David Hanan Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region – Ed

David Hanan Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region – Ed – Book Review

Mike Walsh

SEAPAVAA/Vietnam Film Institute, Hanoi/National Screen and Sound Archive of Australia, 2001.

Film enthusiasts tend to have a limited vision of Asian cinema, both geographically and historically. When we think of Asian cinema, we think first of Japan, Korea and the Chinese cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC. Rarely do these analyses extend beyond a contemporary canon. This collection attempts to address this imbalance as it introduces the rarely discussed regional cinemas of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore.

This anthology reprints a collection of essays which first appeared in 2000 in English and Vietnamese under the auspices of the Vietnam Film Institute. It has been edited by David Hanan, who will be familiar to those interested in Asian cinema for his heroic efforts in fostering a consciousness of Indonesian cinema in this country.

It is noteworthy that the reprint has been published by the National Screen and Sound Archive of Australia, which has recently suffered some severe cuts in its activities. We should hope that this collection does not remain an isolated achievement on the part of our national archive in engaging with other national cinemas. A rich archival movement is one that encourages screen culture through publishing ventures such as this. It is particularly relevant at the current political moment that we break away from narrowly insular definitions of national culture, to resituate Australian national culture within the framework of dialogues within our region.

The majority of the essays are written by archivists and provide brief survey overviews of each national cinema. The writers tend to trace a trajectory in which cinema moves from its original position as a technology of colonialism to its incorporation into the popular cultures of postcolonial nations. This process of localization involves first the importation of foreign films, the production of films locally by foreigners, and finally the growth of local production. Many of the essays seem to suggest that South East Asia has arrived at a point of having national screen industries which are post-cinematic, in that they are primarily tied to the economies and consumption patterns of video and television.

This is a valuable collection in that most English-language academic writing on Asian cinemas tends to proceed from highly deductive methods in which a small number of recent films are viewed in the light of theoretical principles derived from postcolonial or postmodern theory. While questions about the forms taken by the local cinemas will rightly involve large scale abstractions such as colonialism, modernization, and globalism, these often function as ends in themselves, rather than as aids in helping us to understand the specificity of individual industries and historical moments. We also need approaches which stress the historical diversity and detail of Asian cinemas in a more inductive fashion. We need to learn more about the detail of the ebb and flow of these cinemas over time.

While the essays aim primarily at introducing the broad shape of each film industry, they indicate some research questions which historians of Asian cinema would do well to follow up. Included among these are the development of genres and their relation to other forms of popular culture, particularly music. Examples recur throughout the essays: the influence of the zarzuela in the Philippines, luk tung in Thailand, Bangsawan in Malaysia, dangdut in Indonesia.

Virtually all of the writers have to grapple with a degree of discomfort in relation to many of the mass-produced genres, such as musicals, comedies and sex films. While these films may have been popular with local audiences, they are often dismissed as bad or shoddy in relation to the more marginal (though internationally defensible) art films which followed them.

The anthology is interesting for the way writers switch between different frameworks for evaluating film production: as art, as instrument of state policy, as mass entertainment, and as industry. This last framework suggests the need for research on the factors which encouraged and inhibited the development of studio systems throughout Asia. Augustin Sotto and Baharudin Latif invoke the familiar device of golden age periods for the Philippines and Malay production. Both of these are tied to sustainable studio production through the 1950s.

Tied to this is the crucial prominence of stars, which is signalled in several essays. The example of Mitr Chaibancha is particularly striking in the essays on Thai cinema by Chalida Uabumrungjit and Anchalee Chaiworaphon. Both make out the case that the persistence of a 16mm production industry in Thailand was crucially linked to the popularity of a single star.

We are used to the contemporary debates over globalization and tend to regard it as a recent phenomenon, but this collection gives us significant materials for considering the importance of media flows across national borders right from the beginning of the cinema in South-East Asia. It also raises the often overlooked history of regional flows within Asia–for example the extensive industrial connections which link Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

These industrial connections concern not simply production, but more importantly distribution and exhibition. Many of the essays, including H. Misbach Yusa Biran’s piece on Indonesian cinema, circle back to the ways in which production can only exist in the spaces established for it by distribution and exhibition. Many of the attempts by the state to intervene at the level of production achieve limited results through addressing the problem only at one phase of the market process. This is a lesson we in Australia might consider if we stop to compare ourselves to our regional neighbours.

This brings me to the final chapter in the anthology, an essay on Australian cinema written by Deb Verhoeven. She throws out the challenge that the problem facing this country is not the disappearance of a local production industry, but rather the disappearance of an audience interested in watching what are purported to be ‘our stories’ on movie screens. The slump in the box office share of Australian films back to the vicinity of four per cent makes this a timely/observation.

It should also lead us to reflect on the recent cuts suffered by the local publisher of this book, the National Screen and Sound Archive. If there is to be a market for a local production industry, it will only come from increased vitality in local screen culture. If we expect people in our region to be interested in our films, we need to understand the histories and industrial structures of that region. In short, we need a re-evaluation of archival policies and priorities in this country which gives increased precedence to projects such as this.

Mike Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group