Review of Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural interpretation and social intervention by David C. L. Lim and Hiroyuki Yamamoto Routledge

Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural interpretation and social intervention. David C. L. Lim and Hiroyuki Yamamoto. London: Routledge, 2012. ISBN: 9780415617635

This collection of essays fits within Routledge’s Media, Culture, and Social Change in Asia series, with a loose focus on the intersection of local media production and consumption.  The book contains eleven essays that focus on a particular location, its social, economic and political context, and generally one or more exemplary video productions that have a stake in that culture.  This review evaluates the book based on how it may fit within a graduate classroom for political communication for students who need both context and theory.  Most of the essays are strong examples of this and will be appropriate for audiences at the graduate level and above, in most disciplines; a few chapters have structural or other issues that make them problematic for a graduate classroom.  This review begins with the more positive examples and will address the negative issues at the conclusion.

This anthology adds to the limited scholarship available on Southeast Asia’s media and culture, specifically where it plays a role in informing, entertaining, or creating identities within its audience.  To paraphrase editor David C. L. Lim, film across the region has taken on multiple functions and attracts viewers across traditional divides where it does the political work of “preserving traditions,” creating and contesting “socio historical memory,” and acting as an medium for the proliferation of neoliberal capitalism and propaganda.  Each chapter attempts to create a social, historical, and political context for a local or national population, making claims about the roles and purposes of film, home media (VHS, VCD, DVD), and new media.

One of the more straightforward chapters is “When memories collide: Revisiting the war in Vietnam and the diaspora” by Võ H?ng Chuong-Ðài.  While comparing Duki Dror’s The Journey of Vaan Nquyen and Doan Hoang’s Oh, Saigon, she demonstrates the how the documentaries work to present the effects of psychological separation for Vietnamese who left their country after the communist takeover and settled in diasporic communities, as well as the continued effects as the government sees those communities as significant sources of income.  Võ H?ng weaves history, economic facts, and critical theories from sources as broad as phenomenologist Gilles Delueze’s take on memory making (89), media theory, history, and anthropological/sociological sources.  Võ H?ng ‘s convincing use of theory in the analysis of the documentaries presents a personal understanding of the diaspora communities.   The author clearly demonstrates the inability to reconcile the diaspora with their homeland because the separation removes their Vietnamese identity while the diaspora maintains an othered identity within both cultures.

Editors David C. L. Lim and Hiroyuki Yamamoto offer a pair of essays to explore two sides of Malaysian politics and media production.  First Lim presents the Malay state film industry in west Malaysia offering the reader the context of the racially defined population under the  United Malays National Organization (UMNO) who funds the producers of patriotic films supporting the bangsa (race/ethnicity), agama (constitutional position of Islam as a national religion), and negara (the land nation belongs to the Malays).  Lim presents an industry that produces nationalistic films supporting this racial postitioning for Malay audiences, and the racism persists even as the government changes to be more inclusive of the many ethnicities and the official bangsas.  Lim uses textual analysis of patriotic films to demonstrate the political landscape and psychology of the ruling party as well as to demonstrate the crisis to both that occurred in the 2008 elections where the UMNO lost its majority.

Co-editor Yamamoto offers a contrast with research from Sabah, Malaysia where independently produced telemovies sold on VCDs offer an alternative, inclusive view of Malaysian culture.  These films offer a view of society where different ethnicities and religions cooperate as equals, even as the island is flooded with illegal and legal immigrants who continue to displace the local populations and artificially alter the voting demographics.  Yamamoto offers textual analysis of the films mixed with statistics, history of the society, and an established context of the current political, economic, and social elements of the society.  Together, Lim and Yamamoto offer an excellent primer for anyone wanting to understand the significant changes in Malaysian politics in the last decade.

