Edward Yang's Yi Yi

The recent 5th CineFan Film Festival (July 18-27) presented by Cinemaya magazine in India, is a rare Asian festival that celebrates Asia with dedication and affection. This year, the festival meditated on the issue of solitude in a conference, a continuation from last year's theme of the disappearing Asian extended family. PHILIP CHEAH was there to contribute his loneliness.

Solitude is not solitary. In Asia, the cinema of solitude has been a region-wide phenomenon, from the steppes of Central Asia to the urban sprawl of Taiwan. Ironically, while the wide-open spaces of rural Asia encouraged separation and solitude, so too did the rapid urbanisation of Asia.

If the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu documented the separation and breakdown of the Japanese family during Japan's modernisation, the post-war economic engine of Japan's reconstruction accelerated that.

Asia, with its culture of the extended family, has found that its traditions are under siege. The extended family in Asia today is fast disappearing. In fact, so are most other institutions. Single-hood is on the rise as well as single parenthood. The latter has left its mark on increasing problems of child rearing, juvenile delinquency and suicides.

Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole (left) and Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Time To Live And
A Time To Die


Ozu's influence left its mark on a young Hou Hsiao-hsien and if one were to follow the trajectory of his cinema, one sees a record of Taiwan's family as well. From the boyhood bliss and coming of age in such films as Green Green Grass Of Home (1983) to The Boys Of Feng Kuai (1983), Hou's groundbreaking statement about the loneliness in families and the passing of a generation was A Time To Live And A Time To Die (1985).

The urban-rural divide is acknowledged in a bittersweet tale of love found and lost in Dust In The Wind (1987), where connecting rail lines are also the means of separation. This image recurs years later in Goodbye South Goodbye (1996). As Edward Wong notes in Q&A magazine: "An escape route back to the countryside is provided through the railroad, which connects the two worlds like an umbilical cord. But there is a sense that the haven provided by the rural community will soon disappear… The communal movie screenings, for all their feelings of camaraderie, nonetheless represent the encroachment of mass media.

"And always there is a fact that the behemoth of the railroad runs from the city to the tunnel to the heart of the village. It takes a life of its own, a serpent that winds its way through the land. Just as it provides the protagonists with a link to their origins, it also takes them away to Taipei and ultimately unsettles the balance of life in the village." And in his most recent work, Millennium Mambo (2001), that failure to connect becomes oppressive in a tale of two young lovers.

But it's the images of solitude that just stays and stays in our memories, vividly imprinted with pain and horror. Take Tsai Ming-liang's Vive L'Amour, another classic piece about solitude. In the final moments of the film, the protagonist is seen on a park bench crying. The camera watches her unflinchingly as she continues sobbing. After a while, her pain becomes ours.

Like Hou, Tsai's films also feature disconnection. Tsai works through his favourite actor, Lee Kang-sheng, who almost functions as his alter-ego. In works such as The River, Tsai explores the alienated father-son relationship and in The Hole, Tsai digs through the isolation felt in urban spaces. Finally, in a grand gesture, Tsai's most recent film, What Time Is It There?, discusses solitude by death, time and space.


James Lee's Room To Let.

Tsai, who was born in Malaysia, has been a paramount influence on the young directors in his home country. In fact, the emerging new Malaysian cinema, can be linked to him. For the first time, many of the new directors are Chinese and many derive their styles from him — the static spaces, the non-verbal communication, the solitary scenes of sobbing.

Among them, James Lee acknowledges his influence to Tsai in his new film, Room To Let (2002). It's a classic piece of a film about solitude, but done in the new digital format. Berg Lee needs to rent a room and finds one in an old house. All the occupants are strange and solitary. They have long aimless conversations about dreams and unfulfilment. (They also sob desperately.) In Lee's film, the solitude is so palpable that the occupants start seeing ghosts, perhaps a metaphor for their elusive selves.

