As a film enthusiast who has had the pleasure of watching many movies from this region, I can confidently say that Southeast Asia has a rich and diverse film industry that is worth exploring.
From heart-wrenching dramas to thought-provoking documentaries and entertaining comedies, Southeast Asian independent films offer a unique perspective on the world and showcase the talents of the region’s filmmakers.
In this blog, I will be sharing my personal recommendations for some of the best independent films from Southeast Asia that you simply cannot miss. Whether you are a cinephile or just looking for some new and exciting films to add to your watchlist, this blog is the perfect guide to discovering the vibrant and captivating world of Southeast Asian cinema. So, grab some popcorn and let’s dive in!
INDEPENDENT FILMS from Brunei
“Yasmine” is a 2014 Bruneian film directed by Siti Kamaluddin. The film follows the journey of a young girl named Yasmine, who dreams of becoming a professional runner despite facing numerous obstacles in her conservative Muslim community.
As someone who watched “Yasmine,” I was impressed by the film’s ability to showcase the beauty of Brunei’s culture while also addressing some of the challenges faced by women in the country. The film was shot in various locations around Brunei, including the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, which provided a stunning backdrop for the story.
The lead actress, Liyana Yus, gave a compelling performance as Yasmine, capturing the character’s determination and resilience as she navigates the expectations of her family and community. I found myself rooting for Yasmine throughout the film, and her journey inspired me to chase my own dreams despite the obstacles that may come my way.
One of the things that stood out to me was the film’s portrayal of the Muslim faith. While it is a conservative society, the film showed how religion can be a source of support and guidance for individuals, rather than a barrier to their dreams.
Anggur in Pockland
“Anggur in Pockland” is a Bruneian film that tells the story of a young woman named Sarah who dreams of pursuing her passion for winemaking. The film is directed by Harlif Hj Mohamad and stars Nurul Aini, who delivers a standout performance as Sarah.
Based on critical reviews and audience reactions, “Anggur in Pockland” is a beautiful and moving film that explores the themes of perseverance, family, and cultural identity. The stunning cinematography captures the lush landscapes of Brunei, and the film’s score perfectly complements the emotional journey of the protagonist.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From Cambodia
Golden Slumbers is a 2011 Cambodian film directed by Davy Chou, which tells the story of the golden era of Cambodian cinema and how it came to a sudden halt with the Khmer Rouge’s arrival in 1975.
The film begins with the booming film industry in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, which produced a number of successful films and introduced many talented actors and filmmakers. The story then takes a darker turn as the Khmer Rouge regime takes over the country and systematically destroys the film industry along with many other aspects of Cambodian culture.
The film is a poignant tribute to the lost Cambodian cinema, and it combines historical footage with interviews with surviving filmmakers and actors who worked in the industry before its demise. It also features the soundtrack of many classic Cambodian films, which adds to the film’s emotional resonance.
The Last Reel
“The Last Reel” is a 2014 Cambodian drama film directed by Sotho Kulikar, and it tells the story of a young woman named Sophoun, who lives in modern-day Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sophoun discovers a lost film reel that features her mother, a former Cambodian actress who disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. As she watches the film, she becomes obsessed with learning more about her mother’s past and the circumstances of her disappearance.
The film explores themes of love, loss, family, and the legacy of Cambodia’s troubled history. It’s a touching and poignant story that highlights the power of film to connect people across time and space.
“The Last Reel” has received critical acclaim, with many reviewers praising its strong performances, emotional depth, and powerful storytelling. The film has won several awards, including the Best Film award at the Cambodia International Film Festival and the Spirit of Asia Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. If you enjoy heartfelt dramas with a historical backdrop, then “The Last Reel” is definitely worth watching.
Graves Without a Name
“Graves Without a Name” is a 2018 documentary film directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker who lost most of his family to the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The film explores the lingering trauma and collective memory of the genocide that claimed the lives of nearly two million people, including Panh’s own family members.
As the title suggests, “Graves Without a Name” centers around the theme of burial and remembrance. Panh visits various mass graves and killing fields across Cambodia, speaking with survivors and relatives of the victims about their experiences and the ongoing struggle to heal and make sense of the past. The film also features footage of traditional Cambodian funerary rituals, highlighting the importance of honoring the dead in Cambodian culture.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is its use of poetic and surreal imagery to convey the emotional weight of the subject matter. Panh incorporates dreamlike sequences of floating objects and landscapes, as well as archival footage and haunting black-and-white photographs. The effect is both beautiful and haunting, capturing the sense of displacement and loss that permeates Cambodian society to this day.
