STOP10: 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Films


Exactly 10 years ago, I started a blog to chronicle the underground short film movement that was happening in Singapore, a time when Anthony Chen’s Ah Ma won Singapore first Cannes award and the image of film programmers like Yuni Hadi tearing plastic wrappings off Yeo's packet drinks, was a strong visual fixture. That blog was SINdie in its early form. Unpredictable, raw, a lone boat sailing along with the tide of the scene.

Of course, a lot has changed with the scene and filmmakers are going the distance. Some even with a real elephant. On the other hand, we will always keep fond memories of institutions that have disappeared, like the Substation’s Moving Images programme and Sinema Old School, who gave us a turf to roam and create.

Sailing on for 10 years, I say we have been enriched but not necessarily all the wiser. In fact, over the years, we have been silently extending our radius to capture more stories beyond our shores (and I did not steal that line from Channel NewsAsia). It’s a natural transition when you are living in a region like Southeast Asia, never short on stories and folklore. So, 10 years on, we know the drill better but we are experimenting like a teenager all over again.

Trying to create reading material for an audience like Southeast Asia is inherently a knotty problem because no other region is as culturally diverse as this. In Indonesia itself, there are over 300 native languages spoken. But if films could transcend cultures like a K-pop song, we will naively believe we will be of use to quite a range of readers, who wear anything from a sarong to a longyi.

As the new year opens, there is like nothing a good classic to set your perspectives straight and give you hope that you will not walk through 2018 like a hamster in a wheel. STOP10, our regular Top 10 listical opens with 10 of the most life-changing Southeast Asian films. Such a grand theme but so much to choose from. We spent time looking for films that would disturb, jolt your personal philosophies, haunt your intellectual senses and change your opinion about something. If one takes a cross-sectional gaze of potentially powerful films from the region, one gets drugs, religion, ghosts, spirits, crime, race, politics and human trafficking. Gasp! But in between all that we also found love, beauty, humour and even sensuality.

There is so much to love and hate in the 10 films we have amassed in this STOP10 list. And our team has never put so much passion and emotional investment into STOP10 as this one. Each writer has revisited the film and produced a love letter to the film as a way of keeping log their individual epiphanies in their journey through each film. Each piece of writing is also an ode to cinema as much as an ode to the story told.


Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961)
P Ramlee
A memento from the glorious Malay language film industry of the 50s and 60s in Malaya, Seniman Bujang Lapok will tickle you, albeit in monochrome, with the hopelessly endearing mishaps of its three signature bachelors Ramli, Aziz and Sudin. In this third instalment of the Bujang Lapok (dirty bachelors in Malay) series, the three men stumble into a Jalan Ampas film studio in Singapore and deliver one of the most hilarious auditions ever. So wrong and yet so right that they were actually hired as actors. Starring the iconic P Ramlee, the film, itself a satire on the Malay film industry, earned immense popularity among the film-going crowd then and till today, a certain immortality as a textbook name. But really, its real charm is in its simpleton sensibilities and that whimsical gush of hope that anyone could be a movie star.

Here is a tribute by Rifyal Giffari.


The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993)
Tran Anh Hung
Some films change your life with blood, sweat and tears. This is a film that will make you want to eat your meals properly, make your bed when you wake up and colour-coordinate every fragment of your house and every aspect of your life. Nothing very much happens in Tran Anh Hung’s Camera d’Or winner The Scent of the Green Papaya. Just the story about a domestic helper, Mui, who gets hired into a merchant household and grows up with the family till she finds her sweet destiny with a handsome young master. While there is drama, grief and anguish from the characters, the film is more focussed on the minutiae of domestic life. The camera takes us from the gleam of the glazed cooked meat to the gleam of the porcelain vases on display. Every frame, every angle is a page off an interior design magazine or a self-help book of wise sayings to live life by. Oh yes, the production designer read the ‘green overtones’ brief a little too well.

Here is a tribute by Priscilla Liew.  


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Father of surrealism and animal spirits Apichatpong Weerasethakul raises some haunting questions about life, death and our existence as humans in his 2010 Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. For those whom the film was a forgotten haze, it follows Boonmee, a middle-aged man confronting impending death from kidney disease. In the midst of a countryside family reunion, he gets a surprise visit from the ghost of his dead wife and his lost son, who appears as a strange hairy beast with red glowing eyes. The film works like a ouija board, summoning our consciousness over manifestations of life and the afterlife, making us see where we stand in the greater universe of creatures or things. And random and absurd occurrences like a buffalo’s escape and a princess having sex with a catfish, somehow complete the religious experience of watching the film, like reading about miracles in the New Testament. Except, there are no words, and very importantly, no forced narratives.

Here is a tribute by Tanvi Rajvanshi.


What they Don’t Talk about when They Talk about Love (2013)
Mouly Surya
So much for our tendency to throw around metaphorical phrases – Mouly Surya gives a literal rendition of “love is blind” by setting this story in a school for the visually-impaired in Jakarta. Beyond the novelty of this idea, Surya’s choice of subject matter is fascinating because it tells the stories of segments of society for which a full appreciation of film is impossible. This puts us in an inherently privileged perspective wherefrom it is easy to raise possible issues like exploitation; yet our position is also undermined through dream sequences that pose the question: So what if characters could both hear and see? Perhaps it is only through our own flaws that we learn to put our faith in others, and perhaps communication barriers are more self-imposed than anything else.

