As uttered by the delightfully cruel Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the immortal lines, “Unsex me here/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty,” evoke both a sense of wonderment and dread as it sinks in: one is reminded suddenly, if painfully, of a demonic mastectomy, the end product a woman who no longer is.
Alas the most pertinent questions remains, what is a woman? What is a woman to a man? And most importantly of all, what is a woman to a woman?
In this day and age, while the casual chauvinism of the past is no longer as monolithic an entity as it was, the issue remains of the ubiquitous problem of defining womanhood and the precise identity of those who define it.
Let there be no illusions; this is a man’s world today. It would appear that the patriarchal society has, in fact, sneakily and readily defined the human male as the default agender and asexual representation of the audience, an irony hopefully not lost on themselves.
In this respect, it would appear that the Woman now cease to exist in cinema: just as how manhood is understood to be universal, womanhood itself is not. A woman becomes a trope, a stereotype, a concept tied to a culture thousands of years old, but never really as just a character.
A woman is no longer her own person, for she is now in public domain, a representation of gendered concepts, not universal truths.
And this is especially true in terms of SEA cinema, where tradition and culture plays a much greater role in society than they do in more occidental productions.
In That Day of the Month by Jirassaya Wongsutin, two young women represent burgeoning sexuality and the struggle to find a place for themselves in a place where literature informs that: “ The good wife is torn, bearing the sins of her husband/ How his sins seems to disappear, once the guileful man feigns repentance…”
The at once fatalistic take on the dynamic of the sexes haunts the work constantly, from when the lesson continues, to when the two sneaks out of class to a bathroom, to when two are sitting together at the school pool discussing their aspirations.
Whilst their existence is their own for the better part of the movie, it can also be observed that while they do have personalities and quirks of their own, they also give off a sense of detachment and distance, the same one would expect of a visual metaphor. The pervading sense of distress between the two young women is in a paradoxical state of both being within and without, a stark reminder of just how utterly alone they are in this world despite the masses who surround them.
With establishment of two young women as the main protagonists, they are representative of the dichotomies of one thing: the woman.
The woman is by herself a whole, but viewed through the lens of another, she bifurcates: there is the woman who lives with reckless abandon, having sex with her teacher, and there is the other woman who pines from beside the object of her affections.
Women in pain is a suitable representation of what That Day of the Month hopes to achieve, and simply speaking, did a superb job of it.
Reducing the capacity of the woman, The Wedding Gift by Jason Iskandar ideates the convention of marriage and its family involvement then promptly parodies it by visually removing all traces of the family members beside the groom and bride.
In this case, the bride still retains the majority of the appearances, but in a diminished capacity: whilst the groom is portrayed to be obviously anxious about meeting his soon-to-be wife, the bride is depicted with an over-the-top attempt at reining in her complete breakdown. In other scenes, casual chatters humanize the groom very nicely with his invisible siblings and uncle, yet the bride remains silent despite the incessant conversations going on around her.
If anything, the idea of an anxious bride resonates more with the audience than the idly worried groom ever did, but by silencing the woman, the film managed to be more poignant in its delivery, but at the end, this costs us precious characterization and perpetuates the myth that in times of emergency it is still the woman who loses her head.
For May Dinadala by Giancarlo Abrahan, the idea of the woman is subverted with the presence of only two female characters, the character’s wife and her mother, whose witchcraft is lobbed as common insult when the protagonist gets tired of his wife in favor of his mystical black lover.
Functioning as a clear stand-in of the protagonist’s fear of domesticity, she is belittled and estranged with her husband’s ever deteriorating psyche. In this way, her womanhood is mythologized into a representation of a stifling home life, and her identity torn away by her unborn child. In a curious twist, she is revealed to have transfigured big bird wings onto her husband and scorns him with a threat to engage in infantiphagia, perhaps reflective of how women sometimes, just sometimes, strike back when pushed beyond a certain limit.
Meanwhile, in Diffan Sina Norman’s Kekasih, the woman is further reduced into an object: first as corpse and then, through the tireless efforts of the husband that survived her, as a flower. Through the use of surrealist imagery and psychedelic colors, yonic symbolism abound in this off-beat comedy. Yet, the idea of the woman as imagined by man is as alive as ever: the film’s focus on the husband’s effort to restore life back to his dearly passed on wife comes across as a hopeless case of co-dependency, yet there is no sign of the wife anywhere for someone who is so obsessed. Curiously, while he did manage to bring his wife back in the end, her nature has been changed, and she would barely acknowledge his existence, a fitting end, it would seem, for one more bent on his own desires than understanding his wife.
In conclusion, it must be realized that whilst the woman does serve as powerful reminders of certain issues, and most of all, certain ideas, it would be best to leave it up to the woman to decide for themselves what they want to be, and if they happen to be great exemplars of certain things, then that would be a nice bonus, not a foregone conclusion.