As someone who is familiar with the history of the Khmer Rouge regime and its lasting impact on Cambodia, I found “Graves Without a Name” to be a powerful and moving film. Panh’s personal connection to the subject matter is palpable, and his directorial choices create a sense of empathy and understanding that is often lacking in discussions of genocide and trauma. The film is not an easy watch, but it is an important and necessary one for anyone interested in understanding the ongoing legacy of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From Indonesia
Solo, Solitude is a 2016 Indonesian film directed by Yosep Anggi Noen. The film tells the story of a young man named Surya (played by Gunawan Maryanto) who lives a solitary life in the city of Surakarta (also known as Solo). Surya spends his days riding his bicycle around the city, taking photographs, and observing the people and places around him. However, he also seems to be haunted by something from his past, which is slowly revealed as the film progresses.
Solo, Solitude has received critical acclaim for its meditative and minimalist approach to storytelling. The film is shot in black and white and has very little dialogue, relying instead on its stunning cinematography and atmospheric sound design to convey Surya’s inner thoughts and emotions.
The film’s slow pace and lack of conventional plot may not be for everyone, but those who are willing to engage with the film on its own terms will find a deeply affecting and thought-provoking work of art. Solo, Solitude offers a poetic and deeply humanistic perspective on the isolation and loneliness of modern urban life, as well as the power of memory and imagination to shape our sense of self.
hUSh is an Indonesian film directed by Djenar Maesa Ayu and Kan Lume that explores the lives of three women living in Jakarta. The film delves into the challenges they face in their personal and professional lives and how they navigate their way through them.
The first woman we meet is Shinta, a young woman who works as a domestic helper. She dreams of a better life and works hard to achieve it, but she also has to deal with the harsh reality of her circumstances. The second woman is Sari, a writer who is struggling to find her voice and deal with her own demons. Finally, we have Dina, a successful businesswoman who is haunted by a traumatic event from her past.
The film is shot in black and white, which adds to the overall melancholic tone of the movie. The cinematography is beautiful, and the shots are framed in a way that captures the essence of Jakarta. The acting is superb, and the characters are well-developed, making it easy to empathize with their struggles.
A Copy of My Mind
“A Copy of My Mind” is a 2015 Indonesian film directed by Joko Anwar. It tells the story of Sari (played by Tara Basro), a young woman who works as a beauty salon worker in Jakarta, and Alek (played by Chicco Jerikho), a documentary filmmaker who is struggling to make ends meet.
Sari and Alek meet by chance and fall in love, but their relationship is complicated by the economic and social realities of life in Jakarta. Sari is struggling to support her family, while Alek is dealing with the frustrations of trying to make meaningful films in an industry that is more interested in commercial success than artistic expression.
As they navigate their personal and professional challenges, Sari and Alek discover a corruption scandal involving a powerful government official. They decide to use their skills and resources to expose the truth, even if it means putting themselves in danger.
The film is a powerful critique of the socio-economic and political conditions in modern-day Indonesia. It explores themes such as love, class, corruption, and the struggle for artistic expression in a society that often prioritizes profit over culture.
As someone who loves films that tackle social issues, I found “A Copy of My Mind” to be a powerful and thought-provoking movie. The acting is excellent, particularly the performances of Tara Basro and Chicco Jerikho, who have great chemistry on screen.
The film is also visually stunning, with beautiful cinematography that captures the energy and chaos of Jakarta. Overall, “A Copy of My Mind” is a must-see for anyone interested in Indonesian cinema or social commentary in film.”
Sokola Rimba is a 2013 Indonesian drama film directed by Riri Riza and based on the true story of a young teacher named Butet Manurung. The movie follows the journey of Butet, who comes from a privileged background, as she ventures into the heart of the Indonesian jungle to teach the children of the indigenous Orang Rimba tribe. Butet faces various challenges as she tries to teach the children and connect with the community, including language barriers and cultural differences. She perseveres and develops a deep bond with the children and their families, but her efforts are threatened by government policies that aim to forcibly relocate the Orang Rimba people to urban areas.
Sokola Rimba is a heartwarming and inspiring movie that highlights the importance of education and cultural preservation. The film showcases the beauty of the Indonesian jungle and the indigenous communities that call it home, while also shedding light on the challenges and injustices that they face. The performances by the cast, especially by the lead actress, are outstanding and bring the characters to life in a way that is both authentic and engaging.
As someone who is interested in education and social justice, I found the story of Butet Manurung to be truly inspiring. Her dedication to teaching and her passion for preserving the culture of the Orang Rimba people is admirable, and the film does an excellent job of portraying her journey and the impact that she had on the community.
