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The Undulating Landscape of Lao Cinema

Chairat headshot

By: Chairat Polmuk, Ph.D. candidate in Asian Studies

“We just decided to call ourselves the Lao New Wave. Need not anybody to call us so!” remarked Lao filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy with laughter at the film screening event “Mekong Rerouting: Contemporary Lao Cinema and Remnants of War,” held at Cornell on April 22, 2018. Induangchanthy was referring to the film collective, Lao New Wave Cinema Productions, which he cofounded in 2012 with other young filmmakers, sound professionals, and graphic designers residing in Laos. Unlike the French Nouvelle Vague or the British New Wave, whose “newness” is defined by a radical break from preexisting modes of filmmaking, this self-designated Lao New Wave presents a distinct set of aesthetic and historical aspirations. Their goal is at once humble and ambitious––to rebuild Lao cinema from its near nonexistence.i Induangchanthy’s self-mocking remark conveys an awareness of this uneven trajectory of Lao cinematic history, a history that is inextricably linked to the country’s long and bumpy path to independence.  

When I invited Induangchanthy to Cornell in April for a post-screening conversation, it was already our fourth rendezvous. Ithaca’s early spring chill, however, contrasted with the summer heat (and sometimes rain) in Bangkok, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane, where our previous meetings took place. I first met Induangchanthy at the Fifth International Conference on Lao Studies, organized by Thammasat University in Bangkok in July 2016. In a conference room overlooking the Chao Phraya RiverInduangchanthy cochaired a panel discussion titled “Surviving Filmmaking in Laos” with two other rising stars of today’s Lao film industry: Anysay Keola and Mattie Do. Outlining survival tactics under the country’s political and economic constraints, each filmmaker related their experiences collaborating with transnational organizations to secure funding, improvise their scripts to dodge state censorship, and balance filmmaking and other (often more stable and life-sustaining) jobs.  

Collectively, their discussions offered a hopeful note on the future of Lao cinema as each of them pushed the geopolitical and cultural limits in postsocialist Laos, especially with regard to state restrictions on media discussions of issues that are considered “negative” depictions of Lao society such as corruption, violence, and sexuality. Through their negotiation with the Lao Department of Cinema under the Ministry of Information and Culture, these filmmakers have opened up new possibilities for serious analyses of social issues such as same-sex relationships, ethnic minoritization, and economic inequality.  

Keola’s feature film Noy (Above It All), 2016, showcased at the conference’s film screening section, is regarded as the “first Lao gay-themed film,” depicting the tragic relationship of two closeted gay men. Having learned from the banning of his film script that addresses LGBT issuesKeola worked closely with the authorities from start to finish to ensure state approval.ii Besides LGBT issuesNoy also features an interethnic romance between the Lao and the Hmong, a minoritized group whose military alliance with the United States during the Cold War and ethnic stigmas can lead to controversies when depicting them on screen.iii Keola told his audiences in the conference room with the river view that he still had a clear memory of making a phone call to state officers right in the middle of the film shoot to make sure the dialogue was “appropriate.” Playing with the word “Noy” (minor), the name of one of the gay lovers and the Hmong character, Keola’s film tackles issues of sexual and ethnic minorities, which continue to receive a red flag from some Lao authorities and audiences.  

Mattie Do, a Lao-American director, whose directorial debut Chanthaly2012, was hailed as the “first Lao horror movie,” spoke of her coproduced film Bangkok Nites (dir. Katsuya Tomita, 2016) and her second film project Nong Hak (Dearest Sister), 2016, another horror film that has been screened in several film festivals worldwide. I had a chance to see Nong Hak at our very own Cinemapolis as part of the Ithaca Fantastik film festival in November 2016. Based on a common practice in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia in which lottery tickets are on high demand once or twice (or four times in Laos!) a month, and supernatural powers are the only recourse, Nong Hak unfolds as a suspenseful ghost story with an uncompromising view on the issues of economic disparities and gender roles in contemporary Lao society.  

The film revolves around a troubling relationship between two women: a middle-class woman named Ana (played by Vilouna Phetmany), who becomes wealthy after her marriage to a European businessman, and her cousin Nok (played by Amphaiphun Phimmapunya), who comes from the countryside to care for Ana as she starts losing her sight and seeing ghosts. Whenever Ana’s vision is haunted, she becomes half-conscious and mumbles lucky numbers, a circumstance that allows Nok to conveniently take advantage of her. This troubling dynamic between the two “sisters” culminates in a vengeful and destructive final act, a violence that is not strictly personal but also structural. In other words, the plot of “sibling rivalry” does not simply convey a moral tale of jealousy but, through reference to a nationwide practice of lottery consumption, speaks to a broader context of economic inequality. Ghostly apparitions provide no redemptive solutions for inequality but further foreground the film’s commentary on economic struggles and exploitations. The dead are manipulated by the living for economic gain the same way the characters exploit each other. While we might think of Do’s horror films as belated additions to the vogue of Asian horror cinema, her work presents an admirable stride toward new possibilities of filmic expression in the communist state in which supernatural beliefs have been subject to state censorship.  

Also screened at the Lao Studies Conference at Thammasat University was Induangchanthy’s short film Tok Khang (Those Below), 2016, a thesis project for his master’s degree in film and video production from the City College of New York, under a Fulbright scholarship. Examining the traumatic consequences of the American covert bombing in Laos during the height of the Cold War, the film’s simple narrative structure involves a trope of return, namely, that of an American veteran who returns to Laos in the aftermath of the war to redeem himself from his past guilt. The film’s poster summarizes this dramatization of American guilt and moral responsibility in a sentence: “Eventually you have to take care of those left behind and those left below.” The title “Those Below” signifies the explosive remains of warundetonated munitions buried under the ground all over the Lao country. As remnants of war are associated with the Lao people (“those left behind”), the film makes explicit its demand for historical recognition of wartime violence and its continuing repercussions.  

During Induangchanthy’s visit to Cornell last April, the Kahin Center was transformed into an ad hoc movie theater where members of the SEAP community such as Gregory Green, curator of the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia; Matt Reeder, PhD candidate in history; Sirithorn Siriwan, PhD student in Asian Studies; Emiko Stock, PhD candidate in anthropology; Elizabeth Wijaya, PhD candidate in comparative literature; and Faizah Zakaria, postdoctoral fellow, had an opportunity to learn about Induangchanthy’s s work and the Lao film industry in general. The film screening event, sponsored by the Southeast Asia Program, was organized around the topic of the Cold War and the (im)possibility of return. Two short films, Tok Khang and Kab Ban (A Long Way Home), 2018one about the return of the American veteran and the other about the return of a young Lao in diasporaoffered a poetic mediation on the enduring impact of the Cold War. It was also Induangchanthy’s first return to New York since his graduation from the City College of New York in 2015, this time to pitch his feature film project Raising a Beast at the Tribeca Film Festival. My reunion with Induangchanthy at Cornell can be considered a follow-up of our first meeting at the Lao Studies Conference in Bangkok, but it is also a prelude to the Sixth International Conference on Lao Studies, which will be held at Cornell from June 13 to15, 2019. 

The collective efforts of young Lao filmmakers such as Xaisongkham InduangchanthyAnysay Keola, and Mattie Do have reinvigorated the landscape of Lao cinema. While the pioneering quality of their films is a result of a virtual absence of the film industry in Laos, the films’ thematic focus and political import represent a significant departure from a postrevolutionary mode of filmmaking as well as their contemporary commercial counterpart in LaosFor example, from the 1960s to late 1980, Lao filmmakers, most of whom were trained at Vietnamese, Russian, or Central European schools such as Somchith Pholsena and Som Ock Southiponh, adhered to the doctrine of socialist realism, an ideology and aesthetic principle marked by the valorization of the working class, in their romanticized portrayals of revolutionary struggles and social changes. Pholsena’s Sieng Puen Chak Thong Hai Hin (The Sound of Gunfire from the Plain of Jars), 1983, and Southiponh’s Boua Deng (Red Lotus), 1989, constitute a locus classicus of Lao socialist realist cinema instrumental to the communist state formation in the aftermath of the victory of the Lao Patriotic Front in 1975.iv Differing from this postrevolutionary cinema, young filmmakers at the Lao New Wave Cinema offer more complex portraits of contemporary Lao society, tackling diverse and sometimes audacious topics such as religious beliefs, ethnic minoritization, and queer sexuality. Their dynamic and nuanced depictions of contemporary Laos also diverge from commercial films such as Sakchai Deenan’s SabaideeLuang Prabang (Good Morning, Luang Prabang), 2008; Sabaidee 2 Mai Mi Khamtop Chak Pakse (From Pakse with Love), 2010; and Sabaidee Wan Wiwa (Lao Wedding), 2011the Lao-Thai coproduced trilogy in which regionalism and economic optimism are translated into fantasies of transborder intimacies, and in which Lao society and culture are often filtered through nostalgic and touristic visions.v Against such old and emerging currents, the Lao New Wave filmmakers are gradually and steadily transforming Lao cinema