On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part post on the pontianak and women’s laughter in Malaysian horror cinema. Read Part 1.

Evil-Queen-laughing

Consider laughter’s capacity to upset and as a vehicle of resistance. More specifically when women laugh at men, laughing at patriarchy, laughing at power, laughing from below. Situated below speech in the register of communication, laughter can confound thanks to its multifarious meanings. It is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately accessible by reason and rational thinking. Its semantic elusiveness can be a form of resistance against the male-dominated symbolic order. It not only has the ability to inflict cracks in the micro-structures of patriarchy within the confines of a film narrative but to tear down the fourth wall.

Women’s voice in film is projected differently from men. In classical Hollywood cinema, the male disembodied voice-over has an omnipotent presence that emanates from the centre of the narrative, through and beyond the cinematic frame. By contrast, women’s voices in film are confined purely within diagetic space reinforcing the role of the female body in film as objects of the gaze. In response, female filmmakers have experimented with feminist cinematic approaches by dislodging women’s voices from the female image or the voice-image de-synchronisation, and deploying the female voice-over and voice-off instead. As Kaja Silverman argues below:

To disembody the female voice [via de-synchronisation] would be to challenge every conception by means of which we have previously known woman in Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body she is constructed there (1988, p. 164)

When heard but not seen, women’s hysterical laughter at patriarchy offers a diversion away from the corporeality of feminist politics. Resistance without the need for women’s bodily display offers a panacea to what Sandra Bartky calls the ‘feminine narcissism’ in both normative and transgressive subjectivity.

The sonic subjectivity of the laughing woman occurs within what Teresa De Lauretis calls a ‘space-off’, ‘the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible’. Without the oppressive structures of the gaze, the ‘space-off’ represents a respite from the prevailing control of gender:

It is here [in the space-off] that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed – terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro-political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments (De Lauretis, 1988, p. 25)

The pontianak’s disembodied laughter draws attention away from the materiality of a woman’s laughter and to the affective range of women’s voice and knowledge. It denies the cinematic unity of women as bodies and the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ they provide. By departing, if momentarily, from women’s bodies as a site of resistance, disembodied laughter seeks to reclaim space through sonic means.

Discomfort with women’s laughter arises from what Deborah Cameron refers to as the gendered ‘distribution of linguistic resources’ that results in women’s exclusion from verbal expression in the public sphere. This is not to say that women are prohibited from speaking in public in toto but rather such prohibitions are sanctioned in subtle ways through a gendered division of linguistic labour within institutions in the public sphere. Certain forms of speech are registered as gendered (such as gossiping, nagging, shrill and strident speech) and assigned lower value and diminished authority. Speech designated as ‘feminine’ is negatively valued and as a consequence frequently evacuated from domains of power. Inadvertently but no less a consequence of gendered demarcation of speech, women are historically shut out from speaking from positions of institutions of authority, principally in the law as judges, as religious leaders, professors, and politicians.

Across cultures, women were either ritually or socially denied to speak with authority, seriousness, and symbolic gravity in the presence of men. With rare exception, under-representation of women in politics and prohibition against Muslim women delivering the Friday sermon to male worshippers are testament to the denial of the female public voice. When permitted to speak, a woman’s voice is channeled down a lower register where it is trivialised, mocked, and dismissed.

In conclusion, a woman’s laughter unleashes the power of the female voice to pierce the patriarchal edifice. To upend the threat of male dominance, all a woman needs to do is laugh with abandon. It is an apposite counter to the rapture of mass hysteria suffered by young Malay women, interpreted as a collective cry for help. And so a laugh is more than just a laugh, more than the voluntary spasms of the diagphram.

Although she emerges from a place of victimhood, the pontianak is a woman who is given a second chance to reclaim justice and what is hers to begin with. The extreme range of emotions that the Asian monstrous/feminine impresses upon others (from loving and seductive to terrifying) throws into sharp relief how the dark affect of anger, jealousy, vengeance, and schadenfreude can easily place ‘real’ femininity in the domain of the grotesque. But the anti-patriarchal terror of the pontianak’s laughter thinly conceals the precarity of women’s desire to undermine patriarchy. After all, the pontianak’s laugh signifies a momentary pyrrhic victory before she is vanquished by a man.

Occasionally, as in Anak Pontianak (1958), she survives the prevailing moral order that wipes out spirits and demons. But when her survival means forever stalking the earth alongside the other undead of legend, beautiful and untouched by age, she is made lonesome by the frail shortness of human life. There is indeed something about women’s laughter in Malay popular culture, its persistence in folk horror, and its derisiveness in discourses of Malay decorum. It is a vehicle for affective knowledge in a public sphere filled with gendered transgressions. Women’s loud shrieks and excessive laughter constitute temporary bursts of respite and resistance in a culture replete with impositions on women’s voices.

