Mid-century modern: women and labour in 1950s Southeast Asian melodrama

September 8, 2022, 3:12pm

by Rosalind Galt

Melodrama as a cinematic form has always addressed the relationship of gender to capitalism, navigating questions of modernity and patriarchy through intimate and familial relationships.1 In melodrama, the political is personal, and the obstacles facing women in the modern world are seen––but more so, felt––in response to narratives of sacrifice and impossible love. It is also a global genre. Despite the concept’s European roots, its significance in cinemas from India to Japan and South Korea points to its value across Asian film history.2 Indeed, scholars such as Madhava Prasad and Bhaskar Sarkar have considered whether Asian nations have experienced especially melodramatic histories, and Stephen Teo outlines a specially Asian construction of melodramatic space.3 In the Asian Film Archive’s RECIPROCAL series, we can see that melodrama is also a useful lens through which to think about the confluence of gender, modernity, and film style in Southeast Asian cinemas.

In my recent book Alluring Monsters: the Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization, I focus on the pontianak as a figure from Southeast Asian popular cinema that can articulate a wide range of ideas about gender roles and national identities in the era of decolonisation.4 For example, pontianak films can tell stories of feminist revenge, Malay identity, or precolonial belief. Crucial to this project is the idea that genre films form an active part of history, constituting an everyday way that audiences imagine themselves as participating in modern cultures. Female-centred melodramas do similar historical work, playing out conflicts between tradition and modernity in stories about women looking for a place for themselves within rapidly changing societies. Of course, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are themselves contested concepts, which do not refer to absolute historical truths but allow us to trace competing ideas about historical change and, often, about gender and power.5

RECIPROCAL features two striking melodramas from the mid-1950s, Penchuri (K.M. Basker, 1956) from Singapore and Forever Yours (Tawee na Bangchang, 1955) from Thailand. The films are very different in some ways — the exuberant colour cinematography and bold combination of realism and allegory in Forever Yours contrast with Penchuri’s more sedate visual grounding in Malay theatrical tradition. Penchuri features a virtuous woman who struggles to find happiness while Forever Yours tells a story of adultery in which the heroine pays for her transgression with her life. Both in terms of style and narrative, the films highlight differences between Thai and Malay films of the period. And yet, by watching them together, we can discern common threads. Both films stage conflict around women’s place in the modern world, and particularly with the tensions between marriage and labour. The films feature lively and strong-minded heroines who are not content with the limitations of conventional femininity.

(L-R) Image stills from Forever Yours (1955, dir. Tawee Na Bangchang) and Penchuri aka The Thief (1956, dir. KM Basker)

Although it is a love story, Forever Yours is strikingly focused on labour. The entire logging camp mise-en-scène is a space of labour: from the elephants moving lumber, to the men carrying cut wood, to the women cleaning the house and preparing food. This labour is no mere background, as the film opens with a sequence that moves us from the masculine realm of the camp, with its trains, local labourers, and more privileged administrators, to the female domestic workers who clean the house but also serve as the boss’s mistresses, and finally to the cooks in the kitchen. The opening montage ends with the kitchen staff discussing life as a question of fate and luck, and this conversation sets in tension two key qualities of melodrama. On the one hand, in Peter Brook’s influential discussion of the melodramatic imagination, the universe is structured by fate, which often leads to tears.6 On the other hand, as feminist and Marxist film scholars have argued, fate is not mere chance but is constantly determined by the hierarchies of capitalism, patriarchy, and other systems of power.7 The opening sequence of Forever Yours establishes a strictly arranged world from which none of its characters will be able to escape. 

Image stills from Forever Yours (1955, dir. Tawee Na Bangchang)

Why does Forever Yours make such a point of these labouring characters in its opening? After all, it is not a story about unions or labour relations. It does so because everyone is at work, apart from Yupadee: as the new young wife of the logging camp owner, she enters this world of work as the only character with nothing to do. Yupadee’s class status as well as her modernity are signalled through her costuming, which present a delightful range of 1950s chic styles. In one scene, she wears orange capri pants, a popped collar, and long earrings; in another a red and white gingham halter dress; and in yet another, an elegantly patterned swing dress with a tight bodice and flared skirt. Her stylishness marks her as out of place in the rural logging camp and the arrival of this woman whose propriety demands her idleness creates a dangerous pressure which can only be released within the confines of the melodramatic narrative as sexual excess.8

Image stills from Forever Yours (1955, dir. Tawee Na Bangchang)

Yupadee seduces the boss’s nephew Sangmong, turning into more of a femme fatale than a heroine because there is nothing else for her to be in this story. In one crucial scene, the men worry that Yupadee might have been attacked by a tiger because she has wandered off alone to read a book. As a search party is formed, the men are diverted from other forms of labour—we see men driving elephants, trucks needed to ensure a shipment is completed on time—but because she is a wife, she has no gainful employment and can only waste time. Reading is a solitary form of leisure, emphasising that Yupadee has no social connections, and going alone to the creek is dangerous, even foolish. The men are diverted from their proper activities to correct her wrongheaded leisure. It is at the end of this sequence that a frustrated Yupadee tells Sangmong not to lock his door that night. Propriety gives her nowhere to go and so she abandons propriety and goes where she should not.

Image still from Forever Yours (1955, dir. Tawee Na Bangchang)

Forever Yours returns over and over to shots of workers in the house and in the sawmill, and if all this work might seem at first like a contrast to the indolent pleasures of the illicit lovers, the film’s bold twist is to make love a form of hard labour. When Yupadee’s elderly husband Papo discovers her affair, he handcuffs the lovers together and tells them that they are free to be together forever within his house, but that they can never separate or leave. Through this intimate incarceration, we watch their relationship deteriorate in what Mary Ainslie characterises as Thai postwar cinema’s “exaggerated and elongated emotional scenes.”9 Yupadee and Sangmong’s trespass of sexual and property relations becomes their punishment where being together forever is turned into torture. But if this twist of fate might appear to side with the boss, melodrama is never so clearly aligned with power. After Yupadee kills herself in despair, the factory workers throw a rock through the window of Papo’s elegant lounge, damaging the boss’s vainglorious portrait as the house burns down around him. The genre’s moral universe might demand the death of its unchaste wife, but it also aligns her exploitation with that of the workers and turns her death––and ghostly reappearance––into an allegory of modernisation.10

Image stills from Penchuri aka The Thief (1956, dir. KM Basker)

Penchuri is also a story about labour, but here the question of women’s work is front and centre. Although Forever Yours looks like the more stylistically modern film, it is Jamilah in Penchuri who is a working woman. Jamilah is a singer in a travelling theatre troupe. She is unmarried by choice, independent, offering a vision of a modern Malay woman who has left the kampung to make her own way in the world.11 This separation from the traditional milieu of family and marriage is already notable, but her job is even more risky. She does not work in a factory or office, but in a theatre. The cabaret singer, labouring with her body for the gaze and pleasure of the public, has been seen in many cultural contexts as of dubious virtue. Penchuri, however, does not present Jamilah’s work or her life as a problem. Quite the opposite: the theatre is a microcosm of an ideal nation. In one number, the company sings “the river is full of fish, the hill is full of minerals, the soil can turn into diamonds, let us be united and work together.” The glamorous performance that opens the film presents Jamilah as participating in cultural traditions at the same time that it sees her as participating in a collective endeavour of modernity. If the film refuses to see the female performer as intrinsically sinful, it does see her as at risk within the world of men.

She is being pestered by a colleague at the theatre, Ismail, who demands to know why she refuses to marry him. He would not accept that she simply does not want to get married right now, and so she invents a story that she is already married but is separated from her husband and child. As it happens, a thief named Umar is hiding in her house, and when he is uncovered, he claims to be Jamilah’s long-lost husband. Melodrama reveals the logic of patriarchy when Ismail immediately believes this stranger over Jamilah, and she is compelled to go along with the story that Umar is her husband. Ismail only comes to believe the truth when a man tells him, and at this point, Jamilah risks being viewed as unchaste for living with a man who is not her husband. The narrative works to bring Jamilah and Umar together: in a beautiful sequence of matching close-ups, they discuss what to do about this pretence. The deception ends when they marry for real, and Umar takes a job as the magician in Jamilah’s theatre. She is brought into the role of wife, and he is brought into her workplace.