Interestingly, many of the other new Malaysian directors — Ho Yuhang, Bryan Low and Desmond Ng — are also Chinese, which is a break from the Malay-dominated industry. They work in the digital format, outside the confines of the mainstream industry, with little hope of their works being commercially released.

Across South-east Asia, the wave of independent filmmakers are solitary, as they work outside of the industry, and therefore embody a physical cinema of solitude. Not only are the films about solitude, the filmmakers themselves are solitary. And because the format is often digital, there is a lesser need for a large film crew. The solitude is built-in.

Garin Nugroho's Bird
Man Tale

Take Garin Nugroho's Bird Man Tale (2002). Garin is the solitary link between Indonesia's cinema of the new order (during the era of President Suharto) and the new generation. The new generation has formed the I-cinema movement ushering the digital revolution for Indonesian cinema, but of which Garin is not a part. Yet he is still tramping away finding stories in the thousands of outer islands that make up Indonesia. Shot in West Papua (Irian Jaya), his new film is a reflection of the minority Papua voice that wants its independence from Indonesia. What is challenging about the film is that there is only one Indonesian actress in the entire cast. This transforms the majority into a minority within the film. The solitude that the Papuan minority feel within Indonesia is suddenly felt by the lone Indonesian in Papua.

In the Philippines, Lav Diaz shot a five-hour epic, Batang West Side (2001), which only played twice in his home country and in a handful of festivals abroad. The disconnection is twofold. Not only was the film shot in the US, and not in the Philippines, but it is about the Filipino migrant community who have lost their souls in trying to forget themselves. The protagonist suffers from a pain of solitude because he remembers his past but he cannot tell anyone about it. The film is about a shared history that no one wants to share anymore.

Royston Tan's 15

In Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, shares Diaz's outsider and solitary status. His film, Blissfully Yours (2002), has also only played uncut twice in his home country (due to censorship problems). The film shows an intimate afternoon with two couples. Their solitude is enhanced by the fact that the young couple features a Burmese man, an illegal immigrant, who is yearning to go home. Even the setting is solitary as Apichatpong chose to locate the shoot to the Thai-Burma border area. And in Singapore, Royston Tan's 15 (2003) portrays a lost teenage generation, unloved and unseen. 15 is as solitary as they come with only one screening in its home country. In a weird way, Asia's cinema of solitude started out as films about the theme of solitude. Then the filmmakers became solitary and finally the films themselves. The authorities found it unbearable to see the havoc that the loneliness of this generation has wreaked on society — self-abuse, drug taking and suicidal desperation. The film is really an anguished cry to be loved but one which is destined not to be heard in Singapore.


From Kazakhstan, Darezhan Omirbaev's The Killer (1998) resurrects the figure of the lone gunman, familiar in both Western and East Asian cinema. The desperation is real as the killer has to carry out a murder to pay off his family's debts. Shot without glamour and fancy weaponry, the gunman's loneliness is accentuated.

The loneliness of the group is played out in Amir Karakulov's Last Holiday (1997), about a group of teenage delinquents trying to kill time during their vacation. There is little by way of dense urban centres in these films. Even when shot in the cities, there is always the look of hunger (psychological and otherwise), restlessness and wandering. Interestingly, a popular interpretation of the word "Kazakh" means "the people who wandered away from the centre."

Edward Yang's Yi Yi

And this essay has to end with Taiwan again. No matter how you look at it, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One And A Two, 2000) is a modern masterpiece of both Taiwanese and Asian cinema. More than any other film, Yi Yi puts forward Asia's future landscape. If the early Asian cinema of the 20th century ruminated on the rural-urban divide, Yi Yi expounds the technological divide of Asia in the 21st Century,

Yang shows us the technological conundrum, that if we now have the best tools to communicate with each other, why are we then all falling apart? In Yi Yi, he argues that we have forgotten our values. It's values that make things valuable.

In Yi Yi, Yang tells us that Asia has never been afraid of change. That is why the cities and technology have grown by leaps and bounds. But he reminds us that Asia shouldn't be afraid of its heart either, nor of the solitude in our hearts.

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