Screening the Forest: Slow days at the Asian Film Archive

June 29, 2018, 3:54pm

Contributed by Phoebe Pua

Sensory, colourful and widescreen, the forest is already naturally cinematic.

Since the turn of this century, the forest has fascinated the new generation of global art filmmakers who chose the forest as a space for their creative exploration. Screening the Forest takes nature as its point of departure by weaving together the forest in Asian cinema such as the cinematic forests from India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. In some cases, the forest may even refer to nothing but a world construed as its own territory.

Like the real forest, where many genuses of trees coexist, the programme emphasizes that cinema is not only culturally and aesthetically, but also ecologically, or even animistically constructed. As new strategies and interpretations of the forest emerge from a variety of Asian filmmakers, new trees can be sowed within our own imagination.

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For three days in June, the deep green of forests across Asia flooded the cinema screen in the heart of the National Museum of Singapore. Curated by Thai film scholar Dr. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn, the Asian Film Archive brought in an impressive 18 works spanning theme, country, and format. With only two feature-length films, both reserved for the final sessions on Sunday, the bulk of the Screening the Forest series comprised experimental short films. Mid-way through Entropy Machine (Dodo Dayao, Philippines, 2011) on the first day, I turned to look at my fellow audience members, their faces awash in the screen’s dim light. Entropy Machine is not an ‘easy’ film; shot after shot, the camera remains static, guided by neither character nor narrative. In lieu of conventional storytelling, the theatre was simply presented with an unmarked corner of an unnamed Filipino jungle and, for 18 minutes, the audience sat, looked, listened. Such are the demands made by a genre coined ‘slow cinema’.

 

Dr. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn giving an introductory lecture on the first day of Screening the Forest

Still from Entropy Machine (2011), directed by Dodo Dayao

Nature of cinema, cinema of nature

With contemporary filmmakers increasingly willing to minimize dialogue and play with long takes, academic attention in the past decade has galvanized around the slow cinema movement. French film critic and editor Michel Ciment led the charge with his “The State Cinema” address at the 46th  San Francisco International Film Festival in 2003. Filmmakers around the world, he said, had become dissatisfied with the audio-visual onslaught that ruled narrative cinema. They reacted in antithesis, “by a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity”[1]. Those that Ciment listed — among them, Hungary’s Béla Tarr, Russia’s Aleksandr Sokurov, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien — may be big names in global art film but are, by no means, the pioneers of “provocative slowness”. In his opening lecture, Chulphongsathorn notes that one of the pioneering films in history, Baby’s Dinner (Le Repas de Bébé, 1895) by the Lumière brothers had inadvertently exhibited a tenet of slow cinema. As the projector rolled on, the earliest cinematic audience saw August Lumière feed his baby against lush trees. They were, however, drawn not to the onscreen human presence, but to the wind in the trees behind the Lumières. What they witnessed — what we would still witness if we saw it today — was time unfolding. Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky famously thought of cinema as ‘sculpting in time’, a belief shared by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze[2]. It is this ability to capture and reproduce the unfolding of time that set the cinematic form apart. The work of film, then, is not in service of its human operators or characters, but the natural world and its orders. The birth of cinema, it appears, was not as exclusively anthropocentric as once thought. As I sat in the darkened room observing fellow cinema-goers watch the chaotic, elegiac jungle scene of Entropy Machine, I realised I was looking at a moment of infinite arrest. The unchanging fascination with the life of non-humans, strangely foreign to a room of city folk.

