Painter Jackson Pollock was once asked what constituted American art. His response was that the idea was as absurd as the “idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics”. One would have thought that the now-famous answer, published in 1944, would have checked our tendency to box the arts into neat geographic or ethnographic groups. But it’s only grown.
Now comes what promises to be a fascinating festival of ‘Asian cinema’ organised by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (Netpac), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Among the 31 films to be screened will be ones from China, Iran, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines and Kazakhstan. What links these films apart from a huge, fractious landmass? Aruna Vasudev, founder-president of Netpac and editor-in-chief of the Cinemaya magazine of Asian cinema, provides a thoughtful counterpoint: “Cinema is a powerful carrier of culture. More than the other arts, it directly depicts the way people live, think, behave — even the economy.”
Is there a shared language of Asian cinema? Vasudev says the pace of on-screen “lived time” in Asia is markedly different from the rest of the world’s. Latika Padgaonkar, Netpac’s executive director who selected the films from among those that have won Netpac awards over the years, says the depiction of the family and respect for elders are ethos common to the region.
Netpac secretary Philip Cheah, organiser of the Singapore film fest, writes on email: “Asia is linked by the values of the extended family and the belief in an intuitive knowledge. The former can be seen in the cinema of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu or even in the modern epics by Philippines’s Lav Diaz. With most of the world’s religions — including Christianity — originating from Asia, much of Asian cinema has dwelled on inner truths... .”
The Philippines-based filmmaker and scholar Ed Lejano, panelist at one of the seminars to be held alongside the film screenings, says what’s common is a “collective essence of being multi-faceted despite the cultural differences”.
But Shaoyi Sun, associate director at the Center for Media Policy Studies in Shanghai University, doesn’t agree on common ethos. He aims at a “common enemy”: “[With] Hollywood in mind, we do intend to call for a collective voice that can rival, compete, challenge, or even subvert [its] dominance. It’s because of this that Asian cinema is able to find a strategic, ‘unified’ voice.”
Whether for a common cause or against a common enemy, film lovers should unite in celebration this week.