Rotterdam film festival highlights burgeoning Southeast Asian film industry

For 10 days and 10 nights of every year, small movies earn big attention in the monochrome city of Rotterdam. Edgy, hyper-personal and ultra-weird titles from both rich and poor regions of the earth parade before the eyes of salivating audiences and critics in one of the world's coolest, friendliest movie jamborees.

This year, a record number of over 70 movies from Southeast Asian nations were invited to screen at the 34th International Film Festival Rotterdam, which ended on Feb 7. And this selection provided a fascinating reflection of the current activities of the Asean territory, from the home-movie-like digital features and shorts of Singapore and Malaysia to the expensive studio productions of Siam.

Rotterdam's selections, adventurous and open-minded, juxtaposed the various sensibilities of this multi-ethnic region and suggested one vibrant, happening cinema scene. For us Thais, it reminds us how little we know or care about the cinematic traditions of our neighbouring cultures _ and one can't help wondering if Bangkok, looked up to by other SEA nations as a leading force in the region's cinematic revival, shouldn't take up a more central role in gathering Asean filmmakers and save us all the trouble of flying to Europe to see Filipino indie flicks or Indonesian shorts.

"Our 'SEA Eyes' section was motivated by two different things, one positive and one negative," said Gertjan Zuilhof, a festival programmer who toured this corner of Asia last year looking for movies.

"The positive impulse came from several films by directors who're still not well-known enough [though they deserve to be], and the negative motivation is related to [the fact that] even though Rotterdam has a name to defend in the field of screening important Asian cinema, it happens that part of Asia, the tropical part, has always remained underrepresented."

Perhaps not Thailand though. At least one Thai movie has travelled to this Dutch cinefest every year since 1999; and in the recent episode a record eight Siamese titles joined the panoply.

Leading the pack were two hot-iron pictures from last year: the brooding man-tiger meditation Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the patriotic xylophone flick Hoam Rong, or The Overture, by Itthisunthorn Wichailuck (Apichatpong's The Adventure of Iron Pussy was also picked). Meanwhile Ekachai Eukrongtham's gender-shifting Beautiful Boxer once again proved itself an irresistible crowd-pleaser, ranked 12th in the audience poll that rated 190 feature films.

But Rotterdam's reputation comes largely from its ardent support of independent movies, and two Thai indie fares of 2004 that hardly any Thais have seen secured their slots in the fest's busy schedules: Birth of the Seanema, by Sasithorn Ariyawicha, and the funky Happy Berry by Thunska Pornsittivorakul, both emblematic of made-on-the-fringe Thai movies done with petty money and progressive thinking. And beside feature films, eight short movies by young Thai directors were also selected into the festival's sidebar section.

Short films indeed constituted the majority of the SEA Eyes programme, and that reflects the common situation in all Asean countries where there's no solid structure to encourage the making of 90-minute artistic films. The mainstream film industry of, say, Malaysia or the Philippines is made up largely of sticky melodramas and homespun comedies with low standards of production. And the burgeoning, more "sophisticated" film culture of the region is brewed up henceforth by a slate of upcoming New Wave directors who scrape money up from wherever they can get their hands on it. Sure enough, they make movies that are less popular yet much more ambitious.

Following the lead of the Thai talents, the Malaysian indie filmmakers have squeezed themselves into the possible Next-Big-Thing checklist of global critics. At Rotterdam, a near-silent rumination on KL alienation called Sanctuary by Malaysian-Chinese Ho Yuhang was up in the main Tiger Competition, while an oddball critique of modern femininity, James Lee's Beautiful Washing Machine, successfully turned a lot of heads.

Though still searching for a masterpiece, the strength of Malaysia's indie wave lies in its thematic variety born out of the country's diverse ethnic makeup. Balmy Amir Muhammed is a Muslim-Malay documentary filmmaker with an observant eye on political issues; his new doc The Years of Living Vicariously discusses the dictatorial rule of 1960s Indonesia. In Rotterdam it was packaged with another of Amir's doc, Tokyo Magic Hour, a confetti of urban snapshots underlined by sweet Malay-language love poems. Then there's the Malay-Indian director Deepak Kumaran Menon, whose neo-realistic The Gravel Road, the first Malaysian film in Tamil language, had its world premiere in Rotterdam.

"What we're trying to do is create something else in the Malaysian film scene," says Amir Muhammad. "It's not necessarily a better film but certainly it's different. We believe that films will eventually find their audience."

The Philippines, meanwhile, is perhaps well-known for its stock of folksy melodramas and horror flicks, but when the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme they have filmmakers of astounding confidence like Khavn de la Cruz and Lav Diaz. His series of wild films testifying to his cult status, Khavn (who sports orange hair) had over a dozen films, mostly shorts, screened in Rotterdam _ and they're all of a raw underground flavour with a social critique cloaked in violent satire and in-your-face gory humour, as exemplified in his Family that Eats Soil.

Lav Diaz, meanwhile, has created something bordering on the impossible: His picture, Evolution of a Filipino Family, is a 600-minute, Marcos-era family epic that took nine years to make. And the film, said the festival's programme note, "gives you an inevitable feeling that it should last exactly this long." That someone in the archipelago has the guts to pull this out is an amazing feat in itself (and yes, there've been people who sat and watch the entire thing).

Radical filmmaking seems the communal spirit of all indie talents across the region _ even Singapore. "Films from Singapore are anything but decent," wrote a Rotterdam's programmer. "Maybe all that diligence and the strictness of the censor form an invitation to forget those boundaries."

Leading the bunch was the feature film Perth by the LA-based Singaporean Djinn (just "Djinn"), a hard look at the life of a cab-driver who has a few loose screws. Singaporean shorts too crave attention for their inventiveness, like the madcap sci-fi The Alien Invasion, a mockumentary Zombie Dog, and Rotterdam dedicated a full programme to Zai Kuning, a short filmmaker who explores the identity of the island city-state in eclectic narrative styles.

And we can't forget Indonesia. Last year, when a short film competition was announced in Jakarta, the organiser received nearly 1,000 submissions from around the country _ and such inundation signifies the ciniphilic ardour in the country of which few outsiders think in terms of its artistic ambition.

Rotterdam tapped into that energy and screened nearly 20 shorts and two features, the new work of Indonesia's veteran Garin Nugroho Of Love and Eggs, and the film debut by Ravi L. Bharwani called The Rainmaker.

"It's a time when something exciting can really come out of Indonesia," says Garin, whose films have been invited to film festivals around the world for over a decade. "We only have to keep working hard and hope to get the right support that can help us take us."

Or better still, the Asean film people should figure out a way to support each other. The comprehensive showcase of SEA titles at Rotterdam is a jump-start that has sparked the potential of a region that, though still struggling to find its firm footing, has enough to offer in terms of cinema art _ to each other and perhaps to the rest of the world.