[slide 1] Exploring ‘Chinese’ art film aesthetic influences on independent Chinese
Malaysian filmmakers (short version)
Gaik Cheng Khoo
Australian National University
PLEASE DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION
Paper [slide 2]
1. ‘Chinese’ art film aesthetics?
I‟d first like to get a very large question out of the way. In conceiving the abstract of this presentation, I decided that we need to examine more closely the constant comparison of the works of indie Chinese Malaysian filmmakers to better known art film auteurs like HHH and Tsai Ming Liang. Is there a „Chinese‟ art film aesthetic that threads through many of the Chinese Malaysian indies? First, let‟s hone in on the word “Chinese.” Actually, „Chinese‟ th Generation or even the poetics refer specifically to Taiwan New Cinema, not mainland 5thso-called 6 generation. Also, when Taiwan New Cinema emerged in the early 1980s on the film festival circuit, initially the films were screened under a catch-all category: China/Hongkong/Taiwan, sometimes even when it came under „Taiwan‟ it had „China‟ tagged behind. So the term “Chinese art film aesthetic” is too broad in this case for reasons of geography, politics and also, style and content, something I will return to later.
In terms of style or technique, there is no denying the influence of Tsai Ming Liang on Malaysian indies and other aspiring East and Southeast Asian art film directors. Tsai created a kind of language that is, according to Brian Hu, “legible to the film festival crowd,”
teaching us “how to read a certain brand of long takes, long shots, empty spaces, urban sounds, narrative minimalism and quirky sexuality” (2005). His influence is reflected in the 1works by his leading actor, Lee Kang-sheng, Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, and James Lee. 2While this form of genealogising is common, Hu reminds us that this tendency racialises the
films by homogenising the diverse range of Asian art films with a stereotypical pan-Asianness. It makes the newer films easier to dismiss (see Hilo 2007) without allowing for local specificities and political positioning (Hu ibid.). Not only that, it downplays the influences of non-Asian filmmakers on Asian art films such as Italian neorealism for the use of non-actors (Wu 78).
I would like to take up Hu‟s point. Yes, indie Malaysian filmmakers like Ho, Woo Ming Jin and James Lee count among their favourite films, those by Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang and TML. Yet Tsai Ming-liang himself admits his influences come from the European modernists of the 1960s and 1970s, Antonioni and Truffaut among others (interview with Shelly Kraicer 2000). When asked by Kraicer if his films participate in a “Taiwanese Art Film Style” set by Hou Hsiao-hsien (using long takes, stationary camera, medium to long shots, and location shooting), Tsai denies the association, stating instead that his films are influenced by his own theatre work (Kraicer 583). Incidentally, his films have been likened to Harold Pinter plays, and coincidentally, James Lee who also emerges from a theatrical
1 Brian Hu explains that film critic Tony Rayns panned Kim‟s 3-Iron as a copy of Tsai‟s Vive L’Amour (1994). 2 For example, claims that Hou Hsiao Hsien is a descendent of Mizoguchi or Ozu, or Lou Ye‟s SuZhou River
being very Wong Kar Wai.
background has directed a Pinter play on stage and his trilogy on Love are takes on Pinter‟s
play. Similarly, Malaysian indie filmmakers also are familiar with a diverse range of international films [SLIDE 4].
Yuhang likes well-written stories, feeling, subtlety of expression whereas Ming Jin‟s favs point to specific ways of cinematic storytelling, stylistics and content that the filmmakers emulate (influences that come from the French as much as Kim Ki Duk or more unconsciously TML): little to no dialogue; emphasis on visual storytelling (a characteristic of Hubert Bals‟ funded projects, and evidenced in Rain Dogs and The Elephant and the Sea), long
takes, non-actors, and a focus on everyday life.