Image stills from Penchuri aka The Thief (1956, dir. KM Basker)

But Penchuri is not named for its female protagonist Jamilah but for Umar, the titular thief. He is a good man, a widower who only stole out of desperation to feed his child. The film hinges on Umar’s honesty: when a necklace goes missing in the theatre, he abandons Jamilah, his daughter, and his job because he cannot bear that people do not trust his innocence. Forever Yours features a shot of days being crossed off a calendar when the ill-fated couple are handcuffed together for months, and Penchuri uses the same mechanism to depict Jamilah’s months alone and penniless without Umar. Although she was once an independent woman, now she cannot survive without him, and bailiffs arrive to seize the furniture out from under the sleeping child.

Image still from Penchuri aka The Thief (1956, dir. KM Basker)

Penchuri’s moral universe can only regain equilibrium when Jamilah and Umar become a family, and when Umar is recognised by all as an honest worker. Certainly, the film works to corral Jamilah into a more socially acceptable role as a wife and stepmother, and it places the blame for falsely suspecting Umar on her. She must publicly perform a song in which she begs for his forgiveness, staging as female weakness a broader social need for men to have a place in the legitimate economy. In contrast to Yupadee, Jamilah often seems to be presented as conventionally feminine: she wears a kebaya and instantly forms a maternal bond with Umar’s child. And yet, unlike Yupadee, Jamilah has a place in the modern workplace, and her story can have a happy ending because in the world of Penchuri, a woman can be a wife, a mother, and a worker. Forever Yours and Penchuri offer contrasting modes of allegory and realism, or tragedy and romance, but considered together, they illustrate the rich archive of Southeast Asian cinema, and in particular its history of women-centred films.


About the Writer

Rosalind Galt is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. Her research addresses the relationships between cinema and historical change, with a particular focus on political aesthetics, gender, and sexuality. She is the author of several books including Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (2011) and co-author of Queer Cinema in the World (2016). Her most recent book is Alluring Monsters: the Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization (2021).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.


Bibliography

[1] See for example Christine Gledhill, ed., Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: British Film Institute, 1987); Ravi Vasudevan, The Melodramatic Public: Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema (New York: Palgrave, 2011); Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

[2] See for example Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, “The Postwar Japanese Melodrama,” trans. Bianca Briciu, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 21 (2009): 19-32; Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, eds., South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005); and Wimal Dissanayake, ed., Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[3] M. Madhava Prasad, “Melodramatic Polities?,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 2/3 (2001): 459-466; Bhaskar Sarkar in “The Melodramas of Globalization,” Cultural Dynamics 20/1 (2008): 31-51; Stephen Teo, The Asian Cinema Experience (London: Routledge, 2012), 133-153.

[4] Rosalind Galt, Alluring Monsters: the Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).

[5] The classic analysis of the discursive construction of tradition is Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, ed., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[6] Peter Brook, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[7] See for example Laura Mulvey, “Sirk and Melodrama,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Palgrave, 1989), 39-44.

[8] Linda Williams “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess,” in Barry Keith Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader II (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 140-158.

[9] Mary Ainslie, “Post-war Thai Cinema: Audiences and Film Style in a Divided Nation,” Film International 15/80 (2017): 9.

[10] Bliss Cua Lim proposes this function of the ghost in Southeast Asian cinema in “Spectral Times: The Ghost Film as Historical Allegory,” positions 9/1 (2001): 287-329.

[11] Timothy Barnard discusses the prevalence of such representations in “Sedih Sampai Buta: Blindness, Modernity and Tradition in Malay Films of the 1950s and 1960s,” KITLV Journal, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies 161, no. 4 (2005): 433-453. For a consideration of these issues in contemporary films, see Hanita Mohd Mokhtar-Ritchie, “The Trouble with Modernity: Melodrama and the Independent Heroine in Selected Contemporary Malaysian-Malay Films,” in Adeline Koh and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, eds., Women and the Politics of Representation in Southeast Asia: Engendering Discourse in Singapore and Malaysia (London: Routledge, 2015), 79-100.