Tag Archives: cinema

The Literary vs the Martial

Using examples from recent movies, this post in The China Beat makes an interesting observation about the kungfu genre, and why Kung Fu Panda really relies more on American cultural tropes than Chinese ones:

The assumption is that writing encodes greater cosmic-martial truth than image. Those who can read attain higher occult power than those who can only view. While this may sound hopelessly snooty in the age of YouTube, the basic idea still resonates in Chinese cultural spheres.

Variations of this idea can be found in most Chinese-language kungfu movies. The literary and martial arts are taken to be two sides of the same cosmic coin, or the Way. Both are said to be inspired by the tracks and movements of birds and beasts. Hence the same metaphors and protocols inform both the civil and martial domains, invariably urging the harmony of heaven, earth, and man.

But I wonder if the author’s mixed up his genres. The observations about the cosmological importance of the written word apply more to wuxia movies rather than gongfu. (For a quick description of wuxia, Wikipedia suffices although I don’t totally agree with the list of movies in the entry.)

Kung Fu Panda has more in common with the gongfu works of Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu etc. Those latter movies can be interpreted as perpetuating a middle-class self-improvement morality tale as the blog entry implies, but it’s difficult to deny that they’re any less Chinese than wuxia.

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SIFF 2008 — Milky Way Liberation Front, Keronchong for Pak Bakar, After the Rain

(cross-posted on the SFS blog. To see all cross-posts, click on the “SFS Blog” tag or category)

Leaving the cinema after the end credits for Milky Way Liberation Front rolled, that was the end of SIFF 2008 for me. I was already tired when we sat down to watch that movie. It was a good way to end the festival. Milky Way Liberation Front was fun, a long string of gags that gently poke fun at indie filmmaking, film festivals and the people who participate in them.

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Like his first short Datura, Abdul Nizam’s Keronchong for Pak Bakar is distinguished by impressionistic editing with strong narration and the use of vocabulary with religious undertones. There isn’t a clear narrative or chronological momentum, but the mix of image and narration can be slightly hypnotic.

I agree with Tan Pin Pin’s comments about the film: the work is concerned more with Abdul Nizam’s relationship with Abu Bakar bin Ali than with the latter’s past. In fact the documentary strongly suggests that the Abdul Nizam in the film is seeking a father figure identified with the golden age of Malay cinema. This search is expressed early in the movie as a search to know more about movie legend P Ramlee, through which Abdul Nizam discovers serendipitously that the man who lensed many of his movies lived just above him. At one point, Abdul Nizam expresses in regretful tones how he discovered too late that his hardworking father had loved film stars and movies. Throughout, Abdul Nizam is extremely respectful – even protective – towards Abu Bakar.

The material used in the documentary come from two major sources. The first is clearly the recorded footage from Abdul Nizam’s conversations with Abu Bakar. The second is more mysterious — footage of a train journey up Malaysia to Penang, ostensibly taken while location scouting for a feature film on P Ramlee’s life (according to Abdul Nizam the project eventually fell through).

Empty spaces feature prominently here, partly illustrating Pak Bakar’s current solitude. When I asked Abdul Nizam why he weaved in the silent, lonely sequences from his train journey, he indicated that it was partly to convince Abu Bakar to come out of his solitude more often, perhaps to work on film again.

That documentary left the audience with far more questions about Abu Bakar Ali than answers. Why did Abu Bakar stop working on films? Why does he mostly talk about technical matters — for most of the documentary he is fiddling with an old Bolex handheld camera — and nothing about himself?

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I’m still surprised and a bit disgusted that SIFF screened Royston Tan’s latest short “film” After the Rain before Keronchong for Pak Bakar. Rose-tinted nostalgia and banal cliches (the father coughs to prefigure his eventual death) pliantly placed in the service of the Singapore government’s ideological imperatives. This is not a film but an advertisement, worse than the Citibank ads played before every SIFF screening because of its slick hypocrisy. Why did SIFF even bother?

SFS History in “Latent Images”

A couple of weeks ago, while reading up to prep for the Perspectives Film Festival, I discovered that Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde had already compiled a comprehensive account of the Singapore Film Society’s history since 1958, in their book Latent Images: Film in Singapore. I contacted them, and they were kind enough to allow the SFS to reproduce the section online.

However, records from the 1960s and 1970s suggest the Film Society might have been active even before 1958. A January 1961 Sunday Times article noted that the Singapore Film Society had been “in existence for six years.” Similarly, in February 1971, film critic Koh wrote that the society “had been in existence for some 16 years.” In the 19 March 1985 edition of The Singapore Monitor, Wong Sing Yeong claimed that “the Singapore Film Society was formed in 1956 to complement the commercial cinema by screening less popular art films.”

Click here to read the complete extract.

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Latent Images is a key academic work on the history and development of Singapore cinema. I recommend the CD-ROM version, released 3 years after the book with some updates. It also contains video clips – interviews and footage of the former Shaw studios at Jalan Ampas.

If you’re interested, you can get it online from the Asian Film Archive.