Still from The Breath (2007), directed by Jang Min-Young

Burst and breaths in short film experiments

Fourteen short films were screened over the first two days. Most of the shorter work (under 20 minutes) tended toward the speculative, almost as though the cameras were set up with the sole intention to record, without script or expectation in mind. This was certainly true for the opener, Truong Minh Quy’s A Raw Video (Vietnam, 2012). The title was no misnomer, as from its first second, the unedited (presumably handheld) footage of someone running through a plantation reproduced every shaky movement and panting breath. This ethos of direct cinema was reiterated throughout the series in films like The Breath (Jang Min-Young, South Korea, 2007) where plant life is shot in such extreme close up that the entire duration melds in an extended blur. In the absence of human intervention, the forest becomes animated and fills the soundscape with a sung cacophony. Casting a microscopic gaze onto insects, Not a Soul (Jet Leyco, Philippines, 2013) and Mantis Tales (Chu-Li Sherwing, UK/Malaysia, 2004) give the impression of peering into another planet. In spite of thematic convergences, Leyco’s soundscape relies more on ambient, diegetic sounds while Sherwing’s, as a testimony to her expertise in sound design, is unapologetically electronic, synthesized to enhance the alien quality of this pre/post-anthropocentric world.

Still from Not a Soul (2013), directed by Jet Leyco

Contrary to these were films that framed nature as the physical manifestation of its human protagonists’ inner worlds (to a degree equivalent of literature’s ‘pathetic fallacy’). Originally intended as a gallery installation, the prolific Boo Junfeng debuted Mirror (Singapore, 2013) as a theatrical release. Instead of projecting its twin reels onto separate walls, the adapted 5-minute version positioned the two sequences in split-screen. Twinned soldiers wandering cautiously through the forest began as mirrored reflections and slowly unravelled, disconcertingly, into different yet parallel stories. Resembling lapses in memory waking to amnesia, the result of Boo’s experiment was novel even if, during the directors’ Q&A, he confessed to still being unsure of what to make of it. Alongside Mirror, Singaporean curator-filmmaker Kent Chan gave the audience a taste of a work-in-progress, Seni: Acts I, II, III (“seni”, Chan tells us, is a Malay word which most closely resembles ‘art’ as is practiced in the so-called West). Described as a love letter to an artist forgotten by history, Seni recreates Ho Kok Hoe’s 1955 trip to London in a Herculean effort to stage the first European exhibition of Singaporean art. Seated alone in the sweltering tropics, Ho is painted as a tortured hero, simultaneously propelled by the passion of mission and discouraged by the road ahead. In its current form, Seni has an abundance of material — possibly to its own detriment — but the compelling tale and Chan’s capacity for complexity promises a nuanced final cut.

Still from Seni: Acts I, II, III (2018), directed by Kent Chan

Once each day, moving images made way for photographic documentary. Through still image compositions, Day One’s Pati (Sohrab Hura, India, 2010) and Day Two’s Landscape Series #1 (Nguyen Trinh Thi, Vietnam, 2013) told stories of humans interacting with the natural environment. Set to Hura’s own narration, a series of monochromatic photographs depict communal life in the summer heat and barren land (once a self-sustaining forest) of the Madhya Pradesh village. Because Nguyen refuses his narratorial voice, or any dialogue for that matter, Landscape Series #1 is less straightforward than Pati. In fact, it is less a documentary than a document comprising image after image of individuals cryptically pointing off-screen, directing the spectator’s gaze into a nowhere, forever inaccessible to them. Credit must be given to the dynamic curation of the series which saw fit to combine the earnest and sincerity of Pati and Landscape Series #1 with the tongue-in-cheek The Legend of the Mist (Tony Chun-Hui Wu, Taiwan, 2012). At once an ode to the bygone golden age of wuxia films and a playful, even joyful, leap into the world of editing, Wu has made a 10-minute short film out of dynastic pugilist-heroes endlessly marching through the vast Chinese grassland. To stand out as the most whimsical in a program characterized by experimentation is, to say the least, no small feat.

Still from The Legend of the Mist (2012), directed by Tony Chun-Hui Wu

[Unfortunately, Su Hui-Yu’s Super Taboo (Taiwan, 2017) had to be withdrawn from the series after the Board of Film Censors stalled its classification review. Premised on the 1980s boom in pornographic books and subsequent moral panic, Su transforms the forest into a psychedelic tableau vivant of nude bodies in the throes of sexual ecstasy. A refreshingly brazen one-take film — who can forget the sight of a woman, legs spread, firing a steady stream of piss into the running waters of the lake below — Super Taboo is pleasurably political. It is a pity the audience was denied this experience but, as it turns out, Super Taboo might have already found its ideal spectator in the censors.]