On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 1)

This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017

The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.

For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.

Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?

In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.

The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.

The laughing woman as grotesque

If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.

Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.

In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?

When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak, 1958; Gergasi, 1958).

As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.

A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.

Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.

But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.

The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh

The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.

We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.

To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.

When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.

Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.

The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.

In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance

What is Islamic about Islamic cinema?

I’ve written a short essay for the Indonesian film journal, Cinema Poetica, ahead of my forthcoming book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017), published by Palgrave Macmillan:

Wali Songo (Djun Saptohadi, 1985)

There is perhaps a queasiness on the part of filmmakers, critics, and audiences alike about the label ‘Islamic cinema’. Such feelings are understandable because the creation of a fence around ‘Islamic cinema’ means constructing a very artificial unity out of a corpus of diverse films which are as diverse as the expressions of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. Although it has been used without much qualification, the genre and category of ‘Islamic cinema’ requires some unpacking.

This short essay makes a case that ‘Islamic cinema’ produced in the Indonesian film industry can justifiably be called ‘Islamic’ while at the same proposing that the ‘Islamic’ in filmmaking and other cultural practices in general be expanded and inclusive. In my forthcoming monograph, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan), I endeavour to create a systematic definition of ‘Islamic cinema’ through a gendered lens. I found, through textual analysis, archival data, and interviews with filmmakers, that the ‘Islamic’ in film can often be elusive and ambiguous rather than fixed and conveys its religious message through an intersection of gender, class, and the nation.

Cynical film critics in Indonesia argue that a film becomes Islamic when the Islamic veil is a significant feature of its main characters, setting the tone, mood and expectations for the unfolding narrative. Although the Islamic veil has become the synecdoche of Islam in the public sphere, it is too superficial a sign to signify the ‘Islamic’ film. Other critics take a more effects-oriented approach namely that Islamic cinema has the power to transform its audiences. For the Muslim audience, films with a wholesome Islamic message are thought to have a didactic effect and turn viewers into better Muslims.

On the other hand, non-Muslim audiences, especially in the post 9/11 world, are supposed to learn that Muslims are a peaceful and democratic people. While serviceable, these arguments about what Islamic cinema are inadequate when one begins to consider the range of subjects and opposing ideological and political views featured in Indonesian films with Islamic themes. Furthermore, ‘Islamic cinema’ as pure didactism and propaganda assumes the passivity of its intended audiences. ‘Islamic cinema’ may indeed have a transformative effect on its audience but not always those intended by its producers.

Scenes from ‘Islamic cinema’ Indonesia comprises of non-judgmental representations of apostasy from the Islamic faith to an unabashed celebration of prosperity Islam (and the critique thereof). In some films Muslim women valiantly challenge the patriarchal biases of Muslim men while other films portray polygamy in a romantic light. How do we make sense of a religious preoccupation in films while maintaining that these films are in some way ‘Islamic’?

To attend to this question, I take a roundabout way and find possible answers in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in which the late Shahab Ahmed argues for a reclamation of the Islamic within the non-legal and cultural aspect of Muslim life. For too long, the legalistic dimension of Islam remained the pinnacle of what is properly considered ‘Islamic’ in the lives of Muslims. His approach is idiosyncratic as he advances his arguments with latent texts about the Islamic virtues of wine-drinking and visualization of animals and humans. There are many contradictions within Islamic practice across history and cultures that span the globe. We must embrace those inconsistencies in a “constitutional coherent manner, because this is the only way that we can map the human and historical reality of the internal contradictions of Islam”.

Like Jewish films, ‘Islamic’ cinema stands apart from other films with religious messages like The Passion of the Christ or Ben Hur, both incidentally not called ‘Christian films’ or part of a ‘Christian filmmaking’ tradition. All films in Indonesia are subject to production regulations to protect citizens from consuming material deemed blasphemous under Islamic law. Because of the restriction in Islam against the visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad, his family members, and other prophets, Indonesian films with Islamic elements are rarely ever about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. For these reasons, film critic Eric Sasono argues that Indonesian films about the lives of Muslim individuals and communities are not commensurable with the typologies of Indian Hindu and Hollywood Christian films which bring into focus gods, prophets and tales from sacred texts.

3 Doa 3 Cinta (Nurman Hakim 2008)

The use of film as a medium for propagating religious messages goes back to the earliest days of cinema. Indeed, the apparent ‘Catholicism’ of early cinema is captured in Andre Bazin’s famous quote: ‘cinema was always interested in God’. Seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War.