Denok and Gareng
“Denok and Gareng” is a comedy film from Indonesia that was released in 2012. The film was directed by Hanung Bramantyo and stars Tora Sudiro, Vino G. Bastian, and Marsha Timothy. The story revolves around two best friends, Denok and Gareng, who work as debt collectors for a loan shark. They find themselves in trouble when they are unable to collect a debt from a wealthy businessman, and they end up getting involved in a series of misadventures.
The film was well-received by audiences and critics in Indonesia and was praised for its comedic performances and entertaining storyline. It provides a light-hearted look at the lives of debt collectors in Indonesia and the challenges they face in their profession. If you enjoy comedies and are interested in Indonesian cinema, “Denok and Gareng” might be worth checking out.
INDEPENDENT FILMS frOM LAOS
“Dearest Sister” is a 2016 independent horror drama film from Laos, directed by Mattie Do. The movie follows the story of a young girl named Nok, who travels from her rural village to live with her wealthy and married cousin, Ana, in the city of Vientiane. Ana begins to experience terrifying and surreal visions, and Nok discovers that she has the ability to communicate with the dead.
The film is shot entirely in the Lao language and features a cast of primarily Lao actors, which gives it an authentic feel. The pacing of the film is slow and deliberate, allowing the tension to build gradually until the climactic finale. The horror elements are not particularly graphic, but they are effective in creating a sense of unease and dread.
It has received critical acclaim for its unique blend of horror and drama, as well as its portrayal of Lao culture and society. It is an impressive debut feature for Mattie Do, who has been praised for her direction and ability to blend traditional Lao beliefs and superstitions with a modern horror narrative.
Vientiane in Love
“Vientiane in Love” is a 2015 romantic comedy-drama film directed by Mattie Do, the first female filmmaker from Laos. The film follows four interconnected love stories set in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. Each story explores different aspects of love and relationships, from young love to long-term marriages.
The first story follows a young couple who meet at a wedding and quickly fall in love, but their relationship is tested by family pressures and cultural traditions. The second story features a married couple who have grown distant from each other, and the husband embarks on an unexpected journey to rediscover their love. In the third story, a young man struggles to express his love for his best friend, while the final story follows a middle-aged woman who is reunited with her long-lost love from her youth.
The River Flows
“The River Flows” is an independent film from Laos that tells the story of a young woman named Nang, who is forced to confront the legacy of her father’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The film takes place in a small village along the Mekong River, where Nang is struggling to come to terms with her father’s past and her own identity. Through her journey, she discovers the power of forgiveness and the importance of family.
I recently had the opportunity to watch “The River Flows,” and I was blown away by the beauty and depth of the film. The cinematography was stunning, capturing the natural beauty of the Mekong River and the surrounding landscape. The performances by the cast were also incredibly moving, particularly the actress who portrayed Nang. I was impressed by the way the film explored themes of family, identity, and forgiveness, and how it dealt with the complicated legacy of the Vietnam War in Laos. Overall, I highly recommend “The River Flows” to anyone who appreciates thoughtful, thought-provoking independent films.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From Malaysia
“Wayang” is an independent film from Malaysia directed by Amir Muhammad that tells the story of a young woman named Siti, who is struggling to find her place in a changing society. The film is shot in black and white and is both haunting and poetic.
The film explores the complex themes of identity, tradition, and modernity. Siti is a young woman who is stuck between two worlds: the world of her grandmother, who is a traditional wayang (shadow puppet) artist, and the modern world of Kuala Lumpur, where she lives. She is torn between the desire to honor her grandmother’s traditions and the need to find her own path in life.
The film is visually stunning, with beautifully crafted shots and a haunting score that perfectly complements the atmosphere of the story. The use of shadow puppets throughout the film is a clever device that ties the narrative together and serves as a metaphor for Siti’s struggle to find her own voice.
“Jagat” is a 2015 Malaysian independent film directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal. The film tells the story of a young boy named Appoy who grows up in a Tamil family living in a low-income housing area in Malaysia. The film portrays the struggles that Appoy and his family face as they try to make a living and survive in a harsh environment.
The film opens with Appoy as a child who is fascinated by the world of cinema and dreams of becoming a movie star. As he grows older, he becomes involved with a group of troublemakers and starts to get into trouble. He also faces racism and discrimination from the people around him.
The film explores themes of poverty, discrimination, family, and identity. It shows the challenges faced by the Tamil community in Malaysia and the impact it has on individuals and families. The film is shot in a raw and gritty style that adds to its authenticity.
