The dA-Zed guide to southeast Asian cinema

A 26-point love letter to the region's filmmakers in honour of Thai director (and Dazed Visionary) Apichatpong Weerasethakul

S_E_Asian_Film3

Apichatpong Weerasethakul may have blazed a new trail for Southeast Asian cinema when he won the Cannes Palme d'Or in 2010 – the first Asian director to win the Palme d'Or since 1997's The Eel – but he's far from the only cinematic star to emerge from the region. Rising filmmakers with unique voices and perspectives are emerging in countries as diverse as Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Apichatpong's native Thailand. In honour of Weerasethakul's Dazed Visionary takeover, here is our 26-letter guide to the cinema of Southeast Asia.   

A IS FOR ANH HUNG TRAN

Vietnam is more famous for Hollywood films about its war than for its own filmmakers, but Anh Hung Tran is trying to change that. Since making his debut in 1993, Tran has made five films, including the Golden Lion winning Cyclo, the Haruki Murakami adaptation Norwegian Wood, and Hollywood thriller I Come With The Rain, which features a score partially composed by Radiohead - who had developed a relationship with Tran after he used "Creep" so effectively in Cyclo.

B IS FOR BANGKOK 

One of the best looking cities in the world, Bangkok has been well served by cinema - most notably by Nicholas Winding Refn, whose neon-tinged thriller Only God Forgives somehow made the bloody cycles of revenge that plague the city's streets look beautiful.

B for Bangkok Only God Forgives
Still from Only God Forgives (2013)

C IS FOR CENSORSHIP 

Strict national censorship rules have long been a major issue for Asian filmmakers, with some countries even punishing directors with jail time and huge fines if they breach the rules. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in particular, continues to struggle against censors in Thailand. In 2002, he was forced to cut ten minutes from his film Blissfully Yours, and in 2006, censors held the print of Syndromes and a Century to ransom when he refused to cut some supposedly provocative sequences.

D IS FOR DISTRIBUTION 

Distribution is difficult in Asia because of these censorship laws, and often films will play to tiny audiences on one or two screens in their own country, while simultaneously receiving major honours at festivals around the world. Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, for example, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 and received distribution across Europe and North America, yet only earned a limited ten day run in Thai cinemas.

E IS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

The natural world plays a key role in many Asian films, particularly in Brillante Mendoza's 2012 film Captive, based on the Dos Palmos kidnappings in the Philippines in the early 2000s. Isabelle Huppert stars as one of around a hundred people held hostage for twelve months by terrorists and forced to walk hundreds of miles through the Filipino jungle. Mendoza plays up the danger of the situation by consistently increasing the threat posed by the jungle itself (snakes, disease, heat), making Captive one of the tensest thrillers of recent years.

E is for environment Captive
Still from Captive (2012)

F IS FOR FESTIVALS

A number of festivals have started to emerge in Southeast Asia over the past few years, giving local filmmakers a platform to present their work. In 2010, the Hanoi Film Festival was launched, with a judging panel including the director of the Venice Film Festival, while the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the first ever in Laos, a country with no cinemas, was launched in the same year - now, in its fourth year, the festival is fast becoming one of the best in Southeast Asia.

G IS FOR GARETH EVANS

Possibly the only Welshman to kick-start a movie career in Indonesia, Gareth Evans' ultra-violent martial arts thriller The Raid is one of the most successful films the country has ever produced. The much-hyped sequel is due out in April, so expect Evans' star to rise pretty considerably as the year progresses.

H IS FOR HO CHI MINH CITY

Previously known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the setting for a number of films about Vietnam, including Anh Hung Tran's Cyclo, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

I IS FOR THE INTERNET

The internet has become a vital tool for Asian filmmakers to distribute their work on their own terms, avoiding interference from Government censors in the process. Lav Diaz, for example, has started to sell DVD copies of his films through his website - because traditional distribution models don't work so well with nine hour films.

J IS FOR JACK NEO

One of Singapore's best loved comedic actors, Jack Neo wrote and starred in the hugely successful Money No Enough in 1998, about three men who start a car-polishing business to get out of debt. Money No Enough remained the highest grossing Singaporean film of all time until the release of another of Neo's films, Ah Boys To Men, in 2012, and is generally considered the film that saved Singapore's film industry.

J for Jack Neo Ah Boys To Men
Still from Ah Boys To Men (2012)

E IS FOR ERIC KHOO

In 1997, Eric Khoo's second film, 12 Storeys, premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, beginning a fruitful relationship between the Singaporean filmmaker and the French festival - currently, four of his five films have premiered at the festival. In 2008, Khoo's My Magic became the first film from Singapore to be nominated for the Palme d'Or, where it lost out to Laurent Cantet's French drama The Class.