For the film scholar Conrad Ostwald, traditional cinema itself was a kind of secular religion: “The movie theater has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness”. This is because the film theater had been treated as a place of worship during the screening of biblical films. In 1908, the showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ was condemned by New York priest for taking place in a place of entertainment rather than in a church. Critics of the ‘secular’ screening suggested soothing organ music and incense burning to heighten spirituality of the film.

Biblical epics of early cinema became the wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the silver screen:

While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?

The fruit of Phalke’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata.

Like the biblical epics of early cinema, dakwah or Islamic preaching is widely regarded to be central to the function of Islamic cinema and media. Derived from the Arabic term da’wa to mean call or invitation, dakwah in the Indonesian context is a general term to denote efforts to propagate Islam in society. Although dakwah is used to convert non-Muslims to Islam, the term is more commonly invoked for the strengthening of the Islamic faith and guiding Muslims to live by Islamic principles.

The use of cinema for dakwah, however, is vaguer in its execution. Nevertheless, it was embraced by Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers such as Asrul Sani, Djamaluddin Malik, and Misbach Yusa Biran who made films for the purpose of dakwah. Clerics and religious commentators have often tended to define the dakwah film in terms of what it is not, in that it does not have the ‘immoral’ elements of Hollywood cinema and the preoccupation of Indonesian cinema with horror, the supernatural, and eroticized display of women.

In his 1965 essay entitled ‘Film sebagai dakwah’ (Film as dakwah), distinguished filmmaker Usmar Ismail urgued other filmmakers to ‘make films a media of (national) struggle and a media for Islamic proselytizing’. Dakwah films, he asserts, need not to be religious or commercial akin to the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments but should affirm Muslims as subjects of God.

A fellow contemporary of Usmar Ismail, Asrul Sani, however, held a more critical view. Sani argued that all dakwah films made during the New Order and the period after were misguided in their approach. For Sani, Indonesian dakwah films are preoccupied with ritualistic and dogmatic Islam with the intention of substituting the role of the Kyai or religious leader. He even rejects the term ‘Islamic film’, arguing instead that “all films that go beyond the surface of life are [actually] religious films”.

The cinematic visualization of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Films with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, sermon, an image of a holy structure, all of which allude to that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularization and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, now repackaged in a more popular format than ever (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier, and more mobile iterations.

To what extent will cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing video cassette tapes, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. Like stragglers of a long party, faith, and cinema alike stick around promising an experience quite profound and mysterious. In its yoking of everyday jihad with global mission of terrorism, chaste love with the seductive yet soul-destructive power of money, ‘Islamic cinema’ may provide its viewers answers for spiritual conundrums both quotidian and world-transforming. Like other genres, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of moral truths.

New journal article publication – the female gaze in Malaysian horror film

I have a new journal article published in the latest issue of Asian Cinema, Vol. 26 Issue 2.

Abstract:

Female ghosts and other supernatural entities, including the pontianak, in Malaysian horror cinema are excessive psychosocial articulations of traditional Malay femininity gone awry. In Malay ghost stories, the pontianak is a vengeful spirit. She is the ghostly reincarnation of a pregnant woman who dies before or during the birth of her child and who then seeks vengeance on the living for causing the gruesome death that kills her and her unborn child. Since biological reproduction is the primary determinant of a woman’s social value in traditional Malay societies, the double death is devastatingly cruel. The pontianak thus embodies the horror of abject femininity associated with thwarted womanhood. Another recurring theme in Malaysian horror cinema relates to women possessed by evil spirits. Typically portrayed as lacking in emotional restraint, and therefore given to hysterical behaviour, such women are thought to be particularly vulnerable. Malaysian horror cinema has been adept at depicting psychosocial horrors of feminine excesses as such that transgress otherwise restrictive social and customary expectations for Malay femininity. This article examines the horror of abject femininity in two contemporary Malaysian films by female film-makers: Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam/Pontianak of the Tuber Rose (2004) and Zarina Abdullah’s Chermin/Mirror (2007). Both films collectively provide a spine-chilling commentary on female–female relations and motherhood that puts to play the female gaze and the monstrous feminine. This article argues that the themes of failed motherhood, death and the abject are salvaged by strong mother–daughter relations and the female gaze, making the two films a women-oriented rejoinder to spirit possession and the misogynistic tale of the pontianak.

Sound, fury and écriture féminine in Violette (2013): a review

When I first heard about the film Violette (2013, dir. Martin Provost), I had little knowledge about the life and work of the French writer, Violette Leduc (1907-1972), on which the film was based. What drew me to the film was the fact that she was one time a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir. Imagine being a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir!

The film charts her journey into writing, from being an appendage of a gay writer who could never return her love and lust to being a groundbreaking literary success. What he does offer her instead is an instruction to write, anything and everything she knows. And so she does. After he leaves her to fend for herself, she embarks on a reinvention of herself, with her first manuscript in hand, to Paris.

