10 great modern south-east Asian films

A rough guide to contemporary cinema from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and other parts of south-east Asia.

John Berra

Manila in the Claws of Light (1975)

Manila in the Claws of Light (1975)

South-east Asia is an expansive region that produces diverse cinema, much of which now reaches the international festival circuit. Yet only a relatively limited number of titles receive overseas commercial release, usually based on the director’s prestige or their potential to ride current genre waves.

Spotty distribution aside, a further challenge for viewers looking to familiarise themselves with contemporary south-east Asian cinema is acquiring relevant knowledge of influential films from past decades. For instance, the vibrant works of Filipino master Lino Brocka have inspired Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza and Khavn De La Cruz yet remain little known in the west. South-east Asia’s film industry is generally better developed today than when Brocka made his classic Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), which is now restored and available on a new BFI Blu-ray with the same director’s Insiang (1976). But the difficulties of shoestring budgets and political restrictions remain for directors seeking to follow his fiercely personal path.

Nonetheless, in Myanmar, the indefatigable Midi Z has become a one-man band with such documentary-style social studies as Return to Burma (2011) and Ice Poison (2014). In Thailand, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit adroitly balanced his meditative festival favourite 36 (2012) with the comparatively mainstream Heart Attack (2015). Other directors have smuggled ideological critique through genre, notably dynamic duo ‘The Mo Brothers’ (Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel) who address Indonesia’s capacity for violence with their explicit thrillers Macabre (2009), Killers (2014) and Headshot (2016). In short, there’s a lot for adventurous cineastes to discover…

At the Height of Summer (2000)

Director Tran Anh Hung

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (aka At The Height of Summer, 2000)

The third part of Tran Anh Hung’s celebrated ‘Vietnam trilogy’ observes three sisters over a humid summer month, starting with the anniversary of their mother’s death. Suong (Nhu Quynh Nguyen) juggles being a mother and cafe owner, while Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) leads a bohemian lifestyle and Khanh (Le Khanh) discovers that she is pregnant, although Tran is more interested in everyday details than melodrama.

Lushly photographed around old Hanoi by Mark Lee Ping-bin with an emphasis on deep greens, the film has a serene surface that conceals the emotional unrest at its core. Although the sisters giggle when they are together, individually they negotiate desires that conflict with traditional notions of fidelity. It’s exquisitely languid and delicately composed with dialogue kept to a minimum as if to suggest that these women are aware that revealing too much will irrecoverably rupture the tranquility.

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Seeking to escape from their worries through nature, factory worker Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and her boyfriend Min (Min Oo), an illegal Burmese immigrant, briefly leave Bangkok for a secluded spot close to the Myanmar border with Roong’s older friend Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) tagging along.

As with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s subsequent masterworks Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006), this is a film of contrasts wherein the developing but still deprived urban landscape gives way to a jungle paradise where erotic longings can be fulfilled. There’s also a spiritual dimension, with the vegetable poultice that Min uses to treat his skin condition seemingly allowing him to merge with this sensuous world. Although it’s tempting to be lulled by the film’s hazy vibe, Blissfully Yours also finds Weerasethakul at his most political, with the shedding of Min’s skin symbolic of his necessary shift to a new identity.

15 (2003)

Director Royston Tan

15 (2003)

For his visceral feature debut, Royston Tan worked with a cast of real-life juvenile delinquents to show teenage gang members expressing themselves through body piercings, tattoos and picking fights. These experiences are presented as a series of vignettes, sometimes edited in the style of music videos, thereby blurring representations of youthful ennui with media-induced fantasies of rebellion.

15 is also wickedly humorous, with one segment providing an unlikely tour of Singapore’s architecture as the group tries to find the perfect building from which to commit suicide. Tan courted controversy not only with his frank depiction of an underclass that rejects education in favor of drug-fuelled male bonding but also with his use of Hokkien dialect instead of Mandarin and English, which are preferred by the Singapore government. Twenty-seven edits were required for domestic release, with Tan making the satirical short film Cut (2005) to comment on his censorship battle.

Ong-Bak (2003)

Director Prachya Pinkaew

Ong-Bak (2003)

Conceived as a showcase for the jaw-dropping abilities of Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak also introduced the bruising Muay Thai combat style to the global action movie arena. The premise is simple, with villager Ting (Jaa) heading to Bangkok to retrieve the stolen head of an ancient Buddha statue. Stock supporting characters include a wayward cousin (Petchtai Wongkamlao) to be redeemed and a wicked crime lord (Suchao Pongwilai) to be defeated.

But, as with most breakout action movies, Ong-Bak’s main attraction is its star’s spectacular athleticism. Jaa demonstrates an incredible range of moves, from lethal body blows to more balletic feats, while a breakneck chase sequence exemplifies the can-do spirit that enables the film to transcend its ragged production values. Ong-Bak’s success sparked a run of Thai martial arts adventures of which Chocolate (2008), Raging Phoenix (2009) and Bangkok Knockout (2010) are equally enjoyable.

