Love without borders: Tingin film fest turns its lens on romance and its vagaries
Last year’s virtual iteration of Tingin Southeast Asian Film Festival may have weighed in on the fundamental “concept of neighborliness” to help blur some divisive lines and promote fellowship among neighbors in the region.
But in its sixth year, the country’s longest running and only film festival dedicated to Southeast Asian cinema is taking that concept further as it moves forward with an even more anchoring theme, “Swipe Right: Southeast Asia in Love.”
Its two full-length films are Ivan Andrew Payawal’s “Gameboys: The Movie” (Philippines) and Kamila Andini’s “Yuni” (Indonesia).
Meanwhile, leading the charge for the festival’s eight short film entries is Nelson Yeo’s “Here Is Not There” (Singapore), fielded alongside Pham Linh’s “Touch” (Vietnam), Danech San’s “Sunrise in My Mind” (Cambodia), Nuttawat Attasawat’s “Bangkok Department” (Thailand), Yoeng Kuok Hong’s “Perhaps That Elephant is Still Asleep” (Malaysia), Aung Phyoe’s “Evening Clouds” (Myanmar), Adib Emran’s “Atrophy” (Brunei), Anysay Keola’s “Tuktuk of the Fifth Kind” (Lao People’s Democratic Republic).
“We chose romantic love as a theme in part because of numerous requests from regular Tingin patrons to mount something celebratory,” festival director Maya Quirino explained to Inquirer Entertainment last Friday. “After all, romantic love, undoubtedly one of the most joyous of human experiences, can indeed be a liberating and radical force.
Emphasis on family
“The festival this year explores how love can transcend barriers of skin, class and even culture. As philosopher Alain Badiou once noted, ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.’
“Southeast Asian stories about romantic love are often tied to the Asiatic emphasis on family—that is, many relationships are shaped by family dynamics, including decisions on partner choices. This is why young couples in the Philippines usually elope when parents frown upon their relationship, with the parents ultimately blessing the union to avoid embarrassment.
“One study found that, in the region, traditional marriage takes place in phases. A young couple moves in with the bride’s parents before setting up their own home. This diverges from the patrilocal tendency of traditional marriages, where it is women who come to live with the husband’s family. “Ultimately, we believe romantic love can transform certain mores and cultural scripts to accommodate individual agency and happiness, as well as different forms of intimacy.”Late last week, we sat through screenings of some full-length and short film entries for this year’s festival—which returns to in-person screenings at Shangri-La Mall from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24 (free admission). The moviegoing treat, exclusively distributed by Solar Entertainment, doesn’t stop there, however. As part of Tingin’s wider three-platform reach, short film selections will also be available for free on Vimeo (from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1) and SolarFlix (Oct. 7 to Oct. 8).
But living in a region rife with norms and traditions also has “site-specific” considerations and repercussions, as films like Nelson Yeo’s “Here Is Not There” (Singapore) and Nuttawat Attasawat’s “Bangkok Department” (Thailand) demonstrate. “Romantic love has common features across cultures and societies,” Maya noted. “In the past, romantic love was usually associated with partners needing to overcome huge obstacles. This explains why war was usually the backdrop of old romantic movies, according to film studies.
“In Southeast Asia, the barriers concern class and ethnicity, and in the case of women and the LGBTQ+ community, social mores. In countries like Thailand and the Philippines, for example, BL (boys’ love) stories, which are also marketed to women, have gained so much popularity.
“Whereas in the past, gay-themed movies were often tragic, the BL series and movies these days feature light stories with happy endings, previously reserved for rom-coms about heterosexual relationships. We’ve also seen the strides that women have made in reclaiming their autonomy and voice within relationships.”
This explains why “Gameboys: The Movie,” starring the popular tandem of Elijah Canlas and Kokoy de Santos, is being fielded as Tingin’s opening film this year.
“We are opening the festival with ‘Gameboys’ to reflect the zeitgeist,” said Maya when asked about what the festival wishes for the LGBTQ+ tale to reflect about loving in the Philippines. “BL stories, in the Philippines especially, signal a shift in attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. More and more people, particularly the youth, are supporting the LGBTQ+ rights movement. While Filipinos have been generally tolerant—even accepting—of the LGBTQ+ community, there are still experiences of discrimination, even instances of hate crimes.
“‘Gameboys’ touches upon a myriad of issues that gay couples navigate today, but it also shows that social mores have definitely become more relaxed, and that gender has become a political and public issue. There’s every reason to hope that gender equality may yet be realized.”
We asked festival programmer Patrick Campos what the top picks for film buffs are this year. He pointed out, “Tingin’s commitment to select films from Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries ensures that works from small cinemas like Brunei and Laos and by emerging filmmakers are introduced to the Filipino audience. So it’s not easy to name a top pick that’s set apart from the program.“However, notable selections include ‘Yuni,’ a sensitive portrayal of an adolescent girl’s inner life confronting tradition, by one of Indonesia’s foremost women filmmakers, Kamila Andini; and ‘Here Is Not There,’ an early work by one of Singapore’s original voices, Nelson Yeo, whose full-length debut film (‘Dreaming and Dying’) received awards from Locarno.”
Have people’s viewing habits been upended by the lockdowns? “The lockdown has certainly changed people’s viewing habits, which in part accounts for the sudden popularity of ‘Gameboys’ and the BL genre,” Patrick stated. “Nevertheless, in the case of Filipinos’ exposure to Southeast Asian cinema, much remains the same.
“Before the pandemic, and even now, our interest in films from the region is piqued not by popularity, but by thoughtful programming, and audiences turn to them to gain insight into our neighbors’ cultures and histories.”
Organized by the Culture and Diplomacy program of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Tingin aims to familiarize Filipino audiences with the cultures and cinemas of Southeast Asia.
Mariel Nini, officer in charge of NCCA’s Sentro Rizal International Cultural Affairs Office, said that they are beyond thrilled to showcase this year’s entries by way of three platforms: cinema, online and TV.
Premium on communion
What does the festival wish to accomplish from its return to in-person screenings?
“There has been clamor for Tingin to return to in-person screenings,” Mariel disclosed. “Although many online platforms have mushroomed, moviegoers are slowly coming back to the theaters. There’s something about watching films collectively, with the audience reacting together, that strengthens bonds.
“The power of the close-up—the human face magnified on the big screen—remains without parallel in evoking emotions. Tingin puts a premium on communion; culture has an important role in social cohesion.”
Other films with compelling tales: “Touch” is a subtle gay romance about Minh (Trong Hieu), a young man who’s forced to temporarily share his bed with his new roommate Khan (Hoang Ngoc Bao Nam). To his horror, he later realizes his growing attraction to the attractive stranger who sleeps beside him.
In “Yuni,” a girl (Arawinda Kirana) is determined to pursue her education despite the suffocating expectations of her conservative community, which include taking mandatory virginity tests!
“Perhaps That Elephant is Still Asleep” is a “Romeo and Juliet”-channeling love story between Chinese boy Ah Guo (Danny Low Zheng Yang) and Malay girl Yasmin (Nur Atiqah Afina binti Abdul Qayyum).
While the delicately rendered romance “Sunrise in My Mind” follows the bond forged between salon worker Pich (Chhem Madeza) and delivery rider Lay (Yorn Vicheka), “Bangkok Department” sees mall workers, Noom (Siwat Sirichai) and Jane (Rawipa Srisanguan), going on a date across Thailand’s so-called “forever city.”
Meanwhile, “Here Is Not There” is a cautionary tale about low-wage migrant workers (Bobbi Chen and Hong Yu Yang) who must face the consequences of unplanned pregnancy. INQ
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