The current climate of the film industry has transformed from a straightforward road to a web of co-production and collaboration, and issues raised by cinema are now applicable for audiences across the globe. It is now time to reconsider how films are determined to be “local” films.
Films, when submitted to festivals for competition, are oft classified by nationality. These films are also typically representative of a country’s visual and narrative style. When demarcated by their nationality, such films can create filmic waves in their respective countries, and become sources of pride for their people.
In the past, films were easily categorised by their nationalities, like in Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy or Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”. Both were breakthrough films of their respective countries, and at the time, national cinema was defined as successive films that encapsulated characteristics of the original breakthrough.
Critics and journalists too, often attribute films to the nationalities of their directors, especially when they address issues specific to their home countries, or induce nationalistic sentiments.
Singapore, however, is where critics have always struggled to pin the term “local” on films, because many lack distinctly “Singaporean” characteristics.
The Singapore film industry had humble beginnings. Even then, films were never truly proclaimed to be Singaporean, until the birth of the Singapore International Film Festival in 1990s.
This was the catalyst that spurred on the first generation of filmmakers like Eric Khoo, Meng Ong, Cheek and Royston Tan, who all adopted a “film for the sake of film” attitude, changing the Singaporean film landscape. Films then, were classified as “Singaporean” simply because of the director’s nationality.
It is only in recent years that Singapore has seen an increase in local films like Anthony Chen’s “Ilo Ilo”, as well as Boo Junfeng’s “The Apprentice”, which screened at Cannes and bagged awards.
Chen’s “Ilo Ilo” is based mostly in Singapore, with colloquial HDB flats and a subject matter that tackles the people’s relationship with domestic helpers. These films are clearly local films, with Singaporean directors and a message regarding issues that are important and relevant to the Singaporean people.
However, issues that cinema addresses are also becoming more international, like the displacement of individuals, and how they transcend boundaries. Film has become the language that speaks to all, and the emphasis on giving films a nationality is no longer necessary.
This year’s Southeast Asian shorts include a few films that have two nationalities instead of one. This reinforces that classifying films by nationality is an outdated approach, which begs the question: What makes local cinema “local”?
This year, a few films in the Southeast Asian program held two nationalities. Two stood out to me, and they are Chiang Wei Liang’s “Anchorage Prohibited” and Nelicia Low’s “Freeze”. Chiang completed his BA in Singapore, and Low represented Singapore as a national fencer for 6 years. Thus, are their films considered to be “Singaporean” cinema?
Chiang’s “Anchorage Prohibited” features a Vietnamese couple who are seeking a place to put their roots down on an island which is “prohibited”. It is a film on belonging and identity, that discusses migrant issues in a Taiwan-esque landscape. One can easily draw a comparison to the refugee issue in Europe, and see Chiang’s inspiration from his mentorship under Hou Hsiao-Hsien, mirroring his mentor’s visual and narrative style.
Chiang tackles an amalgamation of issues that can be applicable to various communities — from the racially differing cast, language, and influences. The film does bring to light these new members of society, and our need to integrate with them. However, this film is clearly not a “local” film, and Chiang does not claim it to be so.
This is again similar in Low’s “Freeze”, which utilises the relationship between the protagonist and her husband to address a larger issue of alienation and distance. The protagonist’s brother is both a literal and metaphorical deadweight. His presence is a statement on mental disability, difficulties faced by caregivers, and the ostracisation faced by these individuals. This, again, is subject matter that transcends borders and cultures, and is applicable on a global scale.
As such, films should no longer take on a specific national mould, and that is very well the trend these days — directors striving to create transnational films. But as of now, what makes a film truly local? The answer lies within the audience and what they decide to make of it, in accordance with their own cultural contexts.
When filmgoers watch a film and are too quick to label them as national cinema or a “local” film, they ought to consider the notion of transnational cinema. Now is the time to stop limiting films to a single nationality.