From left, top row: Alif Azeman in “Peon,” Chai Fonacier in “Imminent Immanent;” Second row: Sin Sovannleakhena (left) and Chhun Piseth in “New Land, Broken Road,” Bui Bai Binh (left) and Ngo Xuan An in “Binh;” Third row: Scene from “Melody of Change,” Mahatma Rindhang Gumilang in “Lost Wonders,” and scene from “Passing Moment;” Bottom: Arjo Atayde in “Imminent Immanent,” and scene from “Hilang”

After taking a break in 2020, the Tingin Asean Film Festival returns with the launch of its fourth edition today by way of a virtual cinematic feast that celebrates Southeast Asian cinema’s creativity and pertinence.

The moviegoing fete features short films that “explore solutions for rebuilding the world unsettled by the COVID-19 pandemic”—although, in the case of Carlo Francisco Manatad’s star-studded short “The Imminent Immanent,” the country’s lone entry, the huge hurdles are the natural calamities that regularly wreak havoc on the Philippines.

“Imminent Immanent” is the prologue of the full-length feature “Whether the Weather is Fine,” the Daniel Padilla-Charo Santos-Concio starrer that won at the 74th Locarno Film Festival in August.

Set in Tacloban, Leyte, the cautionary 14-minute short follows prisoner Miguel (Arjo Atayde), along with the people (Angeli Bayani, Chai Fonacier and Sylvia Sanchez as his seamstress mother) interconnected to his narrative, when a heavy downpour quickly turns into what we now remember as the devastating Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan).

When asked about the festival’s decision to pick “Imminent,” Tingin fest programmer Patrick Campos told us last Tuesday that the film, which is about the deadly repercussions of climate change, embodies “the range of meanings of the festival’s notion of ‘dis-ease,’ from the environmental to the social to the personal.”

Similarities of cultures

“Impressionistic and textured, the film allows viewers to feel a sense of unease and impending upheaval,” he explained. “It expresses the responses of people to seek solace inward or solidarity outward when overwhelmed by the force of recurring storms.”

But, as demonstrated by the creepy, disquieting “calm before the storm” in Manatad’s short film, no “typhoon” is deadlier and more encompassing than the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage, ravage and rear its ugly head almost two years after it crawled out of its zoonotic source in China.

“Under the so-called new normal, we must shed some ways of doing things so that we are not undone by pathogens,” said Tingin festival director Maya Quirino. “Cultural work is critically positioned to help us weave a new arc that replaces anthropocentrism, implicated in the climate crisis and the rise of epidemics. Tingin draws upon Southeast Asian values and practices, as captured on film, to surface some remedies.”

As with its previous incarnations, the fest wishes to underscore as much the similarities of cultures in the region as the differences. “Tingin is part of a suite of projects in the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) that aims to familiarize Filipinos and, thus, forge stronger ties with our neighbors in the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations),” said Annie Luis, head of the NCCA’s International Affairs section.

Hosted by the government body’s National Committee on Cinema, the festival is showcasing entries from the Philippines (Manatad’s “The Imminent Immanent”), Cambodia (Kavich Neang’s “New Land, Broken Road”), Indonesia (Loeloe Hendra’s “Lost Wonders”), Malaysia (Shaiful Yahya, June Wong and Syaz Zainal’s “Peon”), Vietnam (Ostin Fam’s “Binh”)—all five of them we’ve seen over the weekend.

But the lineup also includes shorts from Brunei (Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani’s “Hilang”), Laos (Ka Xiong and Cyril Eberle’s “Melody of Change”), Myanmar (Nyi Zaw Htwe’s “Passing Moments”), Singapore (Shoki Lin’s “Adam”) and Thailand (Tinshine Mont’s “Ethereal Creature”).

Anchored on the theme “Remedies for Dis-ease,” the three-day digital fest, which will be streamed for free on Vimeo till Sept. 26 (write to [email protected] for inquiries), typically chooses one film to represent each member country of the Asean, Quirino said.

Composite picture

“To enrich its curation, Tingin sometimes holds special additional screenings,” she added. “This year, we handpicked 10 short films that collectively form a composite picture of how Southeast Asia, culturally, can problematize and respond to the root causes of the pandemic.”

Of the other four films we’ve seen, there’s nothing more immersive than the true-to-life Malaysian entry “Peon,” notable as much for its riveting sense of urgency as its relevance, chronicling the dangers faced by frontline workers. Set during the lockdown, it captures the virtual world that we increasingly navigate as it follows a delivery rider (Alif Azeman) risking life and limb to do his job.

If you’re partial to something thematically quirkier, the Vietnamese short “Binh” is the right fit for you: It’s about an alien, hiding in the body of a 21-year-old (Ngo Xuan An), who comes to Earth and visits a construction site to seek assistance for the home he’s rebuilding. But he learns a perspective-shifting lesson or two about earthlings’ different notions of home and family when he runs into a séance (Phan Thi Tra My).

Changing landscape

“New Land, Broken Road” takes a ruminative look at Khmer youth in the face of Cambodia’s rapidly changing landscape. In the film, three hip-hop dancers—Piseth (Chhun Piseth), Nick (Soen Chinnaro) and Thy (Hour Puthy)—on a single motorbike stop on a dirt road to talk about their seemingly dead-end lives and aspirations.

While Indonesia’s “Lost Wonders” astutely incorporates tradition and a tinge of the supernatural into its volatile narrative mix, it delves into a related issue not alien to more than 10 percent of the Philippine population—the OFW (overseas Filipino workers) experience and the sacrifices it sometimes entails.

Utilizing the 1997 Asian financial crisis as its backdrop, the film is about young boy Ilalang (Mahatma Rindhang Gumilang) who wanders the fields every night to look for his father. His dad inexplicably vanished after performing “pasugihan”—a kind of magic that makes people instantly rich in exchange for a sacrifice.

Life becomes doubly hard for Ilalang and his grandmother (Elly D Luthan) when his mom Murti’s financial support also stops coming. When it rains, it pours, indeed.

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