As someone who is not from Malaysia, I found “Jagat” to be a powerful and moving film. The film provides a unique perspective on the struggles faced by the Tamil community in Malaysia and the challenges of growing up in a low-income area. The performances in the film are excellent, particularly from the young actor who plays Appoy. The film is emotionally engaging and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
Dukun is a 2007 Malaysian independent film directed by Dain Iskandar Said. The movie is based on a true story of a famous female shaman, or “dukun” in Malay, named Mona Fandey. Mona Fandey was a popular shaman who was later convicted and executed for the murder of a politician in the 1990s. The movie explores the life of Mona Fandey, her rise to fame, and her eventual downfall.
The movie is a gripping psychological thriller that delves into the dark side of the human psyche. The story is told from the perspective of a lawyer who is defending Mona Fandey in court. Throughout the movie, the audience is taken on a journey through Mona Fandey’s life and the events that led to her committing murder.
The movie is visually stunning and uses a combination of flashbacks and dream sequences to tell Mona Fandey’s story. The performances by the cast are excellent, particularly by the lead actress, Umie Aida, who plays Mona Fandey. The movie is intense, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, and it is definitely not for the faint of heart.
“Aqerat (We, The Dead)” is a Malaysian independent film directed by Edmund Yeo. The film tells the story of Adam, a Rohingya refugee who has fled persecution in Myanmar and is living in Malaysia illegally. He works in a restaurant and lives with a group of fellow refugees. One day, Adam receives a call informing him that his mother has passed away back in Myanmar, and he cannot attend her funeral due to his illegal status. The film explores Adam’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s death and his own identity as a refugee.
The film was screened at various film festivals and received critical acclaim. It won the Best Film award at the Singapore International Film Festival and was selected as Malaysia’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The film is shot in a contemplative and poetic style, with long takes and minimal dialogue. The cinematography is beautiful, with muted colors and natural lighting that give the film a sense of melancholy and introspection. The film’s themes of identity, loss, and displacement are universal and resonate with audiences beyond Malaysia and the Rohingya community.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From Myanmar
Kayan Beauties is a documentary film directed by Aung Ko Latt that explores the lives of the Kayan people in Myanmar, who are known for their traditional practice of wearing brass coils around their necks. The film focuses on the lives of three Kayan women, including a young girl, a teenager, and an older woman, as they navigate their daily lives and the challenges that come with maintaining their cultural traditions in a rapidly changing world.
Through the lens of the Kayan women’s stories, the film explores broader themes of identity, tradition, and the impact of globalization and modernization on indigenous communities. It sheds light on the struggles faced by the Kayan people, including displacement, discrimination, and exploitation by the tourism industry.
The Monk is a Myanmar independent film directed by The Maw Naing and released in 2014. It is a slow-burning drama that tells the story of a monk who returns to his village after years of studying in a monastery. He finds his brother and sister-in-law struggling to make ends meet, and he decides to help them by taking on odd jobs around the village.
The film explores the tension between tradition and modernity as the monk tries to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the realities of the world around him. It also touches on themes of family, sacrifice, and the search for meaning in life.
The Monk is shot beautifully, with stunning cinematography that captures the rural landscapes of Myanmar. The performances are excellent, with a standout performance by Kyaw Nyi Thu as the titular monk. The film is also notable for its lack of dialogue, relying instead on visual storytelling to convey its themes and emotions.
The Road to Mandalay
“The Road to Mandalay” is a 2016 Burmese independent film directed by Midi Z, a Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker. The film tells the story of two young Burmese immigrants, Lianqing and Guo, who leave their home country to seek a better life in Thailand. They meet each other while working at a textile factory in Bangkok and soon fall in love. However, their journey towards a better life is fraught with challenges and obstacles.
The film offers a realistic portrayal of the struggles faced by immigrants in a foreign land. It touches on themes of poverty, exploitation, and the desperation of those seeking a better life. The story is driven by the intense chemistry between the lead actors, Wu Ke-Xi and Kai Ko, who deliver powerful performances that leave a lasting impact on the viewer.
The film’s cinematography is also noteworthy. The director, Midi Z, uses his signature style of long takes and slow-paced scenes to create a sense of intimacy with the characters. The use of natural lighting and real locations adds to the film’s authenticity and realism.
In Exile: The Story of a Burmese Filmmaker is an independent film from Myanmar directed by Tin Win Naing. The movie follows the life of a Burmese filmmaker named Midi Z, who is forced to leave his home country due to political unrest and censorship issues. The film shows Midi Z’s struggle to continue his passion for filmmaking while in exile in Taiwan, where he faces various challenges in pursuing his dream.
