If you go to a party these days with those in the 18 to 24 age demographic, you’re likely to hear a familiar playlist of modern dance standards. Songs like Low (2007) by Flo Rida, I Gotta Feeling (2009) by the Black Eyed Peas and Clarity (2012) by Zedd have continued to capture the fervour of the youth who barely bat an eye at these songs now being more than a decade old, their presence being taken as a given at any social function. Meanwhile if you glimpse at the hits of today, you encounter a similar feeling of cultural stagnation. Hit songs no longer stand on their own as much as they exist as an imprint of an imprint of a past cultural memory. There are about a thousand different versions of Alice Deejay’s Better Off Alone (1999), remixed, covered, spliced and sampled by the likes of David Guetta, Kim Petras and Nicki Minaj which have cyclically reached various states of virality. Even the resplendent Pinkpantheress and Ice Spice collaboration Boy’s a liar, Pt 2 (2023) exists as a clear emulation of a past era of UK Garage; a genre already long eulogised by electronic artist Burial, whose despondent album Untrue (2007) deconstructed and distorted UKG’s hallmark drum patterns and pop vocal samples to make something very clear: that the party’s over and in our current state of decay it’s hard to imagine it even began.
And yet here we are, voices raised, hands up in the air, acting as if the past 15 years did not happen. You could blame it on the nostalgia cycle but it’s difficult to think that anyone would be nostalgic for a year like 2009: a time of recession, mass unemployment and the writer’s strike, a state eerily similar to where we are today. In director Riri Riza’s portrait of Indonesian student activist Soe Hok Gie, Gie (2005), the titular character, quoting Christopher Henry Dawson, declares that “Happy is the people without history”, which perhaps best explains the delirious cloud of cultural amnesia you encounter on the dance floor. It is hard not to think that we are currently in some variation of political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s much maligned theory of “The End of History”; that because of the mass adoption of neoliberalism, free market capitalism and globalisation as the guiding systems of the world, there can no longer be any viable or new political alternatives. Apparently, the spectre of the 20th century still looms large, with many hoping to backslide into fascism or fight for a utopian vision of communism. That is to say that in Fukuyama’s “End of History”, there are truly no new ideas and we live in a culture fashioned out of the detritus of a previous generation’s dreams and obsessions: whether reflected in our politics, fashion, music or our cinema.
It is of course naive to believe that history has simply stopped, and perhaps the easiest rebuttal to this theory would be to point to the various political revolutions that happen everyday which are captured within the films of this programme. From the 1979 protest against mandatory veiling in Iran in Sylvina Boissonnas and Claudine Mulard’s Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement: Year Zero (1979), to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as depicted in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006), the 2019 to 2020 anti-extradition Hong Kong protests in Lam Sum and Ren Xia’s May You Stay Forever Young (2021), the 2021 anti-coup Spring Protests in The Myanmar Film Collective’s Myanmar Diaries (2022) and the 2019 to 2020 protest against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act in Teresa A Braggs’ All Was Good (2022). The feeling of living at the end of history, however, does not stem from a denial of the present as much as it results from the effort of governments, cultural institutions and tech companies to maintain a comfortable status quo and treat revolutionary movements like a blip. We hold a belief in such things like capitalism’s uncanny ability to snap back into place post-crisis simply because that is the dominant narrative peddled by the state and a position massaged by various regulations. In a similar way our seemingly endlessly recycled music tastes do not subsist on nostalgia alone but by an aggressive push by record labels, promoters, streaming services and algorithms. They don’t want you to know how untenable, how unsustainable all of this actually is.
