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Cinematic Connections to Southeast Asia

January 18, 2019


by Adrian Alarilla

This year, the theme of the SEAxSEA Film Festival was “Connections,” engaging our filmmakers as well as the audience to find meaningful connections between us here in Seattle and Southeast Asia. For their part, our filmmakers met that challenge exceedingly well. Many of them made connections with the past, recalling traditions both forgotten and preserved, and compared them with our present moment to see how useful they can still be in modern times.

Adrian Alarilla at SEAxSEA Film Festival 2019, Kun ‘Di Man by Phyllis Grande

In Phyllis Grande’s Kun ‘Di Man (If Not), she explores the relevance of the traditional Tagalog music genre of Kundiman as a way to express love. Perhaps drawing from the recent trend started by independent films such as The Raid, Raka Samudera Jae’s Jawara (Champion) looks at the Indonesian martial art of Silat; David The’s Balance captures queer Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Phong’s struggle for visibility and understanding in a society whose notions of gender remain largely conservative; subtle absurdist comedy Gowok (The Ins and Outs of a Woman’s Body) by Steve Masihoroe makes his modern characters go through the Pergowokan process, a centuries-old Javanese tradition wherein a father finds an adult woman to instruct his son about the female body, inviting viewers to reevaluate traditional formulations of gender in Indonesia. Kathleen Rae Gonzales’ and Mark Eugine Frondoza’s .raw is also a biting satire of a recent “tradition” of doing a prenuptial photoshoot in the Philippines, asking us why we need to project the image of a happy relationship in the age of Facebook and Instagram. Jakkrapan Sriwichai’s Being of Neglected (Thailand) is an understated but effective nod to the continued importance of ghost stories in Thai and Southeast Asian cinema. Ryan Sebastian’s Barisan Para Naga (Line of Dragons) evaluates Indonesia’s present situation through a traditional children’s game. Andi Imam Prakasa’s Pesan Dari Buritan (Message from the Stern Deck) documents a maritime expedition that attempts to revive ancient sailing cultures in East Indonesia, encouraging us to keep looking over the horizon even as we maintain connections with our past.

These connections we have with our maritime traditions as well as nature are explored by Javeus Toh in the documentary Unspoken War, which looked at the demise of traditional fishing methods as they’re replaced by the environmentally destructive trawling method, employed by both local Cambodian fishermen as well as trespassing Vietnamese fishermen. The continued difficulty of policing maritime borders while at the same time projecting an “imagined community” with clearly defined terrestrial and maritime boundaries is explored in Putri Purnama Sugua’s Aku Mau Skola (I Want to go to School). Set in Sabah, an important maritime nexus in precolonial and colonial times, the defining of nation states has led to a crisis of Stateless migrants who find limited opportunities in Malaysia even as they struggle to survive and earn an education. Transnational migrant work is also featured in a short video portrait of Asad by Hak Yee Kung, who follows a Bangladeshi worker as he navigates Singapore. A different type of transnational work is explored by Alexander Humilde in Nightcaller, which explores the still-growing outsourced call center industry in Manila. And Aw See Wee’s Kampung Tapir is an intimate portrait of a couple who live in Malaysia but go to Singapore weekly to work.

Migration has many faces, one being Diaspora, when migrant Southeast Asians leave the region for extended periods of time, whether voluntarily or from political or economic dislocation, and end up raising families in their adopted lands. Shawn de Lopez attempts to visualize an affective map of his motherland, Cambodia, in Nisai. Enang Wattimena rummages through his family archive in the Netherlands to learn more about his Acehnese grandmother in Liefde (Love). Chanthadeth Chanthalangsy, raised by his Cambodian mother, rediscovers his Laotian heritage through his name. And Yuhaniz Aly, Abdulgani Mohamad, and Samir Nguyen explore what it means to be Cham, American, and Muslim, expressing their insights through intimate video diaries in Ramadan.

We are so honored to have been able to share these filmmakers’ visions here in Seattle, and we hope we have inspired students, faculty, and community members to keep thinking about our connections with Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. As our film festival grows, we look forward to showcasing more films and engaging our community in meaningful ways. Once again, thank you very much to everyone who attended, and we look forward to seeing you again next year!