Talentime (2009)

Part of my own relationship with Netflix is not just to watch the mediocre romcoms it seems to endlessly generate, or the addictively trashy TV shows like Selling Sunset (for which I can effectively turn off my brain), but also to actively search out films directed by women, or from places or film cultures I’m less familiar with, which is how I got to this Malaysian film. Director Yasmin Ahmad died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 51, the same year this film was released, but she has an intriguing career, including studying politics in Newcastle, employed variously as a banker, a marketing exec, and an advertising director but also — and, inevitably, I quote Wikipedia — “she moonlighted as a blues singer and pianist by night”. I want to know more about that! Anyway, her last film is pretty good, and a few other ones are on Netflix too, so probably worth checking out.


Despite the English language title, this is a Malay film about a school’s talent competition, apparently a national series (whether in real life or within the world of the film). Indeed, part of the film is just dealing with the actual range of languages and cultures that exist in Malaysia (whether the broad Yorkshire accent of one grandmother, the Indian family with their deaf son Mahesh, the Chinese Muslim maid who is initially discriminated against by a posh Malay relation, and every other permutation of background).

I get the feeling that Malaysian viewers will get a lot more out of this in terms of references, but it still resonates because the story is pretty easy to relate to, being one in which a number of different school kids are going through their own family dramas (most notably Mahesh as mentioned above, but also Melur and Hafiz, the last of whom has a dying mother in hospital), but who all pull together at the talent competition. There are moments when this threatens to be a mawkish TV movie but mostly it avoids that by not overexplaining the situations and just letting the emotional moments linger quietly. It’s the last film by its director before her own untimely death, and she has a deft touch at delineating all these characters and finding a way to unite them despite everything.

Talentime (2009)CREDITS
Director/Writer Yasmin Ahmad; Cinematographer Keong Low; Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong, Mohd Syafie Naswip; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 11 March 2021.

Two Silly Comedies from SE Asia: My Stupid Boss (2016) and She’s Dating the Gangster (2014)

Earlier I covered Fan Girl, a recent Filipino film that’s on Netflix, a dark tale of dangerous desire if you will. However, these two films below are far more the usual range of regional cinema you’ll find (from the Philippines and Indonesia), both being fairly silly, fairly forgettable, ultimately mediocre but still quite fun comedies with some broad acting.


My Stupid Boss (2016)My Stupid Boss (2016) [Indonesia, certificate PG]

It’s nice to see that popular Indonesian cinema (although this particular film is set in Malaysia) has the same stupid comedies as are made in English, ones usually starring say Jennifer Aniston (and not just because this film’s title reminds me of Horrible Bosses). Well here we get Bunga Citra Lestari (popular enough in Indonesia to be known by the acronym BCL) as Diana, who has recently moved with her husband to Kuala Lumpur and takes on a temp job for her husband’s best friend, the title character (played by Reza Bahadian, who judging from photos on the internet is ordinarily far more attractive, and younger, than he appears here). I can only presume the entire film is based around getting to see BCL contorting her face to humorous effect at the enduring stupidity of her boss, which as a high concept almost works, and she certain is a very likeable lead. That said, “Bossman” is incredibly, monstrously stupid, even more so than The Office‘s David Brent or other similar characters, though the film takes a sentimental swerve towards the end to try and redeem him, meaning that it might be Diana’s husband (Alex Abbad) who is the worst character in this film. In any case, it never really goes much further than the précis above suggests, making it like an extended sitcom episode, but it passes pleasantly enough.

My Stupid Boss (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Upi Avianto; Cinematographer Muhammad Firdaus; Starring Reza Rahadian رضا رهادیان, Bunga Citra Lestari, Alex Abbad; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.


She’s Dating the Gangster (2014) [Philippines, certificate 12]

I see the word “cheesy” used in reviews of this quite a bit, and it’s an apt adjective. This is a very silly film, with a ridiculous plot that revolves around a mistaken identity, strung out into a love story, with some sentimentalised tragedy wrung out from terminal illnesses, plus plane-related subplots that don’t exactly make a great case for domestic Filipino air travel. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two leads, seen in 90s flashback, a time of hairbands, grunge t-shirts and brightly-coloured clothing, in which Daniel Padilla is supposed to be playing the titular “gangster” Kenji, but perhaps that’s Filipino slang for a goofy long-haired dork because there’s very little of the gangster about him, and oddly he scrubs up into a contemporary teen heartthrob pretty well. Much better is Kathryn Bernardo as Athena, his (sort-of) love interest, who is watchably bubbly and likeable and does the apparently requisite tearful scenes of melodrama pretty well too, though there’s far too much of that in general. It’s interesting to track the influences in popular Philippine romantic comedy cinema, having the kind of wild take on genre that you’d expect in Bollywood, but with a treacly sentimentality that is more reminiscent of Japanese films, but perhaps they are entirely their own thing. Certainly I find it hard to really dislike, even if I never exactly got caught up in the emotion, but I have to admit I’m not the audience for this after all.

