Lessons from Southeast Asian women filmmakers

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Thoughts on the industry, from Southeast Asian filmmakers Pailin Wadel, Marissa Anita, Lina Tan, and Tanya Yuson. Photos courtesy of NETFLIX

In the 2012 Malaysian romance film “Istanbul Aku Datang,” a young blogger named Dian drops everything to travel to Istanbul to be with her medical student boyfriend. With a grand plan to get him to propose, she finds herself in a sticky situation when he tells her to find somewhere else to stay. Chaos ensues when a mix-up leads to her sharing an apartment with an eccentric Malaysian artist named Harris.

Though there is friction between the two at first, audiences end up swooning over actor Beto Kusyairy’s portrayal of Harris, who is a softer and more sensitive personality and a stark contrast to Lisa Surihani’s headstrong Dian.

During a Netflix-organized panel discussion with women filmmakers from Southeast Asia last March 23, the film’s producer Lina Tan said that a lot of the feedback from Malaysian audiences at the time was about how a character like Harris was unrealistic. Tan is also the founder and managing director of Malaysian prod outfit Red Communications.

“My co-writer, Rafidah [Abdullah] we focused on this man who was Dian’s roommate — we kind of made that guy this man we wanted to see, the man we want women to marry,” she said of Harris’s characterization. “Where is that kind of sensitive sweet man, the guy who, when she cries and has ice cream in her hair, he will wash her hair, take care of her, give her soup, make her favorite food and really really be there for her? Where is that kind of guy who understands emotions?”

The discussion provided an opportunity for panelists and audience members alike to learn more about the landscape of filmmaking for women in several Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. As it turns out, Malaysia is still quite behind in terms of women representation in media as compared to its SEA neighbors. The Malaysian government is infamous for imposing strict censorship rules which cover everything from appropriateness of clothing to anything related to sex, smoking, drinking, and drugs.

Given these restrictions, Tan spoke about how she, as a feminist and a storyteller, turned her attention to the way men are portrayed in mainstream media after the success of “Istanbul Aku Datang.” The film’s effect on Malaysian audiences made her see how impactful her work could be as a tool to change some of the backward norms and beliefs in the country.

“I feel like there are very few of those kinds of images of men. Men are still macho, ‘machoistic,’” she said. “We really need to use mainstream television content to kind of change this kind of gender stereotype and one of the ways is to change what women really want out of men.”

Subverting gender roles in Asian society

This approach should not be limited to Malaysia. According to the other panelists, there is still a long way to go in terms of breaking past the deeply entrenched gender roles in Asian society, which at the end of the day affects all genders and gender identities.

Pailin Wedel, the Thai-American Director of Emmy award-winning documentary “Hope Frozen” brought up how, despite the already progressive nature of Thai media and the strides women have made in front of and behind the camera, she “wishes to see more variations of gender roles on camera rather than what we typically see.”

“I mean, I haven't seen a series where women talk about sex on camera. Or just this idea that women like sex is a radical thing,” she said. Referencing how these roles are also enforced in queer relationships, she added that “this idea that one person in a union needs to be a certain way, and the other person needs to be a certain way for [it] to work whether you’re women or men or whatever — it's interesting to see how we untangle that [in media]; maybe to represent families where the dad stays home and is a house dad, and vice versa.”

Marissa Anita, the Indonesian actress known for her work in “Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens,” said that she always brings a feminist consciousness into selecting her roles. “Before taking on a project or deciding to audition, usually I ask who the director is. I tend to really pay attention to asking ‘what does this female character want to say?’ Is it aligned with my values? These characters don't tend to be good female characters. I tend to go for complex female characters.”

She also added that she’s happy to see progress happening behind the camera as well. “ I definitely want to see more female writers and directors who present more rounded female characters in Indonesian films,” she said. Speaking about how the Indonesian government and other prominent filmmakers have provided support for women filmmakers, she said that she hopes women get more opportunities to train. “We need more of this upskilling [of] the women in the industry,” she added.

Shifting box office control

As is true in all entertainment industries, getting that kind of content out there is highly dependent on numbers. Tanya Yuson, executive producer of the Filipino anime “Trese,” is optimistic about the way women have gained power as an audience over the years. “Because if they're driving the box office, if they’re driving the viewership, then of course they should want the gaze to shift,” she said. “It should really be more on how they see themselves and how they are.”

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Tan, whose films used to only premiere in cinemas prior to the pandemic, echoed her sentiments, saying that she’s discovered that women seem to control the small screen. She said, “During the pandemic, I was a bit disheartened. I realized that the decision-making really comes to the cinema — it's still in a man's hands. It's expensive. You buy a ticket, your popcorn.”

“So where it’s going — and it’s still a fight — is just to get the good storytelling that catches up to where women and men have progressed to this point in terms of coming from the stereotypes.”

This theory was tested with the film “Sa Balik Baju,” which sidestepped Malaysian censorship guidelines by premiering online. “I made ‘Sa Balik Baju’ during the pandemic. It was really difficult,” said Tan. “I was really really excited when I managed to get it on Netflix. I felt that was where my audience was. It went to number six [in Malaysia], and [then] number one so I was really excited. And then I saw all the feedback and said ok my audience is there.”

The challenge now, said Yuson, is for the industry to reflect all these changing perspectives and continue telling more complex stories. “So where it’s going — and it’s still a fight — is just to get the good storytelling that catches up to where women and men have progressed to this point in terms of coming from the stereotypes,” added Yuson. “The world has changed and storytelling needs to catch up to how the world is changing.”