposed to make our feature films about our fathers. But we got sidetracked and became fatherless children, working for orphan films.

July 2006: We met in New Delhi for the Osian’s Cinefan International  Film Festival. It was the first time you were in India. It was a bit surreal showing you around where I was two years ago, the same place I was telling you about in my emails, where I walked for hours by myself, thinking about life. And we were at the same festival that I made acquaintance with Tsai Ming Liang.


Sep 2006: You were in Singapore for the S-Express Philippines for Substation. I put together a programme of medium length films for the same festival.

Oct 2006: Paul brought us both to Hawaii for the international film festival. You were doing jury work for Netpac and I was doing so for the international short film section. We were hosted by Anderson, Christian and gang at a nice hotel by the beach. Paul brought us one night to a far away beach, less touristy, and hanged out with Sharifah Armani and Elyna. Jajang and Nia were also there. As we were debating the films we would fight for, Jason and his girlfriend joined us at the fast food joint.

hawaii beach

Dec 2006: The conference on Southeast Asian Cinemas moved from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. This time round, it was a bigger congregation. Benjamin, Tuck Cheong, Chris were our hosts. I stayed with Amir who, with Raya, John, Edwin and Yuhang had to give workshops on filmmaking. Martyn was there too. Of course Gaik, Hassan, Tito, John (badalu), Dimas et al were there as well.

Jul 2007: We were back at the Osian’s Cinefan. This time round, Amir, Apichatpong, Mui and Tuck Cheong were there too. I gave a paper on archiving early cinemas in Asia as part of the conference that Nick put together. You spoke about film criticism.

Sep 2007: You were back in Singapore, your adopted home after Manila and Vancouver.

Oct 2007: I was in Manila again to judge the Southeast Asian section of Cinemanila International Film Festival and the jury awarded the prize to Mukhsin by Yasmin. It was here that I met Nika, who charmed me instantly. She was so full of energy and there was an unmistakable glint of purpose in her gaze. She was someone who has found her calling and found love. I remembered one night when I swung by and you were with Lav, Raya and John.

Dec 2007: I invited you to Singapore to speak on a panel on film criticism and programming in  the Symposium on Southeast Asian Digital Cinema. Ben (slater and mckay), Khavn, Gertjan, Mui and Mirabelle were there too.


Jun 2008: We also met in the later half of the year. So this was early. I was in Manila again to attend the SEAPAVAA conference. You had taken an even more active role in film archiving and joined Sofia, one of the co-organisors of SEAPAVAA that year. We met up twice. We spoke about Nika; we spoke about setting up a free film library space that would hold reference copies of the films in our collection and books about films; you spoke excitedly about that could be a project to draw Nika to Manila and both of you could work on it. We also spoke about our dads. Raymond joined us later and we talked about how we would miss Osians in 2008.

Nov 2008: It was Manila’s turn to host the Southeast Asian Cinema conference, five years after it was first held in Singapore. You were the key person coordinating this, working with Bono, Kiri, Rolando, Tilman, and Merv. You chaired the panel with me and Clodualdo on film archiving, an area you had also become increasingly concerned. There were so much to be done yet people who were in power or with the resources, were clearly not investing enough to create fundamental changes to the state of archiving. You related what you felt were pertinent questions for the Philippines film archives. I related what I had seen in Jakarta and the region and also more positive examples of how even with very little resource, we could still make a difference. Later when I stayed at your place, you showed me an article you wrote, a love letter that would encapsulate your love for Nika and your wish for the Filipino cinema. We spoke about our dream project – the film library. You said you had spoken to Nika and she was excited about it too. I remembered others at the week-long conference and evening gatherings: Kidlat, Lav, John, Khavn, Red, Raya, Tengal, Teddy, Bobby, Ben (anderson and slater), Philip, Tito and others.

And that was the last we hanged out. At your home.

We used to imagine the film community is like a big family, one that cares, forgives and loves one another. It is. The outpouring of tributes since your passing has shown just that. I am sure many more of your friends, our friends would have very fond memories of you too. The friend who was there to talk about cinema and fight for it. In you, we’ll continue to find strength in this work that you have started for us.

Goodbye for now as we board our planes. We will meet again.


Bee Thiam

hawaii airport

“I’ve always looked back fondly at the first Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference (held in NUS in Singapore in 2004). On a shallow level because it was the first event outside of the Philippines in which I was invited to speak, more significantly because it was the occasion where I first made the acquaintance of several people I now have the pleasure of calling friends.” – Alexis Tioseco, Nov 2008.