L IS FOR LAV DIAZ

Famous for the epic runtimes of his films - the longest is almost ten hours long - Filipino auteur Lav Diaz has emerged over the past decade as one of the leading forces of "slow cinema". His latest work, Norte The End of History, is a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and will be the first of his films to get UK distribution when it hits cinemas at the end of the year.

M IS FOR MUAY THAI BOXING

A combat sport from Thailand that dates back centuries (although the exact date is unknown), Muay Thai boxing is used by Jean Claude Van Damme, among others, in a number of Hollywood action movies, including Kickboxer, Bloodsport, and last year's Only God Forgives. It's an extraordinarily disciplined (and cinematic) form of kickboxing. 

N IS FOR NOISE

Both Diaz and Weerasethakul are known for their loud and hypnotic use of the natural ambience of a scene. In Weerasethakul's  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, for example, the sounds of birds, insects and water, recorded "on or near location" by sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, are used to immerse the viewer in the natural setting of the film, and to overwhelm their senses

O IS FOR ONG-BAK

An internationally successful Thai martial arts thriller from 2003, Ong-Bak spawned two prequels and launched the career of stuntman and action star Tony Jaa - who looks set to break the Hollywood action scene with upcoming roles in Fast & Furious 7 and Dolph Lundgren vehicle Skin Trade.

P IS FOR THE PANG BROTHERS

A twin brother filmmaking duo, Oxide and Danny Pang are responsible for the hugely successful Thai films The Eye and Bangkok Dangerous, as well as the latter's Nic Cage starring Hollywood remake and pre-Twilight K-Stew film The Messengers

Q IS FOR QUEER THEMES

Filipino director Lino Brocka was a highly respected figure in world cinema, having made a number of films addressing themes of homosexuality and national politics before his untimely death in 1991. His films were deemed so offensive to censors that, allegedly, an uncensored print of his 1988 film Macho Dancer, about a gay man earning a living in Manila's red-light district, had to be smuggled out of the Philippines to compete at festivals. 

R IS FOR RITHY PANH

Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh has made a number of critically lauded films about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the mid-to-late 70s. His latest, the inventive The Missing Picture, won the Un Certain Regard prize at last year's Cannes, and, through a combination of news footage and clay figurines, it dramatises the beginnings of the Communist reign in anguishing detail.

S IS FOR SPIRITUALITY

Another key theme in the work of many Asian filmmakers - particularly Lav Diaz, whose 2011 film Century of Birthing is a dual-narrative examining both the spiritual journey of a director searching for meaning in his life and his work, and the disintegration of a strange Christian cult when a photographer stumbles upon their refuge in the Filipino countryside. The riverside baptism sequence that opens the film is especially moving.

R IS FOR ROYSTON TAN

The debut feature from Singaporean director Royston Tan, 15, a brutal depiction of suburban teen gangs, was the victim of extreme national censorship in 2003, and the film was banned until an extraordinary 27 cuts were made.  A year later, Tan made the short film Cut, a satirical musical farce about what he (rightly) saw as excessive political interference, in response. It didn't go down well.

U IS FOR UNCLE BOONME WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES  

Weerasethakul's extraordinary, Palme d'Or winning spiritual masterpiece follows the last days of a dying man, forced to confront the memories of his past lives in an attempt to identify and understand the reasons for his death. Exploring themes of reincarnation, mortality and love, among many others, Uncle Boonmee is a rich and complex work that solidifies Weerasethakul's position as one of the great artists of modern cinema.

V IS FOR VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN 

The poetic third film by Vietnamese auteur Anh Hung Tran, Vertical Ray of The Sun focuses on the relationship between three sisters as they honour the anniversary of their mother's death. Visually and emotionally stunning, Tran's masterpiece is a modern classic.

W IS FOR NEW WAVES

Filipino director Raya Martin, director of La ultima pelicula, which premiered at Toronto last year, and Singapore's Anthony Chen, whose film Ilo Ilo won the Best First Feature award at last year's Cannes, are just two of an increasing number of young, talented filmmakers to emerge from Southeast Asia in the past few years.

X IS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

Whether through Lav Diaz's extensive runtimes, Weerasethakul's narrative structures or Rithy Panh's clay figurines, the experimentation found in many of the best films from Southeast Asia is undeniable. 

Y IS FOR DEREK YEE  

Once one of Hong Kong's biggest action stars, Derek Yee has since made his name as a respected writer/director in Singapore, shooting a number of his critically and commercially successful thrillers in the country, like 1999's The Truth About Jane and Sam, and 2007's Protégé, both of which are studies of investigation - the former about a journalist, the latter about an undercover detective.

Z IS FOR ZEN

The feeling of cinematic enlightenment you get when you experience a film like Uncle Boonmee or Century of Birthing for the first time.

More Arts+Culture