The film explores themes of identity, displacement, and artistic expression. It highlights the difficulties faced by artists in Myanmar due to government censorship and political oppression. The movie also sheds light on the plight of Burmese refugees and their struggle to find a new home in a foreign land.
In Exile: The Story of a Burmese Filmmaker has received critical acclaim for its powerful portrayal of Midi Z’s journey and the political situation in Myanmar. The film has been praised for its authenticity and emotional depth, and it offers a unique perspective on the struggles faced by artists and refugees in Myanmar.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From the Philippines
Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria
“Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria” is a 2010 independent drama film directed by Remton Siega Zuasola. The film tells the story of a young girl named Eleuteria who lives in a small village in the Philippines. She dreams of leaving her impoverished life behind and pursuing a better future in the city. However, her hopes are dashed when she falls in love with a man who is already married. As she grapples with the reality of her situation, Eleuteria begins to question her dreams and what she truly wants in life.
As for my personal review, I found “Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria” to be a poignant and thought-provoking film. The film’s visuals and cinematography beautifully captured the rural setting, and the acting by the cast was superb. The film tackles themes of love, poverty, and the struggles of pursuing one’s dreams, which are relevant not only to the Philippines but to audiences around the world.
One of the most striking aspects of the film was how it depicted the harsh realities of poverty in the Philippines. The film showed how poverty can limit one’s opportunities and make it difficult to pursue one’s dreams. Despite Eleuteria’s determination to escape poverty, she was constantly thwarted by circumstances beyond her control, and the film did not shy away from showing the harsh realities of her situation.
Yield is a powerful and eye-opening documentary directed by Toshihiro Uriu and Victor Tagaro. The film follows the lives of children who work in the dangerous and backbreaking job of hammering rocks in a quarry in the Philippines. Through their stories, the film sheds light on the harsh realities of child labor and the struggles faced by impoverished families.
As someone who watched this film, I was deeply moved by the stories of these children. The filmmakers did an incredible job of presenting a clear and honest view of their lives, without ever exploiting them for shock value. The camera work and editing were both exceptional, highlighting the beauty of the surroundings as well as the harshness of the work environment.
What stood out to me most about Yield was the resilience and determination of the children. Despite the challenges they face, they continue to work hard to support their families and to dream of a better future. The film leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, highlighting the importance of advocating for children’s rights and combating child labor.
“Perfumed Nightmare” is a 1977 Filipino independent film directed by Kidlat Tahimik. The film tells the story of a young man named Kidlat who works as a jeepney driver in a small village in the Philippines. Kidlat is fascinated by the Western world and dreams of traveling to Paris to learn more about it.
The film is a poetic and humorous exploration of the clash between traditional Filipino culture and Western modernity. Kidlat’s journey is one of self-discovery, as he navigates the challenges of living in a rapidly changing society while remaining true to his roots.
“Perfumed Nightmare” is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Philippine cinema and has won numerous awards, including the International Critics’ Prize at the 1977 Berlin International Film Festival. The film is a fascinating blend of documentary and fiction, with Kidlat Tahimik using his own life experiences as the basis for the story. The film’s mix of humor, irony, and social commentary has made it a favorite among critics and audiences alike.
Thy Womb is a 2012 drama film directed by Brillante Mendoza, starring Nora Aunor, Bembol Roco, Lovi Poe, and Mercedes Cabral. The film tells the story of Shaleha, a midwife living in Tawi-Tawi, an island in the southernmost part of the Philippines. Shaleha is unable to bear a child for her husband, Bangas-An, so she sets out on a journey to find him a new wife who can give him a child.
The film’s cinematography is stunning, showcasing the beauty of the Tawi-Tawi islands and its people. The director brilliantly captures the lives of the Badjao community, portraying their customs, beliefs, and way of life. The film’s soundtrack also adds to the emotional impact of the story, with hauntingly beautiful songs that complement the film’s visuals.
Nora Aunor delivers an outstanding performance as Shaleha, portraying her character’s inner turmoil and pain with subtlety and nuance. Bembol Roco also gives an excellent performance as Bangas-An, a quiet and reserved man who loves his wife deeply but longs for a child.
Thy Womb is a poignant and thought-provoking film that explores the complexities of love, sacrifice, and the desire for a child. It is a powerful and emotional portrayal of a culture that is often overlooked in mainstream Filipino cinema. I highly recommend this film to anyone who appreciates independent cinema and wants to gain a deeper understanding of the diverse cultures and traditions of the Philippines.
Wailings in the Forest
“Wailings in the Forest” is a horror film directed by Bagane Fiola, which was released in 2007. The film is set in a remote village in Mindanao, where a group of people live in fear of mysterious killings that occur in the nearby forest. As the deaths continue, the villagers begin to suspect that an evil creature, known as “the bakunawa,” is responsible for the deaths.