Indonesia has also undergone a recent change in its dominant government that had created, and persisted with, a “cult of generals” as Abidin Kusno quotes film critic Intan Paramditha in “The hero in passage.”  To paraphrase, the former regime’s masculine, militaristic, and upper class values come into question and have been re-gendered in Riri Riza’s Gie, a fictionalized movie about a young political activist and loosely based on his diary.  Kusno’s reading of the film as it relates to contemporary Indonesian society demonstrates the uneasy tension as contemporary issues of plurality are explored under the persistent shadow of stereotypes of Chinese Indonesians like Gie and his family.  Kusno explores how Riza’s film, and the medium of film, can transcend the past by structuring Gie as a hero for contemporary Indonesian youth to emulate as participants in current politics.

In a similar vein, Boreth Ly writes about the gendered effects of neoliberal Cambodian economics in the essay “Screening the crisis of monetary masculinity in Rithy Panh’s One Night after the War and Burnt Theatre.”  Ly looks at the fictional film and documentary to look at how gendered roles have shifted and masculinity has developed into plural masculinities driven and defined by economics.  Pahn’s work becomes important for this type of analysis because it marks an attempt to create a cultural memory that has been lost due to the Khmer Rouge.  While the analysis rests on a Freudian reading, Ly provides a valuable reading of Cambodia’s changing gendered roles and behavior as the economics have altered under the new economy.  Pattana Kitiarsa looks at Thai film in a similar light following the political turmoil of 2006, except in this case, comedies have persisted through the changes and offer a valuable set of identifiers for viewers who have left the rural village life for the urban and migrant labor markets.  Kitiarsa uses textual analysis and constructs a rhetorical model of meaning making in the comedy to show the importance of the laughter produced.

Another pair of essays offers competing views of Singapore’s film and culture.  Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi writes about the use of new media to overcome the state censorship and police harassment faced by critics of the government. Kobayashi focuses on Martyn See, whose documentary on Dr. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition party, made See the target of state harassment.  By working outside of the official channels and on a micro budget, See developed a style of video activism that, by utilizing online sites, has created a challenge to Singapore government’s official voice and forced silences.

Kenneth Paul Tan gives another view of Singapore media using Tan Pin Pin’s exploration of change and memory in the state.  The author focuses on the concept of Singapore as a physical, social, and psychological space constantly in a state of tearing itself down and rebuilding in a new image.  He particularly looks at the loss of identity tied to physical surroundings, and excavates Tan Pin Pin’s work to find the same search for history and identity.  Unlike Kobayashi, who finds the cultural conversation in new media, Tan looks at the current situation as a place where creative individuals will be able to explore the realities of their world, but where they will face the authoritarian interference of the government, the Disneyfication of their culture, and the present and past continually being covered by the new Singapore as it evolves through the government and industry’s persistent objective to develop.

While most of the chapters appear to lay out information in a way useful to a variety of disciplines, two chapters have serious issues that should be addressed before bringing them in the classroom.  Panivon Norindr’s “Toward a Laotian Cinema?” briefly explores the dynamics of the media industry in Laos.  He marks the main reasons that Laos does not have film production as the government’s censorship of content production and the economic dilution caused by Thai television and satellite entertainment.  Norindr offers a better argument, which seems to be that Laotian director Som Ock Southiponh originated a Laotian auteur cinema with film Boa Deng (Red Lotus) in 1985.  But he interrupts his analysis with an ad hominem rant against Variety critic Derek Elley who wrote in a 1994 review from the Hawaii Fest that the film was “not a masterpiece” but “should be screened at other Asian film specific festivals.” Norindr takes these statements to be, what he calls, “the would-be critic” condescendingly describing the film and adds a block quote from the original article that states:

the performances steered clear of overly broad caricature, scripting is only functional, with the best sequences those in which dialogue is at a minimum.  Still, helmer Som-ok Soutiphone shows a basic grasp of camera style, and editing is OK.  In the title role, Somchit shows some screen presence as the strong but compliant heroine.
Norindr quickly moves away from his topics to introduce an ethnocentric rant against Elley: “For a Hollywood reporter, who is the ‘senior film critic at Variety’ and whose linguistic competence is rather limited, to have to read subtitles must have been simply too much work and simply dreadful, revealing at the same time his classic Hollywood view of cinema as pure entertainment” (45).  There are two serious problems with this.  First, the rant has nothing to do with Norindr’s thesis about the potential for Laos cinema.  The author flagrantly exposes his personal bias, leaving the reader skeptical about other information that he posits with little to no support.  Secondly, the author refused to recognize Variety as a trade publication.  Elley wrote that the movie was valuable to film festivals where that content would be acceptable.  By purposefully misreading Elley as an academic or even mainstream film critic, Norindr created false information.

