We can’t deny women are gaining a stronger role in the world of cinematic storytelling. Whether it’s women as directors, writers, producers, or as more empowered actresses, it’s been a great awakening.
One recent moment — Chloé Zhao winning the Best Director Oscar for Nomadland in 2021 — perhaps highlights how roles are changing, not just for women, but including Asian and Southeast Asian voices as well.
Not surprisingly, Netflix is one of the streaming platforms that’s allowed this SEA evolution in female storytelling to flourish. To celebrate International Women’s Month, the streaming channel recently hosted a virtual panel discussion with Southeast Asian creators and the talent behind their stories.
Called “Women Who Rule the Screen,” the online forum moderated by ContentAsia editorial director Janine Stein brought together Tanya Yuson (Trese executive producer), Thai-American director Pailin Wedel (the documentary Hope Frozen), Indonesian actress Marissa Anita (Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens) and Malaysian producer Lina Tan (Sa Balik Baju) to talk about the changing roles and opportunities for women in the film entertainment industry.
“Like most of us, Netflix believes that women all over the world are demanding to see their lives reflected onscreen,” said Stein, lauding the effort to “bring a mirror to the unique experiences of women in Southeast Asia.”
I really do believe the concept of male gaze and female gaze is very real. We do see things differently. So I definitely want to see more female writers and directors.
First, they have to find a way into the industry. For Tanya Yuson, that involved absorbing a lot of content. “I started as a fan and someone who really loved watching everything — you spend so much time at the cinema, in front of the TV, and at some point a laptop, you realize, ‘Well, maybe I should turn this into a job somehow.’”
Starting as a production assistant for commercials, she eventually went to the US, working in development out of LA. “But having grown up in the Philippines, I knew I always wanted to come back and look at the stories that were coming out of Southeast Asia.”
Trese came out of that. The breakout comic by Budjette Tan featuring a female heroine investigating Filipino mythology proved specific Filipino content could click: “It’s amazing to me that it traveled that far, even beyond the Filipino diaspora,” she says of the popular Netflix series. “It’s maybe because we went specific, but we also went emotional in terms of it was about family. It was about a young woman trying to find her place in the world: what is she up against, who are her enemies and who are her allies?
“Even though we were specifically giving a very Filipino context, it still connected to audience members on that level. So it was a good lesson in the universality of our experience as humans, with relation to family and finding your way in the world.”
Women’s roles in Filipino society, she points out, are flexible. “Traditionally, the Philippines is actually a matriarchal culture. So we’re no strangers to strong women and having women in our industry,” she says, adding, “There still could be improvement in terms of women directors for the Philippines, although we do have some formidable ones. But you do see a lot of women in the managerial and executive areas, writers as well. So there is no shortage of women in the industry and the men that support them, you know, are there as well. But we still can be better, I think.”
For Wedel, becoming a filmmaker came when she realized she loved making images more than biology research. She moved to photojournalism, then to documentary films (her award-winning film Hope Frozen dealt with a Thai couple deciding to cryogenically freeze their young daughter after she dies of cancer).
“I realized that what I was producing was just frustratingly short to cover the depth that I wanted to cover, and my pieces just kept getting longer and longer — ending with Hope Frozen. I just kept doing what I liked doing and somehow I ended up here.”
RED Communications co-founder Lina Tan has fought long battles with Malaysia’s TV and film censors, pushing hard for more realistic portrayals of women. “It was a nightmare for 15 years, it was every week getting a letter from censorship, right down to almost now,” she says.
Issues of women’s bodies, sexuality, polygamy, rape are still fairly taboo. “I’ve seen where you have a fairly graphic rape scene, which I find very disturbing, and it gets through censorship, and then you have a very decent scene of two percent talking about love, and you know, being in love, holding hands, and then those things get like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, she’s going to be doing that...’ So there are levels of conservativeness that we have to be really careful of.”
As producer of Sa Balik Baju, about six women braving modern pressures of work, social media, and relationships in an open way, Tan says, “I’m honestly grateful for Netflix because it’s given me another platform.”
For Anita, star of Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens, the challenge still exists in front of the camera: “I really do believe the concept of male gaze and female gaze is very real. We do see things differently. So I definitely want to see more female writers and directors who will present more rounded female characters in Indonesian films, because many more women in Indonesia and probably Southeast Asia will feel free to feel the complexity of being a woman.”
As always, it’s about who tells the story. Whether it’s the LGBTQ+ community getting more honest representation (“Normally, in the Philippines, their characters are portrayed in a comedic light because that is acceptable for the audience, but it’s a hard enough journey in their life to be in the community,” says Yuson) or, for Wedel, how gender roles are portrayed onscreen. “That’s almost a harder problem to crack,” she says. “I do wish that we could see more variations of gender roles, rather than what we typically see, to represent families where the dad stays home and is a house dad. And I haven’t seen a series where women talk about sex on camera — just this idea that women like sex is such a radical thing.”
Another key takeaway: women are actually more in control of viewing choices, both at home and in cinemas, these days. “Women have more power as an audience, that’s a big thing,” says Yuson. “They’re driving box office, they have a right to see themselves as heroes, and in different ways. Where it’s going — and it’s a fight — is just catching up with where the world is now. It’s changed. Storytelling has to keep up.”
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You can watch the discussion online here.