Shutter (2004)

Directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom

Shutter (2004)

Thailand may have struggled to rival Japan or South Korea as a consistent source of spine-tingling fright flicks, but Shutter proved to be one of the most effective entries in the Asian horror boom of the 2000s by mixing the pan-Asian genre trope of the vengeful ghost with local folklore elements and a criticism of male patriarchy.

Driving home from a party, freelance photographer Tun (Ananda Everingham) and his girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) accidentally hit a young woman. He insists that they flee the scene, but Jane soon suspects they are being haunted when strange shapes start appearing in Tun’s work. There’s a terrifying sequence in which Tun is chased down a fire escape during a heavy storm, but the film saves its creepiest image for the final reel, with the reveal of the reason for the neck pains that he has been experiencing since the collision.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)

Director Auraeus Solito (now known as Kanakan Balintagos)

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)

Auraeus Solito’s tender coming-of-age drama revolves around gay 12-year-old Manila slum resident Maxi (Nathan Lopez) who falls for handsome rookie police officer Victor (J.R. Valentin). The impoverished conditions are hardly new, but Solito upends audience expectations through the spirited manner in which this district gets on with things and the unconditional acceptance of Maxi’s sexuality by his family, who scrape a living from petty thievery.

With his colorful wardrobe and body language straight out of a fashion show, Maxi could have been uncomfortably sexualised, but Solito avoids this by showing the tentative relationship between Maxi and Victor from the boy’s perspective, with the besotted youth doing most of the chasing. Indeed, the film is less concerned with sexuality than it is with loyalty as Maxi finds himself torn between love and family once Victor starts investigating one of his brothers in connection with a robbery.

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Director Anthony Chen

Ilo Ilo (2013)

The title of Anthony Chen’s heartfelt family drama translates as ‘Mom and Dad Are Not Home’, which describes the domestic situation in late-1990s Singapore, where middle-class parents clung to their jobs as the economy floundered, leaving foreign nannies to raise their children. The neglected offspring here is Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), a precocious 10-year-old who, after a combative start, forms a strong bond with Filipino domestic helper Terry (Angeli Bayani).

Ilo Ilo, which won the best first feature award at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, recalls the deeply perceptive works of Edward Yang with its humanistic understanding of its characters’ needs, qualities and flaws. The superb ensemble makes this dysfunctional family entirely credible, finding moments of sweetness and humour amid the recriminations. It’s the completely natural Koh who is the standout though. Under Chen’s measured direction, the young performer creates an affecting childhood portrait as the brattish Jiale realises that the world does not revolve around him.

Norte, the End of History (2013)

Director Lav Diaz

Norte, End of History

Norte, the End of History finds Lav Diaz at the height of his transcendent powers as he delivers a Filipino rendition of Crime and Punishment. The perpetrator is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a narcissistic law school dropout who murders a loan shark to test his philosophical theories. The crime is pinned on family man Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who is sentenced to life in prison, leaving his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) to provide for their family.

Although this four-hour survey of a broken society is epic in scope, Diaz pays typically close attention to telling human details: Fabian experiences an existential crisis while Joaquin’s unfair circumstances nonetheless enable him to harness his inner strength. Diaz takes an elliptical approach to narrative, but his stinging rhetoric – the elite wreck havoc and walk away, leaving the proletariat to deal with the mess – is conveyed with absolute clarity.

On the Job (2013)

Director Erik Matti

On the Job (2013)

On the Job begins in arresting fashion with a brutal professional hit carried out during a street parade by Tatang (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson). The subsequent investigation by ambitious special agent Francis Coronel Jr (Piolo Pascual) illustrates how power is abused in the Philippines – these hitmen are already serving time in a ghetto-like prison but receive covert furloughs whenever corrupt officials need a player taking out of the game.

It’s a propulsive thriller, with the combination of Jay Halili’s jittery editing and a soundtrack that similarly refuses to settle into a particular rhythm ensuring a constant sense of chaos, whether characters are running through the mean streets or strategising behind bars. Torre and Anderson’s performances are especially lived-in, engendering sympathy to a pair of disposable convicts doing the bidding of higher-ups who conduct business from the safe distance of guarded mansions and exclusive golf courses.

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story between a Criminal and a Whore (2014)

Director Khavn De La Cruz

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore (2014)

In a Manila slum, a criminal (Tadanobu Asano) rescues a prostitute (Nathalia Acevedo) from an abusive client. It’s love at first sight, but as a local gangster has also taken a liking to the prostitute they must go on the run if they ever want a life together. Conceived as a tribute to Lino Brocka by multidisciplinary artist Khavn De La Cruz, this collaboration with renegade cinematographer Christopher Doyle infectiously riffs on the ghetto poetry of Manila in the Claws of Light. Set to an eclectic soundtrack featuring local musicians, the Berlin-based electro duo Stereo Total and pieces by Cruz himself, the loose narrative plays out in segments that experiment with a range of formats, from 35mm to digital video to scenes captured with a GoPro camera. The result is at once a melancholic ode to fleeting happiness and a gaudy celebration of debauched street life.

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