Book Review

Gerald Sim, Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability (Amsterdam University Press)

Author: Daniel Moore (New York University)

  • Gerald Sim, Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability (Amsterdam University Press)

    Book Review

    Gerald Sim, Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability (Amsterdam University Press)

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Moore, D., (2022) “Gerald Sim, Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability (Amsterdam University Press)”, Film Criticism 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2718

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Published on
22 Jun 2022
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In Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, he defines “imaginative geography” as the “universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is ‘ours’ and an unfamiliar space beyond ‘ours’ which is ‘theirs.’”1 Said’s definition is utilized in the introduction to Gerald Sim’s Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability in discussing the response of British critic Peter Bradshaw to Anthony Chen’s Singaporean film Ilo Ilo (2013). Bradshaw, in his synopsis of the film, “refers paradoxically to a ‘working couple’ in ‘an affluent family’–the couple in the film is neither affluent nor professional.”2 Bradshaw’s comments demonstrate what Sim sees as “an international audience not sufficiently equipped to process other aspects of the film’s significations.”3 This includes dynamics of class, and local labor markets, which are frequently “interpreted in Western-centric terms.”4

Sim’s study of primarily contemporary films from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia examines a wide-range of works spanning across genre and film form, from art-house cinema to television commercials. The films are unique and “nationally specific” manifestations of postcoloniality that might be unfamiliar to professionals situated in the fields of film and media studies, which are dominated by Euro-American theories.5

The introduction maps a critical approach to Southeast Asia’s postcolonial cinema, which Sim sees as self-reflective towards the field of postcolonial studies. This is seen in the perceptions of colonialism in Malaysia and Singapore, where “Japan brought suffering, while the British delivered modernity.”6 Throughout the book, context in terms of history, film movements, film theory, and postcoloniality isn’t neglected, allowing the reader to access critical readings of films they haven’t seen, without resorting to their imaginative geographies.

Chapter one analyzes how Singaporean cinema reflects the country’s unique geographic conditions and contexts. Sim is influenced by Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema (2007) in providing an analysis that links the country’s postcolonial identity to spatial discourse in films that take the form of aerial cartography, affective maps, and colonial atlases.

Chapter two draws on Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the time-image for an analysis of spatial poetics in the Singaporean new wave films of Tan Pin Pin and Kelvin Tong. Readers familiar with visual signifiers of modern arthouse cinema in the films of Michael Mann and Jia Zhangke will partially recognize the analysis of the visualization of alienation in urban space in Singaporean cinema which has what Sim calls “malaise and disaffections of rationalized, culturally barren postmodern consumer societies.”7

Chapter three focuses on the work of late Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad and the complexities of postcolonialism, liberalism, and neoliberalism in her films and commercials, examined primarily through the use of sound and different featured speaking languages. Sim presents his analysis of the use of “purely acoustic pleasures” to examine postcolonial subjectivity in the context of Malay culture and society, which he cites historian Barbara Watson Andaya as describing as “deeply oral and particularly aural.”8 Chapter four’s analysis of Indonesia’s reformasi films and their use of genre in the post-Suharto era refutes Andrey Tarkovsky’s notion that the “concept of genre is as cold as the tomb.”9 Rather than relayed as a simple form of storytelling, Sim’s analysis of genre in reformasi films details the history of the Suharto regime as a key context. It also includes summations on the scholarship of genres that are uniquely explored in Indonesian cinema including the road movie and the western.

The conclusion carries out two tasks, first examining the films of Chinese-Indonesian director Edwin (Trip to the Wound, and Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly) and their avant-garde cinematic language and connection to the broader Chinese-Indonesian experience, as well the differences in the reception of these films abroad versus their reception in Indonesia. Importantly the second task examines the relationship between the cinema cultures examined and cinema studies as a field. Sim probes this relationship by pointing out the lack of current theory on Malaysian, Indonesian, and Singaporean cinema and drawing upon diverse analytic voices such as Stuart Hall, David Bordwell, and Ksuan-Hsing Chen for his analysis. He believes that “Critical theory lends us a capacity to imagine utopian alternatives to the status quo”10 particularly what he calls “genuinely critical theory” that he sees as part of the book’s goal: to encourage more varied and complex readings in the field of Southeast Asian film studies, to appropriately “soften the ground.”11

The book is best suited for those with a keen interest in and knowledge of film studies texts and concepts, likely from the undergraduate path onwards. Sim provides much context in describing certain theories, histories, and film movements, yet some moments rely on an audience’s prior knowledge of cinema studies. For example, in describing the visual setting of a family dinner in Ahmad’s film Sepet (2004), Sim references French critic André Bazin’s analyses of realism in Italian Neo-Realist cinema.12 The power of this comparison is dependent on an expected awareness a reader might have of the visual styles of those films, or at least Bazin’s critical ideals of cinematic realism. However, that remains a great benefit of Sim’s book and his citation of a wide variety of film theory in this highly specific context of softening the ground in Southeast Asian film studies.

Author Biography:

Daniel Moore is a Cinema Studies MA student at New York University. His primary analytical interests at the moment are the digital landscape films of American director Jon Jost and their relation to André Bazin’s analyses of depictions of duration in cinema.

Notes

  1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979), 54. [^]
  2. Gerald Sim, Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 29–30. [^]
  3. Ibid., 29 [^]
  4. Ibid., 29 [^]
  5. Ibid., 19, 36. [^]
  6. Ibid., 23. [^]
  7. Ibid., 104. [^]
  8. Ibid., 146. [^]
  9. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (University of Texas Press, 1987), 150. [^]
  10. Sim, 226. [^]
  11. Ibid., 230. [^]
  12. Ibid., 142. [^]