The film explores themes of superstition, fear, and the supernatural. It features a cast of non-professional actors, which adds to its realistic and raw feel. The film’s use of natural lighting and sounds also creates a creepy and unsettling atmosphere, adding to the film’s horror elements.
Despite its low-budget production, “Wailings in the Forest” has received critical acclaim for its unique storytelling, immersive atmosphere, and cultural significance. It was screened at various international film festivals, including the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and won several awards.
War is a Tender Thing
“War is a Tender Thing” is a 2013 independent film by Filipino director Adjani Arumpac. The film depicts the everyday struggles and challenges of a family in the Philippines during World War II. The movie follows the life of a young girl named Yena who grows up in the midst of the war, trying to find a way to make sense of the conflicts around her.
The film is a mix of personal memoir and historical documentary. It includes actual footage from the war, interviews with survivors, and reflections on the impact of the conflict on the Philippines. The movie aims to provide a fresh perspective on the war, emphasizing its impact on ordinary people, particularly the children who grew up in this era.
The film has been well-received by critics and audiences alike, garnering several awards at international film festivals. The film has been praised for its emotional depth, and its ability to capture the complexity of war and its aftermath.
Once in a Lifetime: A Russian Song for Guian
“Once in a Lifetime: A Russian Song for Guiuan” is about Nikolai Massenkoff who was a 10 year old white Russian orphan boy who escaped communist China in 1949 and was given refuge by the Quirino government in Tubabao, Guiuan, Eastern Samar. Sixty-two years later, now an internationally-recognized Russian folk singer in San Francisco, he makes a sentimental journey to the island with a fiesta “Thank You Philippines” concert in 2010.
INDEPENDENT FILMS from Singapore
“Ilo Ilo” is a 2013 drama film directed by Anthony Chen and is his debut feature film. The story is set in 1997 Singapore during the Asian financial crisis and revolves around the relationship between a young Singaporean boy named Jiale and his Filipino maid, Teresa. The film explores themes of family, financial struggle, and cultural differences.
Jiale is a mischievous and troubled boy who often acts out at school and at home. His parents, Hwee Leng and Teck, are struggling to make ends meet due to the financial crisis and are under a lot of stress. They hire Teresa to help take care of Jiale and manage the household.
As Jiale and Teresa spend more time together, they develop a close bond despite their cultural differences. Teresa becomes a surrogate mother figure to Jiale and helps him navigate his emotions and struggles. However, as the financial crisis worsens, tensions rise in the household and threaten to tear their newfound family apart.
Overall, “Ilo Ilo” is a beautifully crafted and heartfelt film that explores complex family dynamics and cultural differences. The performances by the cast, especially the young actor who plays Jiale, are excellent and truly capture the emotional depth of the story. The film also offers a glimpse into Singaporean society during a difficult period in its history.
“Ilo Ilo” has received critical acclaim and has won several awards, including the Caméra d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It is a must-watch for anyone interested in independent cinema and exploring themes of family and cultural identity.
A Yellow Bird
“A Yellow Bird” is a 2016 drama film directed by K. Rajagopal, and it tells the story of Siva, a recently released ex-convict who returns to Singapore’s Geylang area, where he struggles to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter while trying to find work. The film explores themes of displacement, identity, and loneliness, as Siva navigates through the harsh realities of life as a former inmate and a marginalized member of society.
The film’s cinematography is striking, capturing the grit and rawness of Geylang’s streets while also emphasizing the characters’ emotional turmoil. The performances are also noteworthy, with lead actor Sivakumar Palakrishnan delivering a powerful and nuanced portrayal of Siva’s inner struggles and conflicts.
“A Yellow Bird” received critical acclaim upon its release, with praise for its authentic portrayal of Singapore’s marginalized communities and its poignant exploration of the human condition. However, the film’s graphic depiction of violence and themes of prostitution may not be suitable for all audiences.
Sayang Disayang is a Singaporean independent film released in 2015, directed by Sanif Olek. The movie revolves around the story of a Malay family living in Singapore and their struggles with cultural identity and personal relationships. The plot mainly focuses on the relationship between a mother and her son, who is struggling to find his own identity while balancing his obligations towards his family.
The film’s title, “Sayang Disayang,” is derived from a Malay expression that translates to “loved and cherished.” The movie explores the nuances of familial love and how cultural expectations can sometimes clash with personal desires.
