Southeast Asia, a focal point of socio-political cinema

Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemasî explores political surrounding four Asian countries. Students with varying perspectives are interested in the course, bringing many experiences. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemasî explores political surrounding four Asian countries. Students with varying perspectives are interested in the course, bringing many experiences. Photo By:  Sam Pianello
Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemasî explores political surrounding four Asian countries. Students with varying perspectives are interested in the course, bringing many experiences. Photo By: Sam Pianello

The screen faded into black. The credits signaled the end. All of a sudden, room 308 in Vogelstein was filled with light. The students remained in their seats for a second, then looked at each other, breathing out heavily. A couple of “oh my Gods” were uttered. They just finished a 93-minute screening of “Be With Me” for FILM 239, “Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemas.”

After a gap of five years, the Vassar College Film Department has brought back FILM 239, “Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemas.” A Singaporean herself, Assistant Professor of Film Sophia Harvey is teaching the class. Having done a great amount of research on cinemas of the region, Harvey is also an active member of the Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference. On her choice to focus on the Southeast, Harvey said, “Southeast Asia is underrepresented in Vassar’s general curriculum. This course offers students a productive and engaging intellectual space to immerse themselves within the region’s dynamic and diverse cinemas and moving image cultures.”

Not only a global hotspot of rapid economic growth, Southeast Asia is also a region with a long history of colonization. The blend between a history of struggle and modern development is embedded in the content and aesthetics of regional films. The course not only explores film as a medium or a work of art, but also studies the socio-cultural and political context of these products. The four selected countries of focus are Singapore and Malaysia, due to their history of conflict and separation; Thailand, being the only nation never officially colonized; and Cambodia, a nation suffering from one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. Harvey said, “Students will hone their abilities to engage critically with cinemas from the region. It is also imperative that students develop a more nuanced understanding of the political, socio-cultural and economic contexts out of which these cinemas emerge.”

Each student comes to this course for different reasons. “It is important for me to take a class that reflects my Southeast Asian identity,” said David Pham ’17, “I am really interested in trauma and collective memory, so I want to see how filmmakers document these through their movies.” The popularity of the course also extends beyond the border of the classroom. As a freshman, Nicole Yaw ’18 is not eligible to register for the class, but she showed up at every screening on Sunday and discussed the films with her friends afterwards, remarking, “I simply love to watch the movies.”

“Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemas” not only attracts students that hopes to pursue a great quest for international knowledge, but also Southeast Asian students who desire to explore their region through a new standpoint. A student from Singapore, Suzie Shin ’17 remarked, “I think the films we watch are very honest depictions of Singapore culture and people. I have to say it is hard for me to analyze scenes that look so familiar. When I watch them, my immediate reaction is, ‘Oh, that is just Singapore,’ and I just don’t realize the details until people comment on the MRT [Mass Rapid Transit], the food, the buildings, etc.”

For the first screening, Harvey’s pick was “Be With Me,” a 2005 Singaporean drama film directed by Eric Khoo. The film features three love stories of three different generations, each of which has its own beauty and struggles. The first story is about two lesbian schoolgirls, which ends tragically with betrayal and suicide. The portrayal of queerness is also a daring move, considering the illegality of homosexuality in Singapore. The second story revolves around a “heartlander’s” feelings for a “cosmopolitan,” but their class gap hinders their interaction. This story takes place predominantly in the working environment. The third story is of the older generation, the loyalty of a man towards his deceased wife, which occurs mainly in homely apartments. The film is inspired by the life of Therasa Poh Lin Chan, who is both deaf and blind, playing the role of the narrator in the film.

Harvey said, “I selected “Be With Me” for multiple reasons…First, it is directed by seminal filmmaker Eric Khoo. He is widely considered to be a key filmmaker during Singapore’s revival period of filmmaking in the 1990s. This film represents a maturation of his oeuvre. Second, the film explores themes that are generally invisible or rendered marginal in Singapore’s cinematic landscape.”

The screening of “Be With Me” on February 3 kept the class breathless from beginning to end and left students passionately discussing the film on the way back to their dorms. Serena Hovnanian ’17 commented, “This is by far the best movie I’ve seen this year.” Samantha Smith ’16 added, “I thought “Be With Me” was a wonderful film. I was moved by the way it explored social interactions and the way people can connect with others, even without words.” Suzie Shin ’17 said, “I like the intensity of “Be With Me” and how all the senses are used and played with.”

Although film production is prolific in Southeast Asia, the amount of research on it remains modest. With this class, Harvey hopes that the students will produce good-quality scholastic writings, helping contribute to the study of the region’s cinemas.

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