I believe it is always worthwhile to view SEA short films with a critical feminist perspective, particularly due to Southeast Asia’s typically harsh patriarchal society. That being said, as someone who identifies with being male, my assertions of female preoccupations will be inherently problematic, so I will leave that to the women of the Youth Jury and Critics Programme (Don’t miss Jacqueline Lee’s article on Motherhood in this Issue). I will instead roam within familiar grounds of my gender and our part in feminist politics.
For me, The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might is a film that highlights the problems of hypermasculinity and comments on its horrors. But what is hypermasculinity? Simply, it is a psychological term examining the overtly male stereotyped behavior. This includes a preoccupation with physical strength, associating violence with masculinity and dysfunctional stoicism or repression.
In The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might, we see an obsession with strength and aggression. Boys partake in fights, hit each other as part of friendship, and revere weapons. The film wants you to see the weapons as phallic symbols, thereby destructive violence, relationships and sex become inseparable.
Whilst other critics and perhaps filmmakers may prefer the more neutral term ‘power’ rather than ‘violence’, due to other sociopolitical contexts and its’ reversals in the narrative, it would nevertheless be wrong to say the film displays ideas of sex. They in fact display the ideas of rape (If you do not see a variance between the two, I hope you are reading this behind bars, frankly). Most of the ‘erotic’ sequences come with a certain desire of violence and the denial of consent. The characters fantasize rape. The sexual role-play whilst consensual is rape play; the pretense of a weapon being present is for sexual coercion.
The traumatic fallout of such masculine obsessions and actions can intriguingly be seen in For We are Strangers. It approaches the topic with a greater sensitivity and from the perspective of the female victim, giving the film a cannier sense of dramatic irony and pathos, if we really want to talk about reversals of power.
Aside from sex and violence being seen as indivisible, violence is also perceived as a suitable method to regain masculinity. We see how it disregards age as it befalls a young boy in For Ofelia. When mocked for not fitting within the conventionally masculine, the chief response is an act of destruction to reassert his masculinity – just after he was deemed to be a man by his father simply for having a girlfriend.
The other facet of hypermasculinity however is just as extreme. It is seen where men are repressed, displaying attempts at severe stoicism towards the way they interact with not just women but even other men. It is startling how men suffer silently, until a critical point and flip to the other extreme of wild violence. Perhaps this is why we use the unfortunately age-old phrase, “It’s always the quiet ones.”
The protagonist of The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might has all sorts of repressions of which he never shares with anyone else. Instead, he creeps about, watching silently from afar, trying to understand his burgeoning sexuality as best as he can.
June in Pieces leans on this toxic glamorization of stoic repression as the character attempts to display indifference to his emotional and even physical pain. Constantly, we see him withdraw into a repressed impotent silence with those around him, especially his male companions. Worse still, this misguided inactivity skews the film to sometimes skirt being uninteresting to watch.
Soulik, echoes this same masculine silence. The woman attempts to get responses out of the silent man. The woman can articulate and be emotional, yet a man despite his pain, must weather the storm quietly. Though as an audience we may feel he speaks volumes with his actions, it is still a failure of communication as the man refuses to speak on the same emotional level as the woman. It becomes dysfunctional, as it clearly does not help solve the situation and only serves to further deteriorate it. However unlike June in Pieces, male inactivity here is maturely handled and able to drive the film forward.
Before you think I am criticizing male depictions unnecessarily, The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might reminds us of the social responsibility film and popular culture has (Especially so from a filmmaker actively representing minorities).
In a scene involving a video game centered on violence, we are prompted to examine how popular culture views men and women. Male characters are muscular and full of bravado whereas female characters are unrealistic and heavily sexualized for the male gaze. Pornography is also used to show how it contributes to masculine posturing. We are ultimately reminded that these views are clearly manufactured yet causes impressionable young men to emulate them. Or worse, genuinely believe it to be the natural order of the world.
In these films, we see how the socially constructed expectation of masculinity is casually violent, emotionally stunted and sexually aggressive. Dismissing it as if these behaviors depicted are harmless in life and in cinema, by saying that it shows “boys will be boys,” is wrong. It is not harmless. Not when men are more likely to commit violence and criminal activity. Boys can be boys. On the condition that we stop teaching boys outdated gender roles.