Through Diverse Lenses: A Glimpse of Modern Southeast Asian Cinema

Films convey so much about a culture, an identity, and the morbid and beautiful minds of the talents behind the camera. See Southeast Asia from a different perspective through these five award-winning local films.


Last Life in the Universe  (dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003)

Last Life in the Universe (dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003)

Last Life in the Universe follows the story of Kenji, a librarian who has to leave Japan after an unfortunate encounter with the Yakuza. He ends up in Bangkok, and eventually grows more anxious, enveloping himself in isolation until he spirals into depression and begins to ponder ending his life. By a strange twist of fate, he meets Noi, a bar hostess and a free spirit mourning the death of her sister, who finds solace in marijuana. As different as they may be, they find themselves in a strange relationship, bonding over the sadness that veils them. Little does Kenji know, the Yakuza is still out to get him, following him to Bangkok.

Dubbed an “quintessentially art-house”, Last Life is the Universe won many awards, including two awards from the Thailand National Film Association Awards, the FIPRESCI Prize from the Bangkok International Film Festival, and the AQCC Award and Jury Prize from the Fant-Asia Film Festival. The lead actor, Tadanobu Asano, received the Upstream Prize for Best Actor at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. 


In Time to Come  (dir. Tan Pin Pin, 2017)

In Time to Come (dir. Tan Pin Pin, 2017)

Memory takes the lead in this Singaporean film, following the ritual of opening a time capsule bringing remnants of life from 25 years ago, and the sealing of another containing items of present life carefully curated for future generations’ discovery. In Time to Come ultimately showcases vignettes of moments that we often forget to preserve, fleeting memories of everyday life in Singapore, the seemingly mundane that reveals more about ourselves than we will ever comprehend. Tan started filming this documentary in 2012. Tan noted how foreign audiences find her postmodern documentary: "for them, it becomes a science-fiction time-travel film. You never really know when a scene has been shot. The present becomes unstable."

The film has gone to film festivals such as Visions du Réel in Switzerland, where it premiered, and Hot Docs in Canada, where it received award nominations, among others. 


Lovely Man  (dir. Teddy Soeriaatmadja, 2011)

Lovely Man (dir. Teddy Soeriaatmadja, 2011)

Lovely Man follows the story of Cahaya, a teenage girl with strong Islamic principles, who travels to the city in search of her long-lost father, Syaiful, who she hasn’t seen since she was four. Upon asking around for anyone acquainted with her father, she is pointed to Taman Lawang, Jakarta’s infamous venue for transgender sex workers, discovering that he is now a transgender woman working in Jakarta.

A progressive film for Indonesia, the film became controversial, rejected by some religious groups in the country. However, it was critically-acclaimed overseas, receiving positive reviews after its world premiere at Busan International Film Festival and the subsequent international film festivals where it was screened.


Adrift  (dir. Bui Thac Chuyen, 2009)

Adrift (dir. Bui Thac Chuyen, 2009)

Produced by the Vietnamese film studio n°1 and the French production company Acrobates Films, Adrift is a film that tackles homosexuality and “loneliness of the young generation” in modern Vietnam. Duyen, a young tourist guide and translator, marries Hai, a taxi driver two years younger than her. What Duyen expects to be a fulfilling, happy marriage eventually becomes complicated as they remain unconsummated. Her best friend Cam, who works as a writer, is against the marriage, secretly containing her feelings for Duyen. This leads to her planning to break off the marriage, using another man named Tho, who also works as a tourist guide, to seduce Duyen into cheating on her husband. Tho and Duyen develops a sexual affair, leaving Duyen becoming more uncertain about her marriage. Eventually, another woman who has feelings for Tho learns about their affair and commits suicide, igniting guilt among everyone involved. 

The film premiered at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, where it won a FIPRESCI award. It went on to participate in several other international film festivals. 


The Woman in the Septic Tan k (Dir. Marlon N. Rivera, 2011)

The Woman in the Septic Tank (Dir. Marlon N. Rivera, 2011)

A personal favorite, this Filipino independent comedy film follows three aspiring filmmakers who are driven to make an award-worthy film. The film centers on a day of their pre-production, discussing crucial points in their script such as the race and gender of certain characters, the popularity and appearance of their lead actor, and why these factors even matter. They do a quick occular visit of their primary venue for the shoot, where they discover that reality is a lot harsher than what cinema often portrays.

The film was first submitted for the 7th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, and as the Philippines' official entry for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film of the same year. First produced by Martinez-Rivera Films and Quantum Films, mainstream production company Star Cinema purchased rights to the film for a wider release. It went on receive several awards and nominations in events such as the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, Gawad Urian Awards, and Gold Screen Awards.


Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.