In this same manner we should look at a programme like Coming of Rage organised by the Asian Film Archive with a degree of scepticism. To come into a programme that is so neatly organised according to region and time period is to directly aestheticise and historicise both revolutions and the past, no matter how recent. To curate histories of struggle is to memorialise them and entomb movements in specific time periods. The unfortunate effect of this is that by presenting films which capture ongoing struggles like Myanmar Diaries or May You Stay Forever Young, in such a formal manner is that there is the disempowering implication that what they depict is ready to be retroactively analysed, dissected and deconstructed after the fact from a measured distance. This is evident when viewed in relation to other films in the programme such as Gie or Jason Soo’s A Short Film on the May 13th Generation (2014), which features direct re-enactments of Singapore’s 1954 student protest against conscription. These films depict revolutionary movements as necessary stepping stones towards progress, but merely consider them as things of the past which feature little direct bearing on the present despite the dynamic nature in which revolutionary ideals are meant to develop. By viewing these films in a formally curated manner, it is almost as if another cultural institution has come to memory-hole history and inscribe living, evolving movements in a past far removed from our present.
These issues emerge in part due to an inherent limitation of the medium of film itself: that by having definitive endings, an embedded sense of finality causes the themes and ideas espoused in a work to adopt a static quality. This of course runs antithetical to the dynamic nature of a revolution which suggests a continuous state of struggle and the constant iteration of ideals. This is a quality of film that has been amplified in the internet age because of everything the internet can address that film cannot. While film seems beset with finality, the internet is defined by its endless nature, the endless scroll you find on a social media page and the endless amount of content that the algorithm can generate for you. It is no surprise that social media has become ground zero for most modern revolutionary movements, evinced by May You Stay Forever Young where the young protestors feverishly swap information through Telegram, by All Was Good where students call to garner support through Instagram Live, and by Myanmar Diaries whose entire formal construction is dependent on the internet, being presented as a digital collage of vertical phone videos, viral clips and self recordings. If anything, by adopting the visual language of the internet, Myanmar Diaries does the best job at suggesting the current irresolution within its country’s state of political turmoil. The film ends at an abrupt point because there is no end to the revolution; you can almost feel the page refreshing and a new video popping up.
In casting such a wide net within the programme in terms of countries represented, one cannot help but feel that some nuance may be lost. That by viewing the programme as a whole, the act of revolution may only be considered in a generic sense, as a revolt against power, which limits the viewers’ understanding of the material realities and specific contexts of each country’s movements. Viewing these films as a cluster homogenises them, flattens their direct historical significance and causes the films to fall into the curse of spectatorship and public exhibition: that they will primarily be viewed as pieces of entertainment. This is a problem unavoidable when importing a film outside of its direct context and away from the audience amongst which it is meant to stir action and revolutionary fervour. There is the common stereotype within the world of arthouse distribution, repertory cinemas and film festivals that many screenings usually consist of a privileged, well-meaning liberal audience viewing the suffering of those from foreign countries from afar and leaving with greater empathy but little in the way of a desire to materially aid those in need other than occasionally raising up their predicament in conversation. Just going off personal experience, this will likely be the audience viewing these films at the Asian Film Archive. It becomes all the more frustrating when you come to realise that filmmakers themselves have started to become cognisant of this particular audience in addition to the various stakeholders they need to appease to ensure their film’s inclusion within international film festivals and repertory programmes. It is disheartening to witness the ending of a film like May You Stay Forever Young which chooses to abstract its revolutionary struggle in a fit of melodrama in order to render its message as universal to a wider audience. The film’s main formal gambit, that it was actually filmed during the Hong Kong protests akin to Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945), feels cheapened by such an ending because the attempts to capture a direct reality no longer feel in service of revolution but in service of aesthetics. Of course this position plays better to a foreign audience, but in the process the work loses much of its supposed purpose and imparts less of an impact than it should.
In light of this, it is perhaps easier to excuse the films in this programme which adopt a more implicitly political stance and which are more content with serving as pieces of entertainment capturing the discontent of a generation in a metaphorical sense. Films which include Kinji Fukasaku’s iconic Battle Royale (2000), Rashid Nugmanov’s playful The Needle (1988) and Glenn Barit’s visually inventive Cleaners (2019). The larger question raised when comparing these films and the other works in the programme, which attempt to capture revolution either through documentary or some form of realism, is of what we even want art to be. Do we want art to exist on its own terms as aesthetic experiences regardless of its content or do we want art to direct audiences towards real world action? The dilemma then becomes: how do we translate the second hand experience of spectatorship into actual material change?