The film has received mixed reviews from critics, with some praising its depiction of the complexities of familial relationships and cultural identity. Others, however, criticized its pacing and lack of a cohesive plot. Despite the mixed reviews, Sayang Disayang remains a notable addition to Singapore’s independent film scene and a significant portrayal of the Malay community’s struggles in the country.
To Singapore, With Love
To Singapore, With Love is a 2013 documentary film directed by Tan Pin Pin. The film tells the story of several individuals who fled Singapore during the 1960s and 1970s, following the government’s crackdown on leftist political activities. These individuals, who are now living in political exile, share their experiences and emotions in the film.
The film primarily focuses on the interviews of nine Singaporean political exiles who are living in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and the UK. They share their stories of why they had to leave Singapore and their struggles as political exiles. Some of them had been arrested and imprisoned for their political beliefs, while others were forced to flee Singapore to avoid persecution. Their stories are intertwined with their longing for their homeland and their yearning to return to Singapore someday.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From THailand
The Island Funeral
The Island Funeral is a 2015 Thai independent film directed by Pimpaka Towira. The movie follows the journey of an architect, Ton, as he travels to a remote island in southern Thailand to attend the funeral of his mother. During his stay on the island, Ton meets a diverse group of characters, including his estranged father, a local Muslim fisherman, and a mysterious woman named Na. As Ton reconnects with his family and comes to terms with his mother’s death, he also learns about the unique culture and customs of the island’s Muslim community.
The Island Funeral is a thought-provoking and visually stunning film that explores themes of identity, grief, and cultural difference. Director Pimpaka Towira uses the picturesque island setting to great effect, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that is both beautiful and eerie. The film’s slow pace may not be to everyone’s taste, but it allows for a deep exploration of the characters and their motivations.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to portray complex and nuanced characters. Ton, the protagonist, is a man who is struggling to reconcile his Thai Buddhist upbringing with his mother’s Muslim heritage. His journey to the island is not only a physical one, but also an emotional one as he confronts his own identity and the cultural differences between himself and the island’s Muslim community. The other characters in the film are equally well-drawn, each with their own unique perspectives on life and death.
The Island Funeral is a film that rewards patience and careful attention. While it may not be for everyone, those who are willing to engage with the film’s themes and characters will be richly rewarded. It is a beautiful and haunting meditation on grief, identity, and the power of cultural difference.
Homogenous Empty Time
Homogenous Empty Time is a Thai independent film directed by Thunska Pansittivorakul and released in 2016. The film follows the life of a young gay man named Oat, who is struggling to find his place in society as he navigates relationships with his family, friends, and romantic partners.
The film is known for its experimental and unconventional storytelling techniques, using non-linear narrative and abstract imagery to explore themes of identity, desire, and isolation. It also deals with the political and social context of contemporary Thailand, particularly the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community in a conservative and often hostile environment.
Homogenous Empty Time received critical acclaim for its bold and provocative approach to storytelling, as well as its powerful performances and stunning cinematography. However, some viewers may find the film challenging to follow or emotionally difficult, given its complex and often bleak subject matter.
By the River
“By the River” is a poignant and intimate drama film directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol. The story follows the lives of three generations of a family living in a remote village along the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand. The film primarily focuses on the relationship between the grandfather, an ex-soldier, and his young granddaughter, who is fascinated by his stories of war and adventure. The film explores themes of family, memory, loss, and the passage of time, as the family struggles to come to terms with their past and present.
The film’s pacing is deliberate and unhurried, with long takes and static camera shots that allow the audience to immerse themselves in the tranquil and idyllic atmosphere of the village. The performances of the actors are naturalistic and understated, lending a sense of authenticity and depth to their characters.
What sets “By the River” apart from other films is its use of documentary-style footage, seamlessly interwoven with the fictional narrative. The director blends real footage of the Mekong River and its surroundings, the village’s daily life, and the traditions of the local community, with the fictional story, creating a unique and immersive viewing experience. This combination of fiction and documentary elements adds an extra layer of realism to the film, making it a poignant and evocative portrayal of rural Thai life.
“Boundary” is a 2013 Thai independent film directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol. The movie explores the lives of people living near the Thai-Cambodian border and their struggles as a result of the conflict between the two countries. The film centers around a group of teenagers, who live in a small village near the border, and their experiences of growing up in a region marked by conflict and tension.
The movie begins with a scene of a group of Thai soldiers patrolling the border. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is marked by a sense of tension and uncertainty. The film is shot in a documentary style, which gives it a sense of realism and immediacy. The director uses a mix of long shots and close-ups to capture the landscape and the characters’ emotions.
