Asean Film Festival is finally here

Asean Film Festival is finally here

This year's edition gets under way in CentralWorld with plenty of talent on display

Asean Film Festival is finally here
Morrison. (Photos: Asean Film Festival)

Despite the odd, unexplained double postponement -- the first when it was moved from early December 2023 to late January 2024, and then from January to March -- the Bangkok Asean Film Festival finally gets under way, from today until Sunday at SF CentralWorld. Despite the adjournment, the line-up looks decent, with the best Southeast Asian titles culled from the past year -- Tiger Stripes, Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell, Abang Adik, Dreaming And Dying, Oasis Of Now, Nowhere Near, Morrison, Thai classics The Adventure Of Sudsakorn and The Adulterer, and a short film competition.

Last year was an especially electrifying year for Malaysian cinema and the festival presents three works from our southern neighbour -- Amanda Nell Eu's Tiger Stripes, Chee Sum Chia's Oasis Of Now, and Jin Ong's Abang Adik. All three are worth catching and represent diverse sensibilities indicative of a healthy creative atmosphere.

Tiger Stripes, which won a top prize at Cannes's Critics' Week last May, spins what could have been a straightforward fable of an angry hijab girl into a wilder, unrulier coming-of-age drama of the TikTok generation. Puberty is all claws and fangs for Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), a teenage girl who metamorphoses into a tiger and wreaks havoc in her rural village. A horror film and comic satire, Tiger Stripes makes real the Southeast Asian myth of were-tigers while metaphorising the physical, blood-spilling growing-pains of a young woman. Bring your daughter to see it, there'll be plenty to talk about afterwards.

The crime drama Abang Adik is a fine example of how to make a solid, stirring commercial film with neither pretensions nor conceptual high jinks. This is a well-told, superbly-acted story of two young men (We Kang Ren and Jack Tan) in the squalid quarters of Kuala Lumpur and their struggles against the faceless cruelty of the system. The gritty realism and noirish beat recalls the social commentary of films of the 1970s (MC Chatrichalerm Yukol of Thailand, Leno Brocka of the Philippines), but it's the two leads that nail all the emotional punches.

Tiger Stripes.

Moving on to a less privileged neighbourhood of Malaysia, Oasis Of Now is more oblique and austere. Set in an urban housing project, mostly in one of its crummy stairwells, the film watches a female migrant worker bond with a child through simple gestures and games. In the simplicity of the setting and the story, we see glimpses of loneliness, alienation and how people carve up their own private world in what seems like the middle of the nowhere.

As in other aspects of late, Vietnamese cinema has come up strong in recent years, driven partly by a generation of filmmakers who are either based in the US or have migrated back to Vietnam.

Pham Thien An's Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell boosted Vietnam's status in world cinema when the film won the Camera d'Or at Cannes Film Festival last year besides many other prizes that followed. The film's opening scene -- in which the camera dawdles on a group of characters who are discussing the meaning of life while a crowd around them roars with excitement over a football match and a road accident is about to occur -- is exquisite in its directorial conception. Over the next three hours, the main character travels from the city to his rural hometown in search of spiritual release, a journey of faith and futility, a transcendental odyssey aided sometimes by the sign of a cross. Pham was born in Vietnam and is now based in the US, though his film is deep-rooted in the fertile memory and history of his homeland.

From Singapore, Nelson Yeo's Dreaming And Dying is a cheeky, dreamy love triangle set in a deserted hotel and forest as three middle-aged friends reunite for a weekend that turns upside down. The film is attuned to the invisibility of desire and the comedy of social awkwardness, and finally infused with phantasmagorical folktale elements -- a thread we have seen with increasing frequency in Southeast Asian indie films when real-life conflicts are absolved through a fantastic denouement. Dreaming And Dying won a big prize at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival last year, and that alone is enough to attract the Thai crowd.

Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell.

The only documentary film in the line-up is Nowhere Near from Filipino director Miko Revereze. It's part diary, part experimental narrative on the experience of the filmmaker's family as undocumented immigrants in the US.

The closer is a new Thai film called Morrison. Starring Hugo Chakrabongse, the film follows the trippy sojourn of an engineer sent to renovate a Cold War-era hotel upcountry, whose blood-red walls seem to have stopped time. The film is directed by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, a respected cinematographer whose first directorial effort Manta Ray (2018) won the top prize in the Orizzonti section at the Venice International Film Festival. Morrison flits around the edge of the character's consciousness -- a perpetual state of wakeful dream in which ghosts, memory and history merge. Cold War paranoia is alive and well, at least in the enigma of Morrison.

Also, don't forget the short film competition programme -- this is the part of the festival that actually matters the most since it presents young talent from across the region. Lastly, two classic Thai films curated by the Thai Film Archive are also worth a look. This year, there's Thailand's first feature-length animated film The Adventure Of Sudsakorn (1979), conceived and painstakingly hand-drawn by Payut Ngao-krachang, and the hothouse drama The Adulturerer (1972) by Piak Poster.

The Bangkok Asean Film Festival 2023 starts today and runs until Sunday. Admission is free. Go to the Facebook page of Bangkok Asean Film Festival and follow the booking link there.

Abang Adik.

Screening Schedule

March 28

  • 6pm: Asean Short Film Competition 3
  • 8pm: Dreaming And Dying

March 29

  • 6pm: Asean Short Film Competition 2 (with Q&A)
  • 8:15pm: Abang Adik

March 30

  • 1pm: The Adventure Of Sudsakorn
  • 2:45pm: Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell
  • 6pm: Asean Short Film Competition 2
  • 8pm: Tiger Stripes

March 31

  • 1:30pm: Nowhere Near
  • 3:20:pm The Adulterer
  • 6:15pm: Oasis Of Now
  • 8pm: Morrison (Closing film, with Q&A)
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