Ironically, the long term impact of a piece of art on reality can be observed when considering the cultural legacy of Battle Royale. Cinema as an artistic medium in its modern form is one inextricably tied to the forces of capital simply because of how expensive it is to even make a film and how many stakeholders need to be involved within the production and distribution process. As such, the enduring legacy of most films unfortunately stems from their continued commodification. The international popularity of Battle Royale caused various imitators to spawn, hoping to cash in on its ideas such as the American Hunger Games franchise which preached similar anti-establishment and anti-capitalist rhetoric while still predominantly existing to sell Funko Pops to children and stunted adults. But perhaps the most resonant impact Battle Royale made was on the video game industry, laying the framework for the now incredibly lucrative “Battle Royale” genre, which is predicated on killing all your opponents and picking up the supplies of the fallen in order to become the last person standing and win the game. The most popular of these games is of course Epic Games’ Fortnite which has achieved such intense cultural ubiquity, eclipsing the film it was based on and effortlessly colonising the minds of children everywhere. In a multitude of ways, the existence of Fortnite clashes directly with the messages preached in Battle Royale, which points towards the injustice the youth face at the hands of adults and the government, being forced against their will to participate in an inhumane game. It is in essence a film about the horrors of losing your personal autonomy and having your choices made for you. The children of Battle Royale participated in the games unwillingly and herein lies the magic of Fortnite; all the children who play it are doing so out of their own volition, and willingly pay real money to upgrade themselves and slaughter everyone around them to win the game. The government of Battle Royale did not need to invent the games to placate what they perceived as the inexhaustible angst and bloodlust of the next generation— they just needed to create a simulation, they needed to create Fortnite. Fortnite is a piece of media, like cinema, that only exists as a second hand experience, it is another testament to the idea that anything is permissible: murder, revolution, defiance, when positioned within the zone of the virtual with the barrier between media and reality still intact. However, more than that, it is a testament to how the ideas of revolutionary media immediately become distorted and commodified within a capitalist system. Institutions do not want you to start picketing on the streets and burning down police stations after viewing these films, they want you to compartmentalise them in your head in the same place where you perceive the virtual.
It may seem strange, but the film in this programme that has the most utopian view when it comes to considering cinema’s influence on reality is Mark Chee’s GUNKWORLD (2020). GUNKWORLD functions as a satire on how art’s impact is quantified within capitalism. It captures the premiere of a new television series of its namesake, a Japanese anime about a boy who has to go to school with various monsters, and its increasing popularity, with the cultural footprint of the series coming to resemble the Battle Royale to Fortnite pipeline. The show’s themes of angst and alienation immediately become commodified, becoming fodder for toys, video games and snack foods which are all represented through fictional commercials. The turning point in the film comes when the character of Gunkman becomes sentient and realises that he is being viewed by others. Accordingly in a fit of rage, he unleashes psychic waves which causes viewers of the show to commit suicide, leaving him finally at peace. Macabre, sure, disturbing, definitely, but there is something ultimately idealistic in how Chee presents a world where media is able to have such a fluid impact on the material world. If the right systems were put in place, one could imagine any of the revolutionary films in this programme having as direct an impact as what is depicted in GUNKWORLD. It is comforting to think that art can exist outside of itself.
