Credited with marking the rise of a new wave of socially conscious Malaysian filmmakers, Tan Chui Mui has enjoyed a multifaceted career in her country’s film industry. She first gained wide recognition when her debut feature, Love Conquers All (2006), took home top honors at the Rotterdam and Busan International Film Festivals. The melodrama, which she wrote and directed, focuses on the pressures faced by a small-town girl as she enters a dangerous romance amidst the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur.
Category: Special Pages
Deepa Mehta (b. 1950)
Though born, raised and educated in India, Deepa Mehta’s film career took off only after a momentous move to Canada. The daughter of a film distributor, a post-collegiate Mehta worked on short documentaries before meeting, marrying and following filmmaker Paul Saltzman to his native Toronto. While she is revered and reviled in both countries where her films have come to be eagerly anticipated cultural events, her films have received polarized responses as they have tackled India’s struggles with arranged marriages, misogyny, homosexuality, rape culture and religious strife, among other issues.
Dropping out of high school to become a radio DJ might have been the first step out of bounds taken by Sylvia Chang, but it would not be the last. At 63, the Taiwanese artist has added director, writer, actress, philanthropist, singer, producer and even stuntwoman to her impressive and ever-growing list of accomplishments. With over one hundred acting credits, Chang began work as a film actor before making her directorial debut on Once Upon a Time (1981), after the original director was killed in a car accident. Since then, she has enjoyed a decades-spanning, multifaceted career in film.
For much of the 20th century, many accounts would have us believe, artists and their critics were scrambling around trying to define what constitutes art. At the turn of the century, rapidly emerging technology and whiplash-inducing modernization had stretched the narrow parameters of “fine art” past its limits and provided enterprising artists a stunning, possibly boundless, new frontier. This outpour of innovation and boundary pushing led to an increased awareness of the individuals behind the work, as the public sought to put a face to every new movement and vanguard. Thus, the role of the auteur, the all-encompassing artist in full control of their vision, as well as the act of individual creation, were exalted to the point of celebrity.
Perhaps no other art form is as native and organic to humanity as dance. Preceding the notion of art, our physical presence and movements reveal our most primordial, expressive instincts and amount to the most sublime expressions. As such, the translation of dance onto film has long mystified cineastes, who grapple with capturing its red-blooded nature without resorting to mere documentation. Despite the hardships, avant-garde filmmaker and dancer Maya Deren innately understood that the filmic space should appropriately match the world of the dance: one that fundamentally blurs the line between “real” expression and poetic creativity, between everyday gestures and rhapsodic movement. Fascinated by the intersection of the two forms, she eloquently elaborated upon her views in her Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film.
There has never been a thorough way of stamping down individuality and strength. Even during society’s most oppressive states, humans have found ways of expressing themselves through one way or another, even if not always in the most obvious form. Sometimes, though, these assertions of self are so incredibly in plain view that they become easy to entirely overlook, as is the case with the role fashion has played in solidifying female identity in film. Long dismissed as mere cosmetics and playing dress-up, women’s cinematic fashions have nevertheless inspired far-reaching cultural trends by reflecting or encouraging resilience.
More often than not, image and music exist on separate planes in cinema. Though movies have soundtracks and music videos give visual expression to what is otherwise left for the ear, there are only rare instances – without mentioning musicals, which are more of an adaptation of theatrical sentiment than an indigenously cinematic form – where the audio and the video are so inherently linked that they demand to be considered a whole. These cross-disciplinary experiments are marked by the palpable vitality that can come only from artists in full control of their vision.
A careful look at the Best Picture winners from the 1980s reveals that this was the decade that established what we now think of as Oscar movies: middle of the road, sentimental traps that carry their importance proudly above their heads. A sharp detour from the frenetic, vital works of the ‘70s American New Wave, these films seem to exist simply for their entertainment value, a vacuous virtue shared by many of the releases from the Reagan era.
The excesses of the more-is-more and neon-is-more era can be felt in the large production values of its films. Apart from the usual Oscar bait, the ‘80s saw the mega popular Star Wars, Star Trek and Indiana Jones series take off with astronomical budgets, appealing to the masses’ desire for spectacle. American audiences wanted more: more violence, laughs, explosions, tears, fears and motion – and nothing to do with subtlety or smallness.
The question of where the momentous artistic energy generated by the late 1960s would lead must’ve loomed large in the minds of Hollywood executives as they witnessed the dismantling of the studio system and rise of the American auteur. What kind of institution would the Academy become after awarding the X-rated Midnight Cowboy Best Picture? Would grafting the European director/creator model across the pond be successful? Coppola, Friedkin and Stallone, among others, responded with a resounding affirmation, driving the Hollywood into the American New Wave, where freedom reigned and masculinity was on hyperdrive.
Since the 1960s are ostensibly remembered as a nonstop parade of drug-fueled, artistic counterculture, it is easy to forget the mainstream world it set out to counter. As Hollywood and the American film industry retreated into a nostalgic coma devoid of social introspection or cultural nuance, the Academy settled into a facile routine of rewarding obvious entertainments. Massive roadshow releases emerged as easy favorites, with four mega-musicals (the most in one decade) taking home the grand prize. This move towards detached fantasy would ultimately mark the ‘60s as one of the most backwards-looking decade in Oscar history, giving seven top prizes to movies that dwell on times gone by despite that the social landscape was becoming an increasingly significant player in daily life with its visible strides towards equality.