She's Dating the Gangster (2014)CREDITS
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina; Writers Carmi Raymundo and Charlene Grace Bernardo (based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino); Cinematographer Dan Villegas; Starring Daniel Padilla, Kathryn Bernardo, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Sofia Andres; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.

Fan Girl (2020)

So, Netflix: we know it has a lot of content. It makes a lot of content too, but sometimes you have to really hunt down stuff, because it generally just shows you what most people like you already watch. However, there are vast tranches of strange corners of filmic production. In the UK there are loads of Scandinavian films from the silent era onwards, somewhat randomly. There is Polish and Turkish popular cinema, plenty from India, and then there are places like Indonesia and the Philippines. Every so often I watch a popular Filipino romcom and let’s just say they can be of variable quality, which is why this film by Antoinette Jadaone sticks out.


This film goes dark in ways I didn’t really expect from a Filipino movie. Its director, Antoinette Jadaone, has certainly made her share of the kind of fluffy upbeat brightly-coloured and sentimental romcoms that I’ve become used to seeing (though even among those, 2014’s That Thing Called Tadhana is, I think, one of the highlights and it’s also written and directed by Jadaone). And it’s in this candy-coloured popcorn romcom film where this one starts. It has its 16-year-old protagonist and title character Jane (Charlie Dizon) at a glossy promotional event for the latest blockbuster by Paulo Avelino, who’s playing a version of himself (I certainly hope it’s fictionalised, anyway). When she steals away in his truck, there ensues a day and evening in which her fantasising about him comes crashing to earth. It’s largely set in a dark, rather gothic home, with brooding shades of the horror film to it, as Paulo reveals himself to be a tattooed, drug-taking alcoholic with a secret child and a tormented relationship, inspiring Jane to reflect on her own difficult life and how their stories cross over. She still really wants to be with him, though, and that dangerous desire is shown to be both a positive force but also dangerous for her, and I think what’s interesting about the film is the way it negotiates all these levels of desire, and doesn’t simply craft a film that decries modern fandom or equally attempt to find something pure in it: it’s a complex relationship, dealing with the darker side of romcoms’ obsessive lover plotlines, and certainly indicates that Jadaone, amongst the popular cinema of the Philippines, is more interested in making complex films.

Fan Girl (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Antoinette Jadaone; Cinematographer Neil Daza; Starring Charlie Dizon, Paulo Avelino; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 29 June 2021.

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Global Cinema 25: Brunei – Yasmine (2014)

From Brazil, one of the largest countries in the world and a major film producing nation, to one of the smallest, Brunei. Needless to say, this country (also sometimes called Brunei Darussalam) doesn’t have a huge range of film production to choose from, but the teen sports drama I’ve gone for does seem to have enjoyed a little success and was available on streaming services.


Bruneian flagNation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace (Negara Brunei Darussalam)
population 460,000 | capital Bandar Seri Begawan (64k) | largest cities Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait (31k), Seria (30k), Tutong (19k), Kapok (4k) | area 5,765 km2 | religion Islam (79%), Christianity (9%), Buddhist (8%) | official language Malay (Behasa Melayu), although English is also recognised | major ethnicity Malay (66%), Chinese (10%) | currency Brunei dollar (B$) [BND] | internet .bn

A small country on the northern side of the island of Borneo, surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and a coastline on the South China Sea; the island is also shared with Indonesia (who call it Kalimantan). Traditionally it is said to be named for its founder Sultan Shah’s 14th century cry of Baru nah (“that’s it!”) upon landing, though may also derive from the Sanskrit varun (for “seafarers”), and Borneo shares the same roots. The earliest settlement on the island may date back to Buddhist Srivijaya empire around the 7th century CE, while Chinese records show an independent kingdom of Boni on the island in the 10th century. Boni converted to Islam in the 15th century and transformed into the Sultanate of Brunei, and at its peak in the next few centuries ruled over Borneo as well as parts of what is now the south-west Philippines up to even Manila. With the rise of Spain in the region and the incursion of the Ottomans, along with internal squabbles, Brunei entered a period of decline. Much of their territory was ceded to these others powers, as well as to Britain in the 19th century, and the modern boundaries were more or less set by 1890 following a treaty with Britain making it a protectorate, aside from a brief period during World War II when Japan occupied the island. Oil was first discovered in 1929 and has been the basis of much of the state’s wealth since. It gained independence from Britain in 1984, and is ruled by an absolute monarchy under the Sultan of Brunei.

