By Dan Koh
(1,231 words, 6-minute read)
At the inaugural Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab in Bangkok last week, some of us participants chatted about how close we live to each other regionally, but how far it actually feels, with opportunities to convene and collaborate like SEAFIC remaining far and few between. Curated by Tan Bee Thiam, a slate of three new South-east Asian documentaries that screened over the weekend at the Singapore International Festival of Arts’ pre-festival, The O.P.E.N., went some way towards bridging this psychic and emotional distance between us seeming neighbours.
Railway Sleepers from Thailand, and the Philippines’ People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose and Sunday Beauty Queen are by turns observational, formally hybrid, and classic. Respectively the three films revolve around the trains of time, contested histories, and the migrant-worker experience, resonant matters here in Singapore, if not throughout ASEAN.
Patiently produced by Apichatpong Weerasethakul over the last eight years, Railway Sleepers by Sompot “Boat” Chidgasornpongse lulls us onto a train ride of everyday, timeless magic. From almost 140 hours of footage shot on the State Railway of Thailand—a historical, political, and crumbling behemoth—the Palme d’Or-winner’s long-standing assistant director has crafted an ostensibly linear, two-day-and-night journey from third-class carriages to first. It’s a surprisingly novel conceit: from the astonishing first frames, which confront us with an inward shift of the camera, we slowly warm to a microcosm of Thai society around us, unravelling in all its minutiae, even as the curiously unchanging times within the railway coach—a possible reflection of the country outside the windows—begin to feel quaint and nostalgic, but also deadly stultifying. The scenery zooms by, largely bereft of geographically or temporally locating signs, and a gnawing sense emerges of going everywhere, getting nowhere; moving forward, maybe in circles.
An odyssey writ small, Railway Sleepers lyrically tells its epic tale only through ambient sound and precisely observed images. Bear witness to a goateed punk, clad in a Sid Vicious T-shirt, playing with a dragonfly with his pianist fingers, a disembodied hand stretching out of the window to be cleansed by raindrops, while constant snatches of conversation (“My hometown has no trains, only airplanes”, “Hot coffee for ten baht”), song fragments, and the steady rumbling of the train tracks play like a looping hymn. Some may find the film’s pacing and editing variously sleepy and programmatic, or the ending slightly jarring and opaque (I consider it a meditation on the twin illusions of cinema and history), but it’s a miracle that Railway Sleepers even exists. Watching it on my laptop on a rambling van in rainy Bangkok, it was wondrous to sometimes look up and out and almost be unable to distinguish between life and art.
If Boat’s documentary hopefully has a long afterlife in buses, cars, and trains too, perhaps a more productive screening venue than the cinema for John Torres’ People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose is the museum. This sometimes frustratingly metatextual film is one for our post-conceptual times, so load up on context and theories to try and decipher its obscure, scratched surface. In 1986, the year of the Philippines’ People Power Revolution, the enfant-terrible director Celso Ad Castillo set out to film The Diary of Vietnam Rose, an erotic-historic movie about Vietnamese boat people escaping to the Philippines. The journeys of his characters, production, and nation were all derailed: in the story, the refugees are stranded on an island; in real life, the film shoot was abandoned after money dried up and islanders threatened to revolt, all this while Ferdinand Marcos was being deposed. Over three decades later, Torres has intercut the damaged film reels, recovered from under lead actress Liz Alindogan’s bed, with new footage he shot that’s made to look old, plus dubbed in an irreverent soundtrack, including interviews with the original cast and crew. Got that all down?
While this hybrid-of-a-hybrid-documentary wears its avant-garde, Rotterdam credentials heavily, it does expand on film’s potential to surprise, challenge, and even entertain. Once one stops grasping for a coherent story, certain sections can astound with their transcendent images (look out for the whirlpool motif) and mind-boggling or amusing natures. People Power Bombshell also slyly extends Nick Deocampo’s proposition that in the Philippines, cinema was “[b]orn as twin to the nation”. As film was first screened there just two days after José Rizal’s execution, it seems only natural that this notional making-of documentary, directed in homage to Alindogan and the late Castillo, seamlessly fuses the personal, political, and cinematic-historic. With similarly intertwined histories in most Southeast Asian nations, is the next logical step to raid and remix our archives, revealing through their re-enactment more than meets the eye?