Still from Super Taboo (2017), directed by Su Hui-Yu

Notwithstanding the exciting diversity of the abovementioned works, the short film selection hits its stride with the works of veteran Thai filmmakers Pimpaka Towira and Kamjorn Sankwan (co-directing with Jakrawal Nilthamrong), both of whom had double bills to round out the first two days. Towira’s levity is unmistakable in the 20th  Thai Short film and Video Festival trailer (evidenced by a line-up of film crew haughtily brandishing light reflectors at the camera for a full minute) and her part-documentary, part-fiction The Purple Kingdom (2016). Uniquely self-assured in vision, Towira intersperses reenactments of Thailand’s recent enforced ‘disappearances’ with music video renditions of weepy love songs. To give a sense how that plays out: a slow-motion long take of a venerable old tree being hacked at, reminiscent of slow cinema, suddenly cuts to overblown melodrama as a love-lorn girl hugs a pillar bearing her lost lover’s name. In the directors’ Q&A for The Purple Kingdom, Towira revealed that the young woman playing a village wife searching in vain for her ‘disappeared’ husband is, in fact, living the nightmare in reality. Nevertheless, Towira deftly balances the somber and the sanguine; when asked why she chose to use upbeat pop music, she drolly answered, “Honestly, I just really like this song.” Sankwan, on the other hand, is more circumspect. His reflective demeanor belies the sheer energy of his cinema. Invalid Throne (Thailand, 2018) responds to land disputes surrounding Mueang Phayao in Northern Thailand, the site of Sankwan’s childhood now turned into a gold mine. Defiant in the face of government and greed, Sankwan paints his face gold and perches atop a felled tree as the image runs red. Nilthamrong and Sankwan’s decision to film in 35mm is inspired, granting the film a textured veneer made more tactile by ultra high definition cinema projection. Shot on location and in a studio with a miniature landscape, Invalid Throne refuses to give up the land on which it is set. Quite unlike other slow cinema ruminations of the natural world in the series, Invalid Throne is not only cinematic poetry but a polemic, a work born of resistance.

Still from Invalid Throne (2018), directed by Kamjorn Sankwan

Time unfolding in long take

The final day’s screenings were reserved for its longest four films, which happened also to bear the biggest names of the series. The opener was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires (Thailand, 2005) wherein Towira (and her pop songs) makes guest appearances for this film-within-a-film. Weerasethakul’s love for the forest is a matter of public record; to date, his most well-known and critically acclaimed works, e.g. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), features the natural world prominently. The same can easily be said of Naomi Kawase and her film The Weald (Japan, 1997). Filmed in the Nara mountains, Kawase trains her Super-8 camera on its community of elderly villagers. Resigned to the passage of time and plagued by memories of youth, the mountainous land offers its inhabitants no respite. “In the forest,” Chulphongsathorn declared in his lecture, “there is no time”, but Kawase’s camera compels me to disagree; here in the natural world, there is only time. Painfully aware that they are beholden to transcendent whims and rhythms, Kawase’s penchant for extreme close-ups make her shy cast unbearably fitful, a sentiment occasionally expressed with a mix of discomfort and embarrassment. After the screening, I asked Chulphonsathorn why Kawase insisted on filming barely inches from someone’s face and, without missing a beat, he related Kawase’s philosophy of using the camera as an extension of herself — “because she wants to touch them.”

