Coming of Age: Unpacking the Southeast Asian Coming of Age Narrative
By: Matthew Chan
“If you try to create something that everybody can relate to, you’re gonna make something that nobody can relate to.”- Barry Jenkins
It’s difficult growing up and figuring out your own identity, all the more in the constantly changing region of Southeast Asia. The coming of age genre is one that has the unique ability to resonate with an audience. In seeing the struggles of others we feel a genuine sense of empathy and with the best of these films, reflect back on our own experiences. Within the short films Cobalt Blue from Myanmar, Lanny from Malaysia, Adam from Singapore and I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype from Thailand, featured in the Southeast Asian short film competition, tropes and ideas surrounding the coming of age genre are interpreted through the distinct lens of the Southeast Asian experience.
It is impossible to define a consistent Southeast Asian identity, not just because of the vast nature of the region, but also that every individual’s circumstances will invariably differ. Each film acts as a deeply personal reflection of the experiences of the individual filmmakers. However, in examining these short films, certain commonalities can be observed that speak to shared feelings and converging ideas.
These commonalities can be seen on an aesthetic level as these films share certain visual similarities. Arguably, the first coming of age film that established the visual language of the genre was Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). With the film featuring a focus on capturing the interiority of its protagonist through close ups that bring attention to the eyes, acting as windows to his soul. The use of closeups is prevalent in all of these films, for the same purpose, but most notably in Adam and Lanny. Both of these films feature mainly silent protagonists, with the lack of verbal exposition being supplanted by the gaze of the camera, reflecting the protagonist’s own inner turmoil.
Another visual trope The 400 Blows (1959) introduced was its presentation of the act of running, through tracking shots, as a climactic form of rebellion. In Lanny, the act of running is captured in the film’s climax as Lanny, runs away from her family and back to the home of her dead grandmother, the film ending with her returning to a place of belonging. The act of running is similarly seen in ADAM, as the film ends with a breathtaking tracking shot following Adam as he runs through the streets of Singapore away from his abusive home, never stopping and seemingly having no conceivable end point. This trope of ending a film in an act of continuous motion however, is subverted in Cobalt Blue, as the camera during the climax focuses not on the protagonist barreling his way into the future, but on what he leaves behind. The films ends with the protagonist riding away in a truck, yet the camera lingers, from his perspective, on the mournful gaze of a father-figure, whom he previously rebelled against. No matter the reason for running, the visual display of the act itself serves to powerfully communicate a sense of rebellion, bringing to mind the shared feelings of alienation these protagonists face against their restrictive environments.
However, the visual tropes of the coming of age narrative are subverted and reinterpreted in new ways, namely in the ultra-modern I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype. The visual language of I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype adopts a hyperkinetic style, as director Hesome Chemamah intercuts the film with news footage and has a constant chain of social media messages popping up on the screen. The uniqueness of the visual style is best seen through the framing of the film, which is mainly through a circular aspect ratio, all of these visual techniques adding to an understanding of the oppressive circumstances the protagonist, Maryam, faces. The visual style of I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, makes it so that the climactic act of rebellion is displayed not simply through the physical action of the protagonist, but also in a change in aesthetic form of the aspect ratio. As the rebellious act of Maryam removing her hijab is compounded by the circular aspect ratio expanding into a full frame, signifying her struggle with her own personal identity and restrictive societal expectations.
The reason for these acts of rebellion leads to the next commonality that can be seen, that of the emotional circumstances of protagonists, as they struggle to deal with similar complicated feelings that come with growing up. In accordance with the tropes of the genre, every protagonist is captured in a transitionary period. One where previous signifiers of their identity need to be stripped and one where they come in conflict with new familial or societal expectations. These conflicts cover a range from smaller domestic ones like in ADAM, where the main emotional conflict comes from the growing sense of neglect Adam feels as his parents turn their attention to his new brother. To larger ones that encompass issues that plague society, such as the rampant islamophobia Maryam faces, transitioning to a new school in Bangkok, in I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype. This sense of inner conflict troubles the soul of each protagonist and speaks to a common experience in growing up, dealing with change.
However, despite featuring similar emotional journeys to traditional coming of age narratives, what differentiates these films is the specific context of Southeast Asia. Historically, Southeast Asia has been a region riddled with conflict, from issues like rampant colonialism and its remnants that form domestic instability. It is these conditions that tragically define the adolescence of the protagonists in these films, and act as the reason for change in their lives.
Regional conflict can be seen in Cobalt Blue, which opens with a voiceover providing the context of the film, of US sanctions in 1997 Burma, that have created a sense of socioeconomic anxiety for the working class. The transition coming from the father of the protagonist moving his family from Yangon and uprooting his child’s life, due to external conditions outside their control. Cobalt Blue primarily focuses on the past, a common trait in coming of age films, as the directors draw from their own experiences, however, I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, sits firmly in the present and tackles issues that plague Thailand today. As Maryam is forced to move to Bangkok due to a terrorist attack near her hometown of Narathiwat, and in Bangkok is forced to examine her own religious identity due to the rampant Islamophobia surrounding her. As such, through this entangled web of hot button issues Chemamah diagnoses the modern ills of his country, and serves to create an empathetic view of growing up under these conditions. The distinct socioeconomic context of Southeast Asia, is hence seen to be a unifier of these coming of age narratives, from past to present.
The coming of age films featured in the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, exist on a spectrum, from those that follow and pay tribute to the conventions of the genre like Adam and Lanny, to those that reinterpret it in bold ways like I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype. An insight that can ultimately be taken is that, what ties the region together in reality, that of a shared history and shared problems, is the same thing that vaguely ties the films together thematically. The works by these directors affirm the quote by Barry Jenkins, that only by speaking on their own personal truths, can a level of resonance be achieved with the audience. And in the coming of age genre, causing someone to feel deeply for another person wholly unlike them is really what truly matters.
– Matthew Chan