Much of the country’s culture is influenced strongly by neighbouring Malay cultures (as two-thirds of the population are of Malay ethnicity) and by Islam. Given this background, there hasn’t been a huge amount of film production in the country and what does exist largely draws its talent from Malaysia.


Yasmine (2014)

On the one hand this is quite a likeable teen sports drama film about the young woman of the title (Liyana Yus) who is trying to break free from her strict father (Reza Rahadian) and who falls out with his schoolmates at the start about where they’re going to college. For reasons (jealousy mainly, I think, but also from being shunned by her new college for being really full of herself) Yasmine takes up the martial art of silat with (as is the usual trope) two other unlikely club members at her small (and apparently, more orthodox religious) school. Once formed into a team, they enlist the help of trainers to help them beat the reigning local champions who, obviously, happen to have Yasmine’s former best friend Dewi (Mentari De Marelle) as their best fighter. There’s also a sub-plot involving Yasmine’s dad and the wheelchair-bound ex-champion who coaches Yasmine’s team.

A lot of these plot points do seem pretty familiar, then, from sports movies over the years, but it’s worth pointing out that on the other hand — and yes, I do appreciate that the usual usage of this structural gambit does imply some kind of juxtaposition, which is not what I’m offering — it appears to be the first film directed by a Bruneian woman, and also how many films do you generally see either from Brunei, or about the sport of silat? Probably about as many as I do, or have done until I saw this. So while it may not break any narrative barriers, it is still likeable and interesting.

Yasmine film posterCREDITS
Director Siti Kamaluddin; Writer Salman Aristo; Cinematographer James Teh; Starring Liyana Yus, Reza Rahadian, Mentari De Marelle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat (Tubi streaming), Lower Hutt, Tuesday 17 September 2020.

LFF 2020: 日子 Rizi (Days, 2020)

This was my second film at the London Film Festival this year, and while I do not generally post reviews of films I have not fully seen, sadly I was thwarted a little by this new world of online film festivals. I cannot speak of the ending because my session “expired” 20 minutes from the end, for reasons that elude me (I think there was only a limited time to watch once you click play, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site). Still, I think enough was clear from the first 105 minutes, and I will certainly be seeking out future opportunities to see it (hopefully on a big screen some day given its typically Tsai qualities of beautiful stillness).


Director Tsai, especially in recent years (such as in the remarkable 2013 film Stray Dogs), has been slowly stripping back his cinema more and more, and this film, although a narrative feature, is almost abstract in its rhythms, like his ‘Walker’ series of short films or documentaries like Your Face (2018). It’s “intentionally unsubtitled”, though the only words we hear are mixed very much in the background (and aren’t heard until half an hour into the film). The film shows two men going about their days (one of whom is of course Tsai’s partner and regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), a slow accretion of details of two different lives. These two come together (literally) about two-thirds of the way in, and then drift apart again. The images are beautiful, dark, sometimes completely empty and still, and often water-laden (of course, because it’s Tsai), but it’s captivating and shows his continued mastery of the ‘slow cinema’ form.

Days film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮; Cinematographer Chang Jhong-yuan 張鍾元; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy 亞儂弘尚希; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 339: 一一 Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two, 2000)

I daresay A Brighter Summer Day may attract more plaudits for director Edward Yang, but this three-hour family drama is its own perfectly-satisfying work, channelling something of the quiet reflectiveness of an Ozu film without being hackneyed. In fact, there are a number of themes that could easily have been executed in a heavy-handed manner (not least this idea of the kid taking photos of the back of people’s heads) but which seem integrated into the film’s structure, which generally seems to prefer little scenes that don’t immediately connect up with one another but build into a patchwork that pays dividends by the final third. Yang’s camera often frames scenes via reflections, giving these dense deep frames through glass, reflecting both the outside world and the interior dramas scarcely contained within them, which is why when those dramas do exceed the frame in a rather bloody way near the end it seems so surprising (and maybe even a little unnecessary). That aside, the emotional arcs of the three main characters — dad NJ (Wu Nien-jen), frustrated by corporate greed at his workplace, and his children Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), each dealing with their own alienating circumstances — are all handled with aplomb and move towards a satisfying conclusion.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Edward Yang 楊德昌; Cinematographer Yang Wei-han 楊渭漢; Starring Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, Kelly Lee 李凱莉, Jonathan Chang 張洋洋, Issey Ogata イッセー尾形, Elaine Jin 金燕玲, Chen Xisheng 陳希聖; Length 173 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 13 July 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 25 July 2020).