The other chapter with issues, “From contested histories to ethnic tourism:  cinematic representations of Shans and Shanland on the Burmese silver screen,” offers substantial information, but also poor organization, improper use of theories, and undeveloped claims.  Ferguson briefly outlines the conditions of the Burman-led film industry and the representation of the Shan ethnicity in the Union of Myanmar, a country that has had internal military struggles dating back to 1948 and the country’s release from British rule.  Conceptually, Ferguson posits large questions about both Myanmar society and film production as well as the Shan culture and their representation.  Unfortunately, the essay reads much like the outline of a class lecture or the content outline for a book proposal, imparting important information quickly, but lacking the detail that allows an understanding of any central thesis.

The author writes,

In examining popular representations of ethnic relations in Burma, we can see a culture industry which has some of the most stringent and authoritarian regulations in the world, but at the same time, a highly literate and diverse audience, not to mention potentially irreverent directors and screenwriters who will not necessarily tow the line of the status quo in the production of popular motion pictures.

Much of the chapter develops important points needed for general awareness of the concepts of that claim, but many of the points of the essay do not have the evidence or details to offer the reader a substantial review.  For example, in the section “Representing ‘minorities,’” the author chooses to cite KC Davis, the author of an essay about political irony in the documentary Hoop Dreams about African American basketball players trying to make it to college and the NBA and Paris is Burning, a documentary that follows a group of young drag queen performers as they find acceptance in the club scene while dealing with a degrading and violent interaction with the rest of the world.  Ferguson paraphrases Davis “that while she was able to ‘read’ an intended irony of the marginalized groups, she recognizes how convoluted and fraught the device of irony can be, and how and why some Africa- American critics found the films representations of the minority groups patronizing and/or offensive” (26). The other theorist, Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, writes about the involvement and representation of gays in Hollywood film, and how marginal groups can be obscured through majority perceptions (26).  Ferguson’s use of these theorists seems arbitrary and not in line with the fictional and historical fiction films that she uses as examples of Shan representation.  A reader is left wondering how and why Ferguson chose these critics and neglected the substantial post-colonial, cultural studies, and film scholarship that deals with ethnic representation in nationalistic and state cultures.  It also seems the author only carries over the idea that representation of “others” is contested by a diverse audience.  The implications of the theory and criticism of Russo and Davis are never directly explored in the Burmese/ Myanmar productions.

This chapter has significant organization and development issues.  Information is posited in what seems an arbitrary fashion as if important to a central idea, but the article fails to develop any ideas.  The eight sections of the essay have, at best, blocks of general information about the history of Myanmar.  Any reader expecting an essay with content that matches the title, “From contested histories to ethnic tourism,” will be disappointed to see that contested histories seems relegated to the general concept that any film with minority representation, whether race, gender, or ethnicity, will be interpreted with political implications by a diverse audience.  While notes on history of Burma/Myanmar are present, including some information connecting that history with the film industry, it would require someone with expert knowledge to transverse the leaps between the claims and content.

Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia offers scholars a wide range of perspectives from sociological, historical, anthropological, rhetorical, and gender studies.  The essays produce a context for the effects of globalization and the relevance of local media.  While most are concerned by the effects of neoliberal economies, they stay firmly grounded in their country of origin, highlighting the cultural productions and their political impact.  The collection has some inconsistencies, but overall is worth adding to a scholarly library of materials on Southeast Asia media and politics.

Reviewed by Gregory V. Smith, Austin State University
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]