The Woman in the Picture

in 14th Singapore International Film Festival

by Alexandra Seitz

Remember Snow in Steven Soderberghs version of “Solaris”? At some point he says to Kelvin something like: “Let’s bring the women together, because then normally something good happens.” What happens in this case is, that after a few minutes everybody is on each others throats – which can also happen.

Female characters in movies tend to be stereotypes, which is why Snows remark shows astonishing insight into something deeply emotional we normally don’t see on the screen. The lack of complexity in which the female is portrayed, shows not only what is wrong with the picture of the woman but also how it should be changed.

One would look for that kind of films with a somewhat broadened perspective rather in europe than in asia, where, as prejudice tells us, female characters tend to be confined to the classical passive, quiet part. How the story treats its women can tell you a lot about the state the respectively described society is in. More often than not are we then told that there is still a long way ahead of these women (and societies), and that, compared to asian women, european ones can easily consider themselves equal. Which is of course not true, but helpful in overcoming the daily fatigue.

However, the 16th Singapore International Film Festival had quite a lot of surprises in the bag; once again Festival-Director and -Programmer Philip Cheah succeeded in putting together a collection of open-minded and free-spirited films, that dealt with the conditio humana as well as its political requirements. In addition, the program showed us in which part of the world innovative and even audacious cinema contemporaryly is made.

Maybe the most daring and courageous film was Asoka Handagamas “Flying with one Wing” from Sri Lanka, which dealt with the enormous social pressure a woman faces who prefers to live like a man and even has a wife. Handagama succeeds in showing the truthful and troublesome meaning of gender, without – what very easily could have happened – becoming melodramatic. Instead he uses humour, satire and grotesque to tell, technically in rather simple ways, a multi-layered story. One can easily imagine that actresses in Sri Lanka didn’t line up for that difficult part so Handagama persuaded his wife, Anoma Janadari, a stage actress, to do the job. Which she did great and therefore received the Best Actress Award.

A brave heart also seems to live in Sri Lankan director Dharmasena Pathiraja, to whom one of the retrospectives was dedicated. 1977 he shot “Ponmani” and in it told the story of a tamil woman who decides to take her life into her own hands. She goes away with a man from a different caste, who in addition turns out to be a christian. Nevertheless she marries him and pays for that act of independence with her life, because, of course, her family didn’t approve.

In seeing these films one always has to consider the political circumstances under which they have been made and are shown (if they are shown). Only then can one truly estimate their meaning in relation to the development of human freedom – not only in this part of the world. Personal independence or even only the thought of it can be dangerous. Freedom is a dream to be dreamt only secretely. Like in Jia Zhang-Kes chinese feature “Unknown Pleasures”, in which a girl imagines herself as a musical-star and gets stuck with a pimp-like character who even hinders the tender love between her and a young man. Or in Pimpaka Towiras “One Night Husband” from Thailand, in which a woman, by way of searching for her suddenly lost husband, unknowingly shows his lover, who is actually his brothers suppressed wife, how a less traditional way of female life might feel.

Women who discover their power become almost always immediately threatening. This is not only true for Kim Eung-sus “Desire” from South Korea, in which the female lead discovers that her husband has a liason with a young man whom she then seduces, causing trouble and pain for everybody. It is also true for japanese director Shinya Tsukamotos “A Snake of June”, which only at the beginning comes across as the story of a stalker who forces a woman into sexual games. But by confronting her own desires this woman not only discovers her inner strength but finally succeeds in reviving her marriage.

Disturbingly beautiful not only in its depiction of life as it happens in real time is Apichatpong Weerasethakuls “Blissfully Yours” from Thailand. By its powerful confrontation of completely natural depicted sexual encounters of two women of different age, during one afternoon in the jungle, this film truly catches the unspectacular wonders of existence as well as its never ending pain.

And pain, finally, seems to be the force behind singaporean feature “15” by Royston Tan, which deals with the life of alienated teenagers in an extremely outspoken way this highly (self-)controlled society most likely would rather not be confronted with. No wonder then that “15” is currently stuck with the cencors, who, so it is said, have difficulties with at least 20 minutes of the film. Therefore one can only hope, that the Fipresci/Netpac Award which this disturbing glimpse of singapores youth received, might be of some help. As for the women in this picture – there aren’t any. Apart from a garbage-can which is to be mistaken for a girl by a totally drunken boy, and two women who get to be harrassed. There is still a long way to go, especially in this case, but then, on the other hand, there haven’t been that many steps before, so “15” should not be condemned for its failures but be appreciated for what it achieves.