If we want revolutionary cinema to adopt the dynamic characteristics of actual revolution, and to make an impact beyond the superficial, then we have to deconstruct the typical notion of passive spectatorship itself. In Gie, the titular character is seen to host various film screenings on his university campus and more crucially facilitate post-screening discussions where viewers articulate the relevance of the films to their lives. In one scene, a character remarks that the score of the Japanese film they watched was able to maintain a discernible national character despite clear Western influence which links back to their aspirations for the future of Indonesia. The ideas espoused in the film are allowed to develop outside of it and evolve to fit a new cultural context. What Gie does in the film is exactly what Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino proposed in their 1970 manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema”, which outlines the conditions needed for Third Cinema to thrive, regarded as a new form of cinema that sought to extricate the art form from its perceived status as a mere vessel for entertainment and to decouple cinema from neocolonial and capitalist influence. In the manifesto, they crucially declared that a film should not be taken on its own in a void but it should be a “detonator or a pretext”, with any screening being accompanied by a discussion where the viewer is no longer a spectator but an active stakeholder in the creation of a film’s meaning. The discussions would solve the issue of the finality of film by stressing that the ideas espoused by a work would need to exist beyond the work itself, that a film would need to evolve from just being sensory input in a viewer to being rational, applicable knowledge and finally into actual revolutionary practice. For the films in the Coming of Rage programme to have any actual impact in line with the ideals they preach, they would need to be accompanied by action of any kind, even in private, where the viewer escapes the shackles of their own conditioned passivity. But for a public institution dedicated to stewardship and preservation like the Asian Film Archive, a non-political stance is perhaps needed to maintain their own existence so any transgressive discussions of sorts cannot exist apart from post-screening Q&As with filmmakers. Radical politics can be analysed and exhibited, but in no way can a public institution call for you to act on it. And in a country with such repressive laws regarding freedom of speech like Singapore, any Third Cinema activity would need to be conducted deep underground and should not be publicly highlighted by formal institutions like the Asian Film Archive or on essays published on their website. Though if you are reading this, you should definitely think about having that post-screening discussion yourself.
The static nature of film screenings is another fatal flaw of public exhibition and indicative of the dwindling physical spaces in which revolutionary action can actually happen. This shift in revolutionary spaces is well illustrated when comparing Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement: Year Zero to Nahid Rezaei’s Dream of Silk (2003), which follows Rezaei as she returns to her old high school in Tehran, interviewing the girls that currently attend it and discussing with them their hopes for the future. There is a 24 year gap between the films but the disheartening reality is that it seems that very little had changed in Iran during this time period, with the country still being a repressive patriarchal society. It is to the extent that the mandatory veiling laws in which female students went out to protest in Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement: Year Zero have only recently been considered for reform 43 years later, spurred on by another recent set of protests over the death of Mahsa Amini. It is because of the cruel inflexibility of the government that in comparison, Dream of Silk seems to be beset with an air of resignation from the girls interviewed. They have become disempowered by the failures of previous revolutions and now consider the only space where they have actual autonomy over their bodies to be virtual, as the girls revel in the absolute freedom they have in the video game The Sims. The retreat towards the virtual seems to be a bygone conclusion in countries with restrictive laws against freedom of speech and assembly like Singapore where protesting is only allowed in a single government sanctioned and heavily surveilled space. One can express as much discontent about the state of things online, to a reasonable degree, but once this fervour crosses beyond the virtual into the material world, such as the 2021 student protest against transphobia outside Singapore’s Ministry of Education, then the entire force of the state will come against you, with criminal charges and future blacklisting. As much as virtual spaces can empower, they can just as easily serve as a way for the state to silence you, by providing places to express discontent which the powers that be can conveniently ignore because they bear little consequence on the real world.
It is this sense of disempowerment from the failure of a revolution that permeates Lou Ye’s Summer Palace. Throughout the film, Lou employs an excessive use of ellipses skipping through days, months and years from scene to scene. At the centre of the film is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a revolution violently squashed as early as it began, which the characters of his film, students at a university, witness first hand. You observe their plucky idealism wither and as Lou brings you further and further away from the incident you see how their lives dovetail into despondency. At first they run, then they seek personal reinvention, but eventually the despair becomes too much to bear and they kill themselves. Lou’s film offers his characters no respite nor inclination that their actions had any bearing on their country. A pessimistic viewer would decry the film’s doomer defeatist attitude as ultimately stifling of future revolutionary action, but it does serve a defined purpose as the film illustrates the hopelessness one finds when the youth are deprived of a platform to speak and revolt.
