South-East Asian cinema: what to watch

By Eve Mustin &

South-East Asia is a diverse region of the world, and its plethora of cinema reflects this. In a climate of political constraints and minimal budgets, filmmakers have faced these challenges head on, and brought international acclaim to their work. Whether it’s Tran Anh Hùng who is subverting Hollywood’s perception of war-torn Vietnam, or Apichatpong Weersaethakul who has been pioneering Thai cinema since his 2010 Palme d’Or win, this is a space to watch. Here are our recommendations from Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

Vietnam – The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

This 1993 Vietnamese film tells the story of an orphan – Mùi – who is taken in as a servant by a wealthy, but troubled, merchant family in Saigon. Ten years later, Mùi is working for the eldest son’s affluent friend, a concert pianist, for whom she develops romantic feelings.

The film is not plot-driven, and is only littered by simple dialogue, but is a peacefully beautiful depiction of a young woman’s efflorescence; perhaps a metaphor for the green papaya, which is considered a vegetable in its green state, but which blossoms into a fruit later.

Vietnamese-French director Trần Anh Hùng was the recipient of the Caméra d’Or prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, a César Award for Best Debut in 1994, and the film itself was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1994 Academy Awards. It is a love letter to his Vietnamese identity from a French soundstage – the director left Vietnam when he was 12 – encapsulating the serenity of Saigon beyond the war.

Singapore – Ilo Ilo (2013)

Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s first feature film also portrays a maidservant, Teresa, and her bond with her employers’ 10-year-old son, Jiale, who ‘replaces’ her own baby left behind in the Philippines. This domestic drama is a social commentary on the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and class and racial tensions within a middle-class household. Its semi-autobiographical story juxtaposes the complex family relations, notably between Teresa and Jiale, and between Teresa and Hwee Leng (the boy’s mother) with the mundanity of their everyday lives. Ilo Ilo made Chen the first and only Singaporean to win the Caméra d’Or in 2013, projecting Singaporean cinema onto the global stage. Thanks to its success, he was able to reunite with his childhood maid ‘Aunt Terry’ in Iloilo, and brought her to the film’s premiere in Singapore, adding a full-circle element to the production. Ilo Ilo can be described as an authentic, raw, and immensely moving film.

Thailand – Tropical Malady (2004)

Tropical Malady is a Thai film of two tales – the first being a romance between a soldier (Keng) and a country boy (Tong), and the second an elusive narrative of a soldier tracking the spirit of a tiger shaman. Director Apichatpong Weersaethakul depicts a naturalistic queer relationship that is tentative and vulnerable, until it reaches a climax one night where the two men express their physical desire for each other. The film then cuts to the second half in which Keng has been tasked with killing a mythical tiger-spirit, an anthropomorphised monster that has been terrorising the local villagers. As an audience, we are unsure whether these two tales are chronological, parallel or contrasting, but the plot merely amplifies the confusion and eeriness of the film. Another Cannes award recipient, the film was granted the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and is the first Thai film to win at one of the ‘Big Three’ film festivals.

Indonesia – The Raid (2011)

Here’s one for the action fans – set in Jakarta, The Raid follows a national SWAT team raiding and being trapped in an apartment block, on the hunt for an international criminal. Full of sharp hand-to-hand combat and shoot-out scenes, The Raid is really one of those films that pulls you in and keeps you on the edge of your seat, only wincing or looking away during a pointedly grotesque moment. A real gem in this film is the use of ‘pencak silat’, an Indonesian martial art style which was brilliantly utilised by actors and choreographers Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. The martial art was actually Welsh director Gareth Evans’ inspiration for creating the film, an idea he came up with while filming a documentary about pencak silat. Though hell bent on being entirely action-focused, the diversity of fighting styles and scene structure across the film, and the use of meticulously choreographed fight sequences with sweeping shaky camera work to boot makes The Raid an intense and thrilling watch.


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