Review: “Southeast Asian Cinema – When the Rooster Crows”

Philosophy.  Politics.  Cinema.  Freedom of speech.  Patriotism.  Such weighty topics can easily derail an 88-minute documentary about four emerging film markets, but Italian director Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso smartly chose to present all this content within the first-person perspectives of one director from each country.  The result is “Southeast Asian Cinema – When the Rooster Crows,” a visually and verbally rich look into the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.

Before choosing his subjects, Lombroso wanted to focus on countries that currently boast a small cadre of established filmmakers.  This ruled out places like Cambodia (where the country’s first Oscar nominee, Rithy Panh, is just beginning to train the next generation) and Vietnam (where artists like the America-raised Dustin Nguyen find that outsourcing is the norm in an industry that is too small).  Lombroso then chose one maverick filmmaker from each who has made his mark on the international scene – in some cases having gained more recognition abroad than he has in his own country – and presented each story in a similar format: the political climate in which the director grew up, the ideas that shaped his interest in filmmaking, the reasons that he was able to break free and stand out from the pack, and most importantly, what makes the man tick.  For Brillante Mendoza (Philippines), it is a focus on non-Tagalog speaking regions and a deliberate emphasis on scenes of poverty that has introduced audiences to a reality away from the big city.  (One of Mendoza’s proudest moments was when a French film festival accidentally categorized one of his works as a documentary instead of a narrative feature.)  Colleagues point to Pen-Ek Ratanaraung’s education outside of Thailand as the reason for his “strict” ways at work compared to his more typically “relaxed” countrymen, yet despite his boldness, he ran into a self-censorship quandary with his politically charged 2013 documentary “Paradoxcracy.”  Such standards also plagued Garin Nugroho (Indonesia) during the Suharto regime, and currently trouble Eric Khoo, where in Singapore the boundaries are even less clear; still, that obstacle did not stop the “Be With Me” director to take a break in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s to encourage and mentor new directors in his own country.

Between all the interviews are numerous clips from the four directors’ films – some of which were screened in Berlin, Cannes and Venice – and lush photography of the subjects’ surrounding environs, creating striking visual contexts to their spoken words.  While the futures of the directors and their countries continue to plod along a murky path, they leave behind past works that will remain permanently etched on celluloid.  Now the same is the case for their trailblazing stories, thanks to Lombroso.

“Southeast Asian Cinema – When the Rooster Crows” made its world premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival and was also a selection at the 2014 Singapore International Film Festival.

Video: “Southeast Asian Cinema – When the Rooster Crows” Q&A – Dec. 5, 2014 – Singapore International Film Festival
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine
Director Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso answers questions at the screening of his documentary at the Arts House.