มะลิลา Malila (Malila: The Farewell Flower, 2017)

Having mentioned there are few women directors in Thai cinema in my recent review of The Island Funeral, it’s good to see a new contingent of Thai women’s voices, not least Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose newest film (co-directed with the British director Ben Rivers) Krabi, 2562 is out on home streaming (via Mubi) today in the UK. Another recent Thai woman making films is transgender director Anucha Boonyawatana, who has made a number of films, and her most recent film is on BFI Player, though I saw it at the BFI Flare film festival a couple of years ago.


It’s very hard to watch this film and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious films set in similar lush jungle landscapes, but what’s great about contemporary SE Asian cinema is there are other directors I can call to mind too who are doing similar things, women like Anocha Suwichakornpong or Lao director Mattie Do. What’s striking in all these films, aside from the setting, is the atmosphere and pacing. There are long, quiet stretches which would be ponderous if they weren’t so heavy with feeling between the two lead characters (Sukollawat Kanarot and Anuchit Sapanphong). There are scenes set in a crepuscular half-darkness such that the light glancing off one man’s facial features can easily be imagined as a craggy landscape when you are struggling to stay awake in a warm cinema when you’ve had a few drinks first (that’s on me, not the film), but I prefer to think of that as an oneiric cinematic effect. It’s a film that’s about a relationship between two men on the one hand, but also about the relationship between life and death, specifically refracted through a Buddhist consciousness. The temporality of life is symbolised by the threading together of elaborate jasmine flower arrangements (the malila of the title) which start to wither even as they are created, but it is also literalised in later stretches of the film. It inhabits an enigmatic register, in which the mysteries it suggests are never easily resolved, but there’s a narrative there which is left for the viewer to interpret.

Malila: The Farewell Flower film posterCREDITS
Director Anucha Boonyawatana อนุชา บุญยวรรธนะ; Writers Boonyawatana and Waasuthep Ketpetch วาสุเทพ เกตุเพ็ชร์; Cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich ชัยพฤกษ์ เฉลิมพรพานิช; Starring Sukollawat Kanarot ศุกลวัฒน์ คณารศ, Anuchit Sapanphong อนุชิต สพันธุ์พงษ์, Sumret Muengput สำเร็จ เมืองพุทธ; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 30 March 2018.

S21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.

มหาสมุทรและสุสาน Maha samut lae susaan (The Island Funeral, 2015)

Thai cinema isn’t exactly filled with women directors, so one of the few who is working (sporadically), since her first feature film in 2003, is Pimpaka Towira. This Thai film, like the recent Pop Aye I reviewed earlier, is also a road movie of sorts, tracking its way slowly across the Thai countryside.


A strange, slow film with a very conscious way about it, moving slowly across the Thai landscape. It’s a road movie featuring a trio — a brother and sister (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Sasithorn Panichnok) and the brother’s friend Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong) — who are journeying to their aunt, who it turns out lives on an island quite far from the urban trappings of civilisation. Other reviews I’ve seen have talked about the political references, but those are for people deeply embroiled in Thai politics and culture — as a lay viewer, I didn’t really pick up on much of that at all. Rather this feels like a spiritual quest in which several characters are challenged by their situation to find new ways of relating to one another and the world — or something of that nature. It’s also beautifully shot, with a graceful wandering camera which encompasses these characters, often in long sinuous takes. However, it requires a tolerance and patience for its slow cinema approach to unfolding the drama.

The Island Funeral film posterCREDITS
Director Pimpaka Towira พิมพกา โตวิระ; Writers Towira and Kong Rithdee ก้อง ฤทธิ์ดี; Cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng พุทธิพงษ์ อรุณเพ็ง; Starring Sasithorn Panichnok ศศิธร พานิชนก, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk อุกฤษ พรสัมพันธ์สุข, Yosawat Sitiwong ยศวัศ สิทธิวงค์; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 27 September 2018.