10 films that will teach you something about South East Asia
A trip starts long before packing. The moment in which your deepest wanderlust comes out in the form of body shivers; that’s where everything starts. When preparing a trip, some travelers like to jump into the void of the unknown and reduce their expectations to the minimum, avoiding seeing pictures or hearing opinions about their next destination. Others study their future adventure like a bookworm, while some go for the middle ground.
In any case, the appetite for escape awakens our senses, and our imagination soars unavoidably. We picture ourselves in places that only exist in our own imagery, and that might end up contrasting brutally with the inevitable reality that awaits us. This is one of the many beauties of traveling; a trip can facilitate the unravelling of our prior preconceptions and prejudices.
One of the best ways to learn and to understand better a culture is through films. It is the closest we can get to somewhere without being physically there. Such is the power of cinema; sounds, faces, languages or gestures can take us directly to the unexplored. Sometimes it works the other way around; a film can actually be the reason for choosing a specific place to go.
Here are several documentaries and feature films you should watch before, after, or during your trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar or Thailand. All of them portray, in one way or another, different contexts and realities about these countries.
Vietnam has been the focus of numerous feature films and documentaries. Its harsh history has been a source of inspiration for many filmmakers. Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, are some of the most mythical movies about the Vietnam War. But, sometimes, documentaries can bring a deeper insight about reality.
Hearts and minds (1975), by Peter Davis, is, possibly, the most moving, well-known and valued documentary about the Vietnam War. Michael Moore says it is “the best documentary I have ever seen”, and, after big polemics, it won an Oscar for best Documentary Feature, in 1975. So much happened in the Vietnam War, and this is one of the best visual pieces of work to understand it.
Yellow flowers on the green grass, by Victor Vu, won the prize for best feature film at the Viet Film Fest 2016. It shows a peaceful and beautiful Vietnam through the warmhearted story of two brothers.
Not even the darkest historical periods can silence art and music. In fact, these are the weapons of the peaceful minds. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten (2014), a documentary by John Pirozzi, presents Cambodia’s horrifying past throughout its vibrant music scene of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Director Rithy Panh reconstructs his childhood memories in The Missing Picture (2013). He combines political propaganda newsreels and little clay figures to depict personal experiences under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
The adventures of 10-year old Ahlo takes us deep into the Laotian countryside in The Rocket (2013), by Kim Mordaunt. This is not only a cinematographic poem, but a very tender immersion into Laos’ culture and ancient traditions.
From a more western point of view, Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice (2015), by Daan Veldhuizen, tells the story of a group of backpackers who arrive in a small village in the North of Laos, and how they interact with the locals. A visual piece of art.
Of course, Sabaidee Luang Prabang (2008), by Sakchai Deenan, deserves a mention, since it was the first commercial film made in Laos for more than 30 years, since the rise of communism in 1975.
50 years of dictatorship leaves behind a deep influence on a country and its people. It only started opening up to the world recently, so, the impact that foreigners have over the locals may not be the same as in other countries, even if tourism is growing very quickly. This makes Myanmar very interesting to visit, especially if you know a bit about its recent history.
Filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman shot clandestinely during three years, to finally release his documentary They call it Myanmar- Lifting the curtain (2012). It is an extraordinary journey through the history of Myanmar, told by people who lived it and suffered it in person.
Although many critics claim that The Lady (2011), by Luc Besson, does not represent Aung San Suu Kyi’s character so accurately, it is definitely a good overview of the trajectory of one of the most important leading figures in Myanmar’s history.
The Songs of Rice is a visual symphony of rice farming in Thailand. Directed by Uruphong Raksasad, this documentary creates a magnificent and multicolor rhythm of the rural life in different parts of Thailand.
Parinya “Nong Toom” Charoenphol was a Muay Thai star who competed to finance a sex change operation, and Beautiful Boxer (2004), by Ekachai Uekrongtham, tells her story. This is a moving and exciting film that combines two opposing, but very present elements, in Thai society.
There are a bunch of western films that have been filmed in South East Asia. This part of the world hosts some of the master pieces of Mother Nature, so, it is no wonder that Hollywood has shot here on so many occasions. But, apart from showing amazing locations, this is not the kind of cinema that will teach us something about the cultures. A good way of finding local directors is by checking the film festivals of each country. The Cambodia International Film Festival, Vietfest, Myanmar Film Festival, Luang Prabang Film Festival or Thailand Film Destination present numerous local feature films, short films and documentaries each year.
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