Leduc’s journey into writing and the occasion that led to her discovery by de Beauvoir appear cosmically serendipitous. Her chance encounter with Le Deuxième Sexe in an acquaintance’s apartment (“A woman has written a big book?”, she thinks aloud) ignites a desire to meet the writer herself.

Leduc stalks de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe. The scene is established through Leduc’s female gaze; with her back turned to the feminist philosopher, Leduc spies on de Beauvoir using the mirror of her compact case. De Beauvoir’s first depiction as an image in a lady’s compact case is both ironic and trivialising.

When Leduc throws herself (and her manuscript of L’Asphyxie) in de Beauvoir’s direction, it appears that her literary career and its trappings (shoulder-rubbing with artists and willing patrons) are sealed. De Beauvoir adores her manuscript and is keen to mentor Leduc, who was only a year younger. Leduc is the opposite of de Beauvoir; her words spill from a body electrocuted by feeling and desire. She is shameless and openly erotic bordering on desperate in contrast to de Beauvoir’s restraint and cerebralism.

Their homes are further extensions of their opposing personality and state of mind; Leduc lives hand to mouth in a shabby rented room. De Beauvoir lives in an elegant multi-roomed apartment. Shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins, de Beauvoir would purchase an even more luxurious apartment, pushing the gulf between her and Leduc further.

Pushing past forty by the time her (still unsuccessful) novel L’affamée is published, Leduc is portayed as a woman regressing into adolescence. She is tormented by the thought of being a bastard child and her mother’s maternal transgressions (“My mother never held my hand”), themes that reoccur since her debut, L’Asphyxie (1948). And yet, her mother dotes on Leduc. In one poignant scene, an emotionally exhausted Leduc is bathed by her mother, like a placid baby at bathtime.

Abandonment issues strain Leduc’s relationship with everyone she sexually desires, both women and men, along with insecurities about her lack of beauty. She attributes the unrequited desire she has for Simone de Beauvoir and her general lack of luck as a sexual woman in libidinous French culture to her apparent ugliness.

Her sexuality is written on the pages of her books. They are autobiographies of a woman’s sexuality. Her writing may evoke the contemporary criticism that women, like Lena Dunham’s écriture du jour, write in a ‘confessional’ style that pepper with TMI. They can come across as self-absorbed and narcisstic. But Provost’s portrayal of Leduc depicts a woman who does not love and credit herself enough. Her insecurities undermine the high regard the male French intelligentsia (Sartre, Camus, Genet) have for her.

Soon, and rather predictably, the emotional labour inscribed in her writing takes a toll on Leduc and she is admitted into a sanitarium to ‘recover’ via a treatment of electric shocks. Rather than a moral tale of a woman who writes and desires that ends tragically, Leduc’s episode in hospital is followed by a great literary and erotic flourishing.

Following de Beauvoir’s advice, she goes on a solo walking trip through small provincial towns, writing and wanking as she absorbs the bucolic landscape around her. She is pursued by a younger man, a builder, and yields to his attentions. The film reaches it climax when Leduc publishes her first bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964), to great national acclaim that seals her reputation as a feminist writer.

What compels me most about Violette is that it is a film about écriture féminine. It is a style of writing that may not appeal to many readers for reasons they may not realise or able to articulate. Cixous may be on the money in Le Rire de la Meduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) when she argues that the history of writing is founded on the exclusion of women and their expression. When women did write, they write in a manner as to be recognised and understood by patriarchal culture. And then enter écriture féminine and its subversion of the very grammar of writing. When women produce écriture féminine, they create

A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity (Cixous, 1976: 876)

It takes courage and self-belief to write words that overflow their typographic vessel with affect and hot bubbling desire. The écriture féminine of Violette Leduc is, to echo de Beauvoir’s foreword to Leduc’s La Bâtarde, “a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life burst forth in cries of despair”.

The reason why women are ridiculed and devalued for their hyper-personal writing is because they are perceived to lack critical acumen. Their writing is measured against the literary success of men. Indeed, I sometimes find autobiographical feminist writing unchallenging and intellectually lazy.

And yet Violette Leduc and the film about her literary career fascinate me on an intellectual level. Though I have wondered what and how Leduc would write if she had an intellectual background like Simone de Beauvoir. Would she write very differently and more self-consciously? Would she abandon writing of the body in favour of the mind? Would her writing be less about herself and acknowledge other women like her who had come before and those who will emerge in decades to come, in a different place?

Reference:

Cixous, Helene (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893

My 5 cultural highlights of 2013

First published in The State on 2nd January 2014

1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.

When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.

Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.

2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.

3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)

Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.

4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment

There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.

Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.

5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.