Buddhism in Southeast Asian Film

By Deepesh Vasudev

The primary objectives in Buddhism are to escape the suffering caused by desire, to overcome the ignorance of reality’s true nature, and especially to understand impermanence or change. Three short films from three different Southeast Asian countries explore these three elements of Buddhism. Firstly, Blinded by the Light is a Thai Experimental Documentary that utilizes archival footage and photography to explore the effects of Thai cinema on both the makers and the viewers. The second film is Retrace, a Vietnamese narrative short that explores how a father and son grieve the passing of the son’s grandfather. Finally, A Man Trembles is a Singaporean science fiction short that has a family confront a mysterious entity. All these three films explore the aforementioned Buddhist concepts in their unique way; some address them extensively, while others lightly graze them. The films also, to varying degrees, either accept or reject the conclusions of Buddhist thought.

Suffering by the way of Desire

In Buddhism, desire comes in three ways: craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being and craving for non-existence. The craving for sensual pleasures is when one desires any object that can give a positive feeling, from wealth and food to ideas and beliefs. The craving of being is to be something or to assimilate with an experience, the seeking of a specific identity. The craving for non-existence is the desire to not experience negative feelings; this can include suicide and hurting oneself. These three ways of desiring are present and explored in each film.

In Blinded by the Light, the craving for being is central to its message. The film explores the effect of cinema on Thai filmmakers and Thai audiences, but there is also the exploration of what these two groups desire from Thai cinema. The film begins with anecdotes by people who crave to make films after watching them. This is a desire to have a specific identity, to be something, and this desire does lead to suffering. Many of the anecdotes involve filmmakers who have hurt their backs carrying heavy equipment, damaged their eyes from constant exposure to bright lights and experienced other harms. The most famous of these incidents was when the actor Mitr Chaibancha died from a helicopter stunt.

These desires have ultimately led to suffering. The films that are created by this desire to be something will later influence audience members to not only want to become filmmakers but most importantly, to purchase tickets and celebrate the actors and famous filmmakers. This results in a positive feedback loop that sustains the cinema industry. This loop can be represented by a (dharmic) circle, which is a motif throughout Blinded by the Light. Circles appear in the forms of camera lenses, burns in celluloid, a stopwatch, a bridge, an eye test and of course eyes themselves. This symbol, as mentioned in an anecdote, is a vicious cycle, of desire leading to desire but filled with suffering throughout.

In A Man Trembles, the father is shown to crave sensual pleasures. It is the family’s last day on Earth, but when they leave the hotel room, he does not want to leave all their money behind. The father knows he does not like to eat sardines with bones, but he still consumes it and chokes on it. The father is aware that ultimately his desires are futile and in the case of the bones, result in suffering. Both the father and the mother also exhibit the desire to not exist; while in the film it is framed as them meeting an extra-terrestrial entity, there is also mention of the financial difficulties they are facing. The film is, after all, set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. This desire leads them to anguish and ultimately suffering. This desire to leave and not face the difficulties associated with the desire for food and wealth tear the father apart. In the end, he is torn and abandons his family, running away and succumbing to his sensual and earthly desires. He lies on the wet ground and rubs mud on his face.

Ignorance of Reality’s True Nature

Blinded by the Light is presented via the diptych, a painting form where images are placed side by side. This allows the viewer to contrast the images and ponder the relationship between them. There are instances during the film where on one side one sees the film that will be shown to the Thai audience while on the other side is footage of filmmakers making a film. The side with the filmmakers has its colours inverted, resembling a film negative. We can see that the filmmaker is interested in highlighting which is the true nature of cinema. It is not the well-crafted, well-lit, and well-edited film product but that chaotic, crowded, and colourless work behind the scenes. The choice of depicting behind-the-scenes footage in a negative format also supports this point, because the raw and untouched film, the first stage or base form of film, is shot in negative.

The film also highlights the ignorance of the Thai audience to this reality of Thai cinema. There are shots of them watching movies in theatre with pure glee, an anecdote tells us that people are only worried about injuries faced by actors and not by the film crew. But there is also ignorance from the anecdote teller as well, who understand that the cycle of film production and consumption is vicious but still hopes that it will become a “beautiful” cycle.

A Man Trembles does portray different realities; the reality that we are aware of that happened in 1997 and the reality that the family experiences with the mysterious entity. While the father and mother repeatedly say that leaving with the entity is for the best, the father in the end abandons the plan. While the film does not say if what the father did is right or wrong, one can conclude that he did run away because of his desires for earthly existence and his fear of losing it. A Man Trembles does end very abruptly and maybe leaves questions for the viewer.

Impermanence (Change)

There is a single strong scene in Blinded by the Light that portrays whether the filmmaker agrees with the Buddhist belief that all of existence is transient. This scene, which is in the form of archival footage, shows a stage with words above it in Thai saying, “Eternal, Cinema.” This stage slowly collapses due to the strong winds and there is nothing the people around it can do. While the stage is collapsing, one hears the narration of the hopeful filmmaker who believes that his sacrifice and his work will be worth it, that it will eventually lead to a beautiful cycle of film consumption and production. The incongruity is obvious, with the filmmaker fighting against the impermanence of his art.

The plot of A Man Trembles revolves around the impermanence of a strong economy. The father is compelled and terrified by the financial crisis. He quotes the then Prime Minister who claimed the economy was strong but was proven wrong in the end. The struggles of the family against impermanence are portrayed throughout the film. They film their stay at Sentosa, visit a historical site, and the father spends quite some time writing the note they will leave behind. It is almost as if they didn’t want to leave, nor did they want change. This resistance to change and impermanence is also what leads the father to abandon his family.

An Objection

Retrace, however, rejects these ideals of Buddhism. The film beautifies grief, and the entire funeral fulfils the desire of the father and son to be a part of something, informing their identity. Their desire for non-existence, for not feeling pain, is shown through the dreams of the boy, wherein he meets his grandfather and distracts himself from pain. The father and son seek solace throughout the film, with the son seeking comfort from his grandmother and with his father. The son and father console each other. The film has two different but complementary realities; while one is a dreamscape and the other ‘real life’, they still support and inform each other. The son’s grief is spread across both realities and dissipates in both. Finally, one observes that the film does support the notion of permanence. Even if the grandfather is gone, he can live on forever in the boy’s dream. The grandfather will become part of his homeland, as he is buried in a hollowed-out tree trunk. The extensive and elaborate funeral is contrary to the above-mentioned tenets of Buddhism.


Buddhism, its religion, and its philosophy are influential in Southeast Asia and its film industry. The three films covered in this essay reveal a range of attitudes towards Buddhist ideas, from support to opposition.