SEA of delights

The Third Wife.

The Bangkok Asean Film Festival runs until July 8 and features 30 titles. Here are our top picks.

The Third Wife

With exquisite languor, this Vietnamese film is at once a sensuous display of Oriental exotica and a stern call for the rights of women to have control over their own bodies. In the late 19th century, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a 14-year-old girl, is promised to a wealthy landowner in an arranged marriage, thus making her his third wife. In his mansion by a vast bamboo field, May is expected, like the two previous wives, to lie on the nuptial bed and give birth to a male heir -- a reproductive triumph that would elevate her status in the hierarchy of power. As May learns to navigate the labyrinthine household dynamic, she discovers that her own body is both a passive object and a source of power.

The Third Wife was directed by Vietnam-born, New York-educated Ash Mayfair. It is a movie for the #MeToo era, casting a critical eye squarely at patriarchal tradition. Its seductive mix of stately melodrama and feminist impulses will reel you in. Also of note: the cinematographer is a Thai talent, Chananun Chotrungroj, who has done an impressive job.

Showtime: July 4, 8.30pm; July 6, 1.10pm. At Paragon Cineplex.

Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus

Everyone is in love with Aileen in this oddball Filipino film. In the opening sequence, the beautiful and mysterious Aileen (Iana Bernardez) glides through the crowd on a street in Manila in an irresistible slo-mo runway-walk, enchanting the entire neighbourhood as well as the audience from row A to Z. During the course of the film, four men fall for her -- lust after her, to be more precise -- and their feverish longing for this woman, who always appears in the uniform of an unidentified employer, leads them toward romantic and sexual frustration and complication.

A story of female objectification and the melancholic aftertaste of desire, this film is a perfect companion to The Third Wife (see above). But unlike that Vietnamese film, Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus is set in the midst of Manila's urban dust and grind. Aileen's background is never explained, and her status as an ultimate male fantasy can be read as a parody of men's desire or as a vision of surreal beauty to soothe the everyday cruelty experienced by the working class of a Southeast Asian metropolis. Recommended!

Showtime: July 4, 6pm; July 6, 1pm. At SF World Cinema.

Ave Maryam

This Indonesian film is set almost entirely in a convent and tells a forbidden love story (the only kind of love story that's worth telling) between a nun and a priest. Sister Maryam's faith is tested when she meets the charming Father Yosef who has come to teach music. The dilemma is clear and age-old: love or prayer, man or god, feeling or faith. Will the good sister give in to love -- and sin? Faith-based love stories are unusual in this region, especially a Catholic-based love story from a Muslim country.

What makes Ave Maryam worth checking out is the elegant production design and cinematography, which recreates Indonesia in the 1980s with taste and flair. Chicco Jerikho plays Father Yosef and Maudy Kusmaedi is Maryam.

Showtime: July 6, 8pm; July 7, 3.20pm. At Paragon Cineplex.

Hope Frozen

Religion meets science fiction amid death, grief, love and controversy in this Thai documentary by Pailin Wedel. Hope Frozen looks at the real-life high-profile case of Thai parents who, in 2015, had their two-year-old daughter's body cryogenically preserved with the belief that one day technology would be able to bring her back to life and cure her cancer. The film follows parents Sahatorn and Nareerat Naovaratpong, both scientists, as they deal with the death of their daughter, Einz, and how their process of mourning intersects with their beliefs in both Buddhism and science.

Pailin, a photojournalist based in Bangkok, talks to her subjects at length and mixes news footage and TV interviews into a compelling story of a family who wants to prove -- valiantly, maddeningly -- that life after death is an act of science as well as of love.

Showtime: July 5, 6.30pm; July 7, 6pm. At SF World Cinema.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling

This documentary from Cambodian director Kavich Neang trains a sensitive, observant eye on families living in the White Building, a historic apartment tower in Phnom Penh that is about to be demolished. Built in 1963, the building was evacuated during the Khmer Rouge era. When peace returned, it became a cultural quarters where many artists and poets lived.

The imminent demolition of White Building, the film seems to suggest, reflects another wave of transformation, physically and culturally, that is happening all over Phnom Penh. Last Night I Saw You Smiling focuses on three families as they face the difficulty of relocation and how a community deals with the inevitable change that comes to a city as it embraces modernity.

Showtime: July 4, 6.30pm; July 6, 8pm. At Paragon Cineplex.