 There are important reasons behind the rise of Taiwan New Cinema: its opposition to the authoritarian martial law (1947-87) and “to state power and the concentration of cultural
production” (Davis 4). It was also able to flourish in a time of increasing democratization in
Taiwan. According to Chia-chi Wu:
Taiwan New Cinema started out as political and cultural rebellion in the domestic
context, got re-inscribed as an anticolonial cinema against Japanese, Chinese, or
American imperialism on the international stage (but distinct from the category of
„Third Cinema‟), and ended up transforming itself into a supplier of international art
Thus there are very culturally and politically specific reasons for the beginnings of such a cinema movement.  Notably, land reform, rapid industrialization with the economic and political support of the USA and multinational investments made Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s the fastest growing economy in the world and brought radical socio-cultural transformations in lifestyles, social relations and value systems (Lu 11).  Confronted by
modernity, Taiwan New Cinema directors reacted in their own ways:
Hou “traces disappearing traditional cultures mostly located in rural areas” (Lu 19).
For Edward Yang, Taiwanese modernity results in urban and social alienation where characters are lonely, and the city is a place where the worship of money has overtaken traditional familial ties and filial piety, and people are perceived to be fake or constantly performing (even when they are not).
As for the modernist Tsai, his very sad, almost plotless films which offer a “slice-of-life”,
broken with some comic relief (Kraicer 583) to capture banal everyday life suggest a modernity where communication is impossible despite civility and technological advancement and where the human is reduced to the qualities of an animal. For example his films capture quotidian “scenes of intimate cleaning, defecation, masturbation, grief, drinking, eating, telephone calls, ironing, coitus, etc.” (Rehm 27). Much of this everyday action revolves around the body which can fall apart, lose control, or be disgraced (Chan 6; see also Joyard 71, 74).
 The style/formal techniques, according to Norne and Yeh (online 1994) that constitute Hou‟s poetics include:
; The use of static, extremely long takes
; Measured, rhythmic use of ellipsis
; Minimal use of tracks, pans, intra shot reframing
; Temporally unmarked transitional spaces
; Tendency toward tableaux-like long-shots/few close ups
; The geometricization of space
; Delimitation of the frame (used to emphasize routine, domesticity & control)
; Locking the camera/spectator into a single axis
; Rare, strategic use of the shot/reverse shot figure
; Gradual revelation and construction of spatial relationships
All these connect to give a sense of oblique narrative –this relies on composition, mise en
scène (setting, scene building, acting), and camera movement (static shot and the long take).
 Tsai Style’s:
“long takes, long shots, empty spaces, urban sounds, narrative minimalism and quirky sexuality” (Hu);
“static camera, minimal dialogue and music, disaffected and almost mute male lead, obsessions with sexual longing and dissatisfaction, tension between an ascetic style and narrative unpredictability” (Andrew Chan of Woo Ming Jin‟s Elephant and the Sea having Tsai
 James Udden points out Hou‟s pan-East Asian minimalism (static long take) as a legacy on Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda‟s Maborosi (1995) Tsai Ming-liang, Korean director
Hong Sang-soo, and mainland Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke‟s Platform (2001) (194).
[SLIDE 11—READ from slide 11 & 12] 2. The particular: local
specificities and political positioning
i. Formal influences
Having acknowledged that Hou and Tsai (as well as the European avant garde) conceived a set of aesthetic devices (or poetics) that are tremendously influential on a younger generation of filmmakers in Asia, let‟s look at the specific impact these have on indie Chinese Malaysian
films. Overall, I think that a close analysis of each film would have to be made before any
conclusion can be derived about the particular art film aesthetics adopted by individual indie filmmakers. This is because the Malaysian Independent Filmmakers (MIF) is still a new movement; some of its young directors have only a handful of short films and one feature under their belt (Tan Chui Mui, Khoo Eng Yow and Liew Seng Tat), while other more feature-prolific directors (like Ho Yuhang and Woo Ming Jin) are still experimenting, defining and refining their personal styles. Thus, since they are evolving in style, to label a filmmaker as Tsai wannabe is perhaps shortsighted and rigid; it imposes a pan-Asian homogenous framework of art film aesthetics that frees the film from its specific geographical and historical meanings.  Labelling depoliticizes both the reasons for the
emergence of Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s and the specific context and
significance of indie filmmaking in Malaysia post-2000. In addition, while their films focus on visual storytelling, with minimal dialogue, low-keyed acting (or non-acting), little use of music and a reliance on ambient sound, it is more difficult to generalize that long static takes are signature traits (over time) for any of the filmmakers. For example, Ho‟s third feature Rain Dogs (which had the highest budget and number of locations compared to his two previous films) has fewer long takes (except for the final scene of the rainbow) and the camera is also less static. One should study closely an auteur‟s whole body of work before confirming the kinds of art film aesthetics they incorporate as part of their own over time. James Lee‟s first feature Snipers which uses three interconnected vignettes about a sniper‟s
gun may be influenced by the story structure of WKW‟s Chungking Express, but generally
critics do not associate his style with Wong.  In her later analysis of Flowers of Shanghai,
Yeh (2001) too suggests that even Hou‟s world of poetics “keeps expanding its parameters,”
meaning that he tried newer techniques to convey his poetics (74). Yeh has been careful to explain that Hou‟s formal aesthetics are in the interests of elucidating his “mythos,” the recurring themes in his work (Yeh 2001:71).