The story revolves around the lives of three teenagers: Pong, Anna, and Soon. Pong is a young man who dreams of becoming a soldier, while Anna is a girl who wants to go to college. Soon is a boy who is obsessed with ghost stories and the supernatural. As the film progresses, we see how the conflict affects each of these characters, and how their dreams and aspirations are impacted by the situation they find themselves in.
One of the strengths of “Boundary” is its ability to humanize the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. The movie does not take sides or present a simplistic view of the situation. Instead, it shows the complexities of life on the border and how it impacts the people who live there. The film also explores themes of identity, family, and friendship, making it a poignant and thought-provoking piece of cinema.
The Songs of Rice
The Songs of Rice is a 2014 documentary film directed by Uruphong Raksasad. The film is a poetic exploration of the relationship between the Thai people and the rice they grow. It takes us on a journey through the farming communities of northeastern Thailand, where we see the process of rice cultivation and harvest, and hear the songs and stories that have been passed down through generations of rice farmers.
The Songs of Rice is a beautiful and lyrical documentary that offers a unique insight into the cultural and spiritual significance of rice in Thailand. Through stunning cinematography and evocative sound design, director Uruphong Raksasad takes us on a meditative journey into the heart of rural Thailand, where we witness the beauty and hardship of rice farming and hear the songs and stories that have sustained the people of this region for centuries.
One of the film’s strengths is its ability to convey a sense of the cyclical nature of rice farming, from the preparation of the soil to the planting of the seedlings, to the harvesting of the rice and the preparation of the fields for the next crop. We see how the rhythm of the seasons and the cycle of life and death are woven into the fabric of the community, and how the rice harvest is not just a means of subsistence, but a time of celebration and reverence.
The film also explores the social and economic challenges facing rice farmers in Thailand, including the impact of globalization and the rise of industrial agriculture. But rather than dwelling on these issues, The Songs of Rice focuses on the resilience and ingenuity of the farmers, and the importance of preserving their cultural heritage in the face of change.
INDEPENDENT FILMS From Vietnam
Yellow Flowers and the Green Grass
Yellow Flowers and the Green Grass is a 2015 Vietnamese independent film directed by Victor Vu. The film is an adaptation of the novel “I see Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass” by Nguyen Nhat Anh. Set in the 1980s in a rural village in Vietnam, the film tells the story of two brothers, Thieu and Tuong, who have a strong bond and are inseparable. Their peaceful lives are disrupted when a new girl named Mien moves to their village, and both brothers fall in love with her. This leads to a series of events that will test the brothers’ relationship and challenge their loyalty to each other.
The film is visually stunning, capturing the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside with its lush green fields and yellow flowers. The cinematography by Nguyen K’Linh is excellent, and the film is visually captivating. The performances by the cast are also outstanding, especially the two child actors who play Thieu and Tuong.
What sets Yellow Flowers and the Green Grass apart from other romantic dramas is its exploration of the themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and sacrifice. The film shows how love can test even the strongest of bonds and how sacrifices have to be made in order to preserve relationships. The film also touches on the theme of social inequality, highlighting the differences between the poor and the wealthy in Vietnam.
Big Father, Small Father, and Other Stories
“Big Father Small Father and Other Stories” is a Vietnamese independent film directed by Phan Dang Di, released in 2015. The movie follows the lives of four young people living in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, struggling to come to terms with their identities and relationships in a rapidly changing society.
The main protagonist of the film is Vu, a young man who works in a pet shop and is in a relationship with Thang, a man from a wealthy family. Vu’s father is a former soldier who suffers from PTSD and lives in a makeshift shack in a slum area, while Thang’s father is a corrupt government official. The film explores the complicated dynamics of class, sexuality, and family ties in modern Vietnam.
Love Man Love Woman
Love Man Love Woman is an independent Vietnamese film that was released in 2020. Directed by Hung Pham, the film follows the story of a young couple, Phong and Yen, who are trying to navigate their relationship in the midst of societal pressures and traditional values. The film also touches on themes of gender identity and sexual orientation.
From the reviews available online, Love Man Love Woman has been praised for its sensitive portrayal of LGBTQ+ themes in Vietnamese culture. The film has been described as a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of love and identity in a conservative society. The performances of the actors have been noted for their authenticity and emotional depth, and the film’s cinematography has been praised for its stunning visuals and creative use of light and color.
Southeast Asian independent films have so much to offer and I hope that this blog has given you a taste of the incredible cinematic treasures waiting to be discovered. These films not only entertain but also educate and provide a window into the rich cultures and diverse stories of the region. So, why not take some time to explore the world of Southeast Asian independent films? Watch some of the recommended movies in this blog and discover a new perspective on the world. Who knows, you may even find your new favorite film!