Here is a tribute by Kathy Poh.


The Road to Mandalay (2016)
Midi Z
Midi Z, a Taiwan-based Burmese filmmaker hijacks one of the evocative words in literature - Mandalay, to bring us a high-impact story about two illegal immigrants from Myanmar who aim to start a new life in Bangkok, only to find a painful ending. The Road to Mandalay bears no semblance to the world Rudyard Kipling painted in his 1890 poem - of golden pagodas, palm trees and temple bells. In fact, none of the action takes place in Myanmar. For fans of Taiwanese film You Are the Apple of My Eye, you get to watch actor Kai Ko take on a much more sombre role with aplomb. Together with some stunning camerawork, this film is quite a conscience trip you need to set your perspectives right.

Here is a tribute by Alfonse Chiu.


Himala (1982)
Ishmael Bernal
It is so hard to fathom how ahead of its time this film was when it was completed back in 1982. We live in a world today steeped in much blind worship, be it with organised religion or people anointed with the ubiquitous title - social media influencers. Himala, which means ‘Miracle’ in Tagalog, by Ishmael Bernal, bravely questions faith, especially the type that thrives on a certain crowd euphoria. Elsa, played by Filipina screen legend Nora Aunor, became a news sensation after she claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary and can heal people. Soon, she had more ‘followers’ (this can’t get anymore contemporary) that she could handle and she had to find a way to come clean one day. If you think the movie’s concept is intelligent, wait till you watch its explosive ending. Makes you want to utter ‘Santa Maria!’ and then let off a tiny chuckle.

Here is a tribute by Colin Low.


The Act of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer
More than a million alleged communists perished under a killing spree when Suharto’s New Order regime came into play. Instead of focussing on the victims, Joshua Oppenheimer did the perturbing opposite of giving the real killers a stage, some spotlights, and a generous sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, to re-enact the killings they carried out in the 60s. Taking a bizarre look into the whole theatrics and psychology of killing has earned The Act of Killing a place in cinema’s hall of fame. In one scene, Anwar Congo, who is rumoured to have personally executed a thousand people, points to an old photo of himself dressed in denim with cowboy western overtones. ‘’I wore jeans for killing,’’ he said. Toying with real mass murderers, putting them on a pedestal, albeit a fake one, stoking up half a century-old fears and trauma, we are not sure if any bona-fide Indonesian can watch this with a level head and eyes wide open. But to those who can watch this without a blink, you have a strong stomach.

Here is a tribute by Koh Zhihao.


Apprentice (2016)
Boo Junfeng
There is no blood. Just an imagined snap of the spine causing instant death. Words and walls, histories and accounts interlock to create a spine-tingling chill that pervades Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice, a view on the death penalty in a Singapore context. Somehow, putting the audience in the shoes of the state-sanctioned killer is more terrifying than being in the shoes of the condemned. This film stands apart from Dead Man Walking and the likes for doing just that. And surely the real life story of Darshan Singh, Singapore’s longest executioner, who once executed up to 18 convicts a day, deserves a film adaptation. Somewhat.

Here is a tribute by Dawn Teo.


The Woman who Left (2016)
Lav Diaz
A great injustice has been done to a woman. After being subjugated to imprisonment for years because of a crime she did not commit, Horacia is released back into society and she is burning with a need to take revenge on her former lover who had framed her for the crime. Lav Diaz's masterpiece, The Woman Who Left is both a sensitive portrait of a woman's human condition as she seeks to commit a revenge that would challenge conventional morality and a sprawling epic about a troubled nation facing unresolved repressions and lingering sorrows. Clocking in at a long three hour and forty-eight minutes and coupled with an abundance of long takes and lingering shots, this is a picture that will definitely challenge the viewer's patience, but beneath its challenging exterior, a picture that is both tender and greatly thought-provoking can be found. 

Here is a tribute by Timothy Ong.


Talentime (2009)
Yasmin Ahmad 
This list deserves a Yasmin Ahmad. Gone but not forgotten, the late Filmmaker confronted race and religion squarely like no other. Her body of films cut through the veneer of slogan-imposed racial harmony, giving us a raw gaze at cultural sensitivities. Watching Talentime, Yasmin’s swan song, felt like having daggers turning in your heart, especially with seeing good-intentioned love torn apart by authority steeped in prejudice. Featuring various students in a school preparing for a talent contest, the film is really more about one word - differences. Differences can kill. So prepare to be heart broken. But expect to healed too, especially by sweet music. In fact, the film has a standout song ‘I go’ by Pete Teo, whose tender melody seems to immortalise the film and coincidentally close the verse on not just a film career, but an era.

Here is a tribute by Jacqueline Lee.

Written by Jeremy Sing

Jeremy has been mistaken for a Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and mainland Chinese. His heart is as confused as his looks, and has a passion for Asian stories, new and old. 

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