So how do the formal aesthetics support the recurring themes of the individual Malaysian indie director?
 ii. influences on content: capturing everyday life
The focus on quotidian life, proffered by both Hou and Tsai, is strongly evident in films by James Lee, Ho Yuhang, Woo Ming Jin, Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat. Chinese Malaysian indies portray the everyday life of marginal, working class characters, using minimal dialogue and subtle storytelling.
They are not alone in capturing quotidian life and offering a critique of modern everyday life. Digital works from China in recent years like Platform banned in their own country for
exposing the negative effects of capitalism on everyday life but garnering awards overseas suggest a proclivity on the part of film festivals for an aesthetic of the everyday. Thus one wonders whether these filmmakers are also influenced by the commodification of the global art film market or the desires of festival programmers, curators and audiences looking for the pseudo-individualised Asian art film that still falls within the standardised paradigm of „different but the same‟?
As the rising Asian national cinema in foreign film festivals in the last few years, digital Malaysian indies have succeeded in putting Malaysia on the film festival map since The
Arsonist made it to Cannes in 1995. Suffice it to say the MIF‟s international visibility as a
group representing “The Colours of Malaysia” is significant not only for raising the level of
film as art in the country, but perhaps more critically from the point of racial politics. Due to the National Cultural Policy which calls for assimilation to native Malay culture, ethnic minority Malaysian players have been sidelined from the mainstream film industry since the 1970s. The racial dimension even while downplayed in the interests of focusing instead on human cosmopolitanism cannot be unhinged from larger questions related to the socio-cultural and economic transformations Malaysia has undergone over the past thirty years or more under the NEP. While reasons for the emergence of indie filmmaking have to do with technological advancements, structural and socio-political reasons set the context for the rise of the indies. But film content is equally important to analyse. Why the everyday?
 iii. Preliminary hypothesis on indie representations of Malaysian
3 everyday life
First, quotidian subjects are understandable and realistic given the limited budgets. There need not be special effects, stunts, built sets, etc. Most of these films are set in contemporary times, foregoing the necessity of building historical sets, expensive costuming and period detail.
Secondly, like New Taiwan Cinema directors, indie Malaysian filmmakers draw attention to the socio-economic and cultural conditions of Malaysia in the 1990s and present. Malaysia too underwent rapid economic growth over a span of 20 years into the 1990s. Before the financial crisis in 1997, the annual GDP was about 7-8 %.
Indie films focus on the darker side of modernity, showing those who have not benefited from the economic success of the NEP years, questioning development, and suggesting that the drive towards consumption is irrational.
Most indie filmmakers claim not to have a political agenda, stating that they merely want to tell stories. These films are personal stories of familial and romantic relationships that in their particular low-key focus on everyday modernity in Malaysia, illustrate everydayness as marked by boredom (Room To Let 2002), alienation, routine (Sanctuary, 2004) as well as
mystery and quirky humour. Some have clearer political goals than others: Khoo Eng Yow‟s
The Bird House (2006) pits economic development against heritage conservation efforts between two brothers.
 I read these cinematic representations of everydayness as possible sites of resistance and struggle (against who and what?), while also wondering if they merely portray everydayness as conforming to and playing out dominant ideologies. Some of these films offer a critique of everyday life, particularly highlighting the social alienation in urban capitalist modernity (Beautiful Washing Machine 2004) and the unevenness of economic development which are
tied to racial policies that affect marginalised communities.  Through representations of
everyday acts like smoking and eating, I argue that James Lee‟s films hint of the fundamental alienation of the modern subject who, as workers alienated from their product of labour in capitalism, can never be satisfied or achieve complete happiness (Khoo, forthcoming).