Performance also plays a rejuvenating role in Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, but only on Sundays at street pageants. Some of the 190,000 documented Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong compete in the Miss Philippine Tourism Hong Kong pageant, featuring winners from region-specific competitions of Mindanao, Visayas, and Luzon. Its intrepid organiser, and our central protagonist, is one Leo Selomenio, a Science Education graduate who’s been a lucky live-out Overseas Filipino Worker for 20 years in Hong Kong (in a humanising and pointed move, each OFW, no matter how minor, is introduced on screen with this information—they are all highly educated). Selomenio also happens to be a lesbian who identifies as a man, and to Villarama’s credit, Selomenio’s sexuality is presented as a passing, minor point: especially when dismissed domestic workers in HK are only given two weeks to find another employer, or risk repatriation at their personal expense. Instead, the director has the cast tell of their circumscribed existences with so much life and lightness, it blazes. Even when Selomenio and his housemate (Judy Sison, nursing undergraduate, 16 years in HK) describes how “here, pets are [the] priority… employers spend more on their dogs and cats than their maids”, one can’t help but chuckle sadly and guiltily along with them, before realising that a certain dark humour and defiant exuberance is their coping mechanism.
The work enters a growing corpus of films about the OFW experience, like Rory B. Quintos’s Anak (2000), Chito S. Roño’s Caregiver (2008), Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013), Remittance (2015) by Patrick Daly and Joel Fendelman, and Lav Diaz’s upcoming Henrico’s Farm. Sunday Beauty Queen truly shines in the pageant sequences—showcasing nerves, potential sabotage, and impassioned speeches—which are misrepresented as the movie’s crux when they’re in fact bookends of sorts. Truly, it’s domestic helpers’ daily existences on show for the most part, which make the sappy scoring particularly unnecessary—their lives are sufficient. This refreshingly straightforward documentary sings with its playful, loose, and interactive framing and when the emotional, fitting dedication appears at the end.
Seen in a Singapore context, this trio of documentaries can be refracted through the Keretapi Tanah Melayu railway line, which connected Singapore and Malaysia as one country when our cinematic history too was also plaited together through Shaw’s Malay Film Productions and multicultural, formative films like Leila Majnun (1937)—our own version of Deocampo’s “triadic [cultural] system” (Malaya, Malaysia, Singapore) that remains to be rethought. Of course, the situation of the over 70,000 Filipino “maids” in Singapore also remains pertinent, especially when even the most basic legal right of one day off per week remains largely unenforced. Seems like the SEA (of) possibilities is still wide open and waiting.
Deocampo, Nick. (2012). “Memories and History in Filipino Cinema” in Film as a Language of History. Singapore: National Heritage Board, pp. 80–91.
Selected reviews and articles
“Berlinale 2017. Look Inside Yourself: Talking to Sompot Chidgasornpongse about Railway Sleepers” by Giovanni Marchini Camia (MUBI Notebook)
“True/False film review: Railway Sleepers” by Chloe Wilt (Vox Magazine)
“Mon rot fai” by Anke Leweke and Annette Lingg (Berlinale Forum)
“People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose” by Javier H. Estrada (Filmadrid)
“Busan Film Review: Sunday Beauty Queen” by Maggie Lee (Variety)
“Sunday Beauty Queen review: Enthralling reality” by Oggs Cruz (Rappler)
“Highly recommended: Sunday Beauty Queen” by Toots Ople (The Manila Times)
Railway Sleepers (หมอนรถไฟ / Mon Rot Fai)  is director Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s debut feature-length film. Produced by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the documentary premiered at the Busan International Film Festival before travelling to the Berlin International and True/False Film Festivals. As part of SIFA’s The O.P.E.N., Railway Sleepers (PG) screened at The Projector on 8 July, Saturday, at 5.30pm, with a post-screening talk with the director.
People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016), helmed by John Torres, made its international premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Featuring Liz Alindogan, the hybrid documentary recently received a Special Mention at Brazil’s Curitiba International Film Festival. People Power Bombshell (M18) screened at The Projector on 7 July, Friday, at 8pm.
Directed by documentarian Baby Ruth Villarama, Sunday Beauty Queen (周日皇后 / Zhōu Rì Huáng Hòu)  premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and won four awards at the Metro Manila Film Festival, including Best Film—the first documentary to do so. A co-production between the Philippines, Hong Kong, the U.K., and Japan, Sunday Beauty Queen (PG) screened at The Projector on 9 July, Sunday, at 3pm.
Guest Contributor Dan Koh is an independent writer, editor, and film producer. He produced the experimental music documentary, The Obs: A Singapore Story, and is currently co-producing two feature thrillers by Yeo Siew Hua, A Land Imagined and Stranger Eyes. Dan’s second chapbook, Jurong, My Love, is soon to be published by The Substation.