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Women’s stories through the lens of SEA women

STORYTELLING through the female gaze, relating to the human experience, and finding your audience are some of the ingredients to an engaging story, said Southeast Asian women creatives in film.

In celebration of International Women’s Month, online streaming service Netflix gathered four Southeast Asian creators and talent (all of whom have work featured on Netflix) to talk about storytelling for, by, and about women in a panel session titled “Women Who Rule the Screen” on March 23.

The panel was composed of Thai-American director Pailin Wedel (Hope Frozen), Indonesian actress Marissa Anita (Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens), Malaysian producer Lina Tan (Sa Balik Baju), and Filipino writer and executive producer Tanya Yuson (Trese).

Growing up in a household of music enthusiasts and performers, Indonesian presenter, journalist, and actress Marissa Anita said, “I grew up watching a lot of films and I learned more about values of life from films and not from school,” Ms. Anita said. Her passion for theater and acting developed while taking drama courses at university and she “never looked back since.”

Thai-American director Pailin Wedel’s start was unexpected when she landed a job as photojournalist at a broadsheet despite finishing a degree in biology.

Covering news stories, she then went from photography to producing videos for news websites. “Eventually, I just realized that whatever I was producing was frustratingly [too] short to cover the depth that I wanted to cover,” Ms. Wedel said. This realization led to her exploration in producing documentaries.

To date, her longest piece is the 75-minute award-winning documentary Hope Frozen (2018).

Filipino writer Tanya Yuson began her career as a production assistant for commercials. She then moved to New York and Los Angeles where she worked in development for studios such as New Line Cinema and The Walt Disney Company. After 14 years abroad, she came back home and co-founded BASE Entertainment. “I knew I always wanted to come back and look at the stories coming out of Southeast Asia,” Ms. Yuson said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian film producer Lina Tan had a background in advertising prior to establishing Red Communications, a production company producing women-centric stories.

“At that point, I was looking at content. Television was very keen on developing young minds and I was looking at images of young women in TV a lot,” Ms. Tan said.

During the discussion, the panelists made observations on the status of women’s inclusivity and representation early in their careers.

Ms. Wedel recalled googling “Thai Women directors” when she was starting out in the early 2000s, and “less than 10 people showed up” on the Google search.

“I remember just feeling lonely and not really knowing how to find community or mentors,” Ms. Wedel said. “The very first thing I would like to see is numbers, just more of us anywhere in the industry.”

Ms. Tan recalled the difficulty she had in producing serious topics about women.

After premiering the series 3R – Respect, Relax, Respond (2000) about three girls that tackle issues important to them such as relationships, and sexual identity, Ms. Tan recalled having to deal with content censorship.

“We were constantly getting letters from the censorship board,” Ms. Tan said, adding that there had been episodes that were banned due to the sensitivity of the topic. “There are levels of conservativeness that we have to be really careful of.”

Connecting with the character and the human experience are factors that create an engaging story.

“Look at stories that connect, that feel real, even if it was something that was like a wish fulfillment or a fantasy,” said Ms. Yuson, who is the executive producer of Trese, an animated series based on a comic book of the same name. It follows detective Alexandra Trese who protects the human world against supernatural criminals.

Within a week of its release in June 2021, Trese was at the Netflix Top 10 in 19 territories.

Trese tackles such themes as family relationships and a young woman finding her place in the world which are universality relatable. “Even though we were specifically telling it in a very Filipino context. It still connected to audience members on that level,” Ms. Yuson said.

“A lot of people internationally might have these preconceived notions of what is Asia, they don’t even know the distinction of Southeast Asia. But presenting this in a very specific and very modern way was kind of refreshing,” she added.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wedel focuses on character-centric documentaries despite not having control over the subject’s narrative. For her documentaries, she follows interesting and complex characters.

Her first full-length documentary, Hope Frozen (2018), follows a Thai couple who decided to have their three-year-old daughter’s body cryogenically preserved after she died of brain cancer in 2015. Hope Frozen won Best International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2019. It also won Best Documentary at the 49th International Emmy Awards in 2021, becoming the first Thai production to win an International Emmy.

“It’s just like mind-blowing to me that this all has happened,” Ms. Wedel said. “I’ve gotten so many commissioning editors tell me that the film is mostly subtitles, it’s not in English, and that people don’t relate,” she added. “The international Emmy is such a global award; I just feel like they weren’t all right.”

As for Ms. Tan, the accessibility of online streaming platforms has given her latest film, Sa Balik Baju (2021) an audience despite the cinemas having been closed during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sa Balik Baju is a series of interconnected stories of six women braving the modern pressures of social media, work, and relationships in the digital age.

“I was [really] excited when I managed to get it on Netflix. And because I felt that was where my audience was first time,” Ms. Tan said. “They’re at home watching. It’s a pandemic and the cinemas are closed. At the same time, that smaller screen is within their own control.

The panelists hope for the increased accessibility of and more stories by Southeast Asian women, latching on to women’s growing power as an audience.

“I think in terms of how it’s changed is [that] women have got more power as an audience, and that’s a big thing,” Ms. Yuson said. “If they’re driving the viewership, then they should want the gaze to shift to be more on how they see themselves, and how they are.”

“I really do believe that the concept of male gaze and female gaze is very, very real. We do see things differently. So, I want to see more female writers and directors or present more rounded female characters in Indonesian films,” Ms. Anita said.

For those women who hope for an opportunity to tell their stories, Ms. Yuson had this advice: “It’s scary when you start out, but don’t be afraid to do things your way because it might not be ready for you at this point. But if you keep at it… eventually you will find your audience.”

Hope Frozen, Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens, Trese, and Sa Balik Baju can be seen on Netflix. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman