Trashing the Region: Exploitation Films and the Imagination of Southeast Asia – a seminar by Dr Yew Kong Leong (Wed, 11 March 2015)

Speaker: Dr Yew Kong Leong (University Scholars Programme, NUS)
Date: Wednesday, 11 March 2015
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS3, Level 6, SEAS Seminar Room (06-20)

Secret agents, commandos, prison women, mad scientists, mutant creatures, cyborgs, and overweight clairvoyants: these and many more sensational and flamboyant characters set against the oftentimes anonymized landscapes of Southeast Asia have been the mainstay of the many English language exploitation films produced in the Philippines or by Filipino directors. This occurrence is highly interesting because it represents a convergence of a cinematic form that has its putative origins and largest audience in the West with Asian (or Asianized) industrial aspects and content material. At a glance, such films provide a wealth of cultural material in linking the power relations between dominant/hegemonic genres, forms, viewers, film capitalists and their marginal counterparts. More critically they also are excellent sites to survey the unconscious and postcolonial anxieties that are encoded in the films.

However, the Southeast Asian exploitation cinema still remains largely under-theorized. Before the mid-1990s, exploitation films—from a broader global perspective—were commonly regarded as “cinema detritus”, “trash” or “cult” films, and therefore not received as much scholarly attention as the art film or national cinema, or even the more mainstream blockbusters emerging from Hollywood. While exploitation cinema has since become a more popular object of study, especially from within cultural studies and a film studies academy influenced by critical social theory, the emphasis is still largely on Western targeted films and audiences.

In this talk, I aim to bring some of these Filipino films back into the context of Southeast Asia, and to suggest some possibilities in coming to terms with the eclecticism and apparent lack of coherence and consistency that characterize exploitation films. In particular, I look at filmmakers like Eddie Romero, Gerardo de Leon, and Bobby Suarez as self-confessed profiteers whose works, vacillating between Tagalog art films and cheap made-for-America exploitation films and between different channels of international collaboration, could be critically read as manifestations of postcolonial liminality. In some respects, these films exhibit the mimicry that emerges from colonial subjectivity or the dictates of film capitalism, but in other instances they imbibe the processes of appropriation, localization, and indigenization. In doing so I hope to address underlying tensions of visualizing and conceptualizing the counterpoising positions between Southeast Asia and its other.

About the speaker
Yew Kong Leong is an Assistant Professor in the University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore where he teaches writing and critical thinking. His research interests include the cultural and social processes that constitute knowledge of Asia, and broadly critical theory and cultural studies.  He is the author of The Disjunctive Empire of International Relations (2003) and Asianism and the Politics of Regional Consciousness in Singapore (2014), and editor of Alterities in Asia (2011).