Still from The Weald (1997), directed by Naomi Kawase

Concluding the series were the only two feature length films in the program: Reha Erdem’s Jîn (Turkey, 2013) and Lee Yong Chao’s Blood Amber (Taiwan/Myanmar, 2017). At 122 minutes, Jîn was able to set and move at its own pace without compromising on its narrative arc. Already a stunning film from start to finish, the opening sequence remains incomparably well-executed. Introducing a wonderous world of flora and fauna, a montage blithely skips from one woodland creature to the next — a gecko wriggling out from its log, a deer turning to look — and the audience bathes in the chirps and breeze of the Turkish forest. Out of nowhere, an explosion pierces through, the reverberations knocking the dazed audience out of a dream-like dislocation and thrusting them into the hostile world of Kurdish guerilla fighters. From this moment, fleeting moments of harmony ceaselessly struggle, and fail, to redeem humanity from swaths of banal brutality. The protagonist, a 17-year-old girl named Jîn (Kurdish for “woman”), fights to stay alive after she defects from her platoon. Cursed by cruel circumstances of being born ‘wrong’ in ethnicity and sex, Jîn is violated at every turn and forced to repeatedly return to the safety of the forest. In an unforgettable single-take wide shot, Jîn scales a magnificent grey tree, climbing it with an ease that makes one wonder if she is belongs in the natural world. Commenting unflinchingly on humanity’s history of violence, Jîn is a moving and melancholic account of human barbarism and the animals who witness it. On the surface, Jîn is worlds apart from Blood Amber. The former is a fiction film about a girl’s fight for her right to normalcy in the midst of armed conflict, and the latter is a documentary on Burmese miners operating clandestinely in a forest controlled by the Kachin Independence Army. Shortly into Blood Amber, however, affinities emerge. On a particular day, Lee shadows two men as they make a trip to the water catchment. The task is mundane and the audience does not make much of it until the men, heaving baskets and backpacks of filled water bottles, begin their journey back to camp. In a deceptively simple shot that seemingly happens out of nowhere, Lee’s camera trails behind the men as they cut across steep hills, making turns at unmarked junctions. A few minutes into the sequence, I hear murmurs from the audience behind me. I cannot make out what has been said but I am sure we are thinking the same thing, how long is this going to last? As the one-take sequence progresses, low murmurs become audible whispers of disbelief and admiration. By the time the men finally arrive at their makeshift home, the audience had witnessed a nearly 15-minute long trek through the Burmese jungle. Two different films of two different lives, both having learned to be completely at home in the natural world.

Still from Blood Amber (2017), directed by Lee Yong Chao

Brilliantly curated, the series samples some of the best, most beautiful, most experimental, and acclaimed filmic forests. Many more filmmakers whose works were not represented operate within this often cerebral, sometimes infuriating, and always demanding mode — Filipino auteur Lav Diaz comes to mind. While the slow cinema movement finds a comfortable home in the natural world, not all welcome slow cinema and its insistence on minutiae. In the April 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, editor Nick James sparked public debate when he accused the genre of being “passive-aggressive” and questioned the necessity and merit of its glacial pace. As is expected of disagreements regarding art cinema, there are no easy answers. One thing for certain is that the exponential uptake in academic studies, film experiments, and public retrospectives such as this series only prove the burgeoning of slow cinema in the contemporary age.

[1] Ciment, Michel. “The State of Cinema”. Speech given at the 46th  San Francisco International Film Festival, 2003. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20040325130014/http://www.sfiff.org/fest03/special/state.html

[2] For more on Tarkovsky’s theories on cinema and time, see Sculpting in Time (1987, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair). Deleuze’s writing on the time-image is often thought of as impenetrable, no doubt in part because he does not offer neat definitions for it. In its most basic sense and insofar as Deleuze concurs with Tarkovsky, to look at the time-image is to experience a duration. See Cinema II: The Time-Image (1989, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta).

 

About the writer

Phoebe Pua is a doctoral student at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore. Her project focuses on female suffering in contemporary Southeast Asian cinemas and, more generally, intersections of racial difference and sexed identities. Occasionally, she writes about how these pertain to the James Bond film series. Her research on film has been published in Feminist Media Studies, Discourse, Context and Media, MetroCINEJ Cinema Journal, and fourbythree. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in English Literature from NUS (2011) and a Master of Philosophy in Film Studies from the Australian National University (2014).

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