 Of course the question of whose everyday life is being represented and why in terms of
class, gender, age and ethnicity (including language and religion) is of utmost relevance. These fictional films focus on petty gangsters, prostitutes, food vendors, the unemployed, who trudge on in life with “cruel optimism” (Berlant) that it is possible to climb the ladder of success despite the pro-elite Malay policies and corruption that work against them. The predominant focus on working-class ethnic Chinese and Indian characters challenges ethnic stereotypes and provides complexity beyond racialised representations. For example, Tan Chui Mui‟s short film There Is Treasure Everywhere (2000) is the story of a karung guni man, a
3 My focus on the representations of everyday life in indie films is the basis of a broader project covering not just the works of Chinese Malaysian filmmakers but also films by Amir Muhammad, Yasmin Ahmad, Deepak K. Menon.
Malaysian modern version of Benjamin‟s rag picker, who looks for scrap metal, old furniture etc. to sell.  Ben Highmore elaborates on Benjamin‟s trash aesthetic:
The ragpicker deals in the second-hand, in the dreams of the past for a future that
was never realized. The modern-day ragpicker treads a fine line between a
sentimental attitude towards the past and a revolutionary nostalgia for the future.
When the latter takes precedence over the former, the ragpicker‟s radical task
becomes one of cataloguing the broken promises that have been abandoned in the
everyday trash of history. (Ben Highmore 2002: 65)
While the tone of the film is an upbeat one – it is narrated by an Indian boy in English
through (animated) drawings of his father whom he imagines as a captain of a ship going to look for treasure – the film also derives pathos from its viewers who catch glimpses of reality through the video footage interspersed with the drawings. This story of an Indian karung guni man, a young father collecting the scraps of capitalism to support his family, can be read as a reminder about the state of economic marginalization of Indian Malaysians under 4 the NEP.
 Woo Ming Jin‟s The Elephant and the Sea (2007) hints of the darker consequences of
modernity on the environment when dead and poisoned fish wash ashore and a strange epidemic (possibly bird flu) has killed the wife of a fisherman and wiped out his chickens. The effects of outmigration to the big city for work and the unevenness of modernity in small coastal towns means unemployment for youths left behind or involvement in petty criminal activity and small scam jobs, mostly performed on motorists (presumably outsiders on the main highway passing through). Woo makes use of repetition (of composed shots, of events) to capture the routine of his two protagonists. The everyday is tedious but nevertheless, Yun Ding hopes that luck is just around the corner and may bring surprises (which it does when he wins the lotto). For this coastal town which relies on fishing, it is nature whose power to provide is suppressed and thwarted by humans‟ degradation of the environment. However, the appearances of a flowerhorn fish, an iguana, elephant, chick and water imagery finally redeem the lives of its characters (acting either as natural resources to be exploited/poached, to offer luck, or as signifiers of Nature‟s mysterious wonder and spiritual reward). Living in poverty, Yun Ding has little room for sentimentality whether for his dead friend‟s valuables (mobile phone and camera) or for the wildlife he captures for sale. And modernity, manifesting in the form of the mobile phone and camera, is only good for pawning for cash to survive, doing little to improve the owner‟s quality of life.
 Lastly, the specific ways these films represent everydayness is important: they eschew fast paced cross-cutting for long takes and still shots, and favour gritty realism and natural lighting to convey the banality of the everyday as oppositional tactics to mainstream film values. In this, they share a global modernist aesthetic with other low budget indie filmmakers. In conclusion, like Hou‟s formal choices supporting his poetics and themes, the
long take, still shot and the use of repetition that fall under the category of art film aesthetics are deployed (in this case by Woo) because they convey the rhythm of everyday life in small town Malaysia in the most effective (affective) ways.
4 The ragpicker shows up again in a scene in Liew‟s Flower in the Pocket (2007) when the father of the boys goes
to a dumping ground to abandon the puppy.
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