Traversing Time: Personal Best of 2015

Lucky Kuswandi's The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might is nothing short of a revelation. 
38,000 feet above ground, there’s not much to be seen but the blue waters punctuated every now and then by dots of land both vast and those seemingly inconsequential. There’s a thick haze ahead, the airplane shakes violently, and in the blur emerges illumination –glowing streaks in the remote mountain villages and the cosmopolitan profusion of peacock colors— when the airplane descends to its ultimate destination.

Writing inside an airplane, one can easily arrive at a conjecture: Southeast Asian cinema continued to expand its horizon in 2015 leaving marks here and there that are cautionary and celebratory, from the big mainstream fares to the small, obscure films that pump streams of much needed energy to the region’s cinema.

The Philippines, for instance, saw the emergence of a new documentary tradition, from Sheron Dayoc’s The Crescent Rising to Charliebebs Gohetia’s Chasing Waves; Indonesia questioned taboos and societal norms, tackling the relationship of sex and power in films like Kamila Andini’s Following Diana; Singapore continues to test the extent and limit of liberty in films like Kan Lume’s Naked DJ; and Thailand’s response to its political climate can be seen in the playfulness of Sorayos Prapapan’s A Souvenir from Switzerland.

What struck me are films that go in and out of physical time, thus, developing what I would consider mythical and metaphysical time (the past becoming ever present), and as a result, memory, reality and dream are collapsed as a nebulous yet exciting whole. This considered, here are my five personal favorite Southeast Asian films of 2015:

Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III is an imagining of an Indio who Filipinos claim to be the first man to circumnavigate the world, albeit accidentally, with his European master. While historians agree that the Indio is from Sugbu, Kidlat created the character Enrique who the filmmaker played in the film as a member of a Cordilleran tribe. More than 30 years in the making, the film traverses multiple timelines and realities, and the space between afford us the opportunity to inquire about history. And what renders the film the experience of a spiritual journey is that Kidlat never seems to be certain with a final cut of the film. I have seen the film twice and with two different cuts. Kidlat ends up presenting a film not of a distant memory but something that is being built and rebuilt, like the country whose ever-changing quest for identity it seeks to represent.

Time is also an important element in Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin that cleverly interweave past, present and future to present a complex subject like Singapore. It navigates landscapes and characters that are imagined, alive or no longer there, memorializing a portrait of a country that is both personal and political. And for a young country like Singapore, Hui noted that “nation building becomes traumatic as it leaves gaps and holes in memory that competing forces seek to fill.”

Politically charged in its profound somnambulant beauty is Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In the film, Joe utilizes the affliction of soldiers with a mysterious sleeping sickness as a metaphor for his meditation on matters both personal and political. Oscillating from sleep and wakefulness, it is an invitation to travel in the realm of dreams and to see in the filmmaker’s lens of memory fragments of his own childhood, (r)evolution and journeys.

For the last three years, Sherad Anthony Sanchez, a leading voice in Philippine experimental cinema, set to make his first mainstream film. It eventually gave birth to Salvage, a film about a village possession using the device of found footage. While it is hard to consider it anywhere near mainstream, Sanchez has created a film that crosses his experimental sensibility and the pursuit of mainstream appeal, hypnotic and unabashedly playful and inventive.

The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might, a short film by Lucky Kuswandi of Indonesia, is nothing short of a revelation. It tells of the sexual awakening of two preteen boys: David, the son of a high-ranking military officer, and Aseng who comes from an ethnic Chinese minority. Kuswandi skillfully mixed the issues of power, sex and race in the film with a brutality that is shocking and beautiful at the same time.

—Teng Mangansakan

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