If revolutionary cinema is not provided the space in which its ideals are allowed to evolve outside the films, then its exhibition may essentially represent a systemic failure. An alternative as such is that we may need to look at films for what they are rather than what they suggest, and to do this one needs to look at the example of one of cinema’s forefathers Sergei Eisenstein. For Eisenstein, the revolutionary thrust of his films did not subsist from their thematic concerns alone but within every fibre of their formal construction. His pioneering use of dialectical montage made it so that the juxtaposition of every frame created a new idea and planted a new call to action in the minds of the viewer: that the state would slaughter you like an animal without hesitation, that capitalists were monsters and that being exploited for your labour would squeeze every last ounce of life out of you. The form alone was strong enough to psychologically alter a viewer and drive one towards direct action. The revolutionary purpose of his films was wholly unmistakable and one did not need to give them much of a second thought. Beyond that, there was a tremendous effort to remain ideologically consistent with the tenets of Marxism. Eisenstein’s films did not have a central protagonist, in most scenes there is barely a focus on a single character, his work emphasised that change came from the collective and from the individual contribution of each member of a revolution. The only film in this programme which attempts a similar formal gambit is Myanmar Diaries which goes a step beyond Eisenstein’s devaluation of the individual within the narrative of the film by attributing the film’s direction to a group known as the The Myanmar Film Collective. Though this decision, along with the choice to blur out all the faces within the film, was done out of a pragmatic need for anonymity away from government persecution, there is nonetheless a potent ideological effect created. By emphasising a facelessness within the revolution, it allows the viewer to project themselves into the film and realise that they too can join the movement whether online or in person and keep the momentum going even after viewing the film. In repressive environments where revolutionary action and discussion are forcefully preempted, the form of a film may still be able to spur a viewer towards direct action.
It must be said that it is not the failure of the filmmakers or the films alone that causes cinema today to lose its revolutionary impact, but it is the result of deliberate action from governments and institutions to destroy spaces for revolutionary thought to ferment which causes us to fall into the trap of spectatorship by only viewing these works as pieces of art. Discontent and revolt will exist as long as the youth exist, because there are no groups of people better positioned to understand the frustrating gap between what you want the world to be and what it actually is. History will continue to roll on no matter how much we deny it, and in spite of whether cinema is there to capture it. Even in the cultural detritus, in the sea of signifiers we latch onto representing long gone periods of idealism and struggle, can we find new inspiration and new meaning which you can see in the climax of All Was Good, when student protestors engage in a sing along to the Vance Joy song Riptide (2013). A disposable piece of indie twee folk pop somehow becomes a moving rallying cry for those made to go through hell for the crime of civil disobedience.
To view this programme is to ultimately view the limitations of the medium of cinema, of modern exhibition and of repertory programming. We can celebrate revolution but only through millions of invisible constraints which prevent one from wanting to actually seek revolution. We can observe radical politics but can never be given the platform to apply their ideals. In no way should we ever perceive the lives and sacrifices of others as being as disposable as the experience of watching a film on a Saturday afternoon, though I fear without the proper guidance this will be the reality for some. Though this piece may seem overly critical I am only trying to keep in line with the values espoused by the films I have viewed. Why shouldn’t we all be asking more from our cultural institutions, our governments and our films? If we are to believe that cinema has the capacity to change worldviews, soften hearts and expose ones to injustice, then its revolutionary potential may as well be endless but only if we let it, and only when we become aware of the systems in place that seek to disempower us. I’m sure most people can recall the last time a film made them want to call their mom, but when was the last time a film made you want to plant a bomb?
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.