The exploration of love is an old one. From the earliest philosophies to the latest Taylor Swift love song, we know that it is only human to love. Xing (Bradley Liew, Malaysia), That Day of the Month (Jirassaya Wongsutin, Thailand) and Heart of Stone (Pamela Miras, Philippines) offer three such stories with a Southeast Asian twist. By discussing interracial relationships, sexuality and war sensibilities, the films inject new life to an age-old topic, creating new conversations for the region.
A troubled rojak romance brews in Bradley Liew’s short film Xing. Set in Malaysia, the story of Xing and Irwan tugs at the heartstrings while critiquing the pressures of society. Irwan, a Malay gangster, grasps at straws as his lover, a Chinese stage performer named Xing, grows increasingly detached from him and his country. Portrayed as two emotionally disconnected individuals rather than culturally distant lovers, Xing and Irwan are forced into a world of discrimination, harassment and dissolving dreams.
Stereotyped antagonists define the society: Irwan’s friends are racist jerks; the corrupt policeman abuses his authority for sex and money. Xing, as a Chinese national working in a bar, is trapped. The film juxtaposes these harsh realities with Irwan’s naïve obsession with Xing. His love is like the red fog that lingers on Xing’s stage, masking her loneliness with seduction, her detachment with attraction. His attempt at cultural accommodation—ordering Fish Head Beehoon in Cantonese and eating with chopsticks—is placating at best. Xing’s desire to flee is only just eased by the familiarity of Irwan’s presence; his long drawn hug is an attempt to calm her desperate heart. The result is a push-pull narrative that diminishes the racial difference between the protagonists while accentuating the societal pressures for separation, dramatizing the journey of interracial couples today.
That Day of the Month tells a different story. Blurring the lines between romantic love and friendship between two girls, the film unabashedly asks: What is love? This quirky yet thoughtful coming-of-age film follows Goy and Lee as their period cycles go out of sync. It plays on the belief of menstrual synchrony, of which biological girl bonding happens when women living in close proximity experience closer menstruation onsets, even synchronization. This was Goy and Lee’s prized symbol of closeness and friendship, like having a blood sister of their own. The breaking of the period cycles cannot be matched by anything else, not even boyfriends.
The topic of sexuality becomes apparent as the girls talk about love, marriage and eventually, sex and pregnancy. This serious contemplation charters new waters in Thailand within the country’s facade of sexual freedom and tolerance; Thailand remains, like the rest of Southeast Asia, conservative. Even so, self-discovery and innocence, not sexuality, is the focus of the film. Goy and Lee are two young hearts living in the now, in the search for love and self-identity. Sexuality and its place in society remains a distant future. When asked to describe the film in a hashtag, director Jirassaya’s exuberant response was:
Love manifests in many forms, and it is the friends that grow with you that make you strong.
Xing and That Day of the Month are strong love narratives with a clear commentary on the idea of love. Heart of Stone, on the contrary, reminds audiences of the effects of war in a looser narrative. The intellectual film fully utilizes the medium to tell the story of a Japanese soldier and a Filipino woman who is part of the Hukbalahap, or the Anti-Japanese Army. Set during the Japanese Occupation in World War II, the unnamed enemies help each other survive on a desert island, united by their desperate hopes to return to civilization.
Heart of Stone resembles old footage from the war, with its grainy texture and monochrome image mimicking the style of that era. In an email conversation with director Pamela Miras, it was revealed that shooting on film was a deliberate choice, because “like old footage, despite being damaged, lacking in parts, and imperfect, its value remains and its message is still familiar, and still rings true”. The film’s clash of ideology and culture lays bare the humanistic need to survive—peace is found in the decision to coexist, and to love. As Miras so eloquently puts it, “[this heart of stone] is one that chooses to love solidly, requiring it to be hardened and steadfast, impervious to the waves and tides of adversity and time.”
In shaping the idea of love in Southeast Asia, Xing, That Day of the Month and Heart of Stone ground their narratives in realism and social issues convincingly. It doesn’t matter what country the films are made in, because the themes and social issues are shared across the region. They call us to look at the world with open minds and an open heart